Simon Allen Interview: Aussie Animator From Toy Story 3
- Written by Matthew Toomey
Last week, I had the chance to speak with Simon Allen – an Australian born animator who worked on the recent Toy Story 3. He has a long list of other credits too as you’ll soon see.
I’ve always been intrigued as to what goes on behind the scenes of an animated film and this was a chance to find out.
If you want to hear the interview which went to air on 612ABC Brisbane with Spencer Howson, you can listen to it by clicking right here.
If you don’t have the luxury of sound and you’re looking for a transcript, here’s the best I can offer. Enjoy!
Matt: “Simon Allen was born in Australia and he works for Pixar Animation Studios. He worked on films like Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up – all amazing animated films. Now he’s an animator who worked on Toy Story 3 which is coming out here in Australia on June 24.”
Spencer: “We’re very excited to have you on the show. What a resume, what a CV you have there. You must stand very tall Simon?”
Simon: “Thanks very much guys. It has been a lot of fun. A bit of an adventure.”
Matt: “Now I’d like to ask about what your role is with Toy Story 3. Every time I see an animated film I see hundreds of names listed in the credits. What exactly do you have to do for an animated film?”
Simon: “I am one of the animators and I’m animating a lot of the original characters – Woody, Buzz, Rex, Mr and Mrs Potato Head, Jesse and Slinky.”
Spencer: “Does that mean you do the whole of the film for those characters or is it divided up into a certain number of minutes or scenes? How do you split the work?”
Simon: “We have about 60 to 70 animators working over 6 to 8 months. We normally try to produce around 5 seconds of film a week per animator. It’s normally broken up into chunks so an animator will get a section of the film and they will do up to a dozen shots. If they finish those and there’s time, they can move on to something else or they can help out with another character.”
Spencer: “How do you make sure Woody walks the same way and talks the same way for the whole film if you’re dividing it up like that?”
Simon: “We do a lot of work before the movie is in production and so someone will devise or design the style of the animation for that character. Often we’ll be able to take that animation from our library. So if it’s a walk or something specific like that, we can grab that and put it in our scene. But for the characters, we just feed off each other and also we feed off the voice talent. Luckily for us with Toy Story 3, we’ve grown up with these characters so we know how they act, we know their personas and we have a lot of experience and lot of reference material to draw from.”
Matt: “You say it takes a week to do 5 seconds worth of work as an animator. Is that frustrating? Do computers not help you out in any way?”
Simon: “They’re not that fast, no. It’s a bit of a process. About a second a day is what we get. That’s why we need so many animators. By the end of the week we might have 3% of the movie done so yeah, it does take a long time.”
Matt: “Every time I see an animated film and I’m reviewing it, I keep saying that the animation is getting better and better. How do you keep up with all these changes in technology? Or is been pretty much the same over the years?”
Simon: “No, it’s getting better and better. The computer power is getting better. Also, the demands are becoming higher. People want to see fur, they want to see a lot more characters, they want to see fantastic lighting and so it does take a lot of processing power to produce these images. When Toy Story first came out it took around 4 to 5 hours per frame to render, to actually make that frame. On some of these new movies we’re getting so technical. On Cars, it was taking between 13 and 16 hours just to make one frame so there’s 24 frames per second and for us to make that frame, it takes that long to render.”
Spencer: “There must have been times when someone pulled the cord out of the wall by mistake just before its finished rendering. You must have stories like that?”
Simon: “We have a designated generator just to make sure that if there’s a blackout, we can keep going.”
Spencer: “Back to the technology, with the demand for 3D and high-def, one of my observations is that early on with computer animation there seemed to be a struggle with creating human faces. Maybe that’s why the early movies were about cars and toys and the like. Matthew and I both saw Shrek Forever After the other night and for the first time, I think they nailed it with their witches’ faces. Do you think I’m on to something there? Of all things you animating with a computer, are human faces the most difficult?”
Simon: “They really are very difficult. There is this thing called the ‘uncanny valley’. It’s when you start to try to produce a human character in a computer. It never really looks quite right. It just kind of looks weird. But with the Toy Story, the reason we started it was because of John Lasseter’s passion for toys. When he was first doing animated short films back in the 1980s, one of his first films was Tin Toy and it was about these toys coming to life. He loves toys and I think it was his passion for that which inspired him to do Toy Story. I think that’s also the same with other directors. He loves cars so he also did Cars as well. Brad Bird loved superheroes so he did The Incredibles. Andrew Stanton loves robots so he did WALL-E.”
