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'Robota': Building an Empire

Scott Jenkins speaks with artist Doug Chiang and Sparx*s Alan Portillo about the epic 3D universe, building momentum under the name Robota.

Robota, started as a personal project for Doug Chiang, has grown into its own entity. All Robota images ©2002 Doug Chiang StudioCGI by Sparx*

You see it every day -- a movie tied into a book, tied into action figures, tied into everything from beach towels to toys that you get with fast food. New merchandising empires begin as often as new movies do -- at least once a week. They are put together by people who want to maximize the amount of cash that a license generates. But what happens when you want to create something that, by its own nature, is so big that it needs to be presented in different ways? An idea that was so vast and deep that the only way to do it justice was to create its own empire?

And then, what if you were only one guy? How do you do it?

Before producing and directing the Robota trailers, Doug Chiang had amassed major Hollywood credits as well as an Oscar for his work. Photo: Giles Hancock

Talent helps. And Doug Chiang has a lot of talent. After studying film at UCLA, he began his career as a stop motion animator on Pee Wee's Playhouse, then went on to direct and design TV commercials for Rhythm and Hues, Digital Prods. and Robert Abel and Associates, winning a Clio Award along the way. He became a Visual Effects art director at Industrial Light & Magic in 1989, and worked on such films as Terminator 2, Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump, Jumanji, Ghost, Back to the Future II, The Mask and The Doors. For his work at ILM, he won an Academy Award and two BAFTA Film Awards. Best known for his work as director of concept design for Star Wars Episodes I and II, he is now the co-production designer for The Polar Express.

The thing is, the idea for Robota didn't start out as an empire builder. It started out as a personal project that took on a life of its own. As the story got bigger, the world got bigger, and Doug needed more help. He went to science fiction author Orson Scott Card and the project became a book. The book generated a widely circulated animation test, then two teaser trailers, which can be seen on Doug's site.

I spoke to Doug about how this project began, and to Alan Portillo, head of international business development at Sparx*, about the creation of the trailer and where they see it going.

What started as a childhood single sketch of a tall ship and flying saucer inspired Doug to develop Robota many years later.

What was your inspiration to create Robota?

Doug Chiang: Robota started from a single sketch I had drawn years ago as a kid. It was a scribble of a sketch showing tall sailing ships with flying saucers. Then many years later when I was looking for an idea to focus my personal work, that sketch resurfaced and became my inspiration. As the story grew, I also wanted to explore the idea of combining film design with book design and approached the creation of the book from a film designer's perspective.

To be honest, I really didn't expect the book to be published or the project to take a life of its own and grow to what it is today. I merely wanted to have fun and experiment with different ideas.

Doug joined forces with sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card for the novelization of Robota, to be published by Chronicle Books in October of this year.

Can you tell us a bit about the story?

DC: Robota is an intimate tale of love, betrayal and revenge told on an epic scale in a world with killer robots and hyper-intelligent animals. It's also a world of decay. Technology and civilization are in decline, and the story is told primarily through the point of view of our hero as he tries to piece together the truth behind the robots and find out why the robots want him dead.

How is it different working on your own designs for your own projects?

DC: It is actually more challenging. When I work on films, I'm mainly helping to visualize the director's ideas. The director calls the shots and tells you when the designs are finished. When I work for myself, obviously I only have myself to answer to and sometimes it's difficult to know when the designs are finished. Its hard to be objective, to know when it's time to stop or keep going. As a result, I sometimes overcompensate and overwork an idea in fear of stopping too soon.

How did you and Orson Scott Card get together? How did you choose to work with Sparx*?

DC: Orson and I connected almost immediately on the project. When I first showed him the story to get his critique, he could see what I was trying to do. And as it turns out for Robota, his sensibility and mine matched very well.

I should add that working with Orson was a dream come true. I'm a huge fan of his work. He's a genius and I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him. For me, I really enjoy collaborations and believe that the best work often results from good partnerships.

There was fierce competition between French visual effects houses for the Robota job.

As for Sparx*, they really liked Robota and thought it would be the perfect project to showcase their new abilities. I knew of their previous work having worked with some of their staff members before so I felt very confident that this would be a very good partnership. I hope this first teaser is only the beginning of more collaborations together.

You normally don't see anything this elaborate lead into a book. What were your thoughts behind having a trailer made?

