Creators Society Animation Podcast

16. Rex Grignon - Animation at PDI, Pixar & DreamWorks, Founder of Nimble Collective

February 03, 2022 Creators Society Season 2
16. Rex Grignon - Animation at PDI, Pixar & DreamWorks, Founder of Nimble Collective
Creators Society Animation Podcast
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Creators Society Animation Podcast
16. Rex Grignon - Animation at PDI, Pixar & DreamWorks, Founder of Nimble Collective
Feb 03, 2022 Season 2
Creators Society

Rex was there in the early days of CG, attending NYIT and joining PDI and working with Jim Henson, before animating on Toy Story and then joining DreamWorks. He was head of animation on all three Madagascar films, won a Sci-Tech Oscar for leading the design of DreamWorks animation software Premo. He then went on to found  Nimble Collective, along  with Scott LaFleur, Jason Schleifer and Bruce Wilson, a cloud based solution for animation production, which was acquired by Amazon in 2019.

I know you'll love this conversation about Rex's career.
Please remember to like, rate and comment on your favourite podcasting platform and share the episode on social media.

Show Notes:
Referenced clip of Rex with Jim Henson - Click Here
Nimble Collective - Now Amazon Nimble Studio - Click Here


If you have any comments or suggestions please get in touch.
If you're loving the podcast, please share with friends and colleagues.

Host & Producer: Michael Wakelam (@mikewakelam)
Executive Producer: Eric M. Miller
Music by: Rich Dickerson (www.richdickerson.com)
Audio Engineering: Mike Rocha

The Creators Society is a professional society for all disciplines of the animation industry. Our mission is to bring the animation community together to build strong relationships, provide education, and form a better understanding of the different roles we all play in creating animated stories. We celebrate and promote the love of animation, and all the talented Creators who breathe life and imagination into their work.
Learn more about the Creators Society, and how to become a member at
creatorssociety.net

Show Notes Transcript

Rex was there in the early days of CG, attending NYIT and joining PDI and working with Jim Henson, before animating on Toy Story and then joining DreamWorks. He was head of animation on all three Madagascar films, won a Sci-Tech Oscar for leading the design of DreamWorks animation software Premo. He then went on to found  Nimble Collective, along  with Scott LaFleur, Jason Schleifer and Bruce Wilson, a cloud based solution for animation production, which was acquired by Amazon in 2019.

I know you'll love this conversation about Rex's career.
Please remember to like, rate and comment on your favourite podcasting platform and share the episode on social media.

Show Notes:
Referenced clip of Rex with Jim Henson - Click Here
Nimble Collective - Now Amazon Nimble Studio - Click Here


If you have any comments or suggestions please get in touch.
If you're loving the podcast, please share with friends and colleagues.

Host & Producer: Michael Wakelam (@mikewakelam)
Executive Producer: Eric M. Miller
Music by: Rich Dickerson (www.richdickerson.com)
Audio Engineering: Mike Rocha

The Creators Society is a professional society for all disciplines of the animation industry. Our mission is to bring the animation community together to build strong relationships, provide education, and form a better understanding of the different roles we all play in creating animated stories. We celebrate and promote the love of animation, and all the talented Creators who breathe life and imagination into their work.
Learn more about the Creators Society, and how to become a member at
creatorssociety.net

Rex Grignon:

And I got a call from Jeffrey [Katzenberg] basically and he said, "Hey Rex, we just bought this company called PDI, could you come back and finish what you started with the character group?"

Michael Wakelam:

Hello, and welcome back to the Creators Society Animation Podcast. I'm Michael Wakelam. If this is your first time tuning in, I know you'll enjoy jumping back into some of our past episodes and hearing from talented people across the industry. And you're also in for a treat today. This first episode of [20]22 was actually recorded at the end of last year. It's a conversation with Rex grunion, a genuine talent with a long list of accomplishments. So it was actually really hard to get through everything and maybe needed another conversation in the future like so many of our guests. He was there during PDI's early days, worked with Jim Henson, was an animator on Toy Story and head of animation at DreamWorks. Recently, he launched Nimble Collective allowing studios around the world to work in the cloud. And in his spare time, he's still playing bass in his band. If you're enjoying the podcast, please share it. And if you can do us a favour and rate like or comment on your podcast platform, that would be amazing. We've been a little sporadic of late and I'd love to get these out every week. But I write and develop and run a small studio myself and ultimately, they all interfere with this side project. But we have some more great guests coming up soon. But now let's jump into that conversation with Rex Grignon. Rex, thanks for taking the time to do this. And I know you've got a full schedule, so I appreciate- appreciate your time.

Rex Grignon:

Great honour to be here.

Michael Wakelam:

Now your accomplishments are many and I want to get through as much as I can in the time we have, but as I always do, I want to hit rewind, and talk about how you started out down this creative road. And I think from my research, it looks like you started as a kind of Lego stop motion kid. Is that right?

Rex Grignon:

That's exactly right. Yeah, I was all actually, I was all ready to be a civil engineer. And I was going through my schooling with lots of maths and sciences. And then at one point, my older brother, Tom had a little Super Eight camera, our family camera, and he showed me that we had this little single frame advance. And as soon as I saw that, and he was like, you could just take a coin and move it across the table and it looks like it moves. And I was just that was it. I was hooked. And so I started going well, if you could take a coin, you could take a Lego. And if you could take one Lego, you could take two and if you could take two, you could take 20. And if you could take- build, you could connect drawings with Legos. And you could have- so to my mind just started going, wow, there's a whole bunch of stuff you could do here.

Michael Wakelam:

What age was that?

Rex Grignon:

That was I don't know, probably wasn't super young, maybe 10 or 12, something like that. I was making little films, little live action films with my friends. But the animation I think was- came a little bit later. And that was where I was like, oh my god, this is magical. And then I started doing pixelation with people. You know, I don't know if you know Norman McLaren, I worked at a library at the time and I was I was helping to maintain the Film Library. So you can rent 16 millimetre films and a projector. And I get these films of Norman McLaren from the National Film Board of Canada. And he did a famous film called Neighbours, where he took stop motion but of people so they'd pose for each frame and then you take a frame, but he had them flying. And I was like, that is the coolest thing I've ever seen. So you know, his actors would jump up and he'd snap-

Michael Wakelam:

Take a photo.

