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Digital Media FX - The Power of Imagination

dFX Interview: Steve Sobisky
Steve SobiskySteve Sobisky had the privilege of working with PDI on both ANTZ (as a liaison producer) and Shrek (as the Lighting / Effects Production Supervisor) then hopping over to Candesa in order to help build the Shrek.com Website.

Recently, Joe Tracy from Digital Media FX (dFX) caught up with Steve Sobisky (SS) to discuss the world of Shrek that he has been living in.

dFX: As the Lighting / Effects Production Supervisor for Shrek, what were your main job functions?

SS: I was responsible for administrative and personnel function, planning, and decision making for the areas of lighting, effects and matte painting teams: staffing and scheduling for each sequence within the team assignments, determination of work procedures and priorities, career development, and employee morale. I worked closely with all of the producers, directors, PM's and my fellow management team.


dFX: How, exactly, do you "manage" dozens of people in three different areas - Lighting, Effects, and Matte Painting?

Steve SobiskySS: It wasn't easy in the beginning stages, but after getting into the center of each of the departments, you begin to develop relationships and an understanding of each person you work with. PDI combined the lighting department and matte painting department into one team, which made life a little simpler. I was able to assign one matte painter to each sequence, which allowed for good continuity among the two groups

The effects group was assigned multiple effects outside of each production supervisor's assigned sequence. What I did was to focus on the effects, which affected only my sequence at that time. The effects were also supervised by the effects supervisor at all times, which makes getting the effects to the light that much easier.


dFX: What was the most challenging part of your job and how did you deal with it?

SS: The most challenging part of the job was maintaining continuity throughout each lighting sequence. Also, making sure that all of the elements were properly in place to drive the point across to the audience. The only way to deal with working on such a project as Shrek is to expect change. Knowing that changes will occur more often than not. Just knowing this will happen makes it easy to deal with it.


Shrek


dFX: How would you describe the process of lighting, effects, and matte painting as it relates to Shrek? What considerations must go into each duty to create the visual wonder of the final print?

SS: The Lighting process is a complex procedure which PDI has made mastered. It begins with having all of the elements in place before lighting can begin. Once all is ready, the lighting team begins to add the lights to the shot. The lights that are added are fill light, bounce light and core light. With all of those in place, the lighter can then adjust to light to their proper hue, tone, and intensity to fit the shots art direction. After a few iterations to the shot the lighter would then show the shot to the director for approval.

For the effects side they can either start from motion files or with lighting. The process for effects is similar to lighting except Effects needs to wait till lighting is completed to put the final touches on the effects.

The Matte Painting team actually helps get the shot ready with temporary mattes with the proper look and color which is given by the directors key art work. Once the lighting is at 50% to 75% the matte painter then puts the final touch on the matte painting for the shot.

If I had to sum up the process in one word it would be magnificent.



Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey head to Farquaad's kingdom


dFX: What considerations must go into each duty to create the visual wonder of the final print?

SS: You have to understand the story and what you want the audience to see as well as feel, taste and hear. The process to get those final visual elements into place for the final print is not easy. It all starts with the story. If you have a great story, which Shrek does, you can only imagine what can happen from there.


dFX: When most people think of an animated movie, they think of "animators" and "artists". Yet there is a whole different world that manages the process. What are some of the things that go on behind the scenes of an animated movie like Shrek that outsiders generally don't know about?

SS: It starts with getting the best talent available. PDI has some of the most talented and motivated animators in the business today. There is a tremendous amount of pride that goes into creating and designing of a 3D movie.

There are a lot of meetings that occur throughout the day. Most think that making a 3D movie if fun and glamorous. Most don't know the time that these animators put in a day. The average time spent at work in a day is 10-12 hours. That is an extremely hard schedule, but only those with the desire can pull it off.

The process in order to make Shrek happen was an amazing accomplishment. The process starts with story pitch which leads into the art department creating visual storyboards to represent what the story is telling visually. Then Modeling takes the designs and begins to build the environments and characters which appear in the sequence. From there, the Layout Group takes the models and begins placing them into the shot. Then Rough Layout takes the set designs and begins to layout what the shot is to look like. From there you take it to Final Layout and then prep for Motion. After Motion has put in a few rough passes on either the characters of the environment it is then sent to Lighting and Matte Painting.

