June 3, 2008 in Sports

Then & Now: Mike Stocker

By The Spokesman-Review
Photos courtesy Michael Stocker and family photo

Then: Mike Stocker in Babe Ruth baseball, age 15.Photos courtesy Michael Stocker and family
(Full-size photo)

Unlike his siblings, Mike Stocker’s athletic career did not go beyond high school at Central Valley. Inspired by a cousin, however, he has cut out a career as enviable as if he’d played professional sports and is certainly as rewarding.

Stocker’s work as an animator on seven movies for Walt Disney Studios, including such Oscar-winning works as The Lion King, and computer generated cartoons The Incredibles and Ratatouille, among several from Pixar, has delighted millions of movie goers.

“I was affected early in high school by my (artist) cousin, Craig Shillam,” said Stocker, in a phone conversation from his studio in California. “Animation was not in the plan, but illustration and commercial type art was.”

However, as careers can go, Stocker’s round-about path to his ultimate destination took him from art school at Spokane Falls Community College to advertising agency work that included designing conceptualized interiors of Boeing aircraft in Seattle before a move to California.

“I love what I do,” said Stocker. “Animation is one of those things that’s a lot like baseball. You are your own freelancer in a way.”

Stocker, 44, graduated from CV in 1982 and played two years of varsity baseball and one abbreviated varsity basketball season for the Bears.

He was a near double figures scorer midway through his senior basketball season, with a career high 20, before breaking a thumb skiing. After a long layoff he had a 12-point effort in the season finale.

“What can I say?” he said with a laugh. “The only way (coach Stan Chalich) was OK with that is I think he was skiing on the same day.”

Like his brothers, ex-Major Leaguer Kevin and Steve, who played one year professionally, baseball was Mike’s forte. A second-baseman who believes he hit around .320 for two seasons, he had the quickest first steps of the three, said his dad, Chuck, and developed power during his senior year when the Bears finished second in the Greater Spokane League. But no college baseball offers were forthcoming.

By then he had immersed himself in art in high school. A three-year program at SFCC followed and featured one film analysis course.

Boredom set in on the job in Seattle.

“I saw a Roger Rabbit commercial on TV and that was it,” Stocker said. “I realized I could take my skill and do that and wanted to get into it somehow.”

He worked out a plan to take a job with McDonnell Douglas in Los Angeles so he could enroll in the Disney-founded California Institute of the Arts where, he said, he fell in love with cartooning. An internship followed with Disney in Florida where he worked on The Lion King and met his future wife.

“I was a cleanup artist and learned about animation,” Stocker said.

It also gave him the opportunity to watch Kevin, who was helping Philadelphia to the 1993 World Series, play in Atlanta.

After working briefly for Ted Turner on a cartoon called Cats Don’t Dance, Stocker was hired full time with Disney Studios. He said he’s going on six years with Pixar.

Learning about his work is fascinating.

“Animation is unlike live action movies which happen so quickly,” he said.

From the supervising animators in charge of one character on a cartoon to the supporting illustrators who draw each eye blink and finger move, the crew is large and the tasks time-consuming.

The story line comes from a director-driven idea, Stocker said. Story boards are created and actors brought in to voice the characters.

“They record lines as written and might record it 15 different ways,” he explained. “For a voice actor that can be frustrating. There’s not a lot of spontaneity.”

The animators then create the characters for the movie, often borrowing from physical traits of those actors. One second encompasses 24 frames of film and roughly 12 drawings, he said, adding that there were 60 or 70 animators on Ratatouille.

“It could take a month or two to do one shot that could be 15 seconds of film,” said Stocker. “After you figure out how to do it, it’s amazing how you make an inanimate thing live. Once you get going you’re blasting a scene a week from each person.”

Since moving from the traditional two-dimensional drawings of traditional cartoon movies, he is now immersed in the computerized world of three-dimensional models, digitally structured characters and stop-motion movie frame.

“When I came up here (to Marin County and Pixar north of San Francisco), I saw the writing on the wall that computers were taking over,” he said. “They trained me prior to The Incredibles and I picked it up quickly.”

Mike and his wife Tamara, a story artist animator as well, have been married 11 years. They have a son who Mike coaches in baseball and watches play hockey, and a daughter.

As an animator he said he can tell people he loves his job for its creativity. Like anything, he continued, it’s a fickle industry and an artist must be ready to go where the best opportunity is.

Pixar, however, is planning at last to produce Toy Story III in a couple of years.

“I would love to animate Buzz Lightyear,” Stocker said.

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