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Matt Groening Fellowship screens second batch of animated gems

“Simpsons” creator, Dean Schwartz and Associate Dean Barbara Boyle applaud students

stills from 2012 Groening Fellowship films

Posted on November 16th 2012 in Announcement

In 2011, the first year of The Matt Groening Fellowship, the multi-Emmy®-winning creator of “The Simpsons,” selected and generously funded six films by TFT animation students, on themes of social responsibility.

It was Associate Dean Barbara Boyle, then Chair of the School’s Department of Film Television and Digital Media, who had pursued Groening to fund the first year of the Fellowship — and it was the sheer excellence of that first batch of films that convinced him to continue his support.

This year Groening underwrote eleven films, and, as Boyle explained on November 2, to a large audience of students, alumni, and faculty assembled at the Bridges Theater, this was purely because he was so impressed with all of the eleven proposals the department submitted to him.

Groening expressed his delight with all of this year’s films, from their innovative concepts to their layered, professional-quality sound design. He had fully intended, he said, to take notes on all eleven, but after writing the single word “sweet” on his notepad during the first, he became so absorbed in the experience that he never wrote another line.

Inarguably one of the most influential figures in modern animation, Groening graciously credited award-winning “Simpsons” directors such as TFT Animation Workshop alums David Silverman ’79, MFA ’83, Mike B. Anderson MFA ’90 and Professor Chuck Sheetz ’83, all of whom attended the screening, for their contributions to his success.

Groening has won twelve Primetime Emmy® Awards, ten for “The Simpsons” and two for “Futurama,” as well as the National Cartoonist Society Reuben Award and a British Comedy Award. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012.

Groening has also become one the TFT Animation Workshop’s most munificent benefactors, with a major gift in 2011 that created The Matt Groening Chair in Animation, with benefits that include bringing visiting master artists from the field to teach classes in the Workshop.

PHOTO:

Left to Right, Top Row: Celia Mercer, Professor, Head, Animation Workshop; Vivian Lee MFA 12; Po Chou Chi MFA ’12; Danielle Heitmuller, Alex Wong, Jing Wong and Yangzi She, first year students.

Second Row: “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening; Arem Kim, second-year student; Rami Kim, first-year student; Jessica Hokanson, thesis student.

Bottom Row: Heng Zhang, second year student; Ariel Goldberg MFA ’12; TFT alumnus Chuck Sheetz ’83, Professor, Vice-Chair Undergraduate Studies, Emmy©-winning “Simpsons” director.

Photo by Juan Tallo

Film Stills, Top to Bottom:

“Recover” (Po Chou Chi)

Terror in a Three-Piece Suit” (Ariel Goldberg)

“The Adventures of Bugsy McKay” (Jessica Hokanson)

“Rainy Day Ducks” (Danielle M. Heitmuller)

“Today’s Headline” (Arem Kim)

“Rietoki” (Rami Kim)

“Baseball Boogie” (Vivian Lee)

“To the Fairest” (Yangzi She)

“Family” (Alex Wong)

“The Secret of the Wardrobe” (Jing Wong)

“The Last Snowcap” (Heng Zhang)

Groening Fellowship Students 2012

  • Po Chou Chi MFA ’13
  • Ariel Goldberg ’07, MFA ’12
  • Jessica Hokanson MFA ’13
  • Danielle M. Heitmuller MFA ’13
  • Arem Kim MFA ’13
  • Rami Kim MFA ’13
  • Vivian Lee MFA ’12
  • Yangzi She MFA ’13
  • Alex Wong MFA ’14
  • Jing Wong
  • Zeng Zhang


Groening Fellowship Students 2011


  • Alexis Block MFA ’11
  • Debra Chow MFA ’12
  • Chris Anderson & Ariel Goldberg ’07, MFA ’12
  • Mary Lai MFA ’10
  • Sijia Luo MFA ’10
  • Erick Oh MFA ’10

News

Alumnus Wins Best Animation Award at The Marbella Film Festival in Spain

Mark Chavez Winning Best Animation Award at the 2012 Marbella Film Festival in Spain

Posted on November 1st 2012 in Accolade

Alumnus Mark Chavez MFA ’03 won the Best Animation award for his film “Vengeance + Vengeance” at the Marbella Film Festival, a five-day festival of more than 100 films, shorts and documentaries at The Andalucia Plaza Hotel in Puerto Banus, Spain.

The film is set in a science-fiction world where technology has leveraged politics and the military is controlled by corporations. It’s a place where only the cleverest or the most brutal survive. The protagonist, Lily, is an athletic, intelligent research scientist whose nanotechnology specialization and its use in biomimetics and organic synthesis is employed by the Resnick Corporation.

She’s discarded in a hostile wasteland where the results of diabolical genetic engineering have produced a distorted population of mutants. Who has put her there and why? Using intelligence and raw violence to overcome her adversaries Lily finds that all is not as it appears and that her challenges are more substantial than she thought.

Description From the Filmmaker Authored in a game engine, designed in three different styles, the characterization morphs between three design targets. The standard style targets naturalistic proportions and colours, cute style targets cartoon rounded shapes & colourful soft tones and extreme attempts more film-noir style with exaggerated though human proportions, detailed textures and an overall more contrasting tonal treatment. This design style’s purpose is to draw empathy from the audience, making the character more aggressive in style or child-like and vulnerable in appearance.

The work is created in a game engine and executed interactively by blending the three design styles in a director driven authoring system. What is presented is the final outcome of the work where the design of the characters changes in volume and color tone to manipulate the viewer’s experience.

A contemporary adaptation of Richard Stark’s “The Hunter” (previously adapted with Lee Marvin as “Point Blank” and with Mel Gibson as “Payback”) places an Asian female in the role of Parker. Set in a dystopian future where science has become the only key to domination and those who control it the rulers.

About the Filmmaker: Mark Chavez is an animation industry professional that has joined academia to experiment with emergent (hybrid) animation technologies. His professional experience includes work at major studios in interactive medias, broadcast television, and console games and feature films including Dreamworks Feature Animation. He has extensive experience in feature animation and live action visual effects, having worked on films including “Daredevil,” “X2,” “Elf,” Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat,” and more.

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Feature Stories

Barbie goes to Film School

Professor Tom Denove enlists Mattel’s Barbie Video Girl to create a festival of all Barbie-cam films

As the multimedia triumph that was the 1st Annual Barbie Film Festival was winding down, as the last pink-frosted cupcake crumbs were being brushed from various lapels in the lobby of the Bridges Theater, one question reverberated through the minds of the stunned participants: What hath Tom Denove wrought?

