Passion, creativity and sweat equity are the only proven ingredients for making art that matters
I’ve heard it time and again from film-industry types across the country: “We want to create a movie scene in our city — we need tax credits.”
Relying on the government to help birth a creative culture may provide a temporary spike in work performed in said industry, but it’s short-lived and volatile at best. What has been created in this scenario is an artificial condition; a temporary business proposition that tends to favor the already-established, well-funded film companies with agents and producers who are connected and have intimate knowledge of the intricate, inner workings of high-level financing.
A relationship based exclusively on granting and receiving rebates will quickly and casually be absolved once the rebates dry up.
Sure, the argument can be made that offering tax credits serves as an incentive to draw new business from the film industry to a particular state, thereby generating revenue for that state and encouraging film production on a local level, but tax credits do not a film scene make. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for encouraging and helping fund movies, but this simply does not create a “scene,” no matter how much we wish to believe otherwise.
For Example ... Hearken back to the 1990s. Countless bands were making music for the sake of making music, often involving pain and frus- tration and the resulting catharsis that followed. Seattle was perhaps one of the most unmarketable areas if not least-likely places for a music scene to emerge. People were making music and playing shows sometimes in direct protest and opposition of the big hair, big fame, big business and over commercialization of 1980s pop culture. This one scene literally changed the entire music industry on a global scale, the effects of which are still felt today.
Many of the musicians that contributed to this scene had no interest whatsoever in corporate America or government incentives. In fact, they came from a place polar opposite to this. They practiced. They rehearsed. They played tiny bars, coffee shops — anywhere they could be heard. They got into the scene not necessarily to make money or save 10 percent off their budget, but for the love of creating, playing and performing music.
If someone wanted to start a new music scene, how effective do you think it would be if they took this approach: “You know, I achieved their greatness not from lobbying government for tax incentives, but from a deep passion of their craft and an immutable voice that they projected loudly and clearly through their work.
Do you want to know the real secret to starting a film scene in your area? I can save you years of business school, headaches from trying to apply for government grants, frustrations from dealing with high-level financing, and disappointments from counting on geopolitics to make your dreams come true. (You can thank me later.) Here it is. Are you ready? Make great films. That’s it. Make movies for no other reason than for the love of storytelling and making movies. Borrow whatever money you can from friends and family. Find people locally who want to be involved in something cool and would be more than happy to help with some of the expenses. Sell everything you own that you don’t need any more. Cash-in every favor you can. Find other like-minded people that will pitch in with sweat equity. Stay up late, burn the candle at both ends, give more blood, sweat and tears than you thought possible — all for the sake of seeing your passion project come to life. That’s how you start a scene.
Tax credits come and go, but people who are truly in love with making films will always find ways to make films. And if enough likeminded people live in or are attracted to a specific area, city or region — congratulations! — your scene is born and you are the reason. Martin Grebing is an award-winning animation director and producer, small-business consultant and trainer. He is president of Funnybone Animation and can be reached via www.funnyboneanimation.com.
When legendary animator Glen Keane drew star characters for Disney’s Aladdin, Tarzan, Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, he had the tactile experience of putting pencil to paper. Fastforward to today, which finds Keane exploring a higher-tech method of creating gestural art.
In the online video Step into the Page, Keane can be seen “drawing” in 3D space using virtual-reality gear. The artist wears an HTC Vive headset and wields Tilt Brush, a VR drawing tool being released by Google.
With seemingly effortless strokes, Keane brings Disney’s Beast and Ariel the mermaid to life. Viewers, meanwhile, watch a screen to see what he’s drawing in real time.
Keane talks about the process like a kid in a candy store.
“What I love about drawing in virtual reality is the feeling of immediacy that you get,” he says. “It’s like a dance. I sense that this is a path for something entirely new and very hand-crafted.”
While Keane was a key contributor to Disney’s “second golden age” of traditional animation in the 1990s, he’s no stranger to the latest digital tools. In 2014 he animated for Google’s Spotlight Stories the short Duet, which turned a cellphone screen into a window on a love story. Duet prompted an invitation for Keane to appear at the Future of Storytelling conference in New York this fall, and he took his Vive and Tilt Brush gear with him. There, he performed Step into the Page as a live demonstration.
These developments represent a chain of events that Keane could not have predicted for his career post-Disney, where he spent nearly 38 years.
