A showcase of The Little Prince and a rundown of ILM’s rich history of models and miniatures were some of the big events on day 2 of VIEW Conference here in Italy.
Keynote speaker Mark Osborne was a co-director on Kung Fu Panda. The CG animated film was in some ways a departure for the director, who had cut his teeth on several stop motion projects, including his Oscar-nominated short More and even a Weird Al Yankovic Jurassic Park parody music video. Osborne’s newest feature is The Little Prince, which has been rolling out around the world this year and in months to come.
The film is of course based on the famous book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but it was the enormous emotional power of the book that deterred Osborne from initially saying yes to the project. Partly this was because of a close association he and his wife had with the book - she had in fact given Osborne a copy early in their relationship. Osborne spent some time saying no, but then was drawn to the idea as long as he could find a way to honor the work. The result was to actually tell it from two worlds, one of the Aviator in the book re-telling the story to a little girl, and then the story of the Aviator meeting the Little Prince after he crash-lands in the desert. “I realized it was a fragile delicate work,” said Osborne. “What if the book almost didn’t exist - that’s how I wanted to tell the story. I created a world where the book was never published and no one read it.”
The two worlds would be brought to life using two different mediums - CG and stop motion. To produce such imagery, production was established in Montreal for both the CG and stop motion sections. A key aspect of the stop motion designs for the Aviator and the Little Prince (and that world) was that they would be made of paper - which was actually inspired by research Osborne had done into how the story itself had been re-produced and had been so delicate. The paper materials were often reinforced with very thin wires, for example the Little Prince’s scarf had a piece of wire around the outside, but when animated the light would be pumped through the translucent paper for a very ethereal feel. The Fox, too, had a unique feel being made of paper.
The director returned later in the day for Women in Animation (WIA) panel, led by his producer on The Little Prince, Jinko Gotoh. She was joined by Pixar’s Kim White, Blue Sky’s Mikki Rose, SCAD Professor Deborah Fowler and producer Eleanor Coleman. The WIA have a stated goal of a world in which women share fully in the creation, production and rewards of animation. Currently, of course, that is not the case, with an incredibly disproportionate number of men in animation positions compared to women. WIA are aiming for a 50/50 mix by 2025.
Another major speaker today was Lorne Peterson of ILM’s Model Shop. Although he retired some years ago, Peterson is still called upon to offer his modelmaking expertise - he’s also been part of ILM’s 40th anniversary presentations this year. Peterson began his career on A New Hope, bringing with him the innovation of super glue and making model making much faster. “I was one of the oldest people at ILM, and still am,” he laughed. “I was 29/30 when I started. Everybody else was in their 20s.” He readily admitted he wasn’t as interested in filmmaking or sci-fi film as his contemporaries. But Peterson soon found the modelmaking work incredibly rewarding, often reminding co-workers how lucky they were to work in this industry.
Peterson recounted that on the first Star Wars there were only 7 modelmakers, but by Revenge of the Sith the team had expanded to more than 100 - in fact, he says there’s a misconception there were less models in the prequels, but there were actually more. He says is often asked how much the models cost - to tell people the answers he uses car analogies. “A cheap model like the escape pod, well that’s a used Toyota,” he says. “But the large star destroyer - that’s a medium Ferrari.”
The audience at VIEW was treated to pages and pages of behind the scenes slides from Peterson from the Star Wars films to Indiana Jones, Alive, Men In Black, Wild Wild West and more. Peterson also told some great stories - one was that for the asteroid space worm in Empire Strikes Back, he would sometimes give visitors to ILM teeth from the actual puppet as presents that he would sign on the bottom (he saw one for sale online once, too). We also heard about the dramatic UFO crash in Men In Black that required significant dirt and ground made of peat moss. “Usually objects like planes that crash don’t actually make holes in the ground - they’re just think aluminum tubes really,” explained Peterson. “But in this movie it had to be more spectacular, so we had a ground mixture that was a very low density.”
We saw examples from The Phantom Menace pod race arena and the death pit in Attack of the Clones (which Peterson sand blasted himself with walnut shells to give the large miniature an organic feel and to remove knife cut marks). Another fun story related to Peterson’s realization that blowing things up out of balsa wood could make pieces fly too unrealistically and not scale well. So he would soak them in a 50/50 mix of bleach. “The outer edge of the balsa wood would absorb the bleach and then break like a piece of pasta instead, not like a spring,” he notes.
Peterson acknowledged that the age of miniatures was of course being overtaken by CG. However, in recent years he has been called upon to consult on miniature projects, especially where the CG solution would be too costly or take too long. For example, Tippett Studio needed some very definitive smoke elements for the film Drag Me To Hell, but knew a CG solution would take weeks. Tippett therefore had Peterson and a very small crew build some stalagmite shapes that would give the smoke elements a desired shape - something they were able to do in only around 2 weeks.
The effects artist has seen some massive changes in the industry and played himself a massive part in it. It's a long way from his humble beginnings on George Lucas' space opera - one he didn't think at the time would continue for so long. The Star Wars ‘gig’ was initially only for two months on the Death Star - “difficult on your knees stuff,” says Peterson, "but after two months no one said anything and it quickly turned into 2 years, then 20 years, then 35 years!"
We’ll have more with Peterson coming up on fxguide in an exclusive fxinsider interview.
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