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From a Small Japanese Animation Studio to DreamWorks and Art Direction

Character Art Director Charles Ellison shared how he got into the industry, talked about making the first steps in DreamWorks, and shared tips for aspiring artists. 

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First off I just want to express a big thanks to 80 Level for having me share a bit of my story here with you all. My name is Charles Ellison, I am currently a Character Art Director/Visual Development Artist for Warner Bros. Pictures Animation. Before WB, I spent the majority of my career at DreamWorks Animation where I worked on many great projects and IPs ranging from the How To Train Your Dragon franchise and Kung Fu Panda, to the more recent Trolls movies just to name a few. I also joined Netflix Animation for a great project there called The Sea Beast, in which I served as a character artist. I've been so fortunate in my career to have been able to work at such tremendous studios and most importantly, with tremendous people. Had you asked me many years ago if I ever imagined myself living this career, let alone with the duration and success I've amassed, I would never have believed it. But now 20 years into my career, I am still filled with the same vigor and excitement that I had at the very beginning. 

My first steps into the world of digital art were perhaps unintentional. I would say it started in my childhood watching movies and cartoons. I am originally from Venezuela but moved to the US at a very young age. I grew up an only child in a household with a single mom, so you can imagine that I had a lot of time to find ways to creatively occupy my time. Movies and cartoons for me during my youth, weren't just entertainment, but they literally kept me company. I spent time with the characters I was watching as if they were my friends. I really believe this was essential to how I began to love the power of stories. Getting lost in my imagination and seeing where some inspiration would take me to with a pencil and paper was oftentimes the follow-up to watching something that inspired me.

But digital art at that time was something I never imagined would be in the future. I remember seeing Jurassic Park for the first time and being absolutely in awe of what the creators achieved with those dinosaurs. I had the same feeling of wonder when I saw the first Toy Story. Perhaps then is when I realized that there were people out there that were making these movies. It all seemed like a pipe dream to me. But I was at a point in my life (mid 20's), where I just didn't have a direction or solution to what I wanted to do. Most who knew me always suggested that I do something creative, but I had no idea what that even could mean. I like computers, even though I didn't own one at the time, nor was I even proficient with them, but the idea of mixing art with computers really fascinated me.

So one morning, I woke up and saw a commercial on the TV for the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and spontaneously decided to take the bus into the city to take a tour of the school. I remember walking through the computer lab and seeing students working on these massive computers and creating 3D Models and other types of digital art, and at that moment, I knew this was what I wanted. At the end of the tour, I found myself enrolling, not knowing how I was going to pay for school, but I knew I would figure it all out. To put it simply, for me at the time, it was exactly what I needed and proved to be one of the best decisions of my life.

In my final semester at the Academy of Art, I needed to really take seriously developing a demo reel that I could shop around upon graduating. So like many aspiring character modelers at that time, Blizzard Entertainment was a heavy influence, in particular Orcs and Elves. So I made a male orc and a female elf, applying as best I could, everything I had learned. Everything from good anatomy, to proper topology, and texturing, I applied. It was enough to get my foot in the door and land my first gig. 

Character Modeling Becomes Something More Than a Simple Hobby

I guess I have to connect this to when I started my first job in the industry out of school. I was hired by a small Japanese animation studio in Los Angeles called Sprite Animation, and I was blown away knowing that they were the core group responsible for creating the Final Fantasy movie, and they were now on their own trying to make a splash. They had one interpreter for me as I was their only American artist at the time, but I was so thrilled to join them and was completely in awe of their skill and talent, that it truly projected me to do my absolute best despite the language barrier. I couldn’t have asked for a better first studio, as I learned so much more than just being a character modeler. They used me for texturing and for rigging and even a bit of animation. I believe this exposure to other aspects of 3D Animation really helped me break through so many barriers of knowledge and after a good 3 years there, I had become not only well-versed in numerous disciplines but also a much more confident artist. 

First Big Character Assignment at DreamWorks

When I joined DreamWorks, it was at a very pinnacle point in my young career at the time. I had to make a very tough career choice, having to choose between becoming more focused on rigging and joining Digital Domain on the Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons (a choice that no doubt would have set me up for a very interesting path) or join DreamWorks as a modeler for How To Train Your Dragon.

I chose DreamWorks, embracing modeling and animation and I still remember the conversation with the recruiter and accepting the position. It brought literal tears to my eyes to see all the hard work that had brought me to such an amazing studio. DreamWorks is a beautiful place, with so many talented people and I wanted to put my best foot forward. In the modeling team, you are expected to be able to do both environments and characters. I was more of a character modeler going in, but they mostly utilized me as an environment modeler at first. I had never done environments before, but it was great fun and presented strong challenges for me to grow and learn from. Their pipeline consisted of utilizing Nurbs geometry at the time. Luckily, I was fairly familiar and acclimated quickly. But soon after, DreamWorks shifted to a more industry standard of utilizing more traditional geometry by embracing polygons and subdivision surfaces.