Rex Grignon:

Yeah. As soon as I saw that, I was like, Oh my god. So my friend Peter and I did a short film where he was flying all around my house and doing all kinds of silly stop motion stuff anyway.

Michael Wakelam:

Well, I mean, you know, obviously, you had that storytelling thing in there if you were doing films from an early age, but you know, I guess a lot of kids do stop motion with Lego. Where did it go from there to get you, you know, really down that path that that's what you wanted to do as a career?

Rex Grignon:

Yeah, career, career took quite a while for me. I was a very, very late bloomer. I didn't take art through high school or anything. I just sort of dabbled on my own and, and never really learned how to draw or paint or, my brother did a lot, but he's a designer. But I then got to that point of, you know, applying for universities and I applied to, you know, some engineering schools. And then I was like, I don't know if I really want to be an engineer. And I in high school, I'd done a film class. There was an English teacher who'd done a film class and it was just so awesome making a film that we made, and I did a little one of his assignments I did with animation, just you know, a little more structured than what I'd been doing at home. And I was like, I really liked this. This is just like, I just put- would put hours into it. So when I got to the point of deciding at university, I decided to go into film production. So I went to Queen's University in Canada, in Kingston for film production, and I got there and I was surrounded by all these it- was live action, these film people, you know, cables and cameras, and you're talking about cinematography. And it was, and we were watching films every day in the theatre. And it was just so exciting. I was like, yeah, forget engineering, this is, this is my life. And I went to, yeah, we went to a TV studio. And I saw, I saw the producing of a little local show, but just seeing all the, you know, all the people with headphones on in the control room and, and they were, I was like, I didn't care what was going on on the stage. I was just watching literally, my head was turned 90 degrees the other way, just watching all the people talking and you know, watching how the mixers doing that, and the cameraman getting ready for the next shot. So that was all, that was when I knew I wanted a career in this. And at film school, I did a few of the assignments, the composition assignments in animation. And they had this old Victorian film house and up in the attic they had a little little room he gave me that I could set up a little animation rostrum, with my camera. And I did this this composition assignment in animation and he looked at it and he was like, you know, you should probably be animating this doesn't... you know. So he said, there's a great school called Sheridan College that that teaches animation you might think of transferring over to that where you can really I can't help you much he said. So I applied to Sheridan College and got in there. And just, you know, once you're around animators and the teachers were all professional or former professional animators that was just okay, this is great. This was 1981 the animation industry was just in the process of dying. So it was terrible. As far as that goes, I didn't know it was about to be reborn right around then. But, but it was- the prospects were not great at the time.

Michael Wakelam:

I wanted to ask you about the Lego. Just rewinding back to your little Lego beginnings. You know, having started there, how did you feel when you saw Lord Miller's take on the Lego movie?

Rex Grignon:

Oh, I loved it. I loved it. I thought it was wonderful. You know, I really loved that they, that they respected the Lego, like everything about it was like the way they moved. And you know, that they didn't squish around and stuff. It was, it was just a wonderful way to do it. It was like, you know it was the Legos came to life, which is exactly how I would have chosen to do it.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, it was really true to those I guess those YouTube, those stop motion films.

Rex Grignon:

Yeah.

Michael Wakelam:

So the next stop in your education was a pretty prestigious place in history of computer graphics. Tell us about that.

Rex Grignon:

So I got a, I applied for and, and won a scholarship to go to the New York Institute of Technology, as they called it a presidential scholarship. So it was basically a year long work and study scholarship to go to New York and so you enrol. You know we enrolled as students at NYIT and I studied architecture actually as a student. But the lab the computer graphics lab itself, was this beautiful old house, this mansion on the property used to be at Vanderbilt, the state, but that had been just like, you know, inhabited by all these early computer graphics pioneers the Dr. [Alexander] Schure started this sort of idea- of he had a great vision that, you know, computer graphics held, held the bright future. So he brought in, you know, scholars and scientists and artists from all over the world to, to just start figuring it out. And just, you know, you can read the history of this place. And just some of the, you know, most foundational concepts in computer graphics came out of NYIT really, you know.

Michael Wakelam:

Ed Catmull was one of those yeah.

Rex Grignon:

Ed Catmull. Lance Williams, there's just the list goes on and on and on. Ralph Guggenheim, Thad Bier, just a tonne of names came out of there. Carter Burwell, who's the famous composer now was at NYIT at the time. He writes for the Coen Brothers movies.

Michael Wakelam:

Wow. So you had a good start, I guess, education wise.

Rex Grignon:

Yeah, it was good. I mean, NYIT, it was interesting, because I was brought in as a 2d animator. And they had this amazing 3d Animation system that they developed there, there was no Maya or anything, this is before all that. And so I saw that, I was doing my drawing stuff and I'd see people working on the 3d stuff. And I befriended one of the animators, a guy Ken Wesley. And I was just very interested because it was left and right brain. It was like I could programme but I was programming to make a picture. And I was programming to make something move. And so Ken taught me everything that I knew about programming and computer graphics, and he allowed me to help them on a couple of projects. And I spent a year with my good friend, Glenn McQueen. And we both got the scholarship. So Glenn and Ken and I became a real sort of team work- and Ken taught us everything about 3d animation.

Michael Wakelam:

Wow. And so with your education finished, where did you go work wise? Did you go to Europe, at some point?

Rex Grignon:

Yeah I went to Frankfurt, it was called CAL, Computer Animation Lab. But CAL had bought a system from NYIT the system that we were using, and it was, at the time, there were really- there were no commercial systems. So NYIT packaged up, you know, a Vax, which was this massive mainframe computer, and the software and they sold it to this CAL. But it was so complicated to use that they wanted to bring people over who knew how to use it already. So they hired away a few of the artists, including Ken, who I mentioned and Arthur Bain, who was, you know, you know, the John Lasseter, just he was incredibly, is an incredibly creative guy, and was way ahead of his time in computer graphics. So Art and Ken became the main artists at the studio, and they use the software. And so Ken called me and said, hey, we'd love to get some more animators over here, we're putting together a demo reel, can you come over to Frankfurt? So it was an offer I could not refuse. It was scary, of course, to leave, you know, the comfort of, you know, home. But it was awesome. And I went and worked with Ken and Art and in the CAL Group for about a year.

