Episode 134 — Pixar’s Bob Scott — From Traditional Animation to CGI
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Episode 134 — Pixar’s Bob Scott — From Traditional Animation to CGI
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 134! I’m speaking with Bob Scott from Pixar. Bob came from Warner Brothers and interesting to cover his transition from traditional animation into the world of 3D. He was able to see the writing on the wall and adapt to this disruptive innovation. It’s pretty amazing to go on this journey with Bob!
I hope you enjoyed last week’s Episode with Ryan Connolly: allanmckay.com/133/. Please share these Episodes around.
Let’s dive in!
INTERVIEW WITH BOB SCOTT
Bob Scott is an Animator, Story Artist and comic book writer. He began his career as a freelance traditional animator after graduating from California Institute of the Arts. He has worked in both traditional and CG animation for studios like Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks Animation. His animation has been seen in films such as Toy Story 3, Cars, Monsters, Inc., Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Prince of Egypt and many others.
Bob is also the creator of the syndicated comic strip Bear with Me that appears on Go Comics and in the New York Daily News. His book Molly and the Bear was published in 2016.
In this Episode, Bob talks about his journey from traditional to computer animation; gives advice on finding your mentors and taking the passion for your art — and putting it into a discipline.
Bob Scott on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0778890/
Bear with Me by Bob Scott: http://www.mollyandthebear.com
Bear with Me on Go Comics: http://www.gocomics.com/bear-with-me
Molly and the Bear on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Molly-Bear-Bob-Scott/dp/1937359859
[-[1:03:32] Allan: Thanks again for taking the time out to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Bob: Yes, my name is Bob Scott. I’m a Story Artist currently working at Disney.
[-[1:03:22] Allan: Just to dive into your past a bit: Did you always want to be an artist or did you get into it later on? How did you start out?
Bob: I was obsessed with cartoons as a small child. My mom tells a story that when I was a toddler, she could just turn on the tv and put on some cartoons to get some peace and quiet. Something about it always fascinated me, whether it was animation, comic books or newspaper cartoon strips. I was born to be interested in it.
[-[1:02:29] Allan: What about later on? When did you decide that you wanted to do it for a living? A lot of people have that misconception that art is more of a hobby. When did you discover that you could make a living at this?
Bob: At a very young age, I knew I wanted to go into animation somehow. I don’t really know how. First, second, third grade — even then I knew I wanted that! I was always involved in some artistic thing, be it in a school play or puppetry. I was very lucky I had supportive parents and my mom was of that generation: You can do anything you want to do! She saw that I was interested in art, so she would bring pads of paper home for me. Me and my brother sketched. I asked my mom not too long ago, “How did you know that I could make it?” And she said, “I saw the names in the credits and figured somebody was making those cartoons”. [She] had an instinct that you could do it if you work at it hard enough and were passionate and that it was a way to make a living. Even though I knew it would be hard, I knew that there were people out there who did it. I would check out books from the library. One of them was about Charles Schultz, not only about comic strips but the animated tv specials that had some interviews. I would check those types of books out and read about people who did this for a living. It was super inspiring! It was way before the internet!
[-[1:00:20] Allan: I was going to bring that up. I feel like these days everyone is more gifted. If you want to do something you can just YouTube or Google it. I feel like especially back then, if you decided this is what you wanted to do, it’s not something you could Google about what steps to take. When you decided on your path, how did you connect the dots? I imagine most of it would be about who you’d meet.
Bob: Well, I grew up in the 70s and the library was really the thing where I could find all the information. Somehow I found out about getting studio addresses through the library. I wrote to all the studios as a kid, asking questions. I wrote to Disney and got a nice letter back from Eric Larson. This was around high school. He gave me an honest critique on my drawings and it was great! I remember writing to Chuck Jones. I still have the letter that he answered with (or his assistant did). Those types of things were really encouraging! I feel like the kids nowadays — the portfolios that I see — are light years ahead of where I was at that age. There is so much more information and ways to learn!
[-[58:16] Allan: I agree! I go on Art Station and look at the kids coming out with amazing work! I look back at my work in the 90s. It took forever to do! It’s nice to see how great the tools are and that people are embracing this as a career.
Bob: And so much is animated these days. Half the movie like Star Wars is animated. There is even more animation now than there’s ever been. It’s a very viable career!
[-[57:19] Allan: I just watched Justice League the other day. Anytime someone was moving, there would be the actor’s performance and then there’d be CG; and then occasionally, it would be back to the performance. It’s amazing how it’s getting to that point.
