written by Joe Strike
Whoops, my bad: what I called Red Stick’s ‘Best of the Fest’ award yesterday is actually their “Golden Baton” prize, and I saw all three films last night. In addition to the music video Lilac Wine, the two other contenders were a Hitchcockian spy spoof (Pigeon: Impossible) and the student effort Blackface, a mystical jungle tale.
While the creators of the first two films (Chris O’Neill and Lucas Martell, respectively) were present, Blackface was represented by Pascal Drzazga (honest to God – he wrote it down so I wouldn’t get it wrong), an instructor from the ESMA (Ecole Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques) animation school in Montpelier France where the film was made.
Turns out Lilac (animated to a cover version of a classic Chris Buckley tune performed by the Cinematic Orchestra) was commissioned by Dr. Martens to celebrate the shoe company’s 50th anniversary. (You can download the album it’s part of at http://50.drmartens.com/free-mp3s/  ) O’Neill and his small team of animators had all of three weeks to make the video – one spent on design, the next two on animation. Even better ideas kept popping up (“hey, wouldn’t it be great if…”) at the last minute, piling on the pressure. Working on commercials helped O’Neill cope with the quick turnaround, but even so getting across the finish line meant putting in 36 nonstop hours at the end. While commercials come with clients needing a specific vision for their product, the shoe company’s ‘do anything you want’ direction was “really scary – we were suffering with the freedom they gave us… there’s nothing scarier than a blank piece of paper.”
Lucas Martell talked about the five-year process to finish Pigeon (wherein the eponymous bird commandeers a top-secret missile-launching briefcase), a one-man show for most of its production “I did 80% of the film, but decided to pass the music off because I knew friends who knew how to do it well.
“I drew the line at asking people to help only when it could speed things up, not slow down. I have a friend who linked up with 600 people – and wound up spending more time wrangling them than it would’ve taken him to do the film himself.”
What with his accent, a rudimentary familiarity with English (him, not me) and his not-quite proximity to the microphone, it was a bit of a challenge to understand Drzazga, but he evidently spoke of the school’s training curriculum and its fundamental goal: “we want to give students professional competence.” (Incidentally, the film’s eponymous character is a rare monkey an arrogant white hunter’s set his (gun) sights on – only to find out it takes a monkey to make a monkey…) Which film will win? Tune in tomorrow – or tonight when the Baton’s awarded.
Working backwards, the day began with a high-powered presentation from Max Howard, president of the Exodus Film Group. The Disney and DreamWorks veteran outlined the new feature animation paradigm: in the days of 2D, the Disney name gave the studio a huge leg-up on the competition (of which there was little). But now, thanks to off-the-shelf animation software, the bar’s been lowered for other players to enter the field (including Exodus, creators of Igor and two features now in production) – and when it comes to CGI the Disney doesn’t dominate the field as it did in 2D.
Rhythm & Hues’ “Production Technology Lead” Hans Rijpkema outlined CGI’s mushrooming sophistication since the featureless fur of the mid-1990s Coca-Cola polar bears, compared to Aslan’s luxurious, every-hair-animated mane in the 2005 Narnia film. The downside: everyone’s “expectations rise all the time.”
Rijpkema spent some time explaining how international monetary exchange rates spurred the creation of R&H’s overseas studios (three to date, in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Kuala Lumpur), information probably over the heads of most of the students in the audience. (A lot of seats at the sessions are being filled by school groups – elementary and secondary – bused in for the occasion.) Setting up overseas studios, according to Rijpkema, has led to more work at R&H’s California HQ. (Essentially the same point President Obama made during his recent trip to India.) He wrapped up by plugging the upcoming live-action/CGI Yogi Bear film, a production the studio has a financial interest in; the studio gets paid a flat fee working on others’ films, but if you own a piece of the action…
I cornered Rijpkema after his session with a burning question: if CGI technology is now capable of creating imagery of animals completely indistinguishable from photographed ones… where do we go from here? The man’s response: making them even more realistic – and doing it faster and cheaper.
Clay Katis followed up Wednesday night’s Tangled screening with a session tracing the film’s gestation – which began 14 years ago when Glen Keane first had the idea to update Rapunzel. “Over years and years” of drawing and redrawing the character, said Katis, “he knew Rapunzel the best of all the characters he’s done.”
Katis screened classic movie clips the animators watched to get performance ideas for Tangled’s characters: Audrey Hepburn’s facial nuances (Roman Holiday)…Shelley Duvall’s nervous hands (The Shining) and Harrison Ford performing oversized action gestures (Indiana Jones). He revealed the source of Alec Guinness’ unusual Bridge on the River Kwai strut: an ostrich he observed during an inspiration-seeking zoo visit.
“Every character Glen does has a thing about hair,” Katis went on to say, listing Ariel, the Beast, Tarzan and Pocahontas. Much CGI test footage was shown, footage with Keane’s quick sketches superimposed (via stylus and tablet) to refine the animators’ work. Katis ended his presentation with a personal touch: a montage showing and naming each of the film’s animator, together with a clip from a scene they had worked on.
Red Stick’s also a good place just to catch up on stuff you’ve missed, or at least stuff I’ve missed. Not sure if I should include Howl, based on Allen Ginsberg’s ‘notorious’ poem and its 1950’s obscenity trial, since it just opened in New York. (But then again I’m down here in Baton Rouge). James Franco as Ginsberg and MadMan Jon Hamm as the poem’s courtroom defender had a hard time competing with Eric Drooker’s hallucinatory animation of lost souls hurtling through New York skies and a monstrous Moloch lording over the city. (Drooker met Ginsberg in the last years of the poet’s life when he discovered Ginsberg had been liberating Drooker’s posters from the East Village walls the artist had been decorating.)
Last year’s Oscar-nominated shorts were part of the programming, much to the delight of folks like me who missed them the first time around. I finally caught Wallace and Gromit’s latest thriller, A Matter of Loaf and Death. (And the puns, oy vey, the puns: Citizen Canine! Doggy Osmond! The Hound of Music…somebody stop him!) A great way to end the evening: the Oscar-winning Logorama, nightmare fuel for sure: a world constructed of and populated by corporate logos come to life as Michelin Men police pursue psycho killer Ronald McDonald. (How the hell did this one ever get past the lawyers?) Sweet dreams, everyone…