VES Awards Nomination Event
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Netflix.
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Netflix.
Drugs, love and murderous artwork are all part of the world of Entergalactic, an animated feature created by American rapper Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi and producer Kenya Barris and directed by Fletcher Moules for Netflix.
The creative directive for DNEG Animation was to produce a painterly aesthetic. “When I first saw the artwork, I almost fell off my chair,” laughs Archie Donato, Visual Effects Supervisor at DNEG Animation. “I spent 17 years at DreamWorks, and while I loved working there, there was very little experimentation with the push look. I was genuinely craving not only the artistic freedom, but also the challenge of, ‘How the heck are we going to do this?’” Communication was a big factor, especially with everyone working remotely because of the pandemic. “How do we create this world that is made in CG that looks 2D and a 2.5D somewhere in the middle?” states Chrissy Metge, Digital Producer at DNEG Animation. “The anticipation was it would be hard to communicate how we’re achieving this within the time frame that we had available, and it was hard to communicate between ourselves and client, the client back with Netflix and vice versa. At the end of the day, it came down to trusting all of us, trying things out and creating a safe space.”
“The energy of Entergalactic was special. The music played a big part in it… It’s important that the acting and the emotional response from the characters hit with the music. … We made sure that the animation was working nicely, but when I saw the score, it definitely made the shot a hundred times better. There were a few sequences where we didn’t know where the beat hit. Fletch would say, ‘If you hit exactly that frame, you’ll be on the beat.’ It was really hard.”
—Chrissy Metge, Digital Producer, DNEG Animation
“The director said to me on the first meeting, ‘I want you to take the audience into the painting,’ My response was, ‘No worries. We’ll do that.’” A test was done to turn a concept painting of Chinatown into a 3D set. “I wanted to make it so when you’re looking at the painting it came alive. We used Mari for all our paint work along with Nuke for compositing. The painting was broken down into individual Photoshop layers and those were used as a reference to paint our 3D versions. We painted the missing parts that you don’t see in a 2D painting so [the virtual camera could move freely in the environment].”
—Archie Donato, Visual Effects Supervisor, DNEG Animation
Inspiration for animation style did not come from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. “The big difference is that Entergalactic is intimate while Spider-Verse is more dynamic,” notes Kapil Sharma, Animation Director at DNEG Animation. “I Lost My Body was one of the things that inspired us.” Establishing the visual guidelines were the paintings of Art Director Michal Sawtyruk. “The director said to me on the first meeting, ‘I want you to take the audience into the painting,’” recalls Donato, who at the time did not fully realize the extent of the request being made by Fletcher Moules. “My response was, ‘No worries. We’ll do that.’” A test was done to turn a concept painting of Chinatown into a 3D set. “I wanted to make it so when you’re looking at the painting it came alive,” Donato notes. “We used Mari for all our paint work along with Nuke for compositing. The painting was broken down into individual Photoshop layers, and those were used as a reference to paint our 3D versions. We painted the missing parts that you don’t see in a 2D painting so [the virtual camera could move freely in the environment].”
A new pipeline had to be completely reconfigured with shaders being rewritten. “It was a mixed bag,” Donato explains. “For some effects we used Houdini, but the difficulty of it was that they wanted to make the 3D animated effects look 2D. Some of it was truly hand-drawn animation. We would scan line art and mix and match the 3D effects with the 2D effects together. Nuke was a huge part in putting the drawings back into the film because they needed to be recolored or made smokier for transparency reasons. It was reinventing the wheel from scratch in a lot of ways.” Simulations were not straightforward. “Kapil was animating on variable steps so we were not just locked to 2s,” Donato adds. “We were doing 2s, 3s and 4s. At times we had shots that were 8s, which I have literally rarely ever seen. That made our effects life absolute misery because effects cannot simulate steps. They had to come up with the tools to simulate normally and then basically start to skip around and do variable rates with the simulations. It was a major challenge.”
Over-the-top physical gestures and facial expressions that are a trademark of animation were to be avoided. “We wanted the face to be organic,” Sharma notes. “Most of the heavy lifting was done with [the protagonist] Jabari. We spent quite a few weeks posing him. Once we knew how to deal with the character design and the art style of these faces, then it was a matter of doing different things with each character and showing them to Fletch. We wanted to make sure that the characters come close to the real actors. You’re trying to copy exactly the same but have its own look.” Most of the time restraint was shown for the BMX riding sequences. “It was something that Fletch was quite keen about,” Sharma remarks. “Right away, I was proposing, ‘Lets go crazy with the stunts, but we had to rethink because Jabari rides mostly under the influence, so it’s in a very chilled manner. Fletch has friends with BMXs. so he had a good knowledge about that as well. With the BMX, we were pushing the limits [at times], but we didn’t want to do that with the actual performance [of the characters]. We wanted to make sure that we got a genuine performance [so audiences forget that they are watching animated characters].”
“We wanted the face to be organic. Most of the heavy lifting was done with [the protagonist] Jabari. We spent quite a few weeks posing him. Once we knew how to deal with the character design and the art style of these faces, then it was a matter of doing different things with each character and showing them to Fletch [director Fletcher Moules]. We wanted to make sure that the characters come close to the real actors. You’re trying to copy [them] exactly the same but have [the character have] its own look.”
—Kapil Sharma, Animation Director, DNEG Animation
Driving the narrative is the eighth studio album by Kid Cudi, which shares the same name as the animated feature. “The energy of Entergalactic was special,” Metge observes. “The music played a big part in it, and for us it was difficult because we didn’t have the music because of security.”A beat sheet was provided instead. “It’s important that the acting and the emotional response from the characters hit with the music,” Metge states. “We had to spend more time in the edit and come back to the crew at DNEG Animation, then get back into edit and then show it to Kid Cudi, and doing that loop again.” For the animation team, it was a guessing game. “We made sure that the animation was working nicely,” Metge adds, “but when I saw the score, it definitely made the shot a hundred times better. There were a few sequences where we didn’t know where the beat hit. Fletch would say, ‘If you hit exactly that frame, you’ll be on the beat.’ It was really hard.”
Along with the grounded real-life moments, there are the cosmic and nightmare sequences. “It was like several movies within a movie when you think about it in terms of styles,” Donato observes. “The Nightmare has a completely different feel and style to the movie all together. Jabari is being chased by his own artwork that wants to kill him. It’s a tricky idea. The rest of the movie had static, locked-off cameras, so we didn’t go into Spider-Verse territory where you’re flying off of the buildings. The Nightmare was the exact opposite. We wanted crazy cameras. It’s in black and white, with the only color being the red hoodie worn by Jabari.” The drug-induced travels through the galaxy were treated as music video and not the usual representation of what has been captured by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Explains Donato, “The director said, ‘I want it to look like somebody painted it and we’re flying through the actual painting.’ I was sitting with my team and telling them, ‘This cloud will go on this layer, and [in that layer] we need the meteors flying by fast.’ Everything was broken into three dimensions.”
“The Nightmare has a completely different feel and style to the movie all together. Jabari is being chased by his own artwork that wants to kill him. It’s a tricky idea. The rest of the movie had static, locked-off cameras, so we didn’t go into Spider-Verse territory where you’re flying off of the buildings. The Nightmare was the exact opposite. We wanted crazy cameras. It’s in black and white, with the only color being the red hoodie worn by Jabari. … The director said, ‘I want it to look like somebody painted it and we’re flying through the actual painting.’ I was sitting with my team and telling them, ‘This cloud will go on this layer, and [in that layer] we need the meteors flying by fast.’”
—Archie Donato, Visual Effects Supervisor, DNEG Animation
There were negatives and positives being a pandemic production with everyone working remotely. “I’m a mum,” Metge states. “I started on the show when [son] Hunter was four and he’s seven now. From that standpoint, it was nice to be around for him, but the human nature of it was interesting because we are more in each others’ lives. Everybody knew when he had his bath time or dinner! You got to meet everyone’s dogs and cats, loved ones and in between. We were suddenly thrust into each other’s worlds in way that I don’t think we’ve ever been part of before. Because of that and all of the different time zones, the show is successful, because it brought all of us close together. We were in each other’s lives whether we wanted to be or not! We bonded as a fabulous team should bond. We all went out to make sure it was an amazing experience, even if it was virtual.”
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Apple Inc. and Skydance Animation.
One can honestly say that Luck prevailed despite the pandemic. The Skydance Animation and AppleTV+ movie deals with Sam Greenfield, who constantly has to overcome misfortunes and accidentally discovers a realm that manufactures and randomly distributes good and bad luck to the human world.
“For me, I needed to be reviewing the assets on the big screen before we were going into a lighting process, so I went back to the office myself in 2020, with some of the crew eventually joining me,” recounts Visual Effects Supervisor Javier Romero (Wonder Park), who was part of the Madrid team while other crew members were situated in Connecticut and Los Angeles. “That was the biggest thing. The second, animation is a collaborative effort and people behaved amazingly working from home; however, sometimes I think you work faster when you have everybody in the same room. It was hard.”
The hiring of John Lasseter as the Head of Animation at Skydance meant that the workflow had to be altered. “The way that John works is amazing,” Romero notes. “It’s always about getting the best note for the shot or movie. Sometimes you don’t know when that note is going to come. We had to do a lot of changes to the pipeline to accommodate this workflow. We also wanted to review the input from every department at the same time, whatever the sequence. Maya was programmed to accommodate procedural workflows favored by the other departments, such as Solaris and Katana.” Brought on to be the director was Peggy Holmes. “Peggy had an amazing team of storyboard artists working internally in Los Angeles,” Romero adds.
“The [good and bad luck] crystals go into the randomizer and are broken into dust. There is a stylization in terms of how you make that final effect for this randomizer image. Sometimes we need to be modifying the timing because this is animation. We apply weight, overlapping and silhouettes to those effects. It gets complex, but you have to keep it serving the story rather than getting yourself in the rabbit hole because it can be distracting. Creating hyper-realistic physics, in the case of light or how light travels and reflects, is important but can be expensive.
