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WORKING HOLLYWOOD

Animator James Baxter puts imagination in motion

Among his credits: 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'The Lion King' and 'Kung Fu Panda.'

February 22, 2009|Cristy Lytal

Soon after his freshman year at what was then the West Surrey College of Art and Design, James Baxter abandoned his studies to frame someone for murder. Luckily, that someone was Roger Rabbit.

"It was the sort of thing that doesn't come up very often, movies like that in London," says Baxter of his first feature, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." "Me and just a bunch of friends ran over to the studio and said, 'Please look at our student films!' They gave us a job doing in-betweens. There are 24 frames in every second, so the animator might only want to do every fourth frame and have an assistant or an in-betweener fill in the rest of them."

Baxter then embarked for the States to work for Disney, where he animated Belle in 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" and Rafiki in 1994's "The Lion King." In 1996, he transferred to DreamWorks Animation to work on "The Prince of Egypt" and later returned to Disney to create the animated sequences in 2007's "Enchanted."

When the opportunity arose to animate the opening dream sequence of the Oscar-nominated "Kung Fu Panda," Baxter -- who is working full time at DreamWorks on "How to Train Your Dragon" -- leapt at the chance to work in an anime-influenced style.

"I love doing the Disney stuff," he says, "but it was nice to show that I could do other things, to get something that was stylistically a lot more adventurous and contemporary."

Paws and effects: For the simpler sequences in the "Kung Fu Panda" opening, Baxter would create a single drawing by hand and then animate it using a special-effects compositing program. "We really wanted it to flow into the main movie, which is obviously done in CG," he explains. "So I wanted to use computers to give it that really slick flavor. We used primarily After Effects, which is an Adobe software. It's a pretty powerful tool, and you can take a single image and squash it and bend it . . . and do all sorts of things in quite a controlled way."

Pencil case: When it came time to render complicated kung fu spins, Baxter shut down his computer and broke out his trusty HP pencil. "Computers have a hard time just looking at a flat picture and turning it around dimensionally," he explains. "[It looks] like a cardboard cutout. So things which are really moving dimensionally I would animate in the traditional manner.

"We use animation paper, which is the same kind of paper they've used since 'Snow White.' It's just slightly see-through, so you can shine the light through it, and you can see all the drawings in sequence that you're working on. You stack them up, and they've all got peg holes in them so you can put them on these pegs to register them to each other every time. It's basically like making a flip book, page by page."

Drawing room: As the only animator on the sequence, Baxter pushed his speed-sketching skills to the max. "So I could get going really fast, I would draw my drawings slightly rough, and then I would have a cleanup person come along and put a new sheet of paper over and do the final clean drawing over the top," he says. "So I had a couple of cleanup artists, a couple of painters who would do the color, a couple of compositors who would go in and put all the layers together with the backgrounds and camera moves and all that kind of stuff. There were about 10 of us altogether."

Eye for detail: While Baxter says the "Kung Fu Panda" opening sequence doesn't hold any hidden messages or single-frame gags, he hasn't been above such antics in the past. "Some people try to put hidden words, or they draw things that you can only see for a frame or stuff like that," he says.

"I tend to shy away from that, but I do like to try and put in little things from people I know. We put some hidden stuff in 'Enchanted' on purpose. For people that would frame through on the DVD, little bits of Disney memorabilia would crop up in the backgrounds, and it's all over that thing. But that was purely for fans that would want to take it apart."

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