Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 7 (July 2004)


"Here was a guy who had been bursting with life.... You could hardly contain the flow of drawings in his cubicle at the Film Board. Now here's a guy who is living out every artist's worst fear." — Derek Lamb, former director of the English animation studio at the National Film Board of Canada describing Ryan Larkin in Chris Landreth's short film, "Ryan."

In 1969, legendary animator Ryan Larkin was at the height of his career. His innovative short film "Walking," one of several films he had made while at the National Film Board of Canada, had received an Oscar nomination and worldwide acclaim. The Montreal Gazette had tagged him the "Frank Zappa or George Harrison of animation." He was a star.

But by 1978, Larkin was a cocaine addict, a heavy drinker, out of work, and out of money. Today, he lives in the Old Brewery Mission in Montreal. Still an alcoholic, Larkin panhandles for spare change in front of Schwartz's restaurant on Montreal's Boulevard St. Laurent.

Four years ago, animator Chris Landreth, who had also received an Oscar nomination for an innovative short film ("the end," 1996) was on the selection committee for the Ottawa International Animation Festival and on course for a fateful meeting with Ryan Larkin.

Shortly before the committee was to meet, festival director Chris Robinson had heard through a friend of a staff member that Larkin was in Montreal, panhandling. Robinson thought that if he could track him down, maybe he could bring Larkin to the festival. Maybe he could help him out. He found Larkin on St. Laurent asking people for spare change. After sharing a few pitchers of beer, Larkin agreed to go to Ottawa on Robinson's assurance that he'd be fed, housed, and provided with beer money. And then, when one of the four committee members dropped out at the last minute, Robinson asked Larkin to fill the slot.
Chris Landreth used 3D computer graphics to create what he calls psychorealistic interpretations of himself (left) and Ryan Larkin (above, right) for his award-winning animated documentary, "Ryan."

"At first, Ryan was out of it," remembers Landreth. "He'd been hanging out with people on the street for the past 20 years. But by the end of the week, some part of him had remembered what it was like to be with animators, and he came to life." On the last day, after the committee had finished selecting films for the festival, they showed each other their own films. "Ryan was last, and he showed 'Walking' and three or four other films," Landreth says. "Our jaws were on the floor. He was a brilliant animator who did spirited short films that showed incredible creativity. I looked at him and wondered, how did this happen? That's where it began."

At the time, Landreth was out of work, having left a job that didn't match his creative spirit, but he wasn't without resources. "I thought now, if any time, would be the right time to develop a new film," he says. Four years later, Landreth released "Ryan," an animated documentary based on the life of Ryan Larkin. The voices in the film are those of Landreth interviewing Larkin, as well as artists, animators, and people in Larkin's past, and street people in his present. They all speak through 3D characters.

"Ryan" takes place largely in a run-down cafeteria. The characters Chris and Ryan sit across a table from each other; the camera moves from one to the other. With the exception of historical footage, everything and everyone in "Ryan" was modeled, animated, and rendered in Alias's Maya, but nothing and no one look like anything you've seen before, including Landreth himself. It's My Dinner with André with surreal, disembodied characters rather than actors.

"My animation work has used and continues to use photorealism," Landreth writes in the notes for "Ryan," "but what I'm most interested in is not achieving photorealism in CGI, but in co-opting elements of photorealism to serve a different purpose—to expose the realism of the incredibly complex, messy, chaotic, sometimes mundane, and always conflicted quality we call human nature. I refer to this as 'psychorealism.'"

Thus, although the character Chris resembles Landreth, his face is painted with gouges that represent his demons and augmented with growths that amplify his emotions: A neon halo pops out of his head when he gets preachy. Something Ryan says electrifies Chris's hair. A small purple hand on his cheek reaches out to Ryan.

Landreth altered Ryan even further: Like Larkin himself, the character's face is dissipated and decimated. Large parts of Ryan's head are gone, as is half his sight; he wears glasses, but he has only one eye. When he becomes angry, red spikes erupt from his head.
Painted gouges in Chris's face represent scars created by battles with personal demons. The small purple hand reaches out toward Ryan. Models were created in Maya; hair in Maya's Paint Effects.

The combination of Larkin's story and Chris's growing self-awareness as the film progresses—all interpreted by psychorealistic graphics offering a third narrative voice that's sometimes a critic, sometimes a participant—melds the genres of animation and documentary into a new, emotionally powerful art form.

By all accounts, the result has been a major technical and critical success. In fact, by the time the 14-minute film premiered in Cannes on May 17, as a selection for International Critics Week, it had already won three major awards: SIGGRAPH 2004's Jury Award, Prix Ars Electronica's Golden Nica, and The Sun Life Financial Award for Best Canadian Short at the 2004 Worldwide Short Film Festival. At Cannes, it received three Best Short Film awards: the Kodak Discovery Award, the Canal + Award, and the Young Critics Award. And in June, "Ryan" would go on to win the Jury's Special Award at the prestigious Annecy animation festival. Clearly, the story and technique have resonated with critics and audiences.

