Pixar's Jim Morris defends digital filmmaking

In SIGGRAPH keynote, says films no worse than before

An eloquently affable industry veteran, Jim Morris offered a blunt reply Tuesday to any suggestion that digital production is lowering the quality of moviemaking in Hollywood.

"Bullshit," the Pixar Animation GM said during a SIGGRAPH 2010 keynote address. "There always have been a lot of bad movies."

The cross-pollination of filmmaking and digital arts has had some awkward growth spurts, Morris conceded, and there have been ham-handed applications of the fledgling technology.

"But it's up to us to take advantage of all these things that have been built," he urged at the conclusion of an hourlong presentation that was equal parts career survey and digital-effects industry overview.

A producer on Pixar's 2009 animated feature "WALL-E" and its 2012 live action/animation hybrid "John Carter of Mars," Morris headed effects titan Industrial Light + Magic for 17 years before crossing the Bay Bridge to join the animation studio. Bearing the additional title of executive vp production at Pixar, Morris also supervised work on "Ratatouille," "Up" and "Toy Story 3" and is helping to shepherd "Cars 2," "Brave" and "Monsters Inc. 2."

"There are those who would believe American movies have gone to the dogs," he said in addressing a packed assembly hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center. "I would suggest there are as many great films being made today as always."

Other than those pointed observations, the tenor of Morris' talk was anything but defensive. Using clips from such landmark effects-driven movies as "Star Wars," "The Abyss" and "Jurassic Park," Morris shared experiences gleaned from his "ringside seat" to the effects industry's digital transformation.

" 'Star Wars' teed us up for the digital age," he said. But a 90-second bit of computer-generated imagery in James Cameron's "Abyss" brought the industry into the age of CG character animation.

Morris recalled an effects hands' frantic search for leased time on a corporate supercomputer to render the necessary images for the pic's underwater-alien "pseudopod" segment.

"You could probably do it on your iPad now," Morris quipped to good effect. As usual, the SIGGRAPH audience was full of spotty-faced digital wannabes as well as industry stalwarts.

Evidence that "CG was moving into puberty" came via the more elaborate digital effects of 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and 1992's "Death Becomes Her." Stephen Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" -- whose dinosaurs were originally to be created simply through stop-motion photography and creature effects -- evolved during preproduction into a groundbreaking amalgam of those traditional processes and CGI character animation.

"In many ways, 'Jurassic Park' was the big enchilada in the evolution of live-action digital cinema," Morris said.

By 1994, Robert Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump" had industryites cooing over so-called invisible effects.

"Gary Sinise is absolutely convincing as a man who lost his legs in war," Morris said, recalling one much-discussed scene from the Oscar-winning film.

Something of an industry campfire for visual-effects geeks to gather around each year, SIGGRAPH bills itself as a computer-animation festival and features scores of academic presentations. Morris recalled that in 1984, "The Adventures of Andre and Wally B." -- an early CG-animation short by Pixar -- "took SIGGRAPH by storm."

For Morris, a onetime producer of documentaries and commercials, the move to Pixar and feature producing has been a return to a first love. "WALL-E" was "animation leaning toward live action," and "John Carter" is "kind of live action leaning toward animation," he said.

A SIGGRAPH announcement circulated just after Morris' speech drove home the ever-expanding scope of the effects business. ILM and Sony Pictures Imageworks trumpeted a computer-graphics interchange format dubbed Alembic, boasting sufficient capacity to "handle massive animation data sets often required in high-end visual effects."

If that sounds a bit daunting for filmmaking newbies, Morris stressed that digital filmmaking simply offers new means "to tell great stories and transport audiences to special places."

Recalling that the low-budget "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" was an early career impetus, Morris added that the Andrew Stanton-directed "John Carter" is sort of "the new age version" of the 1964 space adventure.

"I feel like my entire life I've been in basic training to do this film," Morris said.

Industry training will continue through Thursday at SIGGRAPH 2010. Alternating between Los Angeles and other locales annually, the confab next travels to Vancouver on Aug. 7-11, 2011.
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