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Where Great Minds Meet
The AnimationTrip Interview Series


We thought it would be especially interesting if Chris Landreth, the winner of the best animated short at the 77th Academy Awards for his film Ryan, could be interviewed by Sam Chen, whose film Eternal Gaze won the Best Animated Film award at SIGGRAPH 2003. Like Chen's film, Landreth's Ryan is also about an artist. We are delighted to present their discussion here.

- Chris Padilla, Editor

 

Chris Landreth's "Ryan"Sam Chen: Hi Chris, it’s Sam Chen.

Chris Landreth: Hey, Sam Chen. At long last we talk.

SC: Actually, you know, we met five, six years ago, I don’t know if you remember.

CL: Did we?

SC: I used to work for Silicon Graphics, while you were at Alias/Wavefront.

CL: Yes.

SC: And I think you did a class at the 3D design conference in Santa Clara Valley.

CL: Oh, I remember that conference well.

SC: Yes and you were teaching a class and I was in there, and I think we chatted briefly afterwards.

CL: Yeah, well SIGGRAPH will be a time to reunite with people. I presume you’re going to be there?

SC: Yes, I will be.

CL: Cool.

SC: And so, were you in San Diego last summer?

CL: No, in fact, San Diego was the first SIGGRAPH I’ve missed in about fifteen years.

SC: Aw, you picked a good one to miss.

CL: Oh, did I really?

SC: Everybody who’s coming out of San Diego, they’re like ‘Forget about New Orleans, forget about Orlando.’ It’s like, we have the best weather, no parking issues like L.A. and it’s right next to Downtown, which is our Bourbon Street, and Seaport Village, which is right next to the water. It’s the best of all worlds.

CL: Aw.

SC: Yeah, well…

CL: Actually, you know, I’ve heard some similar glowing comments. But there was no way I could make it last year. I was just so deep in production.

SC: Ok. Well, why don’t we get started?

Eternal Gaze


Sam Chen's film "Eternal Gaze"

CL: Oh, sure. First of all, congratulations on your piece I never did get a chance to tell you what a great piece it was.

SC: Well, thank you. Where did you see it?

CL: I saw it, not at SIGGRAPH, because I was gone that year, but one of the people who was working on our piece brought home the DVD, and we watched it on his laptop.

SC: Well, we have a lot in common, because we both spent a lot of our lives, and time, and energy working on films about tormented artists. And so, my questions will kind of revolve around that, too.

CL: Ok.

SC: Um, I’m going to dive into the “nitty-gritty” of your film, and then we’ll talk about some industry stuff later.

CL: Sure.

SC: So, first of all congratulations to you on SIGGRAPH Jury Honors, Cannes Film Festival, ARS Prix Electronica, Worldwide Shorts, Best Canadian Film - that was a fun festival for me, too.

CL: Again, one that I wasn’t able to attend. I was there for the first part, but then I was committed to go to Cannes, so—

SC: Well…you picked the right one. So, first of all, tell us about the three awards you won at Cannes Film Festival and how was that experience?

CL: Well, you know, Cannes has these different, simultaneous festivals, and there’s a thing called the Official Competition, and then there are these other parallel festivals that altogether make up the Cannes Film Festival. One is called Director’s Fortnight, one is called Un Certain Regard, and one is called International Critic’s Week.

SC: Uh huh.

CL: International Critic’s Week is the coolest of those, in my opinion, and fortunately that’s the one that "Ryan" was in. And the thing about that festival is that the way things are presented is that a feature film is paired with a short film and is shown all through the festival together.

SC: Great.

CL: And we were paired with an extraordinary film from Israel called “Or”, which went on to win the Caméra d'Or, best first film at the Cannes Film Festival.

SC: Great.

CL: "Ryan" won three awards, as you know, and basically swept International Critic’s Week as far as short films go.

SC: Right on.

RyanCL: It won what’s called the Kodak Discovery Award for Best Short Film, it won the Canal Plus Award for Best Short Film, and it won this Young Jury Prize for Best Short Film. International Critic’s Week is a very aggressive part of Cannes, because it goes not just for one night in a theater, but actually does a tour all around Cannes, and in fact goes out into a couple small towns outside of Cannes, and it’s basically a traveling part of the Cannes Festival which is really cool because it gave us a chance to get out and talk to a lot of people to show the film to some really cool cinema-savvy people.

