1973 | 45 Years Ago
Charles Nichols and Iwao Takamoto direct Hanna-Barbera’s E.B. White adaptation Charlotte’s Web. Wolfgang Reitherman helms Disney’s Robin Hood, and Ralph Bakshi releases his second not-for-kids feature, Heavy Traffic. TV highlights include Hanna-Barbera’s Jeannie, Speed Buggy, Super Friends and Yogi’s Gang; Filmation’s Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, Mission: Magic!, My Favorite Martians and Star Trek. Ivor Wood helps FilmFair bring The Wombles to U.K. TV. Born: Hit-maker/voice actor Seth MacFarlane (Oct. 26); anime directors Ei Aoki (Jan. 20), Makoto Shinkai; voice actresses Tara Strong (Feb. 12) and Grey DeLisle (Aug. 24); head of LAIKA Travis Knight (Sept. 13). Founded: Asahi Production
in animation is also introduced. Disney-Pixar’s Oscar winner WALL · E (Andrew Stanton), DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda (John Wayne Stevenson & Mark Osborne), Disney’s Bolt (Chris Williams & Byron Howard), Blue Sky’s Horton Hears a Who! (Jimmy Hayward & Steve Martino), The Tale of Despereaux, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Open Season 2, Igor and Space Chimps are some of the big domestic releases. There’s buzz about international titles Ponyo from Hayao Miyazaki (Japan), Fly Me to the Moon (Belgium), Euro co-pro The Flight Before Christmas, Goat Story (Czech Rep.), Gabor Csupo’s Immigrants (Hungary), Mia and the Migoo (France) and The Missing Lynx (Spain). Indie feature gems include Tatia Rosenthal’s $9.99, Bill Plympton’s Idiots and Angels, Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. New to TV: Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, The Mighty B!, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, Random! Cartoons, The Penguins of Madagascar, Ben 10: Alien Force, Sid the Science Kid (U.S.); Chuggington (U.K.), Chhota Bheem (India), Wakfu (France), Martha Speaks, Kid vs. Kat (Canada). On disc, Futurama: Bender’s Game and The Beast with a Billion Backs help get the show back on TV; Lauren Montgomery directs WB’s Wonder Woman; DisneyToons offers Tinker Bell; Toshi Hiruma and Bruce Timm team up for the Batman: Gotham Knight anthology; WB issues Justice League: The New Frontier; and Film Roman delivers video-game prequel Dead Space: Downfall for EA. Kunio Katou’s La Maison en Petits Cubes is the year’s Oscar-winning short. The vfx Oscar goes to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Founded: 8-Bit (Japan), Animaccord (Russia), GoHands (Japan), Kharabeesh (Jordan), Kinema citrus (Japan), Lumicel (India), Marvel Animation (U.S.), ToonBox Entertainment (Canada); Animasyros festival (Greece), Animator Festival (Poland), Fest An a (Slovakia)
the Sea and
TBold ideas shine at the 2017 Student Academy Awards. By Ellen Wolff
he Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a notable history of honoring student filmmakers with medals for their thesis films. That honor roll includes directors John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Robert Zemeckis and Spike Lee, so Academy members understandably see glimpses of promising futures for student winners.
This year’s honors, which were presented by the Academy in October in Beverly Hills, were chosen out of 1,587 submissions by 356 film schools. What made the animation honorees particularly intriguing were the thoroughly modern movies these students created, exploring themes of same-sex adolescent attraction, the struggles of a gravely wounded war vet, and the impacts of modern technology on our lives.
Life Smartphone, a wry look at the mishaps that befall people glued to their devices, was completely hand-animated by Chenglin Xie, formerly from China Central Academy of Fine Arts. He earned the sole Gold Medal for animation from an international film school, and he is now a student at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Life Smartphone was also officially selected by over 50 international festivals and was nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize.
Chenglin actually credits his father for the film’s inspiration. “My father told me many times that a person who studies art should pay more attention to their surroundings rather than their smartphone screen. After I shut down my phone I found people around me were always playing with theirs, including my father! So I did some research and found many people get hurt doing that, so I decided to make a film to try and talk about this phenomenon.”