Michael Wakelam:

Fantastic. And what brought you back to the States?

Rex Grignon:

Well, I wasn't quite ready to come back to the States yet. So CAL was this very high, high profile lab in Europe and I'd worked so hard that year, I did like 14 Productions in 12 months. But it ultimately went bankrupt. There was some...I don't even know what happened. But I came in one day, and the place was all locked up. And, and it was very sad that it all of a sudden went away. But some of the people that I'd been working with during that time, were in Paris, so I got a call from one of the producers in Paris. And he said, "Do you want to come over and art direct in Paris with me for a while?" So moved to Paris for another year, and worked at this place called Son et Lumière as an art director, sort of a freelance director and they would loan me out to studios to design these animation pieces, because nobody knew much about it. And I'd only been in the business for a year, but all of a sudden, I'm like, you know, one of the more senior people, so I was like doing consulting and art directing stuff, which is kind of funny. But that was great. Those two years, I just learned so much about production and the business and, you know, relationships and everything. So I just came home at Christmas, when I was living in Paris, and my brother was living in San Francisco, and I came out, visited him and there was this company called PDI I'd had my eye on for a while. So I called one of the folks at PDI and said, hey I'm in the neighbourhood can I pop by for a visit? So they let me come by and I interviewed at PDI and got offered a job. So it was the spring of 1988 that I moved to California.

Michael Wakelam:

Wow, okay, so, you know, PDI I guess was a big step in your career, as for...when you look back and all the things that happened there and you know, they were probably mainly doing logo flips and blind logos before you arrived.

Rex Grignon:

Yeah, yeah, they were mostly doing that, they Is that right? were...they had the odd little piece where they did some character animation, the Crest sparkle singers at the time in particular, was a was a piece that got a lot of attention. And you know, they were inventing everything rigging and defamations everything, nothing, none of that stuff existed. So I went there with you know, as...as the intention to be an animator but there was no character animation going on at the time. So I went in and started animating logos and I did you know what they call the affiliate packages. So you do NBC, if you remember back in the day, there would be this thing said NBC! Let's all be there? Or something, and it would be this super high profile thing that would show between every, every, you know, half hour. And then every affiliate, all the 60 or so affiliates that were around the country, each needed a customised version of that. So I would go do all these various affiliate things. It was monotonous and terrible, but I was the low person on the pole at the time so.

Michael Wakelam:

I want to talk about Jim Henson, so, you know, your time working with Jim Henson- listeners, if you haven't seen it, and you're curious to follow up search Jim Henson and Rex Grignon on YouTube, you know, and you'll find this clip of Jim Henson and Rex.

Jim Henson:

And over here we have Rex Gringon who is our computer animator, okay. And what Rex is doing is he's taking these moves that I'm doing with my hand, and converting it into Waldo on the screen there.

Rex Grignon:

And the really great thing is that the computer does it all in real time. As Jim moves his hand around in the puppet, the image of Waldo flies around on the screen too.

Waldo The Puppet:

So as like Mr. Henson is working a puppet, but what you get is a moving television picture.

Michael Wakelam:

It's a remarkable clip because it showcases the fact that, you know, Jim Henson as much as he was a storyteller embraced innovation. And I mean, you were showcasing real time digital puppetry in 1989. That's astounding. And I have to say, Rex, you're also really good on camera.

Rex Grignon:

Except for all the head bobbing but yeah thank you, that's nice of you to say.

Michael Wakelam:

But tell us about working with Jim.

Rex Grignon:

Oh, it was amazing. I mean, it was incredible. It was two years of my life working with Jim we initially started- signed up for helping him with a show called The Jim Henson hour. And it was, you know, kind of like the, it took... he had a show called storyteller I think it was...that was in the UK mostly. And- which was these more serious puppet based narratives. So you know, always involves some form of magic and a real live action human, but there'd be some very interesting interaction. And at the time, they'd done a show where they'd had a lot of mechanical remote control puppets, where they had these little, you know, controllers that they'd figured out. So when it came time to do The Jim Henson Hour, they had this idea for a character called Waldo C. Graphic who was completely digital. And the show was about- it was set in this TV studio. So much like the Muppets, the original Muppet Show was set in a theatre, this one was set in a TV studio. And then they'd go to the storyteller stories every now and then. But one of the characters that they proposed in this studio was this Waldo C. Graphic who sort of popped off a screen one day, and became- sorta interacted with the characters, but he had some magical component because he was a digital character. So we would record this on set with Jim and the other puppeteers with this incredible armature, I don't know if you've seen it that was built by the Muppet workshop. And we collaborated with them on how to build that so that the...each joint had like a little digital dial on it. And so we were streaming all that data into the computer, processing it and turning it into this little character who then flew around on screen so the puppeteer could see their character on the screen, at the same time as the other puppets. So it was quite a breakthrough.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, really blows me away that you were doing that in 99.

Rex Grignon:

It was cool. So I was the live on set animator. So I would work with the puppeteer, Steve Whitmire and Jim, and we'd plan out a scene and I basically did the eye blinks, and I marked the spots where Waldo needed to do a transition. And those would be recorded into the data stream, basically. So we'd be going along and we'd do rehearsals and, and then when it was time to go, I hit record, everybody went, Jim called out action, and we did a scene recorded all the data and took it as a take and I kept notes of all the takes that he liked and then we'd go back to California and process that into rendered animation that was then composited.

Michael Wakelam:

Incredible. It's interesting because I remember seeing a clip, probably six or maybe eight years ago, something of Jim Henson Company doing some digital puppetry at the next level now where they had motion capture suits. And then they had these other guys who were doing the mouth movements with very, you know, obviously, similar version to what you had, but much more modern. So it's interesting to see them take that, you know, continue on to a new level.

