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Creating models for feature animations

  • Michael DeFeo has created models for 15 animated films including the four-film Ice Age series.
    Michael DeFeo has created models for 15 animated films including the four-film Ice Age series.
Published December 08. 2012 09:04AM

If you've laughed at cute little amazingly expressive imaginary creatures or have been frightened by state-of-the-art computer generated Jurassic monsters, then you have been enjoying the great illusion of the 21st century-digital animation.

Michael Defeo has been part of the team, often the creative spirit, for 15 of these digital animation features which include: Ice Age, Ice Age 2, Ice Age 3, Ice Age 4, Robots, Horton Hears A Who, Rio, and the upcoming Leaf Men.

Defeo, whose parents Richard and Ellen Defeo operate the Manor B&B in Jim Thorpe, often visits when he's not working in New York City or Paris. He's hoping to make a presentation of his work at the Mauch Chunk Museum later in the winter.

Defeo grew up outside Philadelphia, and remembers that, at 5 years old when he was sick, he would spend the day at his father's and mother's workplace.

"They had this really great studio space in an old Quonset hut," he said. "It was a very cool place to go to when I was a kid."

Richard has started his own business as an industrial designer. Everyone was drawing, so Michael took out his crayons and worked on his drawings.

"Dad was working on a series of birds a heron, a quail and a mallard duck for a bank, some kind of gift when you signed up for a new account," Defeo said. "It was really cool to see him doing sculptural work. He was designing prototypes of various castings using urethanes for the molds and plastics for the cast parts, and using fillers like crushed pecan shells to make them lighter. It was fascinating how he make a thing, and then make a mold, and then made copies from the mold.

"I remember one Halloween when I was in fifth grade. Mom and Dad helped me take the role as the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Mom made a costume, and Dad took me to a theatrical makeup shop in Philadelphia. We got nose putty, and a variety of makeup, and he helped me create the character. The memory of actually starting to work with theatrical makeup was really cool."

Young Defeo was enchanted by movies that portrayed people as monsters like the Phantom of the Opera, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolfman. His favorite read was Famous Monsters of Film Land.

"The characters were cool," he said, "and they were outsiders. My friends and I identified with these weird creatures because we were geeks.

"A lot of monster makers are special effects artists," Defeo explained.

In high school, his interest and skills in art began to mature, and building upon his enthusiasm for monster makeup and special effects, at the age of 25, he enrolled in a correspondence course to study prosthetic makeup with Dick Smith, trainer of top special makeup effects artists, and the only makeup artist to receive an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement.

"I learned how to do mold making and the many new materials specific to the makeup industry: types of plasters and foam latex," Defeo explained. "I learned about the technology that helped me hone my craft."

Defeo became inspired by stop-motion model animation and experimented with a stop-motion clay model, only to find that it was extremely time consuming.

"I don't want to animate. It takes an hour to create seconds worth of animation."

So, Defeo decided to focus on making puppets, makeups and cable controls for puppets. He got his first gig working with claymation figures that others animated for commercials. It lasted several months and it served as an apprenticeship where he learned the trade and made connections within the industry.

For the next five years, he designed and built character puppets out of clay, foam and silicone to support the animations for commercials. His connections led to assist John Dodds on the Broadway productions of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, where Defeo designed a cable-operated puppet that gave the illusion of an animated head on a tray.

In 1996, with the success of Jurassic Park, Defeo realized that the stop-motion animation industry would soon be replaced by computer graphics, and sign up to learn the technology at Pratt.

As he was learning the CG, Defeo was hired to create a maquette, a little model of a character for Blue Sky, a CG production company.

"I sculpted it in clay and I was going to scan it into the computer," he said.

During the process of creating the clay puppet, he demonstrated the digital work he had been studying, and Blue Sky asked him to build a digital version of this character.

"I thought that was great."

This led to a 15-year career with Blue Sky where he did a variety of jobs eventually getting into management, which took him away from the model building that he enjoyed.

In 2009, he became a freelancer. He has an agreement to develop computer graphics models for Universal's Illumination Entertainment in Paris.

Defeo now spends three to four month stints in Paris working on productions, returns to New York, and makes periodic trips to visit his family in Jim Thorpe.

He sees the entertainment industry as the site of the neo-Renaissance.

"During the Renaissance, the Vatican hired most of the artists. The entertainment industry is like that now because there are so many artists working for this industry that it's crazy. It's a great thing. It's a job for me. I love the work."

He loves to teach and give presentations to schools.

"I'm interested in helping anyone who is interested because I could remember when I was starting to learn the different techniques, it was hard to find any information," he noted.

Defeo's latest project is L'Ecorché (the Cutaway), an anatomy app for sculptors that runs on the iPhone and iPad. For a portfolio of the work of DeFeo, see:

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