Indeed, as Professor and FTVDM Vice Chair Denove explained to the assembled multitudes, it was all his idea, inspired by a now-famous YouTube video some helpful students brought to his attention

Denove won the approval of TFT Dean Teri Schwartz for his wacky idea, and then approached Barbie’s parent company, Mattel, to pitch his concept for a film festival exclusively for short films made by TFT students using the new Barbie Video Girl Doll — an iconic, slender young lady made of plastic with the lens of a palm-sized video camera embedded in her chest.

FTF2

That many of the films, shot over a single week in April, were clever, funny and inventive was no surprise. They were made, after all, by some of the most talented film students in the continental U.S.

Another slender young woman, Rose O’Neil, Mattel’s Director of Barbie Marketing, was on hand to award MFA Production/Directing student Tess Sweet the good-humored Mattel Jury Prize for one of the evening’s cleverest clips, “Little Punk.” The short was distinguished, O’Neil said, by its vivid evocation of “Barbie’s point of view,” and because it paid tribute to an act that almost all little girls are eventually moved to perform: “cutting off all of Barbie’s hair.”

The high humor quotient came from Soraya Selene’s restaging of a key scene from “Basic Instinct” in “The Ken Show” (Best Cinematography) and Best Film winner Simon Savelyev‘s wistful evocation of an oppressed house appliance’s break for freedom in “I, Roomba.”

What did take some viewers by surprise was the high percentage of work that was artful and ingenious, and even beautiful. Undergraduate film major Travis Geiger deservedly won the Production Value Award for Overall Design and Ingenuity for a film, “La Muse,” that paid atmospheric homage to the black-and-white French New Wave films of the 1960s — Barbie and Ken as Anna and Jean-Paul, complete with subtitled French dialogue.

Barbie Film Festival Awards 2011

MATTEL JURY PRIZE – ‘Little Punk’ by MFA Director Tess Sweet

BEST FILM – ‘I, Roomba’ by MFA Director Simon Savelyev

AWARD FOR TECHNICAL ACHIEVEMENT – ‘Battle of the Bog’ by MFA Animator Eric Leppo & Undergraduate Design student, Dawson Dill.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – MFA Director-Cinematographer Soraya Selene for ‘The Ken Show’

BEST ANIMATION – ‘The Twilight Zone: Barbie Edition’ directed by TFT Staff Member Nolwen Cifuentes.

BEST DOCUMENTARY – ‘Thanks, Barbie’ directed by Undergraduate Susanna Ericsson.

BEST COMEDY – ‘Audition For Barbie’ directed by MFA Director-Cinematographer Judy Phu.

THE PRODUCTION VALUE AWARD FOR OVERALL DESIGN AND INGENUITY – ‘Le Muse’ by Undergraduate Travis Geiger

THE PRODUCTION VALUE AWARD FOR MOST FASHIONABLE / STYLISH / DISTINGUISHED / BEST DRESSED – ‘Ken Gets A Makeover’ by MFA Screenwriter Sian Chen

THE BARBIE BRUIN SPIRIT AWARD – tied – ‘A Barbie For All of Us’ by Undergraduate Scottie Bookman

—‘Making An Animated Film’ by MFA Animator Natalie Xavier

THE BRANDON BLOCH SPIRIT AWARD FOR ACHIEVEMENT IN BARBOGRAPHY – ‘Bug Eye’ by MFA Animator Marika Boehler

AUDIENCE AWARD – ‘Bug Eye’

Feature Stories

"Beyond All Boundaries"

UCLA Theater&#39s Dan Ionazzi creates scenic elements for immersive re-creation of World War II

TFT

The visceral reality of warfare is evoked as never before in an innovative theatrical experience now playing at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. With scenic effects designed over a period of almost two years by Daniel Ionazzi the UCLA Theater Department’s director of production, the show, “Beyond All Boundaries,” is a 30-minute stage spectacle that draws upon the combined power of sound, video imagery, scenery and theme park style SFX such as steam, smoke and seats that tilt and rumble to immerse audiences in the experience. As the museum describes it, viewers “feel the tank treads rumbling across North Africa’s deserts, brush snow from their cheeks during the Battle of the Bulge, and flinch at anti-aircraft fire as it tries to bring down a B-17 on a bombing run over Nazi Germany.”

“Beyond all Bounderies” is a museum attraction that debuted in November, 2009, with a serious educational agenda. The show has a mandate to give patrons not just a thrilling ride but an overview of the entire sweep of the history of World War II, with executive producer and narrator Tom Hanks and an advisory group of top scholars serving as a guarantor of respect and accuracy. (Hanks was also instrumental in attracting the show’s top notch voice cast, which includes Bard Pitt, Elijah Wood, Chris Pine, Viola Davis, Patricia Clarkson and many other top stars.)

As the project’s Scenic Designer, Ionazzi, created all the solid, “practical,” scenic elements, from scrims and panels for media projections to almost life-sized props such as the nose of a B-17 bomber and an entire concentration camp guardhouse that rises into view from the pit beneath the stage.

According to Producer Phil Hettema, president and creative executive of The Hettema Group, “‘Beyond All Boundaries’ was an incredibly complex show, with myriad scenic and technological components all competing for the same space. Dan did a brilliant job, taking all of those elements and creating a scenic plot that allowed all the elements to mesh seamlessly, without compromising on the look of the individual scenes. He’s a great designer and problem solver, and his efforts played an important part in the visually stunning and impactful show experience we created.”

In addition to serving as the director of production for the Department of Theater, Ionazzi is also the production manager for the Geffen Playhouse and works as a designer and technical consultant at prestigious national and international theatrical venues. He spoke with us about the challenges of designing for a theatrical event that has so many moving parts.

DAN IONAZZI: “Beyond All Boundaries” was trying to pave new ground in terms of combining three-dimensional objects with computer generated graphics and live action video, with lighting and special effects. It’s a conglomerate of all those things, taking elements from the theme park ride, the theater and film. In the pit there are scenic items, such as, the guard tower and the anti-aircraft gun. There are three panels that come up out of the pit that are used for video projections, close-ups or inserts, with a larger image in the background. Out front there’s one main bank of three projectors that cover that whole space, and the full-size screen, which is actually a scrim. That means it’s semi-opaque, so you can project on it or light behind it and let the image bleed through. And there are additional projectors providing images layered on surfaces upstage of the scrim.

The people I was working with were mostly film people, but from the very beginning my conversations with them were about making this more than just a movie on a huge screen; making it a truly theatrical experience.

