Where Great Minds Meet
Shane Acker discusses his award winning film "9"
After his Siggraph 2005 Best of Show award win and the recent announcement that Tim Burton will produce a feature-length version of his film "9", we expect that Shane Acker will be around for quite some time. Here to interview Acker is Sam Chen, the Siggraph 2003 Best of Show award winner. Chen and Acker share several qualities: they are both digital animators, both graduated from UCLA, both won the Siggraph Best of Show award, and are both seeing major success in the film festival circuit. It is the perfect chemistry of animator interviewing animator. They offer enlightening insights into Acker's history at the UCLA film school, his near-instant transformation into a polished animator, his work on "Return of the King" with Weta, and finally, a chronicle of his four and a half years working on his masterpiece, "9".
- Steven Churchill, Editor
Sam Chen: Congratulations on the Student Academy Award and Siggraph Best of Show. Now are you totally stoked?
Shane Acker: Oh yeah, I’m very excited. It’s been one amazing thing after another. Yeah, I’m kind of blown away by the success it’s having, but it’s awesome!
SC: So let’s start back to the UCLA days. Now, you made “Hangnail” back in the year 2000 as well as “9” in 2004 – both at UCLA. Can you explain to us your longtime connection to UCLA’s Animation Workshop?
SA: Yeah, well I started going to school there in ’99 and “Hangnail” was the first film I ever produced there. Then I guess I was in there for a total of five years but I think that’s the nature of the school. It really inspires and encourages independent filmmaking and it requires you to do three films before you get out the door there. So it’s sort of like you choose your own poison while you’re there. Some people can get through in three years because they do much shorter films. But me, I always sort of have the tendency to build upon the last thing I’ve done and get more and more efficient as I go. And that’s why it’s taking me so long to get out of that place. But a lot of people don’t actually get finished with the program because you get to a certain point and you have a good reel and you just kind of wander off into the industry and never go back.
SC: Five years -- that’s all in animation, right?
SA: Yeah, it’s actually a three year program... [laughs]...
SC: I don’t know if you know, but I’m also a fellow UCLA Bruin..
SA: Oh fantastic!
SC: ...and I had one quarter with Dan McLaughlin (Head of UCLA Animation Workshop) – “Introduction To Animation” there. What does Dan McLaughlin think of your film “9?”
SA: He was really instrumental in the formation and creation of the film. He was my thesis advisor for almost every film that I’ve done. He was there when it was just an eight-panel loose storyboard until the very end. So Dan has really been a great help and inspiration in the creation of the film. And naturally, he’s very proud of it and has been incredibly supportive as far as helping me get it out there and everything else.
SC: Yeah, and he’s also trained practically half of the animation industry in Hollywood.
SA: Yeah, well Dan... he’s been there forever. He’s the man.
SC: With your double master degree in Architecture and Animation, how does this unique background help you in your filmmaking?
SA: Well, I think the architecture degree has been just an amazing educational foundation for me. What’s amazing about animation and filmmaking is that it’s combined so many of my interests all together. I’ve always been interested in cartooning and drawing and sculpture and architecture and finally when I stumbled across animation during my last year of architecture study, I randomly took an elective that was an animation class and I immediately fell in love with it because all these interests came together in this one medium. So I think a lot of the desire and interest that I have in architecture plays out in the set design and the construction and spatial exploration with the camera inside the film as well. I think it’s just sort of an extension of that and this rich landscape that not only can I create and design it like an architect would but I can also sort of investigate and age it and put life into it, which I think is a step beyond that. But I think the education I got as an architect helped me as an animator to especially like constructing a story. I keep constantly asking questions of myself and I think a lot of that comes across in the architectural training.
SC: That’s cool. We got into animation for the same reasons then. It’s multi-disciplinary... with all of my interests kind of converging together. For me it was photography and music.
SA: Do you also have a Computer Science background?
SC: Yes. I have a Computer Science and Engineering degree from UCLA actually.
