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DigiPen instructors bring remarkable professional experiences to the classroom. In our Faculty XP series, we’ll zoom in on some of those fascinating career histories with focused Q&As.

With 23 animated films under his belt, it’s hard to pick just one to talk about with Department of Digital Arts lecturer Christopher Poplin. Starting in 1996, Poplin’s two-decade career in the animation industry landed him in key roles as a layout artist at Disney, DreamWorks Animation, and Sony Pictures Imageworks, working on a long list of classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Polar Express, and Tangled.

Today, Poplin passes on that industry knowledge to BFA in Digital Art and Animation students, helping DigiPen Dragons master production, 3D modeling, environment art, and storytelling. Teaching Dragons came naturally to Poplin, especially after he spent nearly two years working on How to Train Your Dragon, the 2010 classic that remains one of DreamWorks Animation’s highest-rated and highest-grossing films. We asked Poplin to break down his experiences on the film, and how animation layout technology evolved throughout his career.

For people who aren’t familiar, can you briefly explain the role of a layout artist in animation production?

The role of a layout artist is to be the first artist in an animated production to create shot sequences in 3D software that cinematically bring the director’s vision to life on screen. The job often begins by receiving storyboards from the story department and then translating them into a 3D space. It can also include creating action sequences from scratch. The job includes set dressing the spaces with all needed 3D models, blocking all character positions, composing and animating all cameras, and possibly adding temporary lighting and effects to best communicate the composition and story.

Your earliest layout work at Disney and DreamWorks came at an interesting time. Popular animation was starting to shift from predominantly 2D to 3D, and many films were blending the two in the interim. During that transition, what was it like working in layout on so many films like Hercules, Treasure Planet, and Sinbad that were exploring this hybrid 2D/3D approach?

It was a dream come true to work on those films during that period. It was exciting to participate in the technological advancements that were being created to combine these two very different mediums of 2D and 3D animation. One of the most interesting and yet challenging aspects of the job was figuring out how to seamlessly integrate hand drawn artwork with 3D environments and visual effects.

For me, one of the technological highlights of this period was working on Disney’s Tarzan. The production developed “Deep Canvas” rendering software which allowed artists to project hand painted brushwork onto static and moving 3D objects. This allowed 3D environments and props to be rendered with a traditional, Disney-style, painterly look that hadn’t been previously possible for 3D assets. It was that sort of technical challenge, combined with the amazing people and the beautiful storytelling in the films, that made it such a joy to come to work every day.

When you started working on How to Train Your Dragon in 2008, that popular shift from 2D to 3D was complete. You had worked on one of the first entirely motion capture-animated films, The Polar Express, leading the development of its 3D layout pipeline. How had the state of layout art evolved, both technically and creatively, by the time you started on How to Train Your Dragon?

By the time I joined How to Train Your Dragon, technically the animation layout pipeline had become a bit more like a 3D visual effects pipeline. The work was now created entirely in a 3D space within the computer. To some extent, this simplified the process because all the production assets (characters, props, environments, lighting, and effects) existed in the same space. On the other hand, it became more complicated because the directors began to want more complex visuals now that almost anything was possible. The process of creating the individual 3D assets was a longer and more technical process up front.

Creatively, the layout department started to see more opportunities to design complex action sequences from scratch directly in the layout department. Traditionally, most of the shot design was initiated in the story department during the storyboarding phase of production and then solidified in the layout department. However, because action shots are very time consuming to draw effectively in storyboards, we got the opportunity to explore action sequences in a more dynamic iterative process in the layout department.

I know that the award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, a frequent Coen Brothers collaborator, was brought onto How to Train Your Dragon to help give it more of live action feel. What did that push for a live action sensibility mean for you as a layout artist on the film?

I have long been a fan of Roger Deakins’ cinematography. When I heard he would be consulting on How to Train Your Dragon, I knew he was going to bring game-changing insights to the production. As predicted, it turned out that he had a big impact on the film. He advised the crew with insightful notes on story, lighting, and camera choreography. One of the key concepts I remember him keeping front and center was for the DreamWorks filmmakers to embrace shadows, and to not be afraid to let parts of the scene fall into total darkness to enrich the composition and storytelling through richer contrast. It was another career highlight to be able to learn from such an industry legend on that production.

The live action sensibility being incorporated into any film starts with the director’s concept of what the story needs in order to be the best world it can be. This means not all movies will use these live action methods. However, for How to Train your Dragon, I think the live action visual techniques we used were successful in enriching the world and helping the audience feel as though they were a part of the journey.

Could you explain how the motion capture camera systems you used on How to Train Your Dragon worked, and what effects they allowed you and the crew to achieve on the film?

The camera motion capture system was set up to track a real camera object in a physical studio space and translate that motion into animation keyframes on a virtual camera in the 3D environment, which exists only in the computer. The system consists of three parts: a grid of infrared tracking cameras on the ceiling, a camera rig with a screen and trackable markers, and a computer to manage the 3D scene and record the camera animation data. It allowed us to achieve real world camera movements in our animations. Creating that type of motion in the computer via keyframe animation is much more time consuming and can lack some of the organic nuance that a skilled camera operator naturally performs when filming a shot.

One other effect that we used the system for was to scale physical spaces larger or smaller to enable us to fly different distances than the physical space would normally allow. In that way, it was truly a beneficial tool since dragon flight was such a major part of the story.

Critics hailed the film for its swooping, soaring 3D sequences. Were there lots of layout challenges working on a project full of so many dynamic aerial scenes?

The action sequences in How to Train Your Dragon did indeed pose a unique set of challenges for the layout department. One such challenge was how to vary and control the sense of speed in flight. Humans perceive speed relative to the objects moving past them, so it was imperative that we set dressed spaces in the sky and on the ground that enabled the dragons to fly close to objects that would communicate the speeds the story required. One tool that was developed for this purpose was a system by which the rough layout artists could set dress specific cloud volumes via simple spheres that would then be replaced by rendered cloud volumes later in the pipeline. We also designed models of coastal rock formations with the flight sequences in mind.

Over a decade later, How to Train Your Dragon remains one of DreamWorks Animation’s most critically acclaimed films, and its highest grossing one as well after the Shrek series. Now that you’re a Dragon yourself, what is it like looking back on that achievement, and how do you impart lessons from your experience to young Dragons at DigiPen?

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work on How to Train Your Dragon as well as the many other films on which I had the honor to collaborate. The teams were amazing to work with every day and the projects were challenging and fulfilling. Part of what draws me to teaching today is my experience being a part of larger projects that millions of people can see and enjoy. That satisfying sense of accomplishment drives me to want to help the students at DigiPen develop the knowledge they need to reach the heights of their creative goals. I strive to be a small part of their creative journey and enjoy seeing their careers as they develop and flourish.