Story structure, character development and creating emotion in animation form the backbone of a compelling and successful film.
ALL it takes is minutes and you will notice that Kyle Balda is as animated as his characters.
Personable and insightful, the internationally acclaimed animator and film director, best known for co-directing animated films such as the upcoming Despicable Me 3, Minions (2015) and The Lorax (2012) was in Kuala Lumpur recently to conduct a master class in film directing.
The two-day class, organised by The One Academy and the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas), attracted local film directors, animators, practitioners and students.
The first day saw students interacting with Balda, 46, and querying him about filmmaking and the movie industry.
Participants threw him all sorts of questions, among which were: “What is the use of animation?” and “What is the mathematical model for measuring fan excitement?”
One student asked whether it was possible to fully convert imagination into animation, to which Balda replied: “When you imagine something, it’s always perfect in your head. And that’s the safest place for an idea to stay. But if you keep it there, you will never share it with anybody else.”
“So, you have to accept the fact that once you create that idea, it is going to be different. It’s going to change shape and form.”
Another queried whether it is more difficult for Asians to break into Hollywood.
“I don’t think there is an issue for Asians to work on a Hollywood film,” answered the American.
“What makes it different is that Asians grew up watching different TV shows, films and media from American kids. You have a wealth of experience to pull from which Americans don’t have,” he explained.
“I would not think of that, as an obstacle but an asset, because we don’t want clichés. So, it brings a sense of freshness,” said Balda.
Day Two involved intensive lectures on story structure, character development and creating emotion in animation. Here, Balda stressed that these three aspects form the backbone of a compelling and successful film.
“Story provides a structure that helps us grasp the narrative, character allows us to relate to the story, while emotion persuades us to engage with the characters.”
Character design is really important, he said. Animators build the visual performance, and then there is the dialogue. Citing Despicable Me as an example, he said the performance by the voice actors gives it a lot of texture.
“We relied on Steve Carell to bring out Gru’s personality, as he was channelling the character. The voice actors are also like the custodians of the character and would give input like, ‘I don’t think the character would do that’,” he said.
Balda also delved into acting, staging and editing, complementary aspects that help create memorable and emotionally entertaining screen moments that will sweep the audience away.
And Balda knows more than a thing or two about creating blockbusters. He has spent over 20 years working with some of the world’s top animation studios, such as Industrial Light & Magic, Weta Digital, Pixar, and is currently with Illumination Entertainment.
Throughout the years, he has played a role in many box-office hits, such as Despicable Me, Jumanji, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Toy Story 2 and The Mask. Despicable Me 3, which Balda co-directed, will be released in June.
“I’ve been a huge fan of animation since I was a kid, so it’s something that I love to talk about and share. And if it inspires people, that’s a plus point,” he said.
And inspire he did.
Rayyaan Ansary, 20, appreciated Balda’s intimate knowledge about animation. The American, who is studying digital animation at The One Academy, added that Balda provided a lot of insight, so she now has an idea of what to expect when she steps into the industry.
Fellow animation student, Jacob Lim, 23, was keen to find out how Balda went from animation to directing. “I would like to join a studio, and go into movies, because it’s better to see your works on the big screen,” said Li, who likes animating because he gets to express different types of characters.
Elika Towhidkhah, 29, was living her dream when she met Balda.
“It has always been my childhood dream to meet the people behind wonderful animations,” said the Iranian, who is studying illustration at The One Academy.
Balda, who has always wanted to be an animator, is also living his dream. To be a good animator, one has to be a good observer of life, observing what is around you, he advised.
“I was interested in animation because of drawing. Coming home from a Disney film, I would draw what I had seen.”
He added that animators have to be interested in everything because they are going to tell stories and will never know where ideas are going to come from.
“It is such a multi-disciplinary art form because you have to be an actor and a designer. You have to know about what makes a pose or graphic shape appealing,” he said.
“Now, trying to tell fresh stories, avoiding clichés, bringing something entertaining and creating that sense of engagement from the audience are all challenges of animation,” he said.
“As a director, trying to sustain that for 85 minutes is really difficult.”
Over the decades, that has become harder because “we are committed to bringing the audience something new. That means you have less options in what you can explore so you have to push the creative limits to see what kind of new material you can bring into it.”
And it is even more difficult with a series. “The interesting thing about working on a series of films is that you already know who the characters are, which helps in the writing and acting process.
“But the challenge is to not revisit things you have done in the past. So in that respect, creating a series is harder than doing an original film because you are trying to bring some freshness to it.”
But the reward comes when the audience has an emotional response to a performance you did, just like an actor would on stage, he added.