Episode 140 — MPC’s Animation Sup — Catherine Mullan
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Episode 140 — MPC’s Animation Sup — Catherine Mullan
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 140! I’m speaking with Catherine Mullan who is the Animation Supervisor for MPC. I’m excited for this Episode! Catherine was really cool to chat with, shooting the shit about her career history and insights that she’s gained. She is currently working on Dumbo. She’s worked on Pirates of the Caribbean, Spectre, X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, Happy Feet, Maleficent — and tons of others!
In this Episode, she shares her insight on working at MPC, as well as offers career advice. There is so much great content here!
Let’s dive in!
INTERVIEW WITH CATHERINE MULLAN
Catherine Mullan is an Animation Supervisor at MPC. Over the course of her career, she has worked for studios like Framestore, Animal Logic, MPC. Her credits include big budget films like Guardians of the Gallaxy, The Hunger Games, Maleficent, X-Men: First Class, Clash of the Titans, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter — and many more.
Right after graduating from Bournemouth University’s Computer Animation Course in London, U.K., Catherine joined Framestore as a junior animator. She has been working in visual effects for over a decade. Her work has earned a 2005 Emmy Nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects (for The Last Dragon) and a nomination from VES (for Outstanding Animated Character in The Chronicles of Narnia), in 2011.
In this Podcast, Catherine talks about her career — from joining Framestore as a Junior Animator, through her current position as an Animation Sup at MPC — the most hirable skills for VFX artists and the importance of your demo reel.
Catherine Mullan on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1280534/
Catherine Mullan on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/catherine-mullan-6094931/
Interview with Catherine Mullan at Annecy 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tm2cQCF5OAU
[-[1:12:29] Allan: Can you quickly introduce yourself and tell us about what you do?
Catherine: Sure! My name is Catherine Mullan. I’m an Animation Supervisor at MPC.
[-[1:12:19] Allan: Cool! I’m always curious about how people get started in this industry. Did you always want to be an artist in some form?
Catherine: Um, not really. Not that I didn’t want to, I just didn’t know it was a job. I grew up in a small town in Ireland. Going to school in the 90s, you had some really obvious career paths ahead of you. Animation wasn’t one of them, neither was visual effects. I always enjoyed art. I always liked to draw, but I was always into math as well. I never wanted to go to an art school because I felt I would be leaving other stuff behind. It was a weird one for me. We had a career library in our school and at the time I was studying for our A-Levels (when you get to 16-17, you chose your subjects). I chose Art, Math and Economics. I just enjoyed everything!
When it got to the point of what I was going to do after — I had no idea. I wanted to do something technical that also had to do with art. Anyway, I found this book that cross-referenced two subjects: art and math. They’d show you the courses you’d be interested in: architecture, engineering. And there was this one course in computer animation and visualization in Bournemouth, in the U.K. I thought, “Um, what’s that?”
[-[1:09:38] Allan: Is that a real thing?
Catherine: I dug into it a bit. There was an art center and there was this guy who had Softimage and he was working on a project. I thought it was cool. I applied for the course, had an interview at Bournemouth and was accepted. I literally had so little idea.
[-[1:09:02] Allan: With those three subjects, you could do a lot of things. What was it like once you started there?
Catherine: I was surrounded by people who knew about the course for a long time and have been gearing up for it for a long time as well. It was one of the few courses that was available. It was hard to get in. I found myself a bit overwhelmed. I remember a good friend of mine helping in log-on. I’ve never used computers before [outside of] word processing. It was quite a technical course. What’s hilarious, looking back at it, the software that we used was written by one of the lecturers. It was super basic, but you had to program everything. (Obviously, I didn’t know any better.) You had to program your animation.
[-[1:07:16] Allan: I had a bit of a taste of that back in the day. I think it was 3D animation construction set, or something. I had to literally key frame all the transforms.
Catherine: It was crazy. You’re writing everything. For me, animation was you press a button and — “Fuck, it lives!” And our second year, we got Maya. It was like, WHAT?!