—Javier Romero, Visual Effects Supervisor
Production Designer Fred Warter envisioned the Land of Luck having two sides that mirror each other. “We started research as to how good luck fits into the world in different cultures,” Romero states. “One side is governed by bad luck, so everything breaks and the inhabitants adapt to it, but on the other side, the good luck inhabitants have never had bad luck, so they didn’t have to worry about it.” Even stylized worlds have to be grounded in something tangible. “If you have a character walking, you need to have the cloth moving properly because we have gravity in that particular world. There are some problems we don’t want to overcome. For example, there is a gravity shift when Sam and Bob go into Bad Luck that is not realistic, but the movie needs it. We discussed whether it should be physically correct or we should add some humor to it. The reverse gravity was directed by the animation, but then we started seeing different behaviors or results of the CFX that we wanted to foster. It took a while.”
Despite the good and bad luck crystals being stylized, the particles had to have weight. “The crystals go into the randomizer and are broken into dust,” Romero remarks. “There is a stylization in terms of how you make that final effect for this randomizer image. Sometimes we need to be modifying the timing because this is animation. We apply weight, overlapping and silhouettes to those effects. It gets complex, but you have to keep it serving the story rather than getting yourself in the rabbit hole because it can be distracting. Creating hyper-realistic physics, in the case of light or how light travels and reflects, is important but can be expensive. We were applying internal elements to some shots to be able to fake refractions, or even sometimes we were toning down the refractions because it was getting distracting.”
“There are some problems we don’t want to overcome. For example, there is a gravity shift when Sam and Bob go into Bad Luck that is not realistic, but the movie needs it. We discussed whether it should be physically correct or we should add some humor to it. The reverse gravity was directed by the animation, but then we started seeing different behaviors or results of the CFX that we wanted to foster. It took awhile.”
—Javier Romero, Visual Effects Supervisor
Babe the Dragon and Jeff the Unicorn were special challenges. “The biggest two questions we posed about the dragon were, number one, do we need to have complex dynamics on it or is it going to be realistic?” Romero explains. “Number two was, how are we going to make this jacket work through the movie because it is massive? I wouldn’t want that to be distracting us. In terms of deformations, we decided to rely on the animation team. We spent a lot of time to make the volume preservation work properly. Jeff is a complex character. How many wrinkles do you want on the hair? We did a hybrid approach with Jeff, in terms of animation, and had some controls to modify the silhouette of the long hair that he has, and CFX had an extra subtle layer, which was not distracting, on top of it.”
“Instead of [Bob’s feline eyes] being concave, we wanted to see convex [eyes] because eye direction reads better that way. The other question was how much reflection do we want in those eyes? Do we want them to look real or not? Finding the spot in the reflections was something we spent a lot of time working on. The last was making sure that the direction the eyes were pointing was respected.”
—Javier Romero, Visual Effects Supervisor
Sam’s long hair was difficult. “There was a lot of hair that it was affecting the silhouette of her hair,” Romero states. “We developed tools that were given to the animation team to give silhouette guidance to the CFX group, such as how much hair was covering the face.” Attention was paid to the feline eyes of Bob. “Instead of being concave,” Romero observes, “we wanted to see convex [eyes] because eye direction reads better that way. The other question was how much reflection do we want in those eyes? Do we want them to look real or not? Finding the spot in the reflections was something we spent a lot of time working on. The last was making sure that the direction the eyes were pointing was respected.”
“The challenge with that [city] sequence [where Sam lives and chases Bob] was the shot planning, How do we build the city and where you want to spend the money to build the actual city? You can go crazy and say that I’m going to build a super city and then you don’t shoot there. We spent a lot of time in previs and layout to define the action with editorial because they would be cutting that scenery to work. Sam and Bob are running around different places in the city. There are a lot of cheats there. There were continuous storyboards.”
—Javier Romero, Visual Effects Supervisor
Boston was a primary reference for the city where Sam lives and subsequently gives chase to Bob. “The challenge with that sequence was the shot planning,” Romero notes. “How do we build the city and where you want to spend the money to build the actual city? You can go crazy and say that I’m going to build a super city and then you don’t shoot there. We spent a lot of time in previs and layout to define the action with editorial because they would be cutting that scenery to work. Sam and Bob are running around different places in the city. There are a lot of cheats there. There were continuous storyboards.” Vegetation had to be set dressed. “We started by deciding how much vegetation we had to build and instanced a number of different trees. When we went to the Land of Luck, the trees that were close were more stylized, while for some of the faraway elements we used trees from the city. We always try to find a best approach for a challenge because sometimes it can be overkill.”
By CHRIS McGOWAN
Images courtesy of FuseFX and Hulu.
For its third season, The Orville got a little more serious and a lot more expansive. In 2017, the sci-fi comedy series started out as something of a Star Trek homage/parody with a lot of broad humor. During Season 2 it evolved into a bolder sci-fi adventure with its own singular personality, and that transformation has continued into the third season, The Orville: New Horizons. There is still abundant humor aboard the USS Orville, but much of it now is more understated, and the show has long action sequences with no jokes at all. Along the way, the series tackles serious topics such as ostracism, gender identity and xenophobia, in a sci-fi setting. Accompanying the evolving narrative tone is a significant boost in the production values of the show, especially in its complex visual effects.
“The entire season eclipsed all other seasons by far when it came to budgets, scope and complexity of shots. Every shot felt three times bigger than in past seasons,” says Tommy Tran, Visual Effects Supervisor for FuseFX, which was the leading VFX studio for Season 3 of The Orville. “Not only were the space battles grander, but also many new environments were introduced.”
“The entire season eclipsed all other seasons by far when it came to budgets, scope and complexity of shots. Every shot felt three times bigger than in past seasons, Not only were the space battles grander, but also many new environments were introduced.”
—Tommy Tran, Visual Effects Supervisor, FuseFX
The series ran on Fox for its first two seasons, then switched to Hulu for Season 3 (it now streams on both Hulu and Disney+). The show follows the adventures of a Planetary Union ship in the 25th century, with a cast that includes creator and co-writer Seth MacFarlane (Capt. Ed Mercer), Adrianne Palicki (Commander Kelly Grayson), Penny Jerald (Doctor Claire Finn), Peter Macon (Lt. Commander Bortus) and Scott Grimes (Lt. Gordon Malloy).
Besides FuseFX, more than a dozen VFX studios helped with 7,000+ VFX shots spread over 10 episodes. Ingenuity Studios, Crafty Apes, Barnstorm Studios, Pixomondo and Tippett Studio also contributed some key work. Tran comments, “Brooke Noska [production side VFX Producer/Co-VFX Supervisor] deserves all the credit for finding the multitude of other vendors to finish the season on time. I don’t know how she did it because, as some of us know, post-COVID, the flood of VFX work had pretty much saturated all facilities with projects around the globe. So, to get a new vendor on board, acclimate them to a three-seasons-old pipeline and give them very complex sequences was no easy task. To me, her new job title should be ‘miracle worker.’”
FuseFX went from a smaller role in Season 1 to becoming one of the major vendors in Season 2. Tran and Nosca (as Visual Effects Producer) were part of the team nominated for the 2019 Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Visual Effects for the episode “Identity Part II.” For Season 3, FuseFX alone worked on 2,100 shots that covered multiple space battles, the new Pterodon Union fighter, a USS Orville upgrade and various alien planets.
“Imagine [the Orville] flying into Jupiter’s storm eye. It was a massive undertaking by our 3D and FX departments led by Christian Gonzalez and Tyler Britton, respectively. Tons of CG hurricane-like vortexes surrounded by FX smoke sims accompanied by lightning and interactive lights made the Jovian sequence one of the most beautiful sequences of the season, in my mind.”
—Tommy Tran, Visual Effects Supervisor, FuseFX
The new environments were the biggest challenges for FuseFX. This included creating the Jovian planet, the Krill planet and the Science Outpost in Episode 9, according to Tran. For these achievements, “I have to give credit to Samantha Hernandez, our VFX Producer, and J.V. [Joseph Vincent] Pike and David Rey, two of our VFX/DFX Supervisors, for bearing so much of the workload.” Tran notes, “There were not only the artistic challenges of creating new worlds, but also something that few outside our industry understand, which is the sheer amount of data to manage and get rendered within the time constraints. Our environments were so massive that getting any given frame to render would sometimes take days, in the beginning anyway. This was something very worrisome to us towards the end of the season as the shots became more numerous and complex. Towards the end, through optimizing and pipeline adjustments, we managed to get render times down to a point where we were able to deliver on time.”
Tran adds, “We often overlook the importance of pipelines and infrastructure when talking about visual effects. It’s so often just about the creatives and visuals, but without the support of FuseFx’s technical and resourcing departments, I don’t know if Season 3 could have been accomplished [with] the degree of success that it had.”
For Episode 1, the Orville encounters a Jovian (Jupiter-like) planet, which is an intriguing example of VFX planet-building and a treat for astronomy and space buffs. The Orville dives into the turbulent upper atmosphere of a gas giant in order to escape a pursuing vessel. “This was a fun one for us,” Tran says. The concept was “imagine flying into Jupiter’s storm eye.”
“[Concept for the Krill planet depicted] a vast, dark and dreary metropolis harkening to Blade Runner 2049 city sequences. The city layout came to us as previs from Brandon Fayette, the production side VFX Supervisor. It was a blueprint for the scale magnitude of the city. Then it was up to Patrick Horne, one of our CG Supervisors, to populate it with hundreds if not thousands of buildings, city centers, roadways, aqueducts and holographic billboards, using Clarisse to manage to build it all.”
—Tommy Tran, Visual Effects Supervisor, FuseFX
“It was a massive undertaking by our 3D and FX departments led by Christian Gonzalez and Tyler Britton, respectively,” Tran explains. “Tons of CG hurricane-like vortexes surrounded by FX smoke sims accompanied by lightning and interactive lights made the Jovian sequence one of the most beautiful sequences of the season, in my mind.”