SA: There you go! Yeah... it’s like all roads lead to Rome. At the same time I’d say that animation is sort of like a crazy, insanely meticulous, anal-retentive, all-consuming thing. I don’t think everyone can be an animator. I think animation is something you choose on your own because it is so demanding on so many levels.
SC: Right. It’s almost like the meticulousness of our scientific background going in to help out our right-brain to create animation. Okay, so let’s talk about your early films. You were infamous for your Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted-classic “Hangnail” which I loved. What inspired that crazy film?
SA: You know, it was just like a one-gag thing. I have a very twisted, disturbed mind. [laughs] This is one way I can get those things out. And I’ve been drawing these things forever. It was a very visual and visceral idea of this hangnail tearing all the way up your arm. That’s kind of where it started – that gag. And then I just kind of layered it. I wanted to do a one-up on top of that. So what happens is not only does he do that but then this dog comes along and just tears all the rest off. Okay, so what is the motivation for the dog? Well maybe in the beginning this guy is really cruel to the dog and so in some ways, you don’t feel so sympathetic for what happens. So it’s just one of these things that starts with one idea and you just kind of start building it up and building it up and asking questions of it and it just evolves. I really wanted to make a piece that would sort of make you laugh and smile but also sort of make you cringe at the same time – to have those kind of extremes all rolled into one film.
SC: It was custom made for “Spike & Mike’s Sick and Twisted.”
SA: Oh yeah, of course. And that was sort of my target because I grew up, especially in my early college years, always going to the “Sick and Twisted” festivals and I had a real love for them and what they were doing. And I was like, “Okay, that’s a great goal. Can I make a film that can get into that venue?” which is a great outlet for people to see your work and so that’s one of the things I designed it to do.
SC: Did you have a problem with hangnails yourself?
SA: [laughs] Oh... uh.... yeah sort of. I tend to bite my nails and chew my finger sometimes. So yeah. I think everyone gets those kind of raw ones. Oh, I think I’ll pick at it. Oh no, I’ll just leave it. Oh, I think I’ll just pick it. You know, it’s just one of those obsessive, compulsive behaviors I have.
SC: So Academy Award winner Chris Landreth had to make the films “The End” and “Bingo” before he could make his masterpiece, “Ryan.” But watching your previous short films, your filmmaking really took a quantum leap between your last film, which was really just a one-minute kind of CG demo, to your latest film which is a masterpiece. What happened there? Did you make a pact with the devil?
SA: [laughs] No, I mean when I was in architectural school, I kind of focused my studies on 3D modeling and design for architecture. So I had this interest in diving into that 3D world. And I think in my animation schooling, I discovered the films of The Brothers Quay and Švankmajer. You know, they had a really interesting approach and a way of viewing the world and using the media of animation. And so I think I just got really divinely inspired by what they did. My only downfall is that I’m not really smart enough to understand what’s going on in them. You’d have to watch them a couple of times before you really get all the details. But they’re rewarding on the narrative as well as the visual level and that was sort of the challenge and the goal I set up for myself. I loved the characters I was creating. I thought, “This is amazing.” And being an architect, it’s all about the way things go together and the connection between things and so in the designing of the rag-doll characters and in the designing of the monsters, I got to deal with that kind of meticulous detail orientation about, “How do these fingers go together?” and “How do they move?” And it’s about constructing something that works visually but could potentially work realistically and mechanically. I just really fell in love with it and I wanted to do something epic – a more larger, and more dramatic piece. I really wanted it to be a showcase as a director’s reel for me, and then go out and pursue much bigger, larger projects than just the shorts.
SC: I was just so impressed with the fact that every aspect of your filmmaking, from lighting, to rigging, animation, directing, editing, to staging... I mean everything took a quantum leap at the same time and that is very rare and very difficult.
