Pixar's Aaron Hartline Talks Creativity

Aaron Hartline, Pixar

Pixar's Aaron Hartline gave a great talk at the VFX Festival  earlier this year on the subject of creativity, titled "Turning on Your Creative Light Bulb". Aaron was here in London to mentor our short course animators, and help us reach Pixar-quality standards in our animation teaching. His talk was aimed in particular at animators, who are always looking to come up with inventive and fresh solutions to animation problems.

Animation Workflow
Aaron talked about his own personal animation workflow, and in particular how every shot - and every character - has its own special rhythm. His approach to animation is a unique one - thinking of each shot in rhythmic, musical terms.

Finding the Rythm - Scrat
While at Blue Sky Studios, he worked on the Ice Age character Scrat, who is "kind of like a bouncing ball, animated to a drum beat". Scrat shots are "like a dance - slow, slow, slow, - then fast, fast". It's "kind of like animating a muppet". So, the animation approach "isn't about the poses, it's more about the rhythm of the shot".  In any given shot Aaron "might go from a slow rhythm to a fast one".

At Pixar, every character has their own rhythm, their own style. It's not really a pose-to-pose style of animation; it's more about rhythm. And certain animators at Pixar develop a style for a certain character, so people will go to them and get advice and help.

Using live Action Reference 
While at Blue Sky Studios, Aaron had to animate Scrat doing a karate routine. To get Scrat's karate poses working,  Aaron used his wife - who just happens to be a black belt in karate - as live action reference, doing karate poses to get the animation just right.

Working on "Up"
When he was animating Carl in the movie "Up", Aaron used his own grandfather as acting reference. He used specific hand gestures, taken from his grandfather, to make the character feel authentic.  As Aaron put it: "no other animator can put your choices, your own life, into your shots".

So, animators should "use your own life as a resource for your animation art, and be observant of the world around you. Because this will make you work unique, something no-one else can do". 

Animation tips
Generally, Aaron's advice for animators is to "go farther, go extreme, and then dial it back if you need to". But, equally, junior animators "need to simplify".  He showed some of his reference footage and pose tests from when he was a junior animator, which he described as "over done", because. "no-one has a pose for everything they are saying". It's important to keep it simple, and "stay within the pose". 

Pixar demo reel tips

Aaron was asked "what should go into a great animation demo reel?", and he gave the following advice:

  • Just include your best shots; leave everything else out
  • Animate a shot that makes you feel something. Pixar looks for animators who can make an emotional connection with the audience.
  • Your reel can be as few as two shots - as long as they work well.
  • Don't focus as much on mechanics - it's all about making the audience feel the emotion behind the character. They are less about physicality
  • The reel should be no more than a minute long.

His talk was inspiring and, of course, aimed primarily at animators. But even non-animators came up to me afterwards and said it was the best talk they had heard at the Festival. We look forward to welcoming Aaron at Escape Studios again soon.