SC: Excellent, and how was that for you personally?

CL: Oh, it was great. First of all, just getting out there and talking about the film. I mean, in one of these venues, we had almost an hour of questions.

SC: Yeah.

CL: So it really gave us a chance to really articulate what the film’s about, how we did it and why we did it. It was me and one of the producers who were there, Marcy Page, from the National Film Board of Canada.

SC: So for those people who haven’t seen "Ryan" yet, and it’s about to take the world by storm, but in a nutshell how would you describe "Ryan" in your own words?

CL: "Ryan’s" an animated documentary. It’s animated, and it’s a documentary. I consider that to be a very new genre in filmmaking, combining those two words together. It’s a thing that I think has been around for about fifteen years, there are a few examples before that. The idea is that you take true-life audio footage of things happening in real life, factual stuff happening in real life, you strip away the visual stuff, and you add animation.

SC: "Creature Comforts". [Nick Park’s Oscar winning clay animated short]

CL: Exactly, "Creature Comforts" is sort of the fore-runner, I would consider, of this new genre, but you know there have been some other really cool examples out there. Paul Furinger’s stuff that he did for Oxygen, the network drawn from life, drawn from memory, pieces by Bob Sabiston, the guy who was the Art Director for "Waking Life", you know "Waking Life" itself, but also pieces like "Knack and Dream" and "Road Head", and one called "Grasshopper". There’s a piece by LA Lee called Reaction Compulsion. So there are a few of these things out there that really show what you can do when you want to do something factual, but you want to do it in a point of view kind of way that allows you to be interpretive about the factual stuff that you’re doing. So that’s what "Ryan" is, I’d say genre-wise, that’s what it’s setting out to be. It is about Ryan Larkin, who is a friend of mine that I met about four years ago, who was a brilliant artist, animator and filmmaker. He reached his peak in the late 1960’s, he was nominated for an Academy Award for one of his short films, one of these rising stars in Canadian animation. But today, in fact for the last four years since I’ve known Ryan, he’s been a pan-handler, he’s been itinerantly homeless, right now he lives in a mission in downtown Montreal. So he’s there everyday, begging for spare change, and it’s quite a life, to go from brilliant filmmaking to where he is now. There’s a lot wrapped up in that, as far as a great story to tell, and I wanted to tell that in a way that was as powerful as possible. Making an animation out of a documentary was the best way, in my opinion, to do that.

SC: Yes, and you succeeded brilliantly, I just saw it for the first time twenty minutes ago, and it’s still resonating. So, art and filmmaking, as you know, have a way of organically evolving and becoming what it wants to be. Can you describe how Ryan started out, and how it ended up differently than what you imagined.

RyanCL: Sure, I mean as I say, it’s an animated documentary. When I started this thing three years ago, I really was very open as to what this would be, and the only stuff I was starting with was a friend of mine who had a sound recording piece of equipment, you know a couple of lavaliere mics, and a nice DV video and audio recorder. So we went up, and I talked to Ryan, I said ‘Hey I want to do this story, this documentary about you, and I’d like to talk to you and record our conversation,’ having no idea what that was going to be, just see what happens kind of thing, try to get some drama and some good recollections of his life on tape. We got hours and hours over the course of a few weeks or months of traveling to Montreal. We got about twenty hours of footage, and there was one particular piece of footage which you hear at the end where the subject of alcohol comes up, and when that came piece of footage came ‘round, the story went in a different direction than I was really thinking it would go. it was originally going to be all about Ryan, and you’d see Ryan beginning to end, but then there I was talking about alcoholism, and in a sense I was bringing myself, and my own baggage to the interview. I realized at that point that this would be a two-way thing, not just a one-way thing looking at Ryan, it would be a two-way thing involving Ryan and the filmmaker. So at that point it evolved into being a more subjective kind of story, and one that was involving my own history. So at that point it was a matter of developing a script and a storyboard that would have all these themes and would make the story work. It was originally going to be a seven to ten minute piece, but it ended up being, as you can see in the credits, fourteen minutes long. And yet there’re a lot of themes in there that we really wanted to show in their best.

