Taylor Jessen delves into some of the inspirations and challenges behind the three shorts recently honored by the SIGGRAPH 2007 Computer Animation Festival.
The 34th Annual SIGGRAPH conference, a festival of all things computer graphics-related, is coming to San Diego in August, and of the many computer-animated films submitted to the Computer Animation Festival branch of this year's event there are three that have been singled out for special mention. Honored with Best of Show is Ark, directed by Grzegorz Jonkajtys and Marcin Kobylecki; taking the Jury Honors prize is Dreammaker from animator/director Leszek Plichta; and winning the SIGGRAPH Award of Excellence is En Tus Brazos from co-directors Francois-Xavier Goby, Edouard Jouret and Matthieu Landour.
For the first time in the history of SIGGRAPH, two of the award-winning films are student entries: Dreammaker, which was produced at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, Germany, and En Tus Brazos, which was made at Supinfocom Valenciennes, France.
VFXWorld caught up with the filmmakers via email in late May. Representing Ark was Kobylecki. Ark is the latest from Platige Image, the Warsaw-based studio that's produced many commercials for the continent and a number of award-winning shorts, including The Cathedral and Fallen Art. Ark is a short story about a future plague that's forced a group of survivors to board a ship and seek out a new home on some safe and sterile faraway island. Taking in a number of exquisite vistas, both interiors and exteriors, we follow one man who's keeping a sharp eye on his own health as he holes up in his room on board the ark, and who finds to his horror that he's unwittingly carrying the dread disease. He leaves his quarters and walks through the cavernous interior of the ark, past other voyagers and miles of strung laundry in the massive main room of the ship, up a ladder to the roof --where sights both beautiful and terrible confront him.
Taylor Jessen: How long did the production take from start to finish?
We spent about two years from first sketches to final compositing.
TJ: Talk about your scholastic background and your professional background. What led you to animation?
Greg Jonkajtys has the "artistic" background -- he graduated from the Faculty of Graphic Arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Also, he is working at CafeFX as lead animator [Pan's Labyrinth] so he is in touch with major Hollywood productions. I'm a master of science in computer-aided design, with a major in automatics and robotics. So, as you see, it is a long way from film.
I was interested in computer graphics during college and I had a good knowledge of it before I start working at Platige Image. I may say that I was lucky that my first project was The Cathedral, and this film let me gain huge experience in production of animated movies, especially after the Oscar nomination. So far I've produced a couple of shorts and if it won't spoil anything, now I'm gaining knowledge and preparing myself for our first feature.
TJ: Production was split between teams in Poland and in the U.S. I imagine having just that tiny window of common daytime hours in which to communicate must have been a challenge.
MK: If we take things like time zones into account, synchronizing the whole production required a lot of patience from us, especially if we mean communication between particular people from the team.
TJ: The design of the interiors has a look much akin to catacombs. Was it your intention to be super-realistic?
We wanted the style of Ark to stray completely from a conventional picture associated with computer-animated films, and the visual side to be characteristically exaggerated. Artificiality, precisely assorted objects, details of set design and character animation highlighted certain features of the film and focused the viewer's attention on the story.
TJ: In terms of your tool set, you're using the usual suspects in the software world, SOFTIMAGE|XSI, 3ds Max, LightWave, modo and After Effects -- but for the sets you went another direction, which was to hand-build them and do motion-control moves on them while shooting on a Nikon D70 digital still camera. It's kind of high-tech and garage at the same time. Did you do it for aesthetic reasons or financial reasons, or was it a bit of both?
MK: Creating a set design rich in detail would have been very complicated, tedious and in some cases probably even impossible. Besides, lighting and rendering of such detailed scenes would have required huge processing power. Using this technique allowed us to avoid the problem. On the other hand, manual work on making such models was a kind of refuge after a dozen hours spent in front of the computer every day.
TJ: What's your current project?
MK: Now Greg and I are going to make another short, different from Ark. We already have an idea and are in preproduction. Right after that we are planning to do the feature. We have finished scripts and now we are looking for budget for it. It will be a funny story -- funny and macabre at the same time: similar to Tim Burton's movies.
