Last Night’s Siggraph Event: Eric Darnell

Eric Darnell was in town for last night’s Siggraph event in Vancouver. It was a nice Q&A setup that I haven’t seen out of Siggraph yet, which was nice for a change. Eric brought a lot of his early work from CalArts and PDI. I remember being entertained by his short, Gas Planet, when I was a kid. YTV would air it frequently; this was all before Toy Story and computer animation was anything more than primitive shapes performing awkward movements. Watch Gas Planet below:

Eric also showed us his experimental animation work he did for a music video while he was at CalArts, and some tests for a Penguin/Beatles feature Dreamworks had in the works (which was axed). They never forgot about doing penguins in CG, and that’s where the penguins from Magagascar originated from.

The highlight of the evening was his stories about the trials and tribulations of directing, the pyschology behind being the boss, and taking on that roll. I found it surprising that he was given his directorial debut on Antz by default, becuase nobody else really had any computer animation experience at the time. What a position to be thrown into. Obviously he landed running and hasn’t stopped, but it blows my mind that Katzenberg took that chance on the strength of Gas Planet alone.

Richard Williams @ Vancouver International Film Theatre

So I did manage to get out to see Richard Williams last night. It took a lot of work, and looked hopeless until the last minute. I knew I’d have to get there super early, which I did. The main event was at 7:30pm, and I got there at just after 5pm to wait in the “first come first serve” line. After a couple hours of waiting, and about 100 losers cutting in front in line, I was warm and cozy in the second row. The event was held at the Vancouver International Film Theater on Seymour Street.

I won’t belabor on, but I wanted to go over a few of the highlights for those that missed this event (shame on you).

Richard was basically here for two hours showing clips from his new Animator’s Survival Kit DVD Set. The best part was the Q&A, which he did before and after every clip he showed until his time was up. Had I known there was going to be this much time to just pick his brain, I’d of compiled a big list of questions.

A lot of generic questions were asked, and I really think Vancouver didn’t take advantage of this opportunity of a lifetime. Questions like, “What do you recommend we do to get better?” are stupid when the obvious answer is WORK! I wasn’t about to waste my question, so I asked him, “As a student of animation, what’s the last big thing you learned about animation?” At first I thought I stumped him, but after a bit of thought, and a lot of story, the eventual answer was basically this:

You can always become a stronger animator by going over the basic principles in exercises (like the bouncing ball).

After the main event I managed to squeeze in a hand shake from the old guy. That and listening to him talk about his days of studying Milt Kahl scenes, his improvement under Ken Harris, and his current project were all I could have wanted from the show. But I got more, as there was a screening of Roger Rabbit on the big screen, something I was sure not to miss.

Siggraph: Sharon Calahan Comes to Vancouver

Last night Siggraph hosted another local chapter event entitled, “Teasing the Senses,” featuring Sharon Calahan, the Director of Photography on Ratatouille at Pixar. This was perfect timing. I had only just read The Art of Ratatouille, and Sharon’s work was fresh in my mind for this presentation. It’s was also just days before Wall E will be released, and I’m sure I’ll be buzzing after I see that. I can’t wait!

Sharon, despite her admitted nervousness, did a fantastic presentation. She showed us her process, and the way she tackles every new project, trying to make it different every time. A painter at heart, she’s on a four month leave of absense from Pixar in which she just paints every day. This reminds me of the Lou Ramano episode of Toon In, in which he talks about taking regular leaves of absense to explore his artistic education more. Pixar sounds like such a wonderful place to work. The more I hear, the better it sounds.

Sharon went through her research process, showing us pictures from her trip to Paris with Production Designer, Harley Jessup, who’s work is also heavily featured in the aforementioned Art of book. The two walked everywhere to get a feel of the city for the movie, and brought back a lot of really nice photos.

She went on to describe how they wanted the movie to look from a lighting standpoint from the very beginning. She said she’s a pure spot lighter, a self professed, “control freak,” and she doesn’t like using global illumination at all. Adding that the lighting of the film was geared towards making the food look good first, and everything else was taken down a notch here and there respectively.