SC: Well, you know, that’s the best thing about art, it kind of grows to what it wants to be, and it takes certain sudden turns usually for the better. I guess that’s art, and we have to recognize that and let it happen. Would you agree?

CL: Well, there’s certainly that, and that is balanced on the other side with the fact that there are finite resources, and a finite amount of money, and one has to be smart about letting the art grow organically, in this case. But sure, we needed to let the art grow organically, and to let the story breathe, and to try new effects, and new ways of showing visually what’s going on, and at the same time we had a financing schedule which we had to keep to and I’m glad to say that we did keep to. And in fact, I gotta say that, maybe you would have some experience yourself with this Sam, that when you’ve got finite resources it sometimes brings out better art than if you had infinite resources. You have to be smart, you gotta be clever, you gotta be resourceful in the way that you get visual things to happen. And we did a lot of stuff really cheaply, because we had to.

SC: Almost like less is more, and just being more concise and to the point.

CL: Exactly.

SC: Now I understand Ryan has seen the film. Can you share with us how he reacted to the film?

CL: We showed it to him very shortly after we finished it, actually. We went to Montreal with the finished film, and arranged some time. Like I said, he lives in a mission, and we arranged to show the film in the TV room in the mission. We asked everybody else to scram, and we just kept it up to me, and Ryan, and then there were a couple of other people there who were filming it for a documentary about the film. And in fact, when the DVD comes out later in the year, you’ll see actual footage of Ryan watching it for the first time. But, the first time he saw it he was quite disturbed by it.

SC: You should be used to that by now with all of your films.

CL: Yeah, I know. But he soon came to realize that it wasn’t just him being singled out, like he saw me there, looking kind of weird and roughed up too. And that actually gave him a lot of comfort. Everyone in the film is actually being brought down to his level, or we’re looking level in the visual treatment. So he saw it a second time, and he told me afterwards that it was a beautiful film. He was, the second time, very moved by it, and of course I was very relieved by that reaction. You know, we went and had a couple beers afterwards, talking about it and we’ve been talking about it ever since. He feels like he’s been pushed into being creative again. So he’s thinking about some new animated stuff to work on.

SC: Ok. Now, even Ridley Scott had butterflies in his stomach when he showed a rough cut of "Blade Runner" to Phillip K. Dick, right before he died. Did you have any fears or doubts about whether he would like it before you showed it to him?

CL: Oh yeah, that was probably the most anxious moment, beforehand, showing it to Ryan. I mean, showing it at any of the other venues had nothing on showing it to him at that point.

SC: Yeah, I would have loved to have shown my film to Alberto, but I don’t think he would have liked it, honestly.

CL: He what?

SC: I don’t think Alberto Giacometti would’ve liked my film.

CL: Why wouldn’t he have liked it?

SC: There’s a famous quote. There’s a guy named James Lord, who eventually wrote the biography on Giacometti. He said, “Why spend all that effort on me? Anyone on the street is more interesting than me.” But that’s how pure he was. So Chris, did you have to change anything, or censor some touchier issues in hopes that he wouldn’t be offended?

CL: No, not at all

SC: Good.

CL: I was completely driven by telling the story as well as I could.

SC: Excellent. Now, you said in an interview that you coined the term “Psycho-Realism,” just only three years ago, but being familiar with your body of work, did this concept originate with ”The End”, or even before ”The End” in that really weird film that not many people have seen, it played at SIGGRAPH I think, of the two heads, where one of them explodes in flame? You did that one too, right?

CL: Wait a minute, what was this? Two heads, one of them explodes…Oh yeah!

SC: I think it was all Softimage before Maya.

CL: Yeah, that was Softimage.

SC: Yeah, I saw that one, and that one was, I think the whole disembodied, and psycho-realism. Did it start from around there?

CL: I’m actually in my studio right now, and I have a few drawings that I did twenty years ago that show some of the scenes you can see in my present work. So, you know, I’ve been working with a lot of the concepts that you see on the screen, in "Ryan", for a while now. But the notion of psycho-realism, or psychological-realism is something that I have been surprised over the years that more people haven’t pick up on.

SC: I think it’s very effective. We especially loved the coffee thermos bottle.

CL: Oh, cool.

The Halo EffectSC: And your halo, of course. So where are you taking psycho-realism next, because you do see that progression in all of your works.