One obvious element that’s missing that most people associate with theater is the actor, the sense of sharing the same space with a live performer.

My purist heart would say that’s exactly right, that it’s not truly a theatrical experience because we don’t have interaction with actors. Nothing that happens on the stage will change with the audience’s presence. It plays the same whether there’s a full house or no one in the house. As with any kind of museum or theme park exhibit, it’s all about show control. There’s one technician there, who seats the audience, punches a button, and the whole thing runs. That means the scenery moving, the projections rolling, the sound playing, the practical scenic effects appearing and disappearing on schedule. But as an audience member, it’s certainly more of an experience than just watching a 2-D film image. There is a sense that you can go up on stage and touch these things, feel the heat, the wind, smell the smoke, feel the earth shake.

The thing that we had to be cautious about was the issue of scale of any scenic element that had to blend with computer generated graphic images or videos. There could be multiple images, too. Sometimes there was one overlaying textural scenic element and then, inset into that, videos of historical footage or news reels, or scenes that we shot here in Los Angeles, against a green screen, of actors playing soldiers walking through a bombed out city. There was a big model in the studio, and we’d mock up those scenic pieces and project on them to see if we had the right position and the right scale. We’d go back and forth constantly tweaking those kinds of technical things.

We hear occasionally about film projects where new technologies had to be developed to get the effects the creators had in mind. Did you have to develop new theatrical technologies for “Beyond All Boundaries”?

In a sense, yes, we were developing new techniques – or at least figuring out how to apply the technology we had in unprecedented ways. We were pushing it right to the edge. The projection system already existed, for example. We’ve done projections at the Geffen, we’ve done projections at UCLA on things like “Homer in Cyberspace.” This gave me the opportunity I’d been looking for to go further and play with that sort of thing in a very high-end way, with the interactivity of technologies and how you trigger them and program them. The way we used it, integrating it with practical scenery, integrating multiple projections for a layered look — the sheer complexity of the application of these technologies in “Beyond All Boundaries” was a major advance.

Were you guided more by the need to convey accurate information in a museum setting, or by the requirements of drama?

It was a mixture of both. We researched things and we got as close to reality as we could. We were questioned by museum consultants about things like what color the planes or boats actually were. But our feet weren’t quite held to the fire. At times scenic elements needed to be darker than they really were, for example, because of the theatrical environment, or because we wanted to use light in a certain way. Some liberties were taken to keep the story moving. It’s very much a theatrical experience and it should touch people, the whole arc of the story. We end up with a sort of memorial on stage for the soldiers, who march across and line up, and then some of them transform into how old they would be today, and leave their brethren behind, the ones who did not come home.

We wanted to be as accurate as possible, yes, but we also wanted to have an emotional effect on the audience – and we had to go over the whole war in 30 minutes and try to touch all the key points. You just gather it all in and hope it transfers to the audience as part of the bigger story. It’s intended to propel them out into the museum itself, to really dig into the details. It’s meant to give them an emotional experience that ties in with the more traditional material that they would see in a museum.

Feature Stories

UCLA and USC Double-Team New Media

Landmark Collaboration Maps New Landscape of Transmedia

TFT

The word from the cutting edge of New Media is that while explosive change is what’s making headlines, the heart of any successful media venture is right where it’s always been. “It’s all about a great story with relatable characters,” declared Danny Bilson, a prolific TV showrunner (“The Flash,” “The Sentinel”) turned videogame publisher (“Medal of Honor”).

Bilson spoke on March 16 as a panelist at the innovative academic/industry symposium “Transmedia, Hollywood: S/Telling the Story,” the first-ever collaboration between the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, organized by Denise Mann, associate professor in the UCLA Producers Program, and Henry Jenkin, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and the School of Cinematic Arts.

“New social-entertainment formats have entered the zeitgeist to a startling degree,” said Mann. “In addition to the plethora of webisodes, mobile-phone apps and casual games that are available online, to keep fans thinking about a favorite television series like ‘Lost’ or ‘Heroes,’ the committed fan can participate in alternate-reality games. A perfect example is the recent ‘Why So Serious?’ campaign associated with ‘The Dark Knight,’ which invited Joker look-alikes across the world to come together to track down clues and solve the game.”

The all-day conference provoked lively responses from a standing-room only crowd in the new Ray Stark Family Theatre at the USC Cinematic Arts Complex. Twitter users were sending out enthusiastic tweets throughout the event. Despite the wide range of views, patterns began to emerge as participants circled back repeatedly to some recurrent themes:

Fans insist on taking an active role:

There is no way to turn back the clock on active consumer involvement. Interactivity is now so taken for granted, especially by the most coveted younger media demographic, that companies are well-advised to try to guide appropriate fan activity, encouraging guided mash-ups and promotions by providing access to copyrighted material in a carefully controlled and sequenced fashion. “Let them play,” as UCLA visiting professor and partner at Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon LLP Alan Friel put it, “but make sure the sandbox belongs to us.”

Throughout the day, panelists agreed that corporations that insist on protecting assets at all costs by closing off the sandbox to consumers are at a distinct competitive disadvantage.

Gaming is more social and less isolating than people think:

“The first post-‘Pokemon’ generation is moving into adulthood,” said Mimi Ito, associate researcher, University of California Humanities Research Institute and the author of two books about anime and anime fandom. Ito asserted that the importance of “games as a social medium,” binding fans and players together, is often overlooked. This prompted Richard Lemarchand, lead game designer for Naughty Dog Software, to repeat claims from fans who enjoy watching family members getting drawn into his “Uncharted” series of games almost as much as they enjoy playing them.

Fandom is no longer only for boys:

Traditionally a young, all-male geek preserve, fandom has expanded to include more women and girls than ever before — an audience that some content providers ignore at their peril. Production Designer David Brisbin views the increase of female fans as unequivocally a very good thing. He has first-hand experience working on projects such as the proprietary wrath of “traditional” fan boys on the recent re-make of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and the obsessive mostly female followers of the “Twilight” properties.

Transmedia doesn’t have to be expensive:

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One of the defining events of the development of Transmedia, the Internet-based “Blair Witch” campaign, was masterminded by attorney and conference participant John Hegeman (currently CMO, New Regency, and a visiting professor in the UCLA Producers Program), and done on the cheap in 1999 because the filmmakers could not afford a traditional media blitz. And while pros like UCLA Alumnus Steve Wax, a co-founder and managing partner of trend-setting promotional agency Campfire, can spend up to a million and a half dollars on national alternate reality campaigns such as “The Art of the Heist,” for Audi, other panelists and audience members noted that low-cost tools of effective ARG production and distribution are now available to all: websites, blogs, Flip Mino video cameras and cell phone videos airing on YouTube.

