Vol.32 No.1 February 1999
Professional Chapters Wrap-Up; Interview with Mitch Butler
DC ACM SIGGRAPH hosted Autometric, Incorporated at an October meeting for their members. Autometric demonstrated and discussed the technology behind their EDGE product family suite of visualization and analysis tools. These products enable the user to integrate imagery, maps, weather data, terrain and urban models into a 3D, whole earth environment. November featured a screening of the SIGGRAPH 98 Electronic Theater tapes. Their holiday party in December featured an ďopen deckĒ night for members to share their work with others.
Los Angeles ACM SIGGRAPH presented ďCrossover Crafts ó Visual Effects and CinematographyĒ in September. This panel discussion by a select group of filmmakers explored the artistic convergence between traditional cinematography and digital production. In October they presented, in association with the Visual Effects Society, Visual Effects Paradiso, a tour and discussion of visual images created over the last 700 years, from pre-Renaissance painting to modern day visual effects. Finally, in December LA ACM SIGGRAPH presented ďTDís Tell All,Ē a panel where technical directors shared their secrets and told tales of how they made those impossible shots work.
Minneapolis-St. Paul ACM SIGGRAPH hosted a September presentation on Java scripting, which also featured a screening of the SIGGRAPH 98 Electronic Theater. In October, the Minnesota Film Board presented a town meeting entitled ďThe State of the State: Mixing the Media for the New Millennium.Ē This open forum panel discussion focused on the current status and future of the film/video/new media production industry in Minnesota. The Minnesota Electronic Theatre IX was held in November. A juried electronic art exhibit featuring the best of Minnesota-made animation, interactive multimedia and post-production, the event draws more than 600 people each year.
NYC ACM SIGGRAPH hosted a site visit to Cineric, a motion picture special effects and post-production house. In October, more than 600 people attended a presentation on ďThe Making of ANTZ.Ē Craig Ring of PDI shared more than 20 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage with their members. In November, NYC ACM SIGGRAPH hosted two events dealing with the arts: the ďInteractive Art ExperienceĒ with Don Ritter and Paul Garrin, and a ďNew York Digital Salon Panel DiscussionĒ moderated by Barbara Nessim. In December, they hosted Mitch Butler on a tour of local schools, including Pratt Institute, New York Institute of Technology, the School of Visual Arts and the Bergen County Regional Academies. Mitch finished his tour with a special appearance at their holiday party and reception where he helped introduce the SIGGRAPH 98 Electronic Theater reel.
Pittsburgh ACM SIGGRAPH hosted a presentation by Regis Hoffman on ďVisual Modeling.Ē This talk dealt with model acquisition and emphasized the ideas behind 3D shape and appearance recovery, the practical implementations, the pitfalls and what can be expected in the future in terms of application software.
In September, San Diego ACM SIGGRAPH featured a presentation called ďGraphics for Fusion Physics.Ē General Atomicsí Educational Outreach Program has commissioned an educational CD-ROM targeted at middle and high school students. The package will include a data resource much like an encyclopedia of fusion physics, and a game that teaches kids some of the fundamentals of fusion and the technology behind developing a fusion power plant. Their November meeting was entitled ďVisualizing Geology: At SDSU, On the Web, and On the Cheap.Ē This evening included examples of past and present research at the SDSU Geology Department.
San Francisco ACM SIGGRAPH hosted talks on ďThe Making of Small SoldiersĒ and ďThe Making of ANTZ.Ē Sean Shur of ILM took members behind the scenes of Small Soldiers while a team from PDI did the same for those attending the ANTZ presentation. In between these two events, San Francisco ACM SIGGRAPH again served as co-curator of the Computer Art Pavilion for the Sausalito Art Festival at its 46th annual exhibition. Fueling this yearís festival was the dramatic and well-received addition of ACM SIGGRAPHís Traveling Art Show, which consisted of 48 images by 13 artists juried from an international community of artists. In December, Phil Tippett and others from Tippett Studio discussed their roles in the making of the motion picture Virus.
