Animating a Career

Frank Tai

The old adage, “You can’t see the forest for the trees,” has a different meaning for Frank Tai.

Creating all manner of trees and forests was the focus of his work on the hit animated movie Brave. Tai, who left his native Taiwan specifically to study at the IU School of Informatics at IUPUI, used all the animation skills he had honed in his years in the school to help Pixar Animation Studios create the world inhabited by the characters in Brave—from princesses to villains.

Tai chose informatics as a career because it allows him to combine his computer skills and artistic abilities. He began his work at Pixar four years ago, after earning a bachelor’s degree (2006) and master’s degree (2008) in media arts and science from informatics.

Frank Tai working with fellow Pixar employees.

Tai (right) joins in a work session discussion of a Pixar project.

“I submitted my resume and demo reel while I was in graduate school in 2008,” Tai says. “After a few phone interviews, I got a phone call from Pixar, and they told me that I was accepted into their 2008 Technical Director Resident program.

“Right after I graduated from school, I packed everything and drove all the way from Indiana to California. I remember I felt I was like entering Charlie’s Chocolate Factory when I first arrived at Pixar,” Tai says.

Using 3-D computer software for the process he described as “digital sculpting,” Tai—a sets modeler and dresser for Pixar—mostly worked on the exterior sets for Brave, creating the Scotland forested lands and exteriors of the castle.

Working from the numerous photos and videos taken by the movie’s art directors, producers, and supervisors during visits to Scotland, Tai and Pixar’s other sets workers modeled a lot of trees, bushes, and vegetation to create a digital set that looks like a forest.

“We tried to make people believe when they are watching the film that they are in Scotland as much as possible,” Tai says.

Tai’s work on his first Pixar assignment, creating sets for Toy Story 3, gave him a boost for his work on Brave. “I was very focused on vegetation modeling and set dressing on Toy Story 3. The sets supervisor on Brave liked my work on Toy Story 3 and thought I would have a good eye for vegetation set dressing on Brave,” he says.

At IUPUI, Tai took all the 3-D computer animation courses offered in the School of Informatics—learning modeling, shading, lighting, and how to animate. His graduate studies and research focused on animation. And he augmented his preparation with art classes in the Herron School of Art and Design.

His third film project will be the highly anticipated Monster University, a prequel to the 2001 hit Monsters, Inc. that will be released in 2013.

Albert William, an informatics research associate in Media Arts and Science, is impressed with Tai’s willingness to help the next generation in the school by providing direction and feedback to student portfolios. “Frank’s work at Pixar is a continuing inspiration to all of the students in the School of Informatics. His work ethic, combined with his talents, helps students understand what it takes to succeed in the industry at a very high level.”

A typical computer-animated film takes about four years to complete, which makes its own demands on those behind the scenes.

“You really have to be passionate about what you do, because people often feel quite frustrated when they don’t see any results in a short period of time,” Tai says. “Filmmaking, especially computer-animated film, is an extremely slow process, and it (requires) a lot of determination and time.”