Storytelling still rules:

If any one overall theme dominated the conference it was that a relatable story is still the “mothership” and central source of power in the most effective Transmedia projects. “If the characters are alien, and the world is alien and the technology is alien, the audience will be alienated,” said producer Danny Bilson. The “world” of a video game or film story can be hugely important, but largely because it is rich in potential stories waiting to be told. More often than not, many agreed, the best stories still originate in the creative imagination of a single individual such as “Twilight” novelist Stephenie Meyer or “Harry Potter’s” J.K. Rowling. According to Diane Nelson, president, DC Entertainment, the authenticity and unity of a single creative vision is key to “maintaining the integrity of the story across all platforms.”

The “Transmedia storytelling” concept was chosen for the conference to spotlight how open-ended, interactive, immersive and complex stories must now become in order to expand successfully from a traditional TV series or film into the new narrative spaces made possible by the Internet.

The alternative reality game “Year Zero,” for example, created to promote the Nine Inch Nails concept album of the same name, took 18 months to unfold. Fans became part of an “Art is Resistance” movement fighting a near-future dictatorship. National deployment of clues embedded in everything from text messages to sky-writing transformed the entire country into a virtual playing field, leading fans to a top-secret “resistance meeting” in Los Angeles that included a free NIN concert.

“‘Year Zero’ is a perfect example,” Mann says, “of the originality and expansiveness, the ‘wild wild west’ spirit in which all this Transmedia storytelling is taking place.”

Feature Stories

"Beyond Lemonade" – Exploring a New Medium

A step by step blog about creating an online series by Laurie Hutzler, MFA ’98

TFT

Media consultant, screenwriter, TFT alumna and producer, Laurie Hutzler MFA ’98 has made a specialty of helping filmmakers analyze and strengthen the emotional content of their projects. Her venues of choice are both face to face coaching sessions and her popular instructional website ETB Screenwriting.

Hutzler’s techniques have been available in many forms, from private client sessions to working on scripted and non-scripted television series all over the world for FremantleMedia to her popular classes and lectures offered at several distinguished institutions. She has taught in the MFA Screenwriting and Producing Program and the Professional Program in Screenwriting at TFT, at the Royal Holloway College at the University of London, at the Sorbonne in Paris and for the Royal Literary Fund in Cambridge, England.

Soon, the TFT website will present a step-by-step, how-to and why-to, blog Hutzler has been writing for ETBScreenwriting.com about the creation of “Beyond Lemonade,” a multi-character online series she is creating for FremantleMedia (the UK-based reality TV behemoth behind “American Idol” and one of the largest producers of scripted drama internationally). The blog will track Hutzler’s progress through the development and production process on a day-by-day basis, as she masters the new concepts and techniques needed to produce good work in a format that didn’t even exist five years ago.

Blog installments already posted offer hard-won insights on issues such as the importance of bread and butter issues, choosing a resonant name and designing an eye-catching logo. On larger thematic issues she’ll cover how to identify a target demographic and add an interactive element to online dramas without distracting users from the smooth flow of a good story.

Hutzler hopes that when it is offered on the TFT website, the blog will prove useful to students looking for the accessible venues for their work the Internet provides. And this Spring (2010), Hutzler will moderate a workshop on the UCLA campus, where several Bruins working successfully in online content will discuss the challenges and satisfactions of the new medium.

“Beyond Lemonade” is a scripted-drama series about women starting over in mid-life, after the breakup of a marriage, a death or the loss of a job. The array of characters includes a woman who re-launches a failing newspaper by taking it online — repurposed as a journal for women seeking to start new chapters in their lives. The circle will be completed when members of the online audience are invited to create, interactively, the content of this journal, by sharing their own stories of fresh starts and new beginnings.

TFT: All the elements of this story – your blogging, the subject matter of the series, the exploration of an empowering new medium —seem to fit together perfectly: From every angle this is a story about how people can take control of their own content and their own lives. There are no longer any barriers to taking matters into their own hands.

LAURIE HUTZLER: That’s exactly right. I think the interesting thing, both for my demographic of women starting over in mid-life, and UCLA’s student demographic, is that one of the most revolutionary changes in media today is the disappearance of the gatekeepers. By gatekeepers I mean the classic middle-men, such as the TV networks and movie distribution companies. Their function was as much to keep most people out as to let only a select few people in. But gatekeepers are being replaced very rapidly by filters. Netflix is a perfect example of a filter. Netflix will accept almost any movie. There are thousands of movies there, and rather than decide what you should watch they have a system for figuring out what you want to watch. Based on your interests, they recommend movies that they think you will like and alert you to the preferences of your friends or other viewers.

There is a wonderful quote that I am going to paraphrase. Somebody asked a filmmaker, when will filmmaking become an art, and he said, “When anyone can do it.” And that is happening now. The kind of special effects that we saw in “Star Wars,” I can do on my Mac. People who never had the opportunity to make a film can now do so with equipment available on the consumer level.

TFT: From a cynical point of view, the fact that anyone can do it means that there will be that many more bad amateur movies. Maybe the odds will be a little better…

LH: The opportunity for online entertainment is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that the barrier for entry is very low. You can do this for not much money. My computer has a webcam and I can film myself doing anything — and people do. I read somewhere that the amount of the material uploaded on YouTube each day is as much as the entire history of film since the beginning of time.

But the bad news is if that because you don’t need high production values online, the writing has to be extraordinary. The key is that you have to get people to follow you, you have to develop word of mouth, and you can only do that by appealing to a specific audience’s interests.

In one of my posts I was talking about a 13-year-old kid, Lucas Cruikshank, who made an online series literally with the web cam on his computer. He created a character that I personally find incredibly annoying, an obnoxious 6-year-old named Fred Figglehorn, that kids worldwide think is absolutely amazing. Lucas has the first YouTube channel that got over 1-million hits, and now the Figglehorn story is being made into a movie. He’s been diligently working at it for three years. You are talking about a kid who is working with tools that are available to every 16-year-old, creating content that other 16-year-olds want to see. And by consistently posting his videos he’s built his own fan base.

The production means may be limited, but limited means lead to greater creativity. That’s why some of the greatest film and theater works have been created under censorship; because you have to be cleverer than the average artist to get your point across in spite of those creative limitations.