In August, Silicon Valley ACM SIGGRAPH presented an evening with Tony DeRose, Senior Scientist, Pixar Animation Studios. He spoke about the Academy Award winning computer-animated short, Geriís Game. In September, Chris Insinger of SGI presented a talk on ďAPIs of the Fahrenheit Initiative.Ē He gave a high level overview of the entire Fahrenheit initiative while also providing additional details about the Fahrenheit Scene Graph. In October, Dr. Paul Debevec gave a speech on ďRendering with Natural Light.Ē Finally, in November, Dr. Venkat Krishnamurthy & Domi Piturro, founders of Paraform, spoke on ďModeling Using 3D Laser Scans.Ē This talk covered both the technical and design perspectives about using 3D laser scans as a new modeling paradigm for the special effects, gaming and design industries.
Toronto ACM SIGGRAPH screened the SIGGRAPH 98 Electronic Theater for its members and presented a talk by Chris Landreth on the making of Bingo, one of the big hits of the SIGGRAPH 98 Electronic Theater. They also worked with the Interactive Multimedia Art and Technology Association (IMAT) on their Visionary Speaker Series. Finally, in cooperation with the local SMPTE chapter, they presented a panel on ďConverging Non Linear Editing and 3D Systems.Ē
Interview with Mitch Butler
Every year, one of the highlights of the annual SIGGRAPH conference is the Electronic Theater. And every year, there are a small number of pieces which people canít stop talking about. At SIGGRAPH 98, one such piece was The Smell of Horror by Mitch Butler.
Butler recently visited New York City as a guest of NYC ACM SIGGRAPH. He spent time giving a number of talks at schools in the area, including School of Visual Arts, Pratt Institute, New York Institute of Technology and the Bergen County Regional Academies. After his last presentation, Butler consented to an interview about computer graphics and The Smell Of Horror.
If youíd like to read more of the interview with Mitch Butler, as well as viewing video clips, you can visit the NYC ACM SIGGRAPH website.
Scott Lang [SL]: Where did the idea for The Smell of Horror come from?
Mitch Butler [MB]: The Smell of Horror came from a character concept for the Leon guy who lives in the house. I wanted to do something that was not fast spaceships and not explosions and not all this fast stuff going on in the computer graphics world. While a lot of people do this really well, I wanted to do something different, something slow and dramatic. I wanted to do computer graphics that were about a conversation and two people that are very different trying to connect with each other. And thatís what this story is about - two people trying to connect with each other and not quite getting it, not quite connecting. There are awkward pauses and strange conversational things and people relate to that. Everybodyís been in a weird conversation where theyíre not comfortable. And thatís what I was trying to do in The Smell of Horror.
SL: This was your first full-length animation. Can you take us through the process of creating it?
MB: The Smell of Horror was my first full-length, animated short film. Full length being about seven, seven and a half minutes with credits. This process included finishing the script and getting the actors to record the voices. Then I hired my buddy Dave Earnest who did an excellent job with the soundtrack. He can make his small computer sound like a huge orchestra. I knew I wanted to work with him from the start because Iíd done a lot of freelance projects with him.
After we recorded the voices, I did some quick storyboards and edited it together like a slide show. At that point I started animating shot by shot and replacing the slides with the animations that I finished. Slowly it grew into an animation. The score was done later and the piece really didnít come alive until Dave put his music on it. When it was done, I sent it out to Beta SP and later made it into a 35mm film transfer. Then I started sending it out to festivals.
SL: The combination of black and white with the grainy film texture gives the piece a very unique look. What did you hope to achieve with this effect?
MB: The look of the film was largely driven by making something simple that I could do as a single artist. I didnít want to do something like Toy Story that takes hundreds of people to make. I was the only animator on the project and I had to edit it and write it and everything else. I had to do something simple or else it would never get done. These are the ways that I decided to make it simple. Itís just two characters. Itís 15 frames per second. Itís black and white. The characters are just sitting there the whole time. Thereís not a lot of action so I used the same camera shots over and over.
So the look was driven by making it easy to produce, frankly. And I also really like old Hitchcock stuff, old Orson Wells movies so I drew on that sort of a look. I wanted to play up the horror aspect so I went for high contrast, like an old black and white film. I didnít want to make it look like computer graphics - new with reflections and refractions and ray tracing and glossiness and all that. I didnít want to do that. Other people do that a lot better than I ever could so I did something different. Thatís where the look came from.
SL: Technically, how you did it?
