When the three founders of the Orphanage, one of the visual effects industry’s fastest-growing firms, splintered off from Industrial Light + Magic in 1999, their intention wasn’t to leave behind all they’d learned in Lucasland. They planned to start a new company modeled after the one their former employer had built, with three pillars: visual effects, technology development and feature production.
Seven years later, those pillars are in place, and the company is in the midst of a major growth spurt. The Orphanage supplied effects shots for 2005’s “Sin City,” Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Superman Returns” and Buena Vista’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” An arm of the company, Red Giant Software, sells tools to other effects artists and filmmakers. And the company has co-produced one live action feature, “Griffin and Phoenix,” and last fall announced plans to start making full-length computer-animated features in the $50 million-$75 million-budget range through a new division called Orphanage Animation Studios.Scott Kirsner for The Hollywood Reporter recently spoke with Jonathan Rothbart and Stuart T. Maschwitz, two of the Orphanage’s founders, at their San Francisco headquarters about the convergence of visual effects and animation, the impact of user-generated content and the TiVo effect.
The Hollywood Reporter: Is there a convergence happening between the worlds of live-action visual effects and computer-generated animation?
Stuart T. Maschwitz: Sony’s doing that right now. They’re very much about moving people from their visual effects pipeline into their animation pipeline. They’re completely intertwined. We definitely want synergies between the two, but we don’t see them as the same animal. In some ways, we’ve been trying to make our visual effects gigs train us for the (computer-generated) animation thing.
Jonathan Rothbart: Doing character animation in a visual effects film is not so distant from something you’d do in an animated feature.
Maschwitz: A lot of the stuff that we do with fluid simulations, and particles, and smoke and fire — all the hard things in CG (visual effects) — are just as hard in animation.
Rothbart: You go watch (Buena Vista’s) “Cars,” and when they’re slaloming through the prairie, the dust they’re kicking up is pretty near photoreal, but more importantly, they’ve been able to art-direct it to their needs. And that’s exactly what you have in visual effects — you want an explosion, but a particular kind of explosion. You want it to look real, but the director has to be able to art-direct reality.
THR: In terms of your core live-action effects business, what has changed between 1999 and 2006, aside from more powerful processors and Moore’s Law (a prediction made in 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years).
Rothbart: Well, they’re always harder and bigger. That’s the funny thing about our business — the machines always get better, the tools get better, and the things you did last year are pretty easy to do this year. However, this year, that’s not what somebody wants. They want something much larger that’s going to push the envelope.
Maschwitz: I think that’s (president and co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios) Ed Catmull’s Law. As Moore’s Law increases, you just make up for it by trying to do harder things.
THR: It feels like there always is that edge that people teeter on in terms of wanting to do a shot that hasn’t been seen before and not wanting it to be too conspicuous, where people say, “That character or that explosion is a visual effect.”
Maschwitz: We call that work. (Laughs) There’s an interesting tendency — this odd thing that CG seems to have initiated in film — which is a real willingness of people to overextend their capabilities. With the first computer-generated effects in movies, we were just so excited to see them that it didn’t matter that they weren’t that good. The audiences are over that, but somewhere, the word got out to directors that anything’s possible. Our industry is a little bit a victim of its own success. You work the miracle on one show, and everyone expects the miracle on the next.
THR: It seems that there’s a lot of tendency now that if something doesn’t work out on the set or doesn’t look the way the director envisioned, suddenly that becomes a visual effects shot.
Maschwitz: It used to be that if you wanted a particular type of sunset, you had to wait. Now, you don’t. Now, you can retroactively apply whatever sunset you’d like.
Rothbart: “Superman” was shot in Sydney, which stands in for New York City. There are hundreds of visual effects that pass by, and you don’t even realize they happen. Those are “helper” visual effects, where it’s easier and more cost-effective to do it later on, and the director has the opportunity to art-direct it like he wants. It has helped the filmmakers manage their films’ look better.
THR: On the commercial front, it seems that ad agencies are looking to visual effects to dial up the “wow” factor. In the old days, you didn’t see visual effects in commercials, except for during the Super Bowl. Is that a function of TiVo, where commercials now have to be bigger and faster and more visually impressive for people to pay attention to them?