TFT: One of the most obvious limitations of online drama is the fact that in most cases the episodes are only a few minutes long.

LH: I had a really interesting conversation about that with [TFT screenwriting professor] Howard Suber, and he asked me how I had decided that my Beyond Lemonade episodes were going to be 10-minutes long. And the reasoning is that it can’t be too long because a lot of people watch these videos when they are taking a break. But at the same time it needs to be long enough that you feel you’ve had a satisfying story snack. And Howard told me that in the very earliest days of movies, 10-minutes was the length of a single reel. So the so-called “one-reelers” of that era were exactly 10-minutes long.

I was thinking that the length of a single segment of a TV show, between the commercials, is 10 or 12 minutes, exactly. It’s a length people feel comfortable with.

TFT: The question would be, though, how much could you really do dramatically in a segment of that length?

LH: More than you might think. In order for an episode to be satisfying, it has to have a self-contained narrative arc, a beginning, a middle and an end. Now, the average scene in a movie or a TV show is three pages — which is three minutes. I think to build anything you need at least three scenes, one to state the dilemma, one to make it more complicated, and one to offer some resolution. It’s a miniature version of the three-act structure of a feature-length screenplay. So 10-minutes is just about right to tell one segment of a story.

Something else that I think is really important, and it is an absolutely drop dead requirement for Fremantle, is to have a good answer to the question, “Why does it have to be online?” It is not enough to just take your short film and cut it into three-minute or 10-minute segments. There has to be a reason why it needs to be online as opposed to in a book or on TV. And for me this comes down to the great issue of interactivity. People now expect to be able to participate. That’s why comment sections on blogs are so popular. It’s why Twitter is such a global phenomenon.

But long and bitter experience has shown that literally interactive stories, in which the audience decides how it is going to turn out, don’t work. For a story to feel true it has to have an internal rhythm. One of the challenges of interactivity is that you have to distinguish between what an audience wants and what it needs. Nobody wants to see the hero die. But in some cases, in order for the story to feel true, the hero must die. So how do you make something interactive without the audience getting to choose in ways that might undermine good storytelling?

The answer we’ve come up with is to mirror the strategy our protagonist is using in the newspaper that she is taking online. Her readers provide much of the content for that journal by telling their own stories about starting over. The trick is that her readers will actually be our viewers: we will invite our users to post their own stories, which will then become the content of the fictional online newspaper that is published in real time.

That aspect makes it unique to the web. We will have a writing staff, but right now the idea is that the fictional paper will be modeled on “The Huffington Post,” in that there will be stories that are aggregated from other sources. Also we encourage our readers to look at their small home-town newspapers and send us the stories of interesting things that women do locally or cool businesses they have started. I came across a story about a woman pilot who needed a watch, because all the chronometers were men’s models and were too big for her. So she designed and manufactured a watch for women who are pilots.

One of the things I think is very interesting about the demographic of “Beyond Lemonade” is that it is so enormous and so seemingly invisible. Women over 40 are the single largest demographic in the United States, and women-owned businesses employ 35% more people than all the Fortune 500 companies combined. This is because one of the most popular routes for women who are starting over or who have hit the corporate glass ceiling is to start their own business. The reason women start businesses is that the gatekeepers often won’t let them in! And where have you heard that before?

Feature Stories

Life Stories

Film scholar turned Life Coach Rhona Berens helps clients with their third act rewrites

TFT

We are all very skilled at creating stories based on where we come from, based on what we feel others expect of us, based on who we think we should be in our lives. What would it be like to create a story for yourself based on who you really are? – Rhona Berens

Storytelling is the context and the goal of just about everything we do at TFT. As a defining human activity, telling stories is not confined to professional practitioners of narrative art forms such as theater, film and television. We all tell stories, in and about our own lives, and with some thought and effort we can re-write them. This is the empowering message offered by Cinema and Media Studies alumna Rhona Berens MA ’87, PhD ’92.

A self-styled “recovering academic” who now applies her critical skills in her new vocation as a Life Coach, Berens helps people “access their true selves” through her Los Angeles-based company Forté Dreams Coaching.

“I stumbled on the word ‘storify’ a few weeks ago,” Berens writes, in a guest-column published in A-List Screenwriting’s September newsletter, “when I considered turning the noun, story, into a verb (e.g., to story my experiences), just like business people have morphed the word ‘grow’ so that now they can grow a company. Turns out, storify does what I was looking for: ‘To form or tell stories of; to narrate or describe in a story;’ or, most succinctly, ‘to make up.’ To state the obvious: Fiction writing is, at its core, the ability to storify scenarios and characters. To state the not so obvious: autobiography — including our self-focused thoughts and beliefs that we never write down — is how we storify ourselves.”

Berens did her undergraduate work at McGill University, in her native Canada, and before doing her graduate work at TFT. She taught in the field at UC Irvine for almost a decade, but after earning tenure and chairing the department, she sought new challenges in the business world. She has held posts as Vice President of Strategic Marketing at Online Partners; VP of Client Services and Customer Care at PlanetOut; VP for Business & Community Development at PeoplesMD. And through it all Berens found that “the favorite roles I played were teacher, mentor, advisor,” “helping people learn about their best selves; helping them envision and pursue their dreams.”

TFT: When you talk about the idea of how people “storify” their lives, it’s hard not to think that there may be a direct link between your graduate work in Cinema and Media Studies and your current work as a Life Coach – that you’re applying the techniques of narrative analysis to people’s real-life stories.

RB: It’s possible to look at it that way, I suppose, but it wasn’t a conscious path that I followed to get to this point. I just loved teaching and helping people grow. It was only after I’d been in business for a while, when I started taking coaching classes, that I realized that coaching is just another way of working with people’s stories.

Before I came to graduate school at TFT I loved acting. I thought I wanted to become an actress. Growing up in Toronto, I was in a lot of summer camp and school productions of musicals. When I went to college, my parents made a deal with me: I did not major in theater arts, and if, when I finished my undergraduate degree, I was still passionate about acting, they would help me move to New York and pursue it.

But by the end of college, I realized part of why I wanted to be an actress was that I wanted to be other people. I didn’t like me. I was still too young to really understand what that meant, but old enough to realize that this was not a healthy path for me. And I think that is part of why I am here today, helping people figure out who they really are.

TFT: The most basic question: What is a story, as you understand the term?