[-[1:06:28] Allan: What year was that when you started?
Catherine: I started in 1998.
[-[1:06:21] Allan: So literally when Maya came out! I had a love-hate relationship with Softimage. I look at people today, “You have no idea what it was like!” It had to be interesting to learn software out of the box, but then to go somewhere else — and have to relearn it.
Catherine: It was definitely a great experience! When I started working as an Animator, I had a really technical background, which animators didn’t have at that time. They taught a lot of stuff I’ve never used, but it created a great foundation.
[-[1:05:01] Allan: That’s really cool! What was your big turning point, from going to school to getting your first break?
Catherine: I was pretty lucky, really. When I graduated in 2001, stuff was happening and they were crewing up in London. The University where I went had pretty good relationships with studios in London. I remember Framestore came down to the University and interviewed students on site. I had an interview with the Head of Animation there. He was great and he took me onboard. I was very lucky! I started as a Junior Animator.
But it was amazing! I started at Framestore being completely overwhelmed. It’s terrifying. The course was technical but they don’t teach you a lot of animation. Whatever I learned was by observation and trying stuff; and I managed to cobble together a reel at he saw. It was really different from animation today.
[-[1:02:48] Allan: You go to CG Talks and it’s literally 15-year-olds pumping out amazing stuff. And you’re like, “Fuck you! Fuck Zbrush!”
Catherine: It is pretty amazing. There is so much information available. There are some amazing schools, but also the wealth of tutorials and software online.
[-[1:02:18] Allan: Lately, when [the question] comes up, “How do I get started?” I’m, like, “YouTube!” There is too much information out there these days. The fact that you had to go to the library and figure out what profession fitted you — it’s really awesome! What was it on your reel — or what was it that you demonstrated — that the Head of 3D took a liking to you, you think?
Catherine: I had done this dialogue piece, an excerpt from a book A Woman That Walked into Doors. It’s a story about domestic violence. I took some of the dialogue. A friend recorded the voiceover for me. I had her sitting in a chair, telling her story. My friends laughed at me for such hard-hitting domestic violence documentary [for my reel].
[-1:00:41] Allan: So, everyone has a different path getting to this career. I just interviewed Thierry Lafontaine who was a wine expert before changing into VFX: allanmckay.com/131/. I figured you stood out because you didn’t have any resistance in the beginning.
Catherine: No, no, no! For my parents, it was some kind of faith. They never meddled at all. It’s interesting. I work with a lot of people from different backgrounds, and I’ve interviewed a lot of people who switched from different into VFX. And that’s fantastic!
[-[59:17] Allan: That’s great! For you, what was your first project and was it intimidating?
Catherine: Absolutely intimidating! The first project was Dinotopia. It was a miniseries about dinosaurs.
[-[58:52] Allan: I vaguely remember it. Having dinosaurs in a TV show, it was like, “Oh, my god!” Was Framestore in the CFC merger or were they about to?
Catherine: They were just about to. There were separate building, but within that first year, they merged. Dinotopia had the guy from Prison Break that a lot of girls drool over now. As a Junior Animator, you’re starting with a library of work that other people had done. You’re doing background characters, smaller shots.
[-[57:48] Allan: From there, I know you went to Animal Logic for a while, in Australia. How was that?
Catherine: I loved it! Obviously, you’ve lived in Sydney. For me, going there for a year was a holiday. It was a different vibe from all the places I’ve lived. And it was a different vibe at Animal Logic at the time. They had to pull people from all around the world. That was particularly great: Everyone had come together and they were experiencing Australia. And we were working on this one project Happy Feet. It was a really fun project to work on. [Director] George Miller would do animation dailies. Coming from visual effects and then sitting in the room with the director — and he’s giving feedback on your work — I’ve never experienced that before!
[-[56:36] Allan: What years were you there?
