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Blurring the Lines at Blur with Animated Shorts

Tim Miller talks about parlaying commercial success at Blur Studios into a flourishing shorts program.

In just 10 years, Tim Miller has nurtured Blur from a small beachside vfx house to a high-powered CG facility on the brink of a feature breakout. All images © Blur Studios. All rights reserved.

In just 10 years, Tim Miller has nurtured Blur from a small beachside vfx house to a high-powered CG facility on the brink of a feature breakout. All images © Blur Studios. All rights reserved.

Its been a decade since Blur Studio opened its CG facility in the Southern California beach town of Venice. Its founders had left jobs in the high-end Unix business of visual effects to set up a PC-based facility of their own. They set up a 3ds Max pipeline, (a move that was more daring then than it seems now) regularly made contributions to the growing body of Max-compliant software, (like the Brazil renderer) and built a base of loyal clients.

In the last couple of years, success has led to major changes. Blurs still near Venice Beach though in a building four times bigger that houses a staff of 75. And Blurs creative director and co-founder Tim Miller, along with co-founder David Stinnett, are still proponents of Max, running a pipeline thats optimized for doing full 3D character animation with notable speed. But whats especially striking is how Blur has parlayed its success as a work-for-hire shop into a place where the art of animated short films is flourishing. The studios first forays, Aunt Luisa (2002) and Rockfish (2003) were short-listed for Oscar consideration, and Blur again accomplished this in 2004 twice with Gopher Broke and In the Rough.

However, when Gopher Broke landed an Oscar nomination as best animated short film, Miller found himself seated on the aisle of the Kodak Theatre alongside the films writer-director Jeff Fowler. It was the culmination of a long-developing effort to position Blur as a creator of original animated films, and Miller, as executive producer, saw it as a big step toward Blurs ultimate goal of making animated features. Now theres buzz on the street that Vin Diesels company, One Race Films, is partnering with Blur to do a feature version of Millers Rockfish, so VFXWorld asked him to explain how Blur has managed its success so far.

Ellen Wolff: You seem to be following a tradition pioneered by Pixar in the 1980s to build animation talent through original shorts. How did you manage to produce two films this past year?

Tim Miller: Those two shorts represent about $1.6 million dollars worth of time at Blurs rate, so its not insignificant. Both required about 800 man-days. Two guys trying to do it in their spare time couldnt have done it, so we scheduled the stuff. I wondered if Id have the fire in the belly to turn away paying work, but oddly enough it was never an issue. We had the bandwidth to do two this year. Some of the funds felt like Monopoly money because wed come off our Disney project, plus we had some guys with time on their hands. [Blur created nearly 40 minutes of animation for Mickeys Twice Upon a Christmas, bringing famous 2D characters into the 3D realm for the first time.]

We also had more character animators than I could really sell without a big character animation project. Some studios would let those people go, but that hasnt been Blurs model and as long as I can make it not Blurs model I wont let people go.

Short-listed for an Oscar in 2003, Rockfish may provide Miller with an entrée to the big screen as a director.

Short-listed for an Oscar in 2003, Rockfish may provide Miller with an entrée to the big screen as a director.

EW: How many animators do you currently have?

TM: About 60. Ive handpicked everyone here. Maybe I pick people who like the same stuff I do, so after awhile it probably gets a little incestuous! But we have virtually no turnover I think weve lost one guy to Imageworks and a couple to ILM. In L.A. thats saying something.

EW: How do you select the subjects for the short films that you do?

TM: People submit ideas. We get about 33 separate ideas each year several people put in two, so we probably have about 14 people putting in ideas. Wed like to do two shorts one comedy film like Gopher Broke and, one sci-fi/action film like Rockfish. The supervisors vote we have 20 people whove earned that title. The reason for that is that I trust them to know if something is achievable. Its a right that theyve earned.

So its not a democracy its more like a plutocracy. But I dont worry about favoritism. Jeff Fowler (who made his directing debut with Gopher Broke) wasnt a supervisor at the time and he won. Jeff has been here two years we brought him in as a character animator for the Disney project.

If an idea doesnt win one year, it can be submitted again. The way that our shorts program works is that Blur only owns a film if we actually make it.

After doing four shorts, we know the drill. The goal behind all of this is to have people see that we can tell stories by ourselves that we can do the whole gamut; from coming up with the story to the character design to the directing and the look of the final piece. Now we have this dual pipeline where we can do the family stuff as well as spaceships blowing up!

In the Rough was on the short list for an Oscar nomination in 2004.

In the Rough was on the short list for an Oscar nomination in 2004.

EW: How do you keep your animators happy when theyre not doing Blurs original films?