Once the Lighting and Matte Painting has had a chance to review the look and feel of the sequence with the directors and producers they then proceeded to bring all the elements together from all of the departments. During the Lighting phase, FX is also working on a rough version of FX's for the shot. Once Lighting and Matte Painting have completed their processes then FX come in and complete the FX's which are required for the shot. The process then goes to the Paint Department which then checks for frames which need to be cleaned up for film.

In Shrek, we had around 40 Lighters, 25 FX Animators, and 4 Matte Painters who created an amazing visual story. With these 3 groups, which are a just a small portion of the movie's creative talent, bringing those elements together was fairly complex.


Mike Myers voicing ShrekdFX: Chris Farley was originally scheduled to voice Shrek but didn't complete his voice track before his death resulting in Mike Myers coming on board. Then Mike Myers appeared to surprise everyone by deciding later that he wanted to change the voice of Shrek. How do the departments handle sudden changes like these and what other surprises were there during the production?

SS: The untimely death of Chris Farley definitely set the project back for a while. I think that Mike Myers coming onboard to play Shrek was great for PDI/DreamWorks. The roll of Shrek was one that the audience needed to love. Mike fit that mold because of his ability to make the audience feel his emotions and excitement throughout the movie.

The sudden change [Mike Myers changing the voice of Shrek] affected PDI for only a few sequences. I think it was early enough that it didn't disrupt production too bad. If it was later in the process, then there may have been some ADR work needed.


dFX: ADR work?

SS: ADR is a process in which the actor will try to match his voice to the animation which is already created. For Shrek we had to have a few ADR'S because the actors voice may have not been consistent through out a sequence. So the actors would have to go back to the animation reel and try to match their voice to the old animation. Sometimes this is a very successful process and sometimes it's not. In the case that the ADR doesn't work, the facial animation team would have to go in and adjust the character mouth and facial features to fit the actors voice and emotions.


dFX: What is the buzz amongst those you worked with on Shrek now that it has done so well at the box office?

SS: For the most part people are pleased with the results. We all knew that this was a movie that would revolutionize the making of quality 3D animations. I think that PDI/DreamWorks has set a new industry standard with Shrek.


A candid moment with DonkeydFX: Most people are aware that DreamWorks now owns PDI. How does the relationship between PDI and DreamWorks work?

SS: The relationship between the two companies, in my opinion, works extremely well. PDI handles the majority of the 3D animated movies, while DreamWorks handles most of the live action movies. PDI also has a commercial division [TV commercials], which has highly talented individuals with unbelievable skill sets.


dFX: I understand that before Shrek, you worked on ANTZ as a "liaison producer" between PDI/DreamWorks and Viewpoint Datalabs. What exactly is a "liaison producer" and what was Viewpoint Datalabs role in ANTZ?

SS: I worked for 2.5 years, until the end of the project, as the liaison producer between PDI/DreamWorks and Viewpoint Datalabs [for ANTZ]. I was in charge of all of the modeling of the movie from the Viewpoint side. I worked directly with PDI's producers and production managers in order to get the final model to them. Viewpoint built about 85% of the 3D Models for PDI.


dFX: Was the process of creating Shrek much different than creating ANTZ? In what ways did PDI grow between the two films?

SS: I think there was tremendous growth for PDI between ANTZ and Shrek. Creating its first animated feature was a big adventure for PDI. I think Shrek benefited from the mistakes that occurred during ANTZ. Still, Shrek was challenging in a whole new way.


dFX: How so?

SS: The main challenging part was trying the make Fiona's mannerisms look real on the big screen. I think that PDI was able to accomplish that extremely well. Also, making Fiona fit into her shot was not easy for the lighting department. Fiona required a little extra time and effort to make her feel like she fits into the shots extreme lighting conditions.

Another element was to make each shot come alive. They were able to have everything in each shot with some kind of movement. Most animated films only show the primary elements in some form of motion. With Shrek the first time you see it you are amazed, but there is so much more to see in the movie it's extremely hard to catch it the first time around. I have seen the movie 4 times already and I am still seeing things in the move that I either forgot was there or just didn't know it was done.




dFX: The Shrek.com Website is very interactive and does a good job of recreating the movie environment online. How did you become a part of the Shrek.com Website team and who are some of the others that were involved with it?

