Category: Professionals

Tech Leads talk Monsters University and wow the crowd at Stanford University

Good afternoon folks!

Here’s a reprint of an article I wrote for the Women in Animation San Francisco blog about a recent talk we hosted at Stanford University. Technical lighting supervisors, animators and scripting writers joined forces to discuss the making of Monsters University, now on DVD and BluRay.

Scare School 101 was in session on February 10th at Stanford’s Annenberg Auditorium as students and professionals across the Bay Area enjoyed members of Pixar’s Monsters University team discuss how they created the film. The speakers of the evening, Supervising Technical Director Sanjay Bakshi, Technical Lighting Lead Steven James, Lighting Technical Director Scott Clifford, Animator Allison Rutland and Effects Supervisor Jon Reisch discussed how they used their technical prowess to tell the MU story.

“The story always comes first. If the point is important we have to figure out how to do it,“ said Sanjay. “For example, with movies like Nemo, we had to figure out how to do water. “
“We have big challenges but they also have to serve the story. So we try,” said Scott.

THE THREE CHALLENGES FACING THE TECHNICAL TEAM

Supervising Technical Director Sanjay Bakshi kicked off the evening by presenting the three main challenges facing the technical team:

1. More characters than ever before.
2. Furry monsters with clothes.
3. Movie will be challenging to light and render.

In order to solve challenge one, the team built an army of Monster students and faculty by creating dozens of variations of characters from the original film.

An example of which was the character Fungus. Eight Fungus variations were created, each one with a different shape and silhouette to give variety, as well as with different controls built into the rig.
The team used a parts library consisting of items like horns wings spikes, plates, and knobs to further vary the multiple Fungus’ looks. This process was repeated many times over with other characters from the first film, as well as when making brand new characters for MU.

All of the Monsters were given a unique name as well in order to track them in the production database. Naming them descriptively proved to be a challenge, so they were named after members of the Pixar crew. Sanjay even pointed out a furry orange monster given his namesake.

ANIMATION: BRINGING SULLY TO LIFE

Animator Allison Rutland then stepped up to the podium to share the process of how she brings a character to animated life. She animated James Sullivan, or Sully to his friends. As she described to the eager crowd, Sully’s physicality is important to him. He’s a 1,000-pound monster, but younger, slimmer and with shorter horns than his future self in Monsters, Inc. It was important for her to explore the different shapes composing Sully in order to enable him to retain his monstrous shape.

“[His] head had to be level with body to keep him monster-y so he didn’t like a duded in a suit,” she explained.
Allison then walked through the process of how she animated Sully for his first scene on screen, when he enters the classroom and overshadows Mike’s attempts to impress the teacher for the first time.
The first step in the process is to receive the layout from the layout department, said Allison. The layout team blocks in where the character needs to move as well as the other characters and props in the scene.

Next, she received the shot breakdown from director Dan Scanlon. The importance of the scene, she explained, was not only to get Sully from point A to point B, but more importantly, to show the character of Sully.

“He lacks confidence so he acts cocky,” said Allison. Before creating her shots, she writes down the dialogue in order to figure out the subtext of the scene.

“Yeah he’s my Dad,” she said, stating one of Sully’s iconic lines, meaning, “I love telling people this but I pretend it’s not big deal.”

Next, she figures out the rhythm of the statement. “Larger words may equal larger poses. Pauses show character thought processes,” she explained. She observed how Dan Scanlon imitated Sully’s lines, shot her own reference, and made thumbnails to figure out staging. Then Alison showed the audience her blocking pass – from pose to pose, as a means to figure out if it will work. Once blocking is approved she animates the character.
The story reel and layout team had Sully put both hands behind his head. She had him put hands on a chair in a triangle pose to take up more space and appear more in control.
Finally she showed the scene of Sully entering the room, sitting down, borrowing a pencil and picking out his teeth, a triumph of animation.

GLOBAL ILLUMINATION: GETTING THE LIGHTS TO WORK

Lighting Technical Lead Steven James then explained the fascinating and sometimes complicated process of lighting a feature film. Monsters University required a complete rewrite of the tools needed to create realism in lighting.
The Pixar lighting tools required two main things:

1. A high level of control
2. A powerful system

Each character possessed 10 different sets of lights, for example, key light, bounce light, eye highlights and rim lights. Each set required at about 30 lights. In addition to this, each character had their own lighting rig, and when added together, each of these lights became the visual equivalent of crazed spaghetti.

The complexity of the lighting set up required a unique technical solution. To meet that solution, the GI Team created physically based lights – lights based on particular shapes, like disks and squares. They also created a paint system to create color texture and added color ramps.

This process allowed them to use a single dome light with paint textures to create beautiful lights that simplifies the number of lights needed, saves money and increases productivity.
The render time more than doubled so that the artists could do more creative and less technical work, explained Steve.