RB: One assumption is aesthetic, the sense that a story is an account of events that is consciously shaped and has a beginning and a middle and comes to a satisfying conclusion. And in the common sense way of thinking about stories there is almost always a fictional element. A story is something that is made up. That’s the way I like to put it in my work, as the way we apply some of the characteristics of fiction to our own life stories, to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

It also has a lot to do with what we think of in a general way as roles. In terms of dramatic conventions, we know that one character in a piece is not as important as the others if they don’t grow or change. A lot of the work I do is with clients who feel they’ve gotten stuck in roles like that. If we were writers, writing about characters, we could change that. We could map out how we want that character to grow and change. So how do we take control of the shape of the story of our own life, rather than just playing a secondary role in it?

TFT: Is it something as simple as, ‘I feel I am only playing a supporting role, and now I want to play the lead?’ Which as any actor will tell you is scary, because the star has to carry the show.

RB: One of the questions I ask my clients, when we talk about the places in their lives where they feel stuck, is precisely how does this serve them? What do you like about playing the supporting role? What is holding you back from playing the lead? Most of the time the initial response is that nothing about it feels right or good. ‘I want to feel different! I want to be different!’ But it must have felt right to you at some point, or it wouldn’t have become so entrenched. Often it’s just that it’s comfortable or safe or familiar.

Something else that is important is to help people explore what their values are, the ingredients that they feel are important for them to live a fulfilling life – which is not necessarily the way they are living now. When we are asked what our values are we can often answer very quickly, but we often answer with the values that we think we should have, or the values that we grew up with. It is very hard to shift away from the stories that are destructive for us or that undermine what we are capable of. We are relying on values that aren’t really our core values.

TFT: We hear quite a bit, or at least we used to, about the harmful effects of the role models in popular culture on people’s self-image and aspirations. That the role models we’re offered now are often negative. Is this something you’ve dealt with in your work?

RB: Thus far I have not had clients with fictional characters as role models. I have certainly had clients who reference business people, historical figures, maybe, against whom they measure their own success. A lot of what I do with clients is spend time to find out what success means to them, because, again, our definition of success is often the definition that is imported from somewhere else. Maybe we have imported it or assembled it from lots of different places.

TFT: I would guess that these historical figures or business figures, at least the version of them that we admire, are also partly fictional creations, a combination of facts and legends. There are the facts of their lives, but there is also a large element of legend.

RB: The notion of these sorts of successful figures as being storified, that’s absolutely true. There is always a fiction attached to them. And part of the fiction we create about people who are successful is that they are not like us — which is part of why we decide we can’t be successful. They are different, super human, I could never be like that.

My job is to help people access their true selves, to find their core selves, their higher selves, the part of the self that serves them best. It is not about doing whatever you want to do, or being whoever you want to be at the expense of everyone else. It’s about figuring out how to live so that you are aligned with your own values as opposed to compromising your values, living the story that feels right as opposed to someone else’s story.

I am advocating that people be true to themselves, and to do that we need to figure out what is really important to us. We are all very skilled at creating stories based on where we come from, based on what we feel others expect of us, based on who we think we should be. What would it be like to make create a story for yourself that is based on who you really are?

To learn more about Rhona’s work, visit her at www.fortedreams.com, or email her at rhonaberens@me.com.

Feature Stories

Filming the Extremes of Nature

Alums Ronan Nagle and Adam Martin risk life and limb documenting the majestic fury of weather at its worst

TFT

Ronan P. Nagle MFA ’98, executive producer and on-screen co-star of The Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers,” and Adam Martin MFA ’05, the Supervising Producer of The History Channel’s “Ice Road Truckers,” are working at the cutting edge of daredevil edu-tainment. The TFT filmmaking alums are risking life and limb almost on a daily basis, to get the shot, and the story, on two of reality television’s biggest current hits.

Working on projects like these, the filmmakers inevitably become part of the story, because in the reality arena you can’t photograph the activities of people who put themselves in mortal danger to make a living without subjecting yourself to the same hazards.

“We don’t always know what the story of an episode will be until we land on it. We can’t predict when a driver is going to run into a whiteout or narrowly avoid hitting a moose.” — Adam Martin, “Ice Road Truckers”

“The thrill of it for me is just the awe-inspiring power of nature. Some of these things, you can’t even fathom how beautiful they are until you see them with your own eyes.” — Ronan P. Nagle, “Storm Chasers”

The three main crew members of “Storm Chasers” also appear on camera as the programs continuing protagonists. In addition to executive producer and “intercept vehicle” driver Nagle, the lineup includes two of his former UCSB classmates, “champion storm chaser” Sean Casey and “navigator” Byron Turk (with legendary chasers Reed Timmer and Chris Chittick helping out). The charismatic team projects a swashbuckling panache as they climb into radar and computer-equipped, armor-plated, behemoth SUVs to stalk monster twisters across Tornado Alley — roughly a thick stripe down the center of the U.S., from Texas to North Dakota.

“There are times when visibility drops to zero,” Nagle says, “and you have to wonder about the sanity of becoming a sort of human probe, injecting yourself into the center of this frenzy.” At the same time, he insists, “The thrill for me is just the awe-inspiring power of nature. Some of these things, you can’t even fathom how beautiful they are until you see them with your own eyes.”

“Ice Road Truckers” has made outlaw folk heroes out of the practitioners of the men (and a few women) who pilot 18-wheelers across the frozen lakes and rivers, and even portions of the Arctic Ocean, of Canada’s Northwest Territories. There is a practical reason for doing this, it turns out: these “ice roads” are the only way to deliver supplies to remote diamond mines and natural gas and oil fields during a brief window of opportunity afforded by the coldest months of midwinter.

Both programs have been smashingly successful. This year’s third season premiere of “Ice Road Truckers” in May was the most-watched single episode in the history of the cable channel. The ratings of the third season of “Storm Chasers,” which returned on October 10, are up 30% over last year’s network highs.

Danger is an obvious draw for both participants and viewers. “There is definite blood lust on the part of the audience,” Martin admits. “The same impulse as rubbernecking at accidents.” And in his official bio on the “Storm Chasers” website Nagle says, “I love adventure and doing things only a few people will dare to do. When I tell people what we are attempting to do with the TIV [the show’s hulking “Tornado Intercept Vehicle”] they assume we’re crazy, but I feel it’s a calculated risk worth taking.”

“Storm Chasers” can argue convincingly that the technologies developed for filming rampaging cyclones safely have contributed substantially to the research efforts the show documents. The resources that a TV crew can commit to the chase have already made a major contribution to the research task of improving early warning times for people in the Alley.