CL: Oh, well I’m thinking of doing stuffed toys right now.

SC: Toys?

CL: We have to merchandise our film. There’ll be a stuffed-toy version of me, with a little pull-string in the back.

SC: I have a contact in Mattel, so we’ll talk later.

CL: Oh great. Perfect.

SC: So, is psycho-realism, the way it is right now, is that limited by the software. Are you constrained by where the software can take the limits of psycho-realism, or is it constrained only by your imagination?

CL: No, the software is not the limit. In fact, one of the reasons I’m surprised more people haven’t picked up on this is the fact that the software is there to do this stuff, and I think it’s a cool, wonderful, potentially powerful way of telling stories. Getting inside people’s heads, and showing in a visual, metaphorical way the thought processes, the emotional processes, the spiritual processes going on in people, in a way that accentuates the realism of the story, and in this case a documentary where you know that what you’re hearing is not scripted, it’s not staged. You know, building the imagery around that, which is detailed and allegorical, yeah we’ve had the tools for that for a while, and no those tools have not been a limiting thing.

SC: But at the same time, it has been sort of liberated by some of the Paint Effects stuff, because in ”The End” it was kind of limited. Here, it’s kind of full-blown, right?

CL: Yeah, in "Ryan" we’re definitely getting into a more interpretive and non-realistic space. We start off realistic, and we gradually slip into this more interpretive and impressionistic world.

SC: Well, if imitation is the highest form of flattery, then we’re going to see a lot of psycho-realism in the next few years.

CL: Well, great.

SC: Well, back to "Ryan", what do you have in common with your subject matter?

CL: Well, that’s what really drew me to Ryan in the first place. That he’s living out a kind of life that I have always in the back of my head thought I’d be living too. And I’m not saying that as a big revelation, I think that’s an indication of what a lot of artists think, particularly artists who are starting off in their careers who did that first great novel, or that first great film, and then what. There’s that big blank. And with that blank comes this fear: ‘I’m never going to be able to do this again, I’m going to fall into this hole in life and never be able to come out of it.’ And when I met Ryan, I was actually between films, and there was nothing really in the horizons for what I’d be doing. So here I am, I’m actually thinking these things and there I meet Ryan, and he’s embodying all those worst fears. He’s not creative, he’s living at the bottom rung, or at least superficially anyway, he’s living in the bottom rung of society, and yet here’s a guy who’s showing grace, humility, humor, brilliance, and redemption. And at some level I’m thinking, ‘If that’s what I’m fearing, then this is a whole lot better than someone who’s lived a superficially-successful life, but is a bitter person.’

SC: Why would you say redemption? Where’s the redemption part?

RyanCL: In that Ryan is still full of cheer, and good will, good faith. He’s embodying some of the great things that you’d want to have as a person. His soul is very, quite beautiful. And I hope that kind of shows up in the film.

SC: Now, do you see Ryan as a warning, or an inspiration, or both, for Chris Landreth twenty years into the future?

CL: I mean, you can’t say it’s just a warning or just an inspiration. One of the things Ryan brings to the film is he deals with fears, and the way we see the world move, the way we see ourselves. One of the backbones of the production was a quote by Anais Ninn that I’ve mentioned a few times in connection with the film: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”

SC: Now, speaking of this parallelism with your subject matter, when I was working on my film “Eternal Gaze”, about Alberto Giacometti, not only did I have a lot in common with him, but towards the end of the production my friends said I was starting to channel the spirit of Giacometti, and becoming him. Did you ever feel like you were almost becoming Ryan at any point in the production?

CL: I don’t think I did. I was always pretty arms-length from mine, even though I felt a lot of empathy, and a lot of kindred-ness with him. Part of the reason that I don’t think I was getting under Ryan’s skin is that I had my own story in the film, which comes at the end when I talk about my Mom. And the fact that there was that piece of conversation…I mean your film is very much about Alberto Giacometti, whereas what happened in my film was that, as I said, that piece of conversation around alcoholism crept in, and it brought me into the film with Ryan. There were two of us, and because of my being there in the film, I had to bring up my own issues, like about my Mom. And that, I think, led to more of a balance between Ryan’s story and my story, so I always felt more like I was channeling myself to a somewhat uncomfortable level, as opposed to channeling just Ryan.

