Dora the Explorer was a fixture in many people’s childhoods. In 1999, the cartoon arrived on television and was successful due to its creative and educational content. In August 2019, Dora and The Lost City of Gold hit theatres and delighted the same audience plus a new generation.
Dora and The Lost City of Gold is not only a family-friendly adventure movie based on an iconic 2000’s cartoon, but it stands as a reference for how animators can bring plushy cartoon characters into real-world environments. For this interview, The Focus spoke to Mill Film’s Animation Supervisor Matt Everitt about some of the challenges of bringing Dora’s Boots and Swiper to life.
Everitt has been working in traditional 2D, animated features and VFX for over 24 years. He studied traditional hand-drawn animation in the UK and began his career as an inbetweener on kids TV. After working on music videos (including the classic Gorillaz), commercials and animated features, Everitt transitioned his skillset to the world of VFX. As an animator, Matt loves how every show is its own puzzle that needs to be solved, and actively adapts his work to the client’s needs to help them deliver the best possible result for their project.
The Focus: How much does the movie rely on the original ‘Dora the Explorer’ cartoon? Besides the Nickelodeon work, did you use any other references?
Matt: There are several nods to the original cartoon in the movie. I always use lots and lots of reference when discussing the work with the artists or if I'm pitching ideas to the director. We talked about classic Chuck Jones cartoons, Tom and Jerry, classic English sitcoms, action films, drama, you name it. I use live action performances as guides for the animators to hit specific beats or ideas, the movie doesn't have to be directly related to what we are working on but there might be an eyebrow raise, or a look that an actor does that we can use as a reference point. We looked at Robert De Niro as examples of how little you have to do in a scene to convey emotion – this was particularly useful for a scene in the movie that required Boots to emote and interact with Dora in an altogether more subtle way.
The Focus: One of the highlights of your team’s work for the film is Dora’s sidekick, Boots. Can you talk a little bit about the character creation process as well as its animation?
Matt: Boots is a blend of several different types of monkeys. Right from the outset the goal wasn't to try and create a photoreal animal, we knew he would need to be more stylized both in design and performance. We talked about how he can behave like a little boy, as if he is Dora's younger brother. We looked at films such as 'Oliver' and 'Mary Poppins'. We would act out scenes with the animators to get a feel for how he might react and behave in certain situations.
The Focus: How did they shoot for the CG characters on the set?
Matt: When blocking out wider, more dynamic shots I had a long pole with a cutout of Boots or Swiper on the end. It meant I could puppeteer the action for the CG character out of eye line with the actors and maneuver the characters around the space with lots of energy. We also had 'Stuffies' – these are foam versions of the character that we can use with the actors to block the shots and help with eye lines.
The Focus: Mill Film completed out of about 150 shots of creature animation, which shot was the most challenging one and why?
Matt: The simple shots always seem to be the most challenging. The scene in which Boots talks directly to Dora was tricky as it was a moment that needed to feel true and heartfelt but then pay off with a laugh at the end. There is always a lot of back and forth with editorial to block out these shots and get the feeling just right.
The Focus: Some animals are aware of the actors and cameras. Is there any purpose to that?
Matt: This came from one of the first shots we did on the movie in which one of our bad guys touches the poison frog. We were searching for a way for the actors to interact with the animals in a way that would give the movie a slightly more surreal feeling. I liked the idea that the animals also had a back story and a point of view on the scene. We had long conversations about every animal in the movie, for example what they were doing off-camera before they entered the scene.
The Focus: Do you have any advice for someone who would like to start a career in animation?
Matt: Watch lots and lots and lots of movies and music videos, go to the theater, visit galleries, look at art. Observe the world around you and use it to inform what you create. Create things – draw, paint, make flip books, use free apps on your smart phone. Do whatever you can do to be actively creating things! Just do it – don't wait for opportunities to come to you. You have to make your own luck! Practice, practice, practice – the 10,000-hour rule is a good one. You need to spend 10,000 hours on something to become truly proficient at it. That might not be strictly true but there is no substitute for practicing your craft. — thefocus.com