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October 24, 2005

Alumnus transforms characters with digital wizardry

By Jennifer McNulty

As a child, Dug Stanat didn't watch much television, and his parents frowned on cartoons. So it's a little ironic that Stanat now makes his living bringing movies like Shrek 2 and Madagascar to the screen.

Now senior character technical director for PDI/DreamWorks, Dug Stanat, a Porter College alumnus, received a B.A. in economics and environmental Studies in 1990.
Photo: Shawn Phillips

Stanat is a digital puppet maker, transforming static computer-generated models into virtual marionettes.

Like Geppetto the puppeteer in Pinocchio, Stanat adds the joints, muscles, and "strings" that today's animators pull to make characters move, smile, and, in the case of Madagascar's penguins, waddle.

It's a fitting job for Stanat, who became interested in three-dimensional animation while making sculpture after college.

During high school, Stanat had used an 8-millimeter camera to make short stop-motion films. As a sculptor, he wanted to make his colorful mixed-media creatures move, and digital three-dimensional technology gave him the tools to do it.

"As a sculptor, I enjoyed showing people something they hadn't seen before," says Stanat, whose wild creations bring to mind gargoyles, Oaxacan carvings, and Balinese masks. "I've always been fascinated by things that eat people--crocodiles, white sharks, creatures from the past, and creatures from my mind."

Madagascar is among Dug Stanat's projects in his job as a digital puppet maker.

When Stanat shifted media and began creating animated 3-D images on the computer, he was hooked.

He found the process mentally challenging in ways that were quite different from sculpting. "I had a whole catalog of creatures from my sculpting days that I wanted to create--but I needed to figure out how to do it," he says. "Intellectually, it was far more engaging than sculpture. I used to listen to music or the radio while sculpting, but I can't do that when I'm working in 3-D."

Stanat dropped sculpture completely, and before long, he compiled a demo reel of his personal projects. He sent one to PDI (now PDI/DreamWorks), and to his surprise, he landed a job with the studio a few months later. Today he works with some of the best in the field, including Dick Walsh, who won a technical achievement Academy Award for developing PDI's facial animation system.

Character technical directors like Stanat bridge the modeling and animation departments, he explains. Modelers create the three-dimensional character, or model, which Stanat and his colleagues "rig" for the animators. Stanat, who specializes in faces, says a typical character will have several hundred controls just in the face. "If a character is well-designed, animators will be able to go in at a very fine level to get just the expressions they want," he explains. "We get involved very early in the production pipeline. It's an extremely collaborative process."

Seeing creatures come to life is a long and complex process, both on personal projects and in the studio. When rigging a character at work, Stanat usually runs some early animation tests himself, but it's a whole different experience to see what animators can accomplish with the characters. "The more a rig is pushed and abused, or used in unexpected ways, the more exciting it is to see--as long as the rig holds up," he says. When a rig fails, that's exciting, too. "It means we'll have to try something different, develop a new technique, or even develop new technology. That challenge is part of the fun," he adds.

Shrek 2 and Madagascar represented different technical challenges, Stanat explains. The directors of Shrek 2 wanted a film that was more visually sophisticated than its predecessor, while the directors of Madagascar sought an "extremely cartoony animation far beyond what any realistic face would be able to do."

By the time a film makes it to the theater, Stanat has been off the project for some time. "It is a lot of fun to see the final product," he says. "Not just seeing your own work, but the work of your co-workers come to life. There is pride in what our team has accomplished."

There's a lot of camaraderie at PDI/DreamWorks, says Stanat, adding that his department is "very international--at one point, we had someone from every continent but Antarctica."

Looking back, Stanat traces quite a winding path from high school to studying economics and environmental studies at UCSC and now to film work.

Always an artistic kid, he became "obsessed" during high school in North Carolina with the threat of nuclear weapons, and pursued his interest at UCSC. "It's where my dark mind was drawn, but it's not where I took my pleasure," he says. "Somewhere along the line, I got the idea that if you enjoy something, it's not worthwhile. I didn't necessarily know school could be fun."

When Stanat moved into his UCSC dorm room in 1985, he was the only person on his floor with a personal computer. His parents had sent him off to school with an original Apple Macintosh, today's computer equivalent of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Stanat quickly mastered the early art applications and dabbled in computer graphics and programming while working toward his degree.

"My first computer animations were done using MacPaint," he recalls. "I would create two pictures, paste one on top of the other, and then hit the 'undo' key to 'play' the two-frame loop. Ridiculous, but it was all that was available to me at the time."

Stanat marvels at his decision-making process when he recalls what motivated his move to Santa Cruz. "I really enjoyed flying kites at the time, and I figured Santa Cruz would have really good conditions for kites," he says. "It was one of my luckiest silly decisions ever."

Now, riding campus bike trails with his 6-year-old son, Stanat says he is more overwhelmed by the redwoods and the campus's natural beauty than he was as a college student. "Having the good fortune to find yourself in such a beautiful place by chance really is outstanding," says Stanat, who also had the good fortune at UCSC to meet the woman who is now his wife. Shawn Phillips (anthropology, Porter '88) met Stanat during his freshman year. The couple have two young sons, Oslo and Rio. They live in Fremont, California.

Stanat is currently working on Shrek 3.


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