Bob: Even movies you don’t think would have CG, there is CG background. It’s pretty amazing!
[-[56:28] Allan: I even remember watching The Revenant. I couldn’t wait to see the credits! Half the film was CG. Forrest Gump is also a great example. You can still use CG to tell a story.
Bob: Exactly, yes! It’s really opened up television with shows like Game of Thrones. I think back to what we had in the 70s, growing up. You couldn’t do a show like that. You would have to build those sets or do matte painting! It would be really expensive. Not that CG is cheap, but there is so much more they can do to make the stuff more convincing.
[-[53:09] Allan: I was speaking to a few studios in LA who do some of the Marvel. Some of the episodes go up to 1 – 1.5 million dollars. Just blows my mind! That’s what some low budget films would cost back in the day. I love that so much faith is being put into television!
Bob: I remember television being considered the lesser. Films were the high end, well done things. And now television [is where] the quality is.
[-[54:22] Allan: And I totally derailed you! I do think that you were able to have the ambition in the beginning, hit the library and not be afraid to reach out. A lot of people don’t think that they’re ready to reach out.
Bob: I think that relates to my parents, plus the thirst for wanting to have the knowledge, “How is that done?” Once in a while, there would be The Wonderful World of Disney Sunday show about how shows were made. I would just look at that. That was a revelation! Anywhere I could find out more about it, I would!
[-[53:16] Allan: That’s awesome! After reaching out to all these places, where was the bridge that finally got you in?
Bob: The connection that got me into the industry?
[-[52:56] Allan: Yes, from having a passion to connecting the dots of getting into the industry, or at least getting close?
Bob: Yeah, it’s funny. I met some friends. I was going to a catholic school and there was an art program at the career center. It was a drawing class for logos and advertising. I only talked about animation. And this kid said, “Oh, you gotta meet this guy named Dan Jeup. He’s just like you. He talks about animation all the time!” Dan was going to another school in Michigan. He was far above what I was doing at the time. He already had an animation stand, a drawing board. It was exciting to see! He was only a year older than me. I was lucky to have someone like that. And then there was another childhood friend Butch. So Butch, Dan and I went to different high schools but we would hang out together. Butch was the star of some of my Super 8 movies. I think those people are out there and you may not even know it. They have the same affinity and you gravitate toward them.
[-[50:33] Allan: I think that’s really important. The sooner you identify that, the better! There are so many people you meet down the line. I had a discussion the other day if schools are good or not. Schools are good for people who need structure. But if you’re someone who’s hungry for learning, you might learn more on your own. Also, it takes one person to pull you into the company, I see it all the time! One kid would refer his posse and they start working with shots.
Bob: Absolutely! [With people] I went to school with, whoever got in first helped other people get in. You’re the new guy and you bring your friends. I think everyone helps each other out. And being surrounded by people who like what you like and are passionate, and are coming from the same point you are. How many people knew who Chuck Jones was? You go to Cal Arts and everybody knew who he was. That was exciting! Now I see that kids find that online. In my situation, it was rare to have two friends who liked animation. All of us ended up going to Cal Arts. Dan, then me, then Butch. I agree: The more people you can be around, the better you’ll get. It also helps to be around people who are better than you. If you stay in your own little bubble and don’t take any critique, you aren’t going to get as far. I know some people are just truly gifted, but even they have someone that mentored them.
[-[47:32] Allan: I think that’s the most underrated advice: Surround yourself with people who are better than you are. Do you want to be at the top of the bucket? Or do you want to be at the bottom and have people pulling you up?
Bob: Yeah, exactly! And sometimes the instinct is to get nervous to show your boards, or pitch your scenes. But it’s important because you learn from that. It’s also good to see what other people are up to. I work in story so we pitch everything in front of the director, writers and other story team members. You get to hear what other people pitch. You might have seen the pages that they’ve got. It’s fun to see what they bring because it’s something you would never have thought of. You can really easily underestimate yourself. You think something is obvious but you pitch it — and no one saw it coming. I see it all the time! Everyone brings something of themselves to a film.
[-[45:46] Allan: What was the first project for you? But when you landed your first gig, where was that at?
Bob: The first stuff I ever did was freelance. I’m trying to remember which one came first.
– A friend of mine at Cal Arts got a job and then he got some work at DIC Productions. And it was one of those situations when they needed some Layout Artists. So 3 or 4 of us got to work there for a couple of days. That was the first chance to do something professional! We were so excited, just to be getting paid for it!
