Friday 18 January 2013

Interview: Erik-Jan de Boer, Oscar Nominated Life of Pi Animation Director

Last week, the morning after the Oscar nominations were revealed - with Life of Pi amassing the second most nominations with eleven (behind only Spielberg's Lincoln) - I had the opportunity to interview one of the key people behind one of the film's most spectacular aspects: its visual effects. Life of Pi seems almost locked to take home the Best Visual Effects Oscar, so I was very excited to get the chance to speak to the film's newly Oscar nominated animation director, Erik-Jan de Boer of Rhythm & Hues studio.

Rhythm & Hues have received previous Oscar nominations for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and Wardrobe and The Golden Compass (winning for the latter) and have cemented themselves as arguably the top VFX house around for creating believable and realistic animal characters. They've outdone themselves, however, with their endeavours in Life of Pi, creating - alongside the magnificent ocean scenes and a great many other animals - a full, photo-realistic and utterly convincingly animated tiger with Richard Parker.

My thanks to Scot Byrd at Rhythm & Hues for setting the whole thing up, and lots of thanks to Erik for taking time out of his day (particularly given how hectic it surely was after the studio had just earned another Oscar nomination) to answer my questions so graciously.

Topics covered in our exclusive interview include the approach to Life of Pi's visual effects and how Richard Parker was created, the different techniques to creating VFX compared to creating an animated movie, whether Rhythm & Hues would ever consider following in ILM's footsteps - who branched out to feature animation last year with Rango - by making their own animated film (spoiler: they are!), working with director Ang Lee, the Oscars and more! Check it out below.

A113Animation: Okay, firstly, I actually watched Life of Pi about a week ago now and I absolutely loved it: brilliant film, great story, great characters, but the star of the show is, undoubtedly, the fantastic visuals – highlighted by the unbelievably realistic and brilliantly rendered Richard Parker! So major congrats to you and the whole team on that!
Erik-Jan De Boer: Thank you!

A113: In the press release I got sent out before this interview, it said there’s something like 960 shots in the movie and something like 690 of them are visual effects ones. So, obviously it couldn’t be – not that, I’m sure, you’d ever do anything to a sub-par quality – but this had to be something that bit extra. Did you go far beyond – did you get to a point where, normally, on a film, you would have stopped and then have to push it further for this film?
EDB: Well... yeah, sure. You know, scheduling pressures, deadlines, always force us to cut a shot loose at some stage, but we always try and get it to a point where we’re happy with it. So in that sense, no, we’re always pushing it as far as we can. Are we getting better at making sure we have the time to take a shot to 100%? Yes. We are getting smarter at trying to find the essence of the shot as quickly as possible, keeping the motion design as flexible as possible and allowing us to then – knowing the director’s going to be happy with the end result – to then ask the animators to go the extra mile and finish off the smaller nuances and the more intricate stuff, to really bring the animal alive. So, in that sense, we are getting the quality up by just strategising in terms of scheduling and time management. The fun part about your 960 shots and 690 were the visual effects was: we had some incredibly long shots in this movie, because it is a two hour film, so yeah, some of the effects shots were several thousand frames long and it was very challenging in that sense.