The dazzling visuals of the Krill planet began with a concept depicting “a vast, dark and dreary metropolis harkening to Blade Runner 2049 city sequences,” Tran recalls. “The city layout came to us as previs from Brandon Fayette, the production side VFX Supervisor [and part of the crew nominated for the 2019 Emmy]. It was a blueprint for the scale magnitude of the city. Then it was up to Patrick Horne, one of our CG Supervisors, to populate it with hundreds if not thousands of buildings, city centers, roadways, aqueducts and holographic billboards, using Clarisse to manage to build it all.”
Continues Tran, “Along with creating the city exterior, we made an all-CG Market Place set seamlessly integrated into the practical set built on stage. We took inspiration from the architectural language of the single-story set and built it to be an expansive multi-story city center, encompassing towering CG buildings, sky bridges, dozens of animated holographic billboards and aerial vehicles.”
The surface of Gendal 3, another new planetary environment in the series, is seen in the holographic simulator on the ship in Episode 10. Lysella, a native of Sargus 4, wants to smuggle some advanced Orville tech to her home world, and Grayson shows her the danger of giving advanced technology to a civilization that’s not culturally ready for it. They see a thriving Gendal 3 and then the same planet five years later, ruined and desolate, after the inhabitants had used Union tech to seek power over each other.”
“The Dolly [Parton] sequence was something new for the team. We were very accustomed to doing all things space-related, so when we got news of this, we had to take a step back to see what routes were available to us. One was to do the traditional full CG method, which would involve head scans, 3D match moving, modeling, rigging, look development and, trickiest of all, animation. This method would have been costly and time-consuming, and we didn’t have time on our side. So, in the end, we pitched to Seth a much faster, less expensive and somewhat unconventional method: deep learning. He agreed to a test and was over the moon when he saw the initial results. The rest is history.”
—Tommy Tran, Visual Effects Supervisor, FuseFX
The planet Draconis 427 and the Moclan Research Outpost featured a sequence that was by far the biggest and most challenging of the season, according to Tran. “Not only were all the environment build-outs gigantic, but we were running out of daylight to get the shots delivered,” he says. “We had to break up into separate teams to accomplish this within the given time frame. The sky and ground battle had to be developed in tandem, which took months of work just to get out of the development stage. By far, the base and the massive trench that ran through it took the most time and effort. Rendering such massive amounts of data made for some very long days and nights. We had to be certain that it had to be technically correct when anything hit the farm, knowing we had only so many chances to get all the shots sent to and back from the render farm. Even with all the optimizing of scripts, a massive internal farm and utilizing the Cloud, rendering it all [was] a close call.”
Episode 8 (“Midnight Blue”) had a different type of VFX to deal with, that of de-aging Dolly Parton to present a 1990s version of the country music legend. Her hologram meets with the Moclan revolutionary author Heveena (Rena Owen), a huge fan of the singer. A convincingly younger Parton gives out some sage advice and performs the song “Try.” Tran comments, “The Dolly sequence was something new for the team. We were very accustomed to doing all things space-related, so when we got news of this, we had to take a step back to see what routes were available to us. One was to do the traditional full CG method, which would involve head scans, 3D match moving, modeling, rigging, look development and, trickiest of all, animation. This method would have been costly and time-consuming, and we didn’t have time on our side. So, in the end, we pitched to Seth a much faster, less expensive and somewhat unconventional method: deep learning. He agreed to a test and was over the moon when he saw the initial results. The rest is history.”
The ships also required a lot of intense care. “Pre-pandemic, we knew that the entire fleet would get a facelift for Season 3. I think that Seth wanted a whole new look and feel to the episodes and wanted the third season to be epic and memorable. We were concerned about how to do this development task alongside shot work. Tragically enough, the pandemic shutdown of production shooting enabled us to use this time to do the upgrades,” Tran says.
Continues Tran, “Since the pandemic happened early in the season, we did not have sequences to work on when production stopped shooting. So instead of working on VFX shots, we used the ‘downtime’ to retrofit the entire ship library since we did not need production footage for this. Our CG team led by John Rouse spent the good part of five months re-working the ship assets to bring them up to Season 3 expectations. The Orville and space station were the two more complex upgrades, which took the most time to do.”
The Orville’s exterior received an entire makeover. “We cut thousands of panel lines into its surface,” Tran explains. “We added textural detail to it to hold up to close-up ‘paint scraper’ shots. Its shader network was also revised to give its lighting a more cinematic feel than in past seasons. Also, we introduced an entirely new shuttle and Pterodon Fighter in this time frame.”
Concludes Tran, “The highlight of Season 3 would have to have been the sense of accomplishment after all was said and done. I have to admit that it was not easy. The team and I spent the better part of three years on the project together, safe to say, the biggest of any of our careers. Not a week went by without a new challenge to overcome, whether it was creative, technical or time related. Although everyone on the team was wholeheartedly committed to the project, there comes a point in time when the soul is strong, but the flesh becomes weak. But at no time did we as a team surrender to the challenges. We kept pushing each other along and motivated each other when we sensed someone needed a breather. Together, we managed to deliver something to be proud of, something visually stunning and something seemingly unachievable by some. Only those involved will know how much effort, sacrifice and camaraderie was involved, which turned a group of colleagues into a family. I still have our daily meetings and reviews on my calendar as a reminder of my team, my family and the unforgettable journey we shared. I miss those days.”
By TREVOR HOGG
Getting up close and personal with zombies is never recommended unless you want to visit the Museum of the Moving Image’s exhibition Living With The Walking Dead, which can be viewed in Astoria, Queens, New York until January 22, 2023. In the section of the exhibition called ‘Making Up the Dead,’ the contributions of KNB EFX and Greg Nicotero, who serves as the Special Effects Makeup Supervisor, Executive Producer and Director for the series, are on display, in particular, busts for T-Dog (IronE Singleton) and Noah (Tyler James Williams), Negan Smith’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) baseball bat ‘Lucille,’ a life mask of Steven Yeun and an animatronic head for character Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson).
“I came up with a bunch of ways to create silkscreen zombie masks that were designs that we did, printed them on silk, cut them out and made pullover masks. Then we would put wigs on them and put them way in the background. All of a sudden, we were able to populate a scene with a hundred zombies by using 60 or 70 of these background silk masks, and then the hero makeup would be up front. Even things as simple as that did a tremendous amount to allow us to fine-tune the process…”
—Greg Nicotero, Special Effects Makeup Supervisor/Executive Producer/Director
“I have been doing this for a long time,” Nicotero states. “Even in my house, I have two rooms filled with memorabilia and props that I have saved or collected from movies. I have one of the ears from Reservoir Dogs and the crate from Creepshow. I have a lot of cool stuff that I have held onto because they have sentimental value to me.”
Considering The Walking Dead deals with a virus that causes a pandemic, having to live through the global mayhem caused by COVID-19 was a surreal experience for Nicotero. “We spent years talking about how people would react and what would they do,” he recalls. “And when we found ourselves in the middle of toilet paper shortages, we all went, ‘Huh, never thought about that.’” The process had to be modified because of on-set protocols. Explains Nicotero, “The pandemic did alter certain ways of how we look at prosthetic makeup because there was a big concern about having people too close to each other for long periods of time. Also, putting contact lenses into performers was something they were not interested in doing. We worked quickly on our feet. I came up with a bunch of ways to create silkscreen zombie masks that were designs that we did, printed them on silk, cut them out and made pullover masks. Then we would put wigs on them and put them way in the background. All of a sudden, we were able to populate a scene with a hundred zombies by using 60 or 70 of these background silk masks, and then the hero makeup would be up front. Even things as simple as that did a tremendous amount to allow us to fine-tune the process, and get the makeup time down to a hour and 15 minutes versus two and a half hours.”
“[W]hen we first premiered, I feel like it had a big hand in reintroducing prosthetic makeup to this generation of viewers. When I got into the industry in the late 1970s early 1980s, that’s what it was all about. It was Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, and you had The Thing, American Werewolf in London, Dawn of the Dead and The Howling, which were low budget and didn’t have big casts. The special effects were the star.”
—Greg Nicotero, Special Effects Makeup Supervisor/Executive Producer/Director
When pitching the original series, Executive Producers Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd took four zombie busts made by Nicotero’s company KNB EFX to their meetings. “Frank and Gale did that because the big question mark over everybody’s heads was, ‘How are we going to do this?’” Nicotero recalls. “In Season 1, we put everything into doing as much practically as possible, including the blood rigs. We made little rigs that would clip onto the backs of the actors, that went to a tube with a bellow, and you would stomp on the bellows and the blood would spray out. There were a lot of practical head hits in the first season.” The process was changed for subsequent seasons. “We had to adapt a lot of what we do to be able to move fast. Plus, if you do a gag where there is a lot of blood everywhere, the amount of time it takes to clean up and do take two is not necessarily beneficial on a television schedule. A lot of the head hits and bullet entry and exit wounds ended up being done digitally because it was more production friendly and allowed more flexibility in the shoot because we didn’t have to cut and hide anything.”
Old practical techniques were revived. “One of the things that I’m grateful for with The Walking Dead is when we first premiered, I feel like it had a big hand in reintroducing prosthetic makeup to this generation of viewers,” Nicotero notes. “When I got into the industry in the late 1970s early 1980s, that’s what it was all about. It was Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, and you had The Thing, American Werewolf in London, Dawn of the Dead and The Howling, which were low budget and didn’t have big casts. The special effects were the star. I do believe that The Walking Dead, with the advent of digital effects and CGI, stopped everybody and said, ‘Wait minute. This art form is not only long forgotten but is still tremendously relevant and can play a big part in the production of a TV show.’ The Walking Dead celebrated that art form in way that people haven’t done in a long time because most people do it digitally or will fix it later. I thought the exhibit was a great opportunity not only to showcase the props but the steps that are taken to get from A to Z.”
“The Walking Dead celebrated that art form in way that people haven’t done in a long time because most people do it digitally or will fix it later. I thought the exhibit was a great opportunity not only to showcase the props but the steps that are taken to get from A to Z.”
