Push­ing the An­i­ma­tion En­ve­lope

The ever-chang­ing de­mands of cre­at­ing cus­tom­ized con­tent for live ex­pe­ri­ences keep life in­ter­est­ing for Mouse­trappe. By Thomas J. Mclean

Animation Magazine - - Opportunities -

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.

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