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Bringing Spidey to Life:
Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company

an interview by Heather Kenyon

When Scott Trowbridge was looking for a digital effects house to help him bring Spider-Man to life, he turned to the Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company. Founded in 1987 by Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak, Kleiser-Walczak has remained on the leading edge of the computer generated animation and visual effects field, working for feature films, special venue attractions and commercials. Ranging from mainstream features like Stargate, Clear and Present Danger and Honey, I Blew up the Kid to the evolving digital opera Monsters of Grace, Kleiser-Walczak is a special company that mixes computer animation and technology with a creative, new age, artistic atmosphere. With offices in Hollywood and Manhattan, the company is headquartered at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), which is a new, multi-disciplinary super collider for the arts that is revitalizing the old mill town of North Adams in the Northern Berkshires.

Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak. Image courtesy of Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company.

Together, Kleiser and Walczak directed the amazing footage that amusement park attendees are going to be able to experience at Universal's $2.6 billion Islands of Adventure. Kleiser-Walczak produced all of the animation and developed the new "squinching" technology that makes The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man the next evolutionary step in the ride-film arena, and is sure to blow the socks off its riders. Kleiser and Walczak talk about their own adventures in bringing about their contribution to this new ride spectacular.

Heather Kenyon: How did Kleiser-Walczak get involved with this project?

Jeff Kleiser: We met the Universal design team headed up by Scott Trowbridge and discussed the creative and technical challenges of Spider-Man, and there was instant chemistry. We had solved many difficult technical problems for Doug Trumbull in a variety of film formats including stereography, and had demonstrated the ability to create super hero characters with life-like movement. We promised that we would dedicate a crack team of animators for the entire lifetime of the project (three years) to pull it off, and Universal gave us the contract.

HK: What were the advantages Kleiser-Walczak could offer Universal?

Diana Walczak: Kleiser-Walczak offered a very strong creative team. Our production designer, Kent Mikalsen, led the design of the environments. We convinced Universal to change their plan to keep the environments highly simplified and stylized as they are in actual comic books, to what we call a "comic book reality" which was accomplished by including more realistic textures with a surrealistically skewed color lighting palette. The final integrated sets were built to match our environments and were greatly enhanced by large scale printouts of environment imagery also provided by Kleiser-Walczak.

JK: We were also able to attack their problems with the full force of our company, which includes some of the most capable technical and creative minds in the field. Our team includes special software programmer Frank Vitz, previously with Robert Abel and Associates; technical supervisor Jeffery A.Williams, from Editel, Chicago; and lead animator Derald Hunt, from Turner Broadcasting. Our headquarters in Western Massachusetts provided a secure and isolated production environment in which the project could be produced far from the prying eyes in Hollywood. Our Hollywood studio allowed Universal personnel to keep track of where we were headed interactively. The combination of large format stereoscopic experience and top quality human figure animation coupled with excellent technical expertise made Kleiser-Walczak the natural choice for this unique project.

Concept drawing for basic set design and scene inventory by art director Kent Mikalsen. © Universal Studios Escape; image courtesy of Kleiser-Walczak. Value study for initial light levels by art director Kent Mikalsen. © Universal Studios Escape; image courtesy of Kleiser-Walczak.

HK: We are often told new rides or films are 'cutting edge,' when they are actually a glitzier re-hash of the same thing. However, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man really seems to take us beyond the cutting edge and deliver a brand new experience. What is so special about this ride and how did that alter the way you both directed, and produced, the animation?

DW: This project, like so many others we've been involved with, required that we develop new technology in order to execute our design plan. We designed the film environments, developed `squinching' technology to accommodate stereoscopy while traveling past a screen, donut-shaped screen stereoscopy, and last but not least, super-human Synthespian [a term trademarked by Kleiser-Walczak to describe virtual actors] character animation.

JK: The fundamental new technology employed in Spider-Man is this `moving point of convergence,' or `squinching' as we called it. Knowing that the audience would be in a specific position with respect to the screen, Kleiser-Walczak developed a technique that digitally pre-distorts the image on each frame to compensate for the perspective angle of the audience's view of the screen. This makes the screen appear to be a window on the virtual world rather than a screen onto which the CG world is projected. The result is that the additional depth cue of parallax (where foreground objects appear to move past faster than distant objects) amplifies the 3D effect created by stereoscopy -- left and right eyes seeing differing points of view. Two of the sequences use this effect on a hemispherical dome, in which the imagery completely fills the viewers' peripheral vision. This creates the impression of a truly massive space and a gargantuan city.

We coined the term squinching here at Kleiser-Walczak and it refers to the sound we imagined you would hear if you stretched a piece of film from its perspective position (keystoned distortion) to its full frame position. Imagine grabbing the four corners of a keystoned image on film and stretching it out so the corners match the four corners of the film frame. The sound would be sort of a sssssqqquuuiiiiiinch!

HK: Will this technology, or your new knowledge after working on this project, be applied to anything else upcoming from Kleiser-Walczak?

DW: There are many techniques we developed for the animation and rendering of this project that we will be applying to future projects, some of which are in development currently.

HK: Spider-Man must be one of the first projects Maya was ever used on. With the software still in Beta, Kleiser-Walczak began using it on this massive scale production! Why? What were the advantages and disadvantages? You must have been very confident with the product.

JK: We have been a beta site for Alias|Wavefront since I was one of Wavefront's first clients in 1986 while working at Omnibus. We used their software to choreograph the aerial space ship shots in Flight of the Navigator.

On Spider-Man, we were using the full complement of Alias|Wavefront software including Power Animator, Advanced Visualizer, Dynamation, Kinemation, Composer and Studio Paint 3D. We were a design partner in the development of Maya, and very early on we began using Maya animation tools for their comparative ease of use and flexibility. About halfway through the project, the renderer became available to us, and we showed Universal a shot rendered with Maya. We all decided it looked great and we would not only continue with the remaining shots using Maya, but we would go back and re-render completed shots with Maya. The Alias|Wavefront development team was very responsive to our problems and we identified many bugs along the way. It is always a love-hate relationship. The software company does not want to be held responsible for projects produced using beta code because of the inherent risk that a problem could show up that causes a catastrophic loss of time. On the other hand, there is no faster way to find and eliminate bugs than to have a studio like ours bang on the software in production and break it as frequently as possible. In the long run, Alias|Wavefront was very appreciative of our efforts in bringing Maya to market, and we were very appreciative of their steadfast support in getting Spider-Man done on time.

Full size composite image. 130K.
From left to right, villains Scream, Doctor Octopus and Hobgoblin. Final render lighting by Greg Juby, Jeffery A. Williams and Dana Peters. © Universal Studios Escape; image courtesy of Kleiser-Walczak.

HK: Finally, have you experienced the ride yet? What do you think?

JK: I was really unprepared for how exciting the ride would be. We had only seen it as a mockup in Orlando that was pushed past the screen by a bunch of grips, and the synch was only approximate. When I finally was able to ride the real vehicle in tight synch with the film, I was knocked out by how convincing the 3D effect was working. It really feels as though you are passing these enormous windows into massive spaces, and the characters are so well integrated into the scenes that you buy the illusion completely. During the fall at the end, although I knew it was coming and had seen the footage in development for a year, I screamed in terror; my body had a visceral and uncontrollable urge to try somehow to survive the imminent impact.

Heather Kenyon is editor in chief of Animation World Magazine.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.