—Greg Nicotero, Special Effects Makeup Supervisor/Executive Producer/Director
Combining digital and practical elements led to the best results, with one case being the Hershel animatronic head. “That’s how you fool the audience; you use the best tools in your arsenal,” Nicotero remarks. “We did a life cast of Scott Wilson and made an animatronic head that had four-way jaw movement so that the head can move around a little bit. We ended up digitally augmenting the eyes. We shot somebody wearing zombie contact lenses, and then composited real eyes over the puppet head because that’s probably the most challenging aspect of doing any type of animatronic, getting the eyes to have life in them. Ironically, when we shot that scene, a fly landed on the animatronic head during the take, and we had it so that the eyes looked at the fly when it landed. It was a simple execution, but was something that forever remains etched in The Walking Dead chronicles.”
The execution of Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) had to convey the proper gravitas for the character. “We used the horrific elements of the comic book as a guide, which to me was the senseless murder of Glenn,” Nicotero reflects. “It happened so quickly and abruptly in the comic book that we didn’t have time to process what exactly had happened. That to me was the shocking element. When we got to the TV show, we had shot 83 episodes, so the difficulty was that people loved that character. There were a lot of us who didn’t want to see Glenn go because the character provided a grounded heart to the show, which I still believe to this day. I would have done it differently, but that was the script. Those were all practical elements. We had various stages of makeup on Steven, then we had a puppet head, and dummy bodies for impact. It was all to service the introduction of this absolutely despicable character. There weren’t a lot of visual effects involved in that.”
“We did a life cast of Scott Wilson and made an animatronic head that had four-way jaw movement so that the head can move around a little bit. We ended up digitally augmenting the eyes. We shot somebody wearing zombie contact lenses, and then composited real eyes over the puppet head because that’s probably the most challenging aspect of doing any type of animatronic, getting the eyes to have life in them. Ironically, when we shot that scene, a fly landed on the animatronic head during the take, and we had it so that the eyes looked at the fly when it landed. It was a simple execution, but was something that forever remains etched in The Walking Dead chronicles.”
—Greg Nicotero, Special Effects Makeup Supervisor/Executive Producer/Director
Nicotero has also collaborated with the founder of the zombie genre, George Romero. “Up until The Night of the Living Dead, zombies were considered voodoo lore. It was never a creature that was a reanimated corpse that feasted on the flesh of the living. I 100% believe that the reintroduction of the zombie genre into society is solely based on two items. As soon as you add a plastic gun and create a first-person-shooter video game where you’re responsible for shooting zombies and saving yourself, that opened the zombie genre to an entirely new generation of people playing House of the Dead and Resident Evil. Then we had 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Resident Evil [the movie] and the Dawn of the Dead remake. The advantage that you have in a television series, where there had never been one before this, was that you have the ability to say, ‘This person just died, so they’re freshly dead, but now there’s a corpse over here that has been lying in the sun for six weeks, so it looks like a pumpkin two months after Halloween.’ A zombie trapped inside of a building isn’t exposed to the sun, so it would be better preserved than ones that have been outside. We would take into consideration weapons and how the zombie died. Eighty percent of the time it was up to us in the makeup trailer to concoct these backstories, and then we would tell the story in the prosthetic makeup.”
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Whether it’s trying to reach the world’s highest mountain peak in Everest or a doctor breaking the Hippocratic Oath in an effort to protect his drug addict daughter in The Oath, Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur has the ability to shift between blockbuster productions and smaller passion projects. Beast has him channeling the former as Idris Elba portrays a recent widower on an African trip with his two daughters and becomes the target of a man-eating rogue lion. Obviously, for safety reasons the animal had to be a CG creation, with Visual Effects Supervisor Enrik Pavdeja hiring Framestore as the main vendor as well as BlackGinger. “Baltasar had a good understanding of what he wanted for Beast, and with that in mind he allowed us to contribute and lead the film from a visual effects point of view,” Pavdeja notes. “In total, we have 240 shots; however, on this show we had eight or nine anywhere between 5,000 to 10,000-frame shots [with BlackGinger being responsible for 50].”
Master shots were broken down into what were called ‘child shots.’ “Even just 10 shots of a 10,000-frame shot is still quite a crazy number,” Pavdeja notes. “The main driving force behind the big shots was previs by The Third Floor. That’s where we started figuring out how these shots were going to come together and began to understand the detail of what the lion action was going to be, because a lot of this work relied on interaction, not so much following the lion through the frame.” Obvious stitches were to be avoided. “We try to find clever situations such as doing a paw print or a bit of car coming to a yield,” Pavdeja explains. “All of the time we’re trying to keep some sort of live element in the plate that we could then bridge the two shots.” The main cinematic reference was The Revenant, which features Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a grizzly bear. “That bear scene was the piece we used closely as inspiration for the fight at the end because it’s a brilliant piece of visual effects with a lot of interaction. It’s visceral,” Pavdeja declares. “We’re close to camera. And it’s a long take. There are maybe three cuts, which is basically what we tried to achieve.”
“That bear scene [in The Revenant] was the piece we used closely as inspiration for the fight at the end because it’s a brilliant piece of visual effects with a lot of interaction. It’s visceral. We’re close to camera. And it’s a long take. There are maybe three cuts, which is basically what we tried to achieve.”
—Enrik Pavdeja, Visual Effects Supervisor
“The claws are some of the most complicated engineering types of devices ever. It’s a fine line between having fluffy-looking claws that look cute in a paw, then, all of a sudden, the claws come out and it looks like a vicious fighting machine. A lot of development went into that.”
—Enrik Pavdeja, Visual Effects Supervisor
A year was spent developing the lion assets. “With a show like this, a lot of challenge came from creating some digital creatures that were completely photoreal and also photo natural in the way that they performed,” Pavdeja notes. “We had such long shots, we had to change our approach in how we would review the work and how we handled all of that data logistically.” Tools were created that allowed reviews of the ‘child shots,’ which were then automatically inserted into the master shot. “Lions are mostly made of muscles. For every moment and movement they make we had to create different shapes for the muscle and how you read and perceive it, and how the skin goes over it. The animators would go in and animate the different muscle shapes that would then be simulated on top of that. There were always three different iterations of simulations to get a photorealistic muscle. The claws are some of the most complicated engineering types of devices ever. It’s a fine line between having fluffy-looking claws that look cute in a paw, then, all of a sudden, the claws come out and it looks like a vicious fighting machine. A lot of development went into that.”
“Martin Battles [Sharlto Copley] hugs some lions he has brought up since they were cubs on his big reserve. This was driven by the puppeteering guys as they built specific costumes for them to have that interaction with Martin. We did a digital-double takeover of Martin because the performance of our CG lion didn’t necessarily line up perfectly with his movements. Martin Battles [Sharlto Copley] hugs some lions he has brought up since they were cubs on his big reserve. This was driven by the puppeteering guys as they built specific costumes for them to have that interaction with Martin. We did a digital-double takeover of Martin because the performance of our CG lion didn’t necessarily line up perfectly with his movements.”
—Enrik Pavdeja, Visual Effects Supervisor
There are two moments of heavy lion interaction. “Martin Battles [Sharlto Copley] hugs some lions he has brought up since they were cubs on his big reserve,” Pavdeja explains. “This was driven by the puppeteering guys as they built specific costumes for them to have that interaction with Martin. We did a digital-double takeover of Martin because the performance of our CG lion didn’t necessarily line up perfectly with his movements.” For the end fight, a stunt performer wore a big lion head and a grey suit to get the proper interaction with Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba). “We kept Idris’ head when it made sense. For the most part, it was a full digital body and digital lion,” Pavdeja adds. The biggest simulation work was the sand interaction. “Simulations would take anything between 24 hours to three or four days depending on which layer we were simulating,” he says. “For example, the first thing we would have to simulate is the lion against Idris. They would be fighting together, the muscles, skin, fur and cloth, and that is one side of the simulation. When we were happy on that front, we had to simulate it against the environment with all of the sand. Then there would be another iteration on top of that where you would end up having to fix certain elements to combine the two correctly together.”
“For the end fight, a stunt performer wore a big lion head and a grey suit to get the proper interaction with Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba). We kept Idris’ head when it made sense. For the most part, it was a full digital body and digital lion.”
—Enrik Pavdeja, Visual Effects Supervisor
Two different takes were shot of Idris Elba fighting the lion. “The idea was when we filmed that scene it was one long take, so we filmed it two ways,” Pavdeja remarks. “One way, we had a clean Idris, no wounds and blood. Then we did the same take again with full makeup so everything to do with wounds and blood and all the dressing would be on him. Then throughout the fight, we would then reveal those wounds. Idris being fully digital allowed us, once we had scanned him with all of the wounds on, to reveal those wounds and progress them throughout the shot. In the end the shot was divided into two shots so we had a cutaway, which allowed us more flexibility, but wasn’t the sort of thing you would pay so much attention to in terms of progression. That end fight is so visceral, in the moment and manic, that all you’re looking at is this crazy action-packed moment between a lion and a man.”
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Digital Domain and Marvel Studios.
If your dreams came true, would they meet your expectations or become an unwanted burden? This is a prevailing question that drives the MCU Disney+ series Ms. Marvel, which revolves around a teenage Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) wishing to be a member of the Avengers and is unexpectedly given supernatural powers and abilities. With Nordin Rahhali acting as Overall Marvel VFX Supervisor on Ms. Marvel, and Sandra Balej and Sandro Blattner as Marvel VFX Supervisors, Fuse FX VFX Supervisor Kevin Yuille helped guide the visual effects for the six episodes, working with Digital Domain to create the powers of the title character, digital doubles, Ms. Marvel being transported back in time, an iconic lamppost shot, training montage and elephant toothpaste. Digital Domain VFX Supervisor Aladino Debert is proud of a particular aspect of Ms. Marvel. “The fact that Ms. Marvel is the first Muslim American teenager superhero in the MCU is culturally great. It showcases Muslim families in way that no other show has done.”