Matt: “Can I ask about the role of a director on an animated film. They can’t exactly tell the actors what to say and how it say it. How does the director work?”
Simon: “In most cases, they’re the ones that helps write the story. They’re doing this process for about 4 to 5 years so they know this movie through and through. They’ve done all the readings of the script and they know the movie inside out. When it does come time for them to do the voice recordings, they can help the actors give the right information and give them the passion required for those lines. It’s the same for the animators and every department on the film. The director knows the colour of the nut and bolt on that chair. They know the colour of the wall that’s over there. They know how these characters should act. Every minute detail is given by the director.”
Matt: “Is it a really competitive industry. I know Dreamworks also churns out a lot of animation. Do you go along and see the Dreamworks films and think some of that stuff is pretty cool?”
Simon: “Oh we do. Definitely. We also have a lot of friends who work for those other companies so we keep in contact with them. I worked on Happy Feet back in Sydney and I definitely keep in touch with those guys. It also helps drive us. We’re so invigorated by what other people are doing and it helps make us more creative.”
Matt: “What’s it like to actually see it all up there on the big screen for the first time?”
Simon: “It’s pretty amazing. You spend a long time working on these shows but they’re just in small chunks which are out of context and out of order. It’s without editing, it doesn’t have any sound effects and it doesn’t have any music. Once you see it all put together with all the music and it’s all edited, you’re definitely touched by it. I remember the first time that I saw Up on the big screen, even though I had seen that movie 100 times before, when I saw it on the big screen I still cried.”
Spencer: “These films are 3D these days. Some are some of them are done post 3D and some are 3D all along. I remember with Alice In Wonderland that the 3D was an ‘added on’ 3D. What does that throw up for you as an animator having to work in 3D? Does the computer do that for you or does it change what you’re doing as an artisan?
Simon: “I know with some of the movies out there that it definitely changes the way you approach a shot. In most cases, it’s all about the story and creating the best possible film first. Then, the 3D effects are an added feature so we don’t really worry too much. It’s mainly the movie which comes first.”
Spencer: “And the director has worked out what’s going to work as 3D shot presumably and so that’s what you’re given to create?”
Spencer: “We should just ask you before we let you go that you’re an Aussie and you’re there working on what have become modern day classic movies. For anyone listening, whether they’re a graphic artist or a child still at school, how do we get your job?”
Simon: “Haha. It takes a lot of practice and if you’re passionate about it, you need to keep practicing.”
Spencer: “Those software programs used in schools here, is it worthwhile playing with those programs? Is that how you get a start?”
Simon: “Absolutely. Any exposure that you can get to animation software or the process of animation is great. Definitely dive head first into it and if you love it, you’ll just keep doing it and get better at it.”
Spencer: “And there’ll be plenty of jobs in years to come? No sign of it disappearing as a moviemaking skill?”
Simon: “It’s a huge industry. It’s like a $10 billion industry and it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
Spencer: “Simon, it’s been great having you on the show this morning. Thank you very much and all the best with Toy Story 3 and whatever comes afterwards.”
Back From Good Times In Ye Olde London
- Written by Matthew Toomey
I have returned from the far reaches of the planet… and by that I mean, London. It felt that way after a 24 hour flight (including two brief stopovers). Not good for a tall person like me.
Bye Bye Regent
On Sunday night, I saw my very last movie at the Regent Theatre in Brisbane. I wrote up a tribute piece in my last blog which you can revisit by clicking here.
As my last film, I attended a special screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There were quite a few people in the cinema and it was a nice atmosphere. I really enjoyed the film too – it was the first time I’d seen it in a long time.
Afterwards, there were heaps of people (including myself) taking photos within the famous theatre. You can view a few of my snaps by clicking here.
As I type this blog, the very last screenings will be taking place. The cinema closes its doors of today – 14 June 2010. Brisbane cinema just won’t be the same again.
I won’t ramble on for too long about my London adventures. If you’re on Facebook, you can view some photos by clicking here.
I did see two movies while I was over there. The first was Sex & The City 2. I was booked in to see it on a Tuesday night in a small theatre. It was a cool venue – in a basement with a funky bar serving cocktails. To be honest, I’d best describe it as a bar with a cinema built it. It must be quite popular though as the session I attended was sold out (I had to get my tickets two hours in advance too).
Well as the saying goes – “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. The projector broke and the screening had to be cancelled. It was to start at 9:10pm and it wasn’t until 10pm when they finally gave us word that all hope had been lost. There were some unhappy customers that’s for sure.
