Thu 13th Sep 2012, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Production Focus

13 September 2012, by Paul Hellard

'Discovery of purpose' is a trip many film makers strive to express. Mike Dacko shines some light on the mystery.

Mike Dacko grew up in Pennsylvania outside the city of Philadelphia. There wasn’t a lot of film training. After high school in the eighties, he managed to get into a community college where he studied as a cinema major. There he made five short films, one of them clay stop-motion animation and the other four live action. He lived in a barn for some time and created another stop motion film about a factory. This he created in miniature for the piece.

Dacko happened to go see a demo of a new product one day in Philadelphia called a Video Toaster. This had the product LightWave in it, and strangely enough, the guy demonstrating it had done a similar story and he also had created a miniature factory, but entirely built in 3D. “My factory had taken me years and he’d created his in a month,” Dacko says. “Man, I knew I needed to be doing this on a computer!” So that was when he went out and bought his own Video Toaster.

Completely self taught in computer animation, Mike Dacko then put his Video Toaster to work, creating motion logos for TV ads and presentations. He even did a job for the Philadelphia Phillies, the local baseball team, which was shown on the big screen on the stadium, but there really wasn’t enough work in Philadelphia. “I sent out 40 videotapes to companies in California and got back one reply,” says Dacko. “They said, ‘man you did some really crappy animation, but we liked it!’ These guys turned out to be a company who did a game called LEGO Island. So my stiff animation was exactly what they were looking for.”

He eventually generated a better demo reel and soon enough found himself working of Lucasfilm, where he is today.

Lightheaded short - Mike Dacko

But no, the Lucas job didn't just happen over night. In fact it was two jobs.

Right after making the Lego Island game, Mike worked on modeling weapons and creatures for a sci-fi game. He found he was using 3ds Max at the studio he was at, at the time and enjoyed its ability to handle LOD objects.

"I wanted to work for Lucas ever since I was 13 years old," says Dacko. "Getting a chance to drum up some experience in Max made me feel like I could show off some real work."

"Back in the mid nineties, there wasn't as much competition to break in to the industry, but I remember having a friend who worked at LucasArts Games named Troy Molander, who later helped me bounce some Lightheaded ideas around and who also became a principle player for a notable game company called Tell Tale Games. It was the right time to attempt to break in with LucasArts since they were gearing up for a PC game called Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. With a recommendation from Troy who was already on the inside and a ton of LOD modeling from my previous job, I interviewed and was tested to see how I did modeling humans in 3ds Max."

"I spent a day recreating a friend of Jones named Sophia using 3D Max and was hired. After a couple years of creating a couple thousand objects for the game and leading a team of texture artists to get them complete, I realized Lucas was hiring modelers who where more skilled at traditional art so I focused on animation. Luckily it was like a campus of talent with several LucasArts animators who, unlike me were professionally trained at industry schools like Sheridan School of Art. So I worked hard in the free hours to improve my skills as an animator and a position opened up on a Star Wars game called Star Fighter. Ever since then, I was an animator."

Mike's next job was Activision's Toys for Bob where he headed up an animation team making Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam and Madagascar 2 video games. Meanwhile he also kept trying to finish up Lightheaded. "I was lured away by a Disney studio next door called Image Movers Digital which gave me experience in film. So the story goes, the studio was a vehicle for Robert Zemekis to make a Christmas Carol, but Disney elected to close it down after Mars Needs Moms. Looking for the next local gig in the Bay Area, I pitched myself to Lucas again. This time it was LucasFilm Animation. I filled a position for Story Artist which does layout work. Basically blocking out animation and cameras for a Star Wars project called Detours."

The production of Mike Dacko’s Lightheaded started some 15 years ago. Back in those darker days, Mike used to listen to a lot of music, and he had a track from Jethro Tull rolling in his head called ‘Moths’ all about the moth being all sacrificial and sad. After pushing that idea around, he discarded the moth idea and turned his attention to the candle and the wax, and the idea of being cold at a distance and staying warm up close. The project stayed in his head, in concept stage for the longest time. He kept spinning story arcs around and creating scenarios that could be simply played out with the most basic forms. This was his aim. A deep story, in simple form.


personal personal personal

Dacko had moved across from LightWave by this stage and had been training and experimenting using 3ds Max in his professional work. For the Lightheaded production, he tackled it almost 100% in Maya. The next step was to collect the right people to work on the job. Henrik Jansen happened to come along; one of the specialists in Sub Surface Scattering (SSS). “He was teaching at Stanford at the time, but he gave me the name of one of his apprentices,” Dacko explains, “and his name was Cyrus Jam. He said he had some time, liked my storyboard and wanted to see if he could help out in some way, to do something for the short, but soon enough he was hired at ILM and had to go work on Pirates of the Caribbean.” Jam managed to render out some scenes that were completely beautiful and extremely photoreal. Using some of the ILM renderfarm for under a week before Pirates was in full throttle helped the Lightheaded production, but after the movie began, Dacko then had to find another farm to use.

“I couldn't even try to replicate what Cyrus Jam had done, so I had to use ‘cheats’,” explains Dacko. “I grabbed some fake SSS which showed translucency, and just made some sacrifices. It wasn’t the perfect render. I was working at a game studio across town at the time and I decided to buy a grunty little Dell laptop and set off renders beside me while I worked.” The final render was complete in 2009, and it premiered at Rhode Island at the International Film Festival that year.

Mike Dacko relied heavily on render passes and used Adobe After Effects to composite the Diffuse, Occlusion, Specular and Bump passes. He isolated the center crater from the outer and used SSS on just that central area. "Originally I wanted to use a fluid simulator to get that liquid wax puddle, but I never got it to interact with their feet properly," he says. "I also tried using RealFlow to make them come out of the ground seamlessly, but again was running in to too many issues where I couldn't control what the mesh was doing enough to maintain the creature's (Kindlers) form while pushing through."

Emulating the Jam

Dacko elected to use a plug in he found on High End 3D, tweaking it and making adjustments on a per shot bases. "I believe I used a shader with a percentage adjustment to dial in just how much edge translucency there was on the rim of the Kindler," he explains. "When a character has to melt, I used a series of blend shapes and animated the blend between them. This is also how I did the mushy footsteps in the dance crater. When it came time to freeze a Kindler, I changed texture on a hand buy pushing a procedural ramped map on to a T pose Kinder who was at off camera and referenced only the textures for the guy doing the freeze."

Subsurface Scattering Test

Dacko originally cut the animatic to XTC music because he was such a big fan of their work. On a whim, he emailed a fan site of theirs and asked if they thought Andy Partridge would like to write an original score for the film, then sent the animatic to him in England. “My phone rang a couple weeks later. Andy said he'd do it and that payment wasn’t necessary. It took quite some time, but he did end up writing two songs for the film. One was of course a vocal number that I loved, but I didn't want voices during the story section of the film. I tried using it for the credits, but they were too short. The second piece was a percussion number which I cut in, but felt it was lacking mostly due to my inability to properly direct my idol. Lesson learned.”

In the end, Dacko used a piece by Thievery Corporation he’d happened to hear on the radio one day. He managed to secure festival rights for the use of the music and it fitted perfectly. “Even though I couldn't use Andy's incredible music in the end, I had to choose what made the film stronger,” explains Dacko.

“I really learned a great deal from the process of creating a short virtually by myself, but I know my next film will need to be funded by either Kickstarter or private contributors who believe in strong story with memorable characters,” quips Dacko. “The next one will have the whimsy of Lightheaded mixed with a ghostly reality.”





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