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The Diverse and Symbiotic 3D World of Sony Imageworks and Animation

Bill Desowitz takes a look at the unique symbiotic relationship between Sony Pictures Imageworks and Animation.


Then and now: Stuart Little (left) started it all for Sony Imageworks, and Big Fish is one of its latest features. Stuart Little © Columbia Pictures; Big Fish photo credit: Sony Imageworks © 2003 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. All rights reserved.

Theres a unique symbiotic relationship between Sony Pictures Imageworks and Animation in the way they approach 3D characters and environments, share pipelines (with vfx comprising 65% and animation 35%) and certain animators too. Diversity is the key at both companies. The goal for Imageworks and Animation is to embrace synthetic characters and stylized environments whenever possible, and for Imageworks to continue growing as a healthy, viable vfx house. The mandate of Animation is to go through Imageworks, keeping the work in the U.S. As with Revolution Studios, Animation has no intention of developing a Sony brand and will depend upon Sonys successful marketing machine to give each director-driven feature the individual attention it deserves.

Our goal within Imageworks clearly has been and it started about seven years ago when we were really embarking on the first Spider-Man, Polar Express and the first Sony Pictures Animation project [which has yet to be determined]. And were also unique in that were not doing it for just one company. Polar Express is for Warner Bros., the Spider-Man franchise is for Columbia and Sony Pictures Animation will be doing their own projects here.

Sarnoff added that Imageworks has been tested in recent years with both 3D characters and environments and combinations of the two, and will continue enhancing live-action films with seamless photorealistic effects and pushing the envelope with stylized CG films. Starting with Stuart Little, clearly people thought of that as a 3D mouse in a photorealistic environment, but what most people dont know is a great number of those environments were also 3D too, Sarnoff said. And so to a lot of extent and certainly on Stuart Little 2 it truly was an animated film because there were no plates provided to us on a number of those sequences. We literally created it from whole cloth. Both the park as the plane is flying through with Stuart and Margalo [the bird] trying to save Stuart. There was nothing there other than paintings. Yet people think, well, they shot the plane and when you think about it that would have been a lot harder to do than just drawing pictures and making it look like it was real. And on Spider-Man, clearly youre not allowed to shoot in New York City the way we actually have Spider-Man move, so we had to make a lot of 3D buildings and that was actually one of the harder parts of that movie than just making Spider-Man as a character. On Spider-Man II, there is probably at least double the number of [effects] shots, and there is double the number of times where were doing 3D characters and 3D environment at the same time.

As expected, the vfx shots are a lot more complicated in Spider-Man II, both in terms of manipulating cameras through real and through 3D environments. There has been a learning curve on this franchise for director Sam Raimi, the crew and Imageworks. Fittingly, on the first film there were baby steps in terms of swinging on the web, but in the sequel, the effects achieve more of a thrill ride. The audience is going to literally sit there and fly with him through the city a lot more, Sarnoff suggested. And there is a very complex character as the villain [Dr. Octopus, played by Alfred Molina]. Far more complex because he has a number of arms; hes, you know, busy. Its really hard to make that person exist in real life unless you have a digital enhancement to him.

Sony Imageworks found that 3D buildings were harder to make than Spider-Mans movements. © 2002 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. All rights reserved.

Sarnoff contended that the combination of technical advances and freedom of artistic expression for computer animators are responsible for the current breakthroughs in vfx. Were now at a point where its not a question of whether you can create it but how do you really want it to look. And for Imageworks, we have now moved past the can we do it to what do you want to do? Were doing that across the board, not just on Spider-Man types of films but also on Polar Express, which is a full CG film, but utilizing the actions of the actors themselves, so much so that its going to feel different from most animated-style films. And thats for Warner Bros.

Where it is called upon for sony05_cloudyWithChance.jpg

Childrens classics get the animated treatment: Imageworks all-CGI movie of The Polar Express for Warner Bros. is already generating considerable buzz. Sony Animation is developing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

With The Polar Express online teaser trailer already creating lots of industry buzz both positive and negative Imageworks may be on the cusp of something truly groundbreaking. Every pixel is made here. So there really isnt anything out there that we shot from. Theres just the imagination of director Bob Zemeckis and his gang of geniuses. You know, when a lot of people decide they want to do it in the computer, rue the day, but he clearly is getting into the control you have when you know what it is that youre trying to accomplish. Because, like Hitchcock, he clearly he pushes the boundaries of what the camera can do and tells the story with the camera.

When asked if there is a trend in all CG works toward stylization over photoreal, Sarnoff responded that the only trend is to use animation to enhance the story. And if, in fact, the story should be stylized, you shouldnt try to go photoreal. We are not attempting to go photoreal on Polar Express; it wouldnt be the appropriate thing. You know, if youre going to use photoreal, then use real people. Thats not our goal, but the motion is going to look very realistic on these people. So its going to be a little of a synthesis of what is different about this. And certainly on Spider-Man we dont want to have it so stylized that people dont believe that its really Tobey flying through the city. So, yeah, were going to be shooting as real as you can be so people are never brought out of the film. So that they feel like theyve actually watching something that they too can do.

