Ellen Wolff chats with veteran visual effects supervisor Hoyt Yeatman on how he used pre-visualization to land his first directing gig on G-Force.
Like many visual effects supervisors, Hoyt Yeatman has long harbored a desire to direct. The former chief of DreamQuest Images and The Secret Lab has a track record that includes supervising effects on Armageddon, Mission to Mars, Crimson Tide, Con Air, The Rock and The Abyss (for which he won an Oscar), and he has wanted to parlay his knowledge into a shot at directing. With the recent announcement that hell get that shot directing G-Force for producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney hes taken a big step toward that goal.
Clearly, successful affiliation with Bruckheimers mega-hits in the past helped Yeatman get considered, and he didnt squander the opportunity. I realized that no one in their right mind was going to say, Here Hoyt, go direct something just because you do visual effects. I think Jerry gave me the break because he knows that I can execute things. But you cant just build on the toys that you know how to play with. You have to build on something completely different an original story with good characters. Its very hard but its the only way.
After coming up with the idea for G-Force (he gives credit to his six-year-old son for the inspiration), Yeatman applied his digital expertise to fashion a high-tech pitch. He used Maya animation to previs a one-minute trailer for G-Force, and accompanied that with a written script-ment and concept art, including a one-sheet depicting his characters in action.
The gist of the idea is that a group of talking animal commandoes thwarts the evil schemes of a home appliance-manufacturing mogul, who plans to harness his machines to take over the world. Its like Stuart Little meets Spy Kids, laughs Yeatman. Kids love watching machines beat each other up. We wondered how to incorporate robotic technology in interesting ways, so we started playing with appliances. We realized all the fun you could have with relentless rice cookers and terminator cappuccino machines. Its a whole world of gizmos and gadgets.
Technically, Yeatman envisions G-Force as a hybrid that mixes CG characters and live-action backgrounds, although he acknowledges it could be all-CG as well. He developed the idea through his production company Whamaphram, which he heads with producing partner David James, who will serve as Whamaphrams exec producer on G-Force. Yeatman explains, We chose G-Force, as our first production because it was something that I could see myself doing. It has economic virtues to it, like the fact that were putting our emphasis on a half-dozen characters and then trying to use the best of visual effects.
Perfecting The Pitch
Yeatman adds, Having never done this before pitching a project like this we came to realize very quickly that the groups were talking to at that level have no interest whatsoever in how we would get it done. I could talk about all the amazing things we could do, but no one was listening. What they were really looking at were the story and the characters. The only way to reach them was to come up with something creative that would get their attention.
I think one of the reasons we were successful at the pitch is because we had a lot of visual materials with us. We had a one-minute teaser that we built in HD with the characters in it, with music and sound effects in 5.1 Dolby. It gave a little bit of the flavor of what this thing might look like.
My first thought was to make the teaser in 35mm. But we realized that studio executives were not going to drive to a screening room to look at a one-minute trailer. We also thought about putting it on tape. But then I remembered when we used to give pitches for commercials at DreamQuest, and wed bring tapes to places with a quarter of a million dollars of AV equipment. Wed sit down with a guy who couldnt turn anything on because his tech guy wasnt there! So for our G-Force pitch, I made DVDs that we could leave behind. I also bought a new Vaio laptop with speakers, so we were self-contained. We could flip it open and run it with stereo sound. I could have lunch with someone I was pitching, and while I was there I could give them a pair of headphones and play it for them. They could see what our idea was, and that got us going.
Recipe For Success
While Yeatman is used to operating with millions of dollars worth of technology, Whamaphram had to take a stripped-down approach to animating their teaser. We bought 24 PCs off the Internet, put them on Costco racks and fabricated a rendering array. We did it really basic, on PCs running Windows. If I were to put a facility together it would be Linux-based, but for this smaller thing where we had to do the IT, we had to be efficient.
They also set up an FTP site that could be accessed by a network of animators in far-flung places, including New Zealand and Australia. The technology is cheap enough that we could drop-ship it to our friends at their homes, and they would work on it after hours. It was difficult, because in order the render the first frame you have to put a lot into it. Its a lot of work to do a one-minute piece I learned a lot more about Maya! But once we had the characters set up, I could track them into the backgrounds, which we shot live in HD. We didnt use actors at this point because we were focusing on our main CG characters. Its not quite production quality, but it gives a really good idea of what it looks like. Id say 99% of people making pitches dont go anywhere near this, because it takes a long time and costs a lot.