The TIV is steel reinforced and bristling with recording equipment. It is now so heavy that it is essentially immovable, even in the strongest funnel. “The TIV becomes a 16,000-pound tripod,” Nagle explains, “with a turret camera that can swivel 360°. During a recent chase in Eastern Wyoming we just hit right where they wanted. As a result that storm became the most studied of all time, with 110 minutes of recorded data.”

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A more realistic hazard is that probes and radio-controlled drones that get sucked up by the winds to take readings can be transformed into lethal projectiles. “Nothing has happened, yet, thank God,” Nagle says. “But I have seen the swath cut by one of these things through a field of wheat, like a shark fin cutting through the ocean.”

The sleek filmmaking skill with which both programs are crafted doubtless has a lot to do with the fact that viewers keep on returning to these programs week after week and season after season. According to a “New York Times” TV critic, “Truckers’s” rapt viewers come to share “that existential recognition behind the wheel late at night that the pull of sleep and the pull of death are one and the same.”

As the driver of the TIV, Nagle is one of the on-camera “stars” of “Storm Chasers,” an interesting concept in the context of reality TV. Adam Martin, who supervises a production team of 30+ crew members on “Ice Road Truckers,” talks openly about “casting” the drivers featured in the show with demographics in mind, and about keeping his eyes open for “characters” – “people with large personalities who don’t think about the camera and don’t censor themselves.”

A clear case in point is the show’s breakout star, Lisa Kelly, a driver Martin recruited when he began proactively looking for a different way to appeal to the show’s core young male audience.

“I had some female truckers,” Martin said, “but what you usually get are the Large Marge types,” referring to the iconic butch trucker in the 1985 movie “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.” “I kept hearing stories about Lisa and how cool she was,” he says. “And when I met her, I thought, ‘Well, she’s pretty cute.’ But she also has a fresh, vibrant attitude and an unpredictable way of saying things. Saying that a storm ‘vomited all over the road,’ for example. She is very genuine.”

“Truckers” has four road teams, each comprising a producer and a “shooter,” filming at all times, along with two roving utility units and a helicopter unit that can rush to the scene of spectacular developments – like the crash last year in which a driver walked away after rolling his vehicle and being ejected through the windshield.

In all, about 16 crew members work as shooters, their work augmented with “diary cam” footage, shot by the drivers, and often mud-spattered images from cameras mounted on the bodies of various trucks. The ratio of film shot to film used averages 350 to 1, Martin says. That’s 350 hours of raw footage for every hour-long program.

Martin is frank about the need to shape all that footage into something more closely resembling a narrative. The two organizing devices they use most often, he says, are the “cliffhanger” and the “red herring.” “We don’t always know what the story of an episode will be until we land on it,” he says. For example when a truck turns a corner and drives unexpectedly into a whiteout blizzard. Then the material leading up to that event will be culled to create either a false sense of security or of foreboding. “We’re always playing actual events that have occurred right before us. We simply want to concentrate the material to bring out the narrative.”

What reality filmmakers seem to discover over time is that even when their raw material is derived from actual events, the qualities that keep viewers riveted are the ones that have been working that magic for centuries in fictional narratives: humor, strong and unconventional characters and a compelling sense of how human beings get from point A to point B – the most basic form of storytelling.

“Ice Road Truckers” began its third season on The History Channel on May 31, 2009. “Storm Chasers” launched its second season on The Discovery Channel on October 16.

Nagle photo by Gino de Grandis


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Feature Stories

Shane Acker: Envisioning a World

Tim Burton mentors animation alum as thesis film "9" becomes a feature

TFT

“I didn’t learn all the technical stuff at UCLA. On a lot of that I was essentially self-taught. What I really learned was storytelling and filmmaking, which prepared me to be a director.” — Shane Acker, writer/animator/director, “9”

“I saw Shane’s short film and it just blew me away,” says visionary director Tim Burton (“Sweeny Todd”), describing his first encounter with “9,” the Director’s Spotlight-winning Animation Workshop thesis film by Shane Acker MA ’98, MFA ’04. Set in a blasted futuristic landscape, the film centers on a plucky rag doll with oddly metallic, camera-like eyes, who battles a mysterious mechanical antagonist, The Beast.

The short went on to play at dozens of film festivals. It was named “Best of Show” at SIGGRAPH 2005 and snagged the Gold Medal, the top prize, at the 2005 Student Academy Awards.

In 2006 it was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Animated Short Film category.

Acker traveled a winding road to his career as an animator. Born in Wheaton, Illinois, he began his academic career at the University of Florida, intending to become an architect. At UCLA he earned a master’s degree in the subject from the School of Arts and Architecture before signing on at the world-famous Animation Workshop.

“When I started working in architecture,” Acker explains. “I realized right away what a long arduous journey it would be to get the freedom to do what I wanted. But I was also trained in the computer graphics side of things, and I began to see that possibility to create something all by yourself, with just your own computer and software. The potential of that is really limitless.”

It took Acker more than four years to make the short version of “9.” That extreme solitary dedication is, for Tim Burton, is what truly separates the men from the boys in the field of animation.

“I got out of animation because I couldn’t do that,” Burton says. “I just don’t’ have the patience for it. I was a really unhappy animator. In fact, when I was working at Disney [on shorts such as the 1982 “Vincent”] I slept half the day. I learned how to sleep at my desk in case they ever walked in.”

In contrast, Acker recalls,“That’s when I discovered that I was an artist, because I could not walk away from ‘9’ once I started. I had to see it through.”

Acker’s work on the short had to be postponed from time to time because the filmmaker was already getting lucrative day jobs, including a lengthy stint in New Zealand at Peter Jackson’s special effects and animation studio WETA Workshop. Acker says he “killed a lot things, virtually,” on Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” notably some giant elephants in the final battle sequence in “The Return of the King.”

He also animated the iconic Eye of Sauron that dominates the fantasy epic’s last two installments.

“I really got some animation legs from that experience,” Acker says. “Being in such a prestigious place, with some of the top animation talent in the world — I consider that my animation boot camp.”

The feature version of “9“ opens worldwide on September 9, 2009 – 9/9/09.

In our exclusive interview below, which includes material gathered by Sheila Roberts at San Diego Comic-Con 2009, Shane Acker comments on:

Animation and Architecture

Becoming a Director

His Influences

“9” – From Short to Feature

Mentors Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov

Realism in Animation

Sheila Roberts: Did you have a good experience at the UCLA Animation Workshop?

Shane Acker: I had a great experience. I was fortunate, I think, because I had already gone through one masters program, in architecture, so I knew what a masters program was all about. It’s really about making the space for yourself to do your own work. You have to be self-motivated and you have to know what you want to get out of it. I knew how precious that time was and that it was really up to me to make the best of it.

