Rick DeMott talks with Peter Chung about his first foray into feature CG on Cartoon Network's FireBreather.
Peter Chung is best known for his cult classic series Aeon Flux, but his credits range from the adult direct-to-DVD titles Animatrix and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury to animator and designer on the classic kids' series The Rugrats. Born in Korea, he studied animation at CalArts and has worked in the U.S. animation industry since 1981.
Now he moves into CG with an adaptation of the Image Comics title FireBreather. The story follows high schooler Duncan Rosenblatt who must come to terms with the fact that his mother is your typical soccer mom, but his dad is 300-foot firebreathing dragon, who wants him to take his thrown as King of Monsters.
The film is set to premiere on Cartoon Network on Nov. 24, 2010.
Rick DeMott: What drew you to FireBreather?
Peter Chung: It was a change to do a feature length CG film, which I hadn't done before. It was a chance to work with Cartoon Network. It's kind of unusual for a film like this to be made as a movie in the American market. It has many of the elements that I'm interested in. It's an action adventure, but with a more serious dramatic slant.
RD: What were some of the considerations you made for this project versus the projects you've done in the past?
PC: There are many ways of answering that. This is for a slightly younger audience than I have done in the past. I also wanted this to be more about the emotions of the characters and less about the conceptual or political or philosophical themes. But that was something that I wanted to do anyway. I wanted to do something more acceptable to a wider range. That was the thing I most had to adapt to.
For the rest of it, the way it works is when you start on a project you really have no idea how it's going to get done. No matter how many times you've done it. When you look back on it, you think, "How on Earth did that get done?" So I knew from past experiences that somehow we're going to get the right people together and it's all going to get done. A lot of it has to do with going along with the process. You have to be very careful in selecting the right people to work with you. But once you have the right people, the production goes pretty smoothly and in this case it did.
RD: What was the biggest challenge for you working in CG versus 2D?
PC: There were a lot of technical things I had to learn to adjust to. But honestly it was a lot easier than doing it in 2D even though I have more experience working in 2D. It freed me up a lot. Some of the limitations I feel exist in 2D were not an issue in CG. For instance, putting textures on the characters. Working out lighting. Special effects. A lot of those things are built into the tools in CG whereas in 2D you have to create them by hand.
RD: Where was the animation done?
PC: The animation was done at a studio called SAMG Animation in Korea.
RD: Had you worked with them before?
PC: Briefly on a commercial that combined 2D and CG. I've known them a long time. We've been wanting to work together. This project came along and it happened to be a project we could work on together.
RD: This film has a lot of action in it. What was your approach in balancing the action with the character development?
PC: A lot of movies have elaborate action sequences but you don't feel involved in them. You don't have much invested in the characters or the stakes aren't there or you don't care about any of the characters involved. When the action does take place in this movie the characters feel apart of it. It doesn't feel gratuitous. It all feels like it's motivated by what the character has to achieve. For that reason I think the action scenes are a lot more affective. A lot of the action is concentrated toward the end and it feels natural. It's not action for the sake of action, but it's accomplishing something for the story.
RD: I felt that particularly came out in the dodgeball scene, which actually came early in the film.
PC: The action scenes progressive from there. When he eventually fights the monsters the monsters are like bigger versions of the bully.
RD: What were some of your influences on this project?
Since this was my first full CG movie, I looked at a lot of examples of different styles of computer animation. Game cinematics are a good source of reference, since they are usually so condensed in terms of showing a lot of designs, action and effects in a short time. I can't say they were a direct influence on the style of FireBreather, so much as an inspiration of what could be achieved technically.
I personally enjoy the look of computer generated imagery. I don't think it is inherently any less "organic" or "personal" than imagery rendered in any other medium, like so may animators seem to think. Many CG films come across that way, but only because of the way the makers use their tools. Hand-drawn animation can look cold and mechanical if everything is done in straight lines. The way bad CG is done is the equivalent of a 2D animator drawing everything with a ruler. A good CG animator is one who doesn't rely too much on the computer to define the motion. There is a particular feeling that good CG can give that is unique to the medium, and I'm interested in exploring that area further in the future.
RD: What were the challenges of capturing the design style of the comic in CG?
Once the decision was made to do the movie in CG, it became more important to create a consistent and appealing visual style that stood on its own rather than to convey the look of the comic. The comic has a strong graphic style, which is characterized by high contrast lighting, solid black shadows and very bold use of color. For a movie with a running time over an hour, the visual style should establish itself at the beginning, but should cease drawing attention once the story hooks your interest. At that point, the use of lighting and color can continue to accentuate the emotional flow. Barry Jackson, the production designer, paid a lot of attention to providing a progression of a wide range of moods.
RD: What was the biggest challenge on the film?
The story has a large scopeand scale and trying to capture that with a limited budget and production schedule was difficult. Knowing how far to go in adding detail. I feel at a certain point you can keep adding on more and more detail and to do so costs time and money. But I feel if the story is engaging enough when you go beyond a certain point of detail it's not necessary. It's trying to find that line.
RD: You said this isn't the kind of film that gets made for the American market, in what way is that so?
My perspective on this is colored by my personal experience working in animation. The tone of the story is usually the thing that I respond to first when watching any film. For animated films, that tone seems to always fall within a very narrow range. Maybe it's because American animated films are targeted for very young viewers, but I always feel that the characters are trying too hard to please the audience, rather than to simply inhabit the world of their story. To show characters mugging or winking for the camera is the easiest way to trigger a response. It robs the character of any dignity and cheats the audience out of the chance to discover for themselves how they feel about what they are seeing.
RD: What was it like working with Cartoon Network?
The primary concern at CN for FireBreather was to simply produce the best CG movie out of the source material. Rob Sorcher was very supportive and understanding of the difficulty in achieving an original movie on a short schedule, considering the scale and complexity of the story. It was an environment of trust and creative freedom. It helped that it was CN's first CG production. There was no template to follow, either in terms of visual style or production process. It allowed me to assemble a crew of artists that I thought would best suit the kind of movie I had in mind, which kept evolving during production. In the end, what you end up with is a product of the individuals who contribute to it, and no one can foresee exactly what that will be. As a filmmaker, that is the ideal type of process, as opposed to one in which there is some preconceived mold into which you must try to fit.
RD: What's are you working on next?
PC: Right now we're developing more FireBreather films.
Rick DeMott is the director of content for Animation World Network, VFXWorld and AWNtv. Additionally, he's the creator of the movie review site, Rick's Flicks Picks, which was named one of the 100 best movie blogs by The Daily Reviewer. He has written for TV series, such as Discovery Kids' Growing Up Creepie and Cartoon Network's Pet Alien, the animation history book Animation Art, and the humor, absurdist and surrealist website Unloosen. Previously, he held various production and management positions in the entertainment industry.