SC: Right. Well for a lot of reality TV shows and documentaries, seems like that’s when the plot thickens, that’s when things get better, you know, juicier. Like, did you ever see this Sundance documentary called “Stevie”?

CL: Yes. “Stevie” is great.

SC: Yeah. It reminded me of that in that, I think Steve James is the filmmaker, it got good when his own life got sucked into it.

CL: Exactly, and it got good when his own feelings got into it. The fact that he’s there mumbling feebly to Stevie “I’m there for you.” Like, what does that mean? And he doesn’t know what that means. And you know in the film that he knows that he doesn’t know what that means. He looks fallible, and that’s what’s so great about that film.

SC: Yeah, and he started wanting to just stay behind the camera, bam next thing you know he’s in front of the camera breaking down.

CL: I just saw that film last week.

SC: Oh wow. Powerful, huh?

CL: Yeah, great film.

SC: Let’s talk about your production. You set up a pipeline at the Seneca College, right?

CL: Yeah.

SC: So you had to work with students. Did that present, with a less experienced crew, was that a challenge or a problem?

CL: Actually, it was a challenge, but it was also a blessing. Part of the problem of doing animation that we wanted to do here is that we wanted to do very realistic, very believable human animation. We wanted to apply that very realistic and believable human animation to these characters that weren’t necessarily of human form. Like "Ryan", obviously, had some very not literal human elements. So second, we did not want to use motion capture. We wanted to be able to interpret, on the fly, using hand key frame animation all throughout the production. So, what that meant was that we needed to have a good animation style that could really do human motion well. When people are in the field for a long time, they take on certain nuances, animation styles. When people are students, and who are really talented, it’s easy to get them into different and new ways of thinking about animation. And that’s what really worked this time. We had five graduate students from Seneca, four of them were animators who had also been in the program at Sheridan College. So, part of the problem was that colleges like Sheridan, I’m not singling Sheridan out, I think pretty much any school in North America will do this, you know you think of animation as being one of two things: pose-to-pose animation, or straight-ahead animation. In computer animation, at least from what I’ve seen, pose-to-pose is a very emphasized aspect of learning key framing. Like posing your character in one pose, interpolating to another pose where all the aspects of the character are posed.

SC: It’s classical Disney.

CL: Classical Disney, where then you apply twelve rules with animation, you know, anticipation, and overlapping action, and all that kind of stuff. That’s great when you’re working on non-human, or cartoon animation, but there are some problems when you are doing real people. And part of it is that when you’re starting with a pose-to-pose mentality, yeah you can clean it up and get rid of the obvious artifacts of pose-to-pose by overlapping your action, and stuff after you’ve done your poses, after you’ve blocked it out. But there’s still a mentality that’s often left behind, and way too often left behind, and one of which is that you still see residues of poses that really should not be there, making the actor look obligatory, and obvious, and reactionary, and wooden. One of these things I call gesture-posing, which is that with every sentence accent, the animator feels the need to accompany that with one, and only one, pose. We had this one early animation test where we had Ryan sing ‘I don’t pay taxes. I don’t pay union dues either. This is take-home, take-home pay.’ What we would find is that the animators would, as soon as he says ‘I don’t pay taxes’ he’d point his finger up in one direction, and at ‘I don’t pay union dues either’ his other hand would go up and make another gesture, and he’d say ‘This is take-home’ he’d put both hands down, and then ‘Take-home pay’, another gesture. So there’s this compulsion with the pose-to-pose approach to do these often superfluous, and obvious gestures. And people don’t act that way, and certainly Ryan, if you ever look at footage of Ryan, doesn’t act that way at all. People’s bodies are really strange, they do things that don’t have anything to do with what they say. They overlap their poses, their gestures, almost without any regard to what they’ve just said. And you have to look for that stuff when you observe people, and in real life people don’t obey pose-to-pose mentality.

SC: It’s really almost like Disney brainwashing and caricature acting that has become cliché, and now they call it the Pixar style.

