By TREVOR HOGG
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
The line between animation and live-action has blurred so much, with visual effects achieving such a high fidelity of photorealism, that cinema has become a seamless hybrid of the two mediums. This is an achievement that British filmmaker Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys) finds to be more problematic than creatively liberating. “If you’re watching Johnny Depp on the yardarm of a four-masted pirate ship sword fighting somebody else, there’s no gravity involved! Tom and Jerry and the Roadrunner understood gravity. Modern filmmaking is so artificial now. It’s not real people in real situations.”
Gilliam began his career creating animated segments for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. “I was limited by the amount of time and money that I had to do what I did, so it became cut-outs.” Animation at its best is showcased in Disney classics Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he says. “I love the animation done by the Nine Old Men [Walt Disney Productions’ core animators, some of whom later became directors] because it was such hard work and required an incredible understanding of people and animals.
“The problem is that live-action and animation are becoming one in the same,” observes Gilliam. “As George Lucas got more successful and had more money, it became more elaborate. Rather than have three spaceships flying around you could have a thousand. It becomes abstract at that point. You don’t have what you had when two people are fighting to the death.” Live-action is where Gilliam will remain. “People keep asking me why don’t I make another animated film, but I don’t want to. I like working with actors who bring their own view of the world to the work. It’s not like working with other animators who you are directing to do this and that the way you want it. I want other people to be part of the process and take me out of my limitations and show me different ways of looking how a scene or a character could be played.”
“Animation is, ‘Here’s the shot, let me animate within it and make that work.’ It literally only works for that angle whereas mine works for all angles, but I pick the one that looks the coolest.”
—Robert Legato, ASC, Visual Effects Supervisor
Even after making Deadpool and Terminator: Dark Fate, Executive Producer Tim Miller and his visual effects company, Blur Studio, have continued to produce and create animated shorts, in particular for the Netflix anthology Love, Death + Robots. “When you’re in the animation business you are a student of motion. You’re always trying to carve away at the artificiality of what you’re doing to find the reality that feels natural. I do the same thing in film,” says Miller. “I just use people instead of digital characters. I’m conscious of poses and silhouettes, the kinds of things that animators would think about. All of the time I would walk on set during Terminator: Dark Fate and say to Mackenzie Davies, ‘I need you to drop the shoulder and chin because it looks tougher. Stand a little contrapposto or three quarter because it makes a better silhouette.’ Coming from animation helps with making the transition to a film set because it’s working with groups of artists and having them not hate you.
“I rely heavily on previs and storyboards which allow me to figure out mistakes before they get expensive or impossible to correct,” explains Miller. “Every filmmaker will tell you that there is that special panic that you have on the day [you shoot] because you know no matter what your budget is you’re never going back to this place where you are. In animation you have this luxury of being able to return to any location to redo any shot you want, no matter where in the process you are. That’s a hard limitation to get used to if you’re making the transition from animation to live-action.”
“The problem is that live-action and animation are becoming one in the same. As George Lucas got more successful and had more money, it became more elaborate. Rather than have three spaceships flying around you could have a thousand. It becomes abstract at that point. You don’t have what you had when two people are fighting to the death.”
—Terry Gilliam, Filmmaker
Miller references some things that need to be kept in mind when making the transition from live-action to animation. “You have to be able to recognize enough about your intentions, because it’s a while before you get to see the final shot. On the flipside, you’re not stuck in the continuity that you shot.” All of the high-end animation and visual effects companies have some level of customized commercial software like Houdini, Maya and 3ds Max, he points out. “Then you have Blender, which is a free open source and the whole animation community can contribute to it, and that is a game-changer.”
Collaborating with Brad Bird on both animated and live-action projects such as The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is Rick Sayre, Supervising Technical Director at Pixar Animation Studios. “Brad is a special case because he had some live-action commercial experience, but is also keenly aware of cinematography and production design, all of the practical production principles. The other big thing that Brad had going for him is he’s a writer-director, and that can translate quite nicely into the live-action side.” Something that a live-action filmmaker has to get used to when transitioning to animation is that everything has to be intentionally planned out, says Sayre. “The happy accident or natural interplay on set, you have to create in animation. In traditional animation it is obvious what you’re producing is a frame. But in live-action you have to be conscious of that. The audience only sees what the camera sees.”
Previs is an animation process that has been adopted by live-action. “A lot of previs in live-action has become an enriched storyboard where you’re finding angles and figuring out what is the most exciting way to shoot this action,” remarks Sayre. “Almost every giant-budget genre picture now will have scenes that are entirely animated. In that sense you have these so called live-action films that are actually animated movies, like Gravity.” The blending of two mediums dates back to Fleischer Studios having animated characters walk through live-action sets. “Pixilation didn’t used to mean giant pixels. It meant that you were moving something a frame at time. That might be an actor on set appearing and disappearing with a cut or doing animation with a miniature. There is such a rich history of filmmaking being a hybrid art.”
