Julie Pesusich, of Liquid Light Studios, discusses the formation of a startup CGI company and their current co-production with Mexican director Jorge Ramirez-Suarez.
How would it be to work for yourself? Being in a company with no set schedule, no power-crazed executives, no ties or pantyhose in the dress code, no hierarchy; a company that would combine the talents of young individuals, working with friends who share the same passion and simply do what they're best at - creating. These were the thoughts that led to the creation of Liquid Light Studios (LLS).
Here's how we began on a little less than a shoestring...
Liquid Light Studios was started less than two years ago by Steve Brinca who comes from a fine art background. After working as a freelancer within the industry and being exposed to the corporate world, Brinca was inspired to create an open-minded environment where breaking the rules was expected. "After being exposed to the world of computers and seeing that they were not just programming machines, and realizing that you could actually draw and paint with them, I was immediately hooked," explains Brinca.
Good luck and good work brought projects to Liquid Light Studios like Hanna-Barbera's Jonny Quest and logos for WB Kids! and E! Entertainment Television. As a new company, the budget did not allow for marketing or advertising. The projects came strictly from word-of-mouth, so the company did encounter slow times. The rollercoaster cycle of great gigs and dry spells continued, fueling our determination.
Shortly after, I joined the team as a partner and fellow risk-taker. At the time, I was working for a corporation where I was desiring to be in a more creative environment. Although I knew nothing about the CG industry, I did have a business/sales background that was complimentary to the creative talents already at Liquid Light. I learned what I needed to know about the computer graphics world quick! While production was in the hands of Steve and animator Adam Zepeda, I was responsible for making us known throughout the industry and relieving us from further dry-spells.
Our equipment at the time included two 8500 Macs that were running Electric Image. (We currently run 3D Studio Max on NT workstations.) All profits went back into the company on upgrading computers, software, etc. Sacrifice became automatic.
Jorge Ramirez-Suarez has made great strides in his brief career. After graduating from The National Film School in Mexico City, he had the chance to work as a second assistant director on a feature film. When the first assistant was fired, Jorge took that position. In 1990, he produced La Mujer De Benjami and also wrote and directed the award winning 16mm short film Pablo Y El Video, which won the Jury Prize at the International Festival of Film Schools. In 1991, he directed the second unit of Alfonso Arau's Like Water For Chocolate. Later that same year, Jorge was selected to direct the first 35mm thesis, No Quiero Discutir, which was the first student project ever sold to Mexican television.
When Jorge asked Liquid Light Studios to do the full production on his short film Pronto Saldremos del Problema, we were very excited for many reasons. We had worked with Jorge before, and we really like him and respect his work. We also have a lot in common in that we are both young, focused and determined. This film really ties us together in the sense that it helps us both get another step closer to fulfilling our dreams.
The Story of Pronto Pronto
Saldremos del Problema (Our Problems Will Soon Be Over) is based on the struggle for survival between a fly and a man (Fatso) who lives within the impoverished areas of Mexico City. The man wants to kill the fly, not just because the fly is annoying, but because he has nothing else to eat. "I wanted to make a film about hunger," says Jorge, "Fatso and the fly are both looking for food, and the reason Fatso eats flies is because there is no food in the country. The people are starving but the media says that there is no problem."
Jorge is best known for his live-action films, but when the idea for Pronto, a metaphor for the current Mexican economic crisis, was born, he knew this was a project that could only be accomplished using computer animation.
Getting Pronto Started
When the Mexican short animated film, El Heroe, won the Palm d'Or at Cannes in the short film division in 1994, The Mexican Film Institute (IMCINE) started to support more animation and experimental short films. With this new attitude, IMCINE started a contest that now takes place every year. "My short film, Pronto Saldremos del Problema, was one of the winners from more than 600 entries, but the prize itself did not secure production," explains Jorge. IMCINE gave Jorge a grant that equated to less than 50% of the budget, and that was if he had shot it in Mexico. "The issue here was that I wanted to make Pronto in CG and there are not many animation studios in Mexico with powerful workstations. My option was to shop for an animation house outside of Mexico, which meant I had even less money for the film I wanted to make," Jorge adds.
But getting this short film started wasn't easy. "Financing a project is the most difficult part of any production," says Jorge. "It took a lot of time to convince the executives at IMCINE to get the green light to make a short, CG film out of the country and with a few bucks in my hands. If they see it's potential as a short film, they will support it. IMCINE itself will distribute Pronto all over the world. I have produced at least four films for IMCINE, so they have confidence in this project."