Landreth started working on the film by videotaping interviews with Larkin and, at the same time, making audio recordings and taking close-up photos. "The idea was vague at first," he says. "I was thinking along the lines of Nick Park's "Creature Comforts," in which he interviewed people at a zoo in Bristol and then fashioned an animated film around the interviews."

During the spring and early summer of 2002, Landreth accumulated 20 hours of audio footage and collected reference material including Larkin's films from the Film Board archives. But it wasn't yet enough. He still didn't have a story. He continued interviewing Larkin.

"In August, we had a conversation about alcohol," Landreth remembers. "I hadn't planned to bring the subject up, but I needed to, and it came out the way you hear it in the film, verbatim. At that point, I kind of knew the film was not going to be just about Ryan." The interviewer, whose mother had alcohol problems, had become enmeshed in the story; the conversation about alcohol be-came a climactic moment in the film.
The 3D neon halo sprouting from Chris's head is one of many graphic devices that helped Landreth comment on Chris's emotional state as he interviews Ryan.

By December, Landreth had written a script and had knitted together an independent production with the help of Copper Heart Entertainment in Toronto. The "Ryan" production team received grant money from the Canada Council for the Arts, and then the National Film Board of Canada signed on as co-producer. In addition, Seneca College in Toronto gave Landreth studio space and recommended a few graduates from its animation program to work with him.

During the interviews, Landreth drew sketches of Chris and Ryan. These drawings became the basis for the 3D representations of the two animators who would appear in the film. "Our visual appearances reflect pain, insanity, fear, mercy, shame, and creativity," Landreth notes.

The models for the two other main characters in the film—Derek Lamb, who was Larkin's close friend and executive producer, and Felicity Fanjoy, his former common-law wife—were based on Larkin's drawings. "Chris and Ryan's photorealism is interpreted through my psychorealistic perception of them," Landreth says, "but I wanted to show Derek and Felicity as Ryan perceives them. The best way to do this was through his drawings of them. So, we took his sketch patterns and mapped them onto 3D articulated models of Derek and Felicity, giving them the sketchy appearance you see in the film."

Derek slides into view as an animated image in an easy chair, but Felicity sits at the table with Chris and Ryan. As she reminisces with Ryan, he puts his hand over hers.

Although the characters' performances are realistic, Landreth chose not to rely on motion capture. Landreth himself handled about half the facial animation; the Seneca animation grads completed the rest. "There's a certain animator pride in not using motion capture," he says. "But to get a believable performance that wouldn't look hand-animated, we had to get out of the pose-to-pose mind-set that animation students have."
Ryan's model dramatizes his feelings as he reminisces with his former common-law wife, Felicity. Her representation, a 3D model textured with paint strokes, was based on a sketch by Larkin.

With pose-to-pose animation, animators place a character into one pose and then another, and the computer handles the movement in between. "If you don't do anything except that, the character has a stilted quality," Landreth says. "So, animators try to finesse that to get a more fluid motion, but there is still a residue left behind—more in the mind-set, perhaps, than in the animation."

To illustrate what he means by a pose-to-pose mentality, Landreth uses the crew's animation test line, a bit of Ryan's dialog: I don't pay taxes. I don't pay union dues. This is take-home. This is take-home pay. He shows how the animators would strike a pose with each sentence. "This is something you see a lot in studio animation," he says. "A character says something and does a gesture, says something else and does another gesture."

Landreth explains that this type of animation not only looks stilted, it wasn't the way Ryan behaved. "Ryan gestures a lot, but one of the striking things is that his hands do something totally unconnected with what he's saying," Landreth says. "It's not even the same timing. So, getting that nuance into the animated version of Ryan took a lot of thinking and effort."

Thus, Landreth and CG supervisor Dave Baas taught the animators to use a "straight-ahead" animation style. "It's what you might do with claymation, where you don't have the luxury of in-betweening," Landreth says. Rather than, for example, having Ryan take a bow through a set of poses—stand, put right arm out, bend in the middle, stand up—he asked animators to think about the behaviors of different parts of the body. "You might imagine how Ryan's arm would operate over two or three seconds, animate the full motion of the arm, and then do the rest of the body," he says. "It might or might not work, but you would have the flow of the whole motion."

Landreth also worked on ridding the animation of the typical CG spliney look in which movement happens in smooth arcs. "I tried to get the idea to the animators that we're all twitching meat," he says. "The meat part is that we have mass, momentum, and weight; the twitching part is universal in the way people move. People don't move in curves. They twitch into motion impulsively, generally with a fast ease in and a slow ease out. It looks like a sawtooth pattern, not a sine wave."

To create textures for Chris and Ryan, Landreth's team stitched together photographs in Adobe's Photoshop and applied them to the 3D models. But for Derek and Felicity, they used Paint Effects to mimic the strokes in Larkin's drawings and to create the animated CG models that looked hand drawn.

