Joe Fordham traveled to the London Effects and Animation Festival for three days of panels, discussions and elbow rubbing over a pint with the biggest names in the effects community.
For three days in mid-November, London's Kensington Olympia exhibition hall played host to the seventh annual London Effects and Animation Festival, LEAF 2000. Breaking down the statistics, 99 exhibitors spread themselves across two floors at LEAF's accompanying gathering of digital imaging purveyors, Digital Media World, from Nov. 14-16. Three auditoriums on the floor above contained 18 LEAF public speaking events, seven master classes and five smaller tutorials delivered by more than 50 speakers. Add to this the LEAF Awards -- a glitzy affair showcasing 32 productions in competition for eight trophies -- plus the inevitable slew of parties, and the event amounted to a significant media showcase for Britain's VFX community.
LEAF is really the jewel in our crown; it's a celebration of best work," event director Jane Stewart said. "We have two keynote speakers this year. One is Bill Plympton, who comes from the 2D world of animation. We traditionally cover animation, but Bill is a great storyteller. We felt that it was important to emphasize this because sometimes the idea of creating effects for effects films can carry people away and they can forget that effects are there to tell the story. We also have Peter Molyneux, whom we consider to be a guru in the U.K. for computer gaming. We realize how important 3D is to the gaming world, so this is our first step toward addressing that clique."
Stewart said the choice of venue is new for the festival this year, placing the event closer to London's Soho post-production community than its previous Wembley site in north London. The expansion was preceded by nine months of teaser campaigns and advertising that built to a fever pitch that brought in representatives from Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.
After a cocktail reception for LEAF speakers the previous evening, hosted by Rushes in a rooftop Soho nightclub, an unseasonably sunny morning greeted the first LEAF speakers. Sean Schur of the Moving Picture Company chaired the event before an almost capacity crowd. "I'm not John Lasseter, but I wish I was," keynote speaker Plympton said, referring to the Pixar Animation Studios director who was scheduled to kick off the proceedings. Born in Portland, Ore., and now a resident of New York, Plympton described himself as a "stand-up comic with a pencil," and illustrated his talk with examples of his self-styled brand of "therapeutic humor" -- hand-rendered, frequently scatological, satirical cartoons
He screened an extract of his latest feature-length work in progress -- "Mutant Aliens" -- and explained his creative process. For Plympton, this begins with a gag book he carries in his pocket and recently resulted in the production of online 30-second Flash animations produced for the Internet, with titles such as "Why Everyone in Oklahoma Is Fat." Plympton discussed America's attitude to sex and violence, censorship, translating hand-renderings to the Flash format, his TV commercial work -- a generally fruitful relationship that enables him to fund his independent projects -- and computers: "They're too slow. I could make 1,000 features for the price of 'Dinosaur,' " he said.
Industrial Light & Magic VFX supervisor Stefen Fangmeier maintained the momentum with his discussion of "The Perfect Storm." He reviewed ILM's 25-year history in a video montage, noting he was a week away from celebrating his 10-year anniversary at the studio, then illustrated the balance of miniature, live and computer-generated elements in ILM's opening shot for "The Mummy." "We had a new bag of tricks for 'The Perfect Storm,' " Fangmeier said, emphasizing ILM's ability to invest in the research and development necessary to achieve the film's 100% computer-generated VFX. Discussion of fluid dynamics, animatics and the importance of scale were followed by a "Storm" VFX blooper reel and questions from the audience.
Simon Smith followed with a sneak preview of Pacific Data Images' CG feature "Shrek." Smith took the audience through the production process behind the animated fairy tale -- which features the voice of Mike Myers as the lonely ogre Shrek, Eddie Murphy as his sidekick donkey and Cameron Diaz as a feisty princess. Using 3D animatics, work-in-progress tests and final footage, Smith discussed animation style, pose-driven dynamics and the creation of "hairy bits." The story's natural environments also called for the ingenious simulation of interactive mud and beer, while the theatrical teaser trailer offered glimpses of derring-do with a fire-breathing dragon and a crumbling castle. "Shrek" opens in the United States in May 2001.
