You might say that in his years working as a professional animator, Frank E. Abney III has been something of a good luck charm, but that would undersell his contributions to each project and personal growth. Abney has worked for the biggest studios in the industry on blockbuster hits and award-winning films such as Frozen (2013), Big Hero 6 (2014), Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016), and most recently Pixar's Coco (2017) and Incredibles 2 (2018). Abney has grown not only as an animator, but he's branched out into the role of executive producer on Matthew A. Cherry's short Hair Love and as writer and director of Canvas.
With the premiere of Incredibles 2 just around the corner, SYFY WIRE couldn't let the opportunity to interview Abney pass us by.
Were there any particular films or cartoons that made you decide animation was what you wanted to do as a career?
Yeah, there was a lot of films that had an influence on me, but it was The Lion King. I think that was the one that really pushed it over the edge for as far as wanting to do it [animation], mainly because that was the first one I was able to connect with on a more personal level since I lost my dad when I was 5. So like being able to connect with Simba, you know with what happened in the film— I'm speaking as if this is going to be a spoiler [laughs] — but yeah, like the events in the film and me losing my dad, I was able to connect with it on a deeper level.
I didn't really know it at the time, but I was watching it every day after school after we got it on VHS. I think as I got older I realized it, but I think at that point, I think from that point on afterward I knew that it was animation I wanted to do. I didn't know I wanted to be an animator exactly, but I knew I wanted to work in animation.
What led you to take the leap to becoming an animator?
I think it was the fact that I wanted to be an actor, and also I loved to draw. I don't know the moment where those two clicked, where I thought this was like the thing that married both of those together. I could combine performance with art, and you know that's what an animator does. I don't know when it was that I put those two together, but I know it was definitely the drawing aspect and also wanting to be an actor... possibly Tarzan (1999), somewhere around there. I remember falling in love with the motion and those emotional scenes.
I read on your blog that it was The Incredibles that inspired you to make the change from hand-drawn animation to CGI. What was it about CGI that was interesting to you?
I think what was more interesting was realizing these in a 3D form, and they just felt a little more real, but also getting those same animation principles into those characters. I think it just amped up the believability for me. Early on I had seen other CG films, but I think with that one, it was everything combined. It was the animation, the acting in the movie, but also the storytelling.
There were so many things in there that you don't really see in animation. It was more mature themes, like the parents arguing, Helen questioning if Bob is cheating, all of these mature themes in there, and it was just all that combined, but visually it was appearing more realistic while having those animation principles.
Because The Incredibles inspired you to make that change in animation, I would say it's serendipitous that you recently worked on Incredibles 2 — it's almost like everything came full circle for you.
I'm still a bit in shock with that, it hit me once... I mean there's the initial excitement of when I knew that I was going to be [working] on the film, but then when we finished it, at the last daily session where we're viewing all the shots that have come through, I think that's the moment where it finally hit me, "Oh my God, I just worked on Incredibles, this is insane." That was when it hit me. I still haven't seen the finished cut yet, so we have our wrap party a week before the public release, so I know when I see that, it's gonna hit even harder.
CG allows you do to do more than you can with hand-drawn, because you're limited in what you can do.
With CG you can definitely get more into the fine details and the polish when you're finishing a scene. You're getting into the nuances of the little muscle twitches in the face and all the little micro-movements of the [eye] lids and things like that. I think the problem-solving aspect appeals to me as well, wanting to dig into all of that stuff. But what you mentioned about hand-drawn animation being sucked into that, even though they're drawings I think that's why I love 2D even now. I still love 2D, and maybe even more now than when I was a kid. There's still this magic in bringing drawings to life.
Not only are you working on award-winning films for Pixar, you're currently creating your own animated short Canvas. What can you tell me about this project?
For Canvas, I came up with a version of the story about four years ago. It's changed since then a little bit, but the core of it is still there. It's about a grandfather, a painter, and he suffers a loss, and then he loses his inspiration to create. So through an unexpected event he's able to gain some kind of closure, which helps him be able to create again, also with the support of his family.
I love how much it means to me that specific features of the characters, like their hair texture and skin tone, are so realistic. How important is it to you that these characteristics appear as real as possible?
That was key, because I knew there's not a whole lot of black characters on the mainstream level, with the big feature films in animation. I knew I wanted to get representation out there for me and my family, so for the skin I worked with a texture artist, her name is Meg Higginbotham. I had a lot of references for her. I took photos off the internet, different people for each character, there's certain age groups I was targeting because I wanted the specificity in the skin. Also specificity for the characters themselves.
With the grandfather suffering a loss, I wanted him to be a little more de-saturated than the others, he kind of lost a little bit of his light in not being able to create. With the little girl, she's a little more saturated, more smooth and less textural detail because of her youth, and has a joyful kind of essence that kids represent.
For the hair, that was a big one, because we don't see that a lot in animation. I worked with Thales Simonato, again I had a bunch of references, and we were going back and forth to get the texture right. From the beginning, I knew it was going to be bit of a journey, but I knew it was going to be worth it in the end, and thankfully he was patient to work with me on trying to get it right. That was super important, just as important as the story. The story will always be number one, but having the representation of those characters was right up there with it.
When you were creating the hair, was there any particular animation that you used to give it the definition and detail it has?
It was all built into the animation software that we used, it's pretty much industry standard, called Maya, made by Autodesk. There's a tool within Maya called XGen, which is what we used for the hair. There's probably other plugins out there, but having a lower budget and, you know, just doing this... what's the word, guerrilla style, just pulling people I could find. I wanted to make sure things weren't too complicated, using too many different programs, so I wanted to do it all using Maya, and luckily it worked out.
For Canvas you wrote the script, and you're also animating and directing it. How do you balance all of that?
I'll most likely get some animation help, but because it's such a personal story I wanted to make it on my own. I actually pitched it when I first wrote it, and even though it wasn't chosen I pushed hard to get the rights back, and it took nearly a year to get them back. Once I got them back I went full in on it, and it's a lot to manage, but I know it's going to be a rewarding thing at the end to know that I completed something that meant so much to me.
The story itself means a lot to me because it's a combination of different things. Some things have been twisted, you know. It has little influence of my niece, I've been around her since she was born and seeing her grow up and how she's able to bring joy to people. Also thinking about my mom and when I lost my dad, how that may have affected her and just the power of art and how it's connected to our lives and how things that happen in our lives affect how we create.
We're constantly inspired by the world around us, and when there's loss that changes our art as well. We can always bounce back, and sometimes we always need that extra something or that source of inspiration to kind of bring back what was lost. It's a lot of work to take on all of these roles, but it's worth it to see it through.
Pixar's Incredibles 2 opens in theaters on June 15. To learn more about Frank's work you can visit his website.