After proving myself on a good handful of assignments ranging in scope and scale, I was given my first big character assignment which happened to be the big, boss dragon that Toothless and Hiccup have to defeat at the end of the movie. It was a tandem effort with another artist, my focus being the head, while the other artist tackled the body, and it was no doubt a proud moment for me. I'll never forget the feeling of going to the movies with my family and friends to see How To Train Your Dragon on the big screen. It was my first feature, and seeing that big dragon on screen, was full circle to when I first saw the Brontosaurus in Jurassic Park. I felt I had really made it to my dream. 

Working on Trolls and Trolls World Tour

I was very proud to receive a promotion to Modeling Supervisor, as it was a goal I set for myself and after gaining experience on a few productions, I knew it was something I could do. The way I saw being a supervisor was I wanted to be an advocate for my team, empowering each artist to feel a strong sense of contribution and making sure they each were challenged and growing as artists. This was very important to me. I was also responsible for bidding out the movie, which essentially means helping the production team understand how much time and manpower it would take to model all the necessary assets for the movie. And of course, there was also the responsibility of making sure the artistic integrity of each model was at the highest standard. 

Crafting Characters for Movies

I joined Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, very early in the development stage, so early that it was under a different team of leadership (Director and Producer), and once I left that production to assist other projects in development, a new Director and Producer took over, but I was able to still contribute to some of the refreshing efforts of Puss. At this stage in my career, I had already transitioned out of the Modeling Department and shifted my primary focus to character visual development and working in the Art Department. DreamWorks would place me on various projects in development where I would help flush out character designs in 3D. Puss was just one of many that I had the opportunity to work on.

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken was a project I spent a good amount of time on, helping develop the main cast of characters, as well as the background characters. Being in Visual Development is much different from being in the Modeling department, in that I am not creating final assets and models for the movie, I am mostly helping establish the look and appeal for each character. I work closely with a 2D character designer, and once they have an approved concept or two, I then provide a 3D interpretation of that design. My process involves everything from a 3D sculpt, to look development and shading, and a final rendered presentation that is used to showcase the character with good fidelity. This is a very valuable way to develop characters as it helps provide as much context as to what a finished product of the character can be.

Once the characters are approved, I then package them up for downstream departments such as the modeling team to work their magic and build the characters to work for production and the pipeline. The models I deliver basically serve as a strong target and template that they can reference and rebuild. My tools in visual development are a lot of the usual suspects – ZBrush for sculpting, Maya for any traditional modeling and rendering in Arnold, Substance 3D Painter for texturing, and XGen in Maya for grooming. 

Shifting to Art Direction 

Once I had spent quite a bit of time in Visual Development on various projects at DreamWorks and a great project at Netflix Animation, I set a goal for myself to grow my contributions and I was able to transition into a Character Art Director role first at a smaller startup studio called Spire Animation. Warner Bros. Pictures Animation then surfaced with a great opportunity for me that I was very excited about and felt it was the right time and place for my journey and career to continue. Although I can't state the project I am on, I am very thrilled to be working with a tremendous team of artists that I have known for many years, and on a project that holds such a special place for me.

As a Character Art Director that works primarily in 3D, I work closely with my Production Designer and the Director of the movie, to discover a look for the characters that we want to achieve for the movie. Things like shape language, continuity, texture, and details are just a few of the things I contribute to helping establish. I attribute reaching this goal to the many years of always pushing myself to grow as an artist, pushing myself to learn new techniques and tools, and putting into practice all that I was learning. Oftentimes this meant using my own time to dedicate to my own personal projects, in addition to what I was doing in my professional day-to-day. Looking back, it was definitely a ton of work and dedication, but I wouldn’t change a thing. And if I had to do it all over again I would do so in a heartbeat.

Tips for Aspiring Artists 

I would first say to have as solid an understanding of foundational anatomy as you can. This is essential in my opinion to being as thoughtful with your models as you can be as a 3D Character Artist. Also, familiarize yourself with design principles such as straights and curves, thick to thin, and study works that you admire so you understand the choices that were made. Next, I would say practice, practice, practice. It's one thing to learn something new, whether it be a new software you were interested in learning, or perhaps a new workflow, or a deeper understanding of design principles, but putting that knowledge to use is where the growth really happens. It's where you run into things that break and you have to find solutions. I would also add to be willing to adapt to change. The tools always evolve and you should too, so don’t get complacent with your ways of doing things and make it a point to stay active in learning new techniques and software that can help your workflow and enhance your characters. And lastly, believe in yourself always. Many artists suffer from imposter syndrome - myself included. But let that serve you in a way that lights a fire to always put forth your best efforts and not get discouraged. From my perspective, I don't take any day for granted that I have in this career, because I know how hard I worked to get here. I let that serve me by keeping my passion for the craft burning strong. Even after all these years, I'm still that young boy getting lost in my imagination with the movies and stories that kept me company as a kid, only this time, I am part of making them. 

Charles Ellison, Character Art Director

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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