Rex Grignon:

Yeah, yeah, exactly. I mean, something you said earlier is that, you know, Jim was all about innovation. And he really, he really was it was incredible. You know that he just wanted to keep pushing the boundaries of puppeteering. And so we gave you know them the ability to interact with this digital puppet. And then there were things you could do after the fact. And it was just very, very exciting in fact, we were talking with them about doing a feature film. This was well before Toy Story. And he was very interested in taking what we could do at PDI with and...we were just starting this character animation group at the time to say, hey, maybe we should focus on characters and I started with Tim Johnson there. And yeah, so it was a very exciting time really, and after the show, we started.. it sort of dovetailed into this theme park ride that was called Muppet Vision 3d. They liked Waldo so much, so they wanted to put Waldo into this theme park attraction. So I worked for another year on Muppet Vision 3d.

Michael Wakelam:

Is that still going that Waldo? It's still going. To this day. That's incredible.

Rex Grignon:

Yeah it's amazing. And yeah, so worked with Jim very closely on that that was much bigger. It was 70 millimetres stereo. So we're on set for all those shoots. And then he died just on the day, the Monday after he approved his final shots of Waldo. He died on the weekend. And, and then, very sad and tragic. Went to his funeral in New York. And, you know, I really knew all the Henson folks very closely at the time, and then they decided to add more Waldo after the fact, Disney saw what we had done. Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner. I remember being in a screening with them and they were like this Waldos good, we should put more in. And so Frank Oz took over the reins and directed another couple of minutes of Waldo animation where they kind of wrote him into more of the story. And then I worked very closely with Frank and Dave Goelz and some of the puppeteers Steve Whitmire on another...almost like it was close to another year of Waldo stuff.

Michael Wakelam:

That's really interested hearing that early development and the intertwining with Michael Eisner and Katzenberg at the earliest point of those CG characters, what that kind of grew into and where everyone went from there. So you then you as you said, that kind of dovetailed into this character animation group at PDI, yeah, which you kind of headed up there.

Rex Grignon:

Yeah it was right at the tail end of of Muppet Vision that the few of us, there was a small team of five or six of us, who had been working on Henson for quite a while. Wow. That's interesting. Yeah, I mean, I guess- so I spoke to Ken Basically, Tim Johnson, who was another, you know, traditional animator, who we'd hired at PDI, he and I wrote up a two page proposal to say, hey, we think we should really focus on character animation rather than just having one of our tools in our toolbox, we'd like to have a corner of the building and we'd like to have five dedicated people who are not asked to do logo work at all, even if there's no character work, we really want to focus on the creative and technical challenges of doing character animation. So the owners, Carl and Richard and Glen, you know, went ahead with it and gave us the corner of the building. And we just started, you know, really looking at, you know, the potential of 3d animation. What were the technical requirements, Graham Walters, and Beth Hofer and Karen Schneider, Dick Walsh, were there as technical. They're all these huge titans in the field. You know, they really sort of had the technological side covered. And then Glenn McQueen, (unitelligible), Tim Johnson and I were the creative side of that, and we really wanted to just focus on you know, what's, what is this art that's emerging? What does it mean to animate characters on the computer, you know, what works, what doesn't work? And we did all kinds of tests. And we had written a feature film called Bugs. And we did- we started doing commercials quite a lot. So over the first five years of the group, it became kind of the main revenue stream of the company even. We started doing Pillsbury Doughboy commercials and started really validating that there was, there was work here. And at that time, we started sort of codifying what rigging meant and Dick Walsh was really one of the main drivers of, of like, sort of standardising like inverse kinematics and how we set up characters, so we're not just doing it from scratch all the time. Beilenberg recently, and I know a little bit of PDI history. But you know if I'm right PDI was also trying to be that first company to do a CG animated feature, as you just mentioned or alluded to that with, you know, Jim Henson and wanting to push forward and do a feature. So, obviously, that didn't work out in that you didn't get that going before Pixar. So is those that way you kind of left PDI and went to Pixar or slash Toy Story. Yeah, essentially. I mean, it wasn't the first one at New York Tech, they had a film, they had two feature films that they had been developing, and even at PDI at the time, we shopped this around all the studios and, you know, it was a huge risk to do a computer animated film because computer animation had only existed in like, you know, maybe two or four minute chunks. We'd won an Emmy Award for this show called The Last Halloween which had six minutes of character animation integrated in. And that was one of the bigger things that I think even at the time ILM said it was impossible to do this job. And we got it and did it and learned an awful lot in doing it. And so yeah, the idea of a feature was, it was doable. We really- we did all the fire drills, literally we called them fire drills. What would happen if we got funded? What would the team need to be? What would it really look like? And we were thrilled when Pixar got Toy Story, it was like, okay, the door has been kicked open at least. So that's wonderful. What happened at the time was PDI, started going in a slightly different direction, and morphing started emerging. And then it became this huge thing and visual effects started emerging. And it felt like there was a little waning of interest in the character animation stuff we were doing. And one of the guys from the character group had left, Glenn, he went up to Pixar, and he basically called me and he said, Rex, this is what we've been trying to do for five years, you got to come up and work on Toy Story. So I went up, talked with, you know, some folks at Pixar and, you know, very sadly left PDI because I felt there was..we didn't get to what we really wanted to do. But at the time I even talked to the leaders at PDI and I said, you know what we should do is we should loan out the character group to Pixar. And we can all go work on this feature, learn everything that's involved, and they didn't want to do it. And I was disappointed that they didn't see that opportunity. But...so I just went and went up there and worked on Toy Story. Yeah, it was a blast. It was amazing, best- best animation experience in my life.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah some great stories and from- from people that I've spoken to and interviewed for the podcast as well.

Rex Grignon:

Yeah. And that's where I met Bonnie [Arnold] and you know, these other names you've mentioned Pete Docter, became good friends.

