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Nominees’ Skywalker and Pixar Experiences

We also got to see the foley stage where they were working on Clone Wars, but that too is top secret and we were foiled yet again at seeing something that no one else has seen before. We went down on the stage and talked with the foley artists.

Tamas Liszkas (l to r) Marcy Page, Mike Thurmeier, Roger Allers & Geza Toth eating breakfast at Skywalker Ranch. © AWN Inc.

Tamas Liszkas (l to r) Marcy Page, Mike Thurmeier, Roger Allers & Geza Toth eating breakfast at Skywalker Ranch. © AWN Inc.

Friday morning I went to sleep at 6:20 am and woke up around 7:40 am. That may have been the most restful hour and 20 minutes of sleep I’ve ever had. The comfortable beds and soft pillows at Skywalker Ranch were hard to leave. The last time I ran on so little sleep was in college during my senior year while we were filming long hours over a weekend on the bedroom set I built. This trip has certainly recharged the creative juices in me.

After a call to my wife and a hot shower, I was ready to meet the others. Marcy introduced me to Tamas, who is representing Maestro. He and Maestro director Geza arrived at 2 am from the airport. Geza was in the breakfast area with Mike and Roger while Ron was near by trying to keep the workmen at his rental house from jack hammering the foundation. Roger was telling them stories of his many adventures abroad. On a river ride in China, he saw bodies strung up on the cavern walls, an ancient burial ritual of the area. Roger mentioned to Geza that he had visited Budapest while he was backpacking across Europe after college. He remembered having the feeling that the beautiful city had an oppressive cloud hanging over it. Geza assured him that his cloud had long gone. At the time, Roger was full-fledged hippie with his red hair grown to his waist, which received many curious stares from the locals. During the trip, for a time, he lived in a cave along the water. It was a very old shepherd’s dwelling, which had formed a smooth flat floor from years of animal dung being stamped down. Marcy shared an interesting fact that she had heard that more people are living in caves in China today than there are people living in all of Canada.

Mike Thurmeier poses by the Skywalker Ranch fire engine. © AWN Inc.

Mike Thurmeier poses by the Skywalker Ranch fire engine. © AWN Inc.

Because none of us were all that anxious to leave the Ranch, Ron had to prod us to get our bags to the door. We congregated in front of “The Inn” where we had stayed the night and were greeted by the Ranch’s manager and Candy, our tour guide. First, she took us to the Ranch’s private firehouse. The nearest fire station is 20 minutes away so George bought his own. There has never been a fire, however the Ranch station has attend to many traffic accidents along the windy Lucas Valley Road, which actually wasn’t named after the man behind Skywalker Ranch.

Next, we headed over to the main house, which was a mile away, along mossy brink-lined roadways that gently flowed through the trees and green hills. Ron told us an interesting story about the long horned cattle that were grazing on top of the hill. Apparently, George wanted cattle to roam the property, but was unsure what cattle to purchase. So he had life-sized cutouts made of the various breeds and had them taken to the top of the hills so that he could see which ones looked the best. Now that’s serious previzing.

Mike Thurmeier with two former Blue Skyers. © AWN Inc.

Mike Thurmeier with two former Blue Skyers. © AWN Inc.

At the main house, we meet up with two former Blue Skyers, who of course of have forgotten their names. I’ll have to ask Mike when I see him at the end of next week. I know one of them was the original designer on the Scrat character. Candy led us through the elegantly decorated building with its early Rockwell paintings and gorgeous stained glass. The library, which offers its researchers for any film, is filled with books on any subject one could think of. Right in the center is an intricate stained glass dome. I have to get the picture from Ron, in which, Roger strategically placed the camera directly under the middle of the dome while we all circled around and waited for a timed snapshot.

Throughout the tour, everyone was skirting from wall to wall trying to take in every piece of precisely chosen artwork and furnishings. A greenhouse, which is automated to control the temperature within by opening windows, looks down over a brick courtyard where there are offices below the above structure. Out the cafeteria, outside, is a huge barbeque, which is used in the summer quite often.

Geza Toth checks out some original lightsabers. © AWN Inc.

Geza Toth checks out some original lightsabers. © AWN Inc.

Next we headed over to the sound studio, where we strolled by Lake Ewok and past the vineyard, which makes its own wine that is distributed through the Coppola label. When we arrived at the sound studio, Candy turned the tour over to John, the manager of Skywalker Sound. On the big sound stage, the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra was recording classical music for a CD. Hung on the walls throughout the buildings is George’s amazing collection of movie posters. Roger mentioned that he loves to collect old movie posters too, but doesn’t have enough walls in this home to display them all. Don joked that he needs to invest in more real estate. In a brick-lined central meeting area, there was a huge, vibrantly colored poster of Jackie Coogan’s Treasure Island. In the center of the room was a green garden and in the center of the garden stood Tick Tock from Return to Oz.

