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Putting the Spotlight on Animated VFX

With animated VFX receiving new recognition from VES and first-time Oscar consideration, J. Paul Peszko takes a deeper look at three contenders: Beowulf, Ratatouille and Surf's Up.

For Jerome Chen, visual effects have always involved some form of animation. He goes back to his work on the live-action Stuart Little, where the main character, a talking mouse, was created with animation and visual effects. © Columbia.

This year the Visual Effects Society added a new category: Outstanding Effects in an Animated Motion Picture, to be introduced at the 6th Annual VES Awards on Feb. 10, 2008. Meanwhile, the momentum carried Ratatouille and Beowulf to the VFX Oscar long list for bakeoff consideration, which is a further breakthrough.

With that in mind, I interviewed three visual effects supervisors who are more than likely to receive VES nominations for their work over the past year. We will take a look at how they have raised the bar in terms of their creativity and what sort of challenges and competition this opportunity for recognition presents.

First, I spoke with Jerome Chen, the visual effects supervisor on Beowulf.

J. Paul Peszko: How do you view the role of a visual effects supervisor in animated features as opposed to live-action?

Jerome Chen: I guess I can take a look at it from a personal perspective, probably back to Stuart Little, where it was a live-action movie, and the main character -- the talking mouse -- had to be created using visual effects. But it wasn't just visual effects. It was also obviously animation. So, when people talk about visual effects, animation almost always has to be included because visual effects have always involved a form of animation. Go back: let's say to King Kong, the original King Kong. The visual effects aspect was all stop-motion. You go to Star Wars, there's a lot of stop-motion, puppetry and some CG. And then you go to Jurassic Park. The visual effects illusion of the integration of a CG character into a live-action movie involved the animation of the CG character, and the compositing and lighting of the CG character. Then, as movies started to use more and more animation and CG integration in live-action, the role of the visual effects supervisor became much more involved in the rest of the live-action movie.

JPP: How has this changing landscape in visual effects influenced features in general and specifically your career?

JC: The transition point where my function as a visual effects supervisor started to expand probably began on Polar Express. (Robert) Zemeckis had a movie where he wanted it to have a live-action component in terms of the actors. His creative process is a live-action mentality, but he wanted the whole movie created in CG. Live-action directors rely on their vfx sups to help devise the techniques to accomplish their vision. By transitioning to full CG, Zemeckis still sought the collaboration of Ken Ralston and myself to develop the means to tell the story. It was during that process where our role went beyond the shooting of plates and became more immersed in both the pre-production and post-production process of helping to make every frame of the film.

JPP: And moving onto Beowulf, what was the prime intent there and how did it influence your role as a visual effects supervisor?

JC: Zemeckis employed the use of motion capture and CG because he wanted the world of Beowulf to feel homogenous. The humans and the creatures -- and the environment -- are all meant to have the same visual texture. The techniques we used blur the line between visual effects and animation. So, the whole thing becomes another level of illusion, which is what visual effects have always done.

The point where Chen's function as vfx supervisor expanded was on Polar Express. ©2004 Warner Bros. Ent.

Visual effects have always been used to create an illusion to support the story. So, when people say, "Well, the whole movie could be visual effects," I know that my job as a visual effects supervisor is to basically realize the director's vision. In this particular case (Beowulf), the entire movie was created using tools that have usually fallen under visual effects, animation, CG, lighting, compositing and all this visual imagery. I think that's why there's suddenly a question of: Is this a visual effects movie or an animation movie or both? Why can't it be both? Why does one preclude the other? I think that the emergence of that is what has caused the VES to be more forward thinking and say, "Well, there should be a category -- Visual Effects in an Animated Feature." And there's a reason. If you look at the credits in animated features, there's a visual effects supervisor in the credits. So that alone tells you what we do should be embraced by the visual effects world. The VES has accepted it, and now there's an ongoing movement to see what the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Science) branch of Visual Effects will do with it. As more directors become intrigued by the use of motion capture and CG as a storytelling medium, this will involve visual effects supervisors that are branch members of the Academy and VES. Then you'll see more acceptance of this hybrid medium.

JPP: With this evolution of the hybrid, have you had to raise the bar as far as your creativity is concerned?

JC: Specific to Beowulf, I think it is noteworthy that the level of detail, the level of animation that we were able to create in the characters to make you feel engaged in the story was our most important job. It creates an illusion that allows the audience to be drawn into the story. In this illusion, you really have to believe in Beowulf and take away (Ray) Winstone's performance and integrate it fully into the CG version of Ray, which doesn't look anything like him but still has to have all the nuances and energy of his acting. That was accomplished through animation and CG lighting.

In Beowulf, Chen's goal was to create characters and environments to engage the viewer with the story. © 2007 Paramount Pictures and Shangri-La Ent. LLC.