Dreammaker tells the story of a lonely old man in a house in the forest who manufactures glowing gaseous dreams, distributed in little glass ampoules and inhaled by their users. Not a charitable man, his visions both beatific and baleful are sold to whoever has the cash. The inventor is haunted by the memory of a love he's lost, and frustrated by his inability to manufacture the perfect dream to bring her image back; and into his misery comes a wordless young woman who sweeps up the workshop and eventually melts his heart. Director Plichta had this to say about the production process:
TJ: What was the story kernel for the short?
Leszek Plichta: I think I wanted to create an animated movie, which is not just build on slapstick, but tries to deal with more complex characters. I do not even see it as an animated movie but as a movie with real persons. The basic idea came from the title itself, Dreammaker. So the most obvious choice was to tell it as a kind of fairytale. I liked the vision of someone who can create dreams, but it couldn't be someone who just makes people around him happy. I wanted to tell the story from a different perspective, a story of someone who is tired of that. For him making dreams became a science -- he is tired of all the people who come to him for dreams because he learned how to manipulate them. The dreams lost their magic for him. Almost. Except for the one dream he is trying to create for himself. But that is the schizophrenic part in him. As he doesn't believe in dreams anymore, he is failing over and over again, compensating it by more and more formulas in which he hopes to find his salvation. He is trapped in a vicious circle, a self-built labyrinth that keeps him from a life worth living. Clinging to a past he can't let go.
At least for me, on a different level the most obvious metaphor for the dreams are movies. For instance, Hollywood is being called The Dream Factory. So the making of this movie definitely inspired the making of this movie. Does this sound kind of weird?
TJ: Besides directing, what else did you do for the short -- art direction, character designs, animating?
LP: Maybe it's easier if I tell you what I haven't done The project was mostly done solo, although I had help in writing the story. And, as I'm no musician, the music and sound design were also done by people, who, unlike me, knew what they were doing. So, besides me, there were Dominik Steffan, who did the screenplay, David Christiansen, who composed and orchestrated the music, Michael J. Diehl, who was responsible for all the sound design, and Marcus Neuberger, who was the foley artist.
TJ: Talk about some artists that have influenced your design style.
LP: That's a tough one. Where do I start? Would you prefer hearing about my first Marvel comics or about my Garfield drawings in the first grade? There are so many people that influenced my work. Most of them I probably don't know by name. Sometimes it's advertising, a photograph or just a picture I stumble across in a magazine or the Internet. If you'd like to hear a name that was a big influence and that got me from doodling to a more conscious drawing style, that would be Todd McFarlane [former Marvel artist and the creator of the Spawn comics series]. He was a major idol in my teen years. Later more and more artists were added, like Greg Capullo, Ashley Wood, etc. I also had a period where lots of graffiti artists were a big influence, and of course there's always a touch of Manga and Anime. From the old masters I like the art of William Bouguereau or Rembrandt. There are simply too many possibilities to be influenced by. Sometimes it's architecture, sometimes it's just a shape or the color palette from an artist, from which I might dislike everything else. Nowadays I have to take care not to be overwhelmed by all the immense pool of artists on the Internet forums. They always inspire me to try new styles and to progress.
TJ: Talk about your scholastic background and your professional background. What led you to animation? What's your history with the Filmakademie?
LP: Like most kids growing up in the '80s, I was strongly influenced by computer games, from Atari to C64 to the Amiga. On the Amiga I started doing my first digital graphics and dreamed to make my own computer game someday. So one day I started to create this game with some friends. One did the programming, one did the music and I did the graphics part. We even had a beta level done, but as with most childhood dreams it ended with that. But that was the beginning of my excitement for animation.
After that, though, I paused animation and did my A-levels with emphasis on fine arts, followed by a multimedia study at the University of Applied Sciences where I first got in contact with 3ds Max and fell in love with 3D. Noticing that my passion for programming in Java and doing websites was less than acute, and coincidentally discovering an article about the Filmakademie in a magazine, I decided to give it a try. The whole time I've been first working as a graphic designer and later as a CG artist in any departments, mostly for national and international commercials.
TJ: How long did the production take from start to finish?
LP: The project was done over a period of four years. I try not to think about that too often.
TJ: What was the biggest technical challenge?
LP: I don't exactly have a favorite one, but the ones that were quite often responsible for mental breakdowns were cloth simulation and fluid dynamics for the smoke effects. They never did what I wanted them to and took forever to calculate.
