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Interview: Raman Hui
Recently, Joe Tracy from Digital Media FX (dFX) caught up with Raman Hui to specifically discuss the character Princess Fiona in PDI/DreamWorks Shrek.
dFX: What were your exact duties as Supervising Animator of PDI/DreamWorks Shrek?
My job was to work very closely with our group of 27 character animators
and the directors. The directors and I would come up with ideas and directions
for the performances. Then I would work with the animators to achieve
the goals. It's very fun to work with such a great group of talented animators.
We're very close and it's like a family. Every day we had an hour meeting
in the morning for all the animators to show their works and we would
talk about the performances and gave comments and suggestions to make
the performances stronger. We also had an afternoon session for the animators
to show their works at their desks.
dFX: You also worked as a Supervising Animator for ANTZ. How did the two differ in terms of challenges, design, and presentation?
Working environment wise, they're very similar. I got to work with the
same group of animators who also did an amazing job on ANTZ. The
big difference for us was the huge range of characters we had on Shrek.
In Shrek, we had to animate an ogre, a gigantic dragon, a talking
donkey, a very human like princess, a gingerbread man, a puppet and so
on... In ANTZ, most of the characters were ants. The big challenge
was to jump from different characters and still be able to make them all
performe together. Sometimes it could be hard when you're animating a
human character and then the next day you might have to work on a dragon.
For each character, it took us few months of testing and practice until
we felt totally comfortable with the character. The fun part was when
we all felt like we knew the characters and we could look at an animation
test and said "That's not Shrek. Shrek would never do that."
or "Yes, that's definitely Shrek."
dFX: It has been widely reported that the initial character design of Princess Fiona was "too real" and had to be "scaled back." What was some of the strategic thinking related to this move and how was the problem handled and resolved?
The reason we wanted to make Fiona less human like was to make sure she
could work well together with the rest of the characters. Since most of
the other characters in the movie were fairy tale creatures, we made Fiona
less human to blend her into the cast. That also made Shrek and Fiona
falling in love visually much more acceptable. We ended up making Fiona's
eyes a bit bigger than a real person and also her skin a bit smoother
dFX: So is Princess Fiona's looks (as a human) based on a real person?
Princess Fiona wasn't based on any real person. We did do a lot of different
sketches and also a lot of different scupltures. We probably had done
over 100 scupltures of Fiona before the directors picked the final design.
We also didn't want to make her too much like Cameron Diaz. We wanted
to use Cameron's voice and a different face but with a touch of Cameron's
body movement to create a totally unique new character.
dFX: The Princess Fiona character did a great job in portraying her attitude, reactions, and emotions. How was this accomplished and what were some of the challenges in accomplishing it?
Raman Hui: We paid a lot attention into details of her movement. When we animated her walk, we made sure that her weight was put on the right side of her body at each steps. We also spent a lot of time on all the little movements on her face so the audience could tell little subtlety of whether her smile was embarrassing or sincere or sarcastic. We had a very complex facial system that totally allowed us to achieve that. We even added very little detail like when she opened her mouth, the corners of her lips would stick together before they're all opened.
dFX: What did you use for your facial animation system?
Raman Hui: In Shrek, we used our own proprietary software to create the facial system. It's an advanced version of the facial system that we used in ANTZ. We have all the muscles built in her face and that allows us to animate her to very fine details. We had about 500 facial controls in the system.
dFX: It seems that some of Cameron Diaz's traits (like certain hand movements seen in her interviews) appear as part of the Princess Fiona character. How much of the character is based on the voice artist and did Cameron Diaz act out scenes for the production crew?
Raman Hui: We did look at a lot of the references we taped when Cameron was recording the audio. These references were very inspiring and they always helped us to push our animation. Whenever we saw something that Cameron did and fitted the movement, we would try our best to capture that in the animation.
dFX: Tell us a little bit about some of the challenges faced in the fight scene that spoofs The Matrix. How hard was it pull off a the realistic character fighting movements and how was it accomplished?
We do have animators in our group who know Kung Fu. With that, we could
talk about different moves and how we could apply that to the animation.
It was really fun to do and actually it might take less time to make a
computer generated character to do really good Kung Fu than training a
real person to do the same moves.
dFX: Shrek has reached several milestones including the fastest animated film to reach $150 million at the Box Office and it is one of the highest grossing animated films of all time. It received kudos from both critics and audiences who have seen it. In addition, the reach has gone well beyond parents with children. What is the reaction of those who worked on Shrek to this continual great news? Did you expect Shrek would do this well before it was released?
Raman Hui: We didn't know what to expect. All we cared about most of the time was to do the best we could with the time we were given. We put a lot of our hearts in the movie and we hoped it showed. It's very nice and touching to know that the audiences like the movie; especially when we went to watch the movie in a theater. The reactions were so unbelieveable. We're so happy they like the characters we created. I guess it's the same feeling when everyone tell you your kid is wonderful and they like your kid.
dFX: Speaking of audience reactions, at showings of Shrek the biggest reactions tend to come from the scene with Fiona and the bird and the scene where Shrek and Fiona turn a frog and snake into balloons. Who devised these creative scenes and are animators allowed to give suggestions to "advance/enhance" scenes they are working on?
Raman Hui: Everything was allowed during the process. We could suggest a lot of ideas while we were animating the movie. Sometimes the ideas worked, sometimes not. What we tried to do was to capture the moment when we analysed the storyboards, we also had to make sure we had to make the animation as funny as the storyboards if not more. It was challenging and a lot of fun.
dFX: Will we see the human Princess Fiona in Shrek 2?
The truth is, I don't know. I think it's too early to tell what's gonna
happen in Shrek 2. Would you like to see her?
dFX: I think a lot of people would like to see Princess Fiona back in human form in any sequel - she was a well developed and refined character. Wait... how did I become the interviewee? So, Raman, can you let us in on any hidden PDI references or inside jokes that may have been put into the film?
There are not many PDI hidden jokes in the movie. But there are times
that we may laugh more than the regular audiences because we know the
people who did the voices of certain background characters. For instance,
Andrew Adamson, director,was the screaming voice of the big head fellow
who was greeting people in front of Duloc. Our Head of PDI, Aron Warner,
was the voice of the wolf.
dFX: What advise would you give to someone who wants to break into the business and work within the animation industry?
Raman Hui: There're a lot of colleges and Universities that offer classes in Computer Animation. Good and strong computer animation comes from a lot of practices, if a school offer a lot of equipment and facilities for the students, that will allow them to learn and practise the animation.
I also think the very
fundamental elements like drawing and sketching are still very important.
One thing that I found very helpful is to appreciate things around me
more often. You can be in a bus looking around, you see this child talking
to her mother. If you think about animating a character to move like that
child, you will realize life is amazing. You have all these natural, spontaneous
character movements in front of you everyday. To capture that is a lot
of hard work when you animate. Remember that plastic bag in American
Beauty? We sometimes look at people around us and studied the movements
and charateristics. Please try, you'll realize it's amazing.
you for taking the time to share your insight with Digital Media FX readers.
We look forward to your future work at PDI/DreamWorks and onward.
2001 Joe Tracy / Digital Media FX.