3679 POINTS OF LIGHT – LIGHTING THE TOXICITY CHALLENGE

One of the funniest scenes of Monsters University is the first challenge Oozma Kappa faces – the Toxicity Challenge. In this scene, all of the fraternities and sororities must run through a darkened sewer tunnel filled with urchins that flicker light and inflict painful welts when touched. It’s a clever scene, and one that proved to be particularly complicated to master.

As Master Lighting Artist Scott Clifford explained, this is the type of scene that “makes a computer cripple to its knees.”

“We have to pay attention to how we do it, in a non standard lighting set up so computer car render property,” he explained.
Lights have to act as a crowd but be individually direct-able so that the main action – the relationship of Mike and Sully, can be seen by the audience. For this reason, the lighting department needed to be able to control which urchins lit up at specific times during the scene. And on top of this, the render time needed to be efficient.

“Let the urchins light the scene!” explained Scott. The first attempt to solve this challenge was to combine the shading of the urchin with sphere lights, and ray tracing shadows with geometry. This proved to be a huge fail, said Scott, resulting in three days of rendering.

He went back to the drawing board, and realized to get the scene to work, he would need to encompass four things:

1. Optimization
2. Model Complexity
3. Boundary volume hierarchy for lights
4. Changed sphere lights to not illuminate urchins

Scott wrote a script to fix this — distance based optimization that simplified the shot pipeline. In fact, he wrote several scripts, each one created to solve specific problems, until the toxicity challenge played the way it needed to in order to enhance the story.

Scott’s process, along with the processes of Sanjay, Allison and Steven, highlighted the main point of the evening – there will always be challenges. The key is to come up with a creative solution and to seek out the assistance of your fellow team members.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

At the end of the evening, the speakers took questions from the audience to further explain their process and working at Pixar and their road to reaching the studio.

“For animation the most important thing is to find a mentor in the early years,” said Allison. They also explained that it is often not a linear path to get to the studio, or any studio for that matter.

“You may think you want to do this and but you may have to do all these other things first,” said Scott. “It’s amazing the path you can take if you’re willing to do whatever it takes. Be interesting. Do your own stuff.”

Special thanks to Stanford Design Initiative and Pixar’s Jon Reisch, Sanjay Bakshi, Scott Clifford, Steven James and Allison Rutland for helping Women in Animation San Francisco put together such a fantastic event.

Women in Animation San Francisco is a chapter of Women in Animation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women succeed in the animation industry.

And for more info on Women in Animation San Francisco visit our Facebook Page at: https://www.facebook.com/wiasf

and Twitter at: https://twitter.com/WIASanFrancisco

AIGA SF Event featuring Pixar Director Mark Andrews

I had the great pleasure of meeting Academy Award winning director and all around hilarious guy Mark Andrews on Thursday night at AIGA SF’s Lecture Design Series. Mark shared the joy and pitfalls of creating storyboards for live action and animated features. I wrote an article about the experience on the Women in Animation San Francisco blog that you can read here.

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Women in Camera and Lighting Panel

BAWIFM and SF State University’s Cinema Collective co-hosted a panel on Thursday April 26th with female directors, directors of photography and cinematography spoke about the industry. An excellent panel with excellent guests.

From Left to Right: Moderator Laura Valladao, Director of Photography Sophia Constantinou, Cinematographer Jessica Fisher, Director of Photography Kate Lin Ariz Mendi

From Left to Right: Kate Lin Ariz Mendi, (Excellent Panelist’s who’s card I forgot to grab) and Photographer and Director Van Nguyen-Stone

Left to Right: Excellent Panelist and Laura Valladao

From Left to Right: Jessica Fisher, Kate Lin Ariz Mendi,

Pixar Animator Mike Makarewicz’s Excellent Lecture Notes

Academy of Art alum, 8 year Pixar animator and all around swell guy Mike Makarewicz (MUH-KARE-UH-VITCH) gave a great talk at the 79 Montgomery theater on Saturday April 21st on the most important of the 12 animation principles to him: timing. It was an excellent talk. He spoke extensively on the subject, provided great film clip and musical examples, reviewed animation club member Brandon’s reel, and even gave a demo on how to animate Sully from “Monster’s, Inc.” Animation gold, I tell you. Here are my illustrated notes. You can also read some non-illustrated and equally helpful notes over at the Animation Club blog.

San Francisco International Women’s Film Festival

Tonight marked the final evening of the San Francisco International Women’s Film Festival. I volunteered in the office every week, working with executive director Scarlett Shepard. I had the opportunity to see “That’s What She Said” written by Kellie Overbey (“The Good Wife,” “Law and Order: SVU”) and directed by Carrie Preston (Arlene on “True Blood”). Friendly, lovely ladies and funny film. Check out the link here – it’s an official selection at Sundance and it will be released in theaters this fall.