JPP: How have technological advances influenced your creativity?

JC: They drive each other. You have some occasions where creativity will drive technology. A goal for a particular creative purpose will then call on technology to be creative. In other cases, there will be technology that may not have a particular application, and then creativity will be the driver.

JPP: Are there ever instances where visual effects are too much of a good thing? Can visual effects, if overdone, blur the story?

JCM: If the director's vision is highly focused on visual effects to drive his story, then that's certainly his decision. I leave that up to him. That's the creative choice of that director, that storyteller. It may not be that the visual effects work blurs the story. It may be that the storyline was weak, and now you start to notice the visual effects or some other flaw. If the storyline is weak or we're not engaged by the story, then the director's job is to balance all that. So, the director may choose to allow the visual effects to become heavy-handed.

JPP: Have visual effects made the film editor's job more creative, more complex or easier?

JC: In a visual effects heavy movie, I always look at the editor as another collaborator, meaning your editor and the director, the production designer, the DP and myself have to collaborate very heavily. The advent of visual effects has done all the things you said to the editor's job, but it's also given him more flexibility and more tools to tell a story. He can use a more well-rounded palette that's available to him. I don't think that it's made his job more difficult. It may be more difficult that there are more elements for him to worry about or to manage.

JPP: What do you think about the competition between visual effects supervisors now that the VES has opened up this new category for animated features? Does it make your job more challenging?

JC: To me it doesn't matter one way or the other because I don't do (my job) with awards or categories in mind. It should be pretty clear because with Beowulf for a while we weren't sure how to categorize it earlier on. Was it an animated movie? Was it live action? There are still debates going on. The animation branch (of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) considered it eligible for Animated Features. So, I'm not doing it for categorization. I'm doing it basically just for the work.

I think what people still need to understand is the tremendous amount of artistry (involved in visual effects). People are talking about technology. But for anybody who works in the field knows that it doesn't go into the computer and come out beautiful at the push of a button. I've been with 450 people working on this movie for three years. So, there's a lot of passion that went into it.

No doubt that Ratatouille will receive a VES nomination. It is one of the most innovative animated features this year. All Rataouille images ©Disney Enterprises Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios. 

One of the most innovative animated features this year has been Ratatouille, the story of Remy, a young rat from the French countryside with extraordinary culinary skills. Apurva Shah, the visual effects supervisor, is obviously pleased that VES has added a category for animated features. "We're very excited about the new category and being able to recognize some of the artists who worked on the film." But what pleases Shah the most is the different set of challenges that Ratatouille presented. "I think what is exciting from my standpoint is that the visual effects in the film, as is the case with a lot of other Pixar films, are very closely tied with the story, itself, and with the performance. All the cooking stuff that we did is really very integral to the story and to believing in Remy's quest. The actually exciting part is that this particular area of effects hasn't really been explored much, like actually doing cooking. So, we had some very interesting challenges there, and it was great to be able to work on that aspect of it. Then, of course, we had lots of environmental effects as well: water -- there's a rapids sequence in the movie -- and lots of rain, and wet fur and wet cloth, and all those kinds of things. They were really fun to work on. I think the cooking, and the fact that it's really closely tied to the story and the performance, is one of the things that makes effects in this animated film really exciting."

JPP: As far as visual effects are concerned, do you think the line has been blurred between live action and animation?

Apurva Shah: I gave a talk at the VES seminar at Big Sur. What is fundamentally similar or different about effects between these two media? I guess we should think about it fundamentally from the standpoint of what function the effects might be serving. I think they're very similar. They're motivated by some story need. They tend to be used like an artist's matte painting that is used in live action. It's used to extend sets and create worlds that would be too expensive or difficult to build out and also to add visual punch. In the case of Ratatouille, for example, the rapids at the beginning of the movie are meant to do exactly that -- get the audience engaged in the developing of this character and to do that with a visual punch. So, in the sense of function, it is certainly very similar. And a related question is how do you measure success. How do you see when effects work in live action or when they work in an animation context? Again, the criteria are very similar. You want to make sure that you have (the effects) scaled right. You want to make sure that there's some kind of physics that is at work; that it looks believable. You want to make sure that whatever approach you take is very flexible and will allow for creative direction. So, in terms of criteria, I think they are similar as well.

Apurva Shah recalls the different set of challenges that Ratatouille presented. All the cooking footage was integral to the story and to believing in Remy's quest. The particular area of cooking effects hadn't been explored before this film.

JPP: What about the toolsets used for live action and animation? Are they changing as well?

