Fri Jul 1, 2011, 2:15 AM
You wear many hats at Pixar-you're both a director of photography and co-writer and -director of the short film One Man Band. First, tell me more about your work as a director of photography.
As director of photography for The Incredibles, I helped provide for director Brad Bird detailed story reels with camera moves and temporary effects before it went into production (this is also known as animatics). Because I have a background in live action, my role was to create that natural imperfection in the shots that people are used to seeing. Computers make everything perfect, so I would add the effect of what it would look like if a guy were holding a camera and it were real. I added camera shakes, imperfections and rotations to give a dynamic edge to the scenes. I would also supervise and work with the animators and layout, and supervise the transition of camera movement into 3-D.
How did you add the camera moves and effects to the story reels?
I used the computer programs Photoshop and After Effects to apply them to the storyboards.
Is it challenging working with the drawings vs. live action?
In live action you have to be more practical-it's subject to reality and to sets and locations. Like, you can't put a camera where there's a wall. In animation, you have more freedom. But it can be a battle to make the software do what I see in my mind. And it's difficult not letting the technology get in the way of what I see.
Did you use any of these techniques in One Man Band?
We had a different take on One Man Band camera work. It's not a big action film with a lot of movement. It's very theatrical, so we wanted the shots to feel like how an audience feels while sitting in a theater. The movie opens with a red curtain and orchestra warming up. Once the duel begins, though, we loosen up the camera a bit and get in there a little more.
What's your biggest challenge as a director of photography and as a short-film director?
In photography, it's cutting that one frame, making the shot better. And to be hyper-detailed but know when to back off because sometimes that detail doesn't matter. As a director, the biggest challenge was just developing the story, because it is the most important thing. You can't relax until you get the story right-there's no room for error in story. One of the interesting things about a short is it's harder to tell your story. In a feature if you make a mistake, you have an hour to ask for the audience's forgiveness. But in a 3-minute short, if we lose the audience at all, it's over.
What differences were there between directing and your work in animatics?
On The Incredibles, my job was sitting at the computer and physically doing the work on each shot. But when directing, it was more of an overview process-I was working with a group of people and keeping every aspect of the film in my head. I gave people their one part of the film and had to keep track of where their pieces fit into it, like a puzzle. At the end of the day, it was tremendous amounts of fun because I had wanted to direct since I was a kid.
What inspired you as a kid?
It started with the opening shot in Star Wars where the ship soars over the camera. I was 5 years old when I saw a photograph of the real Star Destroyer model and realized it was about 3 feet long. I thought, "How did they get that thing to look so mammoth as it came over the camera?" I knew right then that it was trickery, and I wanted to learn how to do it. That's what I do now.
Just as I was moved and believed that the Star Destroyer was real as a kid, both as a director of photography and a writer-director, I love making audiences believe the story they are watching is real. It may be a space ship, an emotion, a funny moment, or a character we love. All these add up to making a good story. It's all about making the audiences believe the story is real, at least while they watch it.
And how does it feel to watch your film?
Even though it's only a 4-minute journey, it's been the biggest rush for me by experiencing the film with people and having them laugh or respond to the film. And for that brief time, they believe it. It's doing to them what a 3-foot-long model spaceship did to me many years ago.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue making films?
From day one, but I started getting serious about it in grade school by making feature-length movies that starred my friends. In high school while making one of these films, we were filming a chase sequence. I was riding a bicycle and had an accident. I ruined the camera and injured my arm. So that movie was over-my friends were moving on to college, which meant I didn't have my cast members any more. Then I got into film school and met this whole group of people who loved the same thing I did. I threw myself into film for the entire four years in college, struggling in every class but film. That was all I wanted to do.
How did you break into the film industry?
I grew up in San Diego, so I didn't know anyone in the industry. I was watching film as much as I could. I watched A&E because they played movies in cinemascope. I remember watching them in widescreen, because I could get a sense of what the camera was doing. How the camera was physically moving in space. Full-screen kills that, as well as the overall experience of the film.
I got my bachelor of science in film from San Diego in 1995. It was very hard to find work, so I ended up working in insurance for two years at OwnerGUARD. This was quite a detour but ended up being great. There were no computers at my film school back in 1995, so it took working in insurance to get experience designing logos with the computer. The reality of Hollywood and finding work became apparent-I had to become a bully to get in. I went to art departments and lied that I had an interview when I didn't. I'd show up in a suit and when they couldn't find me scheduled, I'd say, "I drove all the way up from San Diego," and nine times out ten I got to talk to someone. I finally got an interview at Warner Bros. for one of its animated features. I didn't get the job, but I got to meet someone else at Warner Bros. I started on Iron Giant using animatics in story. After Iron Giant I stayed at Warner Bros. to work on Osmosis Jones. And then went on to a bunch of development projects and left for Sony to work on Spider-Man. Outside of work, I was constantly writing.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to break in to animated films?
As animation seems to be moving to a more technically based medium, I think one of the most powerful things is to have both an artistic background and technical knowledge. With animatics you have to be able to draw well and know the computer. For directing, you have to have a writer's sensibility and artistic background. Learn the technology but don't let it get in the way of what has made animation so great in the days when there were no computers. There is no one single way to get in to the film industry. I don't recommend the lying thing, but I think you have to find some bulldogged way to get in-especially in Los Angeles. When breaking in, it sometimes can be about luck and who you know. That's why I loved coming up to Pixar and that's why I'm staying-it's the opposite of L.A. Everyone wants to be surrounded by top talent and it drives you and pushes you.