Platige Image, the award-winning Polish post-production studio, has an Oscar contender with its latest animated short, The Kinematograph , about the invention of movies with dire consequences, directed by Tomek Bagiński , as well as noteworthy vfx in Lars Van Trier's Antichrist. We spoke to Bagiński (also the studio's art director) about animation and CEO Jarek Sawko and Jakub Knapik (film department head) about vfx.
Bill Desowitz: Tomek, what inspired you to make The Kinematograph?
Tomek Bagiński: It's quite a long story. Everything began just after we finished Fallen Art  when I was looking for an idea for the next film. One of my friends brought me a comic by Mateusz Skutnik called Revolutions convinced that I would be interested. Revolutions is a multi-volume series of short intertwining novellas taking place in a steampunk reality. The comic seemed to me quite good, but not good enough to be made into a film. In the third volume, just as I was about to put the material away, I got to a story entitled The Kinematograph. On the one hand, it enchanted me with its simplicity and the fact that it was a complete whole, and on the other, with the level of emotions it evoked. These strongly stylized pages touched me deeply. Because I try to choose productions in such a way as to avoid repeating the previous styles, the making of this romantic tear-jerker after Fallen Art seemed like a good idea.
TB: Initially, I wanted to copy the style of the comic. Mateusz Skutnik has a characteristic stroke and chose a very interesting style both for the comic and the characters. However, what worked well on paper wouldn't necessarily come out in the film. As early as that, I understood that the style of the picture contrasted with the fairly nostalgic story should be complex and pretty in a classic way. Finding a style for backgrounds didn't cause any problems, but characters transferred onto 3D from the comic pages weren't as interesting and pretty as I would like them to be. We had quite a lot of pre-production, storyboards, parts of the set design projects, but I had no idea how to handle the style of characters and it made me lose faith in the project. Because at the same time I got a proposition for making a very big and interesting commercial project, I put The Kinematograph into a drawer for almost two years.
In the meantime, I met a young graphic artist, Kuba Jabłoński. I saw he was good because he worked in several commercial projects that I did. I had this devilish idea. I sent him the materials from The Kinematograph concerning the characters and I told him to have a look at the project and then throw them all into the bin and suggest something completely different. Two years made me realize that the only way for the film to appeal to me again is to give up the comic stylistics and create a completely new style for the film.
Kuba sent the first drafts and that was when I knew that it was a good decision and several weeks later the production started again.
BD: What were some of the most difficult challenges?
TB: There were quite a lot of challenges. It turned out that the film cost three times more than I initially assumed. This was not a problem related either to the technique or art, but it influenced work process and stress level.
When it comes to the film itself, the opening scene was certainly a great challenge. Its length, the camera and character movement choreography, the number of elements on the scene and a huge difference of scale caused us a lot of problems. This was one of the takes that we started first and finished last.
TB: The basic tool that we used for the film was 3ds Max , in which we integrated scenes and carried out rendering, but we used a whole array of programs. We used MotionBuilder  for animation. For modeling, besides 3ds Max we also used Maya  and ZBrush . For clothes simulation we used Maya. Photoshop , where we created backgrounds and textures, was also an important program. After Effects was our choice in compositing. We also had a wide choice of our own scripts and plug-ins to make work more efficient together with our own point renderer for particles.
BD: Turning to Antichrist, what was it like working with Lars Von Trier?
Jakub Knapik: Well, it was very interesting. The legend that comes with that name brought a lot of energy into the production. From the first moment we saw the script we knew: this is controversial. But we believed that later on the movie would be softened a bit during the production. Well, it was not. From the point of view of the production, Lars Von Trier is very, very detailed in his comments. He knows exactly what he wants from the shot. Sometimes we even got some sketches like in the shot with the fox gnawing out his guts. One star shot had about 20 versions just to get all the stars right. On the one hand, it's very time-consuming to create so many revisions; but on the other, it gives you the feeling that That Man Knows it all and knows where we are all heading. You feel safer.
BD: What kind of effects did you create?
