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'Mary and Max': Elliot and Clayography

Adam Elliot, Darren Burgess and Henry Karjalainen go behind the scenes of the acclaimed stop-motion feature.

Adam Elliot wanted "something new, something with a balance of light and dark, something Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks wouldn't dare touch." All images © Melodrama Pictures.

Mary and Max "was the natural and logical step" for Adam Elliot after winning the Oscar five years ago for his Harvie Krumpet short. He's always pushing boundaries and his feature bow was no different: an unlikely pen-pal friendship that lasts for nearly 20 years between a chubby and lonely Melbourne girl and a middle-aged New Yorker with his own physical and emotional challenges. Mary and Max, which has already won the Annecy Cristal, among others, vies for an Oscar nomination in what has turned out to be a rich year for stop-motion as well as a great one overall for animation

"After Harvie Krumpet, I wanted to tackle something longer and meatier," Elliot insists. "I wanted to push the boundaries of feature animation, provide audiences with something new, something with a balance of light and dark, something Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks wouldn't dare touch; what better than a 'love' story about an eight-year-old girl and a 44- year-old obese Atheistic Jew with Aspergers living in New York! I'm not interested in the usual animated fare and definitely never want talking animals or chipmunks in my films. All my films are deeply personal and based on the people around me. I try to make films with depth, substance; films that deeply engage, move and make the audience think. If you want something light and fluffy from then go to Disneyland."

And it didn't hurt having a biographical point of reference either. Max is based on Elliot's real life pen-pal relationship that lasted for more than 20 years. "I spent a year writing seven drafts of the script based on his letters," Elliot continues. "I call my films 'clayographies' -- a pretentious amalgam of clay and biographies. Although they are based on real people, as the saying goes, I never let the truth get in the way of a good story. After the script stage, I spent four to five months hand drawing the entire storyboard (1,300 panels). Only then did we move into the studio and start pre-production. We could only afford six animators so the pressure was on for each of them to produce an average of five seconds per day with very little time or money for take two's or three's. We had a fantastic DP, Gerald Thompson…He made my story so vivid, cinematic and potent. God knows how dreadful it would have looked without him.

Darren Burgess enjoyed animating the climaxes of the film with only five other animators at his disposal.

"I quickly learnt the best way to tackle such a monster was to surround yourself with people far more experienced than myself…My animation TD, Darren Burgess, was one of the key crew who was not just a fantastic support, but someone whom had worked with such greats as Nick Park. He brought an immense wealth of knowledge to the project and had many, many fabulous little 'tricks' up his sleeve. "

As for Burgess, he helped create a bible for all the departments, including QuickTimes of the lead characters walking and moving per Elliot's instructions (the director even dressed as Mary and Max and was filmed performing some of their characteristics).

"Then we moved on to how the puppets were made; this was a huge process that involved the forensic breakdown of the storyboard so that we could make the puppets specifically to their performance requirements," Burgess adds.

"Animating on Mary and Max was so unique from all my previous experiences. I'd just stepped off two features: Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit and $9.99. I love this about animation: each experience whilst draws on your techniques, always offers new challenges and creative opportunities… We had a lot of freedom to instill our own personalities and ideas into the film. My personal satisfaction was being in a position to animate the climaxes of the film, the intrinsic plot points. The other five animators I worked with on Mary and Max all came from various backgrounds and had different strengths and weaknesses. It was a treat to see them all flourish in their first feature role. "

Henry Karjalainen was tasked with creating a unique pipeline, with "the newest digital technology meeting the oldest film form."

Meanwhile, the unique pipeline for this $7.3 million feature was created by Henry Karjalainen, the post-production producer. "What we had for Mary and Max was the newest digital technology meeting the oldest film form," Karjalainen suggests.

Three key pieces of software were utilized: Stop Motion Pro (developed by Melbournians Paul Howell and Ross Garner) for image acquisition; rawMotion from XDT for image processing; and Post Content Management System developed by Karjalainen. The software allowed them to shoot uncompressed high resolution RAW digital data, process the RAW data and then track the data and metadata through to delivery.

"The animators capture a 'live' frame and a high resolution RAW file of the characters simultaneously, using Stop Motion Pro and the Canon EOS 1D Mark III and 1DS Mark III cameras," Karjalainen continues. "The cameras have a function called Live View, which has revolutionized stop motion animation. For the first time, it allows the animator to see a live feed straight from the camera sensor. Previously, when shooting on film, you needed to have an external device, a CCTV camera that would feed back to a video split.

As each frame is captured, Stop Motion Pro stores a high resolution JPG preview image that can be viewed within the application. As you scrub through the Stop Motion Pro timeline, you are able to see not only the previously captured frames but also the 'live' frame, so the animator can tweak the puppets or any other aspect to modify the frame they are about to capture.

"The RAW images were then processed in-house by XDT's 'rawMotion' software, which renders them very quickly and lets us see the final product in minutes. RawMotion provides access to a wide range of formats processed from the original camera RAW files: from 6K, 4K, 2K, HD, SD, down to MPEG4 movies, JPGs and TIFFs. Often the 4K and 6K files were used in visual effects where artists were able to extract a 2K slice out of the larger image.

"Each RAW file represents over 10 megapixels or 4K of pure uncompressed data recorded straight off the camera sensor. With the 1DS, we can process our images at 6K which is unheard of in this country for motion picture formats.

The software allowed them to shoot uncompressed high resolution RAW digital data, process the RAW data and then track the data and metadata through to delivery.

"The Canon RAWs were converted into log color space 10-bit DPX files in one step. This is the equivalent of a traditional film scanning process. The advantage of our workflow is that we maintain all the dynamic range of the original files captured by the Canon cameras. Going from RAW to DPX we cross the boundary from digital stills to motion pictures in one quick clean step and that's a key thing. The DPX file format is a known standard, which means we can work efficiently with other key software in grading and visual effects. We most often used The Foundry Nuke and Autodesk Combustion for visual effects. The vfx slate on Mary and Max was very ambitious as there were well over 500 shots which required work. This was all completed by our in-house vfx team led by Lead Visual Effects Artist and VFX Supervisor, Mick Allen."

Elliot says "the most painful part of the shoot was the day we had to sell all the camera gear, art supplies, equipment, etc. We had to do this because the film was funded partly by the Aussie taxpayer and by law all assets had to be sold. This money then went back into the budget so the film could be finished. The most exhilarating moment would easily be standing backstage with Robert Redford in Sundance about to show the opening night audience a film that had taken my crew and I five painful years to make. We were the first animated and first Australian film to ever open the festival in its 25- year history. Thankfully, they all loved the film and we survived!"

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.