Dave Hardin has is credited on some of Hollywood’s hottest animated features. But it’s not awards or industry recognition that drives his career; it’s the power he has to move audiences through his work on the screen.
“I love watching people react to movies I’ve worked on—seeing them laugh or get emotional during shots that I animated; that really is the biggest payoff,” said Hardin, a senior animator at Dreamworks in Universal City, California. “Once on flight back to Michigan, a woman and her daughter were watching ‘Open Season’ on a DVD player next to me. I got so excited because when I told the mom that I animated on that movie, she smiled and said that it was her daughter’s favorite film. She said that she’s watched it over 100 times!
“I tend to be critical of my work. I always watch my shots and say, ‘Oh, I could have pushed that expression more’ or ‘I could have made that emotional moment last longer.’ I think that is what makes a good animator—being able to critique your own work and know the difference between something that looks good and bad. Otherwise you'll never improve. You have to be hard on yourself and want to impress people.”
As a senior animator, Hardin’s job is to add movement to characters that have already been created, modeled and rigged by different groups of artists and designers.
“What we get as animators are more like three-dimensional puppets,” Hardin explained. “The puppets have all these controls on them—on their hands, feet, head, body, hips, fingers, eyelids and so on. It is our job to take the static puppets and bring them to life. We take the controls and pose the character in numerous positions, depending on what the shot calls for, and then set key frames for every time a body part is moving. If a character waves his hand, we would have to act out how the character would do this. Would it be a fast, happy wave? Or a slow, sad wave?
“Then we set our poses. We can change our timing of the waving on the timeline of the 3D program to speed up or slow down the motion. Sometimes a shot that lasts only a few seconds can take a month to animate; depending on how many characters there are in the shots, and the type of motion or emotion the character is portraying.”
Hardin’s first major assignment in the film industry was to bring the exuberant characters to life in Sony Picture Imageworks’ “Open Season.” Since then, he has worked on “Surf’s Up,” “I am Legend,” “Speed Racer,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Puss in Boots,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Rise of the Guardians,” “The Croods,” “Turbo” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” He is currently working on “Kung Fu Panda 3” and “Zootopia.” Both are expected to release in 2016.
“All of the animated movies I’ve worked on so far have been completely different from each other,” said Hardin. “‘Open Season’ was very cartoony with exaggerated squash/stretch. ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ had a UPA style animation to it, very rubbery arms and static poses held throughout a shot. If a character walked across the room, the feet and legs might be the only things moving, while the upper body never changed position. ‘I am Legend,’ ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Speed Racer’ were all more based in a realistic style of animation, where gravity and weight wasn't exaggerated so it would look believable when composited next to the live action actors.”
Although Hardin enjoyed working on each of the films, ‘Surf’s Up’ is the one that meant the most to him. It allowed him to push his creativity and earned him an Annie nomination, one of the highest honors presented to an animator, for best animation in a feature film.
“I loved the style of animation that we did on ‘Surf's Up,’” he explained. “It really is an animator’s dream to be able to animate a documentary-like animated feature because it is all about coming up with interesting acting choices. Most of the time animation relies on crazy, zany shots to entertain audiences, but I prefer the subtle acting moments because that is what makes the characters seem like they actually exist, like they have a soul. If you can nail those emotional shots throughout an animated film, people with dispend their belief and get emotionally attached to a character. People shed tears for scenes in animated movies, even though it might just be over a talking penguin. They feel that he/she is really alive and has feelings.
“The (Annie) award ended up going to Pixar for ‘Ratatouille,’ but I didn't mind because I was so excited to even be considered for such a prestigious award. That nomination helped jumpstart my career! Shortly after I was nominated, I started getting calls from Dreamworks and Pixar to come over for interviews.
“I flew up to San Francisco and interviewed at Pixar. They offered me a job animating on ‘Toy Story 3,’ while Dreamworks offered me a job working on ‘Kung Fu Panda 2.’ It was a tough decision because I really loved both of those movies and companies. I ended up going over to Dreamworks because it made more sense financially. I also really loved that Dreamworks was down here in southern California.”
Hardin’s eyes were first opened to the world of 3D art during a student presentation at Grosse Pointe North. With the goal of eventually creating special effects for films, he applied to the College for Creative Studies after graduation. As one of his first assignments in college, Hardin had to animate a very simple object within a short story.
“I was hooked after that,” said Hardin. “By animating this very simple object, I was able to see that it had a personality and people could relate to it. Things just snowballed soon after. I was doing walk cycles, lip sync and short films with other classmates. I am really glad that I am doing character animation now because the art of bringing something to life is very rewarding.”
The assignments and professional experience Hardin gained during his undergraduate degree at CCS taught him technical skills and discipline. But it was the relationships he formed with instructors and classmates that gave Hardin the confidence and determination to pursue a career in the field of animation.
“I had some great mentors while at CCS."
“I will always respect Larry Larson, who taught me more than just the basics and helped me push my animation more than I ever would have on my own, and Dennis Summers who motivated me to experiment with different approaches. I didn't go to college to get a degree; I went to get the motivation and inspiration to pursue this career.”