PITTSBURGH — Christian Hoffman swears his trip to the San Francisco Zoo to hang out with a group of red pandas wasn’t just for fun. As unlikely as it may seem, his story holds true.
Hoffman, a 47-year-old Shaler native, was chatting with zookeepers and feeding red pandas treats as part of a legitimate search for “Turning Red,” Pixar’s latest animated feature on Disney+. As lead character supervisor, Hoffman decided to get closer to real-life creatures to get inspired on how best for her team to render a 13-year-old girl who sometimes transforms into a giant anthropomorphic red panda when her emotions run wild. . .
“Turning Red” is just the last Pixar film Hoffman served as character supervisor on during his nearly 25 years at the studio. Still, understanding the overall appearance and subtle physical nuances of Mei Lee and her red panda alter ego was a challenge that excited Hoffman.
“I knew she was going to be funny, but I really loved that they also played on her being self-loathing as well,” Hoffman told the Post-Gazette. “I felt like there was a lot of opportunity for comedy.”
It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Hoffman was the kind of kid who was always in front of the television when the Saturday morning cartoons were on. Characters like Donald Duck and the Smurfs first sparked his passion for animation. Attending animation festivals in Oakland introduced him to the work of Pixar shorts and solidified his lifelong love for the art form.
Although drawing didn’t turn out to be his forte, he learned to code on his own in his early teens. He then studied computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.
“It wasn’t until I was in college and ‘Toy Story’ came out that I put all the pieces together and realized I was taking computer graphics classes and I could marry my love of animation and computing,” he said.
He was able to go straight from CMU to Pixar after the studio contacted one of his professors looking for young talent. The first Pixar film he worked on was “A Bug’s Life” in 1998 and he later oversaw character creation on films like “Toy Story 2” in 1999, “The Incredibles” in 2004, “Ratatouille” in 2007 , “Coco” in 2017. “Soul.”
As Hoffman explained, the main responsibilities of a character supervisor on an animated film include working with the art department to translate 2D drawings into 3D models; add animation controls so characters can be posed in a process called “articulation”; manage “shading”, or painting, the texture of the characters and their reaction to light; and come up with hairstyles – or, in the case of non-human characters, a fur style.
Hoffman said it took about a year for Mei’s red panda form to be perfect. As a once shy child and now the father of two teenagers who have “seen the other side” of the parent-child relationship, he spoke of both Mei’s identity crisis and her intended mother’s overbearing behavior. to ensure its safety and success.
“I feel like I’m the good boy, kind of like Mei,” he said. “My parents weren’t so bossy with me. I had a lot more flexibility and freedom than Mei, and that kind of allowed me to figure out how to be motivated and gave me the ability to make mistakes, learn from them, and grow.
Eagle-eyed viewers will be able to track Mei’s mood based on her clothes and hair, as Hoffman and her team “used this throughout the film to help understand where she was” emotionally. Mei begins “Turning Red” with a crisp, buttoned-up sweater and a neat hairstyle. As she relaxes throughout the film, the sweater comes loose and her hair becomes messier.
Mei’s red panda form also uses physical detail to visualize internal changes, Hoffman said. Mei is quite unhappy when the red panda change first occurs, and so her fur is matted and lumpy to reflect how disgusted she is with herself. Hoffman said her team also used the red panda’s fur “as another opportunity to help emotionalize her” by making her hair spiky and longer when she was upset.
“Turning Red” is directed by Domee Shi, whose Chinese-Canadian background is evident throughout this Toronto-shot film about a Chinese family who run a local temple. Hoffman said that “making sure we represent people correctly is also important to us”, so a lot of effort has been put into making sure the character and temple designs live up to the occasion in terms of cultural sensitivity.
Another fun element that Hoffman and his team got to play with was the film’s early 2000s setting. They tried to make the characters’ clothing as accurate as possible, and also enjoyed “building our own boy band” that Mei and her friends would be obsessed with.
“We didn’t go so far as to design JNCO jeans for anyone, even though the art had designed some for us,” Hoffman said. “But there was a lot of hype in terms of clothing and accessories.”
FYI: The Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse at Burnet Park has a red panda exhibit if you want to see some in person.