3D Festival interviews Andy Murdock, the artist behind "Lots of Robots"
    Leonard Teo, 22 November 2002

    At a very young age, Andy Murdock was told that he was going to be an artist. The prediction seems to have stuck. The thirty-seven year old animator living in San Francisco is well known in CG circles for his work on the short film Lot’s of Robots (LOR). Andy graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1987 where he studied painting, filmmaking and sound design. Since then, he has worked as a recording engineer at Hyde Street Studios and Earwax Productions. He’s also worked as a recording engineer on the Academy Award winning sound design for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

    It was in the recording studio where Andy was first introduced to Photoshop and Swivel 3D on a Mac II. In 1994, Andy was hired by Mondo Media to work on video games, broadcast and film projects. He’s also worked with Xaos, Inc. on a few Imax films and at PDI on The Peacemaker and research for the Antz sequel which never happened.


    3D Festival was invited to Andy Murdock’s home animation studio in San Francisco, where we were treated to a full blast, surround sound screening of LOR on his home theater system. We catch up with Andy regarding his latest installment to LOR.

    3D Festival: When did you start working on LOR?

    Andy Murdock: My first short was called Rocket Pants. Rocket Pants started as a solo after hours project at my desk at Mondo Media. I was about two thirds finished when Mondo got a big infusion funding. Then I was able to work on the project full time. To be honest I liked it much better as a after hours effort. These animations are very personal creations and are better created in a safe, quiet home environment. That’s when I decided to get my own workstation at home. I wouldn’t have to ask permission to do anything, just come up with an idea and do it. Then came LOR.


    3D Festival: How did the concept of an animated creation myth come about?

    Andy Murdock:We all wonder about how life came about. My beliefs in the origins of life are strictly based on science. But making a story based on the science of the origin of life could get a bit dull so, instead LOR is a story that revolves around the concept of intelligent design. The story is not just about this concept, but it serves as a backdrop for the characters. LOR is actually the name of the character doing the intelligent design, kind of a God character. I expect some will wish me harm for making a graven image of the creator, but I’m not making this animation for them anyway. The baby we see is the first human being born in this Eden of robot animal prototypes. Much of the story we see this character growing up in this new world and eventually having a few problems with the robots population.

    3D Festival: What inspires you? Where on earth did the idea of a robotic pelican who delivers a human child come from?

    Andy Murdock: LOR goes about creating robots in order to test his theories of anatomy and purpose. Each of the robots some sort of duty in the environment, some way of fitting in to the harmony of the world. The robot humming bird does the job of pollinating the flowers and collecting nectar for other experiments. The centipede and pelican had the job of waiting around to collect the baby from the baby tree. That’s a pretty simple idea.


    I also watch a great deal of nature shows on the tube. “Microcosms” is one of my favorite films of all time. I constantly amazed at all the little miracles of life that exists every square inch of this Earth. I think it’s an another miracle that you can create a character inside a computer and bring it life… virtually.

    3D Festival: How would you describe the 'vibe' of LOR?

    Andy Murdock: I want LOR to be a fun friendly, dreamy space. There won’t be any guns or explosions, just one big colorful, musical hallucination of robots and bizarre characters. So far people always smile and laugh when they watch LOR, and that is definitely the reaction I’m going for. Recently I was sitting aboard an airplane next to a nine year old boy. I took out my laptop and showed him LOR. He got so exited watching the animation and listening to the music that I thought he was going to have a seizure. That felt good seeing how much it clicks with the kids. I would like LOR to work as a music only piece as well.

    3D Festival: So you're a musician as well as an animator? How has this helped?

    Andy Murdock: Being able to compose the music along side the animation is really what gives LOR a unique feeling. When I plan for each sequence, I will first compose several little different musical sketches. This will help set the mood for the action. Take for instance the sequence of the pelican arriving at the landing pad, at first I thought I might rush through that sequence in order to get to what comes next, but the droning atmospheric mood of the music inspired me to take my time and let a little suspense build. I also compose little pieces of music just for fun, without any animation in mind. I have a growing library of ditties and loops to choose from when I need music. Having the music sketched out first lets me also animate like a choreographer without having to dress like one. I find it much easier to add or subtract a little time from a character’s action in the 3D program then to cut against the momentum of the music. In many cases, beats in the music take the lead in designing the character actions, but mostly the music’s mood will effect all my decisions as I animate. Besides all that, chicks dig musicians more then animators… don’t ask me why.

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    3D Festival: What sort of challenges cropped up in the production or LOR?

