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The Animated Side of Star Wars: An Interview With Rob Coleman, The Film's Animation Director

by Karl Cohen

Star Wars: Episode I "The Phantom Menace" is a milestone in the development of digital film technology. Creatures that are 100 percent synthetic are on the screen for almost half of the 130 minute film, and 95 percent of the picture contains some form of computer generated detail. ILM was able to create scenes with 7000 computer generated soldiers and other scenes with countless thousands of digital extras. Computer generated characters are able to talk and act in the film and digital artists are now capable of placing them in any part of the universe the imagination can create. Just a few years ago computer artists were struggling to make a single dinosaur seem real. Now they are capable of doing almost anything that men like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg can dream up.

Rob Coleman, the animation director of The Phantom Menace, says that when he was asked to direct the animation by George Lucas, he found the project to be both amazing and daunting. He explains, "You get the script and realize how much screen time the digital characters will have and you ask yourself, `Can we do this? Can we handle the kind of work George is asking us to do?' Being ILM you get used to taking on the impossible, but I'll tell you, I was worried because over half the movie requires computer-generated characters to interact with live actors. I wasn't sure we could maintain their performances with the live actors...that is a very high benchmark to hit every time."

Animation Supervisor Rob Coleman. © 1999 Industrial Light & Magic. Photo Courtesy of David Owen & Sean Casey.

ILM's First Animation Director
Coleman, who was the animation supervisor of Men in Black (1997), and a supervising character animator of Dragonheart (1996), is the first person at ILM to be given the title animation director on a feature. In the past the head of animation on a feature at ILM was called a supervisor. George Lucas considers his latest creation a live-action/animated science-fiction feature, so he felt it was important to honor Coleman with the new title.

It was Coleman's job to direct the animation of anything that had a head on it. He supervised a team of 45 animators who created over 60 digital characters that were well defined. They also animated thousands of extras. When he joined the company in 1993, ILM employed a total of 10 animators.

The animators put a tremendous amount of detail in both the major and minor characters. While some CGI characters had major speaking parts, others were simply added to give the film a greater sense of realism. For example, the role of a family of short creatures was simply to walk in and out of scenes. Other characters were relegated to being barely seen as a moving texture in the background. Lucas had artists add flying birds and other creatures to add further to the illusion of life.

The technical wizardry in the film is quite amazing. To demonstrate the skills of artists who work with light and shadow, Coleman showed me a scene where a man walks from a dark enclosed space into an open outdoors space lit with sunlight. The change of lighting was a digital effect. The scene was shot with a man walking in front of a blue screen. The background architecture was digital, as was the exterior space and sky. Everything in the scene was digital except the man.

Seemingly simple looking scenes in the film were often extremely challenging composite shots. Some shots contain footage shot in several locations. An actor filmed in London might appear with a background created in California and a sky full of clouds filmed in yet another location. Other scenes were even more complex. Some had 100 or even 200 elements composited together to make a single frame of film.

Coleman showed a crowd scene with a long procession wandering through it as an example of a scene with a lot of composite elements. The procession was constructed from several images of four people carrying flags. By shooting them over and over and adding different computer generated elements in between them, a composite artist created a long procession when the parts were finally strung together.

Coleman was one of the few people who had a copy of the entire production as it developed. His copy was updated weekly or monthly as things changed. "I was one of the only people on the crew who had my own copy of the movie through the entire production because I needed to look at each sequence. I had my copy for over a year and a half. You really need it. I don't know how you can direct a film with this much character worked in it and not have a copy of it. George understood that right away. Of course there was a security issue. He didn't want to share it with the world. I kept it in my office with a wrong label on it."

Technical Animation Supervisor James Tooley. © 1999 Industrial Light & Magic. Photo Courtesy of David Owen & Sean Casey.

Lots of Helping Hands
The key to this production's success was careful planning and ILM having a well-seasoned staff. Coleman concentrated his efforts on directing the performances of the digital actors. He divided the animation production staff into teams. For example, some of the artists spent two years animating Jar Jar Binks, a leading character. Coleman says, "This way I didn't have to teach all 45 animators how to animate every character."

Coleman worked closely with Scott Squires, John Knoll, and Dennis Muren, the feature's three visual effects supervisors. The four men met with George Lucas on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9 to 11. They would review the film's progress and depending upon what was being discussed they would invite other key people to take part in the meeting.

The labor of the three visual effects supervisors was divided so each worked on specific parts of the film. For example, Dennis Muren supervised the underwater city scenes, John Knoll supervised the space battle sequences, and Scott Squires supervised the Queen's city and the Jedi battle in the energy room.

About half way into the production Tom Bertino was brought on board to supervise the ground battle animation. The sequence contains 7000 characters including alien creatures and robotic warriors. Bertino, who has a long list of ILM credits, joined the company in 1986 as supervisor of the rotoscope department. He is presently the animation director on an untitled digital Frankenstein feature being created at ILM for Universal. Coleman says Bertino was a "tremendous help" to the Star Wars project.

