Spotlight – Spencer Cook

by Graham Edwards

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Spencer Cook is animation director at DNEG, having worked previously at companies including MPC, Framestore, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Tippett Studio. Ask him for his filmography highlights and here’s what he’ll give you: Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Alien: Covenant, Beauty and the Beast (2017), Gods of Egypt, Men in Black 3, all three Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Cursed, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, Hollow Man, Blade and Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Spencer Cook

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Spencer?

SPENCER COOK: Animation was a hobby when I was a kid. I grew up watching monster movies like King Kong, Godzilla, all the classic Universal monsters and basically anything fantasy, horror and sci-fi. I was particularly inspired by the works of Ray Harryhausen.

By age 11, I was experimenting with stop-motion animation and had decided I wanted to make my living as a stop-motion animator. I studied all aspects of film, video and fine arts at The School Of Visual Arts in New York City where I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, after which I began my career as a stop-motion animator. For the next decade, I animated and directed dozens of television commercials in New York, Los Angeles and Europe, animating classic characters like the Pillsbury Doughboy and segments of the Saturday morning series Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

I then moved to Los Angeles and began a new chapter in my career working on movies. By that time, the industry had changed from traditional animation to digital. Luckily, all my stop-motion experience applied to digital character animation, so it was just a matter of learning a new tool. This transition wasn’t easy for me at first – I wasn’t very familiar with computers – but eventually I got the hang of it and started to enjoy all the amazing possibilities.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

SPENCER COOK: I like the collaborative nature of filmmaking, working with a team and mixing the best ideas together. The creative process isn’t like following a recipe; it takes experimentation and exploration. I like the process of figuring out performances and body language. Every project is different and requires a process of discovery.

I enjoy looking back at previous generations of animators and visual effects artists and appreciating that I’m continuing the cinematic legacy of creating fantastic settings and characters. I’m thrilled to be a part of the movie industry, contributing to images that might be inspiring the next generation of animators.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

SPENCER COOK: I hate the terms ‘CG’ or ‘CGI.’ I wish we could remove these from our lexicon. Saying ‘computer graphics’ or ‘computer generated images’ makes it sound like a computer does the work.

These terms seemed odd to me when I first transitioned from stop-motion to digital animation, but it really hit me a few years ago when I was reading an article about Pirates of the Caribbean. The article said something like, “Johnny Depp stands in front of a greenscreen and the computer adds the background.” I was like, “No, this is wrong! This isn’t how things work in animation and visual effects!”

Computers don’t create images any more than a paintbrush creates a painting. A computer is a tool. Would you call The Mona Lisa a ‘paintbrush generated image?’ Talented artists and technicians create the images in movies. It’s the same as it was in the beginning of cinema, we just use a different tools now. Calling it ‘CGI’ minimizes our creativity and hard work.

I know the term is deeply embedded in the industry but I think a better option is ‘digital modelling,’ ‘digital compositing,’ and so on. This would be consistent with all other art forms that refer to the medium instead of the tool, such as ‘oil painting’ or ‘marble sculpture.’ In animation, we broadly specify traditional techniques as ‘stop-motion animation’ and ‘cel animation.’ Why not just add ‘digital animation’ to that? It’s clear. It’s simple. It’s right.

See Spencer Cook’s recent work as senior animation supervisor at MPC in the final trailer for Godzilla: King of the Monsters:

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

SPENCER COOK: Wow, it’s a challenge to pick just one! Every production has unique difficulties to overcome and problems to solve.

One of my most formative challenges was the wall-crawl shot in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie. I was the lead animator at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Los Angeles with Anthony LaMolinara as our animation supervisor and John Dykstra as visual effects designer. We were tasked with creating a photoreal Spider-Man for the first time. At that time I was still fairly new to digital animation, so while working on that movie I learned a lot about animating on a computer, as well as client interactions and the movie biz in general.

The wall-crawl was incredibly difficult. The shot was hundreds of frames long and the camera moved all around the character as he climbed. I spent many long hours working on Spidey’s physics and body language to make it as believable as possible and to see his thought process, while mixing in the iconic poses from the comics.

I learned a lot about how to use reference, how to mix reality and fantasy into a believable performance. I gathered footage of spiders, frogs and lizards, and even went to a local park with our coordinator to shoot video of me climbing a chainlink fence! That was one of the key components that helped me find the reality in that shot. To get a feel for the grip and the pull against gravity, what it felt like to climb a vertical surface, was incredibly important to my final animation.

Spencer Cook on the set of "Alien: Covenant."
Spencer Cook on the set of “Alien: Covenant.”

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

SPENCER COOK: Superheroes and giant monsters aren’t weird to me. What I did find really weird was working on television commercials. As animators, we need to think about a character’s thought process, but many of the stop-motion commercials I animated involved anthropomorphized food like the Pillsbury Doughboy or various other happy, dancing snack foods. I admit that this is way over-thinking the concept, but I always thought it was weird that a living creature would be so happy about being eaten. Living snack food is at the bottom of the food chain. They only exist to be eaten and yet they’re thrilled about it. They’re either unaware of their situation or completely insane! This was the kind of stuff we talked about when I was animating television commercials. It was twisted fun!

