A cluster of seven unmarked buildings in Culver City is the home of some of the most eye-popping visual effects in the movie business. Sony Imageworks has created visual effects for films like Spiderman 3, Stuart Little, and Starship Troopers.
This is also the headquarters of Sony Pictures Animation, one of the major players in the field of CGI animation, who recently created Surf’s Up and Open Season. The animation division was set up starting in 2002 after the success of the ChubbChubbs.
As a fee-for-service post-production FX company, Sony does straight 2-D visual effects and 3-D character work, the latter including such tasks as creating a virtual Toby McGuire as a stand in for the real actor when he’s called upon to do dangerous stunts. Sony has also been a pioneer in the controversial technique of motion capture, or as they call it “performance capture” in such films as Polar Express and Beowulf, developing a new art form that bridges the boundary between live action and animation.
Sony Pictures Animation, or “SPA,” as it is known here, has its own in-house visual development department, which hammers out the story and crafts the look of the characters and environments. The rigging, animation, surfacing and lighting are then handled by the Imageworks team next door. Their artists have to cover the gamut from photo-real live action effects to the caricatured world of CGI animation. The huge demands on the computers to render all this material requires 4000 processors, and up to a petabyte of memory.
The talent pool thus ranges from artist/designers to software specialists. We toured both facilities before and after my presentation, and I had a chance to meet SPA’s visual development legends like Richard Chavez, Luc Desmarchelier, and Ron Lukas, who, along with Paul Lasaine, are busy creating environments and characters for a variety of new shows in development.
The visual effects team has developed sophisticated tools to create photo-real water, fire, and fabric, all of which has been a challenge to model convincingly in CG. For Surf’s Up, they not only had to create realistic breaking waves, but set up a control system so they could curl and crash on cue. In-house software engineers have developed proprietary tools for fur and fabric. “Cloth has come a long way, too,” said our host Steve Prawat.
Sande Scoredos, the director of training and artistic development, said that new hires spend two weeks in training, with a whole regimen of classes. They’re given a practice shot to animate, basically a digital puppet figure in a virtual room, and if they can meet the requirements, they get “crewed.”
Like all CGI animation companies, Sony works hard to keep its 900-1400 artists happy and learning. They offer free classes in life drawing and acting, bring in live falcons, take trips to art museums, and present lectures by cinematographers, classic animators like Chuck Jones—and author/illustrators like me. “We have a program in place for people who want to go up the career path,” said Mr. Prawat.
As I signed the artist wall, I felt honored to be a guest at a studio with such a respected artistic legacy. It’s an exciting career indeed for young artists to consider.
Some images provided by Sony Imageworks.