A113: Yeah, and you can tell just how much work has gone into it, because Richard Parker is absolutely magnificent; it’s the most realistic render, the most believable fur, that I’ve ever seen. But a key part of how believable it is – which in a sense, I think, is your team’s part – is how realistically he moves. I’ve read it several times and it’s absolutely true: this isn’t a Disney tiger, you don’t think ‘oh, that tiger is thinking this. That tiger is thinking that.’ It’s a real, tangible animal and you can feel that coming off him.
EDB: Oh yeah! And of course that was very important from the start, Ang [Lee, director] really made it clear that to make this – when you’re on set, and we were on set for five months, about eight weeks or so we spent with four real tigers on set, and just being in the presence of these predators, you could feel the tension and you could feel the majesty and imposing nature of these animals; so it was very important for us to stay as close to that animalistic, pure nature-feel that we could without anthropomorphising anything. And that really, I would say ‘made it easier for us’, but in terms of designing the shot, really what we had to do is figure out what the animal would do in that situation and find, as good as we could, some reference to execute that performance. So what we did is, for each shot, we would just go into our reference library and find clips that really describe the shot as well as we could, from a locomotion point-of-view, from a gait analysis and physicality point-of-view, but also in terms of just the small parts of the performance, just, you know, pleasing tongue shapes or a facial expression, ear twitches or the compression of the skin and the stomach when he’s lying down. So we would build basically a clip with all these small elements in it and that would serve as our staying true or our inspiration clip, and we would just always, with the animator, while we working with the supervisor and the animator, we would go back to that clip and just look at it and go ‘what else are we missing? What else can we add?’ And that’s really how we got to this pure, naturalistic performance. What is crucial is that although we did apply our own aesthetic, of course, to the design of the motion – you want to have strong silhouettes, you want to be graphically and nicely composed and you want to apply all those rules while you’re going on as well – we always went back to those clips, to make sure that we did not touch the physicality or the animalistic character and the performance.

The progression of the modelling
of Richard Parker.
Credit: NY Times
A113: Yeah and that absolutely pays off when watching the movie, it’s utterly believable. So my next question is: how do you approach a film that you’re creating VFX and these extras, kind of, for, and a photo-real character like Richard Parker, compared to if you were making an animated feature? Is there a different mindset?
EDB: Yeah, I mean, especially on this one, because we knew that our tiger was going to be intercut with the live-action tiger. So in that sense, we had the perfect example in front of us and we even had the chance to film that through the same camera as we would for the final end-product. So once we knew what the shots were of the live-action tiger – which is only 15% of the movie, or 15% of the tiger shots are live-action, the rest are CGI – once we knew what those shots were, we really had, obviously, the clearest target possible and we could really start to design our character to match to that. We even found that between takes or between days, the look of the tiger would slightly differ, the humidity of the air or his mood or the way that he had been sleeping, the amount of crap in his fur, there were just changes between shots and we even tried to incorporate those to get the continuity as close as we could. But, from that point-of-view, it’s a completely different approach to if you were designing a character from scratch without that vision of making it seamlessly integrate with a live-action character.

A113: Yeah. What was it like working with Ang Lee then? Obviously a brilliant director and I imagine that he was – from what I hear anyway – really pushing to stress the visual effects with this film. So was it good to work with someone who was fully embracing the visual effects and wanted to incorporate that so wholly into the story?
EDB: Yes, yes, for sure. That is the really rewarding and satisfying part of doing this. First of all, I love to work – I love CGI and I’ve been doing this for a long time – but I really love to do it to service the story, in a way that it’s not gratuitous or over-the-top, this is just: we had the perfect excuse to build this tiger out of CGI, because you can’t have a predator and a young boy on a boat and you can’t starve a real tiger...

A113: [Laughs]
... for the shots at the end of the movie. So, obviously, we had a clear mandate to use this technology and this technique to bring this character to life, and that’s really cool! Ang Lee and Bill Westenhofer, the visual effects supervisor on the movie, they’re incredibly perfectionist and they will just keep pushing until it’s right where they want it to be. These are brilliant filmmakers, and Bill is an incredible image-maker who is just super knowledgeable of anything that has to do with light, lighting, rendering stuff; but he’s also very keen on animation and has a great eye for the physical part of the performance. So, I mean, we just really went all out on this to make sure it looked as good as it could. And they’re both very respectful gentlemen, so in that sense, that really makes a difference, because you just know that once you have the trust, you will just have a great relationship and feel really safe in terms of experimenting and finding something different, or approaching them for additional ideas or alternative takes to shots. That really makes it fun and it accumulates into a better end product.

