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‘Automaton’: The Beauty and Fury of the Elements Explored

Led by director Krzysztof Rost, a team of Pixar effects artists worked on their own time to produce an abstract, experimental CG short film depicting a field of grass destroyed by a brushfire, only to be reborn.

Unlike previous Pixar short films that focused on characters like a baby desk lamp, a chess-loving senior citizen, or a romantic volcano, Automaton relies solely on environmental elements to tell its story, a welcome creative and technical challenge for the effects artists at the studio.  The four-minute experimental short, a Pixar “co-op” film produced by studio effects artists, using studio facilities, but on their own time and with their own financing (which was basically none), depicts a brushfire destroying a field of grass, which eventually is reborn. The film began life before the world was overtaken by the coronavirus; it’s written and directed by Krzysztof Rost and produced by Michael K. O’Brien, who laugh, “The secret is to enter the pandemic with a short film!”

In 2018, Rost pitched the idea for Automaton at the studio. “We had these series of fires happening all around California and I experienced the results of them driving across the Bay Bridge,” he explains. “On one hand you have these beautiful eerie orange color lighting conditions while at the same time you’re thinking about this existential concept of climate change and how it is affecting us on a real daily basis at this point. It originated there. The fire, dust, smoke, and wind. These are the characters. There’s no conversation or dialogue. I started asking existential questions. From the Big Bang, we are arriving at this time of where we are. This is the reality around us. What do we do going forward? I loved this concept of playing with time back and forth. It started with the color and goes back to this basic concept of black and white, the simple components of life at the atomic level. I’m more interested in the mechanism; that’s why I chose the title Automaton.”

Take a few minutes and enjoy the film before learning more about its production:

Convincing artists to work on the short was not a problem. “The reality is that we have a ton of talent,” notes O’Brien. “We do effects work in animated features that are about characters and that’s awesome. But finally, this could be about our stuff.  Everybody took that as a challenge. Krzysztof had a great vision for the story and for how he wanted to tell it.”  Automaton was never given official status at Pixar, highlighting even further the commitment of those involved to make it happen. “There was some segment of time in 2018 where we could use all of the other artists to produce the work,” Rost shares. “Then at some point everyone got pulled to other projects. Then we continued with compositing and lighting, but that was a much smaller group. Mostly two of us.  That continued for some time. In 2019, that’s when we finally started to cement everything in place with editorial, sound and everything else.” 

Enthusiasm for Automaton was not confined to the effects artists. “This was between assignments and rendering jobs,” emphasizes O’Brien. “We were trying to find people who were like minded, were up for some fun, and wanted to put some energy into this idea.  Krzysztof presented all this cool stuff to the sound team, and we said to them, ‘We would love for some help on doing the sound.’ The sound guys said, ‘Okay, only if we get to do the whole thing inhouse because we want to do the whole thing end to end.’  We said, ‘Great. Because we have zero dollars!’  That is what we found throughout the studio. It resonates on a lot of different levels. It is unlike a lot of things that we normally do. It was a great opportunity to try new things.  We were like, ‘Go have fun with this and see where you end up.’ Time and time again it exceeded our expectations.”    

In the film, there’s a dramatic transition when debris caused by the offscreen fire blows into frame. “I thought about camera movement and lenses,” Rost says. “I looked up on the Internet to grab some concept ideas for what I thought that progression should be and built it up to certain states. There is lots of footage happening now available with drone photography and I always thought it introduced the top down-look.  Direction was important to me, of where things were coming into frame and how we can maintain the split of the horizontal composition of a frame.” 

Each segment had its own difficulties. According to Rost, “When you’re in the world of reality there is a strict targeting system. But when you go to the abstract world, the microcosm of everything, that should be more free flowing. What is that interpretation? I was thinking of it more in terms of the microscopic Big Bang.  I now have second thoughts about the ending simply because of the way the compositional shaping looks like.  Some people mentioned to me that it feels like a virus. COVID-19 has added another spin on top of that whole thing.”

Everything was created within Houdini. “When things were getting cemented, eventually our lighter, James Gettinger, joined us and he brought in interesting things,” remarks Rost.  “I was too busy to even think about how to eventually bring everything together. We put quite an effort on the compositing side even more from what was originally coming from the renders so that it feels like its in the same world.  James was new to Houdini and tackled the task with a big smile; he kept going forward and doing a color study so that we could look at all the shots in that context and figure out which one needs work and which ones need some adjustments. It was a great learning experience for me.  Just getting exposure to all of these different departments throughout that process.”

Without a set schedule or deadline, O’Brien worried about when the film would finally be done. “My biggest concern as a producer was, ‘When are we going to finish?’” he admits. “We’re always going to want to make it better.  We got to a point where the whole team would be watching it and we’d say, ‘That looks gorgeous.  Let’s move onto the next thing.’  But it was self-driven. Krzysztof was good about being opened to ideas.  The abstract stuff was very abstract.  He was good about being like, ‘Go!  This is the big finale moment that we’ve been working for.’ He gave people a free run to try new stuff and find new ideas.  That is what made the project fun to work on.”    

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.