On one of the mixing stages, Christopher Boyes was mixing sound effects for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. We had run into him the night before as we arrived at the Ranch and he remembered Mike from the nominee luncheon. He too had a very negative experience with the Interrotron and Errol Morris’ aggressive questioning. On the other stage, sound mixers were hard at work on a trailer for Ratatouille, which we didn’t get to see because it was top secret. We also got to see the foley stage where they were working on Clone Wars, but that too is top secret and we were foiled yet again at seeing something that no one else has seen before. We went down on the stage and talked with the foley artists. Roger said he’s so impressed with foley artists because they are like actors and marvels at their precise timing. One overriding impression that I got from all the nominees was their love and appreciation for art in general. They’re professionals, but they were fans first and they are still great admirers today.

And as they say, all good things must come to an end. But it wasn’t that bad, because we were now off for Pixar. Along the way, Tamas was snapping dozens of pictures. He promised us that we could get some of them to share. I sat in the back of the van with Marcy and asked her how she left San Francisco to go work at the NFB. And it turns out to be a romantic tale. She meet composer Normand Roger while she was teaching in San Fran and asked him if he would compose the music for the film she was working on. She went to Canada to mix the film and found love in the process. After returning to the States, her music man asked her to move to Canada where she would come to work for the NFB. As we talked, she told me that she’s actually getting a chance to animate for a documentary she is working on. The budget can’t afford to purchase a certain clip so she is drawing a sequence to fill the spot. Art will find a way I guess.

So often in this industry the path takes us down roads we never thought we’d travel, yet we find ways to make the journey as close to our dreams as we can. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Don at the ILM dinner. I was telling him about how my wife just couldn’t understand how I could write TV scripts and have them completely changed by the studio. I said it’s just the way the industry is and at this early point in my career if one gag that I wrote still remains, it’s still a part of me in there. I’m learning from the experience and it’s making me a better writer. Don told me it was great to hear that I had a day job at AWN and still had the chance to express myself creatively in other ways. I guess there is an innate understanding in all those who spend their lives creating — it’s not a choice we make, it’s a need we must fulfill.

Pixar's Gary Rydstrom chats with Marcy and Geza. © AWN Inc.

Pixar's Gary Rydstrom chats with Marcy and Geza. © AWN Inc.

Okay, that ends the Hallmark section of this post just in time for our arrival at Pixar. Our host Kumiko Hidaka greeted us as we arrived. As we waited for the screening to begin, we were joined by Lifted nominee Gary Rydstrom and Monster, Inc. director Pete Docter. Gary quickly had us laughing about his nerve-wrenching experience pitching his new project that morning. He has a welcoming personality that puts one instantly at ease. One is drawn in by his humor, which is fast and witty with a touch of self-deprecation and sly cynicism. Which of course made me like him instantly. As we sat down in the auditorium, someone asked if he was excited to watch his film with an audience and he commented that it was actually painful. The crowd at Pixar was much more receptive to the shorts than any of the other studios. The comedies all received the biggest laughs of the tour thus far. And with the home court advantage, Gary got the loudest response from the crowd as he was introduced. It’s funny; now that I’ve seen all the films on the tour three times I’m beginning to notice new things that I never saw before. The cat climbing the wall in the background trying to get the bug in The Danish Poet. The mix of irritation and determination as the girl strikes the last matches in Little Matchgirl.

As for the questions from the crowd, Mike had wondered before the screening, which would be the first question asked — what was the inspiration for Little Matchgirl or was The Danish Poet based on a true story. He picked one of them, but check back later to find out which one when I do a recap posting on all the questions asked during the San Fran leg of the tour. Following the screening, Pixar provided lunch for us and we were visited by some of the artists. It was nice to sit down with Gary and Bob Peterson, who did story on A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. Currently, he’s working on Pete Docter’s new project. Gary was very complementary of Mike’s work on No Time for Nuts, especially jealous of all the sets he had. Marcy brought up a conversation that we had with Mike about the montage sequence in No Time for Nuts, which quickly transports Scrat from location to location. During the first edit, the sequence wasn’t as funny as they liked, but Mike and co-director Chris Renaud were afraid to cut too much. So in frustration they just shortened each shot to five frames and the sequence began to work. From that point they added to each shot accordingly until it felt just right. Bob wondered whether there was a budget for a lion in the coliseum sequence, but Mike said they didn’t have the time or money to build new characters, so they had to work with what they had.

