3D, live-action artist to discuss work on animated films
By Lou Fancher
Two kids watch a movie in which a truck explodes and a slow, lumbering giant with six heads emerges and crushes a skyscraper underfoot as a lightening bolt illuminates the rubble.
Kid One says, "Wow, cool." Kid Two notices the camera angle, the giant's pace, the way a crushed building folds, the bluish light glinting off surfaces in the rainy scene and says, "How'd they do that?"
Kid Two is destined to be a layout artist.
Adam Schnitzer may not have taken a conventional path to becoming a layout artist first at Pixar and now at Industrial Light and Magic, but intense curiosity lurks at the heart of his work on movies, including "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story 2," "Monsters Inc.," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Rango," and more.
Schnitzer will unpack the mysteries of the creative layout process behind 3D animation and live-action CG films at a March 15 Science Cafe at the Lafayette Library.
Trained as a fine artist, Schnitzer made a deliberate choice to shift from his solitary career as a painter to work on films.
"I made a conscious decision to be in a collaborative environment," he says. "With film, you approach a sequence of shots and split them up with other layout artists. You have to come up with ideas and be OK with other people saying, 'No, we're not doing that.' You have to be team oriented."
But you don't have to speak in fancy techno-terminology -- and you do have to be a storyteller and a bit of a mind reader.
"I try to talk in layman terms," Schnitzer says. "Layout involves a lot of skills and talents. You have to understand what's going on in your story, what's being expressed. There's acting, composing, how shots go together. You have to understand the style of your director too."
Schnitzer says that a Pixar rule was "don't try to do crazy things with the camera." But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' director Michael Bay at ILM was "way freer with the camera," leading Schnitzer to say, "I've also had to unlearn some of the conventions."
Layout artists stage the action in an animated scene, creating storyboards that include audio, rigged characters placed to describe the action, and camera angles, framing, movement and pacing.
Tools like Zviz, a proprietary tool Schnitzer helped design at ILM, allow layout artists to think beyond simple animation.
"It's two programs in one: 3-D animation joined with a film editing program that's like iMovie. I stage scenes, shoot shots, then flip over to editing and make sequences," he says.
His job often requires unusual, scientific research.
"I'm working on a film now that has characters that go over a waterfall. I didn't know how fast they should be falling. I had to look up their acceleration rate and velocity."
For "Pacific Rim," the real-life pace of a person walking had to be determined, then cut in half to make giant robots appear big and heavy.
Schnitzer says 3D animation and CG technology have advanced rapidly and although studios are constantly wanting to "go faster," effects like realistic textures and lighting that used to be a problem or were once impossible to capture have been largely mastered.
Even so, real-time rendering remains on the frontier. If a layout artist wants to run a sequence that includes characters, visual effects, lighting, setting, explosions and other action all at once, the current systems would crash.
"Video gaming has fixed this because that's how their system has to work," he says. "But with films, you can have a detail-heavy thing that takes a day to load. With video, a bomb has to go in real time. They figured out how to make things look good without bogging down your computer."
Studying video game creators' techniques is Schnitzer's homework.
Youth Services library assistant and event coordinator Orlando Guzman has worked in the computer video game industry for years.
"I'm a fan of the computer graphics arts and moviemaking industry and amazed at how far it's come in 30 years. Computer graphics is being used in many industries today and it's an exciting, vibrant, and sought-after career path."
Guzman says community interest in the Science Cafes is always substantial and expects strong attendance from high school and college students.