The powers and abilities illustrated in the Ms. Marvel comic books had to be reinterpreted. “Ms. Marvel is a polymorph, meaning she can stretch her body, grow and shrink,” Debert explains. “It is a bit of Fantastic Four and Ant-Man. The creatives wanted to stay away from that, and for powers to be more magic and energy-based than physical.” Two important aspects were grounding non-realistic effects in the familiar and creating something that looks cool. “That balance is always an interesting one,” Debert notes. “We wanted to showcase the powers as being separate, yet manipulated by her. It feels physical and solid in certain parts of her body, but not others. It also depends on what she is trying to do in a specific shot. It is like a moving target because you want to maintain a cohesive look to her powers.”
“The good thing about having photorealistic digital doubles is that it gives the creatives freedom to experiment with things that they couldn’t otherwise. We ended up using the digital doubles in sequences that were never part of the original plan because they looked great, like when Kamala is running through the city.”
—Aladino Debert, VFX Supervisor, Digital Domain
One of the powers of Ms. Marvel is the cosmic, photonic and mystical Noor energy. “We wanted to come up with something that felt part of the MCU universe; however, at the same time different because it’s a new character,” Debert states. “What we talked about was hard light. The idea is that her powers are essentially light made solid, so the hard light is what gives her the ability to embiggen herself and walk on it. It also enables her to create shields to protect herself. On the other side of the coin, it is what gives Kamran’s [Rish Shah] powers a sense of danger; he creates this similarly nature effect that is out of control, jagged and destructive. It’s like a cosmic cactus coming at you! We wanted to come up with something that had a similar source between Kamran and Kamala, but with a different feel as far as the color palette. Kamala’s powers are mostly cyan, amber and magenta, which goes with the colors of her suit. Kamran’s ended up being cyan and gold, which is on the opposite of the color wheel.”
“Ms. Marvel is a polymorph, meaning she can stretch her body, grow and shrink. The creatives wanted to stay away from that, and for powers to be more magic and energy-based than physical. That balance is always an interesting one. We wanted to showcase the powers as being separate, yet manipulated by her. It feels physical and solid in certain parts of her body, but not others. It also depends on what she is trying to do in a specific shot. It is like a moving target because you want to maintain a cohesive look to her powers.”
—Aladino Debert, VFX Supervisor, Digital Domain
Digital doubles were created without knowing how they were going to be utilized. “We just knew that the digital doubles were going to be used at some point,” Debert explains. “We took scans and created turntables to make sure that the characters looked photorealistic. Then we did some animation and CFX to test the behavior of the character with different clothes on. In the case of Kamala, we did two different digital doubles because she changes her attire. She has a version with clothes and an early type of suit, and then later a super suit. The good thing about having photorealistic digital doubles is that it gives the creatives freedom to experiment with things that they couldn’t otherwise. We ended up using the digital doubles in sequences that were never part of the original plan because they looked great, like when Kamala is running through the city.”
“What we talked about was hard light. The idea is that her powers are essentially light made solid, so the hard light is what gives her the ability to embiggen herself and walk on it. It also enables her to create shields to protect herself. On the other side of the coin, it is what gives Kamran’s [Rish Shah] powers a sense of danger; he creates this similarly nature effect that is out of control, jagged and destructive. It’s like a cosmic cactus coming at you!”
—Aladino Debert, VFX Supervisor, Digital Domain
Kamala travels back in time to the eve of the Partition of India. “The time travel was more of a storytelling technique than an effect itself,” Debert notes. “What we were tasked to do was creating the Partition shots. There is massive train station with tens of thousands of people clambering and jumping the trains. Some plates were shot in Thailand with a couple hundred extras. You’re outside with a crane, so it was nothing like motion control. They were single plates, usually with Kamala in the foreground and few hundred extras around, on top of the trains and close up to the camera. Then you pull back and see everything. You see the greenscreens, cranes and camera trucks. Especially in the wide shots, we ended up replacing most of it.” Atmospherics assisted in conveying the proper size and scale. “One thing that people don’t realize is smoke, fire and water don’t scale easily,” Debert adds. “The biggest challenge was that the plates had on-set effects such as steam and smoke, which come in handy for close-ups, but become tricky when you pull back because it has to be rotoscoped out and be replaced with our own steam.”
“If you want to go down the rabbit hole, just type ‘elephant toothpaste’ on Google or YouTube and you’ll have a feast! When the chemical components join, they explode in volume creating an extra dimension of foam. Simulations in general are challenging, but when you’re dealing with something that is not quite a fluid, liquid or solid, such as foam, it becomes extra tricky. We spent many a month working on that until we were able to nail not only the behavior, but also the specific look. As it expands, pieces fall off. It was really challenging for our effects team!”
—Aladino Debert, VFX Supervisor, Digital Domain
Kamala situates herself on top of a lamppost. “It was one the shots we started the earliest on the project because we knew that a version was needed for the trailer, which turned out to be lightly different than the final one in the show,” Debert reveals. “Originally, she was shot against greenscreen on a live-action lamppost with wind and wires. We knew that Manhattan, Hudson River and the buildings around her had to be created, but we were not sure to what degree. In end, 95% of the shot was digital, including her body. The wires that she had for safety were wrinkling her suit in way that wasn’t pretty, and even though we could paint them out, it was tricky to get rid of every single wrinkle. Since we had a digital double that was hyper-accurate, we suggested using her head only because it was easier for us to give them a clean suit. We decided against CG hair because of how close we got to it and the fact that we could make it work. It involved a fair amount of rotoscope to replace from her neck down and keep her hair in.” The trickiest part was animating an iconic, blowing red scarf which had to interact with real hair. Comments Debert, “We simulated some CG hair so that the scarf would have a natural interaction, but getting rid of the CG hair and compositing the scarf under the real hair.”
Training montages are a staple of the superhero genre. “What made it easier for us is that Kamala has a unique personality; she is cute, perky and bubbly,” Debert observes. “We did a full CG version of her jumping and doing parkour on this roof in New Jersey. We didn’t have her doing the performance, so we had to mimic what she would have done. This was designed way after the shoot. We looked at a lot of the footage that we already had of her and got the animators and stunt double to try to come up with what Kamala would do. How would she jump over this? How would she react? At the end we had a bunch of different versions, and Kamala celebrates in a unique way, fist pumping and jumping. It was fun presenting all of those options to the creatives to see what they felt represented Kamala best.”
What proved to be more difficult was the foam for the elephant toothpaste sequence, which took a year to get right. “If you want to go down the rabbit hole, just type ‘elephant toothpaste’ on Google or YouTube and you’ll have a feast!” Debert laughs. “When the chemical components join, they explode in volume, creating an extra dimension of foam. Simulations in general are challenging, but when you’re dealing with something that is not quite a fluid, liquid or solid, such as foam, it becomes extra tricky. We spent many a month working on that until we were able to nail not only the behavior, but also the specific look. As it expands, pieces fall off. It was really challenging for our effects team!”
By NAOMI GOLDMAN
“When I assumed this role, we were about 750 people, mostly situated in California; now we have more than 4,400 members in 45 countries and 14 Sections worldwide. I will proudly count our global expansion and influence as the most important part of the legacy I leave behind.”
After nearly 19 years of service as the Society’s Executive Director, Eric Roth retired from his leadership role last month. At the time of this issue’s publication, the VES Board’s Executive Search Committee was in the process of identifying the next Executive Director to helm the global honorary society.
VES Board Chair Lisa Cooke offered these accolades on Roth’s immense contributions to the Society: “We have been exceptionally proud and fortunate to have a leader of Eric’s caliber – imbued with deep passion, integrity and vision – and the unparalleled skills needed to drive this dynamic organization forward. As my colleague and friend, Eric is the kind of collaborator, mentor and cheerleader you always hope to work with. Eric has done transformational work in growing the Society into this rich global community, and he leaves an enormous legacy for us to carry forward.”
Roth had a front-row seat to the dynamic global VFX industry and a major role in the Society’s growth over the span of almost two decades as he shepherded the organization to reach its milestone 25th anniversary.
Roth’s tenure has been filled with many points of pride and accomplishment – our award-winning VFX Voice magazine, three editions of the VES Handbook of Visual Effects, extraordinary VES Awards shows, our VES Honors Program and Hall of Fame, and the many volunteer Committees who do essential work for our organization.
“For almost 19 years, I have been privileged to serve as the Executive Director of the VES. It has been a pleasure to work with extraordinary staff, passionate volunteer leaders that serve our Board and Sections, and our thriving global membership,” Roth said.
Under Roth’s leadership VES’s all-volunteer Committees have stepped up to create an industry-leading mental health benefit program, numerous mentoring projects, diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, a video archive and a soon-to-be-realized VFX digital museum, and exclusive opportunities that foster education and professional development.
A key accomplishment of Roth’s tenure has been the tremendous growth and globalization of the Society. “When I assumed this role, we were about 750 people, mostly situated in California; now we have more than 4,400 members in 45 countries and 14 Sections worldwide. I will proudly count our global expansion and influence as the most important part of the legacy I leave behind,” said Roth.
But more than that, VES has created a powerful “voice” for our industry over the years by working together with a common purpose. VES has used its voice to convene industry leaders on vital topics, issue important whitepapers on the status of the industry, and annually bring the entire industry together to network and celebrate extraordinary artistic achievements at the yearly Awards Show.
With best wishes for a bright future, Roth concludes, “It has been my highest honor to serve as your Executive Director for nearly two decades. Thank you for entrusting me with this responsibility. I am more grateful than you will ever know. Thank you for allowing me to have the most fabulous ride of a lifetime on Team VES and for your unending support and friendship.
“Here’s to the next 19 years and looking forward to hearing all about the great things yet to come for VES!”
By CHRIS McGOWAN
In 1963, Tetsuwan Atom – an anime TV series about a robot boy with superpowers and a soul – launched on Fuji TV in Japan. Later that year, it was dubbed into English as Astro Boy and became the first anime TV series marketed in the U.S., where it enjoyed success with 104 episodes airing on NBC through 1965. Fast forward six decades and anime (Japanese animation) is now one of the world’s most popular forms of entertainment, one that has influenced many filmmakers in the West. There are an estimated 622 animation studios in Japan, according to Grand View Research, and thousands of anime movies and series have been released over the years.