A list of her, “Lighting Army,” flashed on the screen for a few minutes. Long enough for me to pick out Jeremy Birn from the list of forty or so lighting artists. Jerermy is the author of, “Digital Lighting and Rendering.” I remember reading through this book when it first came out about ten years ago. This was when I was first getting into computers, and thought that becoming an animator meant learning software. Sigh…Anyway, I had no idea that he was at Pixar now, but I’m not surprised. This memory, along with the presentation as a whole, made me realize that I really need to brush up on my knowledge of Cinematography. Sharon listed off so many films she used for inspriation because of the cinematography, and I was pretty impressed. I really need to start mentally cataloguing these things for my own film ideas.

The presentation went on for about an hour, after which was a book signing, and a screening of Ratatouille. I didn’t stay for the screening, but I did manage to get my book signed, and shared a few words with Sharon. I asked her a question I’ve always wondered, but never been able to find the answer to. I’ve read, and heard much of the directorial switch on Ratatouille 18 months into production. And in the Art of Book, Brad Bird says he felt uncomfortable about taking over the project at first. So I asked Sharon, “Why was there a directorial switch?” Call me intrusive, I could only assume it came don’t to story complications, but I just had to know for sure. After a brief conversation about the brilliance of Pinkava, she bascially answered, “Brad’s a heavyweight.” Pixar does whatever it takes to make a good movie, even if it means basically doing it twice (Toy Story, Ratatouille).

Siggraph: Syd Mead Event: Visual Futurist

Last night I had the pleasure of meeting one of the most highly regarded conceptual designers in the world. Siggraph hosted an event featuring Syd Mead; The conceptual designer behind the such stylistically futuristic blockbuster films as Alien, Blade Runner, and Star Trek to name a just a few. I quickly learned that his portfolio includes not only film, but architecture, vehicles, toys, and a myriad of other items that can be made to look futuristic. I must admit a little naivity on my part, as I was hard pressed to pin point how I was familiar with the name, “Syd Mead,”before this event showed up in my inbox. Shortly after the presentation started I was reminded that I had watched a few Gnomon DVDs featuring the design guru a few years back. I’m not big into conceptual design, but I am interested in every aspect of this industry, and respect all the artists within it. Conceptual design is a field that required a tremendous amount of imagination, and creativity. And I always love learning about what makes successful artists tick.


Highlights from the evening were Syd’s dry humor, the Q&A session, and the screening of Blade Runner: The Final Cut after the presentation. I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see Blade Runner on the big screen. The last and only time I saw it was during film school, and it was one of those nights where I was completely fatigued, but too wired with thoughts to go to sleep. I watched it on my computer, and I remember wondering, “What’s the big deal about this movie everyone is praising?” Needless to say, I didn’t have the best viewing experience back then. And if there’s one thing about watching movies that makes them ten times better, it’s the environment you watch them in. Check out your local Siggraph chapter, and don’t pass up the chance to see this beautiful film full scale on the silver screen.

A fun fact from the night. When asked what movie he wished he had the chance to work on, but didn’t, Syd quickly replied, “Fifth Element.”

Droidmaker

I just got back from, Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution. Michael Rubin is on tour promoting his latest book of the same name. Droidmaker is essentially the first true and complete account of how Lucas and Coppola basically revolutionized not just the film industry, but our technological generation. After watching the presentation I was reminded of just how many of todays modern luxuries can be attributed to these two film makers.

It was a good show, and Rubin was very energetic and entertaining. He’s a great storyteller, as he ought to be, promoting a book and all. He was accompanied by Dr. Alvy Ray Smith, one of the founding fathers of the Lucas Film Computer Division that eventually became Pixar.

The best part about these presentations is learning about personal relationships and stories of struggle and adversity, with pay offs. That’s an understatement in the case of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, not to mention Smith, Catmull, Lasseter, and all the rest of the Pixar founders. It was quite an immersing experience, and I recommend you take a look and see if Rubin is on his way to your home town in the near future.

I was already familiar with about 80% of the content of this presentation, which is why I didn’t buy the book (which you should buy if you are not familiar with this story as I was). But a couple of things I wasn’t aware of was the survival of Pixar (financially) because of Steve Jobs inability to admit failure publicly, how Dr. Smith and his colleagues came up with the name Pixar, and how they reluctantly ended up giving their new company (separated from Lucas Film) the same name. And can you guess how Ross Perot is connected to all this? Check out the book and you’ll find out…

Take a look at Rubin’s blog, and the official website for more information.