MB: The Smell of Horror was all done in Lightwave 5.5 with some Photoshop filters to post-process the renderings and give it that black and white film grainy, high-contrast look. I work on an Intergraph Pentium II 300. I used Morph Gizmo (a morph manager plug-in for Lightwave) to do the facial animation. For modeling, I used Lightwave MetaNurbs; then I turned those into polygons for the final renderings. Thatís how I animated it. After that, I plugged it into SpeedRazor to do editing and it was output on a DPS Perception card, to Beta SP.
Later, I had to hire somebody to do a film print of it in LA, which was expensive. The film print was actually the most expensive part of it. The rest of the production just cost me my time since I used equipment that I already had. So, production of it was pretty cheap until it was finished. Then I spent money on things like the film print and marketing and everything else. That was a surprise. The expenses came later.
SL: The character animation and gestures are very expressive. How did you go about animating the characters?
MB: My favorite thing about animation is facial expressions and thatís something I really built into The Smell Of Horror - a lot of facial expressions. I wanted it to be so expressive that if you turned down the audio and just watched the images, youíd still kind of get what was going on. Youíd see how the characters feel so youíd pretty much get the whole story. The audio is still very important, I mean the audio is half of it. I donít want to underestimate the value of audio, but I wanted it all to be right there on the charactersí faces.
I studied a lot of books about facial expressions and how that works, what are the universal facial expressions, what are the ones that are contextual or cultural, things like that. That stuff is really interesting to me. I donít look at computer graphics for inspiration. I look at other things, such as books about facial expressions or books about painting or photography or whatever. I think that gives a fresh approach to computer graphics and keeps you from doing stuff that everybody else has already done in computer graphics.
I felt like thatís what I was good at (character animation) so I didnít spend a lot of time making walk cycles or other things like that. For example, you never see the charactersí feet. Thatís because Iím just not good at walk cycles so I didnít want to spend my time doing walk cycles. Thatís why I shot the thing like the Muppets. You never see the Muppets feet and thatís fine; thatís just their style. I chose a similar style just to make it easier on me.
To me, a characterís face is something that holds a facial expression. Thatís how I look at it and my characters were designed with that in mind from the beginning. Some faces just have more potential for being expressive than others, whether itís the complexity or where things are laid out on the face. For example, if youíre animating a horseís face, the mouth is really far away from the eyes so you canít really read the expression as one because theyíre so far away from each other. However, you can design the face with expressiveness in mind and thatís what I tried to do in The Smell Of Horror.
SL: What are the techniques that you used to create your models - in particular, Flip and Leon?
MB: The characters were all modeled in Lightwave 3D version 5.5 and I used MetaNurbs to build the faces and the morph targets for the faces. They were all morphed - there were no skeletal deformations in the face itself. I used these because I was familiar with them and because I like the Lightwave modeling environment so much. These days, I use PolyTrans and then bring it into 3D Studio Max for actual animation. Iím learning more and more about 3D Studio Max and using that as well.
Flip and Leon were made in MetaNurbs and then frozen into polygons at varying levels of complexity, depending on how far away from the camera the character is. As far as texture maps go, I use a 3D paint program only for reference type stuff. Iíll bring my face model into the paint program, go eyebrow-eyebrow, mouth - there it is - then Iíll take that reference image and bring it into Photoshop where Iíll actually put the textures onto it. There are so many more tools in Photoshop and everybodyís so familiar with Photoshop that itís just an easier program to use. Then Iíll make my specular maps and my opacity maps and map them back onto the model.
Hair is an interesting consideration in computer graphics. Thereís a certain company that keeps saying theyíre going to release a 3D Studio Max plug-in for hair. I keep waiting for that to come out. In the meantime, Iíve forgone that idea and gone with more stylistic type hair. Thatís not much of a consideration in The Smell Of Horror because one of the characters is bald and wearing a hat and the other one has his hair slicked back tight to his head. In my next project, Iím going to get a lot more stylized with hair because it doesnít have to be realistic. Itís a cartoon. Nothing in the animation is realistic and I think itís a big fallacy sometimes to think that it should be realistic. Not in my work. I go for the more cartoon-type stuff. I encourage other artists to look for something that is unique to what they want to do, even if itís not necessarily photorealistic.