“The rise of VOD and streaming, the expansion of the ecosystem around anime and the prevalence of anime in mainstream pop culture are all factors that have contributed to the growth of the global anime market,” comments Asa Suehira, Chief Content Officer for the anime streamer Crunchyroll.
Anime’s most popular franchises earn hundreds of millions of dollars from home entertainment and theatrical releases plus billions in merchandise (the most lucrative area in Japan, especially for a title like Pokémon). By 2030, the world market size for anime is expected to grow at a CAGR of 9.7% to reach USD $56.4 billion, according to a Grand View Research report.
Anime’s two all-time best-selling movie titles – Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train and Spirited Away – have earned over $503 million and $396 million at the global box office, respectively. Following them are Your Name ($380 million), Howl’s Moving Castle ($236 million) and Ponyo ($204 million). Some 17 anime feature films have garnered more than $100 million in theatrical revenue. Meanwhile, a hit series can last for years or decades and create a long-lasting revenue stream with hundreds or even thousands of episodes.
Leading Japanese anime studios include Toei Animation, Gainax, Ufotable, Madhouse, Sunrise, MAPPA, J.C.Staff Co. Ltd., Studio Pierrot, A-1 Pictures, Bones Inc., David Production Inc., WIT Studio, CloverWorks, CoMix Wave Films, Kyoto Animation, Studio Ghibli and Production I.G., among others.
Netflix and the other major streamers are rushing to bolster their anime catalogs. In the U.S., Crunchyroll (owned by Sony) has the biggest anime catalog of the companies competing in the market. HBO Max has licensed titles from Studio Ghibli that include renowned works by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Ponyo. Disney+ and Amazon Prime are expanding their anime offerings. Netflix has left its usual large footprint. The streamer has quickly amassed a significant catalog of existing content and is creating original programming at a rapid pace – Netflix was set to launch some 40 original anime movies in 2022. In the April 3, 2022 Hollywood Reporter article “Netflix’s Head of Anime Says Half of Global Subscribers Watch Japanese Animation, Bullish on Growth,” Netflix’s Director, Anime Creative Kohei Obara revealed that more than half of Netflix’s 222 million subscribers viewed “some anime” on the platform in 2021. In Japan, the percentage tops 90%, according to Obara.
PRODUCTION I.G. AND ANIME AWARENESS
Maki Terashima-Furuta is the President of Production I.G. USA, the U.S. division of a major animation studio based in Tokyo, and she has viewed the dramatic growth of anime over the last two decades. Production I.G. has produced numerous films, series and OVAs (Original Video Animations), including Guilty Crown, Psycho-Pass, Eden of the East and the Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 series. It has produced titles for Netflix Original, such as Cyborg 009 and B: The Beginning. It is also known for creating a sevenminute anime sequence for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) that gave a boost to anime in the international market, according to Terashima-Furuta.
Production I.G. also co-developed and co-produced two anime series of Immortal Grand Prix (IGPX) with Cartoon Network (2003 and 2005). “It was the first true anime co-production ever, where everything from deal-making, financing, development, production and marketing was a collaborative effort between Japan and the US. We were definitely the pioneer with that new business model,” says Terashima-Furuta.
She started the U.S. entity of Production I.G. in 1997, “when anime wasn’t as faddish as it is now. Because anime wasn’t in much demand back then, I really struggled to lock any deals, let alone pull off a meeting with major studios and distributors in the industry. That’s when I told myself that the awareness needed to spread from the non-industry crowds, and I started actively attending various anime conventions around the country in order to teach and educate the fans, who enjoyed and knew our titles but weren’t aware of or [didn’t] recognize who we were and what we did.”
For Terashima-Furuta, the global anime market is now “unquestionably better” when “compared to how I always had to be the one knocking on the doors of new clients. It is now the polar opposite. Anime is in so much demand.”
THE CRUNCHYROLL ECOSYSTEM
A recent sign of corporate interest in anime came when Sony Pictures Entertainment, through its Funimation subsidiary, completed a $1.18 billion purchase of AT&T/WarnerMedia’s Crunchyroll in 2021 (Funimation content is being moved over to the Crunchyroll label). Crunchyroll is an anime streamer withan estimated five million subscribers and 120 million registered users, according to SPE. According to the firm, Crunchyroll has the world’s largest collection of anime with more than 1,000 anime movies and series, 40,000 episodes and 16,000 hours of content, along with some 200 East Asian live-action dramas. Some of Crunchyroll’s most popular titles include Attack on Titan, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, My Hero Academia, Spy x Family, and The Rising Of The Shield Hero. Suehira notes that the company is more than just a streaming service. “We offer fans a variety of ways to connect to their favorite series across theatrical, gaming, consumer products, news and more. An entire ecosystem has been created around anime to give fans new ways to engage with their favorite series. Crunchyroll has helped globalize this ecosystem. Not only can fans stream their favorite series, but they can purchase the collector’s edition home video, and they can go to the movie theater and catch an anime film with their friends – like the recent Jujutsu Kaisen 0: The Movie, which we have brought to fans in the U.S. and worldwide – or they can download a mobile game title from Crunchyroll Games, like My Hero Academia: The Strongest Hero. This is in addition to consumer products, fashion, manga and more.”
Suehira comments, “Now, anime can be found across every major streaming platform internationally, but no other service offers a catalog as deep as Crunchyroll’s or curates a community experience quite like we do.” As an example, he notes, “We recently collaborated with Lady Gaga on an exclusive streetwear collection inspired by [her album] Chromatica for Crunchyroll Loves, our in-house clothing brand.”
Michael B. Jordan, who released a line of Naruto-inspired menswear, and Megan Thee Stallion, who has cosplayed as Mirko in My Hero Academia, are other well-known anime aficionados.
“Many coincidental events can be the reasons behind why anime has shown [great] growth internationally, such as how people other than the otaku population also started discovering charm and attractiveness in this hidden box of gems, whether naturally or by word of mouth, but I also believe that the people who grew up watching and loving anime as children became adults and started introducing and implementing anime in business. You’d be surprised to learn how many executives and producers are fond of anime.”
—Maki Terashima-Furuta, President of Production I.G. USA
ANIME FANS AND FAVORITES
“Many coincidental events can be the reasons behind why anime has shown [great] growth internationally, such as how people other than the otaku population also started discovering charm and attractiveness in this hidden box of gems, whether naturally or by word of mouth,” says Terashima-Furuta, “but I also believe that the people who grew up watching and loving anime as children became adults and started introducing and implementing anime in business. You’d be surprised to learn how many executives and producers are fond of anime.”
Gilles Poitras, author of the book Anime Essentials: Every Thing a Fan Needs to Know, comments, “The number of anime/manga conventions [have] exploded since the early 1990s, providing a place where fans can gather and share their interests.” This added to their ability to purchase personal copies – first videotape and laserdisc and then DVD and Blu-ray. Poitras adds, “This meant an expansion of the market as the availability of titles increased. Greater variety and access also allow those who are not fans to have access to anime in ways they did not in the past.”
Another factor in anime’s growth is the steady release of movies and series that inspire fan loyalty: Mobile Suit Gundam, Ranma ½, Patlabor, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Dragon Ball Z, Cowboy Bebop (an animated series and 2021 Netflix live-action series), Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Blue Submarine No. 6, Oh My Goddess!, Robotech, Fullmetal Alchemist, Sailor Moon, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Hunter X Hunter, Naruto, and all the movies of Hayao Miyazaki, to name a few other fan favorites.
NETFLIX AND STREAMERS
“Streaming has greatly expanded access,” Poitras explains. “Companies like Crunchyroll are now a major international powerhouses. Funimation and Hulu were the [first] major places for fans to view anime. Netflix and Amazon have helped expand the audience beyond those interested in anime and foreign cinema. Then there is RetroCrush, which specializes in older shows. This is important as the other services rarely show older programs.” Digital distribution is added to this – downloading for rental or purchase, which increases on-demand access. Adds Poitras, “This has a positive impact on physical media, as fans can easily watch many shows and then decide which they want to own. Many shows would likely not get a physical release without the publicity streaming creates.”
Netflix has become a formidable force in anime in a short time, launching its streaming service in Japan in 2015 and debuting its first original anime title, Blame!, in 2017, produced by Polygon Pictures. Netflix has licensed series like Neon Genesis Evangelion, the original Cowboy Bebop, Naruto and The Seven Deadly Sins, and released newer titles like Record of Ragnarok, Violet Evergarden, Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 (produced by Production I.G.) and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean. It has ramped up anime production and inked deals with renowned companies such as Studio Colorido (Drifting Home).
The upsurge in anime production may cause disruption in the industry. “We all feel grateful that more anime titles are being made than ever in the past,” says Terashima-Furuta. But she also notes that, because of the rise in demand from the networks and platforms, the supply and demand chain has completely changed. She adds, “It takes years, a number of creators, and lots of money to produce an anime, and not many people realize how much work is required and put into the making process.”
WHAT MAKES ANIME ANIME
Anime titles have distinctive visual styles and conventions, but what else makes anime different from western animation? “Anime is not a genre,” Suehira explains. “It’s a rich storytelling medium offering something for every kind of fan: action, science fiction, horror, sports, romance, slice of life, and more.” By contrast, “In the West, animation is typically seen as comedy or children’s content. However, with the growth of streaming and the rise of video games, we’re seeing more fans comfortable with and interest in adult dramatic animation.” Poitras adds, “There are many stories with very serious storylines or with certain content that just would not be in animation made in the U.S.,” says Poitras. “This includes: character death, slow-paced dramas, same gender relationships, tragic death, anything in cinema and fiction for grown-ups. By contrast, American animation today is still predominantly kid-friendly fare or TV sitcoms.” Poitras continues, “Then there is the importance of the feelings of the characters – the emotional context is a crucial part of the story.” He adds that series set in Japan also are a draw, as viewers are exposed to things they often did not know about. “Many young people I know have said this is part of their enjoyment of anime and manga.”
