Meet the Sheridan alumni behind Zootopia’s lovable critters

BY RACHEL LEE-THOMAS

The Sheridan Sun recently got a peek behind the animation on Disney’s latest movie Zootopia from alumni David Stodolny, a character animator, and Mitchell Counsell, a character technical director. The pair  shared their experiences of learning at Sheridan and working at Disney.

Originally from Brampton, 36-year-old Stodolny graduated from Sheridan in the Animation program and has been with Disney for six months. Zootopia is his first film at Disney animation.

David Stodolny worked on Zootopia.
David Stodolny worked on Zootopia.

“Any self-taught artist can teach themselves things and learn from books, but they can only learn so much on their own,” said Stodolny. “At college you’re surrounded by people interested in the same thing and having staff and teachers there to teach proper structure in the studio.”

Stodolny explained that since he was 12 he has always known that he wanted to go into animation. Making flip-books as a child, he was interested in movement and the way bodies moved.

“My mom told me I’d be watching cats and dogs in the streets and watching how their legs move or their heads bob,” Stodolny said. “I would take that and try to add it to my animation and artwork.”

After a trip to Trafalgar Campus with his father, Stodolny says seeing the Disney-style artwork displayed at Sheridan made him realize he wanted to go there.

“My dream was to animate for Disney,” Stodolny said. “I could see that if I went there I would be geared towards the career I wanted.”

A few months after graduating, Stodolny got his first job in the animation industry doing TV shows in Toronto.

Stodolny explained that 2D animation was becoming less popular and decided to learn Computer Graphics on the job.

“Based on my 2D reel that I put together in college, they saw that I could work with a character and make them move,” Stodolny said. “CG is just a tool that once you understand movement, it’s just about learning to do it on the computer.”

Stodonly got on Zootopia in the early stages as characters in the story were still being developed.

“I am very happy to be at Disney and hopefully I will be here for the long haul.” he said.

While Stodolny reached his childhood dreams by working on Zootopia — another Sheridan graduate found himself working at Disney even though that wasn’t always his plan.

Originally from Ottawa, character technical director Mitchell Counsell started his post-secondary schooling at Carleton in Bachelor of Architectural Design. Upon graduating he realized he wasn’t quite ready for a masters, and took time to develop his skills.

Headshot of Mitchell Counsell
Zootopia‘s character technical director Mitchell Counsell.

“I thought why not teach myself the skills that filmmakers use,” said Counsell. “I thought I would then be able to make amazing architecture and buildings.”

Counsell ended up getting accepted at Sheridan for Computer Animation and fell in love with the culture and industry.

“I ended up not making films that had to do with architecture,” Counsell said. “Instead, I was making little creatures and made a short film entirely on my own.”

All of the skills that Counsell gained that led him to work at Disney he learned in the eight-month immersive program.

Going from zero CG and animation skills to completing an individual short film, he graduated from Sheridan’s Computer Animation program in 2011, followed by the Computer Animation-Digital Visual Effects program in 2013.

After working on other series such as Madhatter Chronicles and Thomas the Tank Engine with Arc, Counsell then made his way to Disney having worked on the film Big Hero 6 in 2013.

“I played two main stages in Zootopia, specializing in simulation set up at the beginning of production,” said Counsell. “I was researching ways to simulate flesh on some of the bigger characters such as the rhino and elephant to make them feel massive.”

Counsell explained that there is an entire department of character technical directors who are responsible for rigging characters, tailoring clothing and coming up with muscle and simulated flesh rigs.

The character technical directors are responsible for the different animals’ hair and fur, bringing it to life through animation such as movement in wind. As well as complex animation on clothing there are also several different species that each have unique looks and movement.

“[In one scene] there is this little fox in an elephant costume and I played a huge part in tailoring it and getting it to work,” said Counsell. “That was really fun working with the art department to get that working in the pre-production stages.”

Counsell explained that in technical animation, his work with flesh simulations was prototyped for a new work-flow for one of the savage characters.

“We got together with some folks from Industrial Light and Magic and discussed how they simulated the Hulk in The Avengers,” said Counsell. “We put a lot of R and D (research and design) into that character and my work in spearheading that got me a title as muscle lead so I got a lead credit.”

After seeing Zootopia for the first time, Counsell described how amazing it was to see the whole process come together.


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“Once you actually see what it’s become and see it all put together instead of little isolated parts, it’s just really staggering and humbling,” said Counsell. “You get to take part in this thing that is so much more than you could ever do yourself.”

Happy to be working with Disney, Stodolny and Counsell agree that it is difficult to work on independent art and projects when busy at Disney, especially during crunch time.

“Every artist has their stories that they want to tell, but overall I am happy to be at Disney and hope to be there for the long haul,” said Stodolny. “Hopefully there will be opportunities through Disney where I’ll get to explore my own ideas and create as well.”

Counsell explained that since he spent his time working with CG animation, he prefers to stray from that when making personal arts, exploring different mediums such as sewing and 3D printing.

“You always have to find a way to express yourself and when you’re always performing a certain art form you want to use your free time to explore other medias.”

Stodolny and Counsell offered their advice to aspiring artists who have similar dreams in the animation industry. They advise on continuing to focus on your work and not to get discouraged by the amount of competition. It’s important to understand that animation is a lot of work, and to keep in mind that there is always room for improvement.

“Even if an animator has been working for over 10 years, there is still something to be learned every shot,” expressed Stodolny. “Don’t ever think that you know everything because in this job everything you do is part of learning.”

Counsell encouraged students not to get discouraged if they don’t hear back right away or don’t immediately get a job with a big production company.

“Sometimes when you’re at a big production house you’re so busy with specializing,” said Counsell. “If you want to be your own director and do everything yourself that’s very hard to do at a big studio.”

Counsell explained that during the times that you are looking for that dream job, that’s the time to explore what you can really do with the art form and do well on your stuff until you get noticed.

Zootopia, which opened earlier this month, is currently the No. 1 animated film at the box office, grossing $355.9 million globally.

 

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