A113: Yeah, and you were saying about Bill’s eye for lighting and for shots – the film is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful, to be honest, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t win the Oscars for Best Visual Effects and Cinematography at least – it’s a massive accomplishment in terms of visuals, just as much as it is in terms of storytelling.
EDB: So, what’s really fun to realise then is that once we go out on the ocean, all of that is shot on the tank. So, if you look at the original background plates, William, for those shots, it’s all just a blue box with a boat on the water tank, including all the reflections and cables and rigs underwater that had to be painted out and removed, and all the skies and all the water extensions and a lot of the foreground water were completely CGI, added to the original photography.

A113: Yeah, I read that in the press release I got sent. But, when watching the film, I didn’t know the water was computer generated as well, it’s so magnificent that you should kind of guess, in hindsight, that that can’t be real, but it looks so real and so great...
EDB: [Laughs] Thanks! Yeah, I mean we did any splashes against the boat, or when Pi falls into the water of course, we tried to preserve as much as we could of that, but then a lot of the time, directly around those areas, we blended in digital water so that we could extend it to the horizon.

A113: Yeah, just... yeah. Beautiful film, I’ve been gushing about it for the past week now! So, we were saying about the film’s eleven Oscar nominations: are the team feeling confident for the Oscars?
EDB: Well... I have no idea...

[Both laugh]

Erik-Jan de Boer with Bill Westenhofer and the Oscar Rhythm & Hues won for The Golden Compass.

EDB: I mean... We were nominated for Narnia, and then again for Golden Compass – and we won for Golden Compass, which was great – but, you know, it’s hard to predict any of it. It’s an incredible honour to be nominated and it’s really exciting for Rhythm & Hues to also have Snow White and the Huntsman nominated, because we actually did a lot of the work on that and if you look at the reel that was presented to the Academy, a lot of the work in there was actually done by Rhythm & Hues, which is very exciting. So, yeah, it’s just a great year for the company, and as such, I think we should be very happy for the nominations and if we can get an Oscar or a BAFTA out of it, that would be really spectacular.
A113: Well you’ve got me pulling for you, for all that’s worth!

[Both laugh]

EDB: Okay, thanks man! Thanks, that’s really nice.

A113: [Laughs] You’re welcome! And now we’re talking about Rhythm & Hues the company, that brings me onto a question I was thinking about in the run up to this interview: ILM – which kind of... if you think visual effects, you think ILM – they branched out last year into feature animation, with Rango, which was obviously very well received, it won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Is this something Rhythm & Hues have ever considered doing?
EDB: Yeah... It’s a bit of a tricky question for me, because I’m not that closely connected to our development department, but I do know that we’re always looking for original content and opportunities to do something of our own. Maybe you should ask [Rhythm & Hues PR representative] Scot Byrd a little bit more about that and see where we are with that. I mean, we are a little different in the sense that we are a privately owned service company, so not affiliated with any studio or any director, which is a little different from places like ILM. But, you know, I’m sure... we have done very similar work, like in Hop, big full CG environments and character work; I know we can handle it and I’m sure the team would love to get their teeth on it, I just don’t know where we are in terms of developing anything.

Rhythm & Hues' work in Hop.

[Note: I emailed Scot asking if Rhythm & Hues were working on any animated features and he, excitingly, replied:

“Yes, or rather a qualified yes. We're actively developing several properties, either all cg animation or some blend of vfx/animation with live action.”]

A113: Okay. And if I could just hop back one minute to the Oscars, this year have there been any other films whose special effects you’ve particularly admired?
EDB: Erm... Yeah, you know, there is definitely some beautiful creature work in The Hobbit – when you look at the [Goblin] King, projected on the big screen in 48 FPS, that’s beautiful stuff and there’s a lot of cool stuff in there. If you look at the work I’ve done in the past, William, I’m just not a big shooter and explosions guy [laughs] and I’ve always been lucky to stay away from that. Except for a little bit on The A-Team I guess. I really enjoy... if I finish my career with only talking animals on my reel, I’m a pretty happy man.

