Chris Landreth Talks 'The Spine'

The Spine premieres this week at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, and Chris Landreth tells Bill Desowitz all about it.

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Dan and Mary Rutherford, married 26 years, are "trapped in a spiral of mutual destruction." All images © Copperheart Cut Inc. and the National Film Board of Canada.

Chris Landreth follows up his Oscar-winning animated short, Ryan, with another bold, surreal, psychologically driven work, The Spine, collaborating once again with producers Steve Hoban (Copperheart Ent.), Mark Smith (Copperheart Ent.) and Marcy Page (National Film Board of Canada). However, in order to explore the breakdown of a marriage with a more ambitious, fluid look required a greater number of artists and resources, so Landreth utilized C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures along with Autodesk Canada and Seneca College School of Communication Arts.

The Spine concerns Dan and Mary Rutherford, married 26 years, "trapped in a spiral of mutual destruction." They sit unhappily in a couples' group counseling session. Angela, another troubled participant in this group, wonders why their marriage has become so lopsided and twisted. But when Mary leaves Dan, he undergoes a surprising transformation in this meditation on evolving, adapting and breaking using a symbolic spine.

The Spine premieres this week at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival (June 8-13), and will have its North American premiere at the World Wide Short Film Festival (June 16-21) in Toronto, Canada. In addition, Landreth will host a special presentation at SIGGRAPH 2009 in New Orleans (Aug. 6, 10:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.) as part of the Computer Animation Festival: "Look Closer: Psychologically Driven Animation."

Bill Desowitz: What inspired The Spine?

Chris Landreth: What inspired me to do this was fear of getting a failing grade in a professional screenwriter's course I was taking at Ryerson Polytechnic University. I had to write a screenplay and I keep a journal of short essays and I put two or three of them together to make the story that [became] The Spine. I was working with a group of people in this workshop and this is what came out of it for me.

BD: How personal was this story?

CL: There were a few parts of the story that were part of my experience. About 20 years ago, when I was still at University, I attended a group therapy session for couples much like the one you see in the film. And I got to see some of the dynamics that are part of strange or twisted or dysfunctional relationships. And it had always seemed to me that portraying a relationship such as one of those would be a really interesting story. This is a rather ordinary couple with a backstory that is extraordinary in the sense that when you bring it out and describe it, it becomes something that is big and has real drama in it.

BD: How long was the screenwriting process?

CL: It took two hours to put the basic outline together and developing the story took a year. But then there's so much going over the material in your own outlines and drafts of the script and then running it by other people whose judgment you trust. The workshop was very helpful in the first month figuring out what the story would be and getting a lot of feedback from this group of eight professionals. I still meet with this group once a month, actually. All of us do have our own screenwriting projects. These guys have seen the film developed from a very rough outline to its final form. And the production team that I worked with at the National Film Board and Copperheart Ent. are people that I really trusted to work on this story with me. So I would say that, for me, the process of doing this film has been to not work in a vacuum…

BD: How was it different from Ryan?

CL: On Ryan, I would say that we developed the story very much while we were in production. The actual editing was very fluid, largely because it was a documentary… and that process was still happening until the last stages of rendering. On this film, we were much more careful to have the story very much in place before we started production. If you look at the early animatics, some things did change, but not that much. We really concentrated the first year on nailing down the story.

Animated with a hybrid Maya and Houdini pipeline, the pivotal moment for Dan is when he grows the glass, gelatinous spine and then sprouts hair that twists into a braid.

BD: So tell me about the production process. How did C.O.R.E. become involved?

CL: The film was a two-year process, with the first year basically being development: getting the story, working on the visuals, getting a few character models in place, doing mock ups. What we did at C.O.R.E. was the last year, 2008. But they were a new addition. The rest of our organization was similar to what we had on Ryan, involving the National Film Board being the producer on the film in association with Copperheart Ent. and the participation of Seneca College, but in a much bigger way than on Ryan. With Ryan, we had four animators and a few other people working on assets, texturing and rendering. For The Spine, we had 13 animators and about eight other people working on assets and rendering. Seneca did about 95% of the animation. They really carried the character movement and acting on this one.

