Dream Jobs You’ve Never Heard Of: Senior Animation Supervisor


Jay Grace hard at work on The Pirates.Jay Grace hard at work on The Pirates.

Jay Grace hard at work on The Pirates.

Jay Grace has a very cool job. As a Senior Animation Supervisor at Aardman Animations, he works on some of the best stop-motion animation films being produced today. In a world that has quickly become dominated by computer animated hits from Pixar and Disney — and even Aardman itself — it may seem quaint to be creating animated feature films using a technique that’s almost as old as film itself; akin to making a black & white feature films. Yet the appeal of stop motion pictures is undeniable.

Jay has worked on projects including Creature Comforts, Wallace & Gromit and also served as an episode director on Shaun the Sheep. His latest movie with Aardman, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, hits theatres later this week. I had a chance to ask Jay a few questions about stop animation, pirates, and raising the next generation of animators.

GeekDad: What led you to want to be an animator?

Grace: As a kid, I loved drawing and all things animation. I was a huge fan of Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, and Hanna Barbera and was always excited when a new Disney movie came out. I think it was really Star Wars that got me interested in stop-motion. I remember as a six-year-old boy, dragging my not so keen grandmother along to see it and being absolutely mesmerised by the special effects which were way beyond anything else I’d seen before and even at that age I really wanted to know how it was done. By the time Empire and Jedi came out there were some really great making of documentaries on TV which introduced me to the work of Phil Tippett and his contemporaries .

GeekDad: Did you like Jason and the Argonauts and other classic stop motion films?

Grace: Strangely I didn’t discover the great Ray Harryhausen until Clash of the Titans but needless to say, he was a major influence. I longed for a Super 8 camera but unfortunately that was quite a big deal in the 80′s and so I had to settle for flip books and comic strips but it was all useful and helped concrete my ambition to study Art.

GeekDad: How do you feel your university training prepared you?

Grace: I chose to study Graphic Design at The University of West England in Bristol because it had good animation facilities and of course it was the UK hub for stop-motion. Although there wasn’t a specific training program, we were really fortunate that many of the talented people working in the industry locally would visit and offer advice and guidance; but in reality I wasn’t really prepared. The films I made helped me up onto the bottom of the career ladder and its from that point that you really start to learn.

GeekDad: You’ve worked on a lot of interesting projects over the last few years — Creature Comforts, Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep. How does working on The Pirates! stack up against those?

Grace: I’ve been incredibly fortunate — I’ve loved pretty much every project I’ve been involved in during my career and as you can imagine every show is different and brings its own set of challenges. I’ve worked as a character lead animator on the previous films and I directed on Shaun the Sheep, but as Senior Supervising Animator on The Pirates! I had many new, and fulfilling experiences. I started out doing character development work at the end of 2007 — mainly animation tests with simple plasticine puppets I’d sculpted myself working from the early character designs to establish the look and animation style. Whilst the directors were developing the story, my role was to work with the model making team to build the puppets to be as versatile as possible since we only had a vague idea of what they might have to do in the film.

The Pirates! Band of MisfitsThe Pirates! Band of Misfits

Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant, center, with his bird, "Polly") and some of his band of misfits, including, (L-R) Pirate with Gout (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), Albino Pirate (voiced by Russell Tovey), Pirate with Scarf (voiced by Martin Freeman), and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (voiced by Ashley Jensen), in THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS, an animated film produced by Aardman Animation for Sony Pictures Animation.

GeekDad: How did you manage all of that?

Grace: This was a really fun part of the process — lots of crazy problem solving like what do we make the Pirate Captain’s beard out of. This may sound silly but we actually spent about a year trying different materials from plasticine, coiled up string covered in latex and maybe, I think, even real hair before we found a workable solution.

Even during the shoot my responsibilities were very different — Usually working as an animator your life is quite solitary once you have been given your brief and you’re shooting the shot. My job involved working with many different departments, not just animation, from the camera team when setting up shots, the set dressers and briefing the animators, all the time trying to realize Pete’s [Peter Lord] vision for the film. It was a tremendous learning experience!

GeekDad: With the rise of CGI animation, why does the more labour intensive stop-motion animation persist? Do you think there’s room for both in our cinemas?

Grace: I think that there’s definitely room for both mediums in our cinemas because I think audiences like variety. I do think that the market has become more difficult in recent years though because the CG guys have got so good at what they do. When we made Chicken Run, CG was really in its infancy and there were far fewer studios making high quality feature films whereas now every new CG seems to push the art further on. I do believe that this works in our favor though because the stop-motion films stand out as being really different. I think people like the fact that our world actually exist and that the characters they see performing on screen are puppets made out of real, physical materials. The other great thing is that there are a other studios producing high quality stop motion films too and so audiences are getting used to watching it again. Ultimately though it doesn’t matter which medium you choose to make your film if you have a great story to tell.

GeekDad: How do your kids feel about their dad creating the shows their friends are watching?

Grace: Ha! That’s a great question. They’re actually touchingly proud of what I do and are always excited to visit me at work. I think that now the film is finished and their friends have seen it and are talking about it they really enjoy pointing out that its “My Dad’s movie”. Although I do sometime think they give the impression that I made the film single handedly but, hey, who am I to shatter their illusions!

GeekDad: Do you bring home a lot of cool chotchkies for them?

Grace: Yes, I do get some cool stuff. They particularly like the kid size crew T-shirts and their bedroom walls are adorned with posters — A bit like a room sized portfolio of my work!

GeekDad: My son has an old iPhone he uses to create stop motion movies, and then edits them in iMovie. What advice would you give to any aspiring stop animators?

Grace: I think its great that todays technology makes trying things like stop-motion so accessible. I think that what you’re son is doing is a perfect way to develop his interest in stop-motion and film making and my advice would be to keep on doing it! I love the way that kids create stuff — they’re not handicapped by the adult inhibitions that stifle creativity they just play and enjoy the experience. This can then be developed into a career if the interest continues. I think watching movies and reading books can also be a great source.

GeekDad: Are your kids interested in filmmaking?

Grace My kids are like your son — they mess around with animation using iPhones and webcams and love to build Plasticine characters. Also its fun to let them loose with the iPhone and then watch their random, abstract movies told from a kids perspective — which is generally about 3ft off the ground! I’m not sure whether they’re heading for a career in film yet but its great to see them experiment with it.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits will be opening in U.S. theaters this Friday.

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