“When I stepped out of the comfort zone of Disney, I felt I needed to put my sails up and be ready when the wind started to move,” he says. “Because of the Duet piece, my producer Gennie Rim and I visited various SIGGRAPH chapters, studios, schools and conferences around the world last year. I was excited to share the idea of animation becoming much more dimensional — to convince everybody that the drawings of characters were like little living sculptures.
“Then last fall I spoke at the Visual Effects Society in San Francisco,” Keane says. “After the talk, I was approached by Drew Skillman, who was developing a new tool, called Tilt Brush, along with Patrick Hackett. His eyes were alive with excitement, because they were working on tools to make sculptural drawing possible.” Keane followed up the conversation with a visit to Skillman and Hackett’s tiny studio, and saw the beginnings of what Tilt Brush would become.
Since then, says Hackett, “we’ve had a lot of discussions with Glen about where Tilt Brush could go. It’s important for us to get feedback from people who have careers’ worth of talent.”
While Skillman and Hackett developed the tool independently after spending a decade in the video-game industry, the sale of their invention to Google has made them VR players right out of the gate. The few hundred developers who are working with the Vive headset have received prototypes of Tilt Brush to work with, and Hackett says that experimentation has been limited to those developers thus far.
“We’ve had a number of people reach out to us and say, ‘I run an animation school’ or ‘I’ve been making video-game art for ten years. Is there any way that I can try this?’ Right now, it’s just a problem of getting talented people into the hardware. But that will get easier and easier.”
Once Vive and Tilt Brush are released, starting at year’s end, Hackett expects that a robust period of feedback can really begin.
“It’s our hope that Tilt Brush will be the application that people show their friends to explain how the Vive works. It wouldn’t surprise me if developers use it as a launch pad for showing the mass appeal that VR could have.” With a consumer base in mind, Hackett adds: “We’ve tried to minimize the number of buttons the user has to learn. Everyone knows how to use a pencil.”
Keane himself sounds surprised that he’s been able to get the hang of Tilt Brush fairly readily, though he knows he has further to go. “As wonderful as drawing in VR is, there is still a learning curve that I see before me. But it reminds me of what I felt when I first started in animation. I’m intimidated, and hoping to learn to be able to master this approach. It’s absolutely fascinating to think about how you can sculpt and animate a figure in space.”
Even as the small group behind Glen Keane Productions continues to explore new tools and delivery platforms for animation, the animator himself sees it as part of a continuous creative thread.
“In my animation I have always been turning characters in space to show that they’re dimen- sional. This technology really opens that space up, and lets an artist like me draw what is already in my mind. That’s why I’ve felt strangely comfortable using it – like this was normal, in a way. I believed that I could actually draw in VR because it wasn’t so much about drawing the edges of a character as it was about believing in the form that existed within those edges. You really need to be thinking in terms of the dimensional form that you are defining.”
Keane is intrigued about the possibilities this technology holds for coming generations of artists – including his grandchildren. Which seems fitting, considering that he is the son of famed cartoonist Bil Keane, and the father of artists Claire and Max Keane. Calling himself “a town crier” for these new approaches to animation, he says, “I never want to get to the point where I stop sharing my discoveries. I find that I always have to teach. Passing on ideas is ‘the comet’s tail.’ And a comet only has a tail if it is moving forward.” [
TAtomic Fiction digitally rebuilds the World Trade Center and 1974 New York for Robert Zemeckis’ vertigo-inducing
he Walk, which recreates Philippe Petit’s amazing high-wire crossing between the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1974, couldn’t have happened without Robert Zemeckis’ pioneering tech advances in live-action ( Forrest Gump, Back to the Future), performance capture ( The Polar Express) and live-action/animation hybrid ( Who Framed Roger Rabbit?).
“Everything I’ve done my whole career has prepared me to make this movie,” Zemeckis says. “It’s a win-win for me and I used performance capture invisibly with digital doubling. I certainly identify with that passion that Philippe has. The thumbnail description of the whole act (110-stories high and 140-feet across) told me that this has the potential to be a movie. And so I kept running it down and, of course, when I spoke to Philippe and he told me the story, it was instantly obvious that this could be a movie. It could do everything that movies are supposed to do — that was my instinct.”
Zemeckis’ original intention was to make The Walk as a performance-captured animated feature. But that was before Disney closed down his ImageMovers studio. However, he still got Petit to don the mo-cap suit and virtually pantomime his legendary high-wire balancing act as part of an elaborate animatic of the entire movie. That performance-captured walk obviously served him well as a choreographed roadmap.