Michael Wakelam:

So you weren't at Pixar too long. I guess while you were there, DreamWorks acquired PDI, and then, Spielberg and Katzenberg courted you back to DreamWorks. Is that

Rex Grignon:

Yeah, that's right. So I was at Pixar for the second right? half of Toy Story and a lot of pre production on Bug's Life. I was working on Flick who was called Red at the time and Heimlich the caterpillar. And I got a call from Jeffrey basically. And he said, "Hey, Rex, we just bought this company called PDI. Can you come back and finish what you started with the character group?" And I was like, I don't know, man. I'm pretty happy here at Pixar. And he goes, "Well, why don't you come down and meet with Steven and me and we'll tell you what we're trying to do with DreamWorks?" So I flew down to LA and met with, with Jeffrey and, and Steven at Amblin. And out on Steven's, you know, balcony at Amblin. And talking about their vision for for DreamWorks. And, you know, it was pretty compelling to be able to take the group that we'd started, I'd started with Tim and to turn that into a feature animation group. It really felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was very happy at Pixar. I really didn't want to leave Pixar. But this just felt like it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. So yeah, I let them know that I was going to leave and it was not very warmly received because, you know, DreamWorks announced that they were doing Antz and Pixar was working on Bug's Life and I had been working on Bug's Life. So there was quite a lot of animosity about that whole relationship. And then the fact that I went from, you know, Pixar to DreamWorks was not, it was not very warmly received by a lot of people at Pixar so.

Michael Wakelam:

I'm sure it's all it's all passed over the years.

Rex Grignon:

You can tell who your friends that's what I'll

Michael Wakelam:

So I want to talk about Madagascar. Which I tell you. understand you were the head of character animation on all those three films, and also the software that you eventually won a Sci-tech Oscar for Premo. Is that right?

Rex Grignon:

Yeah, that was much much later. But yeah.

Michael Wakelam:

Let's start with the with Madagascar then. Unless you you've got anything else that you want to kind of get into in your DreamWorks journey before that we can. Because it was-

Rex Grignon:

No Madagascar is a good starting place. There was so much learning from Antz and from Shrek I worked on Shrek for about a year and a half. And then there was a film in between that was called Tusker, which I just loved and worked on it through pre production, it was very close to going into animation and the film was cancelled, unfortunately, but we learned so much from Tusker, because it had these very fleshy characters. And we'd never done that really before. The only fleshy part we'd had was sort of Shrek's neck. But we looked at these elephants that had trunks and flapping ears and lots of you know, soft flesh, pushing against soft flesh. And it really made us rethink our, the way we do rigging and deformation. And that's what led to Madagascar technically. Tusker kind of opened the door.

Michael Wakelam:

And so with Madagascar, I guess, the style of the animation in those films, you know, I guess talking about the first film, it really pushes the envelope somewhat. And, you know, I'd say that extreme posing particularly with Alex was maybe a precursor to, you know, what Genndy Tartakovsky did with Hotel Transylvania. You know, he really pushed it, you know, so how, how did you go about finding that style? And then what kind of technical problems did that style create? I mean, I'm sure you broke rigs.

Rex Grignon:

Well, yeah, and we couldn't use the rigs we used in Shrek, because they were very anatomically sort of solid. So you were very- couldn't take them beyond their limits. So the first mandate from you know, from the creative side was we need to be able to move the bones around, we need to be able to stretch and you know, these can't be anatomically bound anymore. We really have to leave it up to the animators to be the art directors, like would happen in traditional animation, you try to stay on model. So a lot of the animators had to retrain some successfully and some did not do well with it, because it was just too much new stuff to take on. But we really focused. When Madagascar started, I talked with the directors, Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, and really started talking about what they wanted for animation style, and looked at the character designs that Craig Kellman was doing, and tried to find something that was really much more 2d. And so I talked with a lot of great 2d animators, James Baxter and Simon Otto and Frans Vischer. And a lot of great animators I sat down with and said, so if you're going to animate this scene, how would you begin on paper, then just talk through the process at a high end, higher end studio, like DreamWorks, and then started thinking, how would we do that in CG? How can we take a more 2d approach to 3d animation. And really, what emerged was rather than this, you know, layering of curves, and living in the Curve Editor all the time, was really a pose based, you know, animation process. And I found that when I got into this, and I just key everything on a character, and then do like five or six or eight poses for a scene, it was amazing. My scene was fully blocked out, you'd pose right down to the fingertips and everything. And then it to me just got so much faster. It was just like light years faster than adjusting 700 curves. I was just dealing with eight drawings. And I thought of it that way. And so it- folks who I brought in some folks like Denis Couchon, who is an incredible 2d animator came in early, actually on Antz but on Madagascar, he was the main head of animation, and supervising animator, he really defined some of the styles with like, Dave Burgess, former Disney animator who came in and did some tests, Jason Schleifer, came in did some amazing tests. And these really, in pushing the boundaries of these characters before we even started production, we showed Jeffrey and the directors and they were like, Yeah, that's exactly where we need to go. So we worked very closely with rigging to figure out what was involved and, you know, had a lot of pain, but it really ultimately changed the way DreamWorks created characters.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, I mean, you know, and it still stands the test of time that film.

Rex Grignon:

Not so sure about that, but thank you for saying so.

Michael Wakelam:

My son and I just watched it recently. He's 16. And he's studying animation. And, you know, we just like, you know, storytelling wise and animation wise. I mean, render wise. Yeah, I mean, maybe it could use an update, but everything else, it really stands up.

Rex Grignon:

Well thanks, I mean, we really wanted to have fun with the animation. It was one thing for Antz and Shrek, they were mostly radio plays that, you know, they didn't have a tonne...there weren't a tonne of scenes where the animation carried the day. And so in Madagascar, we really wanted the animation to be part of the humour of the film.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, and it was pretty successful with that. And so what- did you just go from one Madagascar to another? Or what are some of the films that you worked on in between?

Rex Grignon:

Yeah, so I worked on Kung Fu Panda in between. And I sort of went on as a consultant and helped them figure out- it was one of the first films in an LA studio to use EMO, which was the animation system we were using. And it was a person who was doing the head of character animation for the first time. So I just went on and we just worked together to kind of figure out some of the- some of the challenges he had, that was Dan Wagner and, and it was just an incredibly, you know, complex film with all the fighting and this huge cast of characters and everything. So I just, you know, was there as a resource for Dan to you know, help him figure out how to tackle some of that stuff. He's just an incredible leader and animator and you know, Kung Fu Panda is so much him and Rodolphe Guenoden who did a lot of the plan- the fight planning, just amazing. He's a, he's a martial artist himself. So I think he really worked drawing out these fights, which is something I couldn't do, but just wanted to help them to set up an environment where where the film could succeed.

Michael Wakelam:

And so with the success of the Madagascar films, how did you continue to push that animation? And what were the challenges?

