An evening of innovative animation with Michael O’Brien

By Jeff Boudreaux


Brave Effects Technical Director Michael K O'Brien has his photo taken on August 14, 2012 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Michael O’Brien, Pixar animator. Photo provided by Moroch Entertainment




Recently I had the opportunity to attend Loyola University for a guest seminar by Disney/Pixar’s technical effects lead artist Michael O’Brien, in regard to his new film “The Good Dinosaur.” The event was open to the public, which was treated to sneak peeks of some of the magnificent scenes that O’Brien and his team of artists are responsible for. “The Good Dinosaur” explores an alternate history where dinosaurs never became extinct and centers on the story of a young Apatosaurus named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) who, after the death of his father, finds himself far away from home, having to rely on a young cave boy that he names Spot (yes, like a dog!). In addition to a very enlightening presentation where I became informed of the proverbial “in’s and out’s” of the animation process, I also had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. O’Brien to pick his well-educated brain even further.

After working as a software developer in Silicon Valley (and with degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science under his belt) O’Brien joined Disney/Pixar in 2000 where he went to work right away on “Monsters, Inc.” in the tools department. Fifteen years later, he is the lead technical effects artist for the groundbreaking studio, which means he bridges the gap between technology and art, which in turn blurs the lines between animation and reality. Anyone who is a fan of computer animation or even just a regular moviegoer, has probably said to themselves at some point, “That looks almost real.” I know that I have. When it comes to the output of Disney/Pixar, the technical skills of Michael O’Brien are responsible for the realism that their audience experiences, yet it’s not his ultimate goal. “A lot of what we’re doing is not to create realism, it’s trying to fit the concept of the story. It’s not creating “real” whitewater, it’s whitewater that works for “The Good Dinosaur.” That is actually different than what would work for “Cars,” that’s a different world. So a lot of what we’re doing is trying to take something familiar like fire or whitewater or smoke and find out what that looks like in this world. We definitely have very artistic choices of what we want the audience to see for that particular effect.”

Without a doubt, the visual complexity at work here heightens the dramatic tension, such as in the underwater scenes where Arlo is getting pulled below the surface. Yet, when you see the remarkable effects (such as the whitewater rapids or the realistic riverbanks) employed in this or any of Pixar’s other films, O’Brien doesn’t want the credit – he’d rather you simply enjoy the movie. ‘“We want people to believe that this is a place they could go visit…that it’s real at some level. That’s what we’re trying to do in the effects department is provide a backdrop for this amazing story. I don’t want people to go to the movies and say, “that’s the best visual effects I’ve ever seen,” but rather, “that was an amazing story.”’

Still, Michael O’ Brien has been singled out and acknowledged for his excellence in the field of animation, becoming the recipient of an award from the Visual Effects Society for his work on “Brave” in 2013. As he explains how important the honor was (and his surprise at his win), it also pushed the bar for him to get even better, “That was a very surreal experience…it was really neat to be recognized. I had been part of that society for a while…It’s hard to explain but there’s a strong competition to be better than other people and other studios. Not at the expense of other studios but…you want to do better…with “Brave” I felt like this was something that other studios were going to look at and want to get to at least that level. That was one of the things on “The Good Dinosaur” that pushed us forward was, “We want to do better than “Brave,” how do we incorporate those things?” As the technical lead, O’Brien has a significant number of artists that rely on his expertise, and it’s obvious that they couldn’t learn from a better teacher, “I like to wear two hats…a software developer and an artist…I feel that they both inform each other…that gives me a good perspective of things…what we tried to do was make it so that everybody on the team, all 30 of us, could work at the same time, at scale, producing these kind of images. That’s something I don’t think before we started the film was possible…A big chunk of what I did for that film was work with other people to enable all of our artists to do it.”
In listening to what actually goes into the making of an animated film of this magnitude, and after talking with Michael O’Brien, it’s safe to say that this is one of the films that I am actually looking forward to the most this holiday season. And while “The Good Dinosaur” opens in cinemas on Nov. 25, I can tell you where you can next find the talents of Michael O’Brien – in 2016’s “Finding Dory.” The long-awaited sequel to one of Pixar’s earliest hits returns O’Brien to his roots, as “Finding Nemo” was the first film that he was involved with from beginning to end as he highlights how animation has evolved during his tenure at the studio, ‘“It’s nostalgic and fun. It’s interesting because I’m doing the same effect that I did in the original film and I look at it now, I realize, “wow, we can do so much more now”…so there’s a lot of stuff like that that’s really fun.”’

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