SL: Are Flip and Leon individuals from your past?
MB: Flip and Leon are not individuals from my past so much as they are autobiographical pieces of myself. I think you have to look inside yourself to find things that work well in art. Itís like a little bit of an autobiography.
SL: The lighting in The Smell Of Horror also helps set the mood. You mentioned that you did it pretty simply. How did you determine the lighting for each scene?
MB: Lighting was one of the most important things in The Smell Of Horror, in terms of what the look was, how the look came out. I didnít go out and look at a location and make it realistic. I mean, itís a cartoon and I donít want it to be realistic. I didnít really base it on a Hitchcock film or an Orson Wells film but Iíve certainly seen a lot of that and inevitably that was an influence.
My main concern with lighting was legibility and clarity. Do you look at it and see what it is and get it? I didnít want the viewer to have to study the frame and say, ďWhat is that?Ē I didnít want it to be muddled. I wanted it to be right there. You see it; you know what it is. Simplicity was what I was looking for in lighting. Again, that made it a lot easier for me to produce than something complex. I went really high-contrast. I got bright-brights, dark-darks - that also helped make it look like an old film print rather than something that came out of a computer. I didnít want it to look anything like something that came out of a computer. Finally, a lot of the things I learned in video production Iíve applied to 3D animation.
SL: Youíre working on a new animation using 3D Studio Max. Can you compare Lightwave with with 3D StudioMax?
MB: I love the modeler in Lightwave. Iíve started using 3D Studio Max mainly for things like Character Studio and all the other great plug-ins that you can use. Lightwave just doesnít seem to be built from the ground up for characters and thereís a lot of workarounds and things that I had to tinker with for a long time to figure out a way to actually do some of them. The Smell Of Horror was largely a test for the animation that Iíve had in mind for a few years and thatís the one that will be coming out around August of 1999. My next project has more color, is shorter, is much more complex and is much faster than The Smell of Horror. Itís a story about a character who has the strength to reinvent himself in spite of what others expect from him. Keep your eye out for that one.
SL: What does the Mitch Butler Company do?
MB: The Mitch Butler Company is something that I started around 1992 to do mostly computer graphics. I quit college to start it. We ended up doing a lot of video production because thatís what my training was in. Later on, I hired a few more employees. At this point I have three employees regularly and they do the video while I do the computer graphics.
SL: Do you have a preference for working alone as a small business owner as opposed to working at a studio such as ILM or PDI?
MB: My style of animation has been kind of a ďhide out in a closet and make animationĒ approach. I havenít worked with a big team of animators because Iím in the middle of nowhere with no other animators around. So, Iíve come to really like that style of animation.
I have a really broad vision for the characters in my films because I know where I want them to go, how I want them to look, how I want them to sound, etc. Itís in my head and Iím kind of particular about how I want it made. I spend days and hours and months Ė a lot of time - making it exactly that way.
Thatís my style of work. I think itís great to work in a team as well; maybe I could stand a little bit more of working in a team. Inevitably, if my stuff ever takes off Iím going to have to work in a team and I look forward to that very much.
So, you can do it either way. The price of working alone is that itís a lot of work; the payoff for working alone is that you can make it exactly how you want to. Making the conceptual into the tangible is just so rewarding that thatís how Iíve worked. Finally, I think the academic environment is great. I dropped out of college to do animation but I encourage you to go to school if thatís your thing.
SL: What advice would you offer to students or other solo animators who might be thinking about starting their own project?
Scott Lang is SIGGRAPH Director for Professional Chapters and a Computer Visualization Specialist at the Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology (AAST) in Hackensack, NJ. He teaches video production at the high school level and also works with students on projects involving computer animation and Web site design.
Colleen Cleary is the Computer Graphics Professional Chapters Editor. She works in sunny Florida at the Orange County Sheriff's Office. Colleen welcomes contributions from chapter members worldwide for possible publication in Computer Graphics.
MB: What I did here with The Smell Of Horror was to spend a lot of time on one project thatís a story. Seven minutes is a lot of character animation for one guy to do. And that may or may not be the right thing to do. Maybe it would be better to do a demo reel with a lot of different sort of stuff on it if youíre trying to get hired. An employer might hire you for one thing that you did and you might think ďthis is my best work.Ē But another employer might say, ďI like that other thing you did - Iíll hire you to do that.Ē So sometimes a variety of work is the best thing to do.
