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From Stop Motion To VR--The Wide Range Of VES Award-Nominated Artistry
A shot from the production of "Anomalisa" (photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)
A look at VES-recognized work for the feature "Anomalisa" and the special venue "Goosebumps" experience

From the age-old painstaking art of stop motion animation to the brave new frontier of virtual reality, this year’s field of Visual Effects Society (VES) Award nominees offers a remarkable depth and breadth of work over categories spanning features, TV, commercials, video games, special venue projects and student films.

To get a better handle on the VES Awards—which were bestowed earlier this week during a gala ceremony in Beverly Hills, Calif.—SHOOT delves into the two aforementioned extremes of the technological continuum, focusing on the stop-motion storytelling acumen embodied in Anomalisa (Paramount Pictures) and the VR adventure for the theatrical movie Goosebumps (Sony Pictures).

The latter, produced by MPC Creative, was nominated for the VES Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project, the individual nominees being MPC LA head of 3D Jason Schugardt, MPC Creative LA EP Mike Wigart, MPC Creative VR lead Alex Harding and MPC Creative LA creative director Daniel Marsh.

Anomalisa’s VES nod was for Outstanding Visual Effects in an Animated Feature, the nominees being VFX production supervisor Derek Smith, producer Rosa Tran, DP Joe Passarelli and production designer John Joyce.

Made with an on-camera cast consisting entirely of puppets, Anomalisa—directed by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson—centers on a lonely, disillusioned man, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) on a business trip away from his family. He’s on the road to deliver a speech about customer service, a subject for which he has written a celebrated how-to book. However, he feels his area of expertise is of no significance as are all the people he encounters in life—except for a young woman, Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) whom he meets at the hotel in which he’s staying. She is an anomaly, and affectionately named by him as Anomalisa. The other characters in the film, including Stone’s family, are voiced by a single actor (Tom Noonan), underscoring they’re all like everyone else in Stone’s mind—indistinguishable and of no consequence in a mundane world.

Amazingly, through puppets and stop motion, insights into the human condition are realized, capturing feelings of isolation, alienation, doubt, hope and wonderment in ways that live action arguably couldn’t. This has yielded critical acclaim for Anomalisa, including an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film.

Cinematographer Passarelli said that among Anomalisa’s many challenges was “being able to light the small puppet heads like you would live action. In live action  you use lighting to enhance the storytelling, to shed light on what each character is thinking. In live action, you use highlights and there’s a wide palette. But in stop motion, a character’s eyeballs are maybe half the size of your fingernail. The lighting has to be incredibly meticulous to help convey the feelings in a scene. We cut off one-inch squares of LED lights to properly target the puppets and other elements in their environments. We had very stark lighting, for example, during Michael’s speech about customer service to the convention audience—during which he comes unglued and clearly thinks his life’s work analyzing customer service is a joke. By contrast we brought a warm, inviting quality, putting nets behind the camera lens when Lisa and Michael are having breakfast in the hotel room the morning after their first night together.”

The deployment of nets across the lens helped Passarelli attain the desired look for Anomalisa. “At the time the animation program only ran with Canon 7D cameras with Nikon lenses,” he related. “But we wanted to change the DSLR high gloss look and were able to do so and have more control by using nets. For that breakfast scene between Michael and Lisa with the morning sun shining through the hotel room window, we put pantyhose behind the lens to get the right warmth and feel.”

Passarelli is an accomplished live-action DP who goes back a long way with director Johnson. In fact, Passarelli shot Johnson’s live-action thesis film when both were students at the American Film Institute (AFI) conservatory. The two kept in touch and connected on other live-action fare with Johnson later diversifying into the animation discipline, directing a stop-motion special for the NBC series Community, titled “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” which won an Emmy in 2011 for Individual Achievement in Animation. This episode built momentum for Starburns Industries, a Burbank, Calif.-based stop motion, traditional 2D and CG animation studio launched in 2010. Partnered in Starburns are EPs/writers Dan Harmon (creator of Community) and Dino Stamatopoulos, EP/CEO Joe Russo II, EP James A. Fino, and Johnson.

Via Starburns Johnson delved further into stop motion with season 2 of the Adult Swim/Cartoon Network series Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole for which he brought in Passarelli. “I had never seen a stop motion set before,” recalled Passarelli. “It was the same as live action but in miniatures. Duke and I had the same type of conversations for this show as we had in the past for live action.”

Passarelli enjoyed the experience which set the stage for what has proven to be an eventful collaboration on Anomalisa. Starburns approached Kaufman (writer of such films as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) who had penned Anomalisa as a radio play. The production house wanted to turn Anomalisa into a stop motion movie. Johnson came on to co-direct with Kaufman and gravitated to Passarelli.

