Jean-Denis was born and raised in Switzerland. From an early age on he was exposed to movies since his father was an avid movie collector. His interests in visual effects and animation stayed with him all through his childhood. At the age of 22 he moved to the United States in order to study animation and graduated in 2003 from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
He started at ILM in 2004 as an animation intern and has worked there ever since, animating on movies such as Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Rango and the Transformer series.
Jean-Denis also teaches animation at the Academy of Art and online through his Spungella Animation Workshops.
Thank you very much Jean-Denis Haas for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself?
Thank you for the interview as well!
My name is Jean-Denis Haas and I'm a senior lead animator at Industrial Light & Magic where I've worked at for almost 10 years.
Actually January 2014 is my 10th year anniversary.
Where are you from, and how do you summaries the growing up part?
I'm from Lucerne, Switzerland, where I lived until 1999 when I moved to San Francisco. My childhood was very influenced by movies, video games and comic books. It was all very nerdy.
My dad was an avid movie collector, so from an early age on movies were a big influence on me. He also played tenor saxophone with his jazz friends and my mom drew and painted a lot. So you could say that art was all around me.
I loved listening to music, playing video games with my older brother and reading comic books like ‘Tintin’, ‘Asterix & Obelix’, Lucky Luke and anything Batman related. Those interests stayed with me all through high school and into my adult life.
Growing up, did you draw a lot? What kind of style did you practice mostly?
I did draw a lot, but I wouldn't say that I was very good at it. I loved doing it, but it was clear that I wouldn't be one of the Nine Old Men, haha! There wasn't any specific style that I practiced; it was all over the place. I did love copying the Don Martin characters from Mad Magazine though.
How and when did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?
Disney movies were a big part of my childhood and I loved traditional animation, but I was always really interested in special effects, more so than animation. And when I came to San Francisco to enroll at the Academy of Art University it was for visual effects major.
But the early classes were very math, physics and scripting heavy, and it wasn't hands-on enough. So I switched to animation and loved it! The early feedback from my teachers was encouraging enough for me to continue and to pursue the goal of being an animator.
Did you go to Art or Animation School? Did you have a natural talent or was it a skill you had to push yourself in order to acquire?
Yes, although back then it was called Academy of Art College. I started there in fall 1999. I wouldn't say that there was natural talent; it was definitely a lot of hard work.
What was your first work you ever worked on? And at which studio was that?
My first animation job was at Industrial Light & Magic and the movie was ‘Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith’.
"I worked on the shots where Obi-Wan jumps out of the Jedi star-fighter after they crash land, does a flip and roll and cuts through the battle droids after he gets up."
How did you end up animating for Industrial Light and Magic? And how much time it took you to accept into ILM?
After graduating from the AAU in May 2003, I sent out two batches of demo reels.
The first batch right after graduation, and a second batch around Christmas the same year. At first I didn't get many interview responses but after the 2nd round I got much luckier.
The last one was for ILM and they needed people quickly, so a week or two after the interview I started there as an animation intern in January 2004.
Which project(s) did you work on while working there that really challenged you?
Star Wars was obviously a big challenge since it was my first movie and because it covered a lot of animation work, from vehicles, stunt doubles to creatures, both key-framed and motion captured.
It was like a second animation school! ‘Transformers 2’ was a great challenge because it was my first show as a lead animator. ‘Star Trek’ also comes to mind since it involved a lot of virtual cameras, which I wasn't used to animating.
How revolutionary was the technology back then compared to now? What software did you actually use compared to nowadays?
For me everything was revolutionary, ever since I started studying animation! I had never animated before, so the moment I got exposed to 3D programs (my first one was Bryce 3D and yes, I'm aging myself here) I was blown away. More so when I started at ILM! It was fascinating to get an inside look.
I learned how to animate in Maya and when I started at ILM it was Maya as well, so it was a smooth transition.
What is a typical day looks like for you at ILM? When do you wake up and what do you on average everyday at the studio?
The day starts at 09:00 AM, and you either start working on your shots or you attend animation dailies, it all depends on the show and at what stage the production is in.
At the beginning of a project you might have dailies once a week and towards the end actually every day. You animate all day, with breaks in-between for lunch and any production related meetings. The day usually ends around 07:00 PM.
