Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 9 (Sep. 2009)

Magic Number


By: Shane Acker
Read in-depth features about how cutting-edge CG was created for various movies making Oscar buzz.



Whether or not people truly believe that the numeral 7 is “lucky” doesn’t seem to matter much; the phrase “lucky number seven” seems to be part of our vernacular. Indeed, most people have a “lucky” or favorite number. For director Shane Acker, that number undoubtedly is “9.” On September 9, 2009, Acker’s animated movie 9 was released to theaters nationwide, marking his debut as a feature-film director. This comes after spending nearly nine years working on the project, from its inception, to the release of a nine-minute animated short film, to the feature he directed and Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov produced.

In this article, Acker discusses his ambitious feature-film project with chief editor Karen Moltenbrey


Remnants from human civilization, such as this doll, are found throughout the environments. 

What made you turn the short film “9” into a feature?
I was approached by Jim Lemley to develop “9” into a feature. I was a little hesitant after spending four and a half years on the short to dive back in, but once I started writing the treatment, I fell in love with the characters and the world all over again.


It has been four years since we saw “9” at SIGGRAPH 2005. Have you been working on the feature since then?


Yes, and I have just recently finished it.


It seems as if “9” has been a major part of your life, counting the years you spent working on the short at UCLA. How does that feel?

I really enjoyed the time I’ve spent in this world with these characters, but at the same time, I am excited to get my brain working on other material outside of 9. I have been developing a few projects, and I am having a lot of fun exploring new territory. One story takes place deep in a forest, which is a stark contrast to the ruined urban landscape in 9. It’s an epic adventure in which the creatures of the forest must confront a dark force that has entered their world. They’ve uncovered an ancient evil, and now it’s corrupting the animals, turning them against one another and throwing off the balance of nature to the point where life itself is threatened. Now it’s up to the meekest of the creatures to unite and rise up to face this evil. Like 9, it’s a little edgier and more dramatic than a lot of the animation that’s out there right now. We are pitching it around town right now, so hopefully it will find a home. It would be a lot of fun to make.


As I recall, you started out on the 2D side and learned a lot about 3D on “9” and while working on film projects like The Lord of the Rings (LOR). Was it a trial by fire, so to speak?

I find that you only really learn something when you invest yourself in a project. It’s easy to give up on a little animation study or exercise, but when you are committed to making a short film, you have  to find a way to get it done. That’s how I learned 3D animation production, by creating the short film “9.” Thankfully, there are many resources online and books you can buy to help you along. School will give you an introductory survey to the process and techniques of animation, but the rigor of actual production and having to creatively problem-solve on your own is what will really shape you as an artist. 


How has your use of 3D evolved since LOR and the short?

I use 3D more now as a design tool and a way of roughing in my ideas and communicating my intent. As a director, you are going to be working with artists who are always going to be better than you at what they do. You are kind of a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, so it’s rare that I will ever be personally working on any finished shots. I use 3D to make quick-study models or to rough in camera shots or to tweak existing assets, to give direction to artists and to push them in a way I need them to go.  At the same time, I like to give artists some creative space and let them bring their artistry to the table. That’s how you will achieve the best results. 

The story team and I adopted a methodology where we would go into the rough models of the sets and set up cameras as we were storyboarding. We would make screen grabs of the shots and then draw our storyboards on top. This saved a lot of time because we didn’t have to draw backgrounds, and it gave us a dry run at the layout so we weren’t cheating too much. Then when we would turn over the sequences to layout; we’d also give them the [Autodesk] Maya files with the saved cameras so they’d have a clearer idea of what we were doing cinematically.


What were some of the obstacles you faced while working on the feature that you didn’t encounter on the short film?

Story, screenwriting, and budget. I had never done a long-format film before, let alone one with dialog. Trying to get the pacing and story structure to work was something we constantly hammered away on. Fortunately, I had a great editor, Nick Kenway, who was able to pull the pieces together and keep arranging the story bits to get a cohesive whole. Constantly trying to leverage the schedule, the budget, and what was important to the movie was exhausting. It was about constantly making choices and trying to find ways to cut back and combine or reuse pieces to tell the story and to get more bang for our buck. Starz and the creative leads from 9 really came together as a team on this issue. If it wasn’t for the dedication and creativity of VFX supervisor Jeff Bell, art director Kevin Adams, and animation director Joe Ksander, as well as associate producer Graham Moloy and producer Jinko Gotoh, we wouldn’t have half the film we have up on screen today.

 

How has the 9 story evolved?
The short was like a view of the world 9 from a cracked door. In the feature, we throw the door wide open. We now get to see more of the world and discover how it came to be. We follow all nine of the stitchpunk creatures as they set out on a journey of self-discovery. It’s through their adventures that we begin to piece together the tragedy that befell the humans, who, in a way, still haunt the world in broken fragments and film snippets of the past. When the stitchpunks inadvertently awake the thing that destroyed humanity, the film escalates into a struggle for survival and for the future of the world.