    Andy Murdock: As far as technical challenges go, the most difficult is the complex character animation. The only way I could have done some of these shots is with MAXScript. Both the centipede and the 12 walking balls required a great deal of focus and planning. Both of these characters were entirely animated with scripting. I literally started with no animation in the scene and spent about a week creating and testing the scripts before running it and ending up with a thousand frames of animation on hundreds of objects. If I needed to tweak something I'd erase the animation and write some script to fix it. When I was completely satisfied with the results, then I would hand tweak all the fine details. Once you do a bunch of hand keyframing, it's hard to just throw it all away when something is not quite working. If you can just tweak a few parameters, erase the whole thing and run the script again, making radical changes and embellishments on a daily basis becomes possible.

    Sound design presented a challenge as well. Even though I had a great deal of experience with sound effects editing from my years as a sound designer on films and TV commercials, I didn't have much of a sound library at home. I had to stop what I was doing and spend a month and a half recording, buying and organizing a new sound effects library. This is very tedious work. I ended up with a Gigastudio 160 PC, which is an audio sampler. With this setup I have 64 keyboard layouts with a different sample ready to play on each key. That's over 5000 samples ready to play at an instant via MIDI. I had to edit, trim and do file management on each sample. Once the audio studio was ready to go, the sound effects placement and mixing went rather quickly.


    The biggest challenge of all was the simple fact that I was working all alone on LOR. I was a bit spoiled at Mondo Media, being able to sit in a room filled with some of the most talented animators in San Francisco. After the DotCom layoffs, getting that kind of feedback took a lot more effort. Mondo Media is now recovering very nicely instead of just surviving, so I'm glad to see that community start to rebuild with some good animation jobs. Also, being solo, I had to do absolutely everything by myself, including setting up the network, installing operating systems, DSL and the website. I had not done much of this before, so there were a great deal of frustrations that had nothing to do with animation.
    Once LOR was up on the website and people started sending email to me to tell me how much they liked the piece, I really started to feel like it was all worth the effort. Animators are really decent people and it shows in the way they support other artists with praise and intelligent constructive criticism.

    Andy Murdock's home studio - the birthplace of LOR.

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    3D Festival: What tools and equipment are you using?

    Andy Murdock: I use 3ds max for my 3D work. I've been using the 3D Studio line since 1993, and I've watched it grow into a very powerful tool. Of all the 3D software tools that I've had the pleasure of trying, I feel that 3ds max let's me create and render an entire animation without the need for a team of programmers to deal with the writing of shaders, etc. The renderer is fast, and looks great. MAXScript gives me the ability to create my own, very powerful custom tools. It's also a package that's easy to learn. I only really use a few plugins, Shag for hair, Afterburn and sometimes Character Studio, and everything Peter Watji has ever made, the rest is all stock.

    My main computer is a dual 800 Intel machine that is getting old real fast. I use DPS Reality card for digital video display and Premiere for editing. I love this card. I also have 4 dual processor 1GHz PCs that are dedicated to rendering, and Sony VAIO NV170 laptop. I have been using After Effects since Cosa version 1. I use Digital Performer and a Mac G4 dual 800 for the music and sound design. The Mac is also the internet firewall for my network. I have a rack full of synths including a Waldorf Microwave Xt, Waldorf Micro Q, Roland XV5080, Emu-Proteus 2000, Emu-Xtreame Lead and a Giga Studio 160 sampler. I have a 5.1 set of Mackie HR824s with a sub woofer for monitoring the 5.1 surround mixes, and a Eurodesk 9000 48/24/8 channel audio console. A pair of Motu 828 firewire audio interfaces gives me 16 channels of digital I/O. I also have a cat and an aquarium that help to relieve tension in the studio.


    3D Festival: What are your aspirations with LOR?

    Andy Murdock: There are several possibilities. The most likely path is one traveled alone, it will take me 5 to 10 years to finish the story, which will end up being a feature length video resolution surround sound movie. This is result guaranteed as long as I choose to continue spending all of my spare time making it, and so far it’s just too much fun to put down. Another possibility is to find enough funding to hire a small group of artists to help create the piece over the period of a few years. Then I need to find a way to distribute the DVD. I don’t hold out much hope for a giant 50 million dollar production budget. At that point I would surly lose control of the thing, and that was never the point. I started LOR as personal art project over which I would have complete control. The best part about this project is, even though I have a million ideas for the story, I don’t really know where it’s going until I sit down and do the animation and render it out. That’s when I decide, so it always feels like a new discovery. As long as I’m having fun making the thing, I’m satisfied.

    Andy Murdock has just released the DVD of LOR with the movie at full resolution, tutorials, making-of's and more! You can pick one up at the website.

    Related Links:
    Lots of Robots

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