Regarding my wake up time, that all depends on how early in the morning my dog wakes up. :)
What part of your job do you like best and why?
That's a tough question because there is so much to like! As a kid I loved watching behind-the-scenes and making-ofs of movies. Now it's like a making-of every day! That just never gets old.
But mainly I really like the process of animating and figuring out what the best approach is to get a shot done, because there are so many interesting stages throughout that process.
Discussing the content of your shot with your supervisor, planning your animation, shooting reference, animating, but I also really enjoy dailies and the interaction with the production crew, meetings and of course ergo breaks with great snacks! On top of that it all that takes place on a great campus filled with awesome people.
I know it sounds like all that's missing is unicorns and rainbows, but there is really a lot to like.
How do animators collaborate with each other at the studio? Do you guys also bond after works?
We help each other out in any way possible. You can always discuss your shot with another animator, or ask someone to help out with acting choices and shooting reference for it or anything technical related. It's a very collaborative environment.
In terms of after work bonding, I have to admit that the moment my workday is over I rush home. The people at work are great, but I have a wife and two kids and I miss them all day.
Most of my time is spent at work, so whenever there is free time I prefer to spend it with my family.
How do you synchronize work and family? Workings on blockbusters are tedious, aren't they?
I try to keep my weekends free for my family and any evening I can get during the week. It's not always easy though. I wouldn't say that working on blockbusters is tedious, it's just time consuming.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I really liked working on ‘Star Wars’ Episode 3, for many reasons (first job, new experiences, etc.), as well as Transformers, Rango and more recently the new ‘Star Trek’ movies.
What’s your animation workflow look like while animating?
That all depends on the shot. I'm not married to one specific workflow. Each shot has its own specific challenges.
I do try to have everything planned out before I start though. That's always my first step. I'm not really good at thumb-nailing so I usually try to visualize my shot in my head as clearly as possible.
Then I either look for reference online, act out the scene myself or just use my imagination and solidify my mental plan into something I can fall back on visually for guidance.
Once I start animating I pose out the main beats on fives by keying all the main controllers of my character(s) and make sure that all the main storytelling poses are there, as well as any breakdowns that I need for transitions.
At this point the timing is going to suck but since it's all keyed every five frames (or whatever, it could be four or six, I'm just used to five), it's very clean and I can start moving around the main keys until the timing is right.
Once I'm happy with that I go controller by controller, starting with the root and working my way through the chest, head, legs, arms, etc. etc. So at first it's more ‘pose to pose’ and then more layered.
I hope this made sense. :)
Tell us a little about the tools that you are using, what are your preferences?
I mainly use Autodesk Maya and ILM's specific tools built on top of Maya. Given their proprietary nature I can't really talk about them, but I do still use a dry erase marker on my screen to track arcs.
It's still one of my favorite tools, despite all the technical advancements being made around us.
Tell us a little about Spungella, how did it come to be? What made you decide to create it?
Spungella came about after I took a break from teaching at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. I wanted to continue mentoring students and having my own workshops gave me more flexibility in terms of curriculum and schedule.
What happened to Spungella since you created it? Is it still active as an online teaching niche?
The online workshops (SO) have been active ever since I started and so far I've had a steady stream of sign ups. I also have on-site workshops (SOS), which were on hold this Summer and Fall as I had to find a new location.
Who can learn from Spungella, and what animators expect to receive from the content learned?
Anybody can sign up; it doesn't matter if you are just starting out with bouncing balls or if you have advanced acting shots.
Feedback is geared towards the animator's needs, meaning you can get feedback for your existing work or I can up with a list of exercises for you.
How many active animators have you once had during a SOS course?
The onsite workshops hover around 10 to 15 students per group. Depending on demand there can be two workshops a week.
The most I had was two full workshops of 15 students each, but things have calmed down now since more school and workshops have opened.
What’s the difference between your learning site and other online teaching sites?
I would say the main difference is the flexibility and the price. If someone needs to take a break I can put the workshop on hold and resume whenever the animator is ready again. As mentioned, the feedback and exercise structure is tailored towards each individual animator.
The price is set low so that students can afford it. It's not just about helping out with feedback but also helping out on the financial side.
What do you think about the up-rise of animators in the market in the last year or two? Supply is higher than demand?
