Artist in Action: ROBOTA – Doug Chiang and Sparx*

He designed the Battle Droid, Destroyer Droid, Naboo Starfigher, Watto, and the Jedi gunships. So what was so cool, so great, that it dragged designer Doug Chiang away?

FXGuide caught up with Doug Chiang and the team at SPARX* who are bringing his vision to the screen. We discussed design, compositing and on the way we got some amazing behind the scenes quicktimes, showing how this amazing film is being made.

Doug Chiang was born in 1962 in Taipei, Taiwan, he has an outstanding visual effects credit list, including The Mask, Terminator 2, and Forrest Gump, to name three, but it is the area of concept design in the art department that Doug Chiang has truly made his name. In January 1995, when George Lucas started work on the most anticipated trilogy sequels in film history, Doug Chiang and Terryl Whitlatch were the entire Star Wars Art department. From Watto to the streets of Coruscant, from belt buckles to troop transports, Doug Chiang has led the concept design for Star Wars Episodes I and II, and he was slated to be director of concept design on Episode III. That was until opportunities led to him developing his own projects.

1992 when Guillaume Hellouin first saw a Flame in 1992 in Siggraph, he exclaimed “You’re kidding, right ?” It did not stop him and his partner Jean-Christophe Bernard from buying the first Flame in Europe; his opinion was, “That machine will blow everything away !”. The purchase was so early in the life of Flame – that they had to place the order with Softimage. A decade later, Hellouin’s and Bernard’s company is 250 people strong, and it has just completed one of the most impressive “test” animations ever done – Doug Chiang’s teaser short film Robota.

So, how did Hellouin and Bernard’s studio, SPARX*, manage to produce Robota? How was this most high-profile project moved to Europe? FXGuide caught up with Doug Chiang in San Francisco and Guillaume Hellouin in Sydney at the AEAF conference.

The Project :

Rather than an actual feature in production, Robota is a teaser trailer for a possible feature film. We asked Doug when we would get to see the final film. “Good question! Obviously, digitally animated films are outrageously expensive and hard to produce, so my immediate goal is much more modest—the publication of the Robota book next year by Chronicle Books. I do have other plans in the works, but I don’t want to jinx them by mentioning them now.”

So how did Sparx’s end up with the production? The teaser was started by Believe Inc., but Believe went out of business shortly after starting the project – for reasons unrelated to the film’s production. But working at Believe Inc., before they folded, were some French animators. Thus, Sparx and several other French companies became involved in an attempt to move the project offshore. “After some competition”, comments Hellouin, ” we started to produce the trailer”. The project officially moved to France, and then comments Chiang, “Over the next eight months, Sparx and I expanded on the original concept, and we added many more shots. By the time we were finished with the teaser, it had nearly doubled in length, and Sparx had nearly re-worked everything”. Chiang admits it was an unusual choice to go with a French company. Still, clearly Chiang is happy with the outcome. “It was Sparx’s enthusiasm and talent that convinced me. They were up to the challenge, and I’m very happy I went with them. The results prove that it was a good choice.”

What is amazing about the relocation of the project is that during its entire production, Hellouin was one of the very few members of the entire Sparx team to ever actually met Doug Chiang. ” At first, I was a bit worried about working over such a long distance and directing the teaser via the internet, but Stephane and the Sparx team quickly proved that it could work. It also helped that Stephane and I were in sync regarding the visual style for the teaser.

“The team used the the long distance to our advantage”, commented Hellouin. With the 9 or 10-hour time difference, it was possible, explains Chiang, for “Stephane to send me jpeg images at the end of his day – which was the beginning of mine. Then, I would make my comments and paint on the images and send them back that night to arrive by the start of the next day. This method proved very effective in keeping things on schedule, especially towards the end of production.”

The teaser is a beautiful piece of animation and is both a testament to Chiang’s design and the skills of the 10 to 20 members of the Sparx team who worked for over six months on the project. The style is illustrative and organic, with the work seeming much more connected with a place, a time and a natural environment, rather than space, star fields and lasers. Comments Chiang” For Robota, I deliberately wanted to go more historical, almost medieval and Victorian for some of the design influences. Space and star fields are great, but I wanted to try something different.” Chaing has created a timeless quality by blending natural environments with varying elements of design from different eras. “Things are familiar and odd at the same time. I didn’t want people to identify a specific time period readily. So, the look of Robota can be considered more historic than Science fiction.” Interestingly, two of the visual references cited by Hellouin were epic open American westerns and African Masi warriors.

While some modelling was done at Believe Inc., the majority was done in France. “The models are all strictly to his vision”, comments Hellouin about Chiangs drawings, statues and designs. ” The robots are sexy – you can feel this because he (Chaing) wants this sensuality”. We asked Chiang if this mix of nature and mechanical was a theme he intended to explore given the real humanity the robotic characters exhibit. ” Nature is a constant source of inspiration for me. I like to infuse nature with technology and make them work harmoniously. Combining old and new, high tech and low tech, organic to inorganic forms is what Robota is all about.” Apparently the Robots in the story want to be human, that’s why points out Hellouin, they smoke -” when they can not taste it.”