Sony Pictures Imageworks speaker Gregg Anderson next took the stage to discuss character animation in Stuart Little, Hollow Man, Spider-Man, Stuart Little 2 and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Sony Pictures' Spider-man, scheduled for release in 2002, was the focus of the audience's questions, though Anderson also noted Imageworks' contribution of 500 VFX shots to Charlie's Angels, which was scheduled to open the following week in Europe.
In the afternoon, VFX supervisor Craig Hayes regaled the audience with Tippett Studio's manifestations of invisibility effects for "Hollow Man." Dominic Parker and Jan Hogevold recounted Computer Film Co.'s 350 digital effects and CFC's Digital Lab processing of more than 80 minutes of production footage for Chicken Run. Damien Raymond Barker and John Harvey of London's boutique post-production house Clear discussed the VFX behind singer Robbie Williams' music video "Rock DJ -- The Ultimate Striptease." The video stripped the British pop icon to the bone with a combination of prosthetic makeup and 30 seconds of motion-captured 3D animation, produced at Clear over five weeks.
Clear was among the recipients of the eight LEAF Awards distributed at the UCI Plaza Cinema, just south of Piccadilly Circus. Deadpan British comedian Jeremy Hardy emceed the event, introducing "the important and serious business of cartoons made by computers," and Web animation "all done by spiders." The winners, announced with irreverent, rapid-fire comic delivery, were as follows:
Animated commercial: AKA Pizazz, Fishing Line Live-action commercial: FrameStore, Chrysler Golden Gate Feature film effects: Mill Film, Gladiator Music video effects: Clear, Super Furry Animals Do or Die Short film: Pixar Animation Studios, For the Birds Titles, idents, stings: FrameStore, 10th Kingdom Student work: Johannes Weiland, Hessi James Web animation: AKA Pizazz, Bird Interactive Special animation award Moving Picture Co. Body Story
The international cast of nominees and guests adjourned to a smoky West End haunt, a brisk walk away, under the Christmas lights of London's Regent Street, and celebrated until the wee hours.
Freezing fog and bad traffic caused the second morning's schedule to be reshuffled to accommodate late arrivals. Alias Wavefront's Richard Kerris introduced Cinesite VFX supervisor Tom Smith, who delivered his analysis of the 900 VFX shots in Red Planet and the evolution of the robot character AMEE a few weeks before her U.K. theatrical debut. Smith explained the intense seven-month process of bringing to life Cinesite's first lead 3D animated character. Starting from the art director's original sketches, concepts then were modified by designer Ron Cobb and, under VFX supervisor Jeff Okun's direction, AMEE adopted a playful puppy-dog attitude in the opening of the movie, which gave way to a Clint Eastwood-like stare and a menacing, military demeanor in her final scenes.
LEAF's second keynote speaker, Peter Molyneux, next took the audience from 1989's Space Invaders era to the latest production of Molyneux's Lionhead Studios, Black and White, 10 weeks before its scheduled release date. Molyneux explained how the elaborate, interactive role-playing game, inspired by a blend of King Kong and Dark Crystal, allowed players to control the fate of God-like creatures that lord over a complex 3D environment. Molyneux predicted computer game characters eventually would become indistinguishable from characters created for films such as Toy Story and Dinosaur. He also noted the comparative costs and returns of film and gaming tie-ins, citing the £100 million GoldenEye movie budget and its £250 million return; compared to the game's £4 million investment and £260 million return. "LEAF is a great forum for the convergence of these two art forms," he said.
Mill Film created many of the effects for the blockbuster Gladiator.
Neil Eskuri concluded the morning with a romp through Disney's Dinosaur, outlining the creation of CG dinosaurs and lemurs and their prehistoric live-action environments, illustrating his talk with the Secret Lab's step-by-step video and slides. He revealed that his association with the epic production began with a yearlong brainstorming process with VFX supervisor Neil Krepela in 1994. This included consultation with associates at ILM, Santa Barbara Studios and DreamQuest Images before the Disney feature animation team decided to develop its own technology to realize 2,000 scenes, cut to 1,300 for the film's release five years later.