CL: Well, it’s not Disney, you see it also in acting as well. People who don’t quite get acting, people who will get up on stage and do exactly what I’ve described. You know, this kind of gesture-mapping, and you have to be open to what you see, and what you observe, and the way that animation is all too often educated is taking the obvious stuff that I’ve mentioned, and try to codify it, to tell students that that’s the way it is learned. I’ve seen tutorials for animation out there which say exactly what I’m trying not to do here, which is if you want to convey motion, you have to make sure that the actor’s face is consistent with the pose that will convey sadness in his body. And when he gets happy, you should see how all the parts of his body, consistent with each other, go into happy state. That’s the kind of stuff that’s taught, and it works well for cartoon characters, we’re going to be doing a talk on this and we’re going to show a snippet from “The Simpsons” in which that very thing works brilliantly on Homer Simpson. That kind of thing does not work when you’re trying to do real people.

SC: Yeah, cause we’re messy.

CL: Yeah, that’s what makes us interesting, is that we’re messy.

SC: So your films have always had this Chris Landreth signature style that is very twitchy, edgy, and refreshingly non-mainstream. You’ve talked about your animation approach. What about the lighting in Ryan? I had noticed you also took a different approach.

CL: Yeah, well I worked with a really cool Lighting Rendering person, her name is Belma Abdicevic, that’s a Croatian name. No actually, Bosnia, she’s from Sarajevo. We were going with, I’d say more naturalistic lighting than you’ve seen in "Bingo" or "The End", which is more theatrical. In "Ryan", it takes place in a cafeteria setting, with overhead halogen lights, just kind of ugly, flat lighting all around. So it was a real challenge to get the lighting to be more naturalistic.

SC: So no hero, rim-lighting, back-lighting?

CL: Very little, I mean soft. We do have a little bit of rim stuff going on but it’s not enough to really call attention to itself. But overall, the lighting is deliberately flat in many ways. Part of that is also strategic things. We’ve got some nice skin textures on Chris and Ryan, but we’re not using global illumination, we’re not using sub-surface scattering because we just didn’t have it. So yeah, we wanted the lighting to not call attention to the fact that his ears shouldn’t glow because he’s back-lit.

SC: The playing field definitely has changed. That used to be accepted, now with Gollum and all the other characters, I think the standard is really high now. So do you make it a point to make your film look less like Pixar or mainstream feature animation and more like maybe Brothers Quay?

CL: I wouldn’t say making a point to do that. I mean, Pixar’s certainly got its own style as far as lighting and rendering goes, and it’s a very self-identified style, which is great. And at the same time, I’m trying to do lighting, as well as everything else in this production, in a way that supports the story, that provides a nice tone and consistency with the themes of what’s coming across.

SC: So how much of "Ryan" was serendipitous, versus everything being storyboarded to the frame?

CL: I’d say that "Ryan" was definitely the most carefully storyboarded project that I’ve worked on. We knew before production started that there would be 110 shots, and lo-and-behold, there were 110 shots. Now, it wasn’t shot-for-shot the same as storyboarded, and there were certainly a lot of deviations, but it did come out to that number of shots in the end. But there were certainly some things that came around much later than the storyboard, that came around right in the production, like the stuff when I talk about my Mom, which, as you could guess, was a struggle to put down onto film. That did not come in storyboard, that came very late in the production. But I’ve gotta say that with this film, a lot of stuff was worked out very early. For example, during that alcohol conversation, you may have noticed the camera work there being very cinema-verite and being very documentary, almost “Blair-Witch Project” in its handheld shakiness. That camera work was actually done in our layout stage in pre-production, and stayed that way throughout the entire production. I’ll give credit to Dave Bass, he was the CG Supervisor on this piece. And he and the animators did a big layout, as you would guess, very early in the production. They worked out some really cool approaches to camera work that really paid off at the very beginning. Having that stuff down, having it planned was very cool. So, I left some stuff to serendipity, but I would say a lot less than my previous projects, we were working on stuff at the beginning as much as possible.

RyanSC: So, let’s talk about support and funding. Can you compare and contrast what it’s like to make a film in Canada with support of NFB versus making a film in the United States.

CL: Well, with your film, Sam, you did that through Silicon Graphics, is that correct?

SC: No, my previous film was done in the after-hours of Silicon Graphics, but after I left Silicon Graphics, I worked on my film independently.

CL: Your film was done with much more…I mean, you worked on it independently, you did not have a huge staff of people working with you on that, as I recall.

