Working with Walt: Marc Bryant ’99, M ’03

Marc Bryant at Walt Disney Animation Studios in California.

Marc Bryant specializes in fire, smoke and destruction — as far as animation goes, at least. Bryant, who earned both an undergraduate and graduate degree at Clemson, is living the dream as a member of Disney’s effects department, creating and animating film at Walt Disney Animation Studios in California.

Wielding his background in Clemson’s computer science and digital production arts (DPA) programs and his previous experience in live-action visual effects, Marc Bryant eagerly transitioned into animation when he accepted the opportunity to work for Disney Animation in 2013. As an effects animator, Bryant works on the animation for things like water, electricity, smoke, magic and fire, and he relishes the different challenges that each project presents. “You might be animating magical storms in one movie and blowing up a city in the next. There’s always some new challenge to keep you engaged.”

Throughout his work, Bryant often relies on the strong technical foundation he acquired as a graduate student in Clemson’s DPA program. Along with the necessary technical coursework, the diversity and customization of the program’s curriculum allowed Bryant to pursue valuable creative courses, like photography, that he believes have served him well in the imaginative aspects of animation work.

Those skills helped Bryant play an integral part in the development of one of Disney Animation’s most recent projects, Moana, a colorful tale surrounding an ancient Polynesian heroine on a seafaring mission to save her island village. As the effects lead for Te Kā, the movie’s angry, volcanic antagonist, Bryant researched volcanoes and lava types as well as lava and smoke movement in order to perfect Te Kā’s fiery temper. Working with a character as heavily featured and complex as Te Kā compelled Bryant and the rest of the department to build an FX rig with many different elements, like pyroclastic plumes and lava, in order to easily simulate her movements.

“We needed a solution that would allow us to iterate quickly and to closely collaborate with multiple departments,” he explains. The effects department decided to take a layered approach to constructing Te Kā by using a mixture of pre-simulated elements and custom per-shot simulations to modify the character’s movements quickly and effectively.

“Layout would start this process by placing pre-simmed elements, allowing the directors to evaluate the framing and timing of volcanic events at a very early stage. Animation could also adjust these elements to suit their purposes as they worked on Te Kā’s character performance,” explains Bryant.

Then the effects department layered in the “hero” FX, which consists of custom sims that react to the character’s movements. Bryant describes these hero rigs as “modular, with basic components, such as smoke, fire and lava, saved into individual Houdini galleries.” Breaking down the rig allowed research and development artists to simultaneously work on its different parts. “The individual galleries would then be assembled at shot time, providing the artist with a solid starting point for their custom simulations,” informs Bryant. Disney’s effects department uses Houdini as their animation application software, which provided the built-in solvers for Te Kā’s fire and pyroclastic smoke simulations. Animating the more liquid lava required a combination of Houdini’s FLIP solver and Disney Animation’s Splash solver, which was developed for the breathtaking water in Moana.

After all of the work put into Moana, Bryant is on to the next project, specifically focused on improving tools for Disney Animation’s upcoming sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2. As his work with Disney Animation continues, Bryant is soaking up every magical moment: “It’s the best job I’ve had. Walt Disney Animation Studios provides a fantastic environment and the chance to collaborate with people who created the classics from my childhood. It’s pretty humbling.”

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