What about the characters? The CG?

The characters still follow the same basic design philosophy, but they are much more robust and refined. They are each unique, made from different bits of scraps and mechanical bits. Each one has a different detailing or physiology, as if designed to be suited to their natural abilities. They all represent different evolutions of a similar theme, like natural selection. They are like versions, and they get more advanced and refined as their numbers increase.

We definitely became more sophisticated in the amount of control we had over the characters’ ability to emote. We created soft brows that would push on the characters’ rigid “eye cans” to push emotion and make them more expressive. We had more control over the mouth shapes to create more finely tuned expressions and phonemes. We always tried to push asymmetry to make the expressions feel more natural and organic, so we had a full set of tweakers on top of the facial controls to achieve this look.

The creatures all have a different body typology and move in vastly different ways, so specialty rigging was key for creating the performances. One of our creatures, the Seamstress, has two different heads on opposite sides of her body, in addition to being a serpentine creature with crab-like arms. It was quite an ordeal to get her rigged and working, so we ended up strategizing shot by shot what needed to be achieved and if there was any cheat we could do to still get the story point across without having to go too crazy on the rig. It was a real nightmare, but the animators and Jeff Bell ended up coming in and saving the day. It turned out great, and for me it’s one of the most exciting sequences in the movie.


How did your CG processes differ from the short film?
The short was done all in Maya with the Maya software render. For the feature, we used Maya with [Mental Images’] Mental Ray. So, we didn’t re-invent the wheel. I guess the main difference is that this time around, I had amazing professionals producing the work instead of me hacking my way through it!


Did you do any hands-on work for the feature?

Coming from the world of independent film production and being a CG generalist, I love to get my hands dirty. Whenever my directorial duties were over for the day, I’d try to jump in and help out, not because the work that was being produced wasn’t up to snuff, it’s just that I love making movies and being a part of the process. Plus, there was more than enough to do. Everyone ended up wearing many hats on the project. It was an ‘all hands on deck’ type of production. But I think that’s why you do these films, and in the end, I think everyone took something away from the experience and grew as artists. Plus, it helps morale to know that we were all in this together, doing whatever we could to make the best film possible.

 
 
Soft brows push on the characters’ “eye cans,” thereby making them more expressive.

How did it feel to have others working on this project, which was your own baby for so long?

It was a little difficult at the beginning, but you really have to put the faith in the team you are working with. There is no way you can do all the work yourself or possibly review every little detail or asset, so you end up trying to educate and get everyone on the same page with the tone and style of the film. Basically teach them how to think like you think and then frame the problems that need to be solved, and let them attack them.  Often you get back results that you hadn’t anticipated but go way beyond your expectations. That’s the great thing about the collaborative nature of filmmaking. I think my years of teaching prepared me for being a director because it is all about being clear, setting achievable goals, and being able to communicate an approach to get there.

Were you able to use any of the assets from the short, or did you start from scratch?

The assets from the short were used mainly for reference. We studied the characters, and they served as a departure point from which we started the redesign to make them more robust and refined for the feature.

Are there any new surprises in the feature film?

Plenty, but if I told you, then they wouldn’t be surprises then, would they? [smile]

 
 
The characters, made from bits of scrap and illustrative of a natural selection process, have different detailing that is particularly well suited to their individual capabilities.


In the feature, there is dialog, whereas the short had none. How did you adjust to that?

What’s nice about animation and also a little hair-raising is that it’s always a process. Always. We would have a session with the actors, and we would leave it pretty open. We’d explore the character and dialog with the actors, and then we’d run back to our secret lab with that material and see what comes out of it. You make new discoveries, and then you go back and do the process over again. It’s exciting because you collaborate on every level, which is great, and the film just kind of organically shapes itself. The actors brought a tremendous amount to the table, and we actually sought the actors who had the characteristics of the characters that we were portraying. We wanted them to speak in a very natural way, and it is not as pushed as some animation, and it’s not as broad. We learned a lot about our characters from the actors. They’re sort of the first round of the acting, and they give you a lot of raw material. Then you also work with the animators, who do another level of acting on top, so you’re always fleshing out the characters.

How does this film differ from other CG movies that we have been seeing in theaters?

I think [co-producer] Timur Bekmambetov has said it eloquently: “It’s not your kid brother’s animated movie.” And in that regard, I think the film pushes into territory rarely explored in animation. But for me, it wasn’t a conscious goal to do something different; this is just how I think. This is the thrust that I have as a filmmaker and the interest I have in animation. For me, it’s what I think animation should be. I’m just expressing myself and telling a story in a way I wanted to tell it. Hopefully, if people like it and engage in it, it will open the door for other possibilities and allow other filmmakers to explore and expand the medium.

Who is the film geared toward?

The film is geared toward the kid in all of us who loves the pure escapist fantasy/adventure film. Even though the film takes place in a dark setting and has some intense moments, it really is a lot of fun. There are some amazing action sequences, and the unique world and characters really draw you in. I think there is something for everyone in the film.


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