His darkly funny film unfolds in a side-scrolling manner, which mirrors the side-swiping motion people use with many smartphone apps. However, Chenglin credits more traditional filmmakers with fueling his desire to direct films, including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (whose images grace his Facebook page). “They’ve influenced me to use a visual language to tell stories. When I face problems I do not know how to solve, I watch their movies to get inspired.” But don’t expect him to give up modern technology, despite the cautionary tale of Life Smartphone. Asked if he expected to take selfies during the Student Academy Awards events, he admitted, “I think I will!”
bomb wandering around on two legs. What you can do with the story is almost unlimited.”
One of the most daunting aspects of the project was the Hulk having to deliver comedic lines. “He is not delivering Shakespeare,” notes Morrison. “It’s relatively monosyllabic stuff, but highly expressive and charming. We went back to first
was a new character called Korg,” explains Morrison. “He became more likeable and interesting as the storyboard panels came in. Taika, who usually has a cameo in all of his films, said, ‘I want to put on the mocap suit and be Korg.’ Now you’ve got the director directing himself acting as a fully motion-capture character on set, literally adlibbing with Chris Hemsworth!” (Waititi played three characters in the film, at least partially.) Keep ’em Laughing Just like the Hulk, Korg had to be able to deliver funny lines. “Rocks can’t deform or squash or stretch because otherwise it is going to look like latex,” notes Morrison. “The challenge was to create a new technical rigging system able to do a 1:1 mapping of Taika’s performance of Korg and that allowed for the smallest amount of squash and stretch. If Korg flexes his arm, you have to make sure that the rocks can’t get bigger. What you have to do is rearrange the layer of existing rocks to create volume inside and give the illusion that the thing has actually flexed.”
“We do have improv scenes where Chris Hemsworth is adlibbing with Mark Ruffalo as Hulk delivering dialogue in real time in the camera,” remarks Morrison. “We had it mapped so we would make ad hoc motion-capture volume on set so the camera operator would get a feed piped back into the eyepiece of the Alexa 65 camera that they’re shooting with. The operator could look at Hemsworth and tilt the camera up to frame the superimposed Hulk over where Ruffalo was. Once we got to doing Korg it was really crazy. Then as we got into post, Taika discovered the power of mocap ADR where he can now go, ‘In series two my dialogue was a little bit funnier than in series three, but Chris’ reaction is better in three.’ I told him you can stitch them together and all of a sudden he had this freedom to craft with the characters the funniest version of the scene.”
One of the film’s highlights is an epic gladiator battle between Thor and the Hulk. “I was racking my brains to come up with how you would choreograph a fight with a real 8’6” and 6’4” person,” reveals Morrison. “I hit upon an idea about doing it in reverse. What if that 6’4” person is the Hulk? How big does that make Thor? The answer is 4’8”. I said to stunt coordinator Ben Cooke, ‘Do you know someone who is a good stunt player who is a bit shorter?’ That’s when we got the amazing Paul Lowe, who is like a scaled version of Chris. We had done storyboards so were able to choreograph the entire fight using a 4’8” Thor and 6’4” Hulk … When you take the Hulk version of the mo-cap and take the blue-screen version of Chris’ stuff and put the whole thing together, it fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The moves are absolutely 1:1.” Don’t Mess with Hela Sibling rivalry goes beyond Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as their ruthless sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) escapes imprisonment and plans to expand the empire by commanding an army of the dead. “Her powers are insane,” observes Morrison. “She’s able to conjure weapons from thin air. Hela is a supervillain who has flare and panache, and has a multi-Oscar-winning actress playing her. The main thing we wanted with that was to be absolutely true to Cate. If she walks, tips her head and gestures with her hand a certain way, all of that had to be honored when it went through the technical process. What you get on the screen with Hela is Cate’s performance magnified through the lens of the outfit that she’s wearing.”