Rex Grignon:

Well, it's interesting, if you look at Madagascar, one, two and three, one was kind of wild. And if you look at it with a very critical eye you'll see it's quite inconsistent. I'm happy with it. But you know, there's some scenes that you know, where we could really push the character, there's some that are more controlled. And this was, you know, the animation team and me just figuring out how to keep that all consistent. Madagascar two is much, much more consistent. It's a much more family based story, far less physical comedy in Madagascar two, much more heart and emotion stuff. But- but so Madagascar three to me really pulled all these things together. It's a story that has, you know, a lot of character depth, but it also has a lot of great physical, you know, comedy in it with the circus stuff. And there's just a whole bunch of...the aeroplane crashes and all this fun stuff. So yeah.

Michael Wakelam:

I was really surprised as I shouldn't say that. I was pleasantly surprised by Madagascar three, I wasn't sure where it could go. And, you know, it was good.

Rex Grignon:

I mean, honestly, it's my favourite of the bunch. I can watch it. And I think it holds up in so many ways. I mean, obviously, there's, it's an animated film so but- but I just think there's so much good in there. The inter character honesty, I feel in, in the first Madagascar, you know, we were just really figuring out the sincerity between the characters. You know, Alex is just this, you know, kind of insecure guy and a very needy kind of character. And there weren't too many real moments with him. You know, if there were it was usually Marty or Melman or Gloria driving them. I think in the third film, we saw a lot more, you know, sort of honest character, and you could still let them be goofy, but I really liked that the writers and directors found found that.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, definitely.

Rex Grignon:

Humanity.

Michael Wakelam:

And so what led to you designing, become part of that team, to design Premo and that software?

Rex Grignon:

Well, that was one of those in between films. So I had typically between films would be a year or so before I'd get going on pre production. So I was teaching at one of the universities in the area, part time, you know, and working at DreamWorks, but I was teaching and I just thought, you know, had this time to think about our process and what we were doing with our tools. And I think it was around the time, Ratatouille came out, actually, and Jeffrey came to me. And he was like,"Wow this animation looks amazing. You know, what do we need to be able to get to that?" And I was like, Jeff, we're using a 20 year old animation system. So it'd be great if we could, you know, if we could really think of a new, a new way of animating, and I had lots of ideas in my head of what we could do. And I'd been trying to change this old, you know, EMO. And, you know, I did a little drawing at this time of an old Model T car that had so many things added on to it. Like it was just this car that had mirrors and, you know, radar, like and it's like, we're still built on the base- on the chassis of this old, old, old model T and we've added all these features, but it just all it does is just slow it down. We really need to start fresh, and design, you know, a Formula One car that's state of the art. We've got some great minds here. So we sat down, I brought together a design team with some of the other sort of innovative thinkers, like people who were never happy with what we were doing, and really gave them the task of saying, hey, let's design something from...what's the ideal way to animate? Like what would be the ideal way to animate on the computer? And we threw away every assumption and said, you know, we broke it down into chunks and said, you know, for interaction and for selection and for feedback, and, and, and did these deep dives in each of these areas and presented it back to the group. And we came up with a really unified picture of what the ideal animation system would look like, we got it approved. And then we started on the process of building Premo. And I oversaw that for about the first two years and then handed it off to Jason Reisig who oversaw the sort of actual back end of the implementation of of Premo.

Michael Wakelam:

And so what are some of the some of the features of that? You know, you kind of broke the rules of what had been done before? What a couple of those things?

Rex Grignon:

Yeah, I mean, for me, the big thing was, you know, I'd animated with Bezier curves and b spline curves for years and years and years. But I did not feel that was the future of animation. They're underneath the hood but I always felt like an animator should be more like a stop motion animator, a traditional animator, where you're working on your scene, you're working on the character, most of the time, you're not working on your character through these secondary things, you know, called curves, you're in the screen where you're posing your character. And if you want to see a curve, you can see it move through your screen. So we really focused on, you know, how to keep an artist immersed in the creative task that they're- that they have, rather than, you know, misdirect them over to the side to do- to go to some other selection panel, or to go to some curve editor or to go to a spreadsheet even worse, which is how we'd been working at DreamWorks quite a lot. So it was really focusing on let's let the character view be the most of this. Let's make it instantaneous selection. So we went through and for simple things, like, you know, adjust a joint, and then see how that affects your work. It's like we focused on what are the things you do 1000 times a day, and went through and broke that down and said, Oh, to do this one thing, takes six steps, you have to select it, you have to click this other thing, you have to go over here, you have to drag that value, and you have to hit redraw, or whatever it was, like, how do we do that in one click? So we challenged the, you know, the UI designers to say, if I can touch the arm and just drag, that's what we want. So we wanted this instantaneous selection and, and manipulation of the character. And it just changed everything when you could get to that point where you could have a deformed character that you could pose in real time. And then the playback was super critical that you not sit around and wait for playback. So they came up with this incredible process where the Premo would be in the background, it would be calculating all the neighbouring frames, as you're adjusting, you know, frame 18, it would be calculating all the frames around it. And so that by the time you'd made that adjustment, everything else was already updated. And you could just hit play at 24 frames per second, it had to be clocked playback. So, so it was a very high bar that we set for what this had to be. But by putting all those things together, you have high fidelity models, you have very quick playback, you have lighting and surfacing this started becoming more like what a stop motion animator would see. When they take their hands off the model that's what's going to be in the film. So we wanted that with 3d animation. So that's a lot of what Premo ended up being we didn't get all the way there. But we got a part of the way there.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, that's really, really interesting, really interesting. I wish they'd build that kind of stuff into some other name brand software.

Rex Grignon:

Well, it takes real deliberation, you have to really, you have to say that that's your primary concern. And, you know, they kept asking me about how it would how it would affect the quotas of the animators, and I was like, look, I'm not going to predict but if you have animators who can immerse in their job and it's very efficient to do their job, you're gonna get incredible returns on the quality and the you know, the efficacy of animating that means your quota's gonna go up but and it did it went way way up. I think it quadroupled it.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, I was gonna ask if you had some measurements.

Rex Grignon:

I think How to Train Your Dragon two was the first film made on on Premo and I think everybody considered it like twice as complex as the first one and they did it in half the time or something so you can, you can do some of the math.