[-[56:28] Allan: Yeah, I would’ve actually been on the lot. We were shooting Superman Returns at the time. We heard all these stories: “They’re now mo-caping people as penguins!”. All this crazy stuff going on! I think in a lot of ways, that movie was pivotal for Australia. I meant to work on Happy Feet. Do you know Andrew Silke?
Catherine: Yeah, yeah, yeah, Silke!
[-[55:55] Allan: He was trying to get me on the project. I think the project itself had growing pains for the studio — but it positioned a big international crowd after that. Overall, what were you contributing to the project?
Catherine: Um, on that show? It was the only show that was motion caption based. Singing and dancing penguins! I animated a lot of the baby Gloria and adult Gloria singing and dancing. So you’re there listening to the track, lip-syncing the songs. And I’ve made some really good friends there. We did some cool trips. Working with George Miller was particularly great! He is a really, really lovely man!
[-[54:28] Allan: That’s awesome! That’s always what I hear the highlights of working on that project were. He’s a pretty visionary guy! For you, going to Framestore and then moving to the other side of the world: There is only a small percentage of people that does something this intimidating — that can also change your life. Was there a lot of resistance?
Catherine: There was definitely a “Hell yeah!” I’ve always loved to travel. I took breaks in between work and studying and go see the world. It was like, “I get to live in Australia — and they pay me?” So I absolutely jumped at it. At the time, I was a bit naive. I never felt a job insecurity. At the time, that was cool. I went there with a couple of friends so I already knew people when I arrived. It was a very welcoming crew. There weren’t many people who were actually Australian. How long have you been away from home?
[-[51:51] Allan: I’ve only been back once in the last decade. I need to get back there soon! I started working in 1996. Around 2003, I moved to the States, and worked all over. It’s such a long flight!
Catherine: Yes, I loved the experience, but I was ready to leave. You just feel so far away from everyone else in the world. And you are!
[-[51:07] Allan: You went from Framestore to Animal Logic, back to Framestore and then you’ve been at MPC for a while. What is it like to go to a new environment and compare it to the other place where you came from? I do think if you’re in the same concentrated areas, what you learn at one place, it carries onto the next.
Catherine: I’m more limited in terms of the companies I’ve worked for. But they were really quite similar. Framestore and MPC, I don’t see huge difference. Similar pipeline, similar work and attitudes. It’s nice to have the experience to see the different tools people are using and the approaches. I don’t see the big differences though. The tools and pipelines are slightly different. But the guts of the work, those things are are peripheral to your day to day [are similar]. Different buttons — to do the same thing.
[-[48:38] Allan: With all of your experiences and projects so far, what would be your all time favorite project so far?
Catherine: Ooh, that’s a tough one! Early in my career, I worked on a few of the Harry Potter films. They were my first film projects and it was a hugely popular franchise. And the characters were great. We were pushing it further than it’s been done before. But then, I loved Happy Feet. I loved Narnia. Every project was challenging. For me, the most enjoyable projects have been with more challenging characters. In Maleficent, it was my first Sup gig. There were so many characters, it’s hard to choose. They’re all mine!
[-[47:09] Allan: That’s really cool! I guess what would be your most challenging.
Catherine: All of them! Different projects are challenging for different reasons: for the work, the time that you have to finish a project, more challenging directors. Everything pushes buttons. I don’t think there’s been an easy one.
[-[46:28] Allan: When you guys do your animation work, do you measure in terms of seconds for output per day?
Catherine: That’s a very alien concept. I interview a lot of people who come from TV. And they say, “My output is five million second output per day”. Generally, we work around how long the shot would take, in terms of days. But it’s ultimately a guess. A shot can be taken in a different direction. You work until your director and your clients are happy; or it’s due next week, so you’re done.
[-[45:16] Allan: With your experience, you have more Pixar-level animation, do you prefer one over the other?
