L.A. Leg Starts at MGM and Sony
written by Rick DeMott
The L.A. leg of the Oscar Tour kicked off at the Sony lot. For the first time in the tour's history the participants, who include The Lady and the Reaper's director Javier Recio Gracia, producer Raul Garcia, and exec producer Enrique Posner, and Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty's director Nicky Phelan and producer Darragh O'Connell, received a tour of the legendary MGM Studios.
Stops included the Thalberg Building where the studio showcases its Best Picture Oscars, as well as the offices of Sony's top execs including Amy Pascal. For the game show fans out there, the nominees got a chance to see the sets of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. The legendary Stage 30 was being used as a commissary for Adam Sandler's new film, The Pretend Wife. But most of the time, the stage is known for housing the largest water tank where films such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were filmed. The nominees were treated to the stages were Wizard of Oz and Married with Children were filmed, and there was some debate with our tour guide Tony on whether Oz is the most beloved movie in America or not. Along our walk through the backlot, we had the chance to see the art department building a New York city street set for the upcoming film Burlesque.
However, for the animators, I think the highlight of the tour was seeing the background painting warehouse. The facility houses a vast library of background paintings, which are still used today. Stories tall canvas paintings are rolled up and stored in racks from floor to ceiling. And they're tall ceilings may I add. We ventured up 60 steps to where the painters (who all have masters in fine arts) work on new backdrops. When a popular backdrop is too faded to use or is damaged, the artists in downtime will repaint those pieces. The canvases are pegged to frames that can be raised and lowered keeping the giant paintings always at eye level.
After the tour we headed over to Sony Pictures Animation, where the studio execs assembled to watch the films. Following the screening the filmmakers fielded questions from the execs. Javier said that on his film the story was solid from the start, but the visual look developed over the course of the production while he worked with the other artists. He added that the project took a year and a half to complete. For Kandor the production was an R&D project to help develop their 3-D pipeline.
Nicky said that the short started as a live stage show from writer and Granny voice actress Kathleen O'Rourke. He saw the film from the start as a combination of 3D for the "real" world and 2D for the fairy tale sequences. The 2D elements were key framed and then animated in Flash. Nicky said a big influence on the 2D style was the animated feature Twice Upon a Time. The short took a year to complete. Currently, Nicky and Brown Bag are working on the popular TV series, Olivia.
After a nice lunch with execs and animators, the group moved on to a tour of the animation studios. For its creator Yiotis Katsambas, we were treated to a demo of Sony Digital's proprietary storyboard software Flix. Due to copyright issues, I can't divulge the details, but the nominees were shown the interface and many of the innovative features. Afterward Enrique told Yiotis that he really hopes that Sony decides to license the program.
Next stop was the visual development department where the nominees had a chance to see how Sony handles developing the visual look for its films. The small eight or so team develops the look of projects so that the visuals are locked down before production begins. For instance they can make 100 penguins to see if they'll work and if they want to change it to puppies they can make 100 different puppies. For Surf's Up, the team did wave tests and a great animation test of Jeff Bridges' Big Z using dialog from The Big Lebowski. For Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the visual artists created an entire sizzle reel for the film, which included many gags and visuals that ultimately made it into the film. The reel was used to see if design elements worked within the animation and gives anyone on the team a chance to make changes before the project goes into production where changes would cost a great deal more to be made. While the team is under Sony Animation, they also have a chance to do spec work for bids for Sony Imageworks. One treat was seeing a demo for G-Force that was certainly not G-rated.
Coming up next was a 3-D demo from Sony's 3-D master Rob Engle. The nominees had a chance to check out clips from Alice in Wonderland, G-Force and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Engle ran down the process of converting a film into 3-D. First they have to isolate elements through rotoscoping and key framing. Then they need to add depth by synthing the second eye. Next the artists have to clean up any problems that arose from the first two steps and finish off by adding back in CG characters. One of their main focuses is faces because it's the first place viewers will pick up on problems with depth. To do the work, Sony uses a combination of proprietary software, Nuke and Shake. It's important for the artists to watch their work on the biggest screen they can. Also the 3-D artists work with the director from a depth script so that depth of field is used to highlight key moments in the story.
During the tour, host Don Levy showed us how Sony is changing their layout to an open floor plan. Both Nicky and Raul said that their companies in Ireland and Spain all have open floor plans.
Throughout the day Javier kept apologizing for his English. But it's not bad at all. Raul told me that they need to talk to him about not apologizing in his speech if they win. Javier said that 35 Spanish artists from the project are taking vacation and paying their way to come to California for the Oscars. Nicky said many Irish artists are coming to support Granny as well and they should have a Spanish-Irish bash. Now that would be a party.