Haunted Mansion is literally a theme park ride on the screen. And its photoreal and it feels like youre there. Sarnoff said there are both obvious and subtle vfx shots, depending on the purpose. I mean, the haunted mansion itself doesnt really exist, so we have a nice part of the set piece that is beautiful but the vast remainder of it, like the graveyards, are digitally created.

Interestingly, when it comes to The Haunted Mansion and other films, Sarnoff confirmed that while there is a part of Imageworks and Animation that never meets, there is a blending of other aspects. Well be utilizing a number of people across the different projects in a blending of talents the painters, texture painters, some of the animators and a lot of the TDs. On an animated project, you dont have to take a plate from the outside world and interpolate it into the computer, which is called our batch-whipping department. They dont exist in animation so they will stay only working on the live-action films. And we dont necessarily need as robust a background department on a live-action film as we would on an animation project. So well actually have a larger background department for animation than we would on a live-action film, but the people can be moved from one to the other and certainly the software and the mechanisms by which we actually control the shots are actually the same.

Part of the invisible part of running an animation or visual effects facility is trying to figure out where everybody is. Where all the shots are. How do you manage to do a few thousand shots at a time? Sony Imageworks has now about 750 people in it. We will swell and go up a 100 at any given point and each one of them have a specific set of shots and/or jobs to do and to manage those people over a cross of a number of different projects is in itself a visual effect for us. We look at that as probably our greatest asset. When new companies start up and only doing one thing, the area they have the most trouble managing is how you do different types of shows or how do you do multiple shows? Last year Imageworks had 10 different projects in it. Big, small, gigantic, everything in between. Some that lasted only about two or three months, some that have been here for two-and-a-half years. And to move people in and out in-between projects is one of our greatest accomplishments in the last few years.


Sandra Rabins (left), evp, Sony Pictures Animation, wants each project to have its own feel, look and style. Penny Finkelman Cox (right), evp of Sony Pictures Animation, works with Rabins and Sarnoff to ensure that animation will be produced by their two divisions for years to come.

For the most part, the projects that Imageworks is most gratified by are the ones where they are involved in the early design stage, such as the Spider-Mans, Stuart Littles, Polar Express and Big Fish, which contains minimal vfx. Its a lot easier to sell when you have an absolutely wonderful story. This particular project has all the advantages of being quirky and also having a great story. You know the effects are there to enhance it rather than to sell it.

On the animation side, which is run by exec vps Sandra Rabins and Penny Finkelman Cox, Imageworks is in the process of working on a 3D development slate, drawing on a talent pool of 175 people. When we announce the first project, well probably have the second and third one lined up too, Sarnoff said. The nice part of that for this facility is that it affords us the ability to plan out our years, not just in 2003 and 2004 but also 2005 and 2006. And it gives us a certain utilization of improvement within the company so that now that I know that Im going to be doing those types of projects, how do I layer in the other types of projects that are going to come into the facility to make sure that we dont either overbook or underutilize the specific project.

Currently in development at Sony Animation are Astro Boy, Open Season (based on the humor of cartoonist Steve Moore in which animals turn the tables on the hunters), The ChubbChubbs! (inspired by the Oscar-winning Imageworks short), Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (based on the childrens book by Judi and Ron Barrett about a land where food falls from the sky) and Surfs Up!, a new twist on Romeo and Juliet.


True Synergy: The Oscar-winning short, The ChubbChubbs! (left), by Sony Imageworks serves as inspiration for a feature at Sony Animation. They would hope to do the same with its newest short, Early Bloomer (right). © 2002 Sony Pictures Imageworks Inc. All rights reserved.

In discussing 3D characters and environments at Sony, Rabins explained, We have a belief here that each director should have their own unique style. What youre going to find on a Sony animation is that no two pictures look or feel alike whether its how the characters are portrayed or what the style and visual look of the film is. And were encouraging our directors to take their unique talents and styles and put that on the canvas making a 3D film to find their inspiration either from existing illustrators or painters or artisans or to create something that they have in their head of what theyd like to see.

In acknowledging that 2D visual styles are being carried over into the 3D world (which is happening throughout the industry, including at Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar), Rabins added that Open Season is going to have more squash-and-stretch animation than weve seen or at least than Penny and I have been affiliated with in our projects. We are trying to do some unique things in R&D to bring some of those 2D [visual] skills to our characters and, stylistically, Open Season using the inspiration of 2D to create that look in 3D. Other projects arent as far along visually right now because most of our projects, to tell you the truth, are in the story phase. So we havent done a huge amount of experimentation visually with them.

The Brizzi twins [Paul and Gaetan] are directing Cloudy and bring their very European look to their project [surreal, precise and fluid with lots of chiaroscuro and linear movement].

With Astro Boy, inspired by the legendary Japanese TV series, directed by Eric Leighton (Dinosaur), the challenge is to depict a future world that is fresh and inspired and draws from the past, keeping the design of the beloved character recognizable but adaptable to the creative demands of 3D. Its about coming up with a story that translates into a feature that would be equally compelling for our audience and the Japanese, offered Finkelman Cox. Visually it looks very much different from the world thats been created in the 2D cartoons. Even Astro Boy will resemble but wont be the same character that youve seen in Japanese anime.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

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