Kevin Baillie of Atomic Fiction, who’s worked with Zemeckis since his performance-capture crusade, supervised the crucial visual effects.
“We shot the film in Montreal,” he says. “For the third-act walk, we built one corner of one of the towers that was about 40 feet long and 12 feet high. That’s all they could fit on the stage in Montreal and still have room for about 100 feet of cable for the walk action to happen (with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit).
“The rest was green screen in all directions. We had to do digital extensions of the rooftop and the towers and recreate those. And 1974 New York looks remarkably different from today, so we couldn’t just take photography of modern day New York. We had to recreate New York completely from scratch. What you see is 20 percent filmed real and the rest recreated. Rodeo did set extensions of the World Trade Center lobby.”
A Digital Big Apple Building New York from scratch (including buildings, hot dog stands, newsstands, cars and people) first began by getting reference footage for two days in a helicopter to monitor traffic flow and how people look from that height.
“The unexpected outcome for me was getting permission to hover right over ground zero at 1,400 feet, which is the exact place where Philippe walked. I was able to evaluate every shot in post around that sensation,” Baillie recalls.
The cityscape was achieved through a combination of Maya and Modo for model making and then they used Mari and Modo, depending on the artist, to texture the buildings.
Atomic did all of the look development, shading and lighting in Katana.
Then it was all rendered in Atomic’s in-house cloud-rendering platform called Conductor, which is being released commercially at the end of the year.
“We do all of our rendering in the cloud and it manages the entire cloud process from beginning to end, so an artist doesn’t have to think about it,” Baillie says. “By doing that, we rendered about 9.1 million processor hours in the cloud for The Walk, the largest cloud-rendered feature film, which is more than 1,000 years on a single processor worth of computer.”
A Towering Task The biggest challenge, of course, was recreating the towers, which were destroyed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “We wanted them to look and feel like people’s recollection of those towers. And the really interesting thing about the towers is that because they are anodized aluminum skin, they were like chameleons in a way,” Baillie says. “They reflect and take on the intensity of the light that’s around them. Even what’s behind you has a profound impact on how the towers look. On sunny days they look white and on cloudy days they look almost black. So we had to spend a lot of time working on the shading of the towers.
“We ended up using V-ray to render them and they have a relatively new shading model called GTX, which simulates micro bumps in a surface, and that’s exactly what anodized aluminum is. When you look at it front on, it almost looks matte. But if you look at a steep angle, like from the side of the building, it’ll be reflective. Using the GTX model made the difference between looking like a CG thing and looking real. The first time that GTX has been used in production on this scale.”
Baillie insists The Walk is the antithesis of the modern-day superhero movie. “He’s real and you’re there with him and the visuals aren’t meant to punch you in the face — they’re meant to evoke an emotion and to support this guy’s journey.” Bill Desowitz is owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com) and a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood and Animation Scoop at Indiewire.
GGhosts, mansions and creeping blood-red clay all received hands-on attention from
Guillermo del Toro. By Bill Desowitz.
uillermo del Toro is back doing what he does best with Crimson Peak: scaring up Gothic thrills and creepy ghosts with baroque visuals. It’s a bizarre love triangle between Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain set in a crumbling mansion in 19th century England — only nothing is what it seems.
Mr. X’s Dennis Berardi, the production visual-effects supervisor, was tasked with creating the ghosts and environments. “Guillermo is very hands-on and very much wants to understand your toolset so he can communicate with you and make it better, which is unusual,” says Berardi. “And anytime we did reviews with him, we would have our lead artists in the sessions. Half of my job is to parse director’s notes into things that make sense for an artist, but not Guillermo’s. He’s got the ability to speak directly to the artists and move them in the right direction and give them reference and draw something for them.”
And del Toro knew exactly what he wanted, from the look of the ghosts to the look of the red clay oozing up from the mine below. “There’s a shot at the beginning of the mov- Maya and phased it in and out for Mother Ghost, and then added the ectoplasm. We match-moved our digital character over our live-action character and rendered a skeletal structure as well as hands and feet because Mother Ghost looks more emaciated and distorted than what was photographed.
“As we kept going, we replaced the face with hollowed out eyes. It’s a terrific hybrid of practical makeup and wardrobe and CG animation. We used Mantra and the ectoplasm was a Houdini particle sim based on daguerreo tintype photos that Guillermo liked where you see ectoplasm-like ribbons.”