In terms of what makes anime different, Terashima-Furuta comments, “There are many differences, such as the unique storytelling without age restrictions, beyond-imaginary worldbuilding, intricate artwork, distinct character and mecha designs, etc. However, I think all of these aspects ultimately boil down to the fact that the directors often have the final say on the picture, as opposed to the producers being the decision-makers for western animation.”
Suehira concludes, “Crunchyroll has been championing anime for more than a decade. We have always recognized the power and potential of this medium. Even so, we continue to be inspired by the caliber and creativity of the anime being produced in Japan, and we are excited to bring more anime to fans worldwide.”
By IAN FAILES
Images courtesy of Blur Studio, except where noted.
When the opportunity to make a live-action/CG hybrid Sonic the Hedgehog movie came to Blur Studio, Co-founder Tim Miller quickly suggested his friend and collaborator Jeff Fowler should direct it. Fowler had been hired at Blur as a character animator in the early 2000s and had since become a director for the studio. The two had many years of experience working on commercials, cinematics and animated shorts as Blur evolved and Miller added live-action feature directing to his animation résumé with Deadpool and Terminator: Dark Fate.
The 2020 Sonic the Hedgehog film from Paramount (directed by Fowler and executive produced by Miller) was a hit and quickly followed up with this year’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Here, both directors discuss their collaboration at Blur, an early Oscar nomination experience, how Sonic came to be, and their experience working together for two decades.
HOW IT STARTED
Jeff Fowler: I went to Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, with the goal of getting into movies in any way possible as a character animator. As part of your senior year at Ringling, you create a short film that becomes your calling card to get a job. Mine was a short called Monkey Pit, which featured little animated monkeys at the zoo. There was not much to it, but as part of the course, you’re responsible for every piece of production, which was really great training.
Tim Miller: I hired Jeff right out of college to work on Blur’s biggest project to date, a direct-to-video Disney feature called Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas . Christmas isn’t my favorite holiday, but it was a great opportunity for us to grow the studio. We hired quite a lot of artists during that growth spurt, some of which are still working here at Blur. As you can imagine, several of these folks have become much more than employees; they are good friends, and Jeff is among the best of them.
Fowler: I had put my short film out into the visual effects world, hoping to get some bites because I knew I wanted to work in L.A. Back then, L.A. was the hub of all things visual effects and CGI animation. After Tim saw my reel, he invited me to come out to L.A. and see Blur. He said, “We’re a couple of blocks from the ocean in Venice. It’s the best part of L.A.” And out I came.
THE BLUR SHORTS PROGRAM: CREATIVITY FROM INSIDE THE STUDIO
Fowler: Blur had a really interesting short film program. Tim loves to promote creativity inside the studio because it’s better to have people that you know and trust moving into leadership positions. Miller: But the shorts program was very democratic. Anybody could enter a short film, and if it won the competition, we would make it.
“It’s really a simple idea: don’t pretend you know; just ask all the talented people around you for help. That’s what I did at the beginning of Deadpool, and Jeff did the same on Sonic. I got up in front of the crew and said, ‘Hey, I really don’t know much about how live-action films are made, but I know what I want. I just have no freaking clue on how to get it. All you folks know my job better than I do, so please help me not look stupid.’ And here’s the big secret I’ve learned about this industry: when you ask for people’s help – and you’re not a giant asshole – they give it to you.”
—Tim Miller, Director and Co-founder, Blur Studio
Fowler: The short film program was something designed from the ground up for the artists at Blur. The contest was juried by the supervisors, because they are the most experienced artists, and I saw it as an amazing opportunity. So, I submitted a short film idea called Gopher Broke.
Miller: And Jeff’s film won, and so we put Gopher Broke into production.
Fowler: I admit winning felt surreal. I thought ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been working here only a year and Tim is offering to fund and make an idea that just literally came from a guy at the lowest rung of the studio ladder.’
Miller: We’ve been very lucky to hire great artists over the years. We’ve tried very hard to create a culture where people feel valued and want to stay.
Fowler: We made Gopher Broke, and it was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005. I remember thinking, ‘This creative culture at Blur is amazing – our whole focus was to create great work,’ whether it be our own stuff or work we’d been hired to do. In fact, that was the single biggest thing that made Blur so special.
Miller: The shorts program started with Aunt Luisa and then Rockfish, but Jeff’s film really kicked off a wave of great films done in-house, like In the Rough, and then A Gentleman’s Duel, which was created by two of our concept artists, Sean McNally and Francisco Ruiz-Velasco.
Fowler: Tim always had a great eye for what the studio should do and what the artists would enjoy working on. He would often accept work based on how cool it was, rather than how big the budget was. He wanted the artists happy and inspired.
Making Films is Hard
Reflecting on the projects they’ve worked together on, both Tim Miller and Jeff Fowler are frank about the pitches they didn’t get, the ones that haven’t been made, or just the normal difficulties of making anything.
“There were so many projects that felt like they were going to happen, that felt so close, and then in a heartbeat they fell apart, stalled or just didn’t move forward as fast as you wished,” Fowler recounts, who engaged in a Sonic re-design after taking fan comments to heart during the making the first film (which ultimately proved very successful).
“I would always take inspiration from Tim because he had been out there going after his goals for almost twice as long as I had, so anytime I wanted to throw myself a pity party because something hadn’t happened yet or there were challenges, I would look at him and be like, ‘I don’t see him losing heart.’ Love, Death + Robots – which was inspired by Heavy Metal [a 1981 Canadian adult animated sci-fi-fantasy anthology film] – took hundreds of meetings and 15 years. And Tim is going to get The Goon made or die trying! He’s working as hard as he ever has.”
Also, Miller observes the strong work ethic inherent in Fowler’s approach to all of his projects. “When Warner Bros. was going to do The Lego Movie,” recalls Miller, “I called Chris DeFaria [at Warner Bros.] and said, ‘I’d love for Blur to help with the film in some way. Are there any tests we can do?’ Chris said, ‘Well, we haven’t figured out how the facial animation will work in this Lego world yet.’”
“So, I went to Jeff,” Miller continues, “and said, ‘I’d like you to supervise a test for Lego.’ He said, ‘What dialogue should I use?’ I said, ‘Just make up some temp shit that’s funny and is good enough to do some tests with.’ So, Jeff goes home and the next morning he comes in with a three-page script about Lego characters getting lost in a freezer. It was super clever and funny with a ton of heart.’
“So, we decided on the spot to just make it. It would be a very short film that showed the world off much better than a few tests. Producer Dan Lin later told us that our short really helped show everyone the potential of the film. And Jeff eventually did a full pitch for the film which was great, though we didn’t get it of course. But this was indicative of Jeff’s character. He didn’t have to write a script. He could have just written a few funny lines – which is what I probably would have done) – but he didn’t because he always wants to make something great.”
Miller: I’m not really a businessman or at all entrepreneurial, and the reason I started Blur was so I could decide what I worked on personally and what Blur worked on as a studio. At other companies, I often saw interesting work turned down because it wasn’t lucrative enough. The shorts program grew from that simple desire to do interesting creative work. Which in turn helped the studio as a business, because Blur became known as a company that created quality and was easy to work with. We didn’t just do what we were told, we tried to make everything great.
“[Embarking on the Sonic the Hedgehog movie] I had zero live-action directing skills at that time, but I benefited from Tim’s recent experience making Deadpool. We sat next to each other in the studio, so I basically spent our year in development picking his brain. I was very curious about his experience going from animation to live-action because Tim, like me, had always been an animator and had been working almost entirely in that industry for so long.”
—Jeff Fowler, Producer/Director, Blur Studio
Fowler: The budgets for the short films were always tight, but we still set the creative bar very high. You have to squeeze every pixel out of every penny and make sure it looks the best it possibly can. It was absolutely the finest possible training I can imagine to prepare me for making Sonic.
SPEEDING ONTO SONIC AND THE WORLD OF LIVE-ACTION
Miller: We had a pretty long-standing relationship with the Sega folks because we’d done a ton of Sonic cinematics. They came for a visit and said, “Hey, we’re going to develop a Sonic movie, would Blur want to be involved?” I immediately said an emphatic “Yes” and suggested Jeff would be an excellent candidate for director. They knew Jeff’s work and agreed. So, off we went to do a test.
We were shooting a Love, Death + Robots short in Salt Lake City, Arizona, [Miller created the Netflix series] and we figured, well, since we had all the camera equipment rented for a week and I was only shooting two days, why not shoot the plates for a Sonic short? So, we went out in the desert and shot what we needed for the test. It was a real team effort done on the cheap. I was off-camera throwing dirt and stuff in front of the lens. Jeff was shaking the cop car to simulate Sonic passing, etc. Then we did all the VFX work back at Blur, and we used that final test to sell the project. I think a few of those shots from the test actually made it into the first trailer.
Fowler: I had zero live-action directing skills at that time, but I benefited from Tim’s recent experience making Deadpool. We sat next to each other in the studio, so I basically spent our year in development picking his brain. I was very curious about his experience going from animation to live-action because Tim, like me, had always been an animator and had been working almost entirely in that industry for so long.
“The budgets for the short films [at Blur] were always tight, but we still set the creative bar very high. You have to squeeze every pixel out of every penny and make sure it looks the best it possibly can. It was absolutely the finest possible training I can imagine to prepare me for making Sonic.”
—Jeff Fowler, Producer/Director, Blur Studio
Miller: My main piece of advice to Jeff was that you can’t pretend you know everything about shooting live-action. There’s just too much specialized knowledge and it takes years to learn it. It’s really a simple idea: don’t pretend you know; just ask all the talented people around you for help. That’s what I did at the beginning of Deadpool, and Jeff did the same on Sonic. I got up in front of the crew and said, “Hey, I really don’t really know much about how live-action films are made, but I know what I want. I just have no freaking clue on how to get it. All you folks know my job better than I do, so please help me not look stupid.”And here’s the big secret I’ve learned about this industry: when you ask for people’s help – and you’re not a giant asshole – they give it to you.