I ended up catching it the next day in the famous cinema district of London – Leicester Square. It’s a great place to watch a movie and I picked up some Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream to take in with me. You can read my thoughts on the film above but if it’s not the worst film of 2010, it’ll be damn close. It took me days to get the smell out of my clothes.
On the last day before I departed, I caught Michael Winterbottom’s new flick called The Killer Inside Me. It was heavily promoted and I saw it with a friend (again in Leicester Square). The film isn’t being released in Australia until August but I can say I was also disappointed. A very weak conclusion to what is set up as a thriller with potential. None of the key performances (Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson) are worth mentioning.
On the flight, I saw The Ghost Writer – the new Roman Polanski thriller getting a release later this year in Australia. It definitely had my thumbs up and I look forward to reviewing it.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve been catching up on (1) sleep and (2) movies. I’ve been able to see 9 movies in the past 6 days which has me back on track. All the reviews are found above.
I also bought a TV series on DVD in London called The Inbetweeners which I’m keen to sink my teeth into. Have heard a lot of great things.
I don’t know what else has happened in the film world while I’ve been gone. I heard that Dennis Hopper passed away which was very sad. Such a talented actor. I only picked up on that while looking over someone’s shoulder while they were reading a paper on the tube. You tend to lose track of everything when travelling overseas.
Anyway, that’s it from me this week. Over and out.
Farewell: 10 Great Memories From The Regent Theatre
- Written by Matthew Toomey
In a few weeks, the Regent Theatre in Brisbane will close its doors for the last time.
This is a very sad event for me. The Regent is one of the most beautiful theatres in Australia. It opened back in 1929 and whilst it has gone through a few refurbishments over the years, it has a classic, traditional look.
I recently stumbled across this old picture of the Queen Street Mall taken in the mid 1960s - http://twitpic.com/15f7yb. Most of those buildings have been knocked down (and there’s certainly no tram line today) but the Regent can be seen in all its glory. I can’t imagine how many people have visited that cinema over the past 80 years.
Many have tried to stop the closure of the Regent but the State Government hasn’t come to the party. Brett Debritz ran a website - http://www.debritz.com/str/ - trying to do whatever he could to bring this to people’s attention.
From a personal perspective, I understand that change is inevitable. Not all things are meant to last. Maybe the Regent falls into this category. It’s still sad though. Birch, Carroll & Coyle and Hoyts have done such a poor job running the cinema in recent years. Very few people go there (except for special preview screenings). If more patrons were coming through the door, I’m sure there’d be a much bigger public outcry over the site’s redevelopment.
I’m in London for a few weeks and so will miss the week long gala of classic movies which will be showing at the Regent from May 29 to June 5. You can book tickets through the Event Cinemas website. If I was here, I’d be going along every night – trying to make the most of the Regent’s final days. I look of the foyer and marble staircase amazes me every time I walk in.
The good news is that the cinema will remain open until June 13 and so I can sneak one last movie (as I return from London on June 9). The Rocky Horror Picture Show is on every night during the final week and I’ve booked tickets to the very last session on June 13 at 6:45pm.
For this week’s blog, I thought I’d reflect back on my 10 favourite Regent memories. I’m not as old as many other Brisbane moviegoers but I’ve had plenty of great experiences there. Enjoy!
First Regent Movie – The Basketball Diaries – August 1995
My love of film started after I got a job in a video store in January 1995. I’d heard about the Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF) but had never been before. A fan of Leonardo DiCaprio (having seen What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), I made the effort to see The Basketball Diaries at BIFF. I’d never driven into the city so had to ask for directions from my work colleagues.
I loved the movie (check it out if you haven’t seen it) and I’ve attended BIFF every year since 1995 as a result.
Longest Movie Ever Seen – Hamlet – May 1997
Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is the longest movie I’ve ever seen. It clocks in at just over 4 hours and was shot in 70mm format (a wider screen than we’re used to). I think it was the last major film to be shot in 70mm and so the Regent’s Showcase Cinema was the only theatre with a wide enough screen to accommodate it.
It came out on Thursday and I skipped my uni lecture to go to the 10am screening. There was a 15 minute interval at the half-way mark and I remember sneaking downstairs to the McDonalds (which has since closed) to pick up a couple of cheeseburgers. Certainly got me through the second half and the film featured in my top 10 list for that year.
Friends At BIFF – Election & Go – July 1999
I’d been attending BIFF for a number of years but the time had come to get some friends into the act. I wanted to expand their theatrical horizons.