But I like the storytelling. I like the characters. I spent a lot of time on just one concept. Those are things to think about if youíre thinking about doing an animated short film. Also, donít bite off more than you can chew. Youíve got to finish the thing at some point. Youíve got to make compromises. I canít sit at home on my PC and make a movie like ANTZ or A Bugís Life. I have to make something much simpler if Iím ever going to finish it and if itís going to be good. I have to think about ďOK, Iím good at facial expressions but Iím not good at walk cycles so Iím going to spend my time on facial expressions instead of full body motion.Ē You have to weigh a lot of considerations like that if youíre an individual animator working on your own. Even if youíre on a small team, you have to think along those same lines.
So, thatís my advice. Think about what youíre good at, spend your time on that and design yourself a project that focuses on what youíre good at.
SL: Looking back to when you were a student, what would have made a difference for you?
MB: When I was a student, I was not a computer graphics student. And Iím just blown away by the resources that students have today in terms of animation. It was such a new, novelty kind of thing that a lot of people didnít take seriously when I was in college and in high school; it probably didnít even exist. I graduated from high school in 1989 and that was way before any of this 3D computer graphics stuff came to be cheap enough for everybody to use. The things Iíve seen this week and the universities Iíve visited have just blown me away. All these resources that students have. I wish that when I was in college I had access to this sort of thing. I had to sit in a closet and learn Lightwave on a Video Toaster in some back room of the Communication Building at Boise State University. Nobody even really knew that the Video Toaster was there. They had it to make credits on video productions. I discovered this Lightwave 3D thing and went nuts and spent all my time doing it. Donít underestimate the value of having all these machines and having all these people that are excited about it and having actual faculty who can teach you how to do this stuff. And having the creative environment to do it in. Thatís the great thing about learning computer graphics in an academic setting. Of course, you donít have to learn it in an academic setting. Itís cheap enough now so that you can spend a few hundred bucks and put it on your slow PC at home and learn a lot of stuff. Read books, watch 3D animations that youíve seen and put something together. Whether youíre in or out of school, thereís a lot of ways that you can learn today and thatís a wonderful thing.
SL: Are we going to see anything interactive from Mitch Butler down the line?
MB: So far my work has been heavy on storytelling, heavy on characters, nothing interactive yet but Iím talking to some folks right now about potentially doing that. But I think my characters work best at this point in a linear, narrative, traditional kind of fashion and thatís what Iím gearing myself towards. But who knows? They could end up in some interactive sort of thing and they may very well do that within the next year.
SL: Can you talk about the value of being involved with a professional organization, such as SIGGRAPH?
MB: Here I am, a year ago, this guy out on his own in Idaho making little 3D animations. One thing I found really valuable since then is getting involved with SIGGRAPH and meeting other people through SIGGRAPH that are interested in the same things. It doesnít matter where you live; you can go to SIGGRAPH the conference, check out their Web page and be a part of this computer graphics community. I probably wouldnít be sitting here in front of this camera if I hadnít gotten some sort of attention for my work through the Electronic Theater. So, just for me personally, itís given me a lot of exposure and people sometimes have seen my work now. I really encourage you to become a part of SIGGRAPH; at least be aware of it and know what theyíre doing and get involved. Join up!
SL: During 1999, the SIGGRAPH organization will be celebrating its 30th birthday. In addition to looking back, weíre going to be looking forward. Do you have any thoughts about the future of the industry or where things are headed?
MB: Hereís my main thought about the future of 3D animation. I think thereís a genre of independent 3D animated films thatís just waiting to happen. Okay itís 1999 right now, we just saw A Bugís Life from Pixar come out, we just saw ANTZ come out from PDI, weíve seen Toy Story and things like that - these sort of big budget, big studio-type of 3D feature films. But I think whatís waiting to happen and what will happen when the tools get easy enough to use and cheap enough - is that there will be these groups of maybe five people who will make a feature-length full animated CG film themselves in the way that filmmakers today go out with a 16mm camera and shoot a whole film and sell it to Miramax or somebody. I think thatís waiting to happen and that will happen. For me personally, thatís whatís most exciting about where I think things are going.