ere are the scary facts about |
Sony’s animated feature ‘Monster
House’. Directing the $75 million
dollar production was Gil Kenan’s
first gig after graduating with a Masters degree from UCLA.
Sony Pictures Imageworks captured the performances of all the actors and the dialog for all the human characters in the film while Kenan directed them on stage. It’s a horror comedy animation with a PG-13 rating, the first CG movie to enter the spooky film genre.
The risks proved worth taking. ‘Monster House’ opened in second place behind Pirates with a $22 million plus weekend. And, some critics have uttered the “O” word (for Oscar). “I was really in the right place at the right time,” says Kenan. Winning UCLA’s Spotlight award with his short film “The Lark,” didn’t hurt either.
|“The Lark,” mixed live action pixelated actors and a stop motion puppet over 2D paintings that Kenan hand-animated over live action reference plates. “I created a ridiculously arcane system to torture myself,” he says. “I ended up doing a one-man version of the ‘Tron’ production in my kitchen.” The award-winning student film, among those screened at the Director’s Guild, caught the eye of an agent’s assistant at CAA and the powerful agency signed him up. “I was really, really shocked,” Kenan says. “I was convinced I would make animated films in my kitchen for the foreseeable future.”|
After that, Kenan made the rounds. “I was having three or four meetings a day,” he says. “And then one fateful day, I met Robert Zemekis.” Zemekis and co-producer Steven Spielberg had been considering producing Monster House, a film about a house that comes alive. Coincidentally, Kenan’s film, “The Lark” takes place inside a house, and in the film, Kenan began to explore how a house could have personality. “I started to breathe life into the house,” he says.
|So, Kenan read the ‘Monster House’ script and met with Zemekis and Steven Spielberg. “It’s crazy isn’t it?” he says. “I brought in a ton of drawings I had done and talked their ears off.” Zemekis had directed and produced The Polar Express, for which Sony Pictures ImageWorks pioneered the studio’s ImageMotion performance capture system. |
‘Monster House’ used an updated version of that system. And it was a good fit for Kenan. “This way of making animated films is still in its infancy in some ways,” he says. “The crew, until Imageworks came on, was a live action crew and to them it was strange and mysterious waters. You can get creative sparks that way when you put people into situations they’re not familiar with.”
|The production starts with the performance capture. “Imagine a theater in the round,” says Jay Redd, visual effects supervisor at Imageworks. The motion capture stage was actually a 20 x 20 foot space, 16 feet tall surrounded with 200 infrared cameras and six video cameras. Each actor wore between 60 and 80 reflective markers on their bodies and a similar number on their faces. “Usually we had our three kids and one or two adults in any scene,” says Kenan. “The actors could look at each other and physically give life to their performances. In many ways, it was what you hope to get with great voice recording, but when you put actors together, you get what happens between the lines,” he says. “The looks that you’d lose with voice acting alone. That’s the stuff I’m excited about.”|
|“I find that the kind of animation I respond to in terms of humans is exactly what I got from the performance capture,” Kenan adds. “I respond to films where performances aren’t quite as broad as the American mode of keyframe animation. This yielded subtle performances with lots of gray areas within every line.” Kenan used the video reference taken during the motion capture sessions to cut a reference version of the film that had all the actors’ performances, but, of course, no backgrounds, sets or props, which Imageworks would add later. |
Meanwhile, Imageworks created the stylized 3D characters in Maya, which resembled but didn’t match the human actors. “Because the characters didn’t look exactly like the actors, we had the flexibility and freedom to push, pull, and exaggerate to accentuate expressions and actions,” says T. Dan Hofstedt, co-animation supervisor with Troy Saliba. “We kept the texture and the style of the motion capture and added to it to create a hybrid performance.”
|For example, Hofstedt explains, the scary old man Nebbercracker who lives at the Monster House, doesn’t look like Steve Buscemi, who performed and voiced the character, but the spirit of Buscemi’s performance shows through. An “integration” team at Imageworks took the first stab at feeding the actors’ performances into the characters. In this first stage, the integration team applied the body data from the performances Kenan had selected for the film to the CG characters - no fingers, no faces at this stage. “This is where they addressed the differences between the actor and the physical puppet,” says Saliba. |
Imageworks then sent the data-driven CG characters back to Kenan. At this stage, Kenan had an entire film with all the CG characters performing on a virtual stage. So, the next step was to shoot the movie. To make it possible to design camera moves, Imageworks provided a system they call “wheels.” Kenan spent four months working with a live action Director of Photography shooting the virtual film in the “wheels” room. The DP used standard film equipment modified so that the cameras would directly drive a virtual camera. If the DP panned the real camera, the scene on the 50-inch plasma screen moved accordingly. “The director could put the camera at any angle and use that to break down scenes into shots,” says Saliba.