The lighting also contributes to the dramatic effect. Although hero characters typically have rim lights shining on them from behind, Landreth chose another option. "That's not the way things looked, so we decided not to use it," he says. Instead, he and rendering supervisor Belma Abdicevic replicated the cafeteria's institutional lighting. "We had high-intensity overhead lights, lights bouncing off walls, diffuse lighting. The light is flatter than we might want, but less overly dramatic, too. And a rim light would have given away the lack of subsurface scattering." Therefore, even though the lighting matched reality, because it was not the typical treatment given to hero CG characters and movie stars, it added to the surreal effect.

As for other techniques and tools, Landreth stayed with Maya for rendering and picked Discreet's Combustion for compositing. "We used Maya 4.0," he says. "We didn't even have Mental Ray that's in Maya now, but we were able to have Paint Effects integrated into it." For editing, although he used Adobe's Premiere at the storyboard stage for conceptual editing, he turned to postproduction studio Coptor Production for the final edit. "I'd sit on a couch while the editor did all the dirty work," he says, noting that the studio used Apple's Final Cut Pro for online editing.

All told, the production took 18 months. A three-person professional staff—Landreth, a CG supervisor, and a lighting/rendering/compositing specialist—was supported by four animators, one texturer, one character modeler on the student staff at Seneca College, and 20 volunteers.

"Ryan," which was created as an independent production by an out-of-work animator stands as a challenge to filmmakers to create their own films. "All these resources—Copper Heart, the National Film Board, Seneca, grants, donations, and many volunteers—came together to produce this film because people believed in it," Landreth says. "The film has a long credit roll and nice production values, and it is being promoted and distributed by the National Film Board, but it was done quite on the cheap. I look forward to seeing independent features done in this way."

In making "Ryan," Landreth took professional and personal risks. By working with animation, he reaches beyond the limits of documentary filmmaking. By creating a documentary, he explores new possibilities for animation. And by using 3D graphics to create emotional realism rather than photorealism, he dares directors, animators, and computer graphics professionals to think beyond cartoon animation, creature animation, and digital doubles. Given the results, these were risks worth taking.
Left to right: A photo of Ryan Larkin. A CG model of Larkin. Landreth's impression of Ryan, sketched during the interviews. The final character Ryan, created by carving Landreth's CG model to match his surreal, conceptual drawing.

Barbara Robertson is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and a freelance journalist specializing in computer graphics, visual effects, and animation. She can be reached at

All the sets in "Ryan"—the cafeteria, a lavatory, and the Boulevard St. Laurent—were modeled in Maya and distorted in two ways: The crew added non-linear perspective to objects in the rendered image using an in-house plug-in for Maya; and they smeared selected objects using Maya Paint Effects. "We used this effect to create a dreamy, disorienting space, which reflects the skewed states that both Ryan and Chris experience in their shared environment," notes Landreth.

For the street scene, modeler Helen Zotalis Van Emmerik spent four months painstakingly recreating a Montreal city block in 3D from thousands of photographs. And then she distorted it. "She changed it on my direction to make it more painterly, more interpretive," Landreth says. "We used Paint Effects to sully it with paint strokes strategically placed on the 3D model."

Because Paint Effects' paint strokes stick to a model, Landreth could still move a virtual camera around the non-photoreal urban landscape. "The street, storefronts, parking meters all had this painterly quality," Landreth says. "It put us into an interpretive space."

In the cafeteria, Landreth applied the same technique, turning the 3D model of the room, the tables, and the chairs into surreal replicas. But here, he pushed the idea even further. "The cafeteria starts off being sharp and gradually gets degraded," Landreth says. When the conversation between the two animators becomes heated, the cafeteria becomes nearly unrecognizable. "We turned the room into SyFlex cloth and 'melted' it," Landreth explains. He even extended the distortion to Zaz, one of the hapless characters the camera pans past in the cafeteria, by melting him with SyFlex software and then pouring his body across a table like a drunk passed out at a bar. "A few of the secondary characters are based on real people that Ryan knows in the mission, but Zaz, the melting guy, is all my creation."

All the 3D models for the characters in "Ryan" were created in Alias's Maya. "We started with subdivision surfaces, but converted to NURBS," says Landreth. They were also destroyed and disturbed with Maya. "We used free-form fillet blends and trims, and added lots of embellishments with NURBS in Maya for the character Chris. For Ryan, we used mostly NURBS with a lot of construction history."

For hair—and for many of the effects in the film—Landreth used Maya Paint Effects. "There's a stroke tailored for hair in the Enhanced version of Maya 5," Landreth says. "You can draw a stroke, a thin line, and get tons of hair, and it's good hair."

By organizing Chris's model into layers, Landreth reduced the amount of geometry the animators needed on-screen while allowing them to toggle back and forth between the psychoreal and real models. This came in handy for one scene in particular in which Chris is looking into a mirror. "You see Chris without gouges on one side of the mirror and with gouges on the other," says Landreth. "The model with all the cut-out stuff and embellishments was always there, but the animators had the option to work faster without all those things."

For Ryan, though, because he rarely appears totally intact, the animators primarily worked with the hollowed-out face. The complete face can be seen only on a younger Ryan. In one scene, for example, as he and Felicity remember happier times, the young 3D Ryan dances joyfully behind them alongside the animation in one of his early films.