On 30 July 1999, I organised for a group of 6 friends to see back-to-back screenings of Election (with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick) and Go. It was a fantastic night and we snuck in a drink afterwards at the Regent Bar (such a beautiful place).
I can tell you for a fact that of all the times that I’ve been to the movies, this was my favourite experience. I loved both films (they were ranked 3rd and 7th on my top 10 list for that year) and it was fantastic to have some friends along to enjoy them too. I think I’ve seen Election about 100 times since.
I got an even bigger group of friends to BIFF the following year to see American Psycho. Not top 10 worthy but another good film. The novel is one of my all time favourites.
Whoops, Wrong Reel – The Green Mile – February 2000
When I ask people about their favourite films, The Shawshank Redemption pops up regularly. I saw it at the Schonell Theatre on the day before a uni exam. Director Frank Darabont’s follow up was The Green Mile and having read the book, I was very keen to see it.
To see it before everyone else, I booked tickets to a charity preview with a few friends. I’ve never seen this happen before but… two of the film reels were played out of order! The story was going along fine and then wham, it jumped ahead 20 minutes. One minute, John Coffey was in prison. The next minute, he had escaped and was helping cure a sick woman. After that reel was complete (20 minutes later), it then jumped back to the bit we missed.
There were some murmurs from the audience and I realised pretty quickly what was going on. How strange. One of my friends was none the wiser though. He thought it was just a creatively done flashback sequence. I had to laugh.
A New Record – Interstellar 5555 – August 2004
In 2004, I went on my first overseas trip. It was a contiki tour across Europe and yep, I had plenty of fun. When I got back 5 weeks later, I had a LOT of movies to catch up on. I cleared my schedule on a Saturday and decided to get busy.
Up until this point, the most number of movies that I’d seen in a day was 3. I love movies but there’s only so many you can see in a day. It’s hard to concentrate and remain in a seated position for so long.
On 7 August 2004, I saw a record setting 6 movies. I’m pretty confident that I’ll never beat this. I saw Facing Windows, Under The Radar, King Arthur, The Chronicles Of Riddick and White Chicks.
It all finished with an 11:30pm BIFF screening with two friends of a Japanese animated film called Interstellar 5555. I think I was running off fumes by this point – driving from my home in Stafford Hts to the CBD just to chalk up movie number 6. I can’t remember much from the film but thankfully it was only 68 minutes. When I put my head on the pillow that night, I’d well and truly earned my rest.
The Hidden Theatrette – Just Friends – December 2005
When I started reviewing for 612ABC in late 2005, I suddenly found myself receiving invites from distributors to see films before they open. Now this was pretty cool. Paramount even had their own private theatrette at Milton.
It turns out that the Regent has its own theatrette too. It’s located on level 1 and you can access it through the lifts next to Aromas. It seats about 25 people and if you’re trying to picture where it is, it’d be directly above the front entrance to the cinema. A few distributors rent this theatre for their private media screenings.
I first saw a film there in December 2005. It was Just Friends (nothing too good) but I took a few hours off work just to see what this theatrette looked like. It was also fun to mingle amongst other critics. I’ve been back numerous times but unfortunately, it too will be gone as part of the redevelopment. For the record, my last theatrette film was Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief.
Fire In The Regent – The Da Vinci Code – May 2006
There was huge hype for The Da Vinci Code but the media preview didn’t occur until the night before the film’s release. Sony didn’t want to take any chances with negative reviews hurting business. I’d read the novel and was curious to see how they would adapt it for the big screen.
About three-quarters into the movie, the film reel caught on fire. We saw the picture dissolve in front of our very eyes. The lights were turned on and the packed audience had to amuse themselves for 15 minutes so that the problem could be fixed.
It was a fun experience because it’s not often you can pause mid movie and talk about it. I was debating it with my friend Sam and a few other nearby critics. An unplanned interval.
My 30th Birthday – The Nanny Diaries – September 2007
My 30th birthday fell on a Wednesday in September 2007. I was catching up with friends that weekend and given I’m not too big on celebrations, I just treated my actual 30th birthday as any other day. I went to the media preview for The Nanny Diaries which just happened to be at the Regent.
The film was horrendous. I wouldn’t subject anyone to sitting through such a painful film on any day of the year, yet alone a birthday. Still, if anyone ever asks where I was for my 30th birthday, I can say that I spent it in a beautiful cinema.