SA: Well it took me four and a half years to make that quantum leap. It just goes back to that idea of that rigor. Just lots and lots and lots of hours in the dark room banging your head against the machine trying to get it to work.
SC: Now was this part-time or full-time during the four and a half years?
SA: Well there were two intense years full time. And then I left UCLA, went on leave... and started working in the industry. So then it became very broken where I’d take a gig for like six months or so and save my money and take another five or six months off and push “9” as far as I could and then recycle as long as it took until I finally got it done.
SC: So that’s a good segue into “The Lord Of The Rings: The Return of the King” which you worked on. Did you go to New Zealand for that?
SA: Yes, I was in New Zealand for about six and a half months.
SC: And what was that experience like?
SA: It was just amazing. Not only was it a wonderful project – something that you could really get excited about or just really wanted to do as much as you could. The neat thing is that there was a really international production where I’d work with animators that were from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Los Angeles, New York, from London. They brought all this talent together and it was great because not only did you learn from all this incredible talent but you got to spend time with people from different cultures who all have a slightly different look on things. And now I have friends that are literally from all over the world. That was just amazing. And it was like boot camp. We were six months out and we still had 400-800 digital shots to finish. So it was just kind of like, “Here’s the bucket. Start bailing.” Just working as much as you can. So it was great. It was perfect. Soon as I got back, I was so much faster – so much more facile as an animator, looking through that experience.
SC: Now, we almost got to work together there, elbow to elbow, because I also got the call for animators to go to Weta to finish that film. And I would have done it had I not just finished my three-year project, “Eternal Gaze.” So I thought, “I need a break.” But I almost took that job.
SA: Well, you know, your film was very successful and turned a lot of heads too. And you kind of want to make sure that you’re available to be in the right place at the right time when you do that too.
SC: Exactly. So what did you do exactly at Weta Digital?
SA: I did a lot of death while I was there actually. [laughs] I killed a bunch of horse riders. I killed a couple of trolls that were coming through the gates. There’s a whole sequence with Gandalf versus the Witch King that didn’t actually make it to the feature release but made it onto the DVD. And I did a handful of shots in that whole sequence. I did some Mumakils who were dying by the Army of the Dead over Aragorn’s shoulder. It was great because I got to do the creatures. Not a lot of the creatures, but I got to do a little bit of all the different creatures on the project.
SC: Did you touch Gollum?
SA: I didn’t touch Gollum, no. Sadly I didn’t touch him. But he was really the focus because he was such a dramatic character with a huge character arc. By the time I got there, they already had a great team working on Gollum – with amazing animators.
SC: Did you ever get to meet Peter Jackson?
SA: Umm... I think he came through the studio once. When I was there he was off doing a lot of the music and stuff. He was spending like half time in New Zealand. But I think the one time he came through – and I kind of sat over in the corner – I was playing video games. At six o’clock we’d all get on and play. I think he saw me playing this video game over my shoulder. And I think that was the only brush with greatness I had with Peter Jackson. Lucky I didn’t get fired.
SC: What was the most important thing you learned from that experience?
SA: That’s a good question. I learned a lot of technique, I think. Like subtle things, you know, animation-wise. I don’t think I can nail it down to one thing or another. It’s hard to say. But I do know that when I first came out of there, I was a much better artist and animator.
SC: Okay. Let’s talk about “9” specifically. Where did the story and inspiration for “9” come from?
SA: I think it came from the characters. If I was going to put a genesis for it all, it would have started with the little rag-doll characters that are these scavengers from the land and they would take things and sort of keep them inside themselves until there comes a moment which they need them or can use them. And I guess that’s sort of like the Jawas from “Star Wars.” I wanted to put these characters in a situation in which they would use their intellect to destroy whatever the antagonist was – which ended up being this sort of mechanical beast. So in the end it was a little bit about Man versus Nature. Sort of the intellect rising up above the sort of animalistic. And also maybe Man versus the Machine. Or the idea of the pen is mightier than the sword. Instead of trying to confront the beast with their might they actually use their intellect to devise these traps that end up destroying the beast.