Jorge and Liquid Light Studios Connect
Once financing was secured, Jorge convinced Pablo Baksht, Head of Production at IMCINE, to produce the short film in Los Angeles. With his background in live-action film, Jorge did not know anything about platforms, software or rendering needs. After going to a lot of animation shops and checking different software, he decided to make Pronto with 3D StudioMax. "I took a course on 3D StudioMax, learned the basics, started to unite a team," he recalls, "First, I asked Mauricio Castillo, a Mexican artist, to design Fatso and the fly. Then I asked my friend David Hayes at E-Film if I could have their help transferring data to 35mm negatives, and he said yes. Soon, Martin Lazzarini joined to do the rest of the artwork and the storyboard." After some research, Jorge found Liquid Light Studios and with them the rest of the team.
Aside from the strong story content, Liquid Light Studios found the level of creative freedom that Pronto allowed very appealing. "Jorge is very open-minded and he supports our creative input," enthuses Zepeda. "This production is quite a team effort."
Constantly traveling between Mexico City and Los Angeles, Jorge brings photos of dilapidated neighborhoods and sketches of furnishings as source material for the crew here at LLS. We custom-model and texture every object. Michel Mazza, LLS's texture artist, has created textures for all the environments as well as those of the main characters, including small details such as pupils and tiny hairs. "We are also spending a lot of time on lighting and detail to create the right mood; the entire piece is very stylized," notes Al York, LLS's lighting director.
Another attractive factor for both Jorge and Liquid Light Studios is that Pronto has been pre-selected to premier at The Cannes Film Festival, among others.
Having the right resources was essential in order to produce the look that was en-visioned for Pronto. With 3D Studio Max as our main software, we relied on many plug-ins, as well as the manufacturers themselves, to successfully accomplish this production. Character animators Don Waters and John Burnett use Character Studio from Kinetix, along with 2nd Nature's HyperMatter and Digimation's Bones Pro as the main animation software for the characters, with Lambsoft's Smirk to aid in all of the facial animations. When working with characters, replicating actual life-like movements can be tricky. Both Don and John's background in traditional animation have proven valuable.
Working with a low budget could have hindered us from making this film, but we were extremely fortunate to have support from software companies. Kinetix, Digimation, Lambsoft, Sven Technologies, REM/Infografica, 2nd Nature and 4D Vision have all contributed to Pronto's success. Whenever a need, problem or question arose, these companies were there to help us out. Building strong relationships is no secret to success. We value the relations that we have built with the companies who produce the tools we need to exist.
Although Liquid Light has been in business only a year and a half, many valuable lessons have been learned. Brinca says, "We have proven to ourselves that hard-work and persistence does pay off. We work an average of 14 hours a day, more when in production, but it's great when you're doing what you love." Taking the time to explain 3-D to clients who are not familiar with the process is imperative to having a project flow smoothly. We have devised our own samples of how every element of production works, and relates to one another. It's important for the client to understand what's involved in our job, this way if new project material is added, or new requests are made, the client will have an idea of what's possible to accomplish within their deadline and budget.
After production for Pronto is completed, the sound will be posted and the final composite print will be made. For this area of post, Jorge has chosen Dan Fort, a talented editor who has worked on major feature films like Desperado and From Dusk `til Dawn. Fort is also responsible for the sound design of the fly's buzzes. The score has been composed by Eduardo Gamboa, a very well known Mexican composer. To do the final sound mix, Jorge has lined up the Dolby Digital Sound Studio at Churubusco Studios in Mexico. "The quality of the sound will have the top technology available today for big films," Jorge excitedly says.
Going the Extra Mile
We've worked on projects where the client was very happy with the final product (that was built from their storyboards), but we knew it could have been better. In one particular case, we made subtle changes to the color palette, font, and lighting. We slightly altered the design to compliment their product. We made these suggestions during production, but the client was adamant about staying with the original elements so we gave them their version that was already approved, along with our version for them to consider. It turned out they aired our version and thanked us for our work and insight.
An example of what sets us apart from other houses is that we give the client more than expected, and in some cases, more than they pay for. We recently created a new roller coaster for Six Flags Magic Mountain. The piece was two minutes of animation and the client mentioned at the beginning of production that they wanted to incorporate their logo at the intro.
Knowing the project was a lot of work and that we were faced with a tight deadline, the client never mentioned the logo again. We knew that an intro that was more than just inserting a logo would really make this piece, so we designed an intro as well as an ending with audio and surprised them with it. Needless to say, they were very surprised and thrilled. We worked an extra three days for free because we knew the extra work would make this project great. As a young house these are the types of extras that we have to do in order to make a name for ourselves and build a future. If we are to make it big, we are still going to uphold our small house beliefs.
"Every one of our clients and projects becomes a part of Liquid Light. We don't run our studio using the `revolving door method' of bringing projects in and getting them out as quickly as possible," concludes Brinca, "We need our clients as much as they need us."
Julie Pesusich is a partner, representative and director of Client Relations for Liquid Light Studios.