Catherine: Happy Feet was the only picture animation I’ve every worked on. My experience has been mostly in visual effects. The creature stuff, you really get to study the movements and weight, and physics. You get to know the anatomy and certain characteristics. All of that is really cool! You get a kick out of it looking good and believable. What you’re seeing more and more in visual effects is the character aspects. Rather than it being a flying horse, here is a character — and it’s the main character, so it has to have soul and a brain, and they can emote. I really get a kick out of character animation.
[-[43:20] Allan: Going back to Andrew Silke, have you seen his short film Cane-Toad?
Catherine: Yeah, yeah!
[-[43:14] Allan: It was kind of interesting. He’s had a successful career. At the time, watching Andrew Silke and Dave Clayton, it was interesting. Both Andrew and Dave loved doing Pixar-like animation. Around that time, Dave started getting obsessed with creature realism and he went off to Weta where they did Gollum. It’s interesting to see them pair off and then go do different things. Obviously, there are different challenges to each. One is more about believability. The other — about likability.
Catherine: Absolutely! You can see in the projects that we’re doing it’s a combination of both. Like Jungle Book, which was done at MPC, it’s taking realistic creatures and making them emote and talk; and they have to be both physically believable and a character. They are your storytellers. All of that becomes equally important. It’s blossomed in so many different ways with feature animation and the super wacky style is coming back.
[-[41:03] Allan: In terms of where you take your work these days, is it more mo cap? With a live action film, is it more about doing match move over someone else’s performance? Which way do you tend to lean?
Catherine: It absolutely depends on the project. The projects are so varied in visual effects. There are human digital doubles, hard surfaces and right now we’re doing a lot of creature animation. For human characters, I feel like why wouldn’t you motion capture them? You’re never going to animate them as well as mo cap of a human being. You’d spend weeks to get that subtlety. But I find that there aren’t so many projects that require them. If you have a human being, why not just make him a human being? The majority of the work we do at MPC is key frame, 95% animation. We have a mo cap studio. I’ve used it before.
[-[38:28] Allan: There is a studio I used to work with in LA. They brought on a lot of different artists from France, to work on a Disney project. That wrapped and they loved working at the studio. You had these talented animators working on hands and facial shapes.
Catherine: Yeah, there is a lot of resistance for animators. They don’t want to use mo cap. It’s stealing the joy of creating a performance. It’s a very different job. Motion capture is an amazing tool and it creates fantastic results, but I do understand why animators don’t jump at the chance to work on that.
[-[37:13] Allan: Yup! What are you do now? Steal all my toys as well?
Catherine: From a perspective of hiring animators as a Sup, when you see motion cap on their reel, it’s very difficult to know what they do. It’s impossible to find out how much they added.
[-[36:38] Allan: Every animator at Weta cringes about this: A certain performer badmouthed the effects team. Meanwhile, the team was taking his performance and recreating it.
Catherine: It’s very disrespectful! There is that side: You can start with a specific performance but a director knows that it can be changed. And it does fall into the hands of the animators.
[-[35:54] Allan: I thought it was interesting that Kurt Russell, who was made to look younger, was saying that you didn’t need CGI. He was saying this to one of the artists who actually did his digital make-up.
Catherine: Part of it is that people don’t actually know how much work goes into it. But also, the press around it isn’t always straight forward. I worked on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at Framestore; and there was a sequence with a bunch of squirrels. There was a team that was animating it. But then an article came out about a trainer of all these squirrels!
[-[33:59] Allan: I remember it was pivotal with that movie Oh Brother, Where art Thou? There is a bit where Baby Face runs over a cow. The animal cruelty people ended up going to the studio. Digital Domain had to put together a presentation on how they put together a digital cow.
Catherine: You don’t know what’s real anymore. From ads to movies, the work that goes in. Even the slimming work, changing the color of lipstick.
[-[32:46] Allan: Replacing people’s mustache? Have you heard about that? So, in Justice League, on Superman, there was a battle between Paramount and Warner Bros. Henry Cavill contractually agreed to grow out a big, bushy mustache for Mission Impossible. Of course, he was playing Superman right before. There was a battle about could they shave off the mustache. Warner Bros offered to pay the money to do a digital mustache. For the most part, something feels wrong about it. There is one shot that was terribly off. I used to work for a studio in LA, and there would digital fixing of celebrities in the audience, on basketball games footage.