To achieve the high level of authenticity, custom-made active markers were embedded in the motion-capture suit worn by Blanchett. As Morrison explains, “One of the weirdest things is that you have a CG character wearing this massive headpiece the entire time, and yet she has to be able to move around freely, execute hundreds of people, and do all of this without you questioning the fact. You have Cate standing there pleased as punch with six-foot-wide antlers on her head in full supervillain mode. In dailies, the studio would be finalizing shots with Taika, and we would literally park on a shot and go, ‘This movie is insane!’” Disney released Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok last month in the U.S. and other key territories. The movie grossed over $502 million at the global box office worldwide in its first week.
the creature suit to a digitally rendered version of Charlie would be beyond most of what he’d done in his career.
“[Doug Jones] is a master performer at this stuff,” says Berardi. “As soon as he put on the suit he became this cross between a Matador and the Silver Surfer, which is just what Guillermo wanted.”
The phenomenal suit made by celebrated creature designer Mike Hill gave Jones an incredible tool, but Jones and del Toro wanted more subtle facial expressions in order to draw the audience into the actor’s performance. Luckily, Berardi had his own proprietary tool for just this kind of work.
Using the X Scan rig, Berardi captured all of the actor’s poses in the creature suit and then again without the suit. Over the course of eight full scanning sessions, they focused closely on not just his body but also his face.
“After the scans, we mapped Doug’s performances as a real human onto the digital creature,” says Berardi. “Guillermo was very interested in that process. It was something we called facial rigging. And Guillermo would make notes on the technology and it paid huge dividends. He would say, ‘I like the brow furrow at level two.’ He would work with the animators personally. He was here so often that we got him a parking space.”
All the technologies came together to make delicate performances possible. In one scene, Charlie encounters a cat, hisses at it and flares his gills. (The cat, of course, hisses back.) In the close-up, they kept the creature’s body but replaced his entire head with a rendered and composited version of the face that included the actor’s performance mapped onto the dig-
As we look back at all the amazing envelope- pushing vfx work of the past year, it’s important to remember the work of Erik de Boer and his team at Method Studios on director Bong Joon-Ho’s genre-defying feature Okja — Especially on the gigantic, genetically engineered super-pig of the movie who stole hearts and dazzled viewers. De Boer, who won an Oscar for his work on Life of Pi in 2013, discussed the film’s impressive visuals in a recent interview.
“One of the film’s most challenging parts was that we had to convince the viewer that this huge, weird looking hybrid super-pig Okja and this young girl Mija really lived together in the Korean countryside and that they had a close, affectionate relationship,” says de Boer. “Despite this being a fantasy creature, we were aiming for a completely photorealistic presence.”
The vfx work, which included 300 Okja creature shots ( 55O overall), required 16 months of prep work and seven months of post-production. Method Studios was the film’s lead primary effects studio, with 4th Creative Party in Korea also pitching in to help.
For de Boer and his team, making Okja proved to be a fantastic adventure. “We travelled to the most beautiful locations in South-Korea, New York (Wall Street) and Vancouver,” he tells us. “Each sequence had its own unique visual challenge, but shooting and creating the vfx for the underground shopping mall/traffic tunnel was probably some of the most fun we had. It involved location and stage days, some digi-double and greenscreen, and great stunt and sfx work. The CG team at Method Vancouver did a fantastic job bringing all this together in an action-packed ‘crash and run’ sequence through Seoul!”
He also praises the film’s director for giving them an amazing challenge, which required very subtle, tender contact but also a lot of shoving and pushing with multiple cast members touching the CG creature at the same time. “This required careful planning and the creation of many unique props,” he points out. “Method animation supervisor Steve Clee rehearsed each setup with actress Ahn Seo-Hyun so that we would come to set fully prepared and ready to allow for surprises and improvisations. That relationship was very important, as it allowed Mija to fully connect with the foam props. She really delivered an amazing performance. The artists at Method then took their art to the next level by creating completely believable physicality, interaction and photographic integration.”
Falling into The Abyss Looking back at his early days in the business, de Boer says he was hugely inspired by James Cameron’s The Abyss. “I was a generalist pumping out commercials in London,” he remembers. “I was doing dancing pieces of salami, jumping snowmen and morphing cars. And here comes this fantastic movie with a fully integrated CG creature and not only does Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) talk to it, but she sticks her finger in it and tastes it! Now that was something I wanted to do, too!”