Their effort alone spoke volumes, Yeatman believes. People could look at this and realize that these guys made this in a garage. The enthusiastic approach that were taking is that it can be done. For the people you talk to at the front end, and it took me awhile to realize this I had to take my visual effects armor off. I had to check that at the door, and I felt very naked walking in there. Who was I now? My resume didnt matter. You walk in with just your story and your characters.
Making it for Real
The development of G-Force is now in the hands of Bruckheimers writing team, and Yeatman has to be patient. Were still in the development phase, where theyve just hired the writers. It will take months. All kinds of horrible things can still happen! Weve been invited to participate, though we wont be driving that process. Our script-ment for G-Force probably wont turn out to be the script that we shoot.
Decisions about executing the digital effects in G-Force are a ways off as well. Interestingly enough, even with Jerry Bruckheimers people, we havent gotten into how it would be done. Hopefully when the time comes, Ill have the ability to be able to sway them towards the production ways wed like to go. I have all kinds of ideas of how to use things like advanced photogrammetry, but Ive put those ideas in a little drawer for now and closed it.
Weve talked about what would we do when the film gets to the point of production? In an ideal world, we would assemble a crackerjack team of maybe 20-30 guys. Were not talking about building a giant facility. What I would ideally like to do is to build the characters creatively and technically, and then identify groups that we would like to work with. There are a number of ways to do that in todays world. There is a world market with pockets of talent all over. We can drop-ship it to different animation groups that we want to work with. We can control the methodologies and therefore the look. We would give them everything we created, whether its a secret sauce or whatever, realizing that were not competing with them in the world of visual effects. Wed really work with them to get their best.
Its interesting that Yeatman will now be on the purchasing side of visual effects instead of being the supplier. Hes counting on working with facilities that can cooperate to help him reach his goal. In todays world, the perception is that visual effects facilities are relatively interchangeable, more so than ever before. As facilities realize that they have to evolve from just work-for-hire to developing their own content, their emphasis shifts from being bricklayers to architects. They realize that theyre making movies and not just making shots.
Its this attitude that has led Yeatman to found Whamaphram as a production entity. He does not see it as an umbrella organization for visual effects service work. Which is not to say that he wont find himself working as a visual effects supervisor on other projects while hes developing original properties. They dont pay you while youre developing, he admits.
Having previously had a company thats gone through different phases, I would like to have a facility where the characters are developed and the storytelling is done and animatics are created but not necessarily all the big pipes. At some point if we got tremendously lucky and had a lot of things rolling, then I would say, Lets put a factory together. Because then it would make sense if we could keep it going with our own material.
The bottom line for Yeatman is that you want the animatics and story reel, which is where your storytelling and acting is happening, under your control. Thats really where the movie is being made. The smarter people, who grew up with animatics and story reels, are embracing it earlier in the production. They can see if they have major story problems long before you get to the real expensive part of the process!
As to the types of movies Whamaphram will pursue, Yeatman says, Were not limiting ourselves. Many companies have a finite definition of what animation is or is not. I see it as very open, including stylized worlds like The Polar Express and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I would not want to limit myself to a particular look, to either a full-CG Pixar look or a Ray Harryhausen hybrid look. We have a number of other projects that were preparing to pitch. Its the same kinds of character-driven pieces and we may or may not attach a writer. Our goals are to come up with things that we can fully develop and play bigger roles.
What role previs will play in future pitches is an open question. Yeatman expects that we probably wont do previs like we did for the first one, when we needed to get over the hump. Theres a point of diminishing returns if you do too much. Studios want to be emotionally involved in the development process. But you have to do enough that people can see the picture and know theres a convincing story and characters that are marketable. G-Force was a no-brainer in the respect that it fits perfectly with toy marketing. Thats why we aimed at that one first. The process of developing properties like this is a long haul, and definitely financially risky. At the same time, you have to follow your passion, and hopefully have fun doing it!
If any clues are needed as to whether Yeatman has fun pursuing his goal of directing, one need only look at the name of his company. Whamaphram was a password that was used in my early high school years to get into Boomeria, which was a place in the Santa Cruz Mountains founded by a chemistry teacher called Preston Quincy Boom. Its several acres of underground catacombs and fortresses and catapults it looks like a 15th century army surplus place. That was the first time that I realized that you could become an adult and not really have to grow up.
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.