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Tech Talk with Sony's Rob Bredow

Sony's new CTO Rob Bredow discusses cutting edge technology on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Alice in Wonderland and Arthur Christmas.

Bredow suggests that the Jell-O Mold posed the biggest rendering challenge on Cloudy and that the proprietary Arnold renderer was a breakthrough in making it look and feel like Jell-O. Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Check out the trailers and clips from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs from at AWNtv!

Rob Bredow, recently promoted to CTO of Sony Pictures Imageworks, now part of the Sony Pictures Digital umbrella, has been a talented visual effects supervisor (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Surf's Up) and technical guru for years. Now he's charged with making the studio leaner and meaner while still staying cutting edge. I spoke to Bredow about Cloudy and the rest of the Sony slate of vfx and animated projects.

Bill Desowitz: So, how's it going as the new Sony CTO?

Rob Bredow: Splitting that with production on Cloudy has been pretty tricky. So now I'm getting focused as a full-time employee and it's pretty nice.

BD: What are some of the technical advancements on Cloudy?

ob Bredow

RB: We kind of joked at the beginning of the movie that there wasn't a single shot that we didn't know how to do. But we just weren't sure how to do them all because there was so much volume. It was just huge in terms of the scope of the movie from the very beginning all the way to the very end. The town, for example, is the biggest town we've ever built for one of our animated films. And then the Jell-O Mold was super complicated in rendering that. It's translucent and reflective and refractive, and every ray that goes in there has to blur properly and feel like Jell-O. And we did a lot of things that didn't look like Jell-O until we finally got it. And then, of course, as it animates around, the whole set moves. So, it's a pretty complicated environment.

BD: And this your first animated feature to use Arnold from start to finish?

RB: Yes, we used Arnold on Monster House and it was really groundbreaking work at the time, for sure. But on Monster House there were some compromises they made in order to get that look right, so we didn't put full hair on the characters, we simplified the cloth. In this movie, there was no question that it had to have full hair, full motion blur, full cloth simulation -- everything that we would normally put in a big high-end animated movie. This time we were really setting it up to be a facility renderer to do all of the work that we need to do. In fact, there were some places in Watchmen -- the glass castle on Mars -- that were rendered in Arnold because it's so good as a ray tracer.

BD: So that was the big breakthrough?

RB: Yes, what it does for the artists is it really changes their workflow. With the old renderer, they'd spend a lot of time managing data, calculating shadow maps, doing pre-passes to calculate various things. And then once they got the renderer out, if they wanted to adjust the lighting, they'd have to go back and do a lot of recalculation, re-prepping their files. There's still time, of course, to do all of that, but it's a different kind of workflow. And the interactive feedback is much better, so they can move a light and see the results in seconds because of the way we have the renderer hooked up to our system.

Sony's work on Alice in Wonderland is complex: handling all of the size differences, all of the characters and some of the rich environments. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

BD: What can you say about Alice in Wonderland?

RB: Not too much yet. But just by the trailer, you can see some of our work and that the level of the complexity is extremely high. It's a combination of live-action and lots of CG, and all sorts of sophisticated things to handle all of the size differences, all of the characters in the film, some of the environments. It's absolutely on the cutting edge of what we've been doing. We have employed a huge percentage of our best people on Alice.

BD: What's it like working with Tim Burton on his first big CG movie?

RB: The nice thing with Ken Ralston at the helm, you've got the right guy for that. He makes everybody comfortable.

BD: Yes, Ken told me that it reminds him of Roger Rabbit, only this time they know what they're doing.

RB: It's almost like Roger Rabbit turned on its head. Instead of doing a couple of characters, you're doing everything but a couple of characters.

BD: And what about 2012?

RB: We have one more shot to complete, but you can see some of our work in the most recent trailer. You can see the Arks and we got to do some of the heavy lifting on that show. Peter Nofz supervised in-house and that team is also using Arnold so it's pretty hefty scenes to have to render and we're learning new stuff about scaling it up to that scale, maybe working on set better with that many lights and pulling environments off with that level of sophistication.

or 2012, Sony relied on Arnold as well and learned a great about working on set better with many lights and pulling environments off with a high level of sophistication. Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

BD: Hotel Transylvania?

RB: It's really about the choices in visual storytelling for Hotel T. We've had some initial discussions how the visuals are going to complement the story in terms of stylization and lighting. And, of course, the characters and all of the design work have had a very unique look in all of our animate movies. And that trend is definitely going to continue in Hotel T. The [Expressionistic] look. And the monsters are going to be great fun.

BD: Smurfs?

RB: Smurfs is moving along now. We have a lot happening with that: another cutting edge combination of live-action and CG.

BD: And Arthur Christmas, the co-production with Aardman. Tell me about that.

RB: The show is starting in Bristol and then moving to Culver City, so we're going to be having Aardman artists working side-by-side with Imageworks and Sony Pictures Animation teams, so it's a truly collaborative effort. It's completely CG and it's going to have a great look. Anything Aardman does I just love anyway, but this one has a very unique take [on prepping for Christmas] and a very fun look. It's such a great opportunity for us to work with them. And for Aardman, this is particularly important. They have a particular way they want to work, they have a particular method of telling their stories and a workflow, so from a technical perspective, we want to make sure our pipeline supports the workflow that they want to accomplish. And even if that means adjusting our workflow a little bit, we want them to be comfortable. And we're really glad that we can bring a 1,000 or 1,500 shots in their schedule.

BD: Letting Aardman be Aardman.

RB: Absolutely: we can provide the scale, the infrastructure to handle it, but we want it to be their run of the show.

BD: And after working in Bristol, they will be coming here?

RB: Yes, their artists will be coming; the directors will be on site with the producers. My understanding is that in a few months, the majority of the work will be coming to Culver City.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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