Dr. Stuart Sumida

One of the highlights at TAAFI 2013 was hearing Dr. Stuart Sumida speak. A renowned vertebrate paleontologist, he has advised animators at Disney, Dreamworks, and other animation houses big and small, regarding vertebrate anatomy, physiology, and animal locomotion.

Those who attend Sumida’s animation-related workshops and go to his lectures are usually character animators: people who need to make cartoon people and animals move realistically or who need to make imaginary creatures move believably. Sumida says that his job is to help the animators make a character’s movement believable so that the audience will accept the characters and get lost in the story.

But we’re not exclusively character animators here at Together. So what did we learn? Well, that we really miss regular science classes, but also:

1) We are what we eat.

In general, carnivores are lean, fast, and have jaws that hinge like scissors to enable them to powerfully kill and tear at prey. Protein is easy to digest and so the digestive tract in carnivores is short, allowing them to move fast, which in turn allows them to chase down prey. Think of wolves and cheetas.

Herbivores, needing to process the cellulose in plants, are barrel-shaped to house either a ruminant stomach or nearly a hundred feet of intestines. Their jaws are not hinged to snap or tear flesh, and the jaw hinge is above the teeth to allow the molars a better side-to-side grinding motion. They move slowly and they can roam vast distances, because their food source doesn’t need to be chased. Think horses and cows.


Horse skull. Jaw joint is above the plane of the molars. (from here, original image source not found)

Humans and birds are weird exceptions to the “you are what you eat” rule.

2) We are neotenic apes.

Humans have a lot in common with baby apes. In fact, baby apes have opposable thumbs, just like baby humans, but as apes mature, their hands grow longer until the thumb is no longer opposable. We humans retain more “baby-like” traits than any other primate, including our opposable thumbs, our big heads, our wide-set eyes, and even our curiosity and ability to learn our whole lives.

Dr. Sumida consulted on the Disney film Tarzan, and when Tarzan compares his hand to his adoptive mother’s, he begins to notice their differences.


Hands and Feet of Apes and Monkeys, from The New Natural History by Richard Lydekker

For more about human/gorilla similarities and differences in movement, check out Sumida’s Tips & Tricks video from Animation Mentor. This is a great clip because you get to hear him expound on his three favourite things: vertebrates, animation, and Aikido!

Because we are designed to respond to babies, neotenic features are especially exploited by character designers, whether for the screen, or for toy licensing. This is why Mickey Mouse has gone from a cute, but grown-up looking mouse to his current big-eyed, toddler-proportioned design, and also seems to explain the general trend from the already neotenic Barbie to the more extremely big-eyed and bobble-headed Bratz.

3) Animation and science go hand in hand.

Sumida calls paleontology, astronomy, and marine biology the “gateway sciences” – these are the sciences we are exposed to as kids that lead us to discover more as adults. Through animated dinosaurs to dolphin pool toys and glow-in-the-dark stars, we are exposed to our past, our universe, and our planet and we seek more knowledge. Sumida points out that animation is a perfect way to teach children about paleontology and evolution, because it is fun, it can be interactive, and can apply science to non-scientific things. Because of the amount of study animators put into things like anatomy and flight mechanics, Sumida says he can “teach kids in Louisiana science education with How to Train Your Dragon“.

4) Biological differences can be inspiring!

Writers, actors, and animators, even when their characters are simply drawn, intuitively play with biological differences (physical characteristics) all the time. We decide how our characters are built which determines how they walk, or we might decide how we want them to walk and then figure out what their physical build ought to be. We decide on their age, their strength, their agility or lack thereof.  Sumida notes that the reason his consulting on animated films works is “because the studio has decided that the biological inspiration for characters is a very potent tool for creating differences in their characters”. That is something we all know, but it’s good to be reminded of it. It’s inspiring to look around at our biological diversity and to remind ourselves to include that in our work, or at least, to explore it as we develop new characters.


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