– Then Disney was looking for some freelance people to work on something called Sport Goofy. It was directed by Darrell Van Citters. He is a Disney animator and now he started his own company. He was looking for some Cal Arts people to do some layout. That was super exciting to animate for Disney! It was originally supposed to be a Disney feature but then it got broadcast on television. That was just a thrill!
I did not know what I was doing at all. The difference between working on your own and working professionally — it was just so different! At Cal Arts, we were doing pencil test animation. I didn’t know how to set up my scene for the assistant animator, to clean that up. I learned a lot about in-between and charting them. I didn’t do that at all. I had to learn on the job!
[-[42:16] Allan: You take it for granted when you’re fresh into it, all these nuances you have to learn. For you, when was a point in your career when you felt like you made it? At some point, you can say, “I know Kung Fu, I can do it now!”
Bob: I don’t know if I ever felt that a hundred percent. But I’ve been at it [long enough], there is enough work out there. But even then you still wonder. Things change, the industry changes. You get older and you wonder if you’re still viable. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt, “I’ve arrived! This is it!” Just keep learning and get better and just enjoy the work! If you enjoy it, do the best you can — that says a lot!
[-[40:46] Allan: I think it’s also healthy to be a bit nervous and to keep learning. There is a percentage of people who get lazy, things lull. You have to keep improving.
Bob: You get bored if you just keep repeating yourself. Get into the deep end of the pool, out of your comfort zone.
[-[39:49] Allan: Did you [get most] of your 3D background later in your career?
Bob: Yeah, so I went to Pixar in 1999. I was there for 11 and a half years. That’s when I started in 3D. I started in story on Monsters, Inc. I did a year of story on that film and then two years on The Incredibles. And then I went from that to computer animation.
[-[39:17] Allan: We’ll loop back to that. I want this to be a bit of teaser. That’s a fascinating experience of looking at traditional ways of doing animation and then embracing 3D. Early in your career, what was the first feature film you got to work on?
Bob: The first feature was FernGully. It was my first experience on a feature film. I’d worked on shorts or television things. It was new to me to be on something that long. I was used to being on something for a month. I think I was on a movie for only 7 months but it felt like forever. But then after years of that, I got used to it.
[-[37:54] Allan: What do you prefer: Tighter turnaround projects or things you could take ownership of and spend long enough time on?
Bob: I enjoy working on things for a year or two. I’m used to features now. The Incredibles was three years. I like that because you really get used to working with everybody, especially if it’s a really good film. A lot of people would say that by the last scene you animate — you finally get this character. It’s nice to get to that point.
[-[36:43] Allan: You worked on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. What did work on, on that? It’s funny, by now this movie is a Christmas classic. It’s like saying you worked on Die Hard.
Bob: That was actually for the opening credits, two scenes of freelance. Bill Kroyer who did FernGully had a studio and they were doing credits for different films. I was asked to freelance on that. I just had two scenes in that with Santa Claus being stuck in a chimney. Literally, a week or two weeks of work, but it was fun! It was a fun throwback style of animation. I’m in my studio [right now] and I have a cell set up from the film. We have a few of those on the wall. My wife is also an artist.
[-[35:04] Allan: That’s really cool! Road to El Dorado and Prince of Egypt: Early in my career I had to appreciate these. What were those projects like? Again, they’re classics. I love those films!
Bob: Prince of Egypt I worked on first. I came to that from another project called Cats Don’t Dance that I was a Supervisor on. So that was about as far opposite animation styles as it could be. I came from that film which was very cartoony, not for the film at all. I worked on the character of Miriam. We had two animators that did all the animation for her. It was definitely a learning curve. I showed my work to the director and I thought I was toning it down, but it was still very cartoony. I buckled down and tried to learn a more realistic style. El Dorado was next. It was more cartoony. I started feeling more comfortable with that. I could bring some of the stuff I was doing before. It was a nice middle spot.
[-[32:47] Allan: I was just stocking your IMDb. With both of those, you’re the supervising animator for single characters. Are you there to keep more of a continuity throughout the performance?
Bob: Exactly, yeah! The people that worked on that were so good, I didn’t have to do much. But there such top notch animators. It’s making sure that the acting and the drawing style are in the same vein. At the same time, I’m trying to draw the character the same way the designers drew them.
[-[31:06] Allan: Do you know Character Animator Andrew Schmidt who is now at DreamWorks. You know him right?