Michael Wakelam:

Incredible. Okay, so that was another major project and then you did Madagascar three and, and then you decided to do something new and I got a feeling that wasn't like a new thought, it probably been something that had been brewing brewing for a while.

Rex Grignon:

And this was where, you know, we'd sort of seen that you could run an application from a, from a different room. So I'd done training on Premo, and Premo had to have these very custom, high high end workstations. And I would do training on Premo from a little training room and connect remotely to my big machine up in my office. And it was like, Wow, this works really well, I can work remotely, I'd love to be able to do this from home. And DreamWorks didn't have that setup so you could do that. But it gave me the idea that you could work remotely on a powerful computer. And that was the genesis of Nimble Collective really was just that thought that, hey, if you could run an application from the cloud, you could build a pipeline and, and put it in the cloud. And then anybody could use it. And that was where, when I was teaching at the university, it was like, I saw every school building a pipeline, all the schools trying to teach animation had to first build a pipeline, they don't know anything about building a pipeline. So I was like, well, if we could build a professional pipeline, then any school in the world could just use it and raise the educational experience, you know, dramatically, because you could then you know, have annotation and you could have, you know, well rigged characters and all this stuff. And we were using open source characters, for the most part, most of the teaching I'd done. So it just looked like a real opportunity. And, and so I talked to DreamWorks, they didn't want the idea. So they carved it out of my contract. And I went and left and started Nimble Collective. And it was just, just started with some friends and family. You know, I said, you know, we're gonna do this, this thing, I didn't ask to raise any money, and we raised a bunch of money to get us started. And then we found some venture capital investors who put in a lot of money put in$8 million to get us started. And, and we were off to the races trying to build this thing in the cloud. And it was a lot more than we really anticipated. At the start, it ended up being a much bigger problem solve.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, I mean, it's such an interesting project. Because I remember, and you mentioned Richard from PDI earlier, Richard Chuang, and he had started, it was called Cloudpic, where they were trying to focus on... it wasn't the same thing they were looking to, and I guess, this is where it comes down to timing for you, you entered the space at exactly the right time in history for cloud development. And they were trying Cloudpic, I think, to connect machines around the world, but not to actually do the work in the cloud. And not to put the machines in the cloud. And that's where you differentiated and I guess we're able to, to carve out a successful niche there.

Rex Grignon:

Yeah, I mean, having...So there were, there were computers in the cloud for a while that people would render on right, but having computers what they call instances that had GPUs on them, so they had like NVIDIA GPUs on them, was the big turning point where you could actually run Maya now on a computer, you couldn't just run it on a bare bones, little, little computer in the cloud. So having, you know, a graphics computer in the cloud sort of changed all that. And if you could run one, one application, you could run many applications, and you could store the assets, you know, all of the rest of the pipeline in the cloud, it's sort of opened up this possibility. Lots of people had thought about it, just like feature films, you don't just start on day one. I don't pretend that we invented this idea. But the timing worked out that we were able to get this funded and, and, build something that worked.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah and it's interesting to hear the history of how that journey was Premo, really kind of segwayed into that. You'd had this experience with software development and then, you know, building a team to do something like that from from scratch.

Rex Grignon:

Yeah, I mean, the big- the biggest overlap between Premo and Nimble Collective was this idea of having a vision of the final thing when you start. So for Premo, I had gone and animated like a two or three minute clip of what Premo would look like, what an animation session would look like in Premo when we're successfully done. I did it in the old system, but it was like it was just fake, fake sort of interaction of how animators would interact with the scene. And everybody was blown away by this. They're like, Oh my God, if we could do that, that would be amazing. I was like, see, that's what I'm talking about. And we did the same kind of thing with Nimble where we, we painted a vision of- just using PowerPoint and like little little goofy tricks to show how artists and teams can connect from the cloud. And that really, that narrative really helped build the business.

Michael Wakelam:

So talk us through Nimble, this is gonna be your sales pitch time. So talk us through, you know, because some of our audience are in small studios and indie creators and, you know, people wanting to get projects off the ground, you know, talk us through that platform, how it works and how you I guess you got there.

Rex Grignon:

Yeah, well, as a startup, we, we, you know, we saw this power of, you know, I saw the pain- I'd seen the pain of animators having to move their families to chase work around the globe, I'd see a family have to leave DreamWorks and move to Australia for a year and a half, and then move to Vancouver for six months, and then to LA. And there wasn't a nice way that artists could connect with opportunities and, and stay where they wanted to live. And so that was the other power of, of this idea of Nimble Collective was it kind of democratised things and let anybody set up a studio and you could work from anywhere. And, and so we really built it with, with that in mind, how can we help artists to connect with opportunities without having to constantly uproot their whole- their lives. And so yeah, the idea basically, is that anything you could do on a computer sitting under your desk, you could do in the cloud. And that would mean that you're not reliant on constantly buying computers, you're renting a computer basically, that that, you know, AWS, or, you know, another company has put out there for you to use, and you pay an hourly cost for it. But in the long run, it allows you to be very flexible with your spending. So if I have to go invest in 20 computers, that's very different, I have to put out a million dollars upfront. And it's a big risk if I don't keep those computers used constantly. Whereas with the cloud, I could say, hey, I got a project, I need 15 computers for three weeks, and you just go rent 15 computers for three weeks. And at the end of the project, if you don't have another one, you're not paying anything you're not paying, you know, you have computers sitting around that you've- that you've invested in. So it allows for this sort of elasticity, which is really wonderful. You can grow a team as you're going without having to, you know, add cubicles, or whatever. And you could bring in artists from you know, different locations, if you got a designer in Vancouver, who wants to work with a rigger in, you know, Budapest or something, that's great. So that's really the future we see is this...is opening up, you know, the possibilities for studios to connect with talent all around the world, and for therefore, for talent, to connect with studios. So if I if I am a talented rigger living in Sweden, I could still work on a Netflix project, or DreamWorks project or Disney, whatever the potential is there for all that. And that's what we saw in the cloud. So that's what Nimble studio is, it's really trying to take the first steps towards helping companies move their productions to the cloud for all these benefits that we've seen.

