Thursday, July 27, 2006

Visual Development Made Crystalline

Animation Guild members at the General Membership Meeting Tuesday evening were held in thrall as visual development artists Mike Kurinsky, Paul Shardlow and Paul Lasaine explained what they did and how they did it, showing samples of their work as they went along. First, the introductions... Mike Kurinsky was a background painter at Disney for nine years. When hand-drawn animation was phasing out at Disney, he got a serendipitous call from Mike Humphries at Sony Pictures Animation to do visual development work, and moved over. Paul Lasaine began in live-action, primarily in visual effects as a matte painter. After interviewing for a job at Amblimation, he later received a call from startup company DreamWorks to work in visual development. He is now a production designer at Sony Pictures Animation. Paul Shardlow's fondest desire was to be a famous painter, but discovered that he "starved at it" when beginning his career in London. Realizing he had a knack for animation, he moved over to that field. Happily for him, there was a great deal of animation being done in Great Britain at the time, and Mr. Shardlow found himself steadily employed. He has worked all over Europe, then at DreamWorks for a decade, and is now at Sony. Shardlow said that visual development covers many things. He said he particularly enjoys doing "inspirational artwork" before the script is written or finalized. Coming from Europe, and the smaller budgets there, he gets upset when he sees money wasted, and strives to be efficient and economical. Paul was the first visual development artist on "Over the Hedge" and stayed on it as an Art Director until the film was completed. He playfully referred being asked to stay on a film once it goes into production as a mixed blessing. Shardlow believes in working as close to what the final film images will look like as possible. He recalled the seductive, beautiful gauche paintings for Shrek, which of course looked nothing like the finished film. He also described himself as something of a technophobe, but proudly stated that he's fiddled with Maya until he boiled it down to what he considered the absolute essentials. He believes that Maya is now an indispensable tool for a visual development artist on today's features, and that he can do development work in days that previously would have taken weeks. The great thing about Maya is the artist can quickly build a three-dimensional model of the set being rendered, and texture it in Photoshop. His bottom line is that any solution is a good one if it works. Sometimes that means painting a solution, sometimes that means photographing an environment and compositing in elements. "Cheating" is good if it helps what the artist doing. Paul Lasaine said that sometimes directors or executives have a tough time visualizing just the part of the CGI set that is being used, so a visual development artist has to build the whole set, even though a small fraction of it will be seen on film. He treats visual development as "classic set design," and thinks of himself as an environmental designer. Sometimes a visual development artist will "design" entire sequences, emphasizing color, mood, and time of the day. Visual development artists used to do thousands of painting for a traditional feature film. Now much more is done digitally, and the work is more focused. As an example of storytelling through design, Lasaine referred to The Prince of Egypt, where two design styles were used for the two contrasting groups in the film: For the Egyptians, it was straights, formal, and grand; for the Hebrews, everything was twisted and organic. He says that "design is design," and treats his animation and live action work the same. The development process has two general phases, a "blue sky" period where he gets to dream and play with artwork, then the budget and production phase kicks in requiring specific solutions. Lasaine showed some impressive paintings in acrylics done for Lord of the Rings. In doing that work he sometimes went on location and took photographs, then headed back to the studio to paint, using the photographs as reference. Artist Mike Kurinsky said that on SPA's upcoming Open Season, they looked to Eyvind Earle's work on Sleeping Beauty for inspiration, then had to answer the question, "How would Earle have painted a log cabin or a diner?" He's now art directing on SPA's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which has gone through several sets of directors, with significant design style changes and evolutions each time. The current directors came from the 2-D world of Cartoon Network and had those sensibilities, so they wanted the visual development artists to push their designs in that direction. Most everything he does now is digital. He says that visual development is about giving the directors of the film a lot of choices and different ways they might go. All the panelists emphasized that visual development involves generating lots of images and possibilities, then accepting that the vast majority of their work will never be seen (but that they probably didn't have it as bad as story artists in that respect). [The above is a compilation of notes from both Steve Hulett and Kevin Koch. There's sure to be some distortions and inaccuracies in there, but we tried to capture the gist of the discussion. We'll be happy to correct anything we got wrong. There are no illustrations for this post because, well, you had to be there -- we saw some beautiful artwork, despite the technical difficulties with the projection system.]


Germán said...

thanks a lot for sharing this.

Jason Scheier said...

That was a very inspirational read, thanks for posting this!

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