BD: And how much did C.O.R.E. contribute?

CL: A lot of people. I'm wavering on that because there would be people that would come in and work a day or two. And then there were people that worked full-time. There was a rendering team of eight at C.O.R.E. that worked on most of the rendering. And there were others that worked on software support and infrastructure, including Alexandra Gunter, who was the production manager.

BD: And Sean Craig of Seneca was your animation director?

CL: Yes, he's a professor. On Ryan, he was a student that worked on the film.

BD: How did you make The Spine?

CL: The film was made with two principal 3D software: Maya 2008 and Houdini, particularly for the rendering, Mantra version 9.1. C.O.R.E. is very much of a Houdini-based pipeline. One of the things that we were doing here -- and it's really the first time in a very ambitious way -- was to be able to go cross platform between Maya and Houdini, with a lot of FBX and a lot of glue that was written by software people there. We basically used Maya for everything up to rendering: all of the modeling, rigging, texturing, effects. And we did lighting and rendering in Houdini, with the exception of a few shots that we did in mental ray. A few of the scenes were a Maya-based pipeline. For most of the scenes, there was a conversion between Maya and Houdini for the rendering and then Shake for the compositing.

BD: Talk about pushing your stylistic vision further.

CL: There were a lot of things we had to work out dynamically. A big example would be the shot where Dan grows a spine, which corkscrews around him twice while that's happening. Yeah, that was certainly one of our big headache shots.

BD: How did you tackle that one?

CL: That took a lot of cleverness to figure this stuff out without having to go into R&D territory. This was a film done with pretty modest resources and didn't have a budget for writing much of any proprietary code. There's a lot of cool rendering stuff going on with the spine: it is a glass, gelatinous object. So rendering wise, we were doing a lot of global illumination and caustics and setting up dielectric properties of the shader to make it compelling. He sprouts this long, beautiful hair during that shot and that forms into a braid and that took a lot of figuring out to get that to work.

Landreth wants viewers to come away with a greater awareness and understanding of conflict resolution.

BD: What are you proudest of?

CL: I am proudest of the story. As I said, I worked a long time to get something that would play in a complex way, in a rich way -- a way that resolves itself at the end as being not just one kind of pat ending but something that I hope reaches deep into people and causes them to, in a sense, have conflict, but conflict in a good way. That the story has a tragic aspect on one hand, but also comes across as a noble and beautiful aspect on the other hand.

BD: Has this film been therapeutic?

CL: Yes, in a sense. There are fragments that I took from the lives of people that I know. For example: Mary's transformation where she gets big. A friend of mine has been through that experience. And I know other women and of other women that have been through that experience. I would say, in this case, that there is nothing autobiographical. I don't really identify myself with Dan. Fortunately, the relationship that I have in my life is a pretty healthy one. But on some level, when you tell a story or do something that's fictional, there's always going to be some tie-ins with your emotions, with your processes. Doing a story like this well, there is going to be some kind of catharsis.

BD: You'll always carry Ryan with you, right?

CL: Yes. Certainly, that's always there.

BD: What has been the response to the film so far?

CL: With some of the films that I have done, there very much has been a polarizing response. With Bingo, people either immediately dug it or just scratched their heads or were turned off by it. There's a great quote by Susan Sontag that real art has the capacity to make people nervous. So the response that I've gotten from this film has been a bit of nervousness about it. There is a disturbing aspect to the story. I'm not intending to creep people out with it. I hope there's empathy that people have with these characters -- that they're not alien or creepy, there's a real humanity to them. And a lot of people have commented that they're disturbed by the humanity. That's sort of the vibe that I'm getting in the early stages of showing this film.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.

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