Dan Sarto reports back from eDIT 10: The Filmmaker's Festival in Frankfurt, where, despite the digital evolution, it still begins with story and character.
The 10th anniversary of eDIT: The Filmmaker's Festival, which took place Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 at CineStar Metropolis in Frankfurt, Germany, clearly provided a wide platform to enhance the process of filmmaking in the digital age. The tone for this year was to continue to evolve with the ever-changing art and science of filmmaking with the understanding that it still begins with story and character.
As always, the event began with its focus on animation and vfx. Sunday was reserved for screenings of animation, shorts and other stories compiled from film festivals and production events around the world.
The program started with a screening of selected shorts from the 2007 Bitfilm Festival, which just handed out their annual awards at their Sept. 27 gala in Barcelona. Festival Director Moritz Hirchenhain introduced the program, which included a number of interesting films, including Blur's A Gentlemen's Duel, Aliaksei Tserakhau's Capital, The Mustache Contest by Mike Hollingsworth and Ben Hinton's highly stylized Code Hunters done for MTV Asia. Founded in 2000, the Bitfilm Festival is an annual event celebrating excellence in 3D animation, digital vfx and Flash movies.
The program followed with the Avoid Eye Contact 1, a selection of films by top independent animators in New York. Highlights included Patrick Smith's Delivery, a starkly brutal portrayal of two men's violent struggle to take possession of a parcel just delivered to their house, the hilarious Sub by Jesse Schmall and PES' famous Roof Sex.
The crowd then was treated to a complete collection of the wonderful short films of PES, a stop-motion animator whose hilarious and innovative works are some of the most virally distributed films online. Highlights included Roof Sex, Game Over and Kaboom. Bill Plympton followed with a curated showing of some of his short films, including his most recent Shuteye Hotel. Bill always delights crowds wherever he goes, mixing bits of background information and his insight into the animation process while discussing his uniquely animated sense of humor and storytelling. Bill's films have been delighting animation fans for years and this screening was no exception.
I followed with a program of shorts curated with AWN President Ron Diamond, as part of our annual "Animation Show of Shows" program. In its eighth year, the ASOS brings together top animated shorts from around the world into a program that tours top studios, associations and schools around the U.S. A packed Kino 3 theater watched four of the five Oscar nominated and winning films this year, including Geza Toth's Maestro, Disney's The Little Matchgirl and Torrill Kove's Academy Award-winning The Danish Poet. As a special treat, I showed one of the latest films from the National Film Board of Canada, Madame Tutli-Putli, a 17-minute stop-motion visual tour-de-force.
The next two days consisted of 30-plus presentations and panels devoted to animation, visual effects, production (cinematography, editing, sound, set design, writing), TV, documentaries, technology and industry business and law.
Simultaneously, eDIT education provided the opportunity for professionals to assist young filmmakers with a greater understanding of the production process while offering the opportunity for possible work through recruiting sessions.
Once again, there was a substantial vfx presence at eDIT 10, including panels devoted to U.S. tentpoles. Industrial Light & Magic, for instance, offered three presentations. Miles Perkins, director of marketing and communications, gave a detailed look at the history and benchmarks that ILM has set throughout the past three decades: "The aim is to make filmmakers able to quickly visualize the real project," Perkins explained. "We support their goal to achieve great storytelling. The digital toolset is here, people are learning to use it. But never forget it has to start with a great story."
Meanwhile, Oscar-winning Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll presented highlights from the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, including details about their innovative Imocap system, permitting the audience to see the process and its refinement throughout the trilogy. "We learned from the first Pirates that it is always better to use the live-action plates when it comes to CG characters," Knoll said. "In Pirates 1, the CG team used clean plates, but as the trilogy progressed the characters were wearing specific track-marked motion capture suits to truly enhance their digital character performance."
Both Perkins and Knoll agreed that the best results come when the work "happens on set." ILM CG Supervisor Hilmar Koch also presented a behind-the-scenes look at last summer's blockbuster, Transformers. The audience was truly amazed at the complexity of detail that these robotic characters had down to the surfaces on various body parts and mechanisms. When questioned about the extent of the detail, Koch acknowledged that even if viewers are not consciously aware of it, their presence brings even more life to the characters. So ILM has certainly raised the bar again with hard surface modeling.
In addition, Sony Pictures Imageworks offered a detailed glimpse into Spider-Man 3, via Character Animation Supervisor Spencer Cook, who previously presented Spider-Man in Frankfurt. Like Pirates, Cook walked the audience through the advancements achieved throughout the trilogy. Sandman was undoubtedly the most unique and interesting new character, necessitating a new fluid and gas simulation engine and interface that will now benefit Imageworks on subsequent projects.