Michael Wakelam:

And how fast I guess, did you get to market once you decided to, once you'd launched and had your seed capital, and were heading down that road?

Rex Grignon:

Well, it as I said, as a startup, it took quite a while to get...to get the service the platform up and running. In the meantime, we did a pilot programme where we produced five short films with five first time directors all with remote artists, to really learn what was involved in this remote production, it was about 30/40 minutes worth of content. And yeah, you know, took a few years it was- there's a lot to solve and, you know, figuring out how to securely manage assets and how to connect these workstations and how to let companies you know, organise their productions and their workflows and all these things. There's a whole lot of...there's a whole lot of moving pieces in making this work well.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, you had a reasonably fast time, I guess, to acquisition with Amazon coming in. How's that helped you? And you know, I guess, what's been, I guess, the big change since you, since you were acquired by Amazon?

Rex Grignon:

Well, it's been wonderful. I mean, they recognised you know, what we had built, and they saw how this could help customers. And that's one of the things I just love about the company. It's it's really a customer focused company, which we were at Nimble, we really wanted to figure out, you know, how do we, how do we help make this experience better? And if we do that, we'll get results. So, so in that sense, you know, it's a very, very like minded approach to all these, all these challenges. And it's been great. You know, as a startup, you're always worried about funding and you know, there's a whole lot of, about running a startup that's quite complex. And so to be a part of something that you know, has a massive presence in the cloud is just, it's really wonderful to have the resources that we have here at AWS, and to be able to bring this to the world.

Michael Wakelam:

Definitely. And so, you know, with all of that, I guess, it's not in your rearview mirror, you're still there and- but you know, a lot of your career has been creative. How, what are you doing now, apart from, you know, still playing bass in your band? How do you, how do you stay creative? And what do you do?

Rex Grignon:

Well, one of the cool things was in, in sort of, you know, sort of testing and validating that Nimble studio was going to work, it was- we produced a short film called

Michael Wakelam:

And you you directed that yeah? Spanner last year, that was very, very high end. So we

Rex Grignon:

Yeah, I directed yeah, with Jennifer Dahlman wanted to produce something fully in the cloud entirely in the cloud, from start to finish. That, you know, anybody could look at ,any studio in the world could look at and go, wow, okay, you know, that- my team could have done that. So we wanted to have hair and cloth and cloud simulations, and we wanted to have great rigging and great characters and great acting. And to support all that we wanted a nice little story that really held up and was entertaining. So, so we- producing, and Jason Schleifer, Creative Director and just, you know, wonderful team of artists that we have and technicians at AWS, and we brought in some freelancers. So we, we brought in some animators who were working remotely, and they really found the experience very positive, it was, in fact, one of the animators had been displaced by some of the fires. And she had to move around several times, and the fact that she just had to take her laptop, and she could still be animating on this very high end production, even as her family was being uprooted and she could keep her income flowing, it was a very, very positive thing, she could keep, you know, some creativity in the midst of, you know, turmoil. So it was really a very strong proving point that this could work and could be really beneficial to the humans involved. You know, that's really...we want to keep it based on, you know, the people who, who benefit the artists and the, you know, the people trying to make studios and, you know, the studios that are up and running, that really want to connect, you know, take advantage of all this stuff.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, I mean, can you imagine the pandemic without the cloud? And, you know, I guess without these types of tools, it would have been, it would have been, the animation industry would have stopped like every other industry, whereas it didn't it kept going.

Rex Grignon:

Yeah it kept going. I mean, a lot of companies did, did stop momentarily, or even for quite a long time, and some went under because they didn't have a plan for how to handle that. And so we were glad when, you know, when we could help companies through this and to find a solution and even prevent something happening the next time something happens. So some companies are looking at this just kind of going, wow, we'd rather work this way. It just keeps us very nimble for the future, that if if something does come up, you know, we can adjust pretty easily.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, and I guess, has been a very, has been We didn't invent it. We're just...we just really wanted to, a catalyst for people, for studios to work differently and say, yeah I can hire someone, you know, wherever they are in the world, as long as they're good. It stays actually, more focused, on the talent. you know, put -keep raising the bar on what that could be. Great. So what's next? Have you got any other great big achievements that you want to...you probably wouldn't tell us on the on the podcast but-

Rex Grignon:

Can't talk about the what, what's next. But, you know, I've always, I've always felt like being in that place of innovation is very exciting for me.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah.

Rex Grignon:

And, you know, when I look around and talk to the team, and, you know, I hear this from time to time where, you know, people will look back at me and kind of go, but nobody's ever done this before. And I'm like, exactly, that means we're

Michael Wakelam:

That's great. Well, you're one of those, as I innovating something. If you, if you can't find a great role model of how to do what you're doing, it may mean you're in a good innovation space. So it's sort of learning to embrace that, that place and say, okay we're inventing this. And so what is the best way to do it? Let's talk to people. Let's look at our own experience. And let's figure out you know, how do we keep this going? How do we keep innovating, so that, so that this gets better and better? And ultimately, I just, you know, I want animation to be a really creative pursuit, it's still, you still have to be a technology company to be able to animate so I'd love it when, you know, two or three artists can get together and start a company not have to think about all that battle. I'll know I'm getting pretty close and when people can do that. said earlier, one of those true right brain left brain people who loves the creativity as much as the you know, the process and the tools and I suspect that was a major reason why you gelled with Jim Henson and that all went really well. But, you know, I really want to thank you for taking the time today to chat. It's been a, it's been a real pleasure.

Rex Grignon:

I appreciate the opportunity to talk through it was very, it was a lot of fun to think about some of this stuff again. So thanks.

Michael Wakelam:

Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed that chat as much as me. Guests like Rex and so many other guests that we've had on really shed light on the development of our industry. And it's awesome to see how he's still shaping the future of it. As I mentioned at the top of the episode, if you're enjoying what we're doing, we'd love your feedback and comments on whatever podcast platform you use. That really helps the visibility of the show. And of course, share it with your friends or on social media. If you have any ideas for guests or the show, please get in touch. You can find me on Twitter @MikeWakelam, or email podcast@creatorssociety.net. Special thanks to Rich Dickerson for the music, Mike Rocha for the mix, and our exec producer, Eric Miller. Thanks again. See you next time.