Bob: Yeah, Andrew is now on Troll Hunters.
[-[30:49] Allan: You’ve probably also worked with Carlos Baena. I want to do a Podcast with him.
Bob: He is a great guy. Super talented!
[-[30:15] Allan: In 1999, you went to Pixar. Were you seeking the next thing?
Bob: Yeah, seeking the next thing. Getting out of LA was another thing. My wife and I always liked the Bay Area. And computer animation started to intrigue me. Toy Story came out. It’s just so different! There is definitely a shift change. The technology was new. A friend was working on Monsters, Inc. suggested I should try to do story. I’ve done a little bit of storyboarding. It could be a new challenge and exciting. Pixar was doing amazing work. I was really lucky that they hired me. I did not expect 2D to go away as fast as it did. I had an inkling it was the future and there would more of it. I thought [the two would be] in tandem for a while. But that wasn’t the case.
[-[28:12] Allan: I hope it comes back a little bit, just because of the nostalgia growing up on those films. Seeing the shiny plastic look of the early 90s and thinking, “I can’t do that!” It was a shortcut to doing something that looked great. I do hope there is a place down the line where it comes back. 3D blew up in a big way.
Bob: I would love to see traditional animation films! One of the other reasons I went up there was I wasn’t sure I wasn’t ready to give up the pencil [and work entirely] on the computer. So story was a nice place to be. I still get to draw. Fortunately, I got to do traditional animation at Pixar — which I never thought would happen. I got to do the end credits on Ratatouille and I was co-supervising Your Friend the Rat. That was traditional, as well as the short Day and Night. I never expected that to happen. Things just happened. I was exciting once I got to animating on the computer. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it as much. I’ve seen really good traditional animators and they don’t miss the drawing. Once I finally animated, it was for The Incredibles. Brad Bird was looking for more traditional animators, so I was lucky. I was there at the right time. I learned to enjoy both [traditional and computer animation]: It’s both acting, it’s both performance. There are different pluses and minuses.
[-[24:43] Allan: I think the fact that it takes much more work to get even that one key posed. You could just draw it up. Initially, it’s a lot more work.
Bob: It was definitely a learning curve! But the neat thing was, The Incredibles were really well designed. It was great to have the model designed — and your job is not to mess it up. It’s nice to have that inspiration in front of you.
[-[23:54] Allan: When you first requested to go into 3D, what was it like? I’m just picturing it’s a big shift when you’re making that decision. Was that intimidating?
Bob: Well, the reason I wanted to get into animating on that film was because Brad was bringing on a lot of traditional animators, people I’ve worked with in Southern California. They were all trying it. It kind of got me more interested. We would all hold hands and jump into it together. And the film was so much fun to work on, so inspiring! I didn’t want it to end. The chance to work on it was a great opportunity!
[-[22:35] Allan: Obviously, Pixar has its proprietary software. What tools were you using at the time?
Bob: Menv is the proprietary animation program. I guess it’s Maya based. Now it’s changed a lot since I’ve animated on it. Now they have so many things that are easier to do. There was [an exposure sheet] program that allowed you to do your key poses and show your scene as a pose test, without the transitions. It was a great transition to computer. I could hang on to those training wheels. It’s changed now.
[-[20:42] Allan: I think it was ’97 when I got into Maya. The marketing campaigns were so brilliant for it. They really figured out what the pain points for artists would be. I look at ILM, some of the stuff can be a huge learning curve. I imagine it’s a mental learning curve.
Bob: It was! If I had to do it now, it would probably be an easier transition. I had to change my whole way of thinking. The way people talk about it, it’s like learning a foreign language. People say there is finally that point where it clicks. That’s what computer animation was like. I could finally navigate it. It took a while before I felt comfortable on it. I worked on Cars after The Incredibles. That was great because I got to learn the computer better. I started learning more about curves and how to smooth things out. I think you take something from each film and add on.
[-[17:55] Allan: With The Incredibles, how did you feel after you finished it? Was that a massive hurdle and you nailed it?
Bob: I was just lucky to be there at the right time. It was very exciting! Everyone knew it was special. When Brad came on, everyone knew it was a great idea. Sometimes, you’re just at the right place. I felt pretty lucky.
[-[16:35] Allan: What was the most challenging project you’ve worked on, in your career?
Bob: The most challenging? Prince of Egypt was up there because it was a huge learning curve. And The Incredibles! I’ve only done story on Monsters, Inc. Brad really wanted the shots in the storyboards to be the same as in the movie. I just learned a lot on that film. Every film had a challenge, but those two stand out.