“The reason I do previs is that I can’t draw,” admits Oscar-winning Visual Effects Supervisor Robert Legato, ASC (Hugo). “On the last film that I did with Michael Bay, I ended up doing car accident simulations. I don’t simulate for what would actually happen, but for what I want it to do. Then I figure out a clever way of shooting it as opposed to animate and plan every moment. After you piece the scene together, the shortest bridge is what you force the animation into being. People who are fluent in animation would rather animate the whole thing. I find it not working for me well because I’m steeped in live-action work. Even if the animation is probably correct, I question it because it wasn’t done with science, gravity, weight and mass, all of the various things that I factor in when I set up a gag or shoot. Animation is, ‘Here’s the shot, let me animate within it and make that work.’ It literally only works for that angle whereas mine works for all angles, but I pick the one that looks the coolest.
“What we did which I liked in The Lion King, and what Andy Jones [Animation Supervisor] did, was only make the animals do what they can do within the confines of the scene,” notes Legato. “The animals can jump and leap but couldn’t do it 50 times more than what was actually possible. You couldn’t stretch and squash the animation. You had to work within if you could train an animal to do that, it would do that. If you get them to move their mouth with the same cadence of speech you could almost shoot it live. That was the sensibility behind it. Sometimes we wanted to invent our own version of the movie as opposed to being a direct homage. When we ran into some problems, we went back to the old one, and it turned out that they had the same problem and solved it.”
The most widely known animation principles are the 12 devised by Disney’s Nine Old Men during the 1930s and later published in Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life in 1981. Focusing on five in particular that apply to live-action is Ross Burgess, Head of Animation, Episodic at MPC. “Within feature animation, the timing of a character is easier to manage as it’s fully CG and you can re-time your camera to fit the performance. In live-action, often you must counter the animation to the timing of the plate that has been pre-shot. It’s easier to exaggerate the character’s emotions or movements in feature animation. You are not bound to the ‘reality’ of a real-life environment. In visual effects, we use exaggeration slightly differently in the way that we animate our characters or anthropomorphize our animals. It’s all about the subtlety of a character and knowing when you have broken the ‘reality.’
“Drawing has become as important in live-action features as it is in CG animated features,” continues Burgess. “We use custom software that allows the animator to draw over work in dailies to make sure that a character or creature remains ‘on model.’ Animation principles [arcs, squash and stretch] are as important in live-action, and sometimes it’s easier and quicker to draw over the work and show the animator than to trial and error with Maya. A good pose is as important in visual effects. At the end of the day, we are all trying to tell the story in the easiest and clearest way possible. Clarity of pose is the most important ingredient when you’re trying to tell a story in under two hours. Appeal is everything, isn’t it? How much you can identify or love a character is steeped in how appealing the character is.”
“When you’re in the animation business you are a student of motion. You’re always trying to carve away at the artificiality of what you’re doing to find the reality that feels natural. I do the same thing in film — I just use people instead of digital characters. I’m conscious of poses and silhouettes, the kinds of things that animators would think about. … Coming from animation helps with making the transition to a film set because it’s working with groups of artists and having them not hate you.”
—Tim Miller, Visual Effects Supervisor/ Owner, Blur Studio
“A lot of the principles of animation and filmmaking boil down to having an aesthetic sensibility and a clear idea on how to best tell a story using sound and vision,” believes Michael Eames, Global Director of Animation at Framestore. “Animators often use exaggerated poses or actions in a performance to help put a particular story point across. Whether the look is stylized and perhaps extreme, or realistic and more subtle, the principle is the same – just more a matter of degree as to how you apply it. Thinking about stylized animation working in the context of live action, we recently did Tom and Jerry, which is a hybrid. We wanted to find a balance between a typically stylized, almost flat-looking classic 2D cartoon in an environment that is real. One technique we used to help marry the two worlds was to apply a directional rim light that connected to the direction of light in the real plate.”
For Eames, one of the best collaborative experiences with a filmmaker occurred during the making of Where the Wild Things Are with Spike Jonze. “They started out with a group of actors voicing the parts in the space that represented the environment. A given scene would play out in the film. Spike then selected those tracks and played them on set to the costumed performers, to drive their physical performance,” explains Eames. “The bit that didn’t work was the facial performance because it needed to be visceral and delicate. Animation came in and listened to voice recordings, watched the actors in suit, and added to the facial performance by replacing the entire face in CG. That was a perfect combination of three different things that led to one final result. When people complain about CG animation stealing away their thunder, it’s not that. It’s the evolution of filmmaking. Whatever it takes, as long as we’re serving the story in the best possible way.”