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LAIKA: Tostitos “The Amazing Flamenco Chef” (Updated with Q&A)
The following is an interview with Laika House’s Nicholas Weigel, director of “The Amazing Flamenco Dancer” and Motionographer’s Lauren Indovina.
Lauren Indovina: Can you tell us a little bit about how you were initially approached for the project? Did the script change much from pitching to production?
Nicholas Weigel: We received an “invitation to directors” from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and launched a three-week development process, culminating in our pitch for the spot. We could tell from the brief that the agency’s creative intentions were ambitious and clear, which is always exciting for us as an animation studio.
The directive was straightforward – create a 30-second story about the magical “creation of salsa” highlighting the love and passion for the process. A memorable, strong and sassy flamenco-inspired dancer was needed to lead the viewer through this story and through a world comprised of all the fresh vegetables used to make TOSTITOS® Restaurant Style Salsa.
House has a history of bringing consumer brand characters to life (M&M’s, Honey Nut Cheerios, Frosted Mini-Wheats, etc ). For “The Amazing Flamenco Chef,” there seems to have been a lot of ownership and invention. How much creative license was given to you in developing the story and the style?
We could not have asked for a better creative partnership with Kate and Jess from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. From the onset, the agency team encouraged us to take chances and be bold with our designs and animation. The collaborative process and mutual trust was evident as we developed the character, story, environment design and character performance.
We started the process by selecting four character designers who were a good fit with client goals. We worked through four to five rounds of exploratory sketching, honing in on directions and design details. Our heroine’s design was like making a great cocktail – the right ingredients would make her memorable, but too many garnishes would dilute her style. In the final client-approved design, she was tastefully accessorized with hooped onion earrings, cilantro-print fishnets, a dress made from organic materials, iridescent eye makeup and a tomato headdress. It’s funny, if I look at her final design I can see a lot of myself in there.
How does LAIKA/house break down a project? Is there an initial phase of look development where artists flush out the style? Or is it a more organic post process working closely with 3D artists to achieve a final scene?
LAIKA/house works in such a wide variety of mediums and styles, which vary greatly to fit the needs of the production. On a project like this, we are creating everything from scratch for a CG build with a definite pre-production phase emphasizing concept design, planning and technical R&D. This provided a good foundation and sense of the scale of the job so everyone knew the creative expectations of the production. From that point, the production is a fascinating mix of organic exploration of details unknown, creative refinement, clear direction and execution.
“The Amazing Flamenco Chef ” has beautiful character and environment choreography. What type of previs did your team use to achieve this effect? Can you talk a little bit about your pipeline?
We pulled many examples of visual reference to get things started. The designers/board artists and the rest of the team discussed the flow of the story and ways to frame up the action. The animators studied flamenco dancing footage to try to find bits of performance that fit into our tight little story. I always liked the idea of creating a moment where we slowed down the action as her dress or her fan ripped through a vegetable blowing it to bits with a sort of delicious violence. This balance of beauty and its destruction speaks to me. We’re also always looking for opportunities to create moments that surprise and exhilarate the viewer.
Our pipeline is designed to support the artists so they can work fluidly. Our core set of tools allows us to set up the asset management aspects of the project. Each project requires new custom tools, so new projects strengthen our abilities to meet challenges. My favorite tools include: evolving scene status from layout – lighting, quick output of animation WIPS, variable rigged character/prop detail, stripping anim scenes and re-assigning shaders, matte painting/texture projection templates and comp templates. Tex/light/comp artists take their shots to 90-pecent completions and use Flame for final color and conform.
What was the time frame from start to finish to complete this project?
The spot aired nationally during the Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 4, 2010. The entire production took about 10 weeks, not including the initial design period.
Taking on “stylized realism” can be challenging because of the unknowns and time it takes to develop the look. On the flip side, this directional challenge is liberating, since you are able to explore design options to create a unique vision.