[-[15:45] Allan: What about your favorite?
Bob: My favorite film to work on was actually Cats Don’t Dance. It was the film I had the most fun on. It was directed by Mark Dindal who worked on Chicken Little at Disney. It was a fun, funny film. A great crew!
[-[15:19] Allan: With Molly and the Bear, it’s one of those things that you’re putting your heart and soul into. Do you want to give us little bit of introduction on what it’s about?
Bob: Sure! Molly and the Bear — now called Bear with Me, I recently changed the title — I’ve been drawing this for years. I’ve always loved comic strips. I’ve been working on it on and off for 15-20 years. I started putting it online and Go Comics picked it as a syndicated strip for online. So it’s really a labor of love, I don’t make much money from it. I do two strips a week. I draw it traditionally. There is a book out that came out a year and a half ago (https://www.amazon.com/Molly-Bear-Bob-Scott/dp/1937359859).
And my background is in comic books as well. One of the places I worked for was for Jim Davis in Indiana, my wife and I both worked there. We did US Acres. That was a really fun project to work on! I’ve always done comic strips on the side.
[-[13:19] Allan: What platform are you publishing it on?
Bob: It’s on Go Comics and they syndicate hundreds of other comic strips. Twice a week, it’s on there. I also post it on Facebook myself. I love comic strips, always have. It’s similar to story. They feed off each other. I remember my first strip at Cal Arts, at the local paper. I look at them now, they’re so wordy. Over the years, you learn to make your point. But that’s been invaluable for story as well. Sometimes you have to come up with ideas for a sequence: What is the storytelling just one panel for this?
[-[11:03] Allan: I like that! And to have that outlet to throw out your ideas, it’s a great way to try it. It’s like going to the gym.
Bob: I also like that you can do it by yourself, in the evening. It’s not an overwhelming project. It’s not a 500-page long comic book. It’s a finished project that I’m not killing myself to do.
[-[09:56] Allan: Obviously, you’ve been in the industry for a while. For people who are trying to break in, do you have any advice?
Bob: If they’re going into animation or storyboarding: to draw, and draw, and draw some more! There is so much more involved with storyboarding. You have to have those drawing skills. The more you draw — the better it is for you. If you love drawing and you keep drawing, your stuff is going to get better and better.
[-[08:05] Allan: I’m curious about mistakes that you see artists make early in their career. Most people, think about what they should be doing instead of what they shouldn’t be doing. What do you think some of the big mistakes?
I. What I see sometimes is a portfolio that has too much in it: a little bit of development, a little bit of animation, storyboarding. It doesn’t look like they know what they want to do. I understand that, but I think it’s better to focus on what you really want to do. If you want to focus on visual development, your portfolio should be focused on visual development.
II. The other thing I hear is all people want to work at Disney. There are so many other great places you can work at! If you don’t get into Disney now, you will down the road. And in the mean time, you will learn. Sometimes, it’s better to go to smaller studio and do more and learn more without the same stress of a big feature film. I feel like I’ve learned a lot working on smaller stuff. Don’t underestimate that and don’t get your sight set on one studio. Love the art form and you will get into it. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try. It’s good to love the art form. And there are so many other places you can work, such variety of styles and animations, and shows.
[-04:34] Allan: That’s a great advice! Getting exposure to smaller places, you will learn and advance quicker. I was talking to Victor Navone (allanmckay.com/104). He wanted to get into ILM, but when he didn’t, it opened up doors to Pixar. Sometimes, if you have your heart on something, it may be a wrong place and you might miss out on the dream job.
Bob: Absolutely! I heard that interview and that’s great advice. You might not be seeing the opportunity right in front of you if you have your eyes set on something else.
[-[02:58] Allan: What are you working on at the moment?
Bob: Right now, I’m at Disney. I was working on Wreck-It Ralph 2. Now I’m working on a jets film, which is a spin off of Cars. And I’m in story. I really enjoy doing it.
[-[02:11] Allan: Where would people go to find out more about you?
Bob: They can go to Go Comics and read the comic strip twice a week (http://www.gocomics.com/bear-with-me). It’s probably the best place to go.
[-[01:36] Allan: Thank you for taking the time to talk!
Bob: Yeah, it’s nice chatting with you!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Thanks to Bob for doing this interview.
I will be opening the Mentorship in early April for 2018. Please join my private circle at allanmckay.com/inside/ — and get the heads-up.
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