Oscar winner Andrew R. Jones: “I thought that’s what a challenge sounds like!“

Andrew R. Jones is a big name in the world of computer animation. Two Oscars and an impressive list of nominations and awards decorate his portfolio as Animation Director.

Andrew R. Jones Animation Director Interview Filmpulse
Andrew R. Jones (2nd from left) wins an Oscar for “Jungle Book” | © Photo: SRF

His work has shaped Hollywood blockbusters such as Titanic (1997), Final Fantasy (2001), I Robot (2004), World War Z (2013), Godzilla (2014) and Avatar (2009): Andrew R. Jones. You can find the interview with Andrew R. Jones as a podcast here:

Listen to a recording of the interview:

Interview with Andrew R. Jones, Animation Director

Filmpuls:

Thank you for taking the time for this interview despite your current workload! Does it seem to you that you have times when you have time off and times when you are working on a project and are very busy?

Andrew R. Jones:

Right. It’s so as Animation Director. I’m looking forward to taking another day off, too!

Filmpuls:

When do you think you’ll get another long vacation?

Andrew R. Jones:

I expect to work on this project until spring 2019. After that the goal is to not work for a longer period of time. At least until the end of the year, maybe even a year and a half.

Filmpuls:

You are currently in London. What are you working on?

Andrew R. Jones:

As with The Jungle Book (2016), I am working for the Moving Picture Company: MPC again. But this time on a remake of “The Lion King”. We work more or less in the same team. But the new project is much bigger: “The Jungle Book” contained 600, maybe 700 scenes, with animals animated from A to Z. Lion King will contain 1’400, maybe 1’500 such animations! So we’re doing pretty much double the work.

Video ThumbnailThe Jungle Book - Andrew R. Jones, Animation Director Interview Filmpulse

«The Jungle Book» | © 2016 Walt Disney Pictures

Filmpuls:

Do you have more time accordingly?

Andrew R. Jones:

We have a little more time, but not proportionally. Well, of course that makes it a little more challenging. It’s a lot of fun, though. And it looks incredibly good! The quality of the animations was even enhanced by the demands of our director Jon Favreau. Jon wants completely photorealistic animations.

Filmpuls:

Your job as Animation Director, how can you imagine it exactly? Are you the link between director Jon Favreau and your VFX team?

Andrew R. Jones:

Yeah, by and large. As Animation Director I work closely with the Animation Supervisors at MPC. The supervisors lead their teams and then show me the animations, which I then present to Jon. So I also represent his interests and demands to the animation team. I know what Jon wants.

Filmpuls:

“The Jungle Book” was already photorealistic. You want “The Lion King” to be even better?

Andrew R. Jones:

Yeah, it’ll be even better! When you watch the film, you should feel like an animal documentary. Only in this case the animals talk and interact with each other like menachen (laughs).

Video ThumbnailAndrew R. Jones: The Lion King (2019)

«Lion King» Teaser Trailer | © 2019 Disney

We are working with a new technology which will still be incredible in three years time. And to be able to do that, you have to be at the forefront of technological development. Our team is made up of the most talented people in the world, who can also work extremely hard. What we do is like photorealistic painting. Every single pixel is drawn by one of my employees. Our whole team has to build something from the smallest detail, which is ultimately beautiful to look at!

Filmpuls:

Your computers, are they normal machines available on the market? Your animations, it sounds like they’re ultra-complex. With millions of details!

Andrew R. Jones:

Many home computers, or especially computers optimized for gaming, are just as fast as the machines we work on. But when it comes to rendering, then yes: For this we use only the best and fastest machines with the best graphics cards in the world. Not so long ago, we rendered maybe a few hundred thousand hairs on an animal. Today, we are in the millions. The computer must calculate each hair individually. Every single hair has its characteristics, how it behaves in light and wind. Sounds enormously complex. And yes, it is also enormously complex. It’s so easy to underestimate hair. And they are incredibly important for a photorealistic impression! The effect of light on hair follows mathematical and optical laws: Every hair is translucent. This is a value that Animation Director has to take into account. Not only for the hair of a single character, but for all of them. In addition, each of these millions of hairs has individual properties.

Filmpuls:

How do you proceed in dialogues? The animals speak with voices of actors. That too must somehow look so realistic that in the end a human expression of feeling is created?

Andrew R. Jones:

In this case we sometimes worked in a so-called black box, which you can imagine as a kind of room. There we let the actors interact with each other. Sometimes with, sometimes without script. This way, as Animation Director, you get information about basic things like eye contact. Usually you work with one actor first, then with another. Even though they end up as animals in the same scene with dialogue, in reality the actors never talk to each other and have never met!