TJ: Was this a major learning experience for the crew?
LP: Most definitely! As I was the only animator and it was my first long animation, I learned along the way. Also every other aspect from rigging to compositing was a challenge in itself and assembled. I had to learn how to organize myself and to combine all the little pieces together -- solve the problems that occurred, find workarounds or make and accept a compromise when everything else would slow down the progress too much (sounds easier than it is). So, yes. I learned quite a lot.
TJ: What's your current project?
LP: Well, after doing this project for so long with almost no spare time or vacations, my next project is spending three months in southeast Asia with a friend of mine, drinking cocktails on the beach, running through the jungle, visiting old temples and getting bitten by mosquitoes.
En Tus Brazos was directed, as per Supinfocom's usual modus operandi, by a team of three animators. The sepia-tinged short film concerns a particularly bittersweet afternoon in the lives of a pair of dancers who once took the world of tango by storm, but whose careers came to a sudden end after the male lead suffered an accident that left him a paraplegic. Alone together in their apartment, studded with awards and photographs and other ephemera from their old life, the woman tries to lift her partner's spirits by literally lifting him from his chair and taking the lead in a dance, lifting his legs with hers and bringing back a flood of shared memories of what they once saw and how they once moved. Goby answered questions on behalf of the short's trio:
TJ: What burning idea did you have in you that you had to get out with this short?
Francois-Xavier Goby: I love tango and I wanted to do a short that was focusing on its characters and their strong relationship. I had an image in mind, the image of a woman holding her handicapped husband in her arms while moving his feet to "make" him dance. I thought that could be the starting point of a story, since without saying anything it tells a lot about their relationship, their past and their future.
TJ: How did the three of you split duties?
FXG: As this is a graduate film, we wanted to experiment with a bit of everything, so we did. The three of us modeled, animated, shaded, lit and composed. Of course, to improve the production each of us got more specialized in a field, but the aim was that the film was the result of the effort of the three of us.
TJ: What found materials did you surround yourself with for inspiration?
FXG: In order to find the basis of the story, I listened to classical tangos, I watched old movies and I spent a lot of time lying on my bed thinking. Just before starting the production, we worked to find some strong reference points so we would have the same vision of the film. Matthieu and I have a passion for cinema in general. We wanted the short to be classic in its form, inspired by classic American movies of the '40s and '50s. We used references from the art nouveau and art deco periods for the atmosphere and the furniture. We used a lot of tango videos that I made at the world championship of tango in Buenos Aires. We danced tango a little bit to understand the movements and see what body parts were involved in the dance.
TJ: What drew you to Supinfocom?
FXG: I wanted to attend a live-action cinema school in France but I failed the entrance... My good friend Clément Bolla (who did an amazing animated short called Zoudov that you can see at www.zoudov.com) told me about Supinfocom and I thought there were many links there with the live-action cinema... And I am more than happy to be able to do animated movies. This is freedom!
TJ: The three-person team seems to be Supinfocom's trademark -- were you satisfied with that arrangement?
FXG: No, I hate Matthieu and Edouard! No, of course I am satisfied. We didn't know each other before starting this project and this is the story of the short that made the link between us. And it worked out very surprisingly well. We never fought and were very complementary. It was a pleasure and I'd love doing new projects with them.
TJ: Did all of you grow up with this music? Or did you know dancers like these?
FXG: No. I didn't listen to this music before I was 16... At that age a friend of my older sister taught me a few steps of tango, and I immediately loved this music. Now I listen to many genres but this one is still one of my favorites.
TJ: What was the biggest technical challenge?
FXG: I don't think we had very big technical challenge. The tough work was to be able to animate a couple during a two-minute dance without having animated ever before... So it was a big part in our planning of production, and it went faster than we thought. Otherwise the really big technical challenge was to do a short animated film for the first time!
TJ: Talk about your scholastic background and your professional background.
FXG: I started at Supinfocom in Arles, I stopped for one year to go traveling and then I finished Supinfocom in Valenciennes last year. I am currently working as a freelance CG artist and a director. I directed various projects mixing techniques from video to 3D to stop motion.
TJ: What's next?
FXG: A short film project with Matthieu in CG animation, some other projects that I also want to get produced and many little works for broadcast animation, commercial or music video.
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. If you need some paper clips, he's got an extra box.