Coleman also worked daily with several other key people. Geoff Campbell was head of modeling. Tim McLaughlin was enveloping supervisor (muscles and fabrics), and James Tooley was the lead technical animator. Jeff Light was the key motion capture supervisor. Motion capture proved to be very valuable for analyzing complicated actions. The Droid soldiers were based on motion capture data. That gave them a smooth mechanical movement while the organic creatures in the battle were animated by hand and had a more lyrical movement to them.

Creature Developer Supervisor Tim McLaughlin.
© 1999 Industrial Light & Magic. Photo Courtesy of David Owen & Sean Casey.

Converging Talents
While most people have some idea about what animators do, Coleman pointed out that there are dozens of other hands that touch each shot of film before it is released. What an animator moves on a computer screen is also the work of a design team, model builders, painters, composite artists and other artists/technicians.

Important contributions were made by the computer technical staff. Coleman says, "Digital techniques improved as the show progressed. When we started the show we knew we couldn't do clothing as realisticly as we wanted. We have a great software department so we were confident they could do what was needed. We knew we were going to do a ground battle with 7000 characters.

We couldn't actually do that in 1997 when we started the movie, but by 1999 we could. We saved those shots `til the end of the production. Luckily we made it!"

Coleman also discusses the importance of the composite people and rotoscope artists who still do a lot of work by hand. To keep track of everything there were three composite supervisors on the film and each had a staff under them to gather and organize all the art elements needed. ILM's high-end composite system, called Sabre System, along with a lower resolution system for tests and preliminary work, proved to be reliable workhorses. Both systems were developed at the studio.

Coleman also spoke highly of ILM administrators. "It was a well organized production. Our producers are very skilled at determining what we have to do and when Even though we worked very hard and long days (8 a.m. to 7 at night), I rarely worked more than five days a week. I did do a stretch of six Saturdays in a row, but I never worked around the clock 7 days a week. It doesn't do any good if we burn out the talent. We need everybody at their top to do this kind of work. This company is sensitive to that. I've worked at small studios where it was do 100 percent or 110 percent for the whole project and not pay anyone for overtime. It's not like that here. They pay for the overtime and they want you to go home so you are well rested. It is a great place!"

(Left to right) Motion Capture Supervisor Jeff Light, Technical Animation Supervisor James Tooley and Seth Rosenthal from the Motion Capture Group. © 1999 Industrial Light & Magic. Photo Courtesy of David Owen & Sean Casey.

A Job Well Done
It is fascinating to see CGI develop so rapidly as an art form at ILM. Coleman says, "Lucas crammed so much detail in each scene. It is overwhelming to look back on your two years of work and see how much you crammed into it."

"Can we do almost anything? George and Steven Spielberg, they tend to want you to do almost anything. There is a huge amount of labor that goes into this work. George understands the need to plan shots, but he sometimes pushes you past that, and says, `Figure it out.' We used to have motion control cameras locked down on the set. The amount of freedom now is significantly more than there was five years ago. It gives the director more freedom to tell the story the way he wants to tell it."

"I have loved animation since I was a kid. Once I realized you can do it as a career I was on that path. I've always been fascinated with work that combined animation and live-action. It is magical seeing a real person interacting with an animated character. They pull you and the other audience members into the frame. That is why I love working at ILM. That is what ILM specifically likes to focus on. Anybody in the audience can feel that they can be there in the movie talking to Jar Jar. That is pretty remarkable."

Biographical Notes
Rob Coleman studied experimental animation techniques at Concordia University in Montreal (BFA, 1987). His first commercial work was as an apprentice at a Toronto company producing Captain Power, the first TV show to combine computer animated characters and live-action. In 1989 he worked at the National Film Board of Canada on a project for the World Health Organization. Coleman joined ILM in 1993 to work on The Mask. He was a computer animator on Star Trek Generations and Disclosure in 1994, plus worked on several other features. He was a supervising character animator on Dragonheart (1996), and the animation supervisor on Men in Black (1997).

Dennis Muren worked on the first Star Wars feature as the second cameraman for visual effects. He has since won eight Oscars and was just honored with a star on Hollywood Blvd. This was the first star given for visual effects.

John Knoll is the co-author of Adobe's Photoshop, the industry standard in image processing software. He joined ILM in 1986. He was visual effects supervisor on Star Trek First Contact (1997), Mission Impossible (1996), and Star Trek Generations (1994).

Scott Squires developed the cloud tank effect used in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and was a founder of Dream Quest studios, 1979. He joined ILM in 1985. He was presented a Scientific and Engineering Award for his pioneering work on input scanning by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1994. He was nominated for Oscars for visual effects for The Mask (1994) and Dragonheart (1996).

Karl Cohen is President of ASIFA-San Francisco. His first book, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, is published by McFarland Publishers. He also teaches animation history at San Francisco State University.

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