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'The Art of Robots' Book Review

Libby Reed delves into the pages of The Art of Robots to see if the book captures the visual awe of the film.

You dont often get to see concept art on an animated feature unless you work for the studio involved. If you cant drop into Twentieth Century Fox or Blue Sky Studios, you can pick up this lovingly created coffee table book and browse through a brilliant presentation of the conceptual drawings and paintings of Blue Skys Robots, which hit theaters in March 2005. Along with nicely done reproductions of the paintings and drawings are lots of commentaries from various artists connected with the film, including Chris Wedge, director; Amid Amidi who wrote the book; William Joyce, producer and production designer; Greg Couch, designer and Steve Martino, art director. The text is cleverly augmented with paragraphs of these artists and a lot more, discussing a particular area of the production or the design ideas, giving the feeling of an informal panel analyzing the picture for an audience. This format gives the reader a lot of insight into the thinking behind the various designs.

Insights From the Artists

For instance when Bill Joyce talks about Rivet Town, the small town where the story starts, he says Rivet Town is all kitchen utensils its a nice town; theyve taken care of it, but it doesnt have that sheen that uptown would have. Visual influences for both the backgrounds and the characters came from coffee pots, waffle irons, and motorcycle engines, according to Joyce. The insides of a watch and that ophthalmic eye tester that you peek through at the optometrists can be seen in some of the buildings of Robot City.

Martino says about Joyces drawings, theres that same balance of form from the largest scale to the smallest detail He gives you solid compositions with shapes that dont clutter the frame, but then your eye can move through the image and find all these surprising little details.

Joyce gives credit to the whole Robots team when he says, Theres a little bit of everybody at Blue Sky in the way the movie looks. He characterized the genesis of this film as a sort of crazy, creative delirium that bordered on bliss.

Art Deco Feeling

The robot world is divided into three different feeling areas, each taking its design elements from a different era of mechanical gadgets, steam, combustion and high-end. They all feel rather art deco to me; very organic with swooping lines and curves. The book takes you through how the feeling of the area was established not only with what utensils underlie the concept, but also by the color and lighting. In trying to create a world from scratch that would resonate with the audience, they tried to set up a parallel universe where every living thing is metal. Plants, pets, all the intelligent beings are all made of metal. And some of the objects are intelligent that you wouldnt think would be, like lampposts and fire hydrants.

When the Copperbottoms, the heros parents, decide to have a baby, they buy a kit and assemble him. As he grows they have to buy new parts to replace old ones. The illustrations show how they had to buy some used parts, a little worn around the edges. As Mr. Copperbottom grows older, he gets a bigger and bigger contraption making up his middle. The sketches reproduced clearly show how this ages the character.

The Details of the Designs

A lot of thought was given in this book toward showing the details of the designs. Throughout the book there are photographs of the 3D characters with insets of photos of the actual objects that the texture or color was taken from. Rodney, our hero, is the turquoise of one of those wonderful old VW buses. Several pages are devoted to the way he evolved into the final design. Drawings of Rodney by Joyce, Couch, Michael Knapp, Peter de Seve and the maquette by Michael de Feo are shown. Old rusty parts, shown in an inset, inspired one of the villains textures.

One of the wildest series of sketches shows the mechanics of the Rube Goldberg-ish kind of transportation system in Robot City. The drawings are numbered in order, with an explanation of how Rodney is thrown, careened and shot all over the city. Joyce says the idea started with the kids game Mouse Trap. Color was used lavishly in the movie, establishing the feel of each section and that is apparent in the artwork shown here. There is a color wheel that explains the color theory behind the treatment that was wanted for each part of town.

The film is CG, but very little of the book is in tech jargon. The CG term for stretch and squash is deformation, and a discussion of how the modelers used this to make the metal faces more expressive is clear. And expressive the faces are! There is an explanation of a new technique to automatically adapt textures to an objects shape and girth that even I could understand. The book tells of how libraries of existing body parts were created that could be mixed and matched to create new characters in the Chop Shop scenes, where many, many individual robots were needed. They called them Franken-bots.

The Creators

Joyce, the inspiration for Robots, wrote his first book in the second grade and went on to produce award-winning, best-selling classics for both children and adults. Two of Joyces characters have been re-created for TV, George Shrinks and Emmy award-winning Rolie Polie Olie. He first introduced himself to Wedge because he wanted to bring his book Santa Calls to the screen. That fell through, but they still wanted to make a movie, one about robots. His whimsical drawings were the inspiration for the movie they eventually made.

In a CNN interactive interview, Joyce says I didnt have many books as a kid. I lived in a small southern town and the only library was way out in the woods in an honest-to-God log cabin. Thankfully, however, there was a very courageous librarian who loved childrens books. So I was able to, on my occasional visits, see books that changed my life. Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, set me on the path of childrens literature. After that it was Peter Rabbit, Stuart Little, the Pooh books, The Borrowers and I dont know if these qualify as childrens books but Big Daddy Roths trading cards and Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray were probably my biggest childhood influences. And of course Bugs Bunny. Mad magazine too.

Wedge, writer and director of Robots, is vp of creative development at Blue Sky Studios in White Plains, New York. Blue Sky, you remember, was responsible for those Busby Berkely dancing cockroaches in Joes Apartment. Wedge is also well known for Ice Age. He received his Master of Arts degree in computer graphics and art education from the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design at Ohio State University. Wedge directed Ice Age, and the Academy Award-winning short, Bunny.

Amidi is the publisher of AnimationBlast and co-founder of the animation blog CartoonBrew.com. He not only writes but also works in the animation industry.

This is a visually lovely book. Although priced at $40, some of the websites have it for a few dollars less already. Hardcover only. The quality stock used in this book makes for beautiful reproduction of the color illustrations. The media look like watercolor or oil, but most are listed as digital. Really beautiful work! A clever postscript is a page of snapshots of some of the artists who worked on the film all robots.

The Art of Robots by Amid Amidi; Preface by William Joyce; Foreword by Chris Wedge; Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 2005; ISBN: 0-8118-4549-4, hardcover, 144 pages; color illustrations throughout; 11"x9", $40.00.

Libby Reed, started out at Walt Disney Studios in the 50s on Sleeping Beauty as a painter. She has worked at numerous commercial studios, spent 16 years as a fashion illustrator and wound up at Film Roman as a color designer under Phyllis Craig. Libby has two children, (one is Alex Reed, animation producer at Electronic Arts) and four grandchildren. She currently has her own studio where she does animal portraits.

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