After lunch, veteran animator Larry Lauria next hosted a course in character design in the main LEAF auditorium, his first time in London. With a video camera positioned over his shoulder toward his animation table, Lauria instructed a small gathering of artists in classic 2D animation techniques -- snaps, reversals, stretch and squash, character proportions and graphic design.
Gladiator continued to draw audience interest with Mill Film's Dave Lomax providing step-by-steps of VFX scenes produced for Gladiator the Ridley Scott-directed Ancient Rome extravaganza. Lomax clarified Mill Film's involvement in the much-discussed tiger fight scenes -- actor Russell Crowe was in the arena with the animals; Mill Film closed the gap -- and revealed the extent of the CG replacement of the Colosseum in the equally famous "360-degrees" Steadicam shot. He also hinted at Mill Film's upcoming projects -- Tomb Raider, Cats and Dogs and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" -- and answered audience queries about Mill Film's use of flame* and Softimage in its feature work.
Pixar Animation Studios' Jesse Hollander also received an enthusiastic response, and obliged with an encore screening at his presentation of the LEAF short film winner, For the Birds. As lighting supervisor for the three-minute short, Hollander recounted the development and production of the latest in the long line of Pixar's award-winning in-house endeavors, emphasizing the Pixar credo, "No amount of technology can turn a bad story into a good one."
The day concluded with a panel session headlined "Stop-frame vs. CGI." Despite the provocative subject matter and an expanded panel of seven speakers chaired by Andrew Ruhemann of Passion Pictures, the day's late start cut the discussion short, leaving the question of validating the two media unresolved.
Rain did not help the final day of speakers fill the main LEAF hall. A die-hard contingent of audience members arrived in time to be greeted by the day's host, Animation World Network producer Dan Sarto, and his first speaker, John Bennett of the Moving Picture Co. Bennett held forth on the subject "How the Internet Complements the Post Industry," discussing MPC's Internet and intranet asset management and streaming media tools, screening live online examples of Unique ID's Cakes software.
Dave Witters of WAM!NET followed with a discussion on a similar theme, titled "You Animate, We Render." Sony Pictures Imageworks followed this with a discussion of platform integration, which concluded with a panel discussion chaired by Mikael Shields of AtomFilms that asked, "Is there any future for putting animation on the Internet?"
Jetinder Patria, of the English West Midlands brand creation company the Boxroom, stayed with the discussions for all three days and proved to have questions for practically every speaker. "I always like to come to LEAF," he said. "It's the biggest thing for CG in Britain." The LEAF master classes maintained their draw through all three days, thoughtfully juxtaposing Disney's Dinosaur on day one with FrameStore's Walking With Dinosaurs on day three, and MPC's Body Story on day one with Glasswork's discussion on a similar theme on day three. Smaller courses were aimed at working professionals, including ILM's guidelines for building a show-reel and a session with Sue Nichols of Disney on storyboarding.
Digital Media World
Perhaps the most-consistent draw throughout the festival was the Digital Media World convention, where all the usual major software manufacturers were assembled along with a gathering of regional representatives. Softimage was touting XSI version 1.5, in its European debut, while Discreet Logic had Magma, its code name for 3D Studio MAX release 4 -- a VFX, animation and gaming 3D software. Alias Wavefront, RealViz and NewTek's Lightwave also were centers of attention. See more details of software on display at the festival.
Day two saw an imaginative marketing gimmick that caused momentary consternation, when scruffy-looking youths appeared outside the conference hall, parading about with banners, protesting the cloning of furniture. On closer inspection, the campaigners were distributing flyers for 3D-model supplier ReplicaNation. "They told us to look earnest," said one anonymous banner holder.
Three young ladies in latex bodysuits also provided a splash of color, strolling the convention floor for Xenturi, a new multi-media authoring platform due to be released in January 2001 by Nick Stedman's AuthorCo in Bristol, England. Another eye-catching attraction was the availability of beer in lieu of mineral water as a trading post refreshment.
A rank of recruitment booths lined the back wall of the upper floor at the convention hall, marking the festival's "recruitment village." Digital Domain, Cinesite (Europe), Mill Film, Passion Pictures and Pepper's Ghost Productions, a British broadcast TV and online media animation company, were in evidence.