SC: Would that explain the use of the book as part of the trap? Is that the symbol?
SA: Yeah, of course. So once I kind of knew what the theme and where I was going. I was like, “Okay, well what if the final battle takes place in a library?” And so you further reinforce that the monster’s downfall is sort of in this place of knowledge. And what is the device that destroys the monster? Well it’s this book – in this intricate trap that the rag-doll has set up for the monster. So once you kind of know what your theme is then you have all these opportunities. How do I design the world and make situations that reinforce and help that theme along? I don’t know if you know it, but “Beowulf” is actually the book he kicks off.
SC: Yeah, I did read that it was inspired by that story. So the book used in the trap is “Beowulf?” I actually didn’t notice that.
SA: Yeah, there are lots of little “Easter Eggs” and tidbits of things like that in the film. And going back and sort of re-looking at “Beowulf,” I think there was more of a sort of misunderstanding of the story of “Beowulf.” But it was an idea in itself. You know it’s like, David versus Goliath, where the small and diminutive can defeat the large beast. But he does it by trickery.
SC: So what are some of these other “Easter Eggs” you mentioned?
SA: Oh, you know, I got the kind of wrenching the light bulb out of the lamp which is sort of like a little shout out to Pixar...
SC: Luxo? (“Luxo Jr.”)
SA: Yeah, like a little Luxo. They’re just such an amazing company and they do such high-quality work and they’ve been very inspirational. And also the doll that 9 is sitting on is a shout out to the Brothers Quay.
SC: I noticed that. The baby head.
SA: Yeah. And there’s like a zoetrope machine that 9 jumps on to escape. And so that’s sort of a shout out to the very beginnings of animation. So I just find all these opportunities to do put these kinds of things that have been inspirational to me and put that in this virtual world that I’ve been creating for these characters to live in.
SC: Your film is rich in spirituality. What are some symbolisms you employed in the film?
SA: Well some basic symbolism is that there is a whole mentor figure of 5 and he showed 9 sort of how to make light – basically out of a light bulb and scraps. You know, that symbolism there is to show that 5 is passing down to 9 knowledge. And one of the symbols of knowledge is of course this, “Ah ha!” – this sort of light bulb. The light goes on. You get it. And so that’s the kind of symbolism I tried to put into there. And then as far as the spiritual symbolism, I mean of course in the end the spirits come out of the rag-dolls. I wanted to leave that in a very sort of melancholy way where in one sense 9 has sort of saved them or redeemed their souls. But at the same time they’re moving on to another place, to another world. So it’s sort of bittersweet that the last time they come together is the last time that each world will ever be together. And that’s what 5 does when he turns around and acknowledges 9. He acknowledges this sort of thing that 9 has done by putting himself in extreme danger to do this one little act which is to save them and let them go on to whatever place they’re going on to next.
SC: Well, in the same way “Beowulf” is associated with Christianity and Cain, is 9 perhaps a kind of Messiah figure who saved souls? Or is that looking too far into it?
SA: Well I leave it open so people can look and see what they want and people have become quite inventive with. I think that’s great because I didn’t want it to be concrete really. I always wanted the audience to participate and sort of help create their own narrative out of seeing it. But I don’t think it’s denominational. There’s not one thing. I’ve never thought of 9 being the Messiah. I always thought that I didn’t want this to be some big, grandiose resolution. I don’t want it to be like he solved the world and the world is now renewing and all these things. When you zoom out and you look at it, it’s this very simple little thing. So when you’re in it and you understand the characters and you understand what 9 is doing is actually sort of putting himself in grave danger to do just this one little tiny act. But that one act in the end becomes so incredibly meaningful on the emotional and personal level. So it’s like 9 rises to this challenge but it doesn’t change the world. The world is still going to be where it is and 9 will still go on. But it does sort of put to rest or sort of resolve this conflict that has been there and sort of puts the world right, in that little microcosm of the rag-doll.