TM: We talk all the time about how to keep people happy. After the Oscars both Jeff Fowler and Paul Taylor got calls, and they showed a sense of honor and loyalty to the studio. Jeff is 26 years old and it was impressive for him to get an Oscar nomination. But he acknowledges that it was through Blur that he was given a shot. I try to mentor these guys about being leaders, and letting them know that when the spotlight swings to them, they have to acknowledge the teams effort.

At the moment Jeff is directing some commercials with animated cars for a Japanese client and Paul just finished a game cinematic for Warhammer. Were also doing game cinematics for Hell Gate, Aeon Flux, Company of Heroes and X-Men: Legend Two. Weve done a Time Riders ride film for a theme park in Germany, and we have toy commercials for Fantastic Four and Spider-Man Megamorphs. Its all work that we want to do, and our clients are people that we like. We have no sales force all our work comes in through word of mouth. We see commercials and game cinematics as great training grounds for new techniques.

EW: After youve won honors for Blurs original films, how do you manage peoples expectations?

TM: Our own stuff is like gravy but if work is all gravy, the gravy loses its taste. When I think back to the Spanish Pampers commercials that I did, there was some value to that. I learned to eke out every little creative crumb that I could. I about the color of the pee!

I feel like an old man when I say that, but I like to think that the guys respect me enough to listen. I also think I get credit for the fact that I drive up every day in a 98 Miata thats kind of beat up. Rather than the owners of Blur paying themselves exorbitant salaries, we roll profits back into the company. My desk is right out in the middle of the floor so I guess Im a socialist at heart. But I do know this cant be communistic. It is a meritocracy and we have to find ways to compensate people appropriately. We have superstar talents here but there are also people whove been here for nine years whove fallen on their swords for me and they need to know thats valuable, too.

Any Blur employee can submit ideas for potential shorts and the 20 supervisors vote. Gopher Broke, this years Oscar-nominated animated short, was created by Jeff Fowler, who was a character animator at the time.

Any Blur employee can submit ideas for potential shorts and the 20 supervisors vote. Gopher Broke, this years Oscar-nominated animated short, was created by Jeff Fowler, who was a character animator at the time.

EW: Youve made no secret of Blurs ultimate desire to make animated features. Now word is out that Vin Diesels company has optioned a feature version of Rockfish that youll direct, and youre being talked about to direct other animated features. How will Blur need to ramp up to tackle an entire feature?

For Rockfish wed have to add 40 or 50 people. A lot of it depends on what the look is. We might get away with fewer people on Rockfish, although the feature treatment has several more environments than the short film did. Its a much richer place. A lot will also depend on the schedule do they want an 18, 24 or 36 month schedule and four months of pre-production? Id prefer a longer schedule and fewer people. Personally I would like to have a minimum of six months pre-production and a 24-month production schedule. Pre-pro could overlap quite a bit because we could do R&D while were doing storyboards. We have a lot of experience at solving problems.

EW: How did Rockfish attract the attention of Vin Diesel?

TM: Through Cos Lazarous, whos in the game division at Vins One Race Films production company. He was dealing with our managers, The Gotham Group, on another matter. Because hes in the game world, Cos knew our work, and he saw Rockfish on our reel. He thought it was cool and showed it to Vin, who liked it too. So Cos came to Blur and saw the studio and asked if we had a feature idea for Rockfish.

After being in lawyer-land for a while, One Race optioned it. We finished a treatment and now were tidying it up into a document that can actually be pitched. Were also doing development art based on that treatment. Ive been talking to studio people for a year about doing a Rockfish feature, but now that Vin Diesel is attached and Blur got an Oscar nomination were more attractive!

Aunt Luisa was Blurs first foray into the animated short world in 2002 and garnered a spot on the Oscar short list.

Aunt Luisa was Blurs first foray into the animated short world in 2002 and garnered a spot on the Oscar short list.

EW: With a feature in development and a full slate of commercial assignments, will Blur have time to do any more short films?

TM: For the moment, yes. Even though we want do features because theres no canvas like a feature theres something beautiful about shorts. This year, the highest scoring idea for a short across the board was written by two of our concept guys, Sean McNally and Francisco Vellasco. Its called Gentlemans Duel. Its a Victorian glove-slap-across-the-face that escalates into a giant fight to the death. It won the humor category but its also sci-fi, so were only doing that one. Doing two would be a strain. I wrote two new sci-fi ideas based in the Rockfish universe and one of them won, but if we do any more Rockfish stuff I would rather do it as development for the movie.

EW: So how does it feel to be on the road to achieving your goals for Blur?

TM: When these calls have come in, Ive always been happy to have conversations. My wife would like me to jump up and down with excitement, but Ill just wait until its real. When success is in my hand Ill jump up and down. In the meantime, Im cynically optimistic!

Ellen Wolff is a Southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.

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