Supply definitely has gone up since the tools and learning materials are more accessible and the landscape has gotten much more competitive for sure.
But at the same time I see more and more companies being formed around the world, so demand has also gone up.
Why didn’t you scale up Spungella? We have seen online animation schools going big, becoming a real animation centers for thousands globally.
I'm already a mentor at Animation Mentor and there are enough schools out there, I didn't see the need to scale up.
I prefer the flexibility the workshops give me. I'm married and I have two kids, so my family obligations are my top priority.
If I need to take a break from teaching I can do so at any time. I'd be more difficult while running a company. Plus it allows me to keep the price low.
What is your favorite 2D or 3D animated film(s), and why?
That's a tough one, there are a lot of good movies out there, but I'm a big fan of ‘The Incredibles’, ‘How to Train your Dragon’, ‘Kung-Fu Panda’, ‘Monsters Inc’, ‘Spirited Away’, ‘Jungle Book’, ‘Akira’, ‘Ghost in the Shell’, etc. etc.
I can go on and on. Each movie has really great moments and it's hard to pin point. I love the atmosphere, music and story of ‘The Incredibles’.
Acting wise, ‘Ratatouille’ is at the top for me. It's tough to just pick one.
What are your thoughts about Japanese animation? Are you a fan or prefer good old American animation?
I am a fan but I have to admit that I'm not up to date enough. Ultimately it's about the story and the characters, it doesn't matter what country made the movie.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business?
I'd say two things:
One - keeping up with all the awesome animation students out there. One of the great things about teaching is that you get to see so many talented animators and their work is really inspiring and humbling. At the same time it's also a reminder that I need to keep practicing and sharpening my skills.
Two - being away from my family. As with any regular job, you spend more time at work than at home and it's tough not being able to see my wife and kids more often.
Have you ever had a character that was too difficult to animation?
Luckily no. I'm very spoiled at ILM to have a great support system in form of super helpful colleagues and supervisors.
There's always a way to get your shot done. It doesn't mean that it's not difficult, but I never feel lost.
Who influenced you the most in the industry? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor during the early stages?
The biggest kick in the brain I got was from Lisa Mullins, my animation teacher at the Academy. She opened up my eyes to how you're supposed to approach character animation and what you can do with it if you work hard.
Her energy and enthusiasm in class was great. She was really nice but at the same time brutal with her feedback, which I loved. You always got honest feedback.
Do you have personal animation projects you’re working on in your free time?
Not really. I try to practice more stylized animation at home in order to keep those animation muscles alive but it's difficult to find the time for it.
After a day of work, I prefer to spend my free time with my family instead of animating even more. :)
Have you ever thought about going solo? Becoming an animation entrepreneur and creating your own animation company instead of teaching?
It does sound exciting but not right now. I wouldn't say no to it though.
2D animation vs. 3D animation what are your thoughts on this endless battle?
To be blunt, it's a stupid battle. I don't see the need to have that battle in the first place. I love both, as well as stop-motion. Why would one be better than the other?
If you could go back in time again, would you still choose digital animation? Or you would try traditional animation instead?
No, I would do 3D again, not because I prefer it but because I can't draw, haha!
Are you going to the cinema with family/friends and actually watch the movies you've worked on? If so, how does it make you feel knowing you've done a lot of the shots?
I do watch every movie I've worked and it's fun to see your shots among all the other great work of your colleagues. It's also interesting to see how weeks worth of hard work zips by within seconds.
It's a good reminder to consider the context of your shots and not just concentrate on what's going on in one single shot.
Do you consider yourself as someone to look up to, for beginners, friends, family?
That's not my call to make; I just try to do the best work I can. :)
Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2014?
I'm currently working on "Transformers 4" and that's always a lot of fun. There's a lot of action in those movies and you can really stretch your body mechanics animation muscles. :)
If you could choose to work with any artist from the animation business, who would it be and why?
I would have loved to work with Glen Keane on ‘Tangled’. The animation is so beautiful in that movie and getting animation notes from him must have been the best animation training you can think of.
Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animation student or artist trying to get into the animation business?
Be ready to work hard. I'm sure they hear that a lot but I can't stress it enough. It's a lot of hard work. And set your own goals. Don't look at other people's success and feel the need to compare yourself to them. Have your own goals and your own plan to achieve those goals.
Thanks for the interview!