Fowler: It was great advice about being honest, and it’s also important to work hard to make sure you’re creating an atmosphere for people to do great work. I took Tim’s advice to heart and found that people really appreciate the honesty about your experience. They appreciate that you aren’t trying to bluff your way through the process by pretending to know something you don’t. That’s not a great way to build a team for the difficult effort of making a movie.
Fowler: I still go to Blur once a week. I love being there. I edited some of the story animatics for both Sonic films at the studio. I still love doing some production work whenever I can – it’s a great way of digging into a scene and making decisions. Tim always helps with the story and the script. If I have a first draft I’m feeling pretty good about, I loop him in because I know he’s going to be brutally honest. He’s not a person who will spare your feelings if he feels something needs more work. So, he’s a wonderful resource for critical analysis.
Miller: For a first-time director – like Jeff was on the first Sonic film – it’s a lot of pressure. Not having any live-action experience makes it even harder. But Jeff handled it amazingly well – he’s really smart and he’s a super nice guy. The crew on Sonic, which had a lot of the same folks I worked with on Deadpool since they shot in Vancouver, just loved him. The whole cast loved him. I got a front-row seat to the whole operation because the editorial and post team were set up at Blur, and they loved him too. Literally, everybody I talked to about the film, including the folks at Paramount, had a great experience making the movie, and much of that is due to Jeff’s leadership and his calm and friendly style.
Fowler: It’s great to work with people you trust, and it all comes from this great creative place that is Blur. Actually, we had this crazy moment in Blur’s history in which three Blur directors – me with Sonic, Tim with Terminator: Dark Fate and Dave Wilson with Bloodshot – were all off making movies at the same time. When you think about how that all started at a company that, even today, isn’t huge. It’s a very creative, wonderful environment of a hundred or so artists, and that really says something about the talent and the artistry that has come, and continues to come, from Blur.
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Domee Shi and Disney/Pixar.
Matriarchs have a dominant thematic presence for Domee Shi, whether it be her Oscar-winning short Bao or feature directorial debut Turning Red. The former imagines a son as a rebellious Chinese soup dumpling who gets consumed by his mother while the latter has a female tweenager contending with the onset of puberty and a matriarchal family secret. As for what her muse thinks of the cinematic portrayals and whether the experience has been therapeutic for mother and daughter, Shi responds, “It has been therapeutic for me! My mom is flattered and proud, but I remember when we invited her and my dad to the premiere of Turning Red, it took her a day to process the movie. She said, ‘I really like it.’ Then the next morning we were texting and she asked, ‘Was I a good mother?’ I said, ‘Of course you were. I wouldn’t be here without you being you.’ My dad was jealous and asked, ‘When are you going to make something about me and you?’”
Shi’s father was a college professor of fine arts and landscape painter in China. “I fought with my dad more about art because he was my art tutor early on and encouraged me to practice painting and drawing every day. As a teenager, we would go to a drawing class and sketch naked people side by side. Then we would go home and he would make me lay out all of my drawings on the floor and critique them one by one like a firing squad! His motto for me growing up was ‘No pain, no gain.’ Then my mother’s motto for me was, ‘Listen to mother or you will suffer!’ I feel like those two mottos have merged together and created me.” Born in Chongqing, China, her parents left for Canada two years later and settled in Toronto, Ontario, which is proudly on display in Bao and Turning Red. “I went back to China with my mom for half a year when I was six years old,” Shi recalls. “We stayed with my grandma and uncle who lived behind a temple – that was the inspiration for the temple setting in Turning Red. The last time I went back was in 2015 to see my grandma who is still alive and kicking. She just celebrated her 96th birthday.”
Personal memories were relied upon to reconstruct Toronto in 2002 for Turning Red. “It was more about creating the feeling of growing up in Toronto in the 2000s versus photo-accurate details,” Shi explains. “Because of the pandemic, the crew never got to take that research trip. I wanted it to feel like how Mei would see the city growing up, so we amped up all of the colors to make it dreamy, colorful, young and fresh. I have so much nostalgia for that era in Toronto. We had to include the SkyDome.” In reference to the major league baseball team, an actual Blue Jay makes an appearance with the sports stadium in the background. “In the script it was a bird, and we repurposed the Blue Jay from the Up Disney+ series Dug Days.” Meilin Lee in Turning Red is essentially the cinematic personification of her 13-year-old self. “About 70% to 80% of her is me. I was never obsessed with a boy band but all of my classmates and friends were. I was even more nerdy than her! I felt like I had to tone down the nerdiness. My 4*Town [hit ‘00s boy band] was Harry Potter. My friends and I would run to get in line to watch the movie or get the latest book, draw fan art and write fan fiction.”
Disney animated features from the 1990s have left a lasting impression. “Aladdin was the first VHS that my parents and I owned,” remarks Shi. “But The Lion King was the first movie I remember watching in theaters. The opening with the ‘Circle of Life’ and the sun coming up was beautiful – and the singers hitting that note, I was like, ‘This is amazing!’ I love that movie so much. I recall being really traumatized by Mufasa’s death and asking my mom to leave, which we did during ‘Hakuna Matata,’ so I never got to see the ending until a year later when I was finally brave enough to watch it on VHS.”
Art was a way to make friends at school. “I would always carry a sketchbook with me in elementary school, middle school and high school. I realized that if I showed people the drawings in my sketchbook it would get reactions out of them and they would lean in, be curious and ask me questions. That felt like a natural way for me to make friends and meet people. I quickly became the drawer in every class that I was in. I would draw a lot of fan art of TV shows, movies and books that I loved. I created my own characters in those universes. In middle school a female classmate said to me, ‘You draw so well. How much do you want if you draw me with my crush?’ I was like, ‘Oh, a dollar!’ That was when I realized I could maybe make money!”
This epiphany led Shi to graduate with a Bachelor of Animation from Sheridan College in 2011. “I loved that it was this gathering place of like-minded, brilliant, nerdy, talented artists – that was the best part of Sheridan College. There, I met Hyein Park who voices Abby in Turning Red.” Initially, the aspiring animator was turned down for internships, including at Pixar. “One thing that I changed about myself afterwards was, in my third year [of college] I had never reached out, hung out or talked to other classmates or students, but in my fourth year I did that. That actually helped me because I was able to create a stronger portfolio which would get recognized by the studios.”
Shi interned at Pixar as a storyboard artist. “During my internship, Josh Cooley [director of Toy Story 4] was Story Supervisor for Inside Out, and he sat in on one of my pitches. Josh saw something that made him say, ‘We should hire her.’ He has been a great mentor and boss because I worked with him for a while on Inside Out and again on Toy Story 4. The same with Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen who co-directed Inside Out, as they created such an open environment for me to feel comfortable speaking up in the room. I felt that my voice was valued early on in my career, which is rare. I lucked out because I was cast on this show about going inside the mind of a 13-year-old girl, and that was the one thing I was an expert at!”
Being a storyboard artist has had an impact on how Shi approaches directing. “It was a great training ground for me to go into directing because a storyboard artist is a jack of all trades. You have to draw as well as know composition, acting, appeal, comedy and how to cut. You get a little taste of every part of filmmaking. Also, because of the job you are working closely with the director and writer.” Her director’s chair debut was the short Bao followed by the feature Turning Red. “I am grateful that I was able to make Bao first, as it gave me a small taste of what directing a feature would be like. I wasn’t prepared for how much of the job is communicating and speaking to large groups of people and delegating. Just being very clear and also being a cheerleader and motivator for a team of hundreds of people when there is a pandemic going on or riots or wildfires. I took it one day at a time. I felt that if I didn’t get overwhelmed by the big studio machine then I would be okay.”
Much has made of the fact that Shi is the first woman to direct a Pixar feature. “The goal at the end of the day is to get to the point [where people are identified as artists rather by gender and ethnicity], but we are still far away from that. I can see both sides. For those young girls or young Asian kids in the West who can see someone like me on TV or making movies, it gives them hope and encouragement for them to pursue something artistic. It also gives them solid evidence that they can present to their Asian parents who might want them to go to another career. I’m going to be honest. It does get tiring to be answering the same question about, ‘How does it feel to be a woman or Asian?’ My first identity is that I’m a nerd! I just wanted to make something that I could nerd out about with my colleagues and friends, and share with other nerdy people around the world.”
The animation style depends on the project. “For Bao, I wanted to make this modern-day fairy-tale, so I wanted the characters to look soft and appealing. For Turning Red, Mei is 13, and I wanted the world to reflect her personality, which is chunky, cute and colorful, but I also love Aardman, anime and Disney, so it’s all going to be reflected in the things that I make.”
Simple moments make characters believable, such as a mother spoon-feeding filling to her baby dumpling to regain its shape, the surprised facial expressions of son and mother when they discover that the daughter-in-law is very good at making dumplings, a red panda pushing a stunned classmate back into a washroom stall, and a father stepping back into the kitchen while witnessing the pubescent turmoil between mother and daughter unfold in the bathroom. “Most of those were either in the script or found through storyboarding,” Shi explains. “I remember storyboarding the Bao filling gag, thinking it makes sense because he’s a dumpling and his head is stuffed with filling. Panda Mei pushing the girl back into the stall and the dad backing away, those were discovered by the story artists who were assigned with storyboarding those scenes, and the animators take that and plus it. That’s the thing about animation. Every step of the way, at every stage, people can contribute to that one scene and make it better.”
In acknowledgement of her skill as an artist and filmmaker, Shi has been promoted to Vice President of Creative at Pixar, which makes her a member of the revered brain trust that includes Andrew Stanton, Peter Sohn and Dan Scanlon. “I’m still figuring it out because it’s a new gig. The best thing for a filmmaker to do is to put themselves in the project that they’re on. If the film can reflect the filmmaker, that’s great. There are always going to be notes on clarity and appeal. All of that stuff will be figured out. You have a chance to make a Pixar film and you’re going to spend at least four years on this, so you have to make it count.”
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