There’s also an all-CG badass ghost that floats in the middle of the atrium. It was more complicated. Del Toro created a design with DDT and initially put a person in suit but went digital because the design kept evolving. The ghost has flowing hair and holds a baby.
“It’s creepy, but the ghost also cries,” Berardi says. “It took six months to get the performance right and make it photoreal. The internal skeletal structure also had to be seen. It’s snowing through the top of the broken roof so the snowflakes had to go through her and sometimes land on her. The rig and hair system, that was directable. The design was very detailed: the length of fingers, how thin the bone structure could be, elongated legs, curl of the feet, face, scar on face. We sculpted what the hair could look like as a still and that went into the hair pipeline, which is a combination of Shave and a Haircut and Houdini.”
They placed an actor in a suit for purposes of a performance for another ghost with a CG body replacement so you could see a lot of negative space. It is the most emaciated-looking of the ghosts, in which you can see the ribcage and withered legs.
Another ghost emerges (the mother of Hiddleston and Chastain) from the bathtub with a cleaver in her head and ectoplasm coming out. This too was a match-moved CG ghost over a live-action ghost.
Inside and Out The exterior of the mansion was CG. “We’re big on image-based lighting and rendering,” Berardi says, “so when they were on location, we did HDRI in Photo Survey and created an image-based spherical model for lighting and everything was lit in the same lighting model as the live-action photography, which helps with the photorealism. It was then rendered in V-Ray.
“Inside the house we see the red clay oozing like blood, which was a very high-res sim in Houdini. Guillermo decided on viscosity and speed of movement and how it collects and folds over itself. We created a system where we could accommodate changes in viscosity.”
The red clay oozing up through snow is a digital effect. It was achieved through a combination of 2.5-D projection clean of red and they created a red version of that environment and then revealed the red through the snow shot by shot.
“Guillermo wanted a progression where it grows over time,” Berardi says. “That was on a stage; we LIDAR-scanned the set, built a full digital environment, match moved every shot and the white environment with the red snow coning on the ground were digital shots.”
It’s pure del Toro, in which mood dictates content. [ Bill Desowitz is owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com),author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com) and a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood and Animation Scoop at Indiewire.
Motion capture has become ubiquitous in the industry — or, rather, industries, if you talk about animation, film, previz and video games. It’s a must. But it’s frequently expensive. It has lots of equipment. It requires a dedicated, or at least temporarily dedicated, volume of space. It’s kind of a hassle, especially if you don’t have a support team to do it all.
Well, in the last few years, a number of companies have been working on getting around these foibles. The most noticed of these has been the Perception Neuron system, breaking out of the gate with a successful Kickstarter campaign that got them going down the development road. As of September, the systems were being shipped to contributors, and artists and animators throughout the land are starting to become performance artists and finding out just how hard it is to be a mime.
The system is compact and portable, lacing the performer up in a kind of a suspender and strap system with “neurons” at key points of rotation (body, head, arms, legs) and embedded into gloves for finger movement — a feature that isn’t possible with many optical mo-cap systems. The neurons calculate movement with accelerometers and gyros and translate that into data to be applied to a skeleton in 3D. This data is transmitted in real time back to your workstation either through Wi-Fi or a USB cable — and in the near future, a Micro SD card. Voila … you have a performance.
The setup is easy. We had it up and running in under an hour. All the software seemed to just work properly, although occasionally we would have to calibrate a couple of times before it locked in. Wi-Fi transmission seems to be incredibly sensitive to environmental influences and factors. Keep other devices off the system while capturing — or have a dedicated network — or else you run into drifting and performance lag. USB provides a cleaner signal, with the restriction that your performer is tethered. Hopefully the Micro SD will give you the best of both worlds.
Regardless of these nitpicky things, the concept of having a motion capture system in your living room to work out ideas on a whim is well worth a $1,500 investment.
Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s second feature for Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There (2014), is a gentle story that focuses on an unhappy heroine coming to terms with herself. As he did in The Secret World of Arietty (2010), Yonebayashi suggests magic may lie hidden just beneath the surface of everyday life.
In a recent interview conducted via email, Yonebayashi talked about Marnie and his career in animation, which began when he dropped out of college to work at Ghibli.
