Chris Ohlgren never imagined a career in animation. After studying business and Japanese in college, he was ready to try his hand at a job in Tokyo—until the Japanese economy crashed in 1991. Fortunately, he had already had a summer internship at an animation studio that he then turned into a full-time job. Now with more than two decades in the industry, Ohlgren talks about how far things have come; life on the job at HouseSpecial in Portland, Oregon; and what he likes about both stop-motion and computer animation.
Chris Ohlgren, Animator, HouseSpecial: I think a lot of people that I talk to think that I just play all day, every day, and we just kind of goof around and get to do whatever we want. My niece came for a job shadow one day, and she was like, “You guys aren’t having as much fun as I thought you would be having.”
When I’m doing computer animation, almost every job starts with what we call dailies. And we all gather in one of the editorial suites, and we review the animation that was done the day before. We get notes, and we discuss the performance with the director. We go over any notes that we’ve gotten from the clients. We discuss what the deadlines are for that day, and after that, we all head out to our workstations and try and address all the notes that we’ve gotten. I think a lot of people don’t realize how many people are involved and what a team process it is.
In stop motion, you move it a little bit, take a picture, move it a little bit, take a picture. And so everything that we do is straight ahead. You start at the beginning and then you build the entire performance. It all happens at once. It’s like performance in superslow motion, whereas in the computer, it’s more like drawn animation. You can tackle it in all different ways, but you’ll work on maybe the body, and then you can work on the hands and then you can work on different parts of the scene and then use the tools to speed things up, slow things down. You can add things, take things away. And it’s a much more evolutionary process of the whole scene rather than something that starts and is completed one step at a time as it moves forward.
The thing that I love about stop motion is that you’re doing an entire performance at once. You’re moving every aspect of the puppet, and you’re building the performance from the beginning forward. The thing that I love about computer animation is that you can copy and paste. You can hit the undo button, which is fantastic.
We used to have a physical library. And we still have a bit of a library now, but that used to be our go-to. We would run down, and you’d look at a book on anatomy, or you would look to figure out how to build a character, or you would look at a book on a certain type of artistry or illustration or technique as inspiration. All that is just available on the Internet now, which has been fantastic.
I was doing a shot recently, and I was animating along, and then I had a rooster that had to crow, and I wasn’t quite sure how to break it down. While I working, I just pulled up YouTube, typed in “rooster crow,” a video popped up. I scrubbed through it a couple of times: “Oh, that’s how it works,” close it and just go right back to work.
The favorite part of my job is just creating a performance out of nothing. Both in the computer and stop motion, when we start, we typically have to build everything. Nothing in the world that we create exists. We have to make the landscape, the props, the characters. We have to design how they move and create all the tools in order to make them perform, and then we have to texture, lighting, create that realistic look. You take all that, you move it around, and then when you’re done, you have a performance: You create what looks like a living, breathing, emotional being out of nothing, which is what I love about it.
My name is Chris Ohlgren, and I am an animator at HouseSpecial, an animation studio in Portland, Oregon.