Doug Chiang, EVP of ImageMovers Digital, discusses starting from scratch with the new studio and the latest performance capture movie from Bob Z, A Christmas Carol.
Robert Zemeckis' ImageMovers Digital studio, backed by The Walt Disney Studios, has already outgrown its San Rafael site and expanded into a larger 3-D performance capture animation facility in Novato, California, redeveloping the former Hamilton Air Force base by setting up office space in Hangars 7 and 9. ImageMovers is currently making its first feature under the Disney banner, A Christmas Carol (opening Nov. 6, 2009), with Jim Carrey as Scrooge and the three Christmas ghosts. VFXWorld recently spoke exclusively with Doug Chiang, the production designer of The Polar Express and Beowulf, and currently EVP of ImageMovers Digital, about the challenges of starting a studio from scratch.
Bill Desowitz: Let's begin with the move. How's it going?
Doug Chiang: ImageMovers is doing great. We're in the process of moving into our new Hamilton home in Novato: the renovated hangers are almost done. It's about 130,000 square feet. By the end of the year we'll be at around 300, and, as you know, we're making A Christmas Carol.
BD: So what's it been like starting over with a brand new company?
DC: The whole experiment, or the whole idea behind the ImageMovers Digital, was to get Bob more involved with the actual team. And it actually has worked out quite well because the whole pre-production and production workflow is something that Bob is very familiar with. It's based on the live-action workflow. And now what we're trying to do with ImageMovers is to do the same workflow for the post-production part of it. Bob has been out to the studio doing turnovers and he's been meeting one on one with all the artists involved. And as a workflow it works great because we can work directly with Bob. And he gives all his notes to people that are actually working on the shots. For instance, he [recently] had a big teleconference meeting with all the animators -- everybody that was working on a sequence with them. He knew who was working on what and could get direct feedback. And that kind of direct, intimate contact is what is helping define the studio. It makes everyone feel part of the process: that we're one big team. There's no client/vendor relationship anymore. And that's something that Bob was thrilled about because, ultimately, it creates a much better flow of information. So what Bob is conveying everyone knows what is expected for the day's work. And everyone is in synch, so it's one of the defining processes for making our work more efficient.
BD: What are some of the lessons you've learned?
DC: A lot of it is just that: breaking down barriers so everyone could cross disciplines. And that's one of the things that we really want to encourage. We're trying not to compartmentalize departments. For instance, people in rigging can also work in modeling and vice versa. It's one of those things where the workflow becomes very fluid and it goes back and forth. It's actually a philosophy that's very fundamental in terms of the art department. And it's a philosophy we're trying to imbue at the whole company. We're basically one gigantic company. And by breaking it down, people feel very liberated. So we keep it very collaborative, very open.
BD: What about improving the technology that you're using?
DC: That's one of the great advantages of starting from scratch: we can take all the lessons that we've learned from the last three films and find out what worked best and what didn't. So we can pick and choose and make the best workflow for us. The downside is that we're creating a lot of our tools from scratch. That takes a little bit of ramp up. But what we're finding is that once these new tools and technologies come online, they're actually improving our workflow as expected. So it may take a little longer to get there, but once we get there it moves much faster. For instance, in terms of the schedule for A Christmas Carol, we're actually much further along than we ever were for Beowulf or Polar Express.
BD: What kinds of tools are you using?
DC: That's a dangerous territory. I can't get into specifics, but it relates to things that make modeling and rigging easier: how to automate more so that the whole process is more fluid.
BD: And to do it all without compromise with the full support of Disney?
DC: Yes, fundamentally, we're making full 3-D films, in which stereoscopic is part of the process from day one, so all of our characters and all of our environments are built with that combination in mind. And it really dictates how Bob puts together the film because he's always thinking in 3-D. One of the things that we're trying to build into the pipeline and workflow is the idea that everything is fluid: characters are fluid and environments are fluid. Bob's a very dynamic filmmaker so that as he goes through the process of putting the film together, he likes to push and pull walls and change sets, scaling them dynamically within a set or changing character features, so it's all to get the perfect shot. And that gives us the guide in terms of how we build our tools. Mainly, the big difference is that we know from the start how Bob likes to make his films, and we build the tools to accommodate that. Bottom line: it means fluidity, it means trying to make everything so that nothing is ever locked. We have designs that are locked, but everything slightly changes and it's completely transparent to the audience. But for the filmmaker it's a great tool because he can actually compose the camera exactly how he wants it.
BD: What is the scope of A Christmas Carol compared to Polar Express and Beowulf?