AS: The interesting thing historically is that the tools used to do effects in the two media tended to be very different. Effects in 2D animation were hand-drawn creating the hint of water, splashes or smoke with a few graphic strokes. Effects for live action, on the other hand, were generally achieved with miniature, pyro and other traditional techniques. But as both kinds of effects migrate more and more to the computer, the kind of tools we use and skillsets we tap into look much more similar. For example, on Ratatouille, the kind of liquid simulators we used were essentially similar to those used by ILM on A Perfect Storm or Poseidon. So, I think that the really interesting thing is that there's a convergence in the tool base and the skillset that historically has been different. But fundamentally, I think they have always been similar in certain ways. So, that aspect is the same as before.

JPP: Do you think the new VES category will spur greater competition among visual effects supervisors?

AS: I certainly hope it will spark friendly competition among the studios and certainly try to make us do our best work. The way that I look at it, though, is that we really do look at effects as another piece of the puzzle in terms of the kind of stories that directors want to tell and the kind of movies that Pixar wants to make. So, in that sense, we certainly try our best to support that effort. So, it's nice that there's a category like this that potentially recognizes that effort, but hopefully you're doing this for a deeper cause in some way. And that's not to say it's not nice to have the category and be recognized for the work that artists are doing, but that's more like the icing on the cake.

JPP: Do you expect the Academy to follow the lead of the VES and give recognition to visual effects in animated features?

There's now a convergence in the tool base and skillset that historically has been different between visual effects for live action and animation.

AS: I think that hopefully over time [the recognition will come], as more and more filmmakers become exposed to this style of working and realizing that the effects for animation serve the same kind of function and a similar story need (as effects for live action).

JPP: People sometimes point out that there is a major difference in how visual effects are integrated into animated and live-action features. Do you believe the difference is that great?

AS: I've worked on some live-action films before like Batman Forever and The Arrival, so I have some sense of what happens there as well. And one of the things that you often hear is that live-action visual effects have to deal with integration into a (photographic) plate. There's a plate and you have to integrate transparently into that. Again, there's that distinction between the two (live action and animation). But I point out that we too try to work with the animation and the performance that we're getting. And to that extent, the performance is our plate. If a director really likes a performance and an animator is able to get the emotional stuff across that needs to happen in a shot, then we really try to build on that and work with that.

With Surf's Up, there was a unique opportunity to put more than 20 minutes of breaking waves on screen as one of the major characters in the movie. All Surf's Up images © Sony Pictures Animation.

One of the most action-packed animated features this year in terms of visual effects was Sony Pictures Animation's Surf's Up. Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Bredow has been impressed with the overall visual effects work in this year's animated releases.

"I would say it has been a great year for visual effects in animated films. With Surf's Up, we knew we had a unique opportunity to put more than 20 minutes of breaking waves on screen as one of the major characters in the movie. It took the right combination of building on our history handling water in visual effects films like Cast Away and Open Season and a certain amount of faith on the part of the directors and producers to put their trust in our team's ability to pull it off successfully. The challenge of creating this diverse palette of waves to support the film attracted some of the best talent and that's really evident in the final shots you see on screen in Surf's Up."

JPP: How were your artists able to balance their creativity with the complex technology necessary to integrate water effects into the animation?

Rob Bredow: Our entire crew focused efforts in one specific area -- making sure that our technology was always used in support of our story. For Surf's Up, that meant we chose to actually animate the waves like we would a character instead of trying to drive the whole system with a simulation. That put the creative control in the hands of the animators and allowed us the creative flexibility to deliver waves that met the stylistic needs of a shot, rather than physics.

JPP: I know the surfing sequence were absolutely fantastic. The waves seemed to have various moods that gave them a character-like quality, which was fascinating. Did you have any problems varying the motion of the waves to give them this quality while still maintaining a realistic appearance?

Rob Bredow observes that Imageworks now shares the same artists and technologies for movies as Spider-Man 3 and Surf's Up.

RB: Of course, there is only so far you can adjust the speed of a wave or the crashing rate of the wave lip before it starts looking very non-water-like. To keep an eye on this during the development of the shots across the departments, we devised all sorts of visualization techniques to ensure our waves would be believable in the final rendering. This choice to put as much control in the hands of the animators and ensure that what they saw on their screen was a very close approximation of the final result down to the surface foam, the whitewater explosions and even the water texture really paid off throughout the film.

JPP: Finally, what are your thoughts on competing against your peers in the new VES category? Is it challenging? Exciting? What is your take on it?

RB: I think it is a great opportunity. The niche of visual effects for animated films can easily be overlooked because it doesn't fit neatly into the existing categories. What we're seeing more and more frequently now at Imageworks is that the same artists and technologies work on both a Spider-Man 3 and a Surf's Up. In fact, we shared and developed many techniques in tandem on those two shows. It's great to see organizations like VES taking notice of the visual effects in an animated film that's on par with the best live-action shows out there.

J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews, as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.