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

SPENCER COOK: One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is the mainstream acceptance of genre movies. It used to be that monster movies and superhero movies were for kids. I think this was because of the limitations of traditional techniques – the visuals weren’t always realistic enough for a mainstream audience.

I feel like today we’re in a new golden age of genre cinema. Digital tools allow us to create fantastic images and characters with more realism than ever before. I think that’s why these kinds of movies are now acceptable to mainstream audiences and not just confined to genre fans. Plus, filmmakers now take this material seriously. Along with advances in make-up, costumes and stunts, the sci-fi and fantasy genre is now much more accepted than in previous generations.

Another big change I’ve noticed is the number of people involved in animation and visual effects. When I started in stop-motion it was a smaller community, most of whom got into animation as fans of either Ray Harryhausen or Disney movies. Today there are animators from every part of the globe who got into animation in many different ways. It adds a great diversity to our animation teams. I frequently encounter great ideas for shots and poses from my team that I never would have thought of.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

SPENCER COOK: As much as we’re all used to it, I don’t like the crude interfaces we use to work on computers. A mouse and keyboard is unintuitive and archaic. Wacom tablets are a little better but, as a former stop-motion animator, I just want to grab the puppet and pose it. I feel our current technology forces me to conform to the computer’s way of understanding input rather than the computer adapting to my human way of moving.

Maybe virtual reality or augmented reality will help us advance in this area. I recently visited the National Film Board of Canada here in Montreal. They’re researching and developing tech that could help artists interact with computers in a way that’s more comfortable and intuitive. However, most studios are reluctant to invest in new tech like this. It would be expensive at first and the learning curve for the team would add to the cost of production at a time when most studios are looking for ways to cut costs.

Spencer Cook works with Phil Tippett on the independent stop-motion short "Mad God."
Spencer Cook works with Phil Tippett on the independent stop-motion short “Mad God.”

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

SPENCER COOK: Learning to use a computer is easy. Learning to bring a character to life is hard.

Pay attention to life. Study how people move and interact. Those kinds of human qualities are the difference between a character that’s moving and a character that’s alive. As artists, we need to see things that most people take for granted.

Use reference as much as possible. YouTube is an amazing animation library but be smart about how you use it. Don’t just copy or roto one to one – unless that’s the direction. Mix in moments from the reference with your own poses. Make aesthetic choices consistent with the style or tone of the movie.

Act out the shot yourself. It’s important to get a feel for the action or performance. Even if it’s something so fantastic a person could never do it, there’s still value in acting it out. You may find a little human moment amid the spectacle that can bring your shot to life.

I think it’s also important to love movies and have an appreciation of cinematic history. Animators should have a good understanding of the visual language of cinema – camera angles, continuity and editing, lighting, and the basic structure of cinematic storytelling.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

SPENCER COOK: It’s hard to only pick three – there are so many films that have inspired me. But these three are standouts for portraying monsters with personalities.

King Kong (1933) – The original King Kong is top of the list. I was spellbound when I first saw it as a kid – I think I was around eight years old. I didn’t know what I was seeing, I had no concept of stop-motion animation or visual effects but I knew this was something special.

The incredible pioneering achievements in animation, miniatures, matte painting and optical effects cannot be overstated. This movie laid the foundation for all cinematic visual effects and animation to come, and the work we do today stands on its shoulders. But it’s not just a milestone in animation and visual effects – it’s one of the most iconic movies in cinema history. Who doesn’t recognize Kong fighting the T-rex or Kong atop the Empire State building? Also, this isn’t a mindless monster smashing through a city. The story is mythic and dramatic. Motivated by beauty, Kong has a personality, a goal and great pathos.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad – all of Ray Harryhausen’s work is immensely influential to me but 7th Voyage stands out. Ray’s incredible artistry was light years ahead of anything else being done at that time. His creature design and the way he added little quirks of body language gave each of his creatures a distinct personality.

The standout sequences are when Sinbad and his crew encounter the Cyclops on the beach, and then later when the Cyclops captures some of the crew and begins cooking them for his dinner. The Cyclops has a personality and a thought process that Ray conveys wonderfully through body language. Another standout is the sword fight between Sinbad and a skeleton. The technical achievement is impressive and Ray’s distinctive choices for posing really bring the fight to life.

War of The Gargantuas – one of the best non-Godzilla Toho monster movies is this story about brothers. It just so happens the two brothers are giant monsters. The brown Gargantua – the good one – is a gentle giant who lives in the forest. The green Gargantua – the evil one – lives in the ocean and eats people.

This was a traditional Toho production with the same crew as the Godzilla movies. The Gargantua designs were more ape-like than most Toho Kaiju, allowing for more expression. The two suit actors did an amazing job of portraying each brother with a distinct personality through body language. A standout sequence is the terrifying first appearance of the green Gargantua when he attacks a fishing trawler at night during a storm. Another is the final fight – a mythic brother versus brother scenario played out as an epic battle smashing through Tokyo. The tragic ending makes their war all the more poignant.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

SPENCER COOK: I like Dibs – chocolate covered ice cream bites – but Montreal cinemas don’t have them!

CINEFEX: Spencer, thanks for your time!