SC: Exactly two people.

CL: Great for you man. That’s incredible.

SC: Thank you.

CL: I mean, on this film, "Ryan", we had a staff of ten people, full-time staff. And that would be me, Dave Bass, the CG Supervisor, Belma, the rendering person, five students from Seneca College, four were animators, one was a texture guy, and at that point it starts to get more and more volunteer. There were people who came in that wanted to work on doing a character rig for one of the secondary characters, or doing part of the set for the bathroom shot, or whatever. So, in my film I have a credit roll of 110 people. I would say nine or ten people were there working full-time. As far as answering your question, short films, in particular short animated films, we have this thing the National Film Board of Canada, which is a pretty extraordinary thing. And we have in Canada many ways, many of which are through the government, of supporting the making of short films, one of which is the Arts’ Council, the equivalent of the NEA here. It’s called the Canada Council for the Arts, which is actually a pretty robust body, not subject to those kinds of withering attacks that you guys have, with the NEA. So, that having been said, it did take a while to get the resources in place to do this so I worked with a small production company that really did a lot of work in getting the financing, and getting the co-production in place over 2 or 3 years ago. And so we had ultimately Copperheart, the National Film Board of Canada, a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, and then Seneca College coming on board to be sort of a support structure for doing this thing.

SC: I see. Here are some industry questions for you. People are always talking about how "Ryan" is breaking new ground in documentary-filmmaking. What new areas of storytelling or subjects would you like to see the industry explore using animation?

CL: I would like to see more of an emphasis on character-driven and intimate stuff. Right now there’s some of that happening, but not that much. Like CG, the resources for CG is used for very different things. Action hero stuff, and stand-in for people on the bridge of the Titanic, I mean this is great stuff, I’m not putting it down or anything, but I want to see more intimate stuff. My favorite films are “My Dinner with Andre,” and “Waking Life” where you’ve got sometimes the screen filled with the faces of just two people and out of that composition you’re getting conversation and out of that conversation you’re getting the world opening up. That’s the stuff that I love more than anything else.

SC: Given the constant improvements taking place in CGI, what’s your guess at what a state-of-the-art computer animated film will look like ten years from now?

CL: Well, I’m not an idealist, it’s not like I think ‘Wow, the future is so open, and in ten years we’re going to see this wonderful new stuff.’ I’m neither an optimist or a pessimist on that. I’m kind of neutral. What I think we will see is CG characters that are indistinguishable from real-life characters. You’ll see some synthetic-actor-type stuff. It’ll be even easier than today to put Natalie Cole in the same screen as Nat King Cole, and stuff like that. I mean, we’re almost already at the point where a filmmaker can just arbitrarily say what he or she wants on the screen, and lo-and-behold, there it is, in live action. So, as far as the look of what you see on a theater screen, we’re almost there now, maybe my words will be ridiculed in ten years. It’s like Bill Gates saying that no one will need more than half a meg of memory on a computer.

SC: That should be on his epitaph. Obviously technology has improved drastically, given Moore’s Law. I remember Ed Catmull of Pixar said that an average frame used to take 2 hours back in the 60’s, now it still takes an average of two hours today.

CL: Yeah, because people want to cram a bunch of stuff and it becomes two hours.

The End

From the film "The End"

SC: So, between "The End" and "Ryan", how has the tool improved, or are you still always constantly arm-wrestling with technology even now?

CL: Yeah, I’m always arm-wrestling with it. It’s always performance. That’s the biggest, biggest thing. I mean, the fact that I can put bind skin on an entire character today, and then play it back in real-time, I did the same thing on the something like "The End" and it would take thirty seconds to render. We’ve come that far, and your way of thinking about composing and animated is way more liberated, because you can do facial animation in real-time now. That’s just great. You can do simulation of hair almost in real-time. So yeah, that’s performance, and that’s the biggest change I’ve seen.

SC: I get asked this question all the time myself. Just a quick comment about the state of the industry. There’re so many panels, discussions about ‘Is 2-D dead?’ Of course it’s not. But I want to hear your take on 2-D versus 3-D versus content, and also all the outsourcing, with India possibly becoming the next Mecca for CG Industry. Can you comment quickly on that?

