Animating on feature films and TV productions, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By Eric Weiss

Over my career, I have had the opportunity to animate on several very high budget and recognizable features including, Godzilla (1998), Final Fantasy the Spirits Within, Polar Express, and Superman Returns. In each project there were highs and lows and those unforgettable moments that continue to inspire me and keep me excited about the industry. In this series I hope to give you a glimpse into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly part of working on animation and visual effects on feature films and TV shows.

(PART I) The Good,

There have been so many instances where I can look back and say, “Wow, I actually get paid to do this!”

Godzilla was the first Hollywood feature I worked on. After striving to reach a role as an animator on a feature film for almost 5 years, I finally found my dream job working as a lead animator for Centropolis FX, in Santa Monica, California (read Hollywood). Centropolis just finished the block buster hit Independence Day and I had the opportunity to work on their very next project with many of the same team that brought ID4 to the big screen and even bigger box office numbers. I will be working with Roland Emmerich the Director and Executive Producer, Dean Deviln the Writer and Bill Fay Executive Producer, this team has a combined box office total in the billions of dollars and a string of hit after hit. Even Midas might be envious of their success. The VFX was headed up by Volker Engel and Karen E. Goulekas. Wow, just wow.

I picked up and moved from a more corporate role and freelancer in Texas, to LA’s West Side and took an apartment in Brentwood (just blocks away from where the OJ trial shootings took place). I actually showed up for my interview in a suit and tie, but after I started working there, my boss told me I almost didn’t get the job because of it. Everyone in the industry in LA wears extremely casual clothing, and suits and ties are unheard of. They even questioned my mustache, very common at that time in Texas, but taboo in LA. Needless to say the ‘stach was quickly removed.

At that time, each animation workstation and animation software suite cost a whopping $300,000, yes Three Hundred Thousand, and I had one of the top machines in the office. Our team started with only 5 people and we were involved with every decision and methodology for developing the whole animation pipeline. This included using Softimage (now called Autodesk XSI) for animation and modeling, Mental Ray and later Renderman for Rendering and Inferno’s for compositing. I was put in charge of rigging the main star of the show, Godzilla himself and just loved it. I was also able to animate the big guy and his (its) brood of offspring, affectionately called Babyzillas, on many of the sequences throughout the film as well as the really cool teaser trailers.

This one still gives me Goosebumps when I see it.

In addition to animating a lot of really cool shots on the movie, the company took the whole crew and a guest to the Premiere. This was the real, red (Green) carpet premiere with all the stars and it was held in Madison Square Garden in New York City.

The company paid for our flight and hotel for 2 nights in New York including a guest. Unfortunately, we still had to pay for our own limousine.   Yes, we did rent a limo.

I had another really cool experience while working in Sydney Australia, on Superman Returns.  As the Animation Supervisor for the sequence where young Clark Kent, learns about his super powers for the first time, I spent months living in the city and working with a cool VFX company, Rising Sun Pictures. One of my favorite past times while living there was riding on the extensive ferry system that shuttled visitors and citizens around the majestic Sydney Harbor.

Sydney Harbour

In the film we see young Clark, running in the corn field at the Kent Farm and then jumping first 10 to 20 feet and ending up with a mile long uncontrolled flight and a crash head first into his barn.

The production company hired an actor to play Young Clark Kent, Stephan Bender, who did some truly amazing stunts in hopes of capturing the whole performance in camera. They suspended him by 2 gigantic cranes in a flying rig, pulled him over the long distances and hovered him off the ground in giant leaps.

Stephan Bender in Superman Returns

Nearly a full year of planning went into the sequence which was shot in a remote part of Australia, north of Sydney.  Not only did they build the Kent Farm building sets from scratch including the Farm House and Barn, they actually planted an entire corn field months ahead of shooting, all to capture about 10 minutes of film.

Stephan, performed these stunts of runs and jumps attached to the cranes, suspending him over 50 feet in the air, but in the end, the performance wasn’t exactly what the Director, Bryan Singer wanted. Instead he turned over the sequence to Rising Sun Pictures in Sydney and I lead the animation team to replace Stephan’s motions with a digital double. In addition to replacing all but Stephan’s head, in most of the shots, nearly the entire farm and building complex was recreated and enhanced with 3D digital replacements.

See How It Was Done Here

One of the most memorable moments of the production for me was a day that had me showing the VFX Supervisor of the movie Mark Stetson, some of the shots the animation crew was working on. For the meeting, I had to visit Mark on the Metropolis Daily Planet set as they were filming some interior shots. The meeting started with a simple review of the animation shots completed the previous day (Dailies) and while showing the shots to Mark, Bryan Singer walked in and wanted to have a look. As a VFX artist, it’s pretty rare to have the director review work in progress and that was a pretty cool experience. Then a few moments later Kevin Spacey walks in just off the plane from LA. Jet lagged after an 18 hour flight, Kevin had little to say, but it was really and honor and amazing experience to have the work critiqued by both of them. By the way, he was wearing a fedora and sport coat and looked like he just walked off the set of a particularly hard day of shooting as Keyser Soze.

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor

After endless 80 hour work weeks on Godzilla (see THE BAD), it was a time for a change of pace and there were a few possibilities out there. I was offered a substantial raise to continue with Centropolis FX and continue work on Stuart Little and The Patriot, Move to the desert of Simi Valley and work on Inspector Gadget with DreamQuest Images or work on the Anime film Final Fantasy the Spirits Within, for Square USA, in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Just about the entire animation team from Godzilla all signed on to work Final Fantasy and I joined the crew as a Senior Animator and Rigging Artist. By the way the Dream Quest was bought out by Disney Animation Studios that year and it was renamed The Secret Lab. That would have been my ticket into Disney as an animator which has always been a life long dream. There have been a few times in my life that a mere sentence has radically changed the path of my life and the decision to go to Hawaii was one of those Big Moments.

Hawaii lived up to all my expectations and dreams of working on a big budget Hollywood movie, living the life of a celebrity (albeit an animation celebrity) and enjoying life to its fullest. I shared a mansion overlooking Waikiki high up in the hills of Manoa Valley.  Nearly every morning, I woke to a rainbow or two and an amazing view of the lush valley and beach front skyline. Each weekend, I spent surfing, flying gliders on the North Shore, scuba diving, or just exploring this terrestrial paradise.

Hawaii

Our work was also cutting edge. Final Fantasy was the first full length animated feature which attempted to create believable photorealistic humans and as the first, we achieved a remarkable level of art, technology and performance animation. I’ll get back to Final Fantasy in the following sections looking into its not so stellar aspects.

 

Our animation team were like rock stars, both for fans of the Final Fantasy game line, as well as the industry veterans themselves. Not only were we idolized, but we lived the life as well. The crew were all transplants for the most part from various parts of the world. Half the team was made up of Square artists from Japan, and the remaining portion made up of Hollywood industry veterans from LA and beyond.

In addition to living in one of the most enjoyable places on earth, the experience was topped off by a chance meeting of an interesting female soldier at the infamous Dukes bar in Waikiki. This soldier, a gorgeous 6 foot tall blond UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot, grew up in a small town in very rural Wisconsin, Oconomowoc. And to her amazement, not only did I know how to pronounce it, I actually had been there several times and even had my picture in the local newspaper. One thing led to another as they say, and we were married the next year.

To be continued in PART II