Pixels to the people Animation used to be the province of big studios, but today the techniques are in everyone's hands How to animate a horde of orcs has finally found its way to the little guy. Not so long ago, digital animators had to be members of the big three -- Disney's Pixar division, DreamWorks Animation, and Fox's Blue Sky Studios -- to produce credible feature films. But in just a few short years, the field has been blown wide open ... With the increasing power of computers and availability of sophisticated software, animation techniques such as motion capture and interpolated rotoscoping -- the "painting over film" look seen in this summer's Richard Linklater film, A Scanner Darkly -- make eye-popping visuals significantly more affordable. High-tech animation techniques have spread from CGI-powered studio releases to videos and commercials to shorts on the festival circuit and now to indie features. Even teenagers goofing off with a video camera and processing the footage with off-the-shelf software can produce striking work, says Christopher Perry, assistant professor of media arts and sciences at Hampshire College and graphics software engineer at Pixar. "That's because the skills, the tricks used in big studios, there's a pretty good route the way they trickle down from Hollywood and other places to people who don't [have Hollywood ties]," Perry says. "That's exciting." First-time feature director Christian Volckman made Renaissance, which opens Friday, in a place far from Hollywood: France. At just $18 million, the picture's budget was a pittance compared to mainstream CGI blockbusters -- Cars cost $120 million, and even a middling effort like The Ant Bully set its makers back $50 million. "I was trying something else," Volckman says, describing his all black-and-white, futuristic thriller set in Paris of 2054. The film was made using motion capture, in which the performances of real actors, pinpointed with hundreds of sensors, were videotaped and then digitized. Then, dozens of animators manipulated the images frame by frame. The effect is cold, calculated, and a little eerie, but also visually arresting. "I was thinking about film noir," the French director says. That a newcomer like Volckman, who got his start making music videos and 16mm shorts, can produce such an accomplished work is largely a result of a suddenly level playing field in the animation industry. "Ten years ago, you had to create a lot of your own tools to do this," says Joe Letteri, speaking by telephone from Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand, famous as the upstart, home-grown effects house that won Oscars for its work on The Lord of the Rings. The senior visual effects supervisor likens the burgeoning digital climate to the period just after film's pioneer days. "You [once] had to build your own camera and grind your own lenses," Letteri says. "Now it's settled down to the major camera makers. Everyone got trained on them." Which means no one has to reinvent the wheel anymore. "The computer, in short, frees an animator from the heavy lifting of the stop-motion days and allows him to exert all his creative energy on creating a performance," says Rings animation supervisor Randall William Cook by e-mail. Like many from the stop-motion animation days, the former creature designer and sculptor went digital and never looked back. His work animating creatures like Gollum has come full circle: He recently embarked on a live action/CGI animation adventure fantasy with stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen. With Cook directing, the collaboration will revive Harryhausen's classic Sinbad series. But while computers can create whiz-bang images, the studio system isn't always compatible with personal vision. "Most [animators] are specialists working on assembly lines who are discouraged from stepping outside their specialties: The sculptor sculpts, the animator animates, the lighter lights," says Cook. "The disadvantage to the assembly line is that it often has a homogenizing effect, which results in so many of these films looking alike." Indie directors are solving the uniformity problem. But the marketplace is driven by the big studios' grip on feature-length animation, all targeted to one audience: children. Marc Dole, president of Hatchling Studios, based in Portsmouth, N.H., has been shopping his award-winning short The Toll around to investors, trying to get it made into a feature, but backers balked. "This could be a very good teenage and adult film if it's marketed the right way," says Dole. "[But] unless you're going for kids, you're not going to get the merchandising. All the people we've talked to, they want to know how you can 'moneytize' [the film]." While loath to make a "cutesy" film, Dole felt obliged to write a script "for the whole family." Volckman, 34, took a risk making his animated, dystopian science fiction feature. But he's convinced Renaissance will find its audience. "Today, no one has made a hit with adult animation," he says. "It's going to be a new field that's opening up." The director is lucky because he comes from a country with a deep appreciation for both graphic novels aimed far over kids' heads and, not coincidentally, grown-up animated works. According to the Hollywood Reporter, a dozen animated features are in development or production in France. With the exception of Luc Besson's $80 million Arthur and the Minimoys, all the upcoming films -- including The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet's follow-up to his dark and quirky The Triplets of Belleville, which mixed traditional and digital animation -- have budgets between $3 to $30 million. Far from pushing up costs, new animation techniques can hold them down -- even compared with shooting a straight, live-action film. According to Linklater, going animated on A Scanner Darkly was a big part of what allowed him to make the movie for $8 million, a fraction of a typical sci-fi film budget. "I don't think we could've got the movie made [had it been live action]," Linklater says in an interview published on About.com. Scanner and his other digitally rotoscoped indie feature, 2001's Waking Life, were unexpected from someone who got his start with 1991's Slacker and has since made nine other live-action films, but they have built their own dedicated following. According to legendary animator Ralph Bakshi, however, being able to make films on the cheap doesn't always open doors in Los Angeles. The filmmaker couldn't get the studios interested in his latest project, the $5 million The Last Days of Coney Island. "I had about eight minutes of film and a completed script," Bakshi, 68, said by telephone from his home in Silver City, N. M. "I thought budget was a slam dunk. For a Bakshi comeback film, it seemed like a no-brainer." But the pioneer of controversial films such as Wizards and American Pop doesn't think his next will likely find industry support. "I asked one guy [in Hollywood], 'Should I have a budget of $150 million and pocket the rest?'" Bakshi says, laughing like a goofy cartoon character. "He said, 'Yeah, but you have to make it PG.'" (Bakshi's 1972 Fritz the Cat was the first cartoon given an X rating.) For Bakshi, whose films blend animation, live action, and traditional rotoscoping, the promise of low-cost technology is that it could allow outsider animation to rise again. His new Bakshi School of Animation and Cartooning teaches a hybrid of old techniques: hand-drawn 2-D, processed in computers using relatively inexpensive software like Toon Boom. "With [software like Toon Boom], I have a studio in a box," Bakshi raves. "Everything I used to spend million of dollars on I can do for nothing. I could do a film like Heavy Traffic for 100 percent better quality for a 10th the cost." Technology seems like the magic bullet for Bakshi's budget problems. All he needs, he says, is a little cash. "What does it take for Hollywood to take a chance? I think there's a huge audience for [sophisticated] animated films," the filmmaker says. But for a young director who has embraced digital imagery to make his new animated film, Volckman has a skeptical view toward the digital upheaval. "Technology fights against you. Computers run away from you. Software is getting more and more complex," says Volckman with a sigh, the six-year moviemaking process behind him. "But in the end, it's a guy behind a computer, telling it what to do." -- The Boston Globe, 9/24/2006What the Globe has right is, hardware and software costs are coming down, and more and more independent animators can now get their hands on sophisticated technologies at a fraction of their former costs. But so far, this "democratization of animation" has had more impact in, say, the realm of digital effects where animators and techies set up systems in spare bedrooms and subcontract effects shots for a wide array of live-action flicks than it has for animated features. Not that independent features can't be made on a shoe-string and aren't made, but independent film-makers still need story artists who can create projects the majors want to pick up, still need crews and infrastructure for production, still need distribution (back to the majors again). If low cost was the only thing that was important, then every independent would immediately decamp for India with a credit card, script, and a disk filled with storyboards and models. Is that happening? Is that likely to happen? I don't think so, but you tell me.
Monday, September 25, 2006
This comes from the Boston Globe, by way of Kathleen Milnes of the EIDC. Overblown, but it has a few points.
Posted by Steve Hulett at 10:07 AM