The third part consisted of the scenes where the director wanted to achieve some artistic, unreal or visionary effect, like the scenes with acorns. We had to script and animate hundreds of small growing and dying plants together with a lot of matte painting and composition.
BD: What were some of your challenges?
JK: Artistically, we encountered two difficulties. The first one was how to obtain a balance between reality and a dream. From the very beginning, we were learning the visual language of this film. In many shots, our initial approach was far too real, too complicated. We had to learn this very raw, minimalistic look and still leave some space for beauty. The second difficulty concerned the gore level. We had never dealt with horror-like movies or shots before. In our projects we did head shots, blood and stuff like that but it had its visual limits. This time it was much more than that. There were moments when we had a feeling that we had gone too far, and then we would get a comment: "Add more."
From the technical point of view, it's nothing like those big Hollywood VFX movies, but we faced our own challenges. Actually, all of the animal shots were a bit tricky. Removing all that wiring and collars from running animals required 3D body replacements. The trickiest part was the speaking fox scene. Of course, this scene is problematic for the audience. At the very beginning we were supposed to use a shot fox and add some morphing to the mouth with some minimal jaw replacement at the beginning of the shot. Later on, the director's decision was that the fox needed to speak with a very exact lip sync. That really changed our approach. We had to replace the whole fox's face and reanimate the shot. We tracked the head very exactly in boujou  and then created a full face in Softimage . We had 40 versions of the lip sync animation, and finally the strongest and most pronounced version was picked for the shot. Then the original fox's head was mapped on the new 3D face, repainted and that map was used as the color for the fur. mental ray  was used for the rendering and Nuke  for compositing.
BD: What other vfx projects are you working on?
JS: Some large historical projects are being developed at the moment. We are also preparing our own production, Hardkor 44. This is going to be a full-length feature about the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. We want to show the subject in a very graphical stylized way. That will require a lot of effects. Let me just say that some of our characters are half-robots and they are fighting Polish troops in the surroundings of a destroyed Warsaw of 1944.
BD: How are you raising the vfx bar?
JS: After working on effects for such a well-known director and being part of an international co-production, we are better recognized as a vfx supplier on the market. It is easier now to offer our services. After finishing the work on AC, we decided that we needed a complete infrastructure redesign if we wanted to continue the vfx work, and we certainly do. AC work was done on a simple setup of a few workstations. It was not perfect, but at that time it was sufficient. We decided to invest some of the efforts and resources to build a better solution for such a demanding work. Over the last year, we have built a grading system with a digital projection in a small cinema suite. We invested some money in a large SAN and connected our all resources to it. Now we can offer a full service, together with color grading and mastering for digital and analog cinema. That was something we needed to do. It was really hard in the year of crisis, as we had to cope with an even competitive market at the same time. In the meantime, we also prepared the team for bigger and more demanding vfx jobs and now I think that we are ready for such projects.
TB: It was the first time that we made a film with dialogue. It was also the first time that we made a film close to full-length films. For the first time, the film was made in relatively normal production conditions by a team with a clear division of duties (the team was not just a group of friends, all the tasks were divided and budgeted, there were internal deadlines). For the first time, I was only in charge of direction and I wasn't making takes by myself. There is only one scene in the film that required my assistance. The film was our test before full-length productions so the producers and I wanted to see how much such a production could in fact cost and how much time it would take if we made the film normally and not "after hours" like before. And how far our team is prepared to do such work. We have learnt a lot thanks to this production.
BD: What are you working on now?
TB: I am finishing work on The Animated History of Poland, commissioned by the government for Expo in Shanghai. It is an 8-minute stereoscopic film in which we travel through 1,000 years of Polish history in a video clip form. A large number of characters, group scenes, battles, over 150 set designs. The film will be ready in February 2010. I am also making commercials all the time. I don't have to feel ashamed of this activity any more. I have begun to work on high-quality projects and it doesn't matter that they are commercial.
[I'm also working on] Hardkor 44. Right now we are in the pre-production stage. This time I want to face the actor's cinema. I am not planning any new shorts for now, maybe as a producer. Next year, at least one interesting film will leave our studio; namely, Paths of Hate by Damian Nenow.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.