Shape Shifter

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Interview with Director Alex Weil

First of all, would you talk a little bit about yourself, your background and your current position at CHARLEX?

As for my background in filmmaking, I first founded Charlex in 1977. My partner at that time was named Charlie Levi. He and I were among the pioneers of analog layering, which led to early digital layering. One of our analog multi-layered pieces was a video for the band, The Cars: “You Might Think”. That video won MTV’s first video music award in 1993. In the following year, we won an Emmy award for a seamless multi-layered analog opening for NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Over the years we have worked primarily for major broadcasters and advertisers. In 2006, we produced a ten-minute short film entitled One Rat Short. One Rat Short achieved worldwide acclaim and made The Academy Award short list.

Currently Charlex employs approximately one hundred and thirty people and our studios occupy 4 floors of an office building. I am the CEO and executive creative director of the company.

Shape Shifter is a 2-minute animated film that seems to be an in-house project, but also carries a car commercial aspect.
Can you give us a little background on how the project started and the approach you took with it?

Oddly enough, ShapeShifter began as a pitch we did for a major cable carrier. The theme of the pitch was a remote control that kept turning into other objects and organisms made from its parts. Though we did not get the job, I really loved the visual development we did and wanted to expand it into an in-house project.

My co-director and designer, Diana Park, developed a beautiful design in which a car enters another dimension and brakes into black obsidian shards that form the world of ShapeShifter. Because it begins with a series of shots of a car at night, the piece is clearly set up like a car commercial, but the film itself breaks down in a stream of conscious fashion and turns into a dream where it becomes unclear what is subject and what is object. My goal was to create an abstract piece, which can be enjoyed by viewers in their own way. We also sought to mix the mechanical, the natural and the biological all together. So, in that way, I guess you can say that the work was to some degree inspired by H.R. Giger.

As the overall director of the film, my biggest challenge was to take Diana’s designs, which I loved to look at, and turn them into something that felt like a story. The first place we went to was of course, music. We did a number of needle drops and found a few that we really liked, but somehow none of them distinguished the piece to my satisfaction.

At that point I realized that I had three things that I could put together to hopefully create some magic – Wonderfully, but ambiguous visuals, a prose poem written by my friend Fitzgerald Scott, and an original piece of music created by Peter Lauridsen from Stimmung. I specifically asked that the piece not be scored to music but instead that it have a life and storyline of its own. Then lightning struck. We landed Gabriel Byrne to perform the voice over. His dream-like reading really put it over the top for me. I am not sure that I can tell you what ShapeShifter actually is but I do hope you are able to enjoy it.

There are several transitions/animated shape transformations, as well as organic animations in the piece, which look quite complex.
Could you share some technical/creative challenges the team encountered during the process?

One of the major challenges technically was to have chunks of obsidian transform mid action into living organic creatures that deform and move. We developed special shatter rigs for each character consisting of about a thousand pieces of shattered shard geo. The rigs allowed us to switch seamlessly between animating the shards flying around independently and having them come together to form the character. The challenge was having the shards go from rigid obsidian pieces to bending and deforming with the character’s motions.

We wanted to have complete control over how the shards behaved and decided early on that most of the shards would be key-frame animated rather than using dynamic simulations. Although this meant a lot more work in terms of animation, it allowed us the flexibility of cheating the reality of the physics of this world. This was necessary as some of the shots called for some pretty implausible things to happen.

We wanted the animation to feel dream-like and beautiful, but almost violent at times. As if in a dream, scenarios change suddenly and fluidly; the setting and characters go back and forth between a state of order and one of chaos. Despite the surreal tone, we wanted to maintain a real and visceral quality to the action.

Tell us a little bit about the development process of the film. How would you describe the production pipeline?
How many people worked on the project and how closely did you work with them?

We did much of the design in tandem with production. Ideas would grow from a simple polygon to a full-fledged shot within days. So many of the plants and even some of the hero elements were modeled in 3D before they were illustrated on paper. This allowed the modelers and animators more creative input on the look. This was more time intensive but allowed for some really interesting decisions that could be made even in the middle of the production.

The forest scenes really tested our pipeline. They involved hundreds of thousands of polygons per tree. In particular the scenes where the trees were quickly sprouting involved 50-80 trees all animating and deforming. Many of the tree and shatter elements ended up being much heavier than we normally would have made them, and so they took their toll on our workstations and render farm.

We had anywhere from 3 to 15 artists on the project from concept through completion. I worked very closely with the artists through every step of the process. For us, this is an example of an extremely collaborative effort from all involved. Our last in-house project One Rat Short is something that we are very proud of; we knew that, as a team, we had set the par and needed to make this as great if not better.

For lighting and compositing, in a world that doesn’t strictly adhere to photorealistic objectivity, you can ride the line between keeping something looking real and taking liberties that favor what ultimately looks better. At the same time, within the worlds we established, I wanted the comps to be as technically fine-tuned as possible, pouring over details that may likely go unnoticed.

Some of our environments required a very large amount of detail and complexity. To pull that off, we used a variety of techniques including projected matte painting from photographs, render time swapping of geometry, procedurally generated geometry, and normal based relighting. We also wanted the piece to have really naturalistic camera and lens effects.  With the exception of some true volumetric god rays, most of that work was done in the composite, including depth of field, motion blur, chromatic aberration, and lens flares, which were sampled from real sources.

What are you and CHARLEX up to now?

Charlex is currently working on a variety of projects. One project we are really excited about is a 3D character animation piece. We are working in conjunction with XYZ Studios of Australia. It’s going to be very cool!

Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us, Alex!

Credits

Director…………………….….Alex Weil
Narrated by………………………..Gabriel Byrne
Co-Director and Designer…………………….    Diana Park
3D Lead/Lead Animator……………………. Adam Burke
Lead Animator/Animation Development……… John Karian
Lead Compositing Artist………………………Jesse Newman
Executive Producer……………………….Chris Byrnes
Producer………………………. Reece Ewing
Coordinating Producer for the Director………Jen Cadic
CG Supervisor……………………Keith McCabe, Myung Lee
Lead Lighter……………………Salar Saleh
Lead Character Technical Director……………….…..Steve Mann
Lead Modeler ………………………….Alex Cheparev
Lighting/Texturing…………………….Mike Marsek, James Fisher, John
Cook, Frank Grecco, Cesar Kuriyama, Keith McMenamy, Anthony
Patti, Tom Cushwa, Jina Lee, Jeff Chavez
Matte Painting…………………….Jina Lee

Modeling………………………..Hung Ma, Chin Lee, Anthony Patti
Animation…………………….John Wilson, Sam Crees, Jay Randall, Carlos
Sandoval, Andres Savu
Rigging……………………………Andre Stuppert, Charles Leguen
FX………………………………Greg Ecker, Johnathan Nixon, Mitch
Doudes, Santosh Gunaseelan
Editors……………………John Zawisha, Kevin Matuszewski
Compositing……………………..Blake Huber
Director of Engineering ………………….Robert Muzer
Chief Engineer ………………………….Jerry Stephano
Pipeline………………………Michael Stella, Dan Schneider
Additional Editor……………………….Eli Mavros
Music Composition…………………….Stimmung; Peter Lauridsen
Sound Design……………………Stimmung; Andres Velasquez
EP of Audio………………………Stimmung; Ceinwyn Clark
Mix……………………………….Headroom; Fernando Ascani
Associate Producer……………Michael Kaufman
Color Correct……………………….CO3; Stefan Sonnenfeld
Prose Poem…………………..”Dreams” written by Fitzgerald Scott

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