DC: The scope is quite huge: A Christmas Carol is going to be one of the most challenging shows I've ever worked on. And I have to say that's one of the reasons I really like working with Bob. On every film he likes to push the boundaries of both design and storytelling. And so my impressions of the films before and after are vastly different. We're still refining the art form on A Christmas Carol in terms of defining what the performance capture will be. And one of the beauties is that we're discovering what this form is and we're all part of a learning process. And Christmas Carol, I think, will be one of the first films to really define what the art form is. Even from there, the films after A Christmas Carol will define it in other ways as well. So the wonderful thing is that we don't quite know where we'll end up but the process is amazing.
BD: Are you using the original John Leech illustrations from the Dickens novella as a guide?
DC: Yes, the illustrations are definitely the guide and the nice thing about having the art department part integrated with the post-production part is that a lot of the workflow from art goes into post as well. Some of the post-production artists actually come to the art department and start designing as well. So, again, it creates a fluid studio where everything works. One of the great things about actually designing a studio from scratch in the case of Hamilton is that we've constructed everything so that it spirals around each other. And it was a real good experiment in that the temporary space we were in worked out great as a model to really see the best way to layout departments. Who should be next to who? And we had to work out a lot of bugs, so Hamilton will be a good test case.
BD: What can you discuss about the look of A Christmas Carol?
DC: It's going to be a hyper real, textural look. We're defining it as phototextural. We're not recreating live action. There's no point to that. What we're doing is trying to define a style where you're taking live-action performance characters and caricaturizing them: finding the best features of what an actor brings to a character and really pulling those things out. In some ways, it's a 3-D version of what line character artists do.
BD: How does it fit stylistically in relation to the other films?
DC: It's going to be a little bit more advanced than Monster House. On Monster House we perhaps went with one range. Christmas Carol will be defined as the other range, closer to Beowulf. And so this is where I get back to the idea that we're still learning what performance capture can do for us. In this case, we know that with Jim Carrey as the main actor, he's so malleable. We're actually taking a lot of the cues from what he does as an actor and exaggerating those features. I think that's where the strength of performance capture is: we can create the perfect embodiment of what Jim Carrey's actions should be.
BD: He's arguably the most expressive actor you've had to work with thus far.
DC: By far. In one of our early surveys of trying to define what Jim's facial range is, we were amazed at how elastic he is. And there are some things that he can do with his face when recreated 1:1would be unreal. It's one of those things where you have to pick and choose what's appropriate for the character. And that's worked for the character of Scrooge: he really got into it in terms of knowing what facial expressions and what part of his anatomy that he wanted to exaggerate. And those are the things that we then design into the character.
BD: So what's it like doing phototextural Dickens?
DC: What we're doing is going back to the original story and creating the ideal version of Dickens' world as if we were going into his mind. And, of course, it's being fused with Bob Z. And we can stylize the environments along with the characters so it's being designed with the simple purpose of telling a great story.
BD: And how are you improving performance capture?
DC: The technology is getting more refined and so this time around we're trying some different things: basically, the headcam, and we're going to constantly evolve that technology. What we discovered is it gave such fidelity to the facial performance that it captured the nuances we needed to convey the emotional impact. We've perfected it for our purposes and we've really defined what it is. An what we're doing with the company is making a lot of things and exploring and keeping a very open mind about what the tools are and pulling the best from each of these components. Sometimes the technology we need doesn't exist so we create it ourselves. The great thing about ImageMovers Digital is that we are not bound by any legacy software, any legacy pipeline.
BD: Are you still using markers or transitioning to marker less?
DC: A little bit of both.
BD: How are you dealing with The Uncanny Valley?
DC: It's always going to be an issue. People always ask if we're falling in it. We will get past it, for sure. But that's not necessarily the goal. We don't want to make the perfect live-action person. But everyone is still learning about what makes a human: human and there are some very subtle nuances. But eventually we'll get it. And I think you'll see on A Christmas Carol that we've gotten a lot closer to overcoming it, just in terms of the actual performances, there are things that we are bringing out that have never been seen before. We are taking those moments and finding the important elements of what really cues people to reality and lifelike performances and exaggerating those.
BD: And how has recruiting gone for you? I've noticed that you have artists who have worked at ILM, Sony Pictures Imagesworks and The Orphanage.
DC: We've been very fortunate in finding some of the best people in the field, from visual effects to animation to live action. They're all able to see the potential of what this art form can be, and so everyone is bringing their best skill set to it. And our strength is that we're not locked into any style. Ultimately, there will be a look for what these types of films can be, but I think the strength comes from the eclectic nature of everyone's background.
Bill Desowitz is the senior editor of VFXWorld and AWN.