Hugging Time at FMX!
Written by Johannes Wolters
Here we go again! It's May again, so time to travel to Stuttgart, Germany to meet, to listen, to open the eyes and the minds, to feel the sense of wonder, the pulse of the future and to be amazed by the achievements of the many professionals, as well as those of the bold young students, who present their work. For the 15th time the Conference on Animation, Effects, Games & Interactive Media starts today and — business as usual — this year's program let your mouth drool, if you are a big fan of those wondrous worlds.
Fifteen editions ago, in 1994, the small and tiny “Film and Medienbörse Stuttgart” was held for the very first time – Prof. Thomas Haegele and his team decided to translate the German term into English and the “Film and Media eXchange” in short FMX was born.
“It is amazing, we wanted this year to invite some of the people from then to celebrate our sucess with the conference and I was amazed to find most of them in key positions of the industry!” said Haegele.
For instance Volker Engel and Mark Weigert from Unchartered Territory attended the event back in ´94, the first as a young teacher at the Filmhochschule Ludwigsburg, the latter as student. Now after having won an Academy Award for the Special Effects in Roland Emmerich´s “Independece Day” and an Emmy for "The Triangle," both did an astonishing and hilarious presentation of their work on “2012." Today they spoke in particular about the creation of really groundbreaking visual effects. In 2008 director Roland Emmerich approached them and offered them the possibility to jump aboard but not only as visual effects supervisors, but also as co-producers. A clever move by Emmerich, as the effects-driven blockbuster needed to be guided through a complex previz phase, in which the vfx team played a crucial part. Emmerich gave them 48 hours to think it over.
“We went on a long walk in the Hollywood Hills. We discussed. In the end we didn´t turn down a $200 million movie,” remembers Engel.
And in they went for a hell of a ride. The famous L.A.-sequence, where the city is destroyed by a huge earthquake, evolved from a ½ page in the script, saying something very precise like “they drive to the airport while the city goes down!” Out of this description evolved a mindboggling sequence, where they had to deal with the behaviour of whipping palm trees, falling cars, collapsing skyscrapers and a live-action limousine, which in the end had also had to be replaced with a CG-model. They collaborated very closely with the director and the editor, rebuilding a fictitious Los Angeles, which they modelled after the demands of the sequence instead of recreating the real city.
During the testing, they came up with a very short shot, in which you go through an empty street in L.A. by car in broad daylight. While they were looking at the shot, entirely created in CG, in walks the director of photography. “He looked at the test and asked us, what we are looking at! Roland answered: “We are looking at some visual effects here.” The DP again looked at the shot and after a while asked bewildered “What part of it is CG?” remembers a smiling Engel.
While planning the complicated sequence new ideas evolved, culminating in Emmerich´s request “Why not drive through the building?” The actual shooting of the limousine took place at Vancouver in front of a giant blue screen.
The actual real live building of Kate´s neighbourhood in the movie, which also had to be rebuilt painstakingly in the computer for being crushed to pieces cost $600,000 alone. By the way, do you know what a “Doing a Shatner” means? If you have to pretend that your space-vessel is attacked by Klingons and everything is shaking, do it like William Shatner did - famous Captain Kirk hold on to his chair, pretending the attack entirely through body language. Cost effective but not entirely convincing! For the actors at “2012” the team build a big shaking ground 100 by 60 feet long, where you also were able to volume the shaking between point one and point nine.
“In the end the director decided to play constantly on level nine!” remembers Weigert. “It was just an insurance thing! Was it safe for the actors! You can't have John Cusack breaking his legs too early.”
In the end both, Engel and Weigert enjoyed their experience on the movie very much. Despite all the troubles, they felt it was fun to create those great moments. Right now both of them are enjoying their present work – again both Engel and Weigert are working together with Roland Emmerich on his new movie “The Anonymous” where they have to create 16th century Shakespearian England/London. “Do you know what's best on that? We don't have to destroy it this time!” Weigert laughs. “Ah and by the way, we are looking for a good matte painter right now!"
If you go to FMX, you will probably have to take a close look on the schedule. You'll be crying your heart out if you chose to go to listen to Disney supervising animator Bruce Smith and then realize that you will miss Rainer Gombos presentation of the PreViz work on "2012" or the recruitment presentations by Framestore, Blue Sky or MPC. Ten things are going on here simultaneously making you wish the cloning industry should come up with some solutions to that problems right now. But if you come to FMX keep in mind that on Day One of the conference you have to leave some time, let's say 50% of the whole day, for hugging people. You meet so much familiar faces, friends, colleagues, people you always wanted to meet, you must constantly be aware to be hugged, to hug back, to shake hands, to remember the right name to the right face (I have to work on that, oh my!). And if you come back next year and the next, hugging time gets more and more complex. FMX is the place where you can connect very easily to many, many people in a very easy way. Almost everyone is approachable, cards are exchanged constantly – never come here without a pack full of your cards! You never know who you are going to meet next – but be sure it will be an interesting encounter.
In 1994 the then unknown Thomas Zauner attended the first FMX, nowadays nobody on this world can simulate water in all its glorious forms better than the head of Scanline VFX. You know, those guys did the amazing rivergod in “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” or the landing of the Persian fleet in “300.” Today Zauner proudly presented the astonishing “Tidal Wave Sequence” from "2012" and carefully explained the problems while drowning the whole world. The fundamental knowledge of water must evoke the envy of natural science world, there seems to be nothing about the behaviour of water or fluids that the guys of Scanline don't know. Zauner showed the very complex cycle moves of water and the even more complex interactions between smaller and bigger waves, creating more and more problems in a realistic simulation. Using the inhouse developed Flowline software, you are able to play god with all the fluid element. The software offers a fluid simulation system, a particle system able to create 100 of millions of particles and an ocean surface simulator. But this was only the basis to develop those spectacular images, for instance Zauner and his team had to develop the right speed of the waves, not so much in terms of the fundamental laws of physics, but much more in the fluid terms of spectacular moviemaking. So as Zauner stated, if the world will come to an end in two years from now you will find it much less attractive as we did it in “2012!” Right now, Scanline is working on a five-minute demo that proves their ability to work in 3-D-Stereo also. So remember, the computer solution for water is still Scanline.
There is so much more to tell. I met Bob Whitehill, the stereographer of "Toy Story 3" and ran into the ever-busy Shelley Page, who at the end of the day made us all smile with her selection of international short animation films. “Shelley's Eye Candy” reflects her flawless taste for great and exquisite animation, something she needs to build on as the international outreach for DreamWorks Animation Studios. Ken Ralston and David Schaub showed us their unbelievable amount of work creating Tim Burton´s "Alice in Wonderland" – but more about this tomorrow.
Along with FMX, the international animation festival Stuttgart opened its gates to the animation community. A perfect blend with FMX, during the day you can listen and talk to all the creative people while in the evening you can have a look at the films of the competition or other events of the festival. That is, if you didn't make some appointments for dinner with at last ten or twenty-thousand people, which again means you will see your bed in the wee hours of the morning, while the ever busy people of FMX are already preparing for day two!