Animation Special Interview – Philipp Winterstein, Lead Animator, Pixomondo Frankfurt
October 20, 2019 – October 28, the International Animation Day (IAD) was proclaimed in 2002 by the ASIFA as the main global event to celebrate the art of animation. This day commemorates the first public performance of Charles-Émile Reynaud’s Théâtre Optique at the Grevin Museum in Paris, 1892. In 1895, the Cinematograph of the Lumière brothers outshone Reynaud’s invention, driving Émile to bankruptcy. However, his public performance of animation entered the history of optical entertainments as shortly predating the camera-made movies.
Born in South Africa, Philipp Winterstein discovered his passion for animation while attending high school in Austria. He attended Pixl Visn Media Arts Academy in Cologne, Germany and upon graduation was invited to work at Pixomondo. Once there, he worked his way up to his current position of Lead Animator. Philipp has worked on such high-profile projects as Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Discovery, Carnival Row, and the upcoming Star Wars streaming series The Mandalorian and the Roland Emmerich WWII feature, Midway.
Today, Philipp Winterstein talks to VFX Online about his experience about Animation Industry.
// From Philipp Winterstein, Lead Animator, Pixomondo Frankfurt
How do you describe yourself professionally?
I’m determined to do well in my job and I am dependable at that. I started out as an Intern at Pixomondo and, through my adaptability and good work, was kept on. I’m consistently searching for ways to grow and take responsibilities for my actions. Now, as Lead Animator at Pixomondo, I do my best to not only set the standard, but also make the animation process more efficient. I helped drive shows like Carnival Row and Midway forward by creating scene setups that are easy and fast to use, thus saving time. I’m committed to bringing CGI creatures and characters to life by trying to find their motives and their drive. Luckily this goes both ways, and I was able to ‘grow-up’ with the dragons of Game of Thrones to become the person I am today.
What sparked your interest in Animation or Visual Effects?
Not sure if I can pin point to a specific incident, but growing up watching a lot of fairly tales, the great 2D animation from Disney and Dreamworks, and then also the 3D animated movies that these fabulous companies released, were a big part of it. I realize now how much I love and enjoy the traditional art form of animation. Actually, I originally wanted to be an 2D animator. After a stab at 2D animation and some research I taught myself 3Ds Max, then Cinema 4D and finally Maya. That’s when I realized 3D was more the road I wanted to go down. I really enjoyed playing around with these programs – that’s when my fire and passion was sparked. When I found out that you can actually get a job doing this, I was thrilled about all the possibilities.
How did you first land a job in the industry? What was your key to breaking in to the business?
At the time, I was asked by my mentor, Jonathan Symmonds at Pixl Visn Media Arts Academy (who also worked at Pixomondo), if I wanted to join the team at Pixomondo for Game of Thrones Season 6. I guess I had made an impression during the classes he taught. Always very interested, I would take a ton of notes (I still do) and then ask 200 questions at the end of most classes. I remember Johnathan reviewing one of my animations saying something like: “This is so smooth. We could use someone like you here at Pixomondo!“ I kind of joked back saying something like: “If you want me to come I will pack my bags and go.“ This is actually what happened. I was starting my Internship there before I graduated.
Any particular area of technology that interests you?
I’m not picky. If there is technology that helps create or tell a story – awesome. I recently rediscovered and became aware of something that actually scares me a bit – deep fake AI technology. You can basically impersonate anyone and it will look like them talking with your performance. Maybe there will be ‘certificates of reality’ soon, stating that the broadcast is actually from the person showcased.
What do you think will be the evolution of Animation and VFX Industry over the next few years?
I can’t say for sure. I’m an animator and fortunetelling is a different area of expertise! Anyways, I think that the technological advancements in the last 10-15 years have been amazing. I think it’s a very exciting time to be in the industry. I look into a bright future with more and more opportunities to achieve visual and other types of storytelling. I’m certain that there will be more engaging stories that will require animation and VFX in the near and far future. With the possibilities of working and reviewing in real-time, the quality will keep reaching new heights. I’m actually hoping for the industry to use the art form of animation more to tell new captivating stories rather than redecorating previous gems. It’s not necessarily all about realism, although that can be very enjoyable as well.
What is your favorite project you’ve worked on so far?
Difficult to choose one. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the projects I have worked on so far and all of them posed different challenges. Iron Sky 2: The Coming Race and Star Trek: Discovery were interesting because of the different creatures involved – a 10 tone T-Rex and an 8-legged Tardigrade. Carnival Row was challenging because of the high frequency fairy wings. I’ll put Game of Thrones on the place of pride for this question. It was very challenging, the project I spent the most time on working (Season 6, 7 & 8) and the project I acquired and developed a lot more skills on. This is the project I’d say I really grew-up and matured in, professionally speaking.
What was the most discouraging moment in your professional career? What helped you overcome it?