Movie poster of the feature films by Andrew R. Jones (selection)

There are also Timon and Pumba in the remake of “The Lion King”. They are very important characters for the movie, which create a good atmosphere. The voices for this are from Billy Eichner (Timon) and Seth Rogen (Pumba). Here we made an exception and invited both of them together. Also, so that the two can improvise together. We gain valuable data from such performances. Usually the scriptwriter, the editor and the director are also present at these sessions.

Filmpuls:

Are you someone who enjoys being thrown in the proverbial deep end? It seems to me that in every new project you want to create something new as well?

Andrew R. Jones:

Yes, as a matter of fact, it is. That definitely sounds like me. I get bored easily when it’s the same job over and over again. Throughout my career I have always been looking for projects that challenged me. “The Jungle Book” for example, that was a real challenge as Animation Director!  At first it seemed that “The Lion King” would just become another “The Jungle Book”. But after talking to Jon and realizing how far he wanted to go, I knew that a lot of new things would come. It’s also interesting that we had a human actor in “The Jungle Book” (Neel Sethi in the role of Mowgli). This is called a ‘Live Action Movie’. In “The Lion King” this element is completely missing. There are only animated animals, which also carry the acting performance of the movie. This is a total challenge!

Filmpuls:

You graduated in design from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in the early 1990s. During your first year of study you obviously had an experience that sparked your interest in animation, right?

Andrew R. Jones:

That’s so. The Pixar film Luxo Jr. (1986) by John Lasseter was the trigger. You know, in the Pixar logo there’s this lamp that jumps into the typeface. This is Luxo. This is the film that showed many people the enormous potential that lies dormant in computer animation. One of my professors showed me the film. I remember this very moment. It was one of those moments of enlightenment: I knew this was my thing! Also because I was a rather average illustrator. Not bad, but not blessed with the talent to compete with the Disney people. So I started to teach myself more and more skills for animation. Day and night.

Video ThumbnailLuxo Jr. - Andrew R. Jones, Animation Director Interview

«Luxo Jr.» | © Pixar

Filmpuls:

What happened after that? There was still some time left before you graduated?

Andrew R. Jones:

I did my first internship at the university. There I could already work on a ride film project of SEGA. A ride film always consists of a crazy ride from the ego perspective. After work I always stayed in the office to learn more about animation for myself. I had a somewhat older colleague who also helped me to get to know the necessary software like Soft Image. Even after these lessons I stayed until late at night and learned how to animate. Nobody was there anymore (laughs). So I got better and better and could take more and more responsibility. In the end I was responsible for the whole camera movement.

Filmpuls:

Shortly after that you were able to start working with Digital Domain right away?

Andrew R. Jones:

I was a design student. Computer animation could not be studied at that time. So I went to my professor to inform him about my future plans and to ask him to let me realize a short film in this field as my final thesis. He gave me his support and I was able to focus on my project practically the whole last year. So I received full support from my university. That was a really great chance which I got. And it was worth it, because this short film convinced Digital Domain to hire me.

James Cameron, Regisseur (working with Andrew R. Jones)
James Cameron, Regisseur | © Foto: IMDB

Filmpuls:

And then James Cameron came up with “Titanic.” A huge movie in every sense of the word. And you were a big part of it. How was that?

Andrew R. Jones:

I worked at Digital Domain and had my own projects in the advertising film business. A great job. Because I was allowed to cover many different parts like rigging. So my skills had to be very diversified. At Titanic, for the first time, only my animation skills were in demand. But how did that happen? The supervisor of James Cameron contacted me one day. He let me know that they wanted me on board for the project. At first I wasn’t too enthusiastic. Because it was a pretty long period of time for which I had to commit myself. My job involved many repairs of motion capture sequences. Suddenly, however, I was told that there were a lot of problems in the sequences where the passengers and crew members fall overboard and hit the water or things. You couldn’t produce these sequences satisfactorily with either motion capturing or stunt capturing. As a result, we also had to completely animate many of the Titanic’s passengers falling into the sea. I thought to myself: sounds like a lot of fun … that sounds like a great challenge!

Filmpuls:

And the technology back then, it seems to have gone along with it. But how did you do it? It must have taken forever to render?

Andrew R. Jones:

It was much slower than today. But it was OK for then. A lot of the animated models were rather simpler in design. It was also a night scene, which simplified a lot of things.