Our production process and open communication with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners turned our technical challenges into opportunities to innovate and push the look of the spot further.
Outside of that, it’s always creatively challenging to squeeze a richly-designed world like this into 30 seconds. There is so much more to explore!
Maya for Animation, Houdini for FX, Renderman and Mental Ray for Rendering, Nuke for Compositing, Flame for Post/Finishing, Qube for Farm Management
Before joining the roster at LAIKA/house, your path to directing has been momentous, as you’ve worked with many leading CG character based studios and directors in the world. Can you talk a little about how you started out?
I’ve been really fortunate to have always worked with great creative artists, directors and studios. When I graduated with a BA in Art and Anthropology and headed out to find a job, I was weighing an offer as Jr. Account Executive for Young & Rubicam or an Associate Animation Intern for Atari Games in Milpitas, CA. I had to go with Atari. The company is a “classic” and my producer was the body double for Chong-Lee from Blood Sport (seriously)…
This opportunity introduced me to the breadth of animation mediums and I was encouraged to experiment with mo-cap, stop motion, 2D and 3D. I stayed for two years at Atari and art directed a few games before I left to start a small production company in San Francisco called Imagination Plantation (IP). In the entrepreneurial spirit, I happily slogged many hours on commercial spots and directed a few straight-to-video films.
Eventually, IP was absorbed by W!LDBRAIN, where I was a Lead and Animation Director for the next five years. I developed a TV pilot, Vanilla Pudding, which initiated my move to be a Creative Director at Nickelodeon in New York. From there I went to Hornet Inc. as an Animation Director. I collaborated with Aaron Stewart, Peter Sluzska and Clay Weiner. Soon Psyop approached me to work on Coca-Cola’s Inside the Happiness Factory, Happiness Factory 2 and with the Psyop/The Mill on Orangina’s Naturally Juicy production in London. The last job I worked on in NYC was a full-up cinematic for Cartoon Network’s foray into MMPG.
For those of us unfamiliar with the technical ends of a CG pipeline, can you explain a little bit about what it means to be an animation director?
In my experience, an Animation Director can be responsible for everything – from working with the producer to build the team to animating shots. Whether or not you have an Animation Director on a job depends on the scale of the project and the Director. For example on Coca-Cola’s Happiness Factory 2, it was a monster job and required essentially two primary leads: one for Art Direction the second for Animation/Character & Performance. The leads collaborated and overlapped, but also supported the Directors and Producers and managed the team of 40. On The Amazing Flamenco Chef, the team had great Technical Leads and Art Leads.
How would you describe your style as a director?
Evolving. I have done a lot of work… but it pales to what I would like to do in the future or what I have crawling around inside my mind. It’s all about opportunities and collaborating with great people.
What is the best advice you’d give someone in our industry who is trying to become an animator and eventually an animation director?
Be a sponge and an avid observer. Absorb the spectrum of how all things behave, but also try to absorb as many challenging artistic references as you can cram into your head. Be active, be ballsy and be adventurous. Try to study twinkly bits in horrible films, awkward movements, the details, varied cultures and emotional contrasts. Learn about timing and delivery. Bring style, not just acting to your animation.
Regarding your career and transition from animation director to director, what are the biggest challenges to taking on the whole pie to direct a spot on your own?
I’ve been able to work with a variety of Directors and have learned so much – everyone does it differently. It feels natural for me to direct, as it’s really just slipping into the role I’ve been very close to already. I enjoy not only guiding the vision of the project but understanding the challenges the artist and clients face. A Director is a problem solver and intermediary in the grand process.
What advice would you give the 20 year old you?
NW: Don’t compete in the Jr. Olympic Downhill at Mt. Snow – you’ll blow out your knee, like I did in my early years. Actually, I probably would say “ski faster and win that @$%#*&.”
The 25 year old you?
Invest in Google please.
The current you?
Start writing down the stories you and your son make up every night.
Lead Technical Director Rick Sevy, Patrick Van Pelt