Catherine: It’s insanity! The body image is awful, to put up these false perspectives.
[-[29:59] Allan: With all of your experience and math background, what do you think is relevant these days? The traditional requirements 10 years ago would be very specific. How do you feel these days? Or do you just need to be a badass key framer? Or does that matter?
Catherine: Nothing matters, apart from the work you’re presenting. Getting an interview in the first place would be solely off of your reel. And if I interviewed someone at MPC, I’d check what they’ve done before. It doesn’t matter where you’ve studied, where you’ve worked. All that matters how good the work is on your reel. Which is fantastic, because there is an amount of freedom around that. You don’t have to go any particular school or be from any particular country. You’re judged solely on the work that you can do and your talents. And that’s how it should be.
[-[27:57] Allan: I absolutely agree! I’m very anti all the excuses from people who feel where they should be. I felt that 20 years ago: It such an open door for everyone. If you have a shitty reputation, it will come back and bite you. But it is based on the quality of your work. The biggest thing people don’t realize: Hiring people is expensive. If you can prove that you can sit down tomorrow and do the work — that’s all the really matters.
Catherine: Absolutely! I like to be able to help people who are starting. I love to see someone who comes in and they don’t have much experience — but they have a great attitude. They’ll work off their butt to get better. I have so much more time for that person than for a know-it-all. You have to be humble and search for feedback. Attitude is key, absolutely!
[-[25:30] Allan: I just moved out of LA. All the work I was doing was remote anyway. I ended up moving to a street where my neighbor is product manager for Autodesk. It’s such a small industry, you can’t escape it. I have a few friends back in Ireland. It’s such a small industry.
Catherine: I find it sad because I never actually worked in Ireland. I went to a university and worked in London, Sydney and Vancouver. I recently went back. It is a small industry there. I did a talk at a university. It was great to tell the students, “There is no reason you can’t do this job!”
[-[23:06] Allan: I think that’s really pivotal. They need that permission from someone else. With you and having experience hiring, what are the big red flags? I think most people aren’t aware of what costs them a job.
Catherine: I think it’s really hard to completely screw up an interview. If the work is good — and you are not a complete A-hole — you aren’t going to screw up that badly. There has been a couple of occasions. I remember interviewing a guy 10 years my senior. He had on his resume that he worked as a Lead. Turned out he didn’t — but he felt he should have been. He was dissing people on the team. I’m sitting there, thinking, “Really? Do you really think that’s a good way to go?”
[-[20:28] Allan: Most studios, if you’re in an interview they’re just screening that you aren’t a dick. Most likely, you’ve got the job already. They’re just getting a screen of you.
Catherine: It’s harder for entry level positions. You may interview a bunch of people and see what’s out there before moving ahead. A good place to be is:
– Showing enthusiasm,
– Being humble,
– Recognizing where you are — and where you need to go,
– Being relaxed and personable.
It’s about having a chat and finding out who you are and what you can do. I don’t think it’s something to be anxious about. You don’t need to be scared. I did an interview for an internship once and this kid came in a suit during a Skype interview. He was so serious!
[-[17:51] Allan: Are there any other red flags you can point out, like showing angst toward other people…
Catherine: Or the industry itself! “I hate this, we should get more money!” That’s not for the interview!
[-[17:14] Allan: All it takes is one bad apple. You have your soft and hard skills. You hire be people based on what they can do — but also on whether they can mesh with others. All it takes is one bad person. That doesn’t make life more pleasant. At the end of the day, it is a brutal industry.
Catherine: It’s such a drain when someone is vocally unhappy. It does take a drain on everybody else. It’s got to be an open environment, of course. But give it a break! It’s important, the environment that we work in and the experience on the floor. The greatest part about visual effects are the people on the floor.