SC: Now is there a special significance to the film’s title besides the main character’s name?
SA: Well, it’s funny because people read into the numerology as well. But my basic philosophy or idea behind the numbers was 9 was about as close as you can get to perfection. You know, let’s say perfection is 10. So I think that we can never achieve that perfection. We’re always flawed – every one of us. And I think 9 represents as close as you can ever possibly get to that perfection. And so that’s what 9 is. And 5 is somewhere in the middle. He’s a transition from a maybe more primitive rag-doll into a more advanced rag-doll. 5 passes knowledge on down to 9. And 9 figures some things out for himself and acts on that knowledge to then destroy the beast. So that was kind of the idea that I was having and the logic I was putting into the numbers for the characters.
SC: One of the things I’m most impressed with is that you created such a believable and immersive, post-apocalyptic world. Now is there a back story behind all of this that begs for a feature film or a prequel?
SA: Yeah, actually there is a huge back story and at the moment we’re actually in production on developing that into a feature. And a lot of those kinds of questions that you’re left with when the short is done are being answered in this much larger version of it. And that’s what we’re busily trying to put together. Some people that are involved are Tim Burton, and this amazing writer, Pamela Pettler, who has actually written a couple screenplays for Tim. We’re busy writing right now. So it looks like things are shaping up and moving along.
SC: What will Tim Burton’s involvement be?
SA: He is sort of like the Godfather, the Executive Producer.
SC: Very cool. So if you could take us through your production pipeline, in terms of your process, for “9” [the short] …
SA: For “9,” I probably spent about 2 and half years, just doing all my pre-production. A part of that was making a very extensive animatic for the short -- extensive to the point where if you play that alongside the finished rendered film, it’s almost 1 for 1, almost exactly the same. Of course it doesn’t have all the nuance and all the detail, but you can see that I worked on an incredible amount with the ideas, the cinematography, and the action on pencil and paper. I think it’s such a great way to work. It’s very easy to do -- to be able to rough something in, and throw it in there, take a look at it, and be able to make decisions that don’t take up weeks and weeks to change. And what’s also good about that process is that I put it in front of as many people as I could to get their feedback. Meanwhile, while all that was going on, I was also doing all the character design, building the characters, doing the animation tests and everything, up to a point where I was happy with the animatic, and characters were finally done. I kind of approached the film in layers, where I would go through and bang out the majority of the film in the 3D pre-visualization. Then I would go back and then start working on first test-animation and put all that layer in, then go back and do the next revision and so forth. I built the whole thing up as you would build up a painting. Not just working on one area with detail, but doing the broad washes on top of it. You can really see what’s working and what wasn’t without having to feel so precious about something you’ve taken all the way down to detail of eye-blinks, and then have to throw it away.
SC: Well you know we work the same way, Shane. It really shows that you spend the time with the pencil in the animatic phase. Now, I noticed in the credits you worked with a small, but very talented team that seemed to be very well-rounded. They all kind of did a little bit of everything. Can you talk about your team and your collaboration with them?
SA: It’s funny, in the credits of “The Hangnail,” almost everybody except the amazing sound composer and designer, Randy, were my architect friends. We saw a little bit of a return for some of those guys on “9” as well, for a lot of the set work. I would sort of rough out and do some drawings with pencils and then pass it off to a couple of these amazing architect friends of mine who were also very well educated in the 3D world. They would build the sets for me. It was great, because you could do the architectural shorthand and then you give it to them and they totally get it, and they build and throw in their own details as they went. Then later on in the project, when I was really starting to hit some deadlines, I appealed to all my friends who were in between jobs or were in school and sort of roped and wrangled them into helping me finish up some of the animation, and the lighting, and all kinds of stuff. I wrangled my wife into lighting since she’s a set designer for theatre and knows Maya. She was “under the gun” as well. I was very fortunate to have the most amazing sound designer and composer just basically fall from the sky into my lap. The job they all did was just unbelievable; it’s so incredible. I would go and sit with the sound designer after working for about a week and we’d come up with all these amazing ideas and directions that I initially didn’t envision. It just added such a richness to the world, because there is no dialogue. It’s just the visuals and the sound that’s creating this environment. And in some sense, the sound is more important than the visuals a lot of the time. So I couldn’t be happier with the team that came together and helped me with this project.