[Both laugh]

EDB: Because, you know, I love doing that kind of work. I’m fascinated by the science that goes into integrating a CGI character into a live-action plate, I think that is just beautiful to see – and starting with original photography, I think, is a very valid way to bring a lot of the visuals to the big screen, and I like that part of it – so integrating CGI into live-action and working on more, sort of, kid-friendly movies is something that I really enjoy and have a lot of fun doing. The other thing that is just very exciting is just the process, and this is something that Ang Lee really made clear in one of the first meetings that I had with him, is that – and I saw him say that in some interviews as well – the process is really important for him and that is very true for myself as well. If you realise that we had just pure keyframe animators, because all these – and this is important to add – all these performances were created through keyframe animation; no motion capture, no other technical stuff. So this really means that the quality of the performance comes down to the talent and the skill of the animator, and these animators – we had 47 of them and they were in our Mumbai, Hyderabad and Los Angeles facilities – so when you talk about the process of just working on this movie, we had four supervisors: Brian Wells, Ian Blum, Scott Claus and Matt Shumway, and these four guys would run their teams, in the case of Matt, directly with the animators in Los Angeles, but with the other three, they actually ran international teams in our remote facilities. And these animators, we’ve known for a long time, these are colleagues and friends and we’ve worked with them since Night at the Museum – they’ve been part of our team – and we’ve gotten really much better at running these teams remotely and the quality of the work is amazing. But it does add a complexity to the work flow and Rhythm & Hues has gotten really good at tackling that, and it’s just fun to do the work, to execute the work and it’s super exciting to, you know, see what people come up with and then to bring the shot to final in this way. So, we had 47 keyframe animators and we had almost 27 technical animators that would add all the muscles and skin simulations and the fur simulations and any of the prop interaction – so these are huge teams – that’s just from a motion design point of view, then on top of that we had all the lighters and the FX artists who do stuff with the water; so, when you’re talking about it, it’s like 450 people who work on a movie like this.

A113: Mm, a big team then! My site is obviously animation based, so it’s good to hear someone like yourself talk so passionately about animation and how that integrates into VFX and special effects!
EDB: Yeah and, I mean, for us, it’s interesting stuff, because, on Life of Pi, what we would do is we would actually – the boat motion in some of the shots had to be overridden, just to sell that we were on a bigger wave pattern than what we could film in the tank. So we would actually take the... if you can imagine, the boat in screen space would never move, but you can animate the horizon basically and think that we had a bigger swell in the whirls than there really was on the day. But this affected the perceived motion of the boat, which meant that the amount of balancing or losing of balance of the character in the boat would change depending on that. So we had this amazing sort of circular workflow, where we would have to keep an eye on Effects, and Effects would have to keep an eye on us – water simulations inside of the boat had to be adjusted based on the latest animation. So, it’s again, just from a workflow and process point-of-view: managing all these teams and their dependencies is a complex task, but it’s also a lot of fun!

A113: Yep. So, what are you moving onto next then, do you know yet? Are you having a bit of time off? Or have you got a project you’re moving onto?
EDB: No, nothing specific. As a company we’re pretty busy – you can probably check our website to see what we’re officially working on at the moment [Note: Rhythm & Hues are currently working on, amongst other projects, 300: Rise of an Empire], but it’s a good slate of movies. So as a company we’re pretty busy; personally, I’m just taking a little breather now.

A113: Okay, I’ll try not to take up too much more of your time! The question I normally ask at this point is ‘what’s your favourite animated film?’ – and if you don’t mind, I will still ask that – but what I want to ask as well is: What is your all-time favourite use of special effects, visual effects, in a film?
EDB: Oh, God... Yeah, I hate these questions...

[Both laugh]

EDB: Okay... To be really corny, I think The Little Mermaid is still my favourite.

A113: Yep.
EDB: And right up there with Beauty and the Beast, this is really the period in my life where I just childishly enjoy all that stuff! [Laughs] You know, I just love it. And I still think that a great example of animation and visual effects usage in movies is... well, I go straight back to stuff like The Abyss, which I thought was – at the time – was brilliant, and I seriously enjoy it.

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