Pushing the Animation Envelope
The ever-changing demands of creating customized content for live experiences keep life interesting for Mousetrappe. By Thomas J. Mclean
If animation and visual effects weren’t difficult enough to create for the relatively predictable demands of a movie or TV show, imagine if every project had to be built from the ground up to a completely different set of circumstances.
That’s the norm for companies like Burbank-based Mousetrappe, founded in 2005 by Disney veterans Daren Ulmer and Ken Murphy, who were looking to focus on creating digital media for installations ranging from theme parks to museums.
“I think there’s a little bit of self-torture in my DNA, because I don’t like to do the same thing twice,” says Ulmer, an Imagineering alumnus and CEO of Mousetrappe. (And, yes, the name is at least in part a play on Ulmer’s former employer. “It kind of started as a Disney joke, but we really liked the concept of building a better mouse trap,” he says.)
This area spans everything from creating animations to be projected onto 3-D objects such as Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle to producing the Kennedy Space Center’s Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibition, for which Mousetrappe won the VES Award last month for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project.
The Atlantis exhibit exemplifies the unusual nature of each project Mousetrappe takes on. Mousetrappe’s tasks included producing for the preshow reenactments of the initial design meetings for the shuttle, including a sequence in which original shuttle program director Maxime Faget assembled NASA employees at a warehouse in Houston and demonstrated his idea by throwing a glider
down from the rafters.
“Once we found that story, we brought that scene to life through animation of this glider, set into this historical environment,” says Ulmer. “That sets the tone for this whole experience and allows us to present the space shuttle not as an artifact of the past but as something that people are still dreaming of.”
The main show is presented in a theater large enough for 250 people standing and is projected on a 30-foot by 30-foot screen as well as four arches that reach over the audience to create a kind of dome experience. The show itself features a mix of archival footage and visual effects extensions along with new animated scenes of the shuttle itself in situations like atmospheric re-entry that couldn’t be filmed.
The preshow leads to the Atlantis itself, which is suspended at an angle in a two-level gallery with its cargo doors open to emulate how it looked in orbit. Behind the shuttle is a 120-foot LED screen featuring a Mousetrappe-produced seven-minute background loop simulating the environment Atlantis experienced as it orbited the planet.
“A big point of this was not to make it feel like it was some relic sent off to a warehouse somewhere, but to make it feel alive and see it the way it was used, not mothballed,” says Ulmer.
The company also recently worked on a historical exhibit executive produced by Tom Hanks called “Beyond All Boundaries” for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Ulmer says the company keeps a core staff of production designers and visual effects supervisors, and hires freelance artists to work on specific projects. “The biggest job that Mousetrappe has is to really understand how both creatively and technically the media serves the overall show and the overall physical space,” says Ulmer. “And it’s our job to translate that to our artists and animators so they don’t get caught up in the technical aspects and they can do their job.”
The ever-changing canvas of these projects means traditional working methods are tweaked, too.
For example, storyboarding will often be done from different points of view: the action and animation of the creative work itself, and how that work fits into the context of the larger exhibit.
Shots also are in development longer and often run significantly longer than a shot in a feature or TV show. “Our shots tend to be hundreds of frames, not dozens of frames,” Ulmer says.
With international projects — the Middle East and Asia are hot right now, Ulmer says — and competition from vendors such as Los Angeles-based Super 78 Studios and Blur Studio, the field is one that that keeps Ulmer interested.
“I would love to do some great feature films, but for me I like the challenge of a new format each time,” he says.