The Design Process:

Doug Chiang Studios did the entire conceptual design. Actually, Doug Chiang Studios is one or two people. “I bring in other outside help as needed. I like to collaborate with others and believe the best ideas come from creative partnerships,” comments Chiang.

We asked if there was any real world class of objects or devices that inspires Doug Chiang, items that he might visually connect with, such as car design, industrial robot, etc? “All of the above.” answers Chiang, “Research is very important to me, and I try to get as much as possible. I look mostly to nature for forms and study the proportions of animals for mechanical designs. It’s a matter of seeing and using only the essential elements to drive the designs. Sometimes my inspiration will come from the strangest places, so it helps to keep an open mind”.

Chiang designs mainly by hand. His primary tools for the initial marker sketches are a small triangle, a Winsor & Newton series seven brush, a pilot razor point II pen, a 30% cool grey marker, and pro-white paint. It may seem odd that a person so closely associated with technology, robots, and science fiction works so keenly with pen and paper. Still, Chiang points out that ” actually, I like digital techniques and feel very comfortable with them. I have used Photoshop and other digital paint programs for over nine years. In my film design work, I often go back and forth between traditional and digital techniques,” he points out,” digital paint programs definitely make the process much easier. Still, the downside is that it can sometimes be used as a crutch to cover up poor design work. As a result, I like to use traditional techniques when I can. The rewards are much more satisfying. ”

The Animation Process:

“At this stage, there is no real script, rather just a 40-page treatment and description of the Robota universe”, points out Hellouin. In the story, humans lost their liberty in an effort to gain their security. “It is a story of humanity, liberty and security”, according to Hellouine. So central to the animation task was providing the robots with very human and not mechanical walk cycles and expressions. The Sparx team opted to use keyframe animation rather than motion capture and real craft the detailed subtle of the Robots.

In the film, the base of operation for the Robots is the Home of Kaantur, the City levitates over ocean sinkholes hundreds of miles from shore. Measuring 9 miles in diameter, the City is protected by the peculiar qualities of the gravity wells that form the sinkholes. The entire scene was produced in 3D, including the water falls, the project was produced on a beta cut of Maya 4.5, which included the new Maya water simulation tools.

For the Robots the team added to Maya with over 200 SPARX plug-ins and Mel scripts, points out Helloiun. Sparx has a strong R&D team that uses RenderMan on a powerful Sprax render farm. Sparx is currently aggressively moving its pipeline over to a LUNIX, (non Microsoft) based operating system. For the dust storm scene, the team used dynamic simulation for the clothing and sandstorm, which was required to be executed in slow motion.

The Compositing Process:

If the feature goes ahead, the unconfirmed plan is to include real actors and not CG “final fantasy” actors, shot on a green screen, but the purpose of the teaser, according to Hellouine, was ” to explore Doug’s vision and Doug’s universe”, so the teaser has no live action actors. This did not however reduce the huge work load of the compositing team, as each shot was rendered in multiple layers and then combined in Flame or Inferno.
Sparx has 3 Flames and 1 Inferno. For the Kaantur shots the fully CG water required 40 layers to be composited and another 20 for the city itself.

In addition to the Robots, the environment and sweeping vistas give the teaser some of its most beautiful shots. Chiang states that he ” always designs for movement. The images and paintings are intended to be a snapshot of a particular moment. When I approach my work with movement in mind, it also adds complexity and interest to the piece. Everything has to be thought out. For example, you can’t cheat to make it just work for one angle.” Coming as he does initially from a stop motion animation background, “I have always wanted to see my paintings move. That’s why this teaser was such a treat and an affirmation that the designs work” adds Chiang.

The precious detail of the design drawings and concept art are hard to comprehend; almost every nut and bolt was detailed and drawn up. There was also a large amount of reference material; FXGuide asked if the composition of the shots was based on classical composition (Golden Ratios, etc.) or just Chiang’s personal aesthetic. Chiang was quick to point out it is a bit of both. “There are definite rules of composition and proportion that I follow, but I also follow my instincts and adjust the rules accordingly. Sometimes, the rules need to be broken. The difficulty comes in knowing when to break them.”

Central to the final compositing was accurately and carefully defining the exact colour palettes of the Robota world. “Color and lighting are important because they serve as the emotional guides for the image. I like to amplify what I see in nature, though.” For instance, I wanted to push the palette to be more intense and richer than life. I wanted a stylised reality with colors and lighting that couldn’t be photographed and yet was photographic in quality”.

The grass field scene was one of the most technically complex, involving moving depth of field over 20 layers of grass, 20 layers of robots, 15 layers of shadows, 5 layers of clouds and lightning, 4 layers of particles of floating pollen, as well as smoke dynamic simulations.

All the material if the trailer was all composited at 1K resolution for the teaser, but the final film will be done at full 2K and 12bit (Cineon).

Robota is an exceptional film produced in an unusual way, by an international mix of creative artists, designers and animators. We wait for the day that we can buy our popcorn and coke and sit down to the entire film, until then, here is the complete trailer.

There are a few Quicktimes for this story:
Complete Trailer (3.7 mb Quicktime)
Inferno Variations (1.5 mb Quicktime)
Final Layers (640 kb Quicktime)
Particles test front (288 kb Quicktime)
Particles test side (292 kb Quicktime)