Sundance 2005 Imaginary Worlds Panel Discussion
(This document is a summary of my notes from the Sundance 2005 Imaginary Worlds / Digital Filmmaking Panel Discussion held on January 23, 2005.)
Moderator Ian Calderon introduced the panelists. Calderon is a member of the Sundance team and his area of emphasis is digital initiatives.
James Baxter; Filmmaker with extensive film history, Baxter's films include Shrek II, Spiderman, Polar Express, Little Mermaid, and Beauty & The Beast. Ironically, Baxter spoke of wanting to return to more traditional, hand-drawn animation and take a break from digital animation.
Yair Landau: Executive from Sony Pictures Digital. Landau's area of interest seemed to be projection and distribution of digital product.
Dave McKean: McKean was at Sundance with his animated film, MirrorMask. MirrorMask was a collaborative project with illustrator Neil Gaiman produced by Henson Productions. According to McKean, the film had an extremely low budget film for an animated film. It was made by 17 student animators. For many of the animators, it was their first job. McKean and the production personnel decided that each student would be responsible for what was essentially a short film within a whole film. Since the story is a series dream sequences, it didn't matter if segments had a different feel or look. McKean drew up the concept sketches, character designs and storyboards. Then, he divied up the scenes among the students. The students modeled, sculptured, texture mapped, lit, and set cameras for their sequences. McKean supervised the students and composited the final film.
Lisa Henson: Production executive at Henson Productions, Lisa exec produced McKean and Gaiman's MirrorMask. Henson spoke of her love of puppetry, computer graphics and creature shop animation. She showed a clip of Waldo, a clogging frog puppet and his worm friend. If you didn't know any better, you'd swear the characters were CG animations.
Brad Silberling: Silberling directed Casper, City of Angels, Green Mile and most recently Lemony Snicket. He spoke of how challenging it is to hand-build a cinema world. Silberling said that he tried to create as much of Lemony Snicket's world in-camera as possible - with the assistance of Production Designer Rick Heinricks. Another goal was to have an invisible line between live action and character generated sequences. He cited ILM as a great support in that goal. "Once the decision is made to make a film," Silberling said, "You spend the next two years at a full sprint trying to get it done."
Jim Rygiel: From The Last Starfighter, through The Last Action Hero, Ghost, Star Trek, 102 Dalmatians, and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Rygiel has a career entrenched in character animation and special effects. Rygiel showed a clip of how a LOTR sequence was put together.
Leonard Maltin: Panel moderator was conservative film critic, Leonard Maltin. Maltin is not one of my favorite film critics so I'm (unfortunately) biased against virtually anything he says. He fawns over the filmmakers like an infatuated schoolgirl.
End of the intros. Free form panel discussion follows.
Baxter: The hyper-realism of computer generated animation like that in Polar Express is not essential for a satisfying story. In fact, the more abstract the illustration, the more easily viewers buy into the character, the emotion and the story. What is vital is the DRAWING STYLE and the MOVEMENT STYLE. For example, the LINE of Sher Khan's back in The Jungle Book is what made him powerful and believable. A gifted animator has the ability to reduce a character to its essential line and render distinctive movement. A computer is not necessary for those things and may, in fact, get in the way.
McKean: I like improvisation. I think drawing too many roughs kills the spontaneity of the scene. One of the things that was useful with MirrorMask was that the narrative thread of the story left room for variation.
Henson & McKean: Initially, MirrorMask was made on four (4) Macs. The animation team decided to name them for bands (which they later decided was a mistake). The first four were named for the Beatles. When a fifth Macintosh was acquired, it was named Yoko and put into the network. "After that," McKean said, "the computers never spoke to each other again. They wouldn't recognize each other and couldn't access files half the time." The render allotment (McKean said it was too small to be called a render farm) was named The Ramones. Not surprisingly, the render allotment would work really hard for awhile and then burn out.
Landau: Digital animation isn't about the technology, the software or the hardware specifications. Filmmakers and digital producers find commonality because of their creative intent and storytelling goals. Ultimately, success comes from all of the creative and technical people working in service of a common vision. The current goals of R&D is to solve technical problems to better serve the filmmakers' vision, simplify the production process and render a more sophisticated world. One of the most exciting things to notice at Sundance 2005 is that contemporary digital tools have made animation accessible to the independent filmmaker.
Rygiel: Technical capabilities change almost daily in the area of digital filmmaking. "Working with director Peter Jackson was an amazing experience. His vision was brilliant but I'd find myself thinking, 'How am I going to do that?'" said Rygiel. Ongoing technology advances and an crew of "digital migrant workers" made it possible to fulfill on Jackon's vision.
Silberling: "The biggest trap for the director is to self-censor. All problems are solvable and stageable. The critical point is to tell the story you want to tell," said Silberling, "To do that, you have to share the vision of that story with the crew so they can own it, get committed, and bring solutions to the project."
Henson: There is a danger in getting caught in the technology and letting the effects swallow the movie. Henson shared that she had learned over the years that the puppeteer was the artist. In the early Henson days, different puppeteers handled multiple characters. It was soon apparent that the quality of the characterization depended on the puppeteer. The puppeteer and/or animatronicist is the artist.
Silberling: Nowadays, virtually every movie has some sort of digital enhancement. There are FX Movies and Movies with FX. Even a live action narrative like Hotel Rwanda had several people credited for digital effects.
Rygiel: The accountants ultimately decide how much CG will be in a film.
This portion of the panel was followed by an audience Q&A.
What are the most significant advances you're noticing in the industry?
JR: Render farms are getting faster.
YL: Off the shelf software is easier to use, more robust and easier to secure.
JR: When we were working on LOTR, we spent a great deal of money to have a special program written that would physically reconstruct fire. The program was written but when the fire was attached to a character, it blew out "because it wasfire." Ultimately they used Maya particle simulation and composited it with Shake - both off the shelf products.
What about Motion Capture and the Uncanny Valley?
BS: All of the animation principles still apply when you're doing motion capture or any type of animation.
JB: Obviously you don't want to creep people out. Use the animation principles of the 30's Disney films and you'll be successful.
JR: The challenge with facial motion capture is that it still looks like the person being captured. We even noticed that with traditional animation. When different animators were allowed to animate the facial movements of the same character in The Little Mermaid, the character resembled whichever animator was drawing him. Since the animators were looking at themselves in the mirror, they duplicated their own muscle movements and we could see it in the drawn animation.
BS: Lemony Snicket was my first digital intermediate film and, while most of the characters were live action, we ended up having to make a CG baby because of the things that we needed the baby to do. We found that it was critical to keep the cinematographer involved to make sure the film was visually cohesive.
YL: Motion capture is a new technology for the camera and will no doubt change a lot in the future.
How long did it take to make MirrorMask? What was it made with?
DM: 17 months to physically make it although it spent two years in preparation. The live action portion was a six week shoot with four weeks in studio. The initial budget was $4 million. There were 17 animators in one room in Islington.
DM: Maya, Shake, AfterEffects.
JR: We also used Photoshop and Sapphire Plugins on LOTR.