DC: The trailer was a fun opportunity for me to see the images in the book transformed into movement and sound. As I said earlier, I approached creating this book as if I were designing a film so the teaser became a natural extension of the book writing process.

Where else do you see Robota going?

DC: I would like to see Robota be developed in as many different media as possible, but I am also very realistic about the expectations. As a film, Robota could be all CG or CG/live-action mix. Both would be appropriate and offer their unique challenges. In many ways, I feel more comfortable doing an all CG film because of my background and work on films such as Star Wars and The Polar Express.

A feature treatment of Robota is being planned. A script and funding are still needed.

In addition to film, I'm pursuing computer games and more books. I have developed a very comprehensive backstory to the book that would be great to explore in other media.

Sparx* is a French animation company that has, for years, produced award- winning work. Tell us about your involvement with the project.

Alan Portillo: Doug was looking for a studio capable of developing his vision. While Sparx* completed the trailer, it was initially begun by Believe Inc., which has since gone out of business. A number of French animators were working at Believe Inc., which provided the introduction to Sparx* and several other French companies. Two French studios were in fierce competition. Sparx* won the job thanks to its enthusiasm and the sophisticated look of its work. The studio enriched the original concept, which ultimately led to adding new shots nearly doubling the trailer's length.

The trailer portrays the main themes found in the story: Kaantur advancing through a sandstorm, the greenish environment of cave dwelling humans, the robot city, a shot of the robot army inside the cathedral and finally the robots inside the human universe.

The working relationship between California-based Doug and Frances Sparx* was conducted mostly via Internet.

Tell us about the technical aspects of the production.

AP: Robota was completed by a total of 10 people over a period of six months. A mix of Maya, RenderMan and Flame was used to create the trailer. We employed over 200 Sparx* plug-ins and Mel scripts to animate the cloth in the robots' capes and create the complex particles found throughout the trailer.

A lot of work went into developing render setups and the robots' dynamics. Random movements were skillfully mastered during the grass field shot in which more than 169 robots were animated. This shot was one of the most technically complex, involving moving depth of field over 20 layers of grass, 20 layers of robots, 15 layers of shadows, five layers of clouds and lightning, four layers of particles of floating pollen, as well as smoke dynamic simulations.

We used Maya Fluid to create the ocean in the shot with the city floating above the sea. Paint Effects was used to create the shots' waterfalls. A large part of the films rendering was done with Maya. The desert ground was created with RenderMan. We also used our own in-house software called Albedo, which is one of numerous software packages compatible with Renderman.

Two modules make up Albedo, Castor, which is the RenderMan part enabling motion blur, displacement mapping, etc., and Pollux, which covers raytracing functionalities. Each shot was rendered in multiple layers and then combined in flame or inferno. For the Kaantur shots, the fully CG water required 40 layers to be composited and another 20 for the city itself.

All the material in the trailer was composited at 1K resolution for the teaser, but the final film will be done at 2K and 12-bit (Cineon).

Would you describe the process by which you take one of Doug's drawings and turn it into a scene?

AP: The teaser was directed long distance via the Internet over a period of six months. During this period, face-to-face contact was made only once between both parties. Doug's pen and airbrush drawings were sent by email. Sparx* returned a phenomenal number of tests over to Doug in San Francisco for validation. The main objective was to show Doug that we were capable of producing exactly what he had in mind, up to the very last detail, while pushing our technical capabilities to the next level.

In Robota's futuristic world, technology is on the decline as the storys hero is pursued by killer robots.

We've seen teasers for this for at least a year. Will there be more? A Robota short or feature?

AP: The next step will be to put together enough financing to produce a feature-length film. A 40-page treatment has been written byOrson. What we want to do now is raise the development money and finish the script. We are still debating if the film will be done in full CG or combine live action and digital animation. The film's budget is estimated at 50 million euro.

We are in discussion with a couple of major Hollywood studios and European film funds. Our objective is to raise around 40% of the budget in Europe before signing a U.S. deal in order to retain as much creative control as possible.

Scott Jenkins has been creating art on the computer since 1987. He has an extensive professional writing career, freelancing articles for print and online magazines. Especially interested in pushing the art of computers, he continued his career teaching and lecturing on animation and compositing at schools, conventions and companies. Some of his clients include DreamWorks, Sega, Film Roman and Centropolis Special Effects. He is currently writing (digital) Compositing for New Riders and articles for Animation World Magazine. He is also freelancing as a writer and digital content creator.