“I remember asking Duke,” said Passarelli, ‘Do I need to interview with Charlie to get hired?’ He said he had already talked to Charlie about it and Charlie was happy I mainly do live action. He didn’t want an animated feel to overtake what we were doing.”

Passarelli spent nearly two years on Anomalisa—and prior to that he and Johnson teamed on a promotional piece as part of a Kickstarter campaign which successfully raised funds for the project. Passarelli for the moment intends to next embark on a live-action assignment—which doesn’t carry the commitment in years that stop motion does. But ultimately he sees himself going back and forth between live action and stop motion fare in that he finds both disciplines to be creatively challenging and gratifying.

MPC turned out 700-plus visual effects shots, the title sequence and the VR adventure for the movie Goosebumps, based on the best-selling series of children’s horror books authored by R.L. Stine.

The VES-nominated virtual reality experience enabled moviegoers to put themselves inside an action-packed scene from the movie. MPC Creative produced the shoot and provided creative supervision alongside director Rob Letterman (who directed the Goosebumps movie). MPC Creative also managed key aspects of the roll out to the public—the team created a custom Goosebumps VR app that housed the content which was loaded and quality controlled onto 30-plus Samsung Gear VR Headsets. The project lived as an installation piece in movie theater lobbies across North America and abroad. The Goosebumps VR Adventure was also part of Technicolor’s exhibit at CES.

The Goosebumps VR project places an audience member in a car, riding shotgun with Jack Black playing Stine. They are driving through town with a giant praying mantis chasing them down. The VR experience was produced end-to-end by MPC’s content production division, MPC Creative; this included everything from live-action production through VFX and final grade. Motion systems technology company D-Box provided the mechanical chairs for the VR experience, which move in sync to what the viewer is seeing inside the headset.

“The car chase scene is a great example of how technique meets the storytelling component of VR,” said VES nominee Marsh, creative director of MPC Creative, LA. “In the 360-degree 3D VR Adventure, viewers can look around in all directions throughout the film, but they don’t have the control to walk around.

Placing the viewer in the car, they can experience the scale of the scene and momentum of the chase. Jack Black, seated inches away from us, acts as a tour guide as the car flees from the monster. The D-Box chair is the icing on the cake, because it situates people in the experience so they really feel the thrill of the chase.”

Fellow VES nominee Harding, VR lead for MPC Creative, said the biggest challenge posed by the Goosebumps VR Adventure is the fact that “to some extent you have to reinvent the wheel with this stuff. Traditional notions of composition, storytelling and even aesthetics somewhat, go out the window.

Everything looks different through the headset and you never know where the viewer will be looking. So the first challenge can be to unlearn what you know. The VFX process is tied to the mechanism of a camera and the photography process—even fully CG work is treated as a simulation of a real camera. In VR we’re simulating the human eye. This has implications for how you do everything. You can’t tell the story with cuts. You don’t have as much freedom with exposure to make a compelling image. You can’t embellish with lens flares, etc. You can’t use focal lengths to compose shots and direct attention. Also, you often have to light the shot to look good from all angles—something a DOP rarely has to consider. In live-action VR shoots, you can’t really light anything because the lights would all be in frame. We have to find new solutions to solve the old problems.

“On a more technical level, continued Harding, “working on a 360 latlong image in stereo is extremely tricky and you just can’t do a lot of stuff you’re used to doing. Moving layers around in the image, blurs, glows, they all have undesirable effects due to the nature of the stereo latlong. So we have to work out new tools and workflows for a lot of tasks. We can’t cut any corners.“

As for lessons learned and how he would best apply them to his next VR project, Harding related, “Keep checking in a headset! The 2D representation on a screen is only so useful. Early on it was logistically too hard to get enough reviews/feedback directly in VR. Now we have tools to allow this and it makes so much of a difference.”

He also advised, “Try not to think like you are making a traditional shot-based narrative. There’s a different language going on here. In my opinion, the most successful projects out there are the ones that embrace VR and try to understand it for what it is, rather than try to repurpose received wisdom from the filmmaking technique. Of course there are skills and concepts that are still applicable. But there are some that aren’t.”

Furthermore, Harding recommended, “Don’t do things that are uncomfortable for the viewer even if it seems to fit the story. Don’t underestimate how important sound is—it’s often the best way to direct the viewer’s attention to something you want them to see, and it elevates the immersion immensely.”

Regarding what the VES nod means to him and his cohorts, Harding said, “I’ve always enjoyed the more experimental side of our business, involving myself with creative and multi media projects when I can. So this VR work is right up my alley. I get a lot of satisfaction from contributing to something as embryonic and cutting edge as this. So to get our work in this field recognized with a nomination from VES is a dream come true. It goes to show that VR is real and it’s got legs.”