Filmpuls:

If you look at these sequences today, what are you thinking?

Video ThumbnailTitanic, Animations by Andrew R. Jones

«Titanic» | © 1997 Twentieth Century Fox / Paramount Pictures

Andrew R. Jones:

“Titanic” was a real pleasure! Some sequences came out great. Some rather less. But the film compensates with other aspects. James Cameron is a master at inventing a story and then telling it perfectly. Especially combined with big action scenes. Storytelling is incredibly important to him and he does it incredibly well!

Filmpuls:

James Cameron wanted to work with you again on Avatar (2009). This movie totally surprised me, because suddenly my mind was not on the unprecedented technique, I just enjoyed the movie.

Andrew R. Jones:

Avatar was already a huge box as a movie. The film paved the way for so many elements. These include completely digital, photorealistic environments or digital characters that look human and perform an acting feat. The animals and creatures, which often had six legs, were enormously elaborate. Especially since we didn’t have a real motor model to orientate ourselves by. We had to be very inventive. James Cameron always said that we had to ‘pick up’ people in the first ten minutes. Then they are in the story. Besides, Avatar was proud for three hours. “The Jungle Book” is only half as long.

Video ThumbnailAvatar: Andrew R. Jones, Animation Director Interview

«Avatar» | © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox

Filmpuls:

What are you actually: first and foremost an artist or technician?

Andrew R. Jones:

I think that I am creative first and foremost. But at the same time I am very enthusiastic about technology. I love solving puzzles or playing with the Rubiks Cube. And this since I was a child. Finding solutions for problems, that’s what I like. But my work also has a lot to do with studying real life closely. When I watch a nature documentary, for example, I look very closely. So closely that when I work on my next animated shot, I can always draw on these fine detailed observations and incorporate them into my work.

Filmpuls:

If you then work on such a project for weeks or months for many hours a day, you reach a point where you say ‘done! ’? Even though the director might say ‘No, we’re not done yet’?

Andrew R. Jones:

After all, what we do is art. And no matter which artist you ask, the work is never really finished. When the deadline comes, you have to be able to let go. It’s been like this with every film I’ve been a part of.

Filmpuls:

Then it’s fine, there are deadlines! Otherwise you’d probably still be on “Titanic”.

Andrew R. Jones:

(Laughs) Yeah, something like that.

Filmpuls:

Let’s change the subject: You live in Switzerland with your family. Your wife is Swiss. Would you like to tell us something about it?

Andrew R. Jones:

It’s a bit tricky. I get paid from Los Angeles. If you ask the people at Disney, well for them I still live in Los Angeles (laughs). I’m still strongly connected to Hollywood. I work for the current project but in London and my family lives in Switzerland. I fly back every weekend to spend time with my family. At the beginning of the week I am back in London, in my apartment and at work. But when I finish the current project, my goal is already to enjoy the next spring and summer in Switzerland.

Filmpuls:

Do your two kids understand what your profession involves?

Andrew R. Jones:

Before I started my work on “The Jungle Book”, I spent a lot of time at home with my children. My son was six or seven at the time. He thought that all fathers were always at home with their families. Today he is nine years old, my daughter is twelve. I think now they already understand how the rabbit runs.

Filmpuls:

How do you manage to combine both worlds – professional and private?

Andrew R. Jones:

Sometimes it’s hard enough. But I also have a really super woman! We met in Hawaii in 2000 when she was working as a ‘Coordinator in Animation’. She knows how it feels to be up to your ears in a project. To be honest, I am lucky because we are a great team. We complement each other perfectly. And you know, as soon as I finish a project, I am at home and 100% with my family. Until it starts up again. In the end it’s the same for everyone in this business – whether you’re a director or an animation director.

Filmpuls:

Is it possible in your job to work from home or from a location of your choice? Today in the networked world, with livestreams, cloud sharing, Voice over IP?

Andrew R. Jones:

Funny you should ask. I’ve been very concerned with feasibility and the technology required to achieve it lately. Nowadays my job consists to a large extent of the ‘Animation Supervisors’ showing me their scenes and giving me feedback afterwards. For example, the way you and I are now talking on Skype – you in Switzerland, me in London – that works perfectly. As Animation Director I should be able to get the perfect insight into the animated material. In this interview I see your image very well, but with too much light coming in from outside. To do my job, I need to be able to view the material in perfect quality. But I think that technology will soon make this possible. The internet is getting faster and faster. So it could be that this could happen in the near future. That would be really cool.

