Moebius & Foster Journey
Thru the Moebius Strip

By Joe Fordham

To aficionados of the comic book and visual arts worlds, designer Jean Giraud -- Moebius -- needs little introduction. From his early comic strips for the French satirical magazine Hara-Kiri, through the creation of his Western hero Lieutenant Blueberry and the co-founding of Metal Hurlant magazine in 1975, Moebius became widely known for his elegant, highly detailed visual style and offbeat sense of humor. National Lampoon's Heavy Metal magazine, an American version of Metal Hurlant, brought Moebius' art to a wider stateside audience, particularly with his science fiction and fantasy stories Arzach and The Airtight Garage. Moebius became part of the design team involved with director Alejandro Jodorowsky's legendary attempted adaptation of Dune. The collapse of that legendary mid-'70s project led Moebius indirectly to a brief stint on Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), whose samurai-armored spacesuits bear a distinctly Moebius feel. Tron (1982), The Abyss (1989) and The Fifth Element (1998) followed, though the animated feature Les Maitres du Temps(Time Masters), directed by René Laloux in 1982, has been the only film Moebius designed completely. On Aug. 23, Moebius himself revealed to an audience at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles that this is about to change.

A Moebius Strip design created in Photoshop. © 2000 and courtesy Global Digital Creations Group, Hong Kong.

The Cinematheque audience had gathered to view the first public screening in the United States of Laloux's French-language science-fiction film, a thoughtful, imaginative space adventure about a rescue mission to save a child lost on a hostile alien planet. Moebius, a relaxed and eloquent speaker with a mellifluous accent, took pleasure in recounting tales of the film's production, which -- despite its TV budget and accelerated schedule -- held the audience's interest with unexpected twists of character and plot. "There were one and a half years between the storyboard and the moment when I first saw the story on the screen, so there were distortions and I first thought it was a disaster," Moebius recalled. "But that feeling has diminished now. It's surrealistic to see it now because we are seeing a movie from another time. It's not exploitation. It has dignity. It's not perfect, but it's timeless."

Moebius' charm and grace are evident in Laloux's film. The artist also admitted there were ironic parallels with the current project that has brought him to Los Angeles. Joining Moebius for the conclusion of his interview, director and co-producer Frank Foster filled the audience in on the status of Thru the Moebius Strip. This completely digital, animated 80-minute film, conceived and designed by Moebius, was in the final stages of pre-production in West Los Angeles. The project is scheduled to move to full production -- with Foster directing a team of 200 artists -- at co-producer Raymond Neoh's Global Digital Productions (GDP) in Kowloon, Hong Kong. A Paris premiere is planned for summer 2003.

Moebius & Foster. © 2000 and courtesy Global Digital Creations Group, Hong Kong.

A week after the screening, on Moebius' final day in the United States, Foster displayed the work in progress. Among stacks of sketchbooks and rooms of layout artists, colorists and digital modelers at workstations, a non-linear animatic was emerging of the film -- scanned storyboard frames edited to describe the beat and rhythm of the animation yet to come. "We're using the DPS Velocity software card, which is designed specifically for animation and visual effects people," Foster said. "It's a very efficient way of assembling your dailies and creating animation. It gives us real-time effects, such as dissolves, page turns and titles, which helps us estimate how many frames each shot will wind up being. By the end of pre-production, we'll have the entire movie in this animatic form, so we'll be able to cut it down and start to add our first temporary shots. This becomes an evolving story reel that at any moment allows us to see the level of progress on any aspect of the film. It's a technique that my PC-based department developed at Sony Pictures Imageworks years ago. We used it on a lot of projects, and by the time of Stuart Little it had become the standard method for viewing digital dailies."

Foster was a founding senior vice president of Sony Pictures Imageworks and is widely regarded to have helped instigate the use of previsualization in feature film production. As director of SIGGRAPH's The Story of Computer Graphics, he also documented interviews with more than 60 digital imaging pioneers, tracing the first 50 years of computer graphics. He recalled how his association with Sony led him to his first encounter with Moebius and took time with Moebius to elaborate on their plans and discuss the genesis of the project.

"Several years ago, I was going through Asia, looking for facilities that Sony could use for offshore 3D animation," Foster said. "That was when I met Raymond Neoh, who was working with Arnie Wong to set up the feature project for Moebius in Hong Kong. This is a project that Arnie and Moebius have wanted to do since they met 18 years ago working on Tron."

Moebius had his own associations with Sony, dating back to an early aborted attempt to film his epic The Airtight Garage and a return engagement designing Sony's San Francisco Metreon entertainment complex. Through this common ground, Foster found himself privy to the embryonic realization of what had been a lifelong dream for Moebius: the creation of his own feature film.


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