SS: I became a part of the Shrek.com team once I departed from PDI/DreamWorks in April 2001 as the production supervisor for lighting and effects and joined Candesa. Candesa proposed to PDI/DreamWorks to allow Candesa to redesign a seamless Website, which incorporated preexisting elements into the new design for Shrek.com. I think by all of the press Candesa had received from Shrek.com that it's plain to see that people truly enjoy the work we did. The site has attracted around 40 - 50% more traffic since the new site was launched.

Those involved in creating the new design for Shrek.com were:

Stephen Sobisky
Senior Producer Multimedia

Russ Asplund
Technical Director Multimedia

James Jensen
Multimedia Developer

Chad Garrick
Multimedia Developer

Joseph Gates
Multimedia Developer

Ben Childs
Multimedia Developer


dFX: How did Candesa and PDI/DreamWorks team up for Shrek?

SS: I made the connection because of my experience working at PDI/DreamWorks I had discussions with Aron Warner, head of PDI, about Candesa providing additional service to beef up their existing Shrek.com Website. Through a few approvals Candesa was able tackle the Shrek.com redesign. Candesa completed the redesign within three weeks.


dFX: What elements went into building the Shrek.com Website and how do you get such a strong level of interactivity where simply moving your cursor onto a moving bug creates a new action?

SS: One of our first goals was to try and capture the energy and irreverence of the movie. Using Flash, and some early footage of the film, we tried to find ways to let people experience Shrek's world. Shrek's home seemed like a natural choice and gave us a chance to use elements like the bugs and the fireflies from the movie. The biggest challenge was keeping the size reasonable; so--for example--the noises in the swamp are built from several small clips that are randomized, which lets it download quickly but keeps in from being repetitive.

A few small touches, like the fireflies that partially follow your cursor, and the random paths the bugs take help give it a realistic feel.


dFX: I noticed there are animated segments of the Shrek.com site like "Meet the Characters." Who created these segments and was additional voice acting provided specifically for these or are they phrases from the film incorporated for this use?

SS: Nothing was made specifically for the Website. We had access to models, and some of the voice work from early scenes. These were stitched together to make something that seemed original.


dFX: I noticed in the "Meet the Characters" section that the characters have a good 3D look to them. How was this achieved on the Web?

SS: We were really lucky to have access to several of the models from the movie, which we could work with. Originally, some of the work was done with Pulse, but eventually we pulled everything into Flash.


Shrek.com's Shrek Painter
Shrek.com's Shrek Painter
Two Images from Shrek.com's Shrek Painter Program


dFX: Are there any hidden "Easter Eggs" on the Shrek.com site and if so, can you clue us in to one or two?

SS: If you don't move you cursor on the homepage for a while, a pixie will come and chase you around the screen. If she catches you, she curses your cursor -- kind of fitting we thought. The soundtrack page also let you change skins. Other than that, it is fairly straight forward.


dFX: I understand that the Candesa Website team has a unique name for themselves - Candesa's Knights. How did that come about and what adventures is the team now conquering?

SS: Because we generally have to work all night? Working on something like Shrek, it is inevitable that some of the silliness would wear off. Our team has contains a fantasy writer, comic book fans, a drummer in a rock band, despite deadline pressures and technical challenges we try to keep things fun. One of our writes coined the phrase Candesa Knights, and it seems to fit well.

New adventures? Well, we are making progress in our attempts to eliminate PowerPoint presentations from the corporate culture, with the completion of two training pieces for SHRS and Modus Media. We've also had a chance to work on some games, including one at www.candesa.com/candeatha, where you can have fun blowing up our entire company.


dFX: Before your company gets blown up, what words of wisdom do you have to those aspiring to break into the animation industry?

SS: You should always be working on your portfolio. Never let anyone tell you that your work is not good enough. I would encourage all of those who are looking to break into the business that that they to have an open mind and a great sense of humor.

Ask yourself if you are ready to spend 10-12 hours a day at the computer. Also, be prepared to have others daily critique your work. It takes a special kind of individual to be an animator in this industry. Always look to improve your ability, your craft and especially your portfolio.


dFX: Thanks for your time, Steve. I know our Digital Media FX readers greatly appreciate the insight you have shared.

Interview (c)copyright 2001 Joe Tracy / Digital Media FX.
All Shrek movie images (c) PDI/DreamWorks.

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