Hans Zimmer, Komponist (Filme von Andrew R. Jones)
Hans Zimmer, Filmkomponist | © Foto: IMDB

Ah, there’s something I wanted to tell you: I went to Hans Zimmer’s studio in LA!

Filmpuls:

Oh! That sounds exciting!

Andrew R. Jones:

Hans Zimmer won the Oscar for the original “Lion King” (1994), back then. It was exciting to be in his studio. And to get an insight into the music.

Filmpuls:

Do you often work with people from other disciplines?

Andrew R. Jones:

Yes, in addition to directing, as Animation Director you will always have a dialogue with the editor of the film and the screenwriter. When it comes to the music, the correct answer is: Yes, sometimes there is an alignment. Since “The Lion King” is a lot of musical material and we then create our animations based on the rhythm and tension curves of the music, the music plays an extraordinary role in this project. That was the reason why I visited Hans Zimmer in Los Angeles. Jon Favreau (the director of “The Lion King”, editor’s note) knows that I want to work as a director myself in the future. Jon has this wonderful collaborative way of letting me see many of the steps in his work. For example, I accompany him to the editing room where my animations are edited.

Filmpuls:

Not only have you been able to participate in epoch-making projects in your career to date, you have also won more than 19 awards, including two Oscars. What do such honours mean to you?

Andrew R. Jones:

When I was just starting my career, I somehow had the dream of one day winning the Oscar. And when it first happened, it was indescribable! It was a milestone that I had reached as Animation Director.

The bottom line is that an Oscar is like a soccer cup. But I don’t think about winning two Oscars very much!
Andrew R. Jones

Sometimes people see my Oscars and then they go crazy. But I think at this point, these awards mean a lot more to other people than I do as Animation Director. Sure, it says a lot that I am an Oscar winner. Hmm. You know, the effect the Oscar statues have is funny to watch, when you show the Oscar statues to people who have never been able to hold one in their hands. But it’s a little surreal and hopefully it hasn’t negatively affected my ego. But: My wife would tell me that immediately! (laughs).

Filmpuls:

Are you occasionally on the lookout for new talent?

Andrew R. Jones:

Good question! I’m always on the lookout for new talent. When we started the current project, I needed really talented and efficient VFX artists. That’s when I started looking around the world. That’s why I called my friends at WETA (including Lord of the Rings and King Kong) in New Zealand and asked them about it. WETA then also recommended someone to me. They said: “If you can get that, that would be fantastic! I called this person. She was in Vancouver and she was thrilled that I was getting in touch with her. Today we still work together and this person is incredibly good. It’s also funny when you suddenly find someone again who is as enthusiastic and motivated as I was back then: people who, despite their incredibly high level, are still learning and learning and learning and learning … You know, at this level you can’t teach an animator anything about animation anymore! That’s why I usually talk about the artistic, acting side of a scene, instead of how we animate something and so on. Sure: there are always some technical problems that you have to address. But real professionals see and know about these challenges themselves, address them themselves and solve the problems on their own. That is why they are professionals.

Filmpuls:

Andy, a big thank you for your time and for this interview and the interesting insights into your work as Animation Director!

Background information on this interview

As spectacular as his contributions as animation director to many blockbusters may be, Andy has a ‘down to earth’ effect as a person. For this interview I spoke to him via Skype about various aspects and challenges of his unique career.

Andrew R. Jones was born in San Francisco in 1972. His career has quickly taken him to unexpected heights: Only 25 years old, he was made Animation Director by director James Cameron for his mega blockbuster “Titanic”. Nevertheless, Andrew R. Jones has kept both feet on the ground. Andy is a family man, whose children slowly but surely understand that their father is always hyperbusy during certain periods of time – but conversely can spend an above-average amount of time with his family after the end of a project.

Andy lives with his family in Switzerland, but is currently working in London on the remake of “The Lion King”. He can also be found regularly in LA, where he has numerous private and professional contacts. Andrew R. Jones is someone who appears pleasantly unspectacular and modest. He had fun and was motivated when I asked him for an interview. Even though his working days are currently very long and intense, Andrew R. Jones took time for me in a good mood.

In addition to this interview with Andrew R. Jones, you will find further, exclusive and personal insights into professional filmmaking at Filmpulse thanks to the worldwide network of our editorial team:

Neil Raouf
About Neil Raouf 14 Articles
Neil (32) is a sound designer/composer. He lives with his family near Zurich. Contact: neil@mera.film

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