Cara Speller, 3D producer for Passion Pictures -- runner-up in the LEAF short film category with its 3D comedy Hot Spot -- said her main aim at LEAF was recruiting for Passion Pictures' new TV series. "We have 26 episodes of 3D animation, so this is a big push for us," she said. "We're looking for people across the board: animators, compositors, technical directors, production staff. Talent is a bit thin on the ground, probably because a lot of people have gone to the States, but a lot of people have seen 'Hot Spot,' so we've had a pretty good response."
Noreen Irwin, director of operations for Cinesite (Europe), also acknowledged the migration of talent, though she hoped to address the issue. "At the moment we're really suffering in that we're having a lot of homegrown talent peaking in their career and after their training we lose them to the States," Irwin said. "Cinesite is bringing a lot more production back into the U.K., so I think it's important to try to communicate that to students and experienced operators in the U.K. and Europe. We want them to realize that they don't have to go to the States to work on the best productions." Irwin also emphasized Cinesite's affiliation with third-level education centers to help foster indigenous talent.
A few booths down, Mill Film reps were luring prospective employees with a video loop of Gladiator and their recent commercial output unspooling overhead. A long list of work-in-progress titles and upcoming projects stood testament to the opportunities available (Hannibal, Tomb Raider, Pluto Nash and more).
Farther up the row, Laurence Plotkin, director of human resources and recruitment for Digital Domain, commented on the need for California VFX facilities to be on the lookout for new and emerging talent. "We're continually getting different projects that require different skillsets, and much of the time our artists gain experience internally then move onto different roles, so we need to bring people in to replace those positions," he said. "I've been at LEAF for the last three years and I always enjoy coming here, meeting students and seeing the level of achievement in the work and education in the U.K. I don't get a lot of independent solicitation from Europe, because people have to change their life to pursue that kind of opportunity, and only a certain sort of person would be capable or willing to do that."
The DD booth attracted shader writers, software developers and systems engineers. "I've also met some good animators that may not have access to the kind of resources that we generally see in the States," Plotkin added. "By coming to LEAF we help to share information with them in what we're looking for."
Farther along the upper floor, Bournemouth University and the Universityof Westminster also were canvassing for talent. Both establishments made mention of their industry affiliations. Ashif Tejani, course leader in Westminster's M.S. in computer animation, was offering literature advertising the school's sponsorship by Softimage XSI. Ben Morgan and friends from Bournemouth were evangelizing a range of courses from B.A. (Honors) in computer visualization and animation though to an M.S. in computer animation and made mention that they had been entertaining Cinesite, Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks as candidates for guest lecturer appearances. ILM's Tim McLaughlin and Aardman Animations' Mark Brierley (animator on Passion Pictures' Hot Spot) are among recent speakers at Bournemouth. "Mark works mostly one-to-one with our students in tutorial sessions, giving advice on animation techniques, but he also does some fantastic lectures on how to animate," Morgan said. Morgan also said he had more than 200 requests for Bournemouth show-reels after the event.
Digital Media World opened up its doors to student visitors on the afternoon of its final day. As fleets of young visitors poured off a bus, VFXPro stopped to glean a student perspective at the convention entrance.
"For future animators I believe these shows are very important," said 19-year old Robert Farrell from the University of Hertfordshire. "We've come here looking around for some new programs for Macs and Lightwave, because we're doing a course in digital modeling and animation using those tools and we want to see what's developing in the marketplace." Clearly, Farrell and his fellow students already had an eye to their professional future, and were all extremely conscious of the digital media revolution unfolding around them.
"I want to get into games, but my second option would probably be film and special effects," Farrell said. "Britain is turning out a lot of games developers now because I think a lot of the kids around our age grew up with computer games. So I think young people are going to veer more to games creation and they'll want to see something of their own ideas out on the platforms. If it comes to having to get more qualifications to get to do that, then yeah, I'll go get the qualifications. Speaking personally, I just want to get out there and start using the tools."
Joe Fordham is editor of VFXPro.com, a fellow Creative Planet community Web site, and on-line news resource for the visual effects community affiliated with the Visual Effects Society.