Siggraph Sessions – ILM Pixar-Disney and Aardman Animations Share Their Secrets

Siggraph Production Sessions 2015 Review – ILM Pixar-Disney and Aardman Animations Share Their Secrets

Siggraph 2015 Past, Present and Future Miracles


In addition to all the technical wonders on display at Siggraph 2015, Industrial Light and Magic, Aardman Animations (Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit) and Disney-Pixar pulled back the curtain and revealed how they make their magic.

ILM 40th Anniversary

 Aardman Animations has become synonymous with the art of stop motion that they used on features, music videos and commercials ranging from Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, Chicken Run to their artful and  unique Chevron Commercials.  

click picture to see video

Aardman won the first of their four Academy Awards in 1990 with “Creature Comforts,” one of their many innovative experiments in animating puppet characters to pre-existing audio of real-life conversations. The film beat out another Aardman short, “A Grand Day Out,” for the statuette. Not only were both films produced by the same studio, they were also both directed by the same person: Nick Park who had started work on A Grand Day Out while at The National Film and Television School in England.  Plucked out of school by Aardman he was put right to work.

Aardman presentation photo by Patricia Meisels


Until co-presenters David Sproxton (Aardman co-founder) and Dave Alex Riddett (Aardman cinematographer) explained how arduous the task of filming miniatures was, I had no idea how labor intensive their shorts and features were.  Specifically, angling a large 35 mm camera to frame up a pint sized clay character.  Advanced as things are for Aardman nowadays; the features are still very work intensive, filming at a pace of two seconds a day, as they explain in this behind the scenes YouTube video below.

click picture to see video

Most studios long for a chance to move from commercials to features and the road to the glorious gold Oscar. It was the commercial work from companies like ATT (Steve Buscemi’s voice) and Chevron however, that allowed Aardman to purchase the equipment they needed, hire a larger staff and move into a larger facility.  They already had won some Oscars.

click picture to see video

 Few moviegoers realize that ILM’s Star Wars Series was also founded on the crafting of picture perfect miniatures most notably the huge Imperial Walkers which ranged from 18” to two and a half feet, as the panel of Scott Farrar, Dennis Muren, Glen McIntosh, Tim Alexander and Rob Bredow explained.  Parts from plastic World War II bomber model kits were used to add details to ships like the Imperial Destroyer. The motion control rigs ILM developed, was one of the early “magical” techniques that would give them a reputation for creating physical and digital innovations that pushed the boundaries of what the industry thought possible.  It allowed the flight of the space ships to look fluid.  But the work ethic that George Lucas encouraged, meant that the artist didn’t’ take the easy way out, but found the best way. Sometimes it meant getting physical as in the photo below where a ship is “exploded” in front of a blue screen.  The panel referred to it as “getting your hands dirty”.

ILM behind the scenes © Industrial Light & Magic. Used with Permission

This ethic also inhabited the world of ideas where a solution-requiring math or just plain imagination would require focusing on a problem day and night or taking a year to learn digital compositing to expand your skill set.  “T2 was the breakthrough film because that is where we got digital compositing working. That is the main thing I did in my year off – work on digital compositing, Muren said.”  Because of ILM’s successes there was a sea change in the industry, with all the major movie companies rushing to release movies that were laden with special effects.  ILM understood the goal of the best special effects crews, like great soundtrack composers, was not to say, “hey look at this isn’t it cool”, but rather to have their work fit seamlessly into the movie.  In other words make sfx not so special.

Even when digital wizardry was possible, the idea of filming something “in camera” and often outdoors in natural light was often preferred.  This held true for the flying bike chase in Star Wars– 103 shots in three minutes Dennis Muren pointed out or in Back To The Future.  In Back To The Future, Michael J Fox’s shoes had magnets on them so when he jumped on the board he would stay connected.  The panel provided a hilarious shot of the hoverboard with Michael J Fox’s shoes screwed onto the board being carried onto the set by a grip (click here to see video).

ILM took on projects from other directors such as James Cameron in order to grow and keep all these wizards in house and employed..

Miniature cruiser © Industrial Light & Magic. Used with Permission

The Morph technique used in Willow consisted of blending one frame into another. ILM’s John Knoll (one of the creators of Adobe Photoshop) actually premiered the technique at Siggraph.  It was in The Abyss, the panel pointed out that they refined the morph technique they had used in Willow and created a ghostly plume of water that would take on the facial characteristics of the character closest to it.  This was also a first, a Soft-surface 3D CG character.  The fluid morphing technique was used once again in Terminator 2, where ILM created the first CG main character.

After studying one of the film’s greatest tornados, that of The Wizard of OZ,  they created a massive category 5 tornado for Twister The panelists described  Steven Spielberg’s reaction, he said, “the clouds in the twister look like a man with a bad hair dye job.”  “Stevens has a great eye, it’s always good to have strong criticism.”  The ILM’s  special effects work in Twister was nominated for an Oscar and won a BAFTA

Disney-Pixar Moving Mountains

One of ILM’s biggest challenges in Casper, was to convey a world of emotion by animating Casper’s eyes and eyebrows.  The folks at Disney-Pixar had an even tougher task in their animated short Lava (the short that precedes the feature Inside Out), making a volcano human.  The goal was to make you empathize with his plight and all the while making him look and seem like a real volcano.  The panelists showed the process of creating the character, by showing the stages of creation of Lava through slides, video tests and many layers of physical design.  Included in the panel were director James Murphy and Aaron Hartline supervising animator.

click picture to see video

One of the ways they kept it real was to spend days studying real volcanos, the surrounding vegetation and water.  They went so far as to do studies in the changes in water color from the base of the volcano to the surrounding ocean. They modeled the character of Lava after the features of  Hawaiians Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and soundtrack singer Kuana Torres Kahele.  One of the rules of the animation was that the movement had to be confined in the face.

If the mountain were to turn to look at something the illusion would fall apart as the panelists pointed out.  “I mean if you were on a vacation island and all of a sudden you saw the mountain move like that, I think you would freak out.”

They chose to “rely on the subtle movements of his eyes and his head to show us where he is looking.”  Since the volcano was to be ancient and rocky it was important that the movement not be too smooth.  “There are little crackles and pops.  It shows that the rocks have friction as they go up against each other.  We used this technique everywhere, the brows, the cheeks and the lips, what ever change in movements (poses) that were used were covered by cuts from one scene to another.”

The way they were able to fine tune these movements was due in great part from their in-house proprietory software Presto. This intuitive software has fine tuning controls that are not in off the shelf software packages.  A nod of course must go to the rigging department. The panelists pointed out that the controls for Lava allowed them to to divide and animate the aspects of the face into minute parts so the movement could be subtle and realistic not mechanistic.

The result the creation of a story of a heartbroken volcano who melts our hearts.

Published on Sep 09, 2015

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