COD Animation Alumnus Helps Bring Pinocchio to Life in Oscar-Nominated Film

By: Brian Kleemann

Bob Blevins posing with an animated model from Guillermo del Torro's "Pinocchio."

Buying an ax and using it on a rotten tree stump may not sound like an animator’s job, but it inspired Bob Blevins to create a moving sequence in an award-winning film.

Shooting a reference video of himself wielding the ax, Blevins studied the physics and body language of his actions. Then he used stop-motion animation to translate the mechanics of movement into a scene that appears near the beginning of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.”

“I did a lot of work on Geppetto grieving at his dead son’s grave,” Blevins said. “This sequence shows Geppetto, who has been drinking under a tree, cutting it down in a rage. I felt responsible to get a sense of tragedy and loss into the character. It took a lot out of me, being in the head space of someone who’s lost the most important thing in his life, but it’s one of my favorite scenes that I worked on.”

The new version of “Pinocchio” is currently an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature. For Blevins, the project is another leap forward in his animation career, one built upon the skills he learned at College of DuPage. He was one of the first students to complete the Animation program, and Professor Tony Venezia was quick to recognize his talent.

Animation at COD

“When I first met Bob in the spring of 2007, I knew at that moment he was someone with a lot of talent and drive,” he said. “Bob was quiet about his abilities. Throughout his time at COD, he worked on some very original and creative projects and gravitated toward stop-motion. When he created his portfolio piece, he spent an entire semester practically living in our animation closet that was used for long-term projects. His work was extremely impressive and marked the beginning of a career filled with hard work that has paid off in a big way.”

Growing up in Elmhurst, Blevins enjoyed watching animation as a child, but his interest turned into more of a hobby than a possible career option. While in high school, he took a class at COD and watched a documentary about the making of the classic animated film “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which sparked his curiosity about how stop-motion animation was made.

He and his father, who was a professor at COD, met with Venezia and learned more about the Motion Picture/TV program and the new Animation degree.

“Once I enrolled, I immediately found the program super-helpful,” Blevins said. “Tony is the most influential mentor and teacher. His excitement for film and animation is infectious, and he has a unique way of making people believe in themselves, supporting them on their paths of self-discovery.”

Blevins flourished in the program that culminated with his portfolio piece, “Life on the Rocks,” about a slug alien that was content with a solitary existence. After earning his degree, Blevins transferred to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and discovered how well-prepared he was. 

During the next year, he established relationships within the animation industry and decided to pursue goals outside of school. At that time, Disney was opening a new feature film studio in San Francisco called Cinderbiter and Blevins was determined to work there.

He and Bradley Werley, a friend who was also an animator, ran a successful campaign on Kickstarter to begin a stop-motion short film called “T.P.” that also could be used as a demo reel for their portfolios. For a year and a half, Blevins waited tables while working on the project with Werley in their small apartment that they transformed into a makeshift animation studio. After a few minutes of animation was completed, he began sending it to Cinderbiter and eventually was hired as a production assistant.

Unfortunately, the job was short-lived when the studio closed before the first picture could be completed. Blevins continued to find work while he and Werley completed “T.P.,” which took five years and 11,712 separate frames of stop-motion animation for the 10-minute project about a roll of toilet paper. The film featured voice acting from Bob Bergen, the official voice of Porky Pig, and won an audience choice award at the Brooklyn Film Festival.

“‘T.P.’ was my first job as an animator. It was a way to build my own experience and show my commitment to filmmaking in order to get more work as an animator,” Blevins said.

His growing resume included animation on the award-winning children’s television series “Tumble Leaf,” the original series “Supermansion,” “Alien X-mas” for Netflix, and “Robot Chicken” for Adult Swim. He also continued to network, and it was a colleague who contacted him about working on “Pinocchio.”

“Guillermo del Toro is an iconic yet down-to-earth guy,” Blevins said. “He believes in the animators as actors and didn’t see us just as providing technique. He allowed us to collaborate in order to showcase animation as cinema art.”

Blevins spent one-and-a-half years on the film and was one of more than 40 animators using their skills to create a new telling of the classic tale. In addition to the scenes of Geppetto at his son’s grave, Blevins also worked on a sequence in which Pinocchio is locked in a closet.

“When I finish a day of stop motion, I am physically fatigued,” he said. “I have been on my feet most of the time and often am contorting myself, completely immersed into this world that I am bringing to life. ‘Pinocchio’ is an opportunity to advance animation as an art form and show that animation is for people of all ages rather than a medium just for kids. I’m excited about the Oscar nomination but even more proud that this film could become a classic that people will watch 50 or 100 years from now. It’s amazing to be part of an iconic director’s film catalogue, and it’s the best job I ever had.”

Venezia is proud of Blevins’ accomplishments, and the two continue to stay connected.

“Bob has never forgotten his roots at COD. This past summer he helped one of our students work on a career strategy,” he said. “I have always believed in Bob and have tremendous respect for him as both a person and an animator. I expect to see more great works from him in the future.”

Blevins said “Pinocchio” gave him an opportunity to grow as an animator. He would like to stay in feature animation and expand his range by further developing his computer animation skills.

“I wouldn’t have pursued this career if I thought it was a longshot,” he said. “The hardest part was staying the course because you get kicked in the face a couple of times. But if you maintain your love for doing it, all will eventually work out.”

As for COD, Blevins appreciated the hands-on approach of the Animation program and how it influenced his career.

“What I primarily learned at COD was to love animating,” he said. “I’m not sure if I would have discovered this at a traditional four-year school, where I would have started with baby steps. At COD, I was allowed to start running—and fall on my face and then keep going. All that students needed to access resources was a high level of interest. It’s what makes COD so unique, and it spoiled me.”