De Boer is quite frank when it comes to discussing the state of vfx today. “It’s pretty sad that artists still have to funnel their talent through a pathetic three-button mouse or tablet pen to create their great work,” he notes. “I had hoped that by now we would have seen more expressive ways for animators to interact with their CG characters and worlds. Hopefully all the advances in 3D sensors, VR, haptics and (GPU) processor speeds will allow us to one day work in a more fun virtual environment where feet do not go through the ground and elbows stay out of stomachs! I guess the fact that computers are still slow and we are stuck with keyboards and mice just shows how complex and difficult our work is. Even after creating CG for 30 years now I’m still blown away by the innovation, complexity and quality of the images that are created today. And there is still so much fun to be had!” Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja streaming on Netflix.
These days, evaluating the state of the art of visual effects can be difficult, considering the discipline, artists and tools are inexorably woven together now more than ever. In a sense, as award-winning, veteran visual effects supervisor Robert Legato suggests, today’s digital miracles in pursuit of emotional believability and photorealism are not “new” in terms of their creative and emotional impact on viewers, but they are radically new in terms of how artists get there.
“If you think about it, motion capture is a form of roto capture that Disney was doing back when they did [ Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937],” Legato says. “Back then, they photographed a woman in a dress, spinning around, and then animators copied it. Today, we copy it with sensor markers [on a mo-cap stage], have the computer give us exact coordinates, and then [insert] movement into the digital character, but we are really just rotoscoping real life. Same thing with facial capture. Instead of using it as a record for animators to study frame-by-frame, we actually get coordinate information to essentially rotoscope a real person’s face in order to animate a [digital character]. The underlying idea is a newer, cleverer invention, but it doesn’t exactly replace the original invention. It just enhances and improves it.”
That said, the stunning degree of creative success that visual effects artists are enjoying these days, even in the face of a host of business and economic challenges, is directly linked to groundbreaking technical breakthroughs in recent years that are fundamentally influencing the creative process. Legato, for instance, refers to game engine rendering technology as “a revolutionary process enhancement that has opened up a huge door for creativity, because you can now do things in a way that is most beneficial to the creative process [due to faster turnarounds]. The game
plug into these evolving processes and make them more efficient.
Meadows says Digital Domain “has made an entire pipeline that facilitates previz and even postviz, where we do a lot of 2D temp work. So we are in Maya and Nuke and have a workflow that we build upon, and every show builds on the previous one. We have a baseline [collection of] character assets ready to go so that we don’t have to reinvent every time. We also have a generic man and a generic woman that we can start off with and spawn characters from that. And we have a mo-cap library that we can then drop on that and make the most efficient workflow so that you can literally just sit down and start building scenes in minutes. That’s important, because lots of times, directors come in and will want to temp something out. We have the tools that permit us to bring characters and scenes in easily, and apply mocap and poses to them. We have tools to facilitate cameras and build a master scene, where you get multiple angles, so that I can quickly sit down and create a camera with the director, move to the next angle, create another angle, and build master scenes quickly, flipping back-and-forth between cameras in real time and in a scene with the director sitting right next to me.”
Meadows adds that since major facilities like Digital Domain typically focus their efforts on the highest-end, primary release format and resolution of moving images, they still have to be nimble about being able to scale previz or temp versions of work up or down, depending on what is needed at the time. A range of off-shelf tools, he says, have made that task easier in terms of keeping with the efficiency theme.
“ZBrush [a 3D digital sculpting application from Pixologic Inc.] and Substance Painter [Allegorithmic’s 3D painting software], for ex-
fects and image generation,” Catmull says. “That is what our research groups do. They are working on some things internally that I would never have guessed they would have tried. They aren’t all game-changers, but there is definitely something there worth investing in, even if some of it is speculative. I believe the industry should always be working on some things of a speculative nature, and deep learning is definitely a space we should be operating in.”
At the end of the day, however, Legato says what’s really groundbreaking is how fast and