Maschwitz: You’re hoping to get that commercial where people will want to point it out on (YouTube.com) to their friends as opposed to trying to fast-forward through it. I just directed a Navy SEALs commercial where seeding it to the Internet and having it be something that people wanted to download was an active part of the conversation.
Rothbart: I have TiVo, and I certainly stop on the commercials I find entertaining and race through the ones I don’t. I find that well-done, entertaining, story-type commercials are just as entertaining as the show they’re in.
THR: What’s your read on the high-definition format wars? You talk to the HD zealots, who tell you that absolutely everything is going to be in HD.
Maschwitz: It will, but you won’t be getting it on anything round or shiny. You’ll be getting it through a dedicated or not-so-dedicated box in your living room that’s hooked up to fast pipes.
THR: Do you think that in five or 10 years, there still will be a place for model-making and optical effects — stuff that’s hand-built or hand-painted?
Maschwitz: Miniatures, for sure, for the same reason that in 2050, there will still be a 9 mm pistol: because it can kill someone. You see the sci-fi movies where everyone’s shooting lasers, and you go, “A gun would still work, and it’d be cheaper than a laser gun.”
Rothbart: Some things are still cheaper. It’s really difficult and expensive to make digital explosions, and explode a car, and have it go into a million pieces, and flip over and have the tire fly off. It’s better done with models, and it looks better.
Maschwitz: We’re seeing a really great emergence of the proper understanding of how miniatures and CG relate to one another.
THR: Do you see more previsualization happening for more movies? It still seems like it’s stuck in this place where it’s just for the big effects sequences of the big-budget movies.
Rothbart: Absolutely. Certainly on “Superman,” I saw every bit of previz on that film, and it was not just the effects sequences. They didn’t previz every scene, but they did a lot of talking scenes and simpler scenes that didn’t have blown-out action and visual effects. They were working out a lot of blocking.
Maschwitz: There have been cases of people going in to try to get someone to give them their first directing gig, and they’ve gone in with storyboards for the whole movie. You could show it to the executives, and it takes a big part of their risk aversion away. If I could do my previz with (the video game) “Grand Theft Auto,” I would do it. My favorite game on the (Sony) PlayStation is “Driver.” It’s all based on (1968’s) “Bullitt.” You’re driving around San Francisco in this big American muscle car, and after you have your chase scene, you can go into film director mode, and you can direct the chase scene — move cameras around and edit it. It wouldn’t be crazy to think that someone could go into a meeting at a studio and show them that: “This would be the chase scene at the end of my movie, and I’ve previz’d it in PlayStation with a bag of Doritos in my lap.”
THR: Do you think there will be a continuous line from the previz stuff to the final effects shots? Today, it seems that there’s a gulf between the cheap-and-dirty previz, and you start from scratch with your final effects shots.
Rothbart: Currently, the way previz is designed is to get it done quickly and show a lot of versions. You don’t want too much detail because it can be distracting from what you’re trying to get across. If you just try to push that into the visual effects shot, it is already built for something different. So, you’re finding yourself constantly trying to retool what’s already there. Plus, there’s inherent laziness in previz. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just the nature of the game.
THR: If you think about what’s not possible today or barriers you find yourself running into, what are some of the things you think will be easier in five or so years?
Maschwitz: You’re going to see in-camera motion-capture characters. So, you’ll be able to put an actor in a scene, and the motion-track targets won’t be visible to the camera, but they will be visible to the sensing device. You’ll be able to put a digital prosthetic on them or replace them with a CG character, and yet you never had to shoot a clean plate because the person was really there. You’ll start to see a lot of directors using high-definition monitors, where there’s a rudimentary version of the visual effect already happening on it. So, when you pan the camera up from the girl to King Kong, you’re framing King Kong into your shot, not a bunch of plusses on a green wall.
Rothbart: Well, you constantly find ways to make this stuff easier and faster, but then we constantly come up with new ways to make it more difficult. It’s an endless chase.