SC: Sounds like a total win-win. Now let’s talk about your tools. Tell us about the software and hardware in your production pipeline.
SA: Let’s see, I started way back in Maya 1.5, I think?
SC: (whistles) You’re dating yourself, Shane!
SA: I know, I know… and I guess I ended in Maya 5.5. The majority of the production was done up at the UCLA Animation Workshop. The main toolset that I was using was Maya, Photoshop (for the texturing), After Effects (for compositing), and Premiere (for editing).
SC: We have the same exact pipeline, Shane.
SA: (laughs) Well you know you can’t go wrong with that suite of tools! It’s perfect.
SC: And the hardware?
SA: The hardware evolved as well. It started on a P3 500MHz or P2 400MHz, I don’t remember. And then as it progressed, I ended up on a couple of dual Xeon machines. I had three going on at the same time, each one rendering and cranking through, chewing on all the stuff. But one thing I tried to do was cut as many corners as I could, not narratively, but in as far as rendering and the production. There’s very little ray-tracing, it’s all Maya software rendered. Most of it is 720 by 540 [pixels large]. I tried to make it use reflection maps whenever I could. I tried to keep it really, really streamlined so that rendering wouldn’t be such a huge challenge.
SC: I noticed the magnifying glass, that had to be ray-traced, right?
SA: It was ray-traced, but you know it’s just that one thing.
SC: Hey if Pixar can get away for years without ray-tracing, so can you.
SA: I know, there’s always a clever way around something.
SC: You said you rendered in video-resolution, but have you done a film-resolution version so you can blow up to 35mm?
SA: Yeah I did. Actually, Rhythm & Hues generously offered to blow up my film to 35mm using their film printer. A majority of the stuff I gave them was 720 resolution. They run this through all these amazing algorithms and stuff they have there, and I think they upped the resolution to about 4000 pixels wide. They spent a lot of time and a lot of care really figuring out how to do it and how to make it look good. Once you see the 35mm, it looks really, really good. It’s still soft, but you can see stuff on the edges. I know there was a couple of scenes where there was too much chattering and stuff like that, so I had to re-render that at about 1000 resolution. But they did an amazing job. When I saw the 35mm, I couldn’t believe that I got away with that.
SC: Yeah, I think you pulled off a coup and now you’re going to give everybody else in the community hope, because not many of us can render film-resolution.
SA: The difference is that I wanted my film to look dirty and degraded and sort of organic. I think that with film-resolution, things got a little soft. It just all folds back into the quality of film that I wanted anyway.
SC: It was appropriate for your particular film.
SA: Yeah, so I don’t know if it will work for everybody.
SC: I saw it at Sundance. That was a 35mm print, right?
SC: It looked good to me. How big was your renderfarm?
SA: Three dual-processor machines.
SC: Wow, that’s it? What was the clockspeed?
SA: There was a hodgepodge. There was one 3 GHz, and I think the other two were 1.5 GHz.
SC: Now what’s the biggest lesson you learned, from making 9?
SA: Don’t make characters that have zipper-operable zippers.
SC: (laughs) I’ll keep that in mind.
