Getting animated

By Allan I. Ross
Lansing-area native Justin Leach leads a filmmaker discussion Saturday as part of the East Lansing Film Festival. Courtesy photo.

EXCLUSIVE: Interview with filmmaker, Lansing native, Justin Leach

Friday, Nov. 8 — The East Lansing Film Festival hosts a filmmakers forum Saturday at noon featuring the writers, directors and stars behind some of this year’s films. One of the guests will be Justin Leach, an animator whose credits include “The Ice Age” franchise and “Rio,” the sequel for which comes out next year.

Leach, 39, got a BFA in computer animation from the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla. He's worked in a variety of computer animation jobs, including storyboard artist, character designer, 3-D modeler and his current position of rigging supervisor, in which he builds virtual puppets inside the computer.

He's also the son of Tom Leach, owner/operator of Video to Go in Frandor. He answered some questions by email from his home in New York.

Did your father’s love and knowledge of movies have a lot do with you going into the business?

Yes, my father's love of film really is at the core of why I do what I do. I remember spending time in the projection room of the Mason (Plaza Cinema) he used to work at. My father also set up a 16mm projector theater in our basement — this was well before home theaters were common — and he used show me clips from Disney movies and other classic films like “Star Wars.” And as we entered the ‘80s, he was one of the first people to open a video store in the area. In high school, my mind opened up to the idea of film as visual storytelling medium and I began to watch many independent movies, especially anime and Asian cinema.

Was there anything about growing up in mid-Michigan that informed your career, either emotionally or visually?

That's an interesting question. I can't directly pinpoint any one thing, but I am sure it is a part of my creative DNA. East Lansing was a great place to grow up and my memories are very positive. I do find that one of the things I really enjoy about living in New York is that the weather and environment is not all that different from Michigan. Although most people dread snow, I really enjoy it. Autumn is great as well.

What is it about animated films that attracted you, as opposed to going into, say, doing special effects for a live action movie?

When I saw “The Little Mermaid” in high school, I came to the decision that I wanted to go into animation and/or filmmaking. At the time, I was heavily involved in the East Lansing High School's musical theater program and I thought animation was the perfect marriage of my interests (in) film, art and acting.

What do you think will be the biggest change in animated movies in the next 10 years?

I'm not quite sure it will change too much from what we see now. Unfortunately, Hollywood is not able to take too many creative risks since animated films are very expensive to make and audiences are being more selective with the films they go to see in a theater. However, if there is a lack of diversity in terms of style and genre of animation, I fear that the industry will implode as more studios try to compete against one another and audiences get tired of seeing the same thing. In contrast, Japan has a very wide spectrum of different types and styles of animation. I feel that streaming content online will be the next creative frontier for animation.

What advice do you have for the aspiring filmmakers?

The road to becoming a filmmaker is a long one. It's like running a marathon. Patience, determination and endurance will get you there. For some people it may take five years, others 30 or more years. Also, I think it’s important to just make your films and get as much hands-on experience as possible. SLR cameras can now shoot very high quality film for a fraction of shooting a Hollywood film and 3-D animation programs are not too expensive.

Once you make your films, submit them to as many film festivals as you can and network with people you meet.

Anything you've missed about East Lansing and are looking to do while you're here?

Jersey Giant subs and MSU campus during autumn.

A Talk with Justin Leach

1:30 p.m., Wells Hall, Theater B

619 Red Cedar Road, East Lansing (campus of Michigan State University)