“When I was a student, I was already assisting on animated commercials, so it was quite natural for me to go into animation,” he writes. “I loved the Studio Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart, which had been released the year before I started working there, so I took the entrance exam to join the studio. Ghibli doesn’t take new hires every year, so I was very lucky in my timing.”
Both of Yonebayashi’s films are based on British juvenile books that had been chosen by director Hayao Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki. Arietty is adapted from Mary Norton’s The Borrowers series; Marnie is based on the eponymous novel by Joan G. Robinson. “I like British children’s novels,” says Yonebayashi. “Although they’re written for children, many of those books treat themes that are very thought-provoking. In the case of When Marnie Was There, I was especially drawn to the sensitive and beautiful way the heroine’s interior psychology and the landscapes were depicted.”
After she suffers a crippling asthma attack, Anna Sasaki (voice by Hailee Steinfeld), the alienated adolescent heroine of Marnie, is sent by her foster mother Yoriko (Geena Davis) from her home in Sapporo to recover in a small seaside town. She stays with her eccentric Aunt Setsu (Grey Griffin) and Uncle Kiyomasa (John C. Riley) while she rebuilds her strength.
Anna strives to stay away from her relatives and the local people, wandering the shore alone. But she’s intrigued by the Marsh House, an apparently abandoned mansion hidden among the trees. When lovely blonde Marnie (Keirnan Shipka) emerges from the house, the two girls become fast friends, sharing confidences, laughs and complaints. Anna resents her parents and grandmother for dying, leaving her with Yoriko, whom she believes took her in for the government subsidy. Marnie’s glamorous parents leave her in the care of an authoritarian governess and indifferent maids while they travel and entertain on a grand scale.
Secrets and Laughter Yonebayashi and his artists do an impressive job of capturing the intensity of juvenile friendships. When Anna and Marnie share secrets and pledge eternal devotion their tears are as genuine as their laughter. The filmmakers enrich Anna’s character by making her an artist; she becomes fascinated with the Marsh House when she sketches it.
“The original story was written almost completely from the perspective of Anna’s internal voice,” Yonebayashi says. “It wouldn’t have been possible to make the entire film a monologue. As an animator, I wanted to show the character’s internal psychology through her behavior. I thought I could do that by making her a girl who likes to draw.”
The filmmakers also tighten and focus Robinson’s rambling story, making the characters more sympathetic. This Anna is more understandable and appealing than the stubbornly antisocial girl in the book. Her aunt and uncle are also more fully realized secondary characters than the Peggs, an effortfully colorful lower-class couple who have no plausible reason to take Anna in.
“The Oiwas have a leave-things-alone way of thinking, and they live as they like, in a carefree manner,” says Yonebayashi. “Anna is distressed that her stepmother worries about her, so the Oiwas’ way of thinking is a relief. When she becomes aware of it, Anna realizes she’s surrounded by warmth.” Designing a Sensory
Overload Yonebayashi’s designers suggest that warmth through the cheerful clutter of the Oiwas’ home. Odd pieces of bric-a-brac are piled everywhere, and no one would mind — or even notice — if Anna set her teacup down on a table without a coaster.
“I asked the art director to draw the Oiwas’ house so that Anna would be able to see the history of a family that she didn’t know at all,” he says. “This might look like a lot of fun, but for Anna, who is particularly sensitive, it’s probably too stimulating — too much information. It was difficult to portray this gap.”
Anna spends her time visiting Marnie and daydreaming over her sketchbook. Yonebayashi skillfully blends light, color and sound to suggest his heroine’s rich inner life.
“I showed Anna’s dreams, fantasies and reality as if they were ambiguously mingled together,” he says. “Anna is aware of her own temperature, the smells, the chill of the water, with a heightened sense of reality — even in a dream. I thought that a child like Anna, who is struggling from a loss of her spirit, needs to feel things with her own body. It would make me happy if the audience can experience with her the time she spend with Marnie and in the marshland.”
When Marnie Was There was well received by both critics and audiences on both side of the Pacific, so it’s not surprising that Yonebayashi is already at work on another feature.
However, he cautions cheerfully, “It’s still in the preliminary stages, so I can’t talk about it yet. I hope it will be fun to watch, so please look forward to it.” [
The toys are back in town! In this new comedy adventure, Buzz, Woody et al. take on a group of dangerously delusional action figures during one of Bonnie’s after-Christmas playdates. If the gang hopes to get back to Bonnie’s room, they’ll have to rely on Trixie