SA: You see the problem is in 3D, things can deform. But if things don’t hold their surface volume, people aren’t really going to tell unless they, of course, stretch ridiculously. The tricky thing with a zipper is that it always has to maintain its volume -- meaning that the teeth on it cannot really self-intersect. I went through these amazing gymnastics to try to get that damn zipper to not self-intersect. So I did all these amazing constraints to get the teeth on the surface and to keep the teeth from intersecting and to keep the orientation working, but also at the same time, trying to make it look believable and still be able to get the performance out of the character. The simplest thing, the thing the audience is not focused on, is the thing that is the biggest stumbling block of a production.
SC: Yeah, that’s why all of us really need a talented TD (Technical Director) as our right-hand man.
SA: TD’s are worth every penny that is given to them.
SC: The unsung heroes.
SA: Yeah really, they’re the backbone of the whole thing. As an animator, you’re really spoiled because in the production, there will be a whole field, like 20 people, all supporting you so that you can do your job.
SC: Must’ve been nice at Weta Digital, because they have some of the best TD’s.
SA: Yeah, and I was lucky because they were in the room with me. “Justin! I broke it again!” That’s something you don’t have when you’re doing an independent film by yourself.
SC: I know what you mean! Now, to switch gears a bit, I see some possible Tex Avery influence in your first film, “Hangnail.” So who are some of your heroes in animation?
SA: There’s John Kricfalusi who did “Ren & Stimpy.” Tex Avery, amazing. Jan Švankmajer, just an incredible mind and imagination. The Brothers Quay. Chris Landreth, an amazing filmmaker. Very inspirational. The list just goes on.
SC: What about more modern filmmakers other than Chris Landreth?
SA: More modern filmmakers? Oh, they’re all horrible. (Laughs) Just joking. Animation-wise, John Lasseter. All those guys over at Pixar. Brad Bird, I mean, incredibly awe-inspiring director and animator. And then there are the people that I’ve run across in the business that are just amazing animators. Being around them and seeing how they work – you can learn so much from it. I’m fortunate to be able to be in positions where I can be around these types of people.
SC: The staging, cinematography, and editing are very well done in “9,” especially the climactic chase sequence. I can tell that you storyboarded that very meticulously. Now, were you inspired by any particular live-action filmmakers for that, maybe Spielberg?
SA: I wasn’t looking at anyone specifically, but I’m a crazy film nut, so I watched lots and lots of films by Kubrick, Spielberg, you name it – all the great ones. I’m sure that that kind of understanding of camera, and the movement, and the editing, comes across from countless hours of watching the films. So I don’t think I was directly influenced or was looking at anybody when I was doing that stuff, but those particular scenes were the most difficult scenes to do. I actually did a lot of coverage on the shots. I would rough out the action and then just load the camera and say, “Ok, let’s try over the shoulder of the monster. Ok, down low so we can see the monster’s claws coming close to the camera. What if we’re down low and we see 9’s feet and we go up and reveal him and through the negative space in his arms we see the monster and we rack-focus to that?” So I just started playing with all these things, playing with the coverage and editing. I think the only rule to editing is, “You know you got it when you don’t notice it.”
SA: When it disappears, it’s amazing when that happens to you. You bang your head and say, “Why is this happening? Why am I noticing? Why is this bothering? Why is this distracting?” And somehow, you’ll cut it together and then you just completely don’t notice that the camera is even moving through the space. It’s about trying to find that. It’s about trying to have a lot of fun and exploring the space. I think a lot of that comes from architecture too. You know, wanting to really play with and explore the spatial possibilities that are happening inside the movie.
SC: The cutting, editing, and staging were really seamless. I have a feeling that students will be studying that sequence for a while.
SA: Well, that’s very kind of you to say. It could be better. (laughs)
SC: I had the pleasure of seeing your film for the first time at Sundance, and I met you there. That was cool. Tell me about your Sundance experience.
