By Zoe Chevat
Next stop on our whirlwind Oscar-nominee tour was Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks, which share a campus not five minutes from the main Sony lot. There, we were greeted by Don Levy, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Sony Pictures Digital, and our enthusiastic host for this inside look at the company's animation and VFX divisions. Though originally an VFX company, still known for their work on tentpole hits like Hancock and the Raimi Spider-Man franchise, it eventually occurred to the team at Sony that their pipeline was already in place for in-house animation. Taking a page from legendary special effects and animation giant, Ray Harryhausen, for whom their on-site screening theater is named, the company has stepped up its game in recent years with films like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Arthur Christmas, with many more projects in the pipeline.
After a quick word to the lunchtime crowd in the screening theater, many of whom are up to their necks putting finishing touches on MIB3, the latest action blockbuster to come through Imageworks’ doors, our group was off to take a look at “how it’s done at Sony.”
Levy led us up into the heart of SPA’s front-end production, a long, dark, cruise-ship looking corridor buzzing with computers and hushed as a church. The animation division is something of a misnomer, as they primarily handle pre-production, including concept design, animatic, and editorial work, while Imageworks is where the actual animation takes place. Passing by a wall of blown-up PDFs that were submitted to the Academy last year for the VFX nomination for Alice in Wonderland, Levy talked a little about how the Oscars judge visual effects work, and whether we can hope the landscape shifts sometime soon. Though all the work nominated is usually exemplary, he said, too often the focus is on realistic effects and a comprehension of the differences between reality and illusion by voters, not on the amount of work that goes into creating something outright fantastical in nature.
Before we knew it, it was time to return to the theater for a filmmaker’s Q&A with the nominees’ interested, but understandably preoccupied, peers. Points of note were the technique and workflow used by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis on Wild Life, and the source of inspiration for A Morning Stroll, represented by director Grant Orchard, and his producer, Sue Goffe.
Lunch followed, with producers, directors, and art direction staff joining the nominees to pick their brains about visuals, story decisions, and the independent life. One frequent topic was the funding differences experienced by American filmmakers, as opposed to the mix of state resources and private funding used by the nominees at hand; two Canadian teams, and a British studio production. Also at lunch were sneak peeks at boards on the walls showcasing development art and final models for upcoming projects. (It should go without saying that the press were asked not to describe what we’d seen.)
In addition to creating cutting-edge VFX and animation, SPA/Imageworks is focused on proprietary technology, both for internal use, and for open-source external teaching. Earlier in the day, we’d seen the inside of the teaching lab, maintained to keep employees and new recruits alike up-to-date on new technology and software innovation. One in-house innovation we were given a demonstration of was Flix, a Google Doc-style animatic-sharing network program. Flix allows a production team to tracks changes to an animatic by artist and department, and saves all previous versions and alterations between departments, making it easy to stay abreast of the nearly 500 daily changes being made to storyboards during preproduction. Everyone in the room drooled as its delighted, and rightfully proud, creator showed it off to us. If there’s one toy we wish was open-source right now, it’s this SuperDoc.
Last, we walked through Visual Development, and got a look at new project style boards. I couldn't take pictures, and I clearly can't mention some of what was seen. I will say that it looks like Sony's moving ahead with a combination of revisiting tried-and-true properties, while trying on some original ideas that fit within an evolving house style. It will certainly be interesting to see what the next year brings their way.
Of course, Sony Pictures Animation/Imageworks was hardly the end of Wednesday’s madness. Onward our caravan went to 20th Century Fox!