[-[14:50] Allan: Anyone who wants to get their foot in the door, are there ways that people can stand out?
I. I think that if you know what you want to do — then hone your reel to what it is you want to do. For visual effects, we do a lot of heavy creature animation. It’s about realism and believability. It’s difficult to look at something cartoony and talky-talk. And I get it and why they enjoy that kind of work. But if you’re applying at MPC, that probably won’t get you a job.
II. Use a reference. It blows my mind when people assume they know how something moves. Whether it’s effects or modeling, you have to look at reference. Visual effects is about recreating reality. You need to look at physics and anatomy.
III. If you’re an animator — or you want to be — don’t spend your time modeling. I don’t care if you can rig your own creature. Use a free rig off the internet, there are plenty of those available. Take a piece of reference and do a piece of animation.
[-[11:39] Allan: To put you on a spot, are there any rigs in particular that you’d recommend? I don’t even know if Highend3D is around anymore.
Catherine: I don’t know. I know there are some because I see animation that use the same rigs. I imagine it wouldn’t be too difficult to find one. I think people widely make them available. If you look at other people’s rigs, ask where they’ve gotten theirs. If someone is a rigger and they want someone to do animation on their rig, there are opportunities like that. It shows a team environment like that.
[-[10:23] Allan: That’s brilliant! Breaking in at the beginning and demonstrating how your rig works. You need to know what an animator needs. It’s brilliant to go seek out character TD’s to test out their rigs.
Catherine: It’s such an important relationship. The feedback is only going to make both sides stronger. Having the knowledge of rigs and what works is also important for an animator.
[-[09:12] Allan: To follow up about being specific about what you want to do: Have you noticed that applicants would create custom animation for a specific project?
Catherine: A little bit after Jungle Book. People were blown away by the work. I’ve seen more tigers and big cats on people’s reels. Which is great! It shows foresight and you’re tailoring to a specific project. You show that you can do that work. Not to say that other creatures won’t be good enough.
[-[07:08] Allan: I used to do creature work for games. We had to animate a tiger. We did this nice work and the client deleted it to a couple of key frames.
Catherine: It’s tough. There is your vision — then there is a director’s vision.
[-[06:12] Allan: With everyone you’ve worked with, what do you think differentiates those that are good — from those that are great? Is there some natural tendency? Or some people are more obsessed to get the work done?
Catherine: Definitely, there is a passion to make it look as good as possible — and a willingness to just find that. Because it’s hard. There are certain people I work with and I pass a difficult task to, and I know they will work and work at it until it looks awesome. It comes from “This has to be real, this has to be great” attitude, not “That’s good enough!” And they love it and are passionate about making it the best it can be. A huge part of it is attitude and taking feedback because you want it to look as good as possible. I think that’s what sets people apart: Is it the best it can be? It’s when a person sneaks in after something has been approved and correct this one thing that would drive them crazy.
[-[03:59] Allan: That’s just it! If you couldn’t done better — you should have done better. It’s up to you to make it the best it can be.
Catherine: It’s tough. We’re working in an environment where things have to be pushed along. But there are people who want to work on something forever; then there are people who just want to move one.
[-[02:48] Allan: For anyone who wants to find out more about you, where can they go?
Catherine: I’ve been buried at MPC for years. I don’t have a website, but I have my LinkedIn, of course.
[-[02:19] Allan: Thanks for taking the time!
Catherine: I’ve really enjoyed this! I’ve been going back and listening to some of your Podcast. This has been great!
I want to thank Catherine for taking the time to chat. There is so much great insight here! Feel free to leave a review on iTunes.
In the next Episode, I’ll be talking with Adam Holmes, the Layout Sup for Sony Pictures Imageworks. He’s worked for so many different places. It’s been great to get his insight, including for Superman Returns. I was on that set as well.
The VFX free training is available right now: allanmckay.com/energyball/.
I’ll be back next week with Adam Holmes. Until then —
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