Gary said that when Torill Kove, who directed The Danish Poet, came to Pixar for the Animation Show of Shows screening, she said that she has a knitting group where they just come up with stories much like the one in The Danish Poet, which tells the story of how random choices can affect our lives in ways we could never think of. He asked Marcy if she’s ever been to one of the group meetings and she said Torill wouldn’t let her because she doesn’t knit. She couldn’t even come to listen. Gary liked the quirky humor of The Danish Poet and admired all the details worked into the backgrounds and sides of the frame. Marcy said that it was the first production for the animator who worked on the backgrounds and when Torill let him loose to experiment, he turned in way more than was needed and they had to cut a lot. It’s funny, with so many people talking about Torill during the tour, it seems like I already know her. You know if I didn’t follow my producer Kristi from college to California and went to New York instead, she would have never helped me get the PA job at Acme Filmworks where I worked for Ron who gave me the job at AWN, which brought me to this point where I will meet Torill next week.

The nominees have a fun lunch with Pixar artists. © AWN Inc.

The nominees have a fun lunch with Pixar artists. © AWN Inc.

After Gary mentioned some the audio touches in The Danish Poet, Marcy asked Gary, who worked 20 years in sound, if the sound was worked out early on. He said that he began working out the sound design during the storyboard stage. Because he didn’t have a background in animation per se, Gary said he used sounds to communicate his ideas to the animators. He was worried when he first started that he didn’t know enough animation terminology, but found that just telling the animators, he goes “whiz, bang, whoop,” was enough for them to get the what he wanted. He also found that when it came to rhythm and timing his sound training came in handy when working in animation.

Mike really appreciated the design work on the little alien in Lifted, whose head twists like gelatinous material. Gary’s original intention was to twist the character and form creases like a bendy toy. But the creases were a tall order and in the end a widget had to be created to get the look he desired. He also wanted the ability to change eye size and move the eyes around. He found it ironic that details that were common in classic 2D animated shorts are harder to pull off in CG. Mike commented that they have been trying for a while to figure out how to show a character moving so fast that you see multiple limbs. Blue Sky finally found a solution that they are using on Horton where three identically animated characters are added to the scene and the shutter speed is changed. Gary commented that what someone would just draw in traditional animation now takes a team of scientists in lab coats to figure out.

As the Pixar employees went back to work after lunch, the nominees gathered for the studio tour. Because Roger and Don have seen the studio before, they opted to take the van to Oakland to see if they could get an earlier flight back to Los Angeles. So Mike, Marcy, Tamas, Geza and I followed our tour guide Randy as he laid out the Pixar philosophy. Everyone was bit disappointed in the tour, feeling it was very sterile and overly rehearsed. Mike wished we could have seen some of the artists working and I think everyone felt the same way. Marcy did find something new and revealing in the section of the tour where Randy discussed the story problems on the original Toy Story. It was interesting to see how the filmmakers recognized that Woody wasn’t working as a ventriloquist dummy. There also seems to remain some hostility toward the executive regime that tried to force “edginess” on this family film.

When we arrived at the airport, everyone said their good-byes. You could tell that Mike was happy to be on his way home to see his wife. He admitted that being away from her while she was so close to having the baby made him far more anxious than he thought it would before he left. We all look forward to seeing pictures of the new baby. But that’s not to say he regretted coming. While we were waiting to leave for the airport, he called his co-director Chris to tell him what he has in store when he joins the tour in L.A.

While Ron and I waited stand-by, we chatted with Geza and Tamas, who were very sick of airports and airplanes at this point. Geza apologized to me for speaking Hungarian to Tamas, which I told him he shouldn’t be. Though he isn’t as comfortable with English as his native language, Geza’s wit is not lost in translation. When I asked him what software he used on Maestro, he said, “for the script, Microsoft Word 2003.” With a sly grin he then told me he used 3ds Max. With the Hungarian government funding their trip, Geza and Tamas plan to make the best out of the experience, requesting a big American car with a GPS system to use while they are in California. The two really want to throw a party on the beach where they will cook Hungarian fish soup for all their guests. Geza seems somewhat overwhelmed by all the attention. This is the biggest drama of his life he said. Though he likes to take life a bit slower than the fast paced Oscar extravaganza, he doesn’t seem to be dreading the experience either.

Well that wraps up the San Fran leg of the tour. But check back soon for more pictures from the San Francisco studios, more observations from the nominees and other interesting tidbits.