To be honest, there were quite a few times I thought I didn’t know what I was doing, that I was a fraud, and that they would find out and then possibly – OMG – fire me! But those are thoughts that most of us go through at some point in time. The thing that worked for me was to stay focused and keep going. Do your best and that’s the best you can do. I think time was/is my best friend for solving discouragement. Like the time on Game of Thrones Season 8, I had animated the dragon flying, spent time on making it look cool, and then it was cut from the show. That really hit me. It took me a while to get over it. I thought the animation was really cool. But as I said before, time helps – I know I can do it again and even better now that I have learned so much more since then.
What was your favorite Animation or VFX Film and Why?
I have so many that I really, genuinely enjoyed. Here are a few…
Tarzan (1999) – I love the animation, story and score.
The Lion King (1994) – engaging animation, gorgeous visuals, the best opening scene ever and amazing score.
Treasure Planet (2002) – has some great animation choices (especially Jim as kid) and cool creatures.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) – intriguing animation and lovely soundtrack
Cartoon Animation Feature:
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – interesting new animation style, grand visuals
How to Train your Dragon franchise – great story, also great score and awesome characters and creatures.
The Incredibles franchise – fabulous animation and cool story.
The Kung-Fu Panda franchise – awesome animation, cool characters and sweet visuals
The Lord of the Rings trilogy – amazing, amazing, amazing, love the designs, great story adaptation and remarkable atmosphere
Planet of the Apes franchise – stunning visuals, performance and animation
The Harry Potter franchise – fascinating new universe that is fun to discover with a variety of stunningly animated creatures
Jurassic Park – great cinematography, brilliant score and stunning animation
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl – aw man, the best revival of an old boring franchise
Avengers: Endgame – cool push in technology to make this possible (the Marvel franchise in general for that matter), great animation
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) – captivating animation, sweet story and appealing visuals
Corpse Bride (2005)
What’s your favorite Animated/Cartoon Character and Why?
Drogon (Game of Thrones) – there is a fascinating bond between Khaleesi and her eldest dragon, Drogon. A mix of beast, character and pet with an unpredictable intelligence.
Ceasar (Planet of the Apes franchise) – there is so much depth, thought and struggle in this character.
Toothless (How To Train Your Dragon franchise) – it’s amazing how much of a character you can put into a creature that can’t speak, and I love his character development in the stories.
What’s your special achievements/awards in Animation and VFX Industry?
The team of Pixomondo and I have been nominated for a Visual Effects Society Award for our work on Game of Thrones Season 7 – Eastwatch/Drogon meets Jon. This is my biggest official achievement/reward to date. We have also been profoundly thanked in person for the great collaboration on Game of Thrones, Carnival Row and other shows such as Iron Sky: The Coming Race, which I contributed to as well.
What are your favorite tools for Animation and VFX?
Tough question – there is so much out there. Animbot (former aTools) makes top of the list. There are a lot of great free scripts available from Morgan Loomis and Aaron Koressel.
I also write my own scripts/tools. You know – whatever lets the creativity flow more easily helps. For most, not needing to focus so much on the technical side of things makes this possible. Obviously, you don’t really ‘need’ any of them to be a good animator, but they make the job easier and, most importantly, way faster!
Any particular artists/professionals that inspire you?
Glen Keane, Alvise Avati, Daniel Fotheringham, Jalil Sadool, Cameron Fielding, William Groebe, Richard Lico, David Gibson, Kyle Dunlevy, Richard Williams, Hjalti Hjalmarsson, Tomáš Jech, I could just be adding names to this list indefinitely. There are so many more amazing talented, crafty and brilliant minded people out there!
How has your experience been working at Pixomondo?
Great! I started out as an Intern. The team at Pixomondo Frankfurt is very close-knit and informal. The projects I was able to work on were/are great. I was /am able to grow with the amazing team. Now I am leading the animation department as Lead Animator. I would like to give special thanks to PXO’s VFX Supervisors Sven Martin and Max Rieß for giving me all the possibilities and guiding me to be who I am professionally today.
What do you think about Animation Organizations support from ASIFA, Women In Animation, Animation Guild, Animation Society for this industry?
Awesomeness! Keep going – the more support, variety and possibilities the merrier. These offer awesome opportunities of sharing and congregating with like-minded people.
What kind of projects would you like to work on in the near future?
On engaging stories with hopefully fascinating creatures/characters – no matter if Feature Film or TV!
What advice would you give to someone who wishes to get in to this industry?
This is something I would tell my ‘younger’ self: Stay focused and have fun whilst doing it. Enjoy the ride. It’s not going to be easy, but no one said that anyways, right? With passion and persistence there’s nothing you can’t achieve. Commit to your goal and good things will follow. Network as much as you can – you never know who you might work with next.
What are your thoughts about International Animation Day?
Celebrate animation! Pixomondo is one of the best places to do exactly that. Animation is such an awesome art form. I wouldn’t mind a public holiday to celebrate animation.