And it was amazing working with [the Animation Workshop’s founding director, now retired] Dan McLaughlin. He had so much knowledge, such a history. And he was really good at story. I didn’t learn all the technical stuff at UCLA. On a lot of it I was essentially self-taught. What I really learned was storytelling and filmmaking, which prepared me to be a director.

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ANIMATION AND ARCHITECTURE

SR: UCLA alumna Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight”) is another director who started as an architect. It doesn’t seem like the most obvious first step to becoming a filmmaker.

SA: It makes more sense than you might think. In architecture school you’re not so much making a building as telling a story about a building that you want to make someday. You’re trying to sell that, and you wrap it up in a narrative. You talk about how people will live in this space, and then you present drawings and imagery that will sell this idea to people.

It’s a world. When you study architecture you’re studying anthropology. You’re trying to understand how all these fragments come together to create a world. For me filmmaking, too, is about creating a world and saying, “Who are the people who live here, and why?”

I’ve always had a very broad artistic background. I loved sculpting, drawing, cartooning. I loved architecture, the pursuit of creating space, but I saw that in architecture I could only do some of that, not all of it. Animation opened up the possibility of all my interests coming into play. And on top of that is storytelling, the element of time. Here was the opportunity to create, from nothing, a whole world. I thought, “That’s what I really want to try to do.”

BECOMING A DIRECTOR

SR: Going from the “one person, one film” approach of the UCLA Animation Workshop to being a leader at the head of a huge crew, that must have been a bit of an adjustment.

SA: It was very strange. It was frightening! It took a long time to get past the desire to push the artists out of the way and just sit down and do it myself. It’s a really frustrating thing at first. But then you start to collaborate with people who, frankly, are much more talented and have more experience than you do, and they bring something to it that you never could. That’s where the joy begins.

HIS INFLUENCES

SR: The film has such an unusual style and tone – were there any earlier films that served as touchstones for you?

SA: I was inspired by a lot of stop-motion filmmaking – The Brothers Quay (“Street of Crocodiles”), Jan Svanmajer (“Alice”), and Tim Burton’s productions. I just love the tactile quality, the texture and the type of movement that stop-motion creates, an organic kind of decayed nature. I initially started playing with stop-motion and then realized, at UCLA, that I wasn’t going to be able to do the camera moves and the visual storytelling that I wanted, so I quickly went into the CG world. But I took with me those qualities of stop-motion. I even designed the characters in “9” as you would a stop-motion armature so that they’d behave the way metal and cloth behaves. I think that lent a kind of believability to the film.

“9” STORY – FROM SHORT TO FEATURE

SR: Tell us something about the story of “9” and how the short differs from the feature. No spoilers, but whatever you feel comfortable saying.

SA: In the short we pick up in the middle of a conflict between our lovable heroes, these rag dolls who each have a number, and this awful creature, The Beast. The beast has been hunting the dolls and taking their life force, and making trophies of their numbers. And then the doll who is number 9, who appears to be a newcomer, gets an idea about how to overcome this creature.

In the feature version we wake up with 9 in this world and it’s really a process of self-discovery: who are we and why are we here and what has happened to us? And 9’s journey of self discovery awakens something from the past, the force that led to the downfall of humanity. Now the dolls have to overcome this thing, and in so doing they find the answers.

It’s really a struggle for what it is to be human. I guess, and at what point do we dehumanize ourselves? But it’s also just a big action adventure movie!

SR: Many, many details of the backstory and the landscape are left implicit in the short. Was there a push to make things more explicit in the feature version, to spell things out more?

SA: Those are questions we grappled with constantly. My instinct would be that the filmmakers need to know, but the audience doesn’t necessarily need to know all that stuff. That’s what makes watching the short so engaging, because something you glimpse in the background or some small gesture from a character will suggest all that history. In animation there’s always a huge leap of faith. You can’t solve every problem. There won’t be an answer for everything. It’s about where you put the focus, or how hard do you sell it, how do you project it in a way that it’s believable, so people will say, “We’ll go along with it.”

MENTORS TIM BURTON AND TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV

SR: Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov were major collaborators in the process of developing this premise from short to feature. How did they help you?

SA: Tim was instrumental in getting the whole thing up and running. He was the umbrella who made a creative space for me to work. But both Tim and Timur were super busy, so there were only periods off and on where we could get together. Most of the time it was me working with the writer, Pamela Cutler, and the producer, Jim Lemley, and all the artists and designers. And then there would be moments when we could get together and present this material to the producers.

The later part of the project, where I really got to work with Timur after he finished “Wanted,” was a great experience, because he’s just an incredibly creative artist and filmmaker. I would say that while Timur directs live action what he also does is make worlds, pretty much in the same way that “9” does.

REALISM IN ANIMATION

SR: Were you actively trying to apply what we might call a live action sensibility to animation?

SA: As far as the cinematography, I was trying to approach this from a realistic standpoint, even though it’s as far-fetched as it can be, with these little burlap guys running around. One of the problems that I have with first time CG directors is that they do everything with the camera, way beyond what you can do with a real camera rig. And I really wanted to embed this film in the classic language of cinema and treat the virtual camera as if there was a cameraman there, following the action; that he’s not on some kind of crazy spaceship flying around. I want to make it as real as possible

And that’s also the way we approached the voice acting [with a cast that includes Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly and Jennifer Connolly] . A lot of and times in animated film it’s so broad and so pushed and so loud. We wanted a real naturalism. We sought out actors who had characteristics similar to the characters they were playing, and the actors speak in their own voices and we’re very earnest about everything we’re doing. We believe so much that these characters exist and that they’re real.

SR: You used no motion capture on this film.

SA: That’s true, no motion capture. But we did shoot tons and tons of reference. We shot the voice actors and used that footage as reference. And we were constantly acting out scenes – as animators always do. It’s interesting because in that sense the animators are the actors who create the characters, but we also have the voice actors. So the thing that you see on screen is several actors all coming together to create a performance.

It’s a process of discovery. First the story board guys will sort of kick it off by investigating how these guys will behave in the scenes. And then you go and capture the voice performance and then you talk with the animators and finally through this whole process the character emerges. You almost have to be a couple of months into the work of animating before you really understand who these characters are.

That’s the focus. I didn’t set out to shake the foundation of animation. I just wanted to tell the story that I wanted to tell, and show this world and its characters, and the way I see things. It’s exciting to see that something like this can come out and get the backing of a studio. I’m very happy.