CL: Well, no, 2-D is not dead. I think a reason 2-D has gone so badly in the last five years is that the scripts have all been shitty. Well, not shitty, but mediocre, formulaic, playing it safe, and people get tired of that. I don’t think it’s the look so much as the way of telling the story that has faltered. You know, Pixar stuff has always been supported in a huge way by great storytelling. And they know it. And great acting. Great performances, inspired performances. And that’s what makes their films work.

SC: So, a few more questions. Who are some of your heroes in animation, and who are some of the up-and-coming animators we should watch out for?

CL: I would say Bill Plympton is a good hero. First of all, because his stuff is so great, but second because he kind of embodies this approach that I’ve always thought is amazing, which is that he works on his own, with very minimal support, and very little overhead, and he’s able to produce feature films. And the films go out there, and they get very limited showings, because they’re so weird, Sony and Warner aren’t going to be picking up his stuff, but nonetheless it’s enough to keep him going. So he’s able to do films pretty cheap, and create these pieces that don’t get wide audiences, but who’s to say that they won’t get wide audiences in years or decades? You know, with CG, the cost of production of doing a feature film is very high right now, on the order of up to $100 million or more, but what will happen when the tools get cheap, and the cost may be $10 million or less for a cool CG feature. Then you’ll start to see interesting things happen that I think Bill Plympton sort of paved the way for.

SC: Yeah, there’s a few productions, I think there’s one called “Delgo”, even “Jimmy Neutron” was done pretty cheap off the shelf. What about some up-and-coming animation filmmakers?

CL: Well, a guy named Sam Chen.

SC: That was unsolicited.

CL: Well, let’s see. Certainly the guy who did “Birthday Boy,” I think that won the best animation at SIGGRAPH, it was pretty cool.

SC: Yeah, student.

CL: Yeah, an Australian guy. I do expect to see more from Sejong Park. I’d say Bob Sabiston has still got a lot of stuff up his sleeve and would love to see more stuff from him, original stuff.

SC: What about some of the heroes and legends that you would like to meet from the past?

CL: I think my heroes are more in the filmmaking realm than the animation realm. I mean, not to put down any great animators there but, you know, Stanley Kubrick, and Orson Welles, and Hitchcock. Those are the guys that I’d love to sit down and have lunch with. I mean, some of the heroes I wouldn’t want to sit down and have lunch with, you know like Francis Bacon the painter. Every time I’ve seen him in interviews, I’m like ‘What a f------ monster. Really unpleasant. A mean-spirited, narcissistic person, but nonetheless a big hero of mine.

SC: That’s the beauty of Alberto Giacometti, were you familiar with him?

CL: He sounds like he was a pretty cool guy.

SC: Yeah, everybody loved him, and Picasso was very envious of him, he stole from Giacometti quite a bit. But yeah, he was a talented guy and a great guy to be with. So, really one last question I have left is, when you look at your body of work from…what was the name of that, for the record, that weird Softimage animation?


CL:
“Franz K”.

SC: That was awesome. And at that time there was nothing that edgy and that one really stood out. So from that, to "The End", to "Bingo", to "Ryan", you see a natural evolution of your style and themes, and how you’re inspired from real life, like the Absurdist Group, for example. So given that, do you have an idea of where you’re going next, kind of pre-calculated, or are you hoping to again stumble into your next real-life inspiration by accident?

CL: Well, I could only be flippant about that, because I can’t tell you literally stuff that I’m doing right yet. Check back in a year or so.

SC: So, we should get ready for a big U-turn, or a detour?

CL: I’ll do a romantic comedy next year.

SC: Alright, I think Meg Ryan might be available.

CL: Yeah.

SC: Well, I think that’s all I have. It was a pleasure, Chris, you’re going to be at SIGGRAPH, right?

CL: Yeah.

SC: Ok, well we should definitely hook up there. I’ll see you in L.A., ok?

CL: Ok, great.

 

Transcription: Kevin Armento

To read Sam's interview with Pixar director, Brad Bird, about The Incredibles, click HERE.

To read Sam's interview with animation director Eric Goldberg, click HERE

 

Chris Landreth
Sam Chen

For more information on Chris Landreth and Ryan, click HERE.

For more information on Sam Chen and Eternal Gaze, click HERE.




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