Animator’s career has been a wonderful ride

Fans of the hit feature Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit have enjoyed the work of Teresa Drilling ’83 (art and design).

As a key animator on the Oscar-winning film, Drilling spent 18 months working in Aardman Animation’s studios in England, animating numerous characters including the film’s stars. Because he doesn’t speak, depicting Gromit, the canine sidekick, is especially challenging. His personality must be conveyed through expressive eyes, ears and body language.

“Gromit comes across on the screen as very simple, but he is not,” says Drilling. “He’s very subtle.”

The final result is so successful that the audience gets caught up in the story without thinking about what goes on behind the scenes. Most viewers don’t realize that stop action animation is a tremendously time-consuming, exacting and labor-intensive process: The animator poses the figure, shoots one frame, changes the pose a tiny bit, shoots the next frame, on and on. Movie film projects at the rate of 24 frames per second; typically, an animator produces a couple of seconds of film in a day.

“You spend a lot of your life in dark rooms,” says Drilling.

In addition to vast reserves of patience, the work requires artistic ability, technical know-how and dramatic sensibility. Drilling further honed these skills as a student at RIT.

Today, the School of Film and Animation in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences offers a program in stop motion animation. However, “In 1981, there weren’t any schools or programs where you went to learn stop motion animation,” she says, “so people learned on their own.”

A native of Oakfield, a small community in western New York, Drilling came to RIT to study graphic design. She changed her major to painting in her senior year, but she was already doing stop motion animation work.

She learned from the late Erik Timmerman, who taught the first animation course offered at the university and launched the computer animation program and scriptwriting curriculum. Her stop-motion short, The Owl and the Pussycat, earned several awards at film festivals and was picked up by HBO.

After graduation, Drilling went to work as a graphic designer in Rochester and kept her eyes open for opportunities in animation. She got a chance to work in New York City with Broadcast Arts, then headed for Portland, Ore. She spent 14 years with Claymation pioneers Will Vinton Studios, where she was instrumental in refining the California Raisins in the late 1980s and numerous other projects. Drilling won a Primetime Emmy award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation on Will Vinton’s Claymation Comedy of Horrors in 1991.

Since 2001, she has free-lanced for several studios. Her previous Aardman credits include Chicken Run.

On a visit to campus in November, Drilling had a chance to meet with students and view their work. She reminded students that technical excellence is important, but great storytelling is the artist’s ultimate goal.

Drilling remains passionate about her own work.

“My career has been more like surfing a wave than following a line,” she says. “It’s been a really interesting ride.”

The University Magazine, Spring 2006