Character Supervisor played with red pandas as research for Turning Red | lifestyles | Panda Anku

PITTSBURGH — Christian Hoffman swears his trip to the San Francisco Zoo to hang out with a bunch of red pandas wasn’t just for fun. As improbable as it may seem, his story works.

Hoffman, a 47-year-old Shaler native, chatted with zoo keepers and fed treats to red pandas as legitimate research for Turning Red, Pixar’s latest animated film on Disney+. As the main character supervisor, Hoffman decided to get up close and personal with real-life creatures for inspiration on how his team could best portray a 13-year-old girl who occasionally transforms into a giant anthropomorphic red panda when her feelings take over.

Turning Red is just the latest Pixar film that Hoffman has worked on as a character supervisor in his nearly 25 years at the studio. Still, figuring out the overall looks and subtle physical nuances for Mei Lee and her red panda alter-ego that excited Hoffman was a challenge.

“I knew she was going to be funny, but I really loved that they also play along with how disgusted she is with herself,” Hoffman told the Post-Gazette. “I felt like there were a lot of opportunities for comedy there.”

It will come as no surprise to anyone to learn that Hoffman was the kind of kid who always sat in front of the TV when there were cartoons on Saturday mornings. Characters like Donald Duck and the Smurfs helped spark his passion for animation. Attending animation festivals in Oakland introduced him to Pixar’s oeuvre of short films and cemented his lifelong love of the art form.

Though drawing didn’t prove to be his forte, he taught himself to code 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 that I could take computer graphics courses and combine my love of animation with my background in computer science,” he said.

He was essentially able to jump straight from CMU to Pixar after the studio approached one of his professors who was looking for young talent. The first Pixar film he worked on was 1998’s A Bug’s Life, and he oversaw the creation of characters in films such as 1999’s Toy Story 2, 2004’s The Incredibles, 2007’s Ratatouille and “Coco” from 2020 from 2017 “Soul.”

As Hoffman pointed out, the main responsibilities of a character supervisor on an animated film include working with the art department to translate 2D drawings into 3D models; adding animation controls to allow characters to be posed in a process known as “articulation”; dealing with ‘shading’ or painting, texture and how they react to light; and dreaming up hairstyles—or, in the case of non-human characters, styling fur.

Hoffman said it took about a year to get Mei’s red panda form just right. A formerly shy child and now a father of two teenagers who has seen “the other side” of the parent-child relationship, he referenced both Mei’s identity crisis and her mother’s domineering behavior aimed at keeping her safe and prosperous to keep.

“I feel like I’m the good kid, much like Mei,” he said. “My parents weren’t so pretentious with me. I had a lot more flexibility and freedom than Mei and that allowed me to figure out how to motivate myself and gave me the opportunity to make mistakes and learn and grow from them.”

Eagle-eyed viewers can track Mei’s mood by her clothes and hair, because Hoffman and his team “used that throughout the film to figure out where she was emotionally.” Mei begins “Turning Red” with a crisp, buttoned-up sweater and a tightly curated hairstyle. As she becomes more relaxed during 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 as such her fur is matted and clumped to show how disgusted she is with herself. Hoffman said his team also used the red panda’s fur “as another opportunity to help her emote,” making his hair more spiky and longer when she was upset.

“Turning Red” is directed by Domee Shi, whose Chinese-Canadian background is evident in this Toronto-based film about a Chinese family who runs a local temple. Hoffman said that “it’s important for us, too, to make sure we’re portraying people correctly,” so a lot of effort went into making sure the character and temple designs did justice to the occasion in terms of cultural sensibility.

Another fun element for Hoffman and his team to play with was the film’s early 2000s setting. They tried to keep the characters’ attire as period-accurate as possible, and also enjoyed “building our own boy band,” which Mei and her friends would become obsessed with.

“We didn’t go as far as building JNCO jeans for anyone, although art had drawn some for us,” Hoffman said. “But there was a lot of excitement in terms of clothing and accessories.”

FYI the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse in Burnet Park has a red panda exhibit if you would like to see any in person.

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