Two of the more interesting visual effects presentations came as a surprise. London-based Double Negative, which was originally scheduled to discuss their recent vfx work from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, had to alter plans when their hard drive crashed. Thus, as in real life, Double Negative demonstrated the ability of today's visual effects artists to make revisions on the fly, so they produced a different presentation within 24 hours, focusing on invisible vfx from Children of Men and United 93. Once again, the audience was stunned to learn that no one wanted to assist in the making of this most sensitive film (United 93), and so access to Boeing, United Airlines and airports was non-existent making the job of creating the aircraft and airports a most difficult task with no reference points available.
In a similar way, Visual Effects Supervisor Rainer Gombos and Pixomondo were also challenged in the production of more than 480 shots for the World War I film The Red Baron. They had no models, miniatures, airfields, helicopters and other tools to create the battle sequences. "We never left the ground, and yet we had to produce all of these complex air battle sequences," Gombos explained. "We actually shot cloud references when we were flying on commercial aircraft to and from the production locations, and then enhanced these images with various software." The work was extraordinary considering all of the challenges and limited budgets compared to most productions done in the U.S.
The animation block on Tuesday centered again on short films. The Short Cuts presentation was broken into two parts. First, PES lead an interactive Q&A discussing his body of work, taking the audience through his laborious but visually rewarding process of stop-motion. PES' films define the term "shorts" -- they range from 10 seconds to 1 minute in length. After showing a selection of his work, he talked about why he makes films, the genesis of both his style and storytelling ideas and the symbolism of why he uses certain objects in his films (for example, using yellow gift wrap bows to depict the bomb-bay aerial view of explosions to show how the horrors of war are often justified as actions taken to help people).
Timm Osterhold and Max Zimmermann of Fiftyeight3D then took the audience through the creative process of designing a 3D-animated short for a large software company. Tasked to help a software company differentiate themselves from their giant competitors, including Oracle, Timm and Max created a story focusing on a cute cat, stuck in a tree, and how each of the companies solved the problem of the cat's rescue. This presentation touched on issues ranging from managing the expectations of clients working through the design and story process, to finding appropriate symbolism to represent competitive companies, to trying to use short, concise visual storytelling to differentiate companies whose products and selling points fill vast catalogs of material.
Plympton then presented previously never before seen clips from his soon to be released feature film, Idiots and Angels. A simpler film than his most recent feature, Hair High, Idiots and Angels is a departure from Bill's previous films, both visually and structurally. Sitting in front of a drawing pad displayed for the crowd, Bill discussed his paths to character development as he walked the audience through creation of a basic flight sequence with his main character, a man who has mysteriously grown wings.
The Filmmaker's Festival always kicks off the event with a Gala highlighted by the eDwards young filmmakers awards and the presentation of Festival Honors to great filmmakers for their lifetime contributions to storytelling. 2007 Festival Honors were presented to Sir Alfred Hitchcock. The Master of Suspense joins Stanley Kubrick, Peter Greenaway, Dennis Muren, Michael Ballhaus, Tom Rolf, Dante Ferretti, Phil Tippett, Terry Gilliam, Vilmos Zsigmond and Ray Harryhausen receiving the festival's most distinguished honor.
Academy Award-winning actors Martin Landau and Shirley MacLaine provided video greetings and memories about Hitchcock. Interestingly, both of these stage actors made their film debuts in Hitchcock films. Landau appeared in North by Northwest, or, as he told the audience, The Man in Lincoln's Nose, which was the original title. Not surprisingly, Hitchcock soon discovered this was not a title that would appeal to audiences, especially after he was denied access to shooting at Mount Rushmore. MacLaine made her debut in The Trouble with Harry. Both shared personal and interesting anecdotes about their experiences working with Hitchcock. Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds and Marnie, accepted the award on Mr. Hitchcock's behalf, and she was treated to almost a five-minute standing ovation from the most appreciative Gala audience.
"The thing that really separated Hitchcock from other filmmakers was his understanding of his audience," offered Festival Co-Director Tom Atkin in his laudation. "Hitchcock knew how to tease them, humor them, tantalize them, engage them, frighten them and always leave his audiences wanting more."
Although The Filmmaker's Festival and the Visual Effects Society ended their most mutually beneficial relationship of five years, both organizations were pleased with the relationship. And while the festival will continue to keep a strong focus on visual effects, beginning next year it will expand partnerships with significant organizations that wish to enhance the storytelling experience from different perspectives. In fact, the festival has already announced a partnership with A.C.E. (American Cinema Editors), with A.C.E. President Alan Heim participating in an editing presentation, and is discussing a partnership with Imago, the organization comprised of many European individual societies of cinematography, including BSC.
Dan Sarto is co-founder and publisher of AWN and VFXWorld.