Here are some sketches from the Q&A:

And here I am with Kellie and Carrie:

Links of Note: Toon In!…to the World of Animation…

Links of Note is a weekly post in which I offer a description of the links posted on the right side of this blog. Today I will be discussing Toon In!…to the World of Animation.
 

Toon In!…to the World of Animation is fabulous. Created by Tee Bosustow, son of Stephen Bosustow, Executive Producer for many of United Productions of America’s most beloved animated shorts, Mr. Bosustow interviewed many of the former and current heavyweights in the animation industry during the podcast’s 2006 to 2008 run, including voice acting maven June Foray, DreamWorks director Steve Hickner, Pixar/live action director Brad Bird, animator and author Tom Sito and even the late great Jules Engel. Along with several other industry professionals, he also helped coordinate the UPA Legacy Project, a feature documentary about the legendary studio, and was instrumental in the recent DVD release Jolly Frolics from Turner Classic Movies. 


Mr. Bosustow insists during his interviews that he knows little about animation, however his unbridled enthusiasm, easy-going manner and excellent Q&A sessions with his guests reveals a professionalism that all animators should aspire to. 

No word yet if this podcast will resume, but thanks to the internet the hard work and dedication of those involved with the site can be appreciated by students and fans of all aspects of animation. 

Image from  Toon In!…to the World of Animation

BAWIFM Mentor Meeting Sketches

I attended the BAWIFM Mentoring Event co-hosted by the Women’s Film Institute yesterday. It kicked off this year’s 8th Annual San Francisco International Women’s Film Festival, an event I have been volunteering for since February. I’m looking forward to the films and enjoyed hearing the panelists. They discussed what it’s like financing and creating their own films, how to work effectively as a leader of a project, being a woman in the field and the importance of assembling a team. As Windy Borman, director of “Eyes of Thailand” stated – “hire slowly and fire quickly.”

Top Left – The Sign Language Interpreter
Center Top – Filmmaker and Historian Lynn Hershman Leeson
Top Right – Associate Professor of Cinema, San Francisco State University Martha Gorzycki
Bottom –  Creative Consultant & Film Commissioner Ami Zins   

Top Left – The second Sign Language Interpreter
Center Top – Ambika, BAWIFM’s Moderator
Top Right – Director Windy Borman
Bottom – Pixar Story Manager Ryan Lynch

From Left to Right – Ambika, Ms. Borman, Ms. Gorzycki, Ms. Lynch,
Bottom Left to Right – Ms. Zins, Ms. Leeson

Links of Note: The Pixar Podcast

Links of Note is a weekly post in which I offer a description of the links posted on the right side of this blog. Today I will be discussing the Pixar Podcast.
 

I found the Pixar Podcast several months ago and it rapidly became one of my all-time online shows. Created by BYU student Derrick Clements, the Pixar Podcast offers news, film reviews and most fascinating to me, interviews with Pixarians and other notables in the industry. Some of the interviewees include Pixarians such as layout artist Craig Good, animator Austin Madison, animator Chris Chua, story artist Matthew Luhn, Pixar University’s Elyse Klaidman, Disney producer Don Hahn (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Atlantis to name a few) and ILM supervisor Hal Hickel (Rango and many other films).

Derrick’s love for all things Pixar shines through each episode and it’s a delight to hear about the inner workings of the studio each month. He also expands the world of Pixar to other projects that the studio is involved in, including reviews of Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Andrew Stanton’s John Carter. Most recently, he interviewed the buyers of the real-life Up house.

This is an excellent resource for animation students and for fans of fine film-making. Check it out here.

Image via the Pixar Podcast

Links of Note: The Animation Podcast

Links of Note is a weekly post in which I offer a description of the links posted on the right side of this blog. Today I will be discussing the Animation Podcast. Enjoy! 

Several years ago I came across an excellent podcast on iTunes called The Animation Podcast.

It was the first animation podcast that I found and still one of the best. Disney animator Clay Kaytis (animation supervisor on “Tangled”) interviews  the greats in the industry, including Andreas Deja (supervising animator for Tigger, Jafar, Scar), Eric Goldberg (supervising animator for the Genie), and Burny Mattison (story department for “Tarzan”, “Pocahontas”, “Aladdin”). His interviews are in depth and he asks interesting questions. He conducted the last podcast in 2008 however the website is still going strong and he continues to answer reader questions.

Check out the podcast here and feast your ears on animation gold.

Image via The Animation Podcast

Jennifer Yuh Nelson – The Most Successful Female Director in History

Brenda Chapman (an excellent animation director in her own right) posted a link to this great article about Jennifer Yuh Nelson – director of Kung Fu Panda 2 and the most successful female director in history. She is incredibly humble and talented – it’s exciting to know that there are directors out there as awesome as her. Keep up the good work, Jennifer!

Image via Manny the Movie Guy