Bill Desowitz chats with first-time director Chris Williams about his new Disney short, Glago's Guest.
It began as an illustration of Roman soldiers and evolved into an artful 3D-animated short about desolation and discovery in a Siberian outpost in the 1920s, as a lonely soldier named Glago has an extraordinary adventure with mysterious alien orbs.
Glago's Guest is the second short produced at Walt Disney Animation Studios during John Lasseter's tenure, following the delightful Goofy redux How to Hook Up Your Home Theater. It's the directorial debut for story vet Chris Williams (The Emperor's New Groove), who is also helming the studio's next animated feature, Bolt.
However, the seven-minute short is unlike anything you've ever seen from Disney. It is quite minimalistic, while advancing CG at the studio in terms of hair and cloth. The lighting and textures are exquisite, from the sky and the snow, to the interior décor inspired by Doctor Zhivago, to Glago's beard and coat and rifle. Meanwhile, the alien orbs are marvelously squishy without acting too cartoony.
The main technology challenges were the animation of the alien orbs; achieving the art direction of Glago's hair and beard; and simulating Glago's coat. In fact, the short was created in a new pipeline, for which Yun-Chen Sung wrote a back-end package from scratch to do all the lighting. Cesar Velaquez developed the movement of the alien orbs. His process consisted of three basic steps: A particle simulation was the basis of the movement; the second step was to attach spheres to these particles and run them through a rigid body dynamic engine; and the third step was to process this geometry so that the alien orbs appeared to squish against one another.
Mitchell Snary was responsible for the grooming and appearance of Glago's beard, which called for a sculptural look made of individual hairs. It was to look and move photorealistically, while being very stylized. To achieve this, Disney developed a process where it modeled the individual clumps of hair, then filled those volumes with hair grown from Glago's scalp. This allowed very tight control of every tuft of hair on the character.
Ian Coony handled the setup of Glago's coat. Lasseter suggested that they visit Pixar and talk with the team that was responsible for the cloth on Ratatouille. These visits were very useful and resulted in some changes in Disney's own cloth program, FABRIC.
Bill Desowitz: Let's begin with what your pitching experience was like with John Lasseter.
Chris Williams: When you pitch to John, it can be any story, any genre -- as long as he's engaged and entertained, that's all that matters. And so he asked me to pitch some short ideas, and I pitched six and there were two that he responded to. Prep and Landing is being developed into a half-hour Christmas special for next year by Kevin [Deters] and Stevie [Wermers] of How to Hook Up Your Home Theater. Of course, John also took to Glago, which is totally different tonally from what you'd expect from Disney.
BD: Yes, this definitely stretches boundaries in style and storytelling.
CW: Certainly Glago was a good opportunity to play with CG. It's a look that's not quite as cartoony. We wanted to find a place that was not pushed to [photorealistic], but somewhere in between. And it was neat because even though it was Disney, it seemed like a small band.
BD: Did you know many of the crew?
CW: No, [having been in] story for the last 14 years, [I tended to be] isolated, and often there's not a lot of reason for interaction at a big studio. But one of the best reasons for the shorts program is finding people who can potentially direct features.
BD: What was the biggest learning curve for you?
CW: Everything outside of story. I studied 2D animation at Sheridan College in Canada, and so I didn't know very much at all about the steps that go into 3D animation. So there was a steep learning curve in that sense. But that was the great value of working on the short to really understand those departments and get to meet those people. It's on a much smaller scale than making features, but it allows you to make mistakes. I really felt like I was in school, learning how to make an animated movie. So it was a great experience for me and helped me a lot with Bolt.
BD: Talk about how Glago was nearly abandoned because of Bolt.
CW: It was assumed early on that Glago just wouldn't happen, 'cause we hadn't really embarked on any of the animation. I was still making some little story tweaks. So the Glago crew was concerned that it wasn't going to get made, and I met with everybody, and there was so much desire to see this thing through. I was excited about making it, too, and had a lot of faith that we could somehow get it done, so I went back to John after committing to Bolt and asked if we could continue to develop Glago, and he thought about it and said OK. It was definitely a strain on me and my time because I was jumping back and forth, but the good thing is there's enough talent in this building that Bolt and Glago are fine. For me, it was a lot to take on: developing the story for Bolt while learning everything about the various departments for Glago.
BD: Talk about the challenges of Glago, which is a very minimalist work.
CW: I guess because it was so clear that this was how this story needed to be told, I didn't have to convince anybody [of its direction]. John took to it right away and embraced the idea of a person that lives in an isolated environment. The minimalism is a huge part of the story, until his guests arrive and it takes a different turn.
BD: Let's talk about the look. Did that come together quickly?
CW: Yes, if you look at the storyboard, you can see that I was going for the most minimal version of everything I could come up with. So the aliens were simple orbs. And Glago had these big, broad shapes: his coat was a large mass where there really was not a lot of detail. And his world was completely empty. It all seemed to make sense that everything should be pared down. And the style of cutting should be very plain, especially for the first day [depicted in the film], until all the crazy stuff happens on the second day. I really wanted minimal camera movement and almost rigidity [in] the cutting style so that you felt the cuts each time. The idea of nothing being interesting was a big part of what excited me about the story.
BD: The look of Glago's hat and coat and beard are so wonderfully textured.
CW: As far as the look of Glago himself, I was at a museum sketching Roman statues, and there was something that I loved about the severe, strong forehead and nose that I was seeing. And that made its way into Glago along with some really strong brows. In terms of his beard, I looked at Russian movies during this period. I thought it would be fun to have his signature be his beard. A lot of the rest of the stuff -- the coat, the hat, the binoculars, the rifle -- we tried as much as possible to be really accurate to the time.
We did a lot of research on the kind of coat that they would wear, how that coat folds, the split up the back of the coat, where the pockets were. The binoculars were appropriate as far as the kind that a Russian soldier would have at that time. And we did a lot of research on the rifle, of course, and actually found a place that had one of these, the Berdan II, I believe. And we had to really study how you load it, where the bolt thing sits when it's unloaded.
We looked at a lot of great Russian movies. We tried to make it as accurate as possible and then stylize it. That's something that John is really big on: studying the physics of things and being true to the material. If something's metal, you can't bend it in CG or it looks strange. On both Glago and Bolt, I've learned to take research really, really seriously.
BD: The look of the interior of the house -- inspired, as you've said, by Doctor Zhivago -- is quite stunning too.
CW: One of the nicer shots is when Glago is at his dinner table and playing with that pea. There's a warmth and a texture to the light that is really nice. For me, the most important thing is, whatever it looks like, that it supports the story point. And more often than not, if I'm giving a note, it's that I want it to support the story.
BD: The alien orbs must've been a fun change of pace after the somber tone that's been established.
CW: Yeah, I loved the idea that they're so simple and industrious and I tried to give personality to the group, as well as the individual spheres. I liked sorting out how they move and think, and I hope, by the end, you get to know them a little better and like them.
BD: What was the impact of working stereoscopic?
CW: None. I had almost no interaction with that department. But they tried to create a rhythm where they'll emphasize the 3-D in certain areas or diminish it, if that's appropriate. It's like any other part of the visual storytelling. And they would show it to me, but it didn't ever impede me in any way, which was nice. I didn't want to create shots specifically for 3-D, and it worked out fine.
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.