SA: Sundance is always amazing. That festival, I think, spoiled me. I think it’s because they take such care of the filmmakers and really make sure that they’re covered, that they get to go to all of the events. If anyone in the press wants to get a hold of you, they make sure that they’re able to get to you. It’s so incredibly well-organized and focused on the filmmaker and the filmmaker experience. Also, the audience experience and going to see all of these amazing films. One of the great things about that is that here I go from this kid in school to all of a sudden being in this film festival with these animators that have inspired me for so long like Don Hertzfeldt and all of these amazing people that all of a sudden, I could actually sit on stage and answer questions with. It was pretty amazing and awe-inspiring. And then to get to meet them and spend time with them, like with Chris Landreth, it was just a great experience.
SC: You’re amongst the Academy Award nominees and winners.
SA: Isn’t that crazy?
SC: What’s the best thing that has transpired out of your successes with “9” so far?
SA: Well, you know, winning Siggraph wasn’t so bad. Getting an Academy Award isn’t so bad. It’s kinda propelled me out to this world of meeting producers and people who are looking for new talent to take a hold of a project and develop it and turn it into a feature. Of course this opportunity to turn “9” into a feature is a dream come true. And this all came from spending those four and a half years slaving away and trying to make this thing the best that I could. I’ve got an agent now, gone completely “Hollywood” now, but it’s good. It’s gotten me to where I wanted it to get me. All of that hard work paid off. And just the fact that people are seeing it and enjoying it… you know, that’s so incredibly satisfying. One of the most satisfying things is to see it with the audience in the theater and see their reaction. It’s indescribable. It’s like what makes a surfer keep paddling out to surf on waves. It’s that kind of feeling that you get.
SC: Have you ever been to Siggraph?
SA: Yeah, living in LA, you have the luxury of catching it every other year. I’ve been going for the past five or six years.
SC: Awesome. So, as the Best of Show at Siggraph this year and being the finale to the Electronic Theatre, what are you looking forward to the most?
SA: Well, I’m going to be sweating bullets. (laughs) I’m also getting a “Meet The Artists” thing. You know, I’ll be talking with some of the most amazing people in the industry that know a ton more than I know, so I just hope I’m not going to say something stupid. I’ve got butterflies about it. I’m totally excited to be that person and to be up there, but I just hope I don’t blow it.
SC: I had to do that two years ago, too. Well, how about letting me buy you a couple of shots of tequila before you go on stage?
SA: No doubt (laughs).
SC: Now that you’re qualified, are you actively pursuing an Academy Award nomination?
SA: Well, how do you do that?
SC: We need to talk! (laughs)
SA: We definitely need to have a talk. No, I’ve recently become so incredibly busy writing the feature for “9” and developing that, as well as trying to get my film out to as many festivals as I can such as Annecy in France.
SC: How was Annecy this year?
SA: It was great. It’s a beautiful, beautiful town. It’s really a picturesque little alpine village up in the Alps on a beautiful lake. It was very French. And what’s nice about the festival is you’re seeing a lot of films that might not make it over here, and ones that aren’t playing in a festival circuit over here.
SC: Now I really just have one last question. Aside from writing for the feature film, are you (in the back of your mind) thinking of another short idea?
SA: Yeah, you know, spending four and a half years on one film gives you some time to think about some other things that you’d rather be doing. So I’ve got a whole laundry list of other shorts that I want to do. A few of them have been bubbling to the surface and I’ve been storyboarding and roughing those things in. Two ideas: one is kind of an extreme comedy, and the other one is kind of “out there” a little bit. I’ve also been doing some research into other feature ideas as well.
SC: Very cool.
SA: I’ve gone from the digital world to the analog world, which is pencil and paper, just trying to come up with ideas.
SC: Well, we should definitely get together at Siggraph and have a drink and talk over some ideas.
SA: That would be fantastic.
SC: Thank you for your time Shane. See you at Siggraph.
SA: Thank you, Sam.
Transcription by Mark Barry, Brian Crawford, and Eric Covington
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
To read Sam's interview with fellow SIGGRAPH award winner Chris Landreth about Ryan, click HERE.
For more information on Sam Chen and his film, Eternal Gaze click HERE.
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