One Final BIFF – An Education – July 2009
When last year’s BIFF came around, I knew it was the end of an era. It had been announced that the festival was moving to November from 2010 onwards. I also knew that the lease from Birch, Carroll & Coyle was due to end in mid 2010 and that the famous Regent would be closed.
I therefore tried to make the most of BIFF 2009. I attended the Opening Night celebrations for the first time in many years. It was for An Education – an amazing film which earned a spot on my top 10 list last year. Carey Mulligan’s performance was the best by an actress that I’ve seen in the past 12 months.
Carey was at the premiere and I had a quick chance to meet her and have my photo taken. The film’s after party was great too. The lobby and the staircase were packed with happy patrons enjoying a few drinks.
I saw plenty of films during the festival and finished it off by hosting a Q&A with Anthony LaPaglia and the cast/crew of Balibo at the Palace Barracks. I’m not sure where this year’s BIFF will be but it just won’t be the same without the Regent. I’ll also miss the long queues which often stretched down the Queen Street Mall (with everyone rugged up in jumpers, jackets and scarves).
The Final Film – The Rocky Horror Picture Show – June 2010
Ok, so this memory is yet to occur but it’s going to be a significant night. I’ll try to take along my camera to get some photos.
As you can see above, I’ve had many memorable experiences at the Regent and hopefully there’s one more left which will be forever etched in my memory. See you there!
2010 Cannes Film Festival: Wishing I Was There
- Written by Matthew Toomey
High on my bucket list is attending a major international film festival. The dream list includes Cannes, Toronto, Venice and Berlin. While I wait here in Brisbane for the opportunity to present itself, some of my favourite critics and bloggers are currently in Cannes covering the most famous film festival of all.
It must be incredibly hectic for critics in Cannes right now. There’d be a zillion of them trying to get one-on-one interviews with the stars. They’d be battling hard with each star’s publicists. There’s also differing credentials which can limit what films and parties you get into. I’m sure Roger Ebert can see whatever he wants but I don’t know if I’d have the same luxuries.
On top of all the interviews and PR functions, the critics have to find time to see plenty of movies too. You see a movie, you blog or write some notes, then you go see another one. It’s an endless loop that keeps repeating until you get sick or burned out.
There are only 20 or so films in the main competition (for the Palm D’or) but there are heaps of other films being premiered (both short and long films) in other competitions. That’s part of the appeal of these festivals – you get to be the first to see these films and then go forth and spread the word. Many films have come out of Cannes with huge buzz and go on to bigger and better things.
So whilst I’m not in Cannes, I have been keeping up to date with things through some of my favourite columnists. In this week’s blog, I thought I’d share a few of their thoughts since they pertain to films that may be released later this year in Australia.
If you want to have a look at the ups and downs of being a first timer in Cannes, check out Sacha Stone’s daily blog (with photos) at www.awardsdaily.com.
Will it be as good as the original? – Wall Street 2
Owen Gleiberman – “Stone has conceived the movie as an inventory of our current crisis, and on that level it seizes and holds you. As fiction, however, it’s competing, in an odd way, with the very events from which it takes off. For sheer dramatic impact, Money Never Sleeps can certainly hold a candle up to reality, but it can’t top it.” – Read more here.
Jeffrey Wells – “An intelligent, briskly paced, rat-a-tat financial tale that moves along nicely for the first 75% to 80% of its running time -- not brilliantly but sufficiently, offering a more-or-less decent ride. And then it blows itself up during the last 25 minutes or so. Or so it seemed to me. Some have told me they disagree, but I know (or think I know) when a film is gutting itself emotionally.” – Read more here.
Anne Thompson – “The script by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff bears the earmarks of a sequel: bring back some old, bring in some new, and try to keep the whole thing timely and commercial.” – Read more here.
Woody Allen’s new movie – You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger
Owen Gliberman – “The atrociously titled You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is one of Woody Allen’s “fables” — which could almost be code, at this point, for the flavorless, dry-cookie thing that results when he writes and directs a comedy on autopilot. The film is notable, if that’s the word, for being the first movie Allen has made in London that is every bit as bad as his most awful New York comedies, like Anything Elseand Melinda and Melinda.” – Read more here.
Jeffrey Wells – “Set in London, it's a mildly amusing, somewhat chilly film with no piercing performances or dramatic highlights even, as if everything and everyone is on a regulator of some kind. And yet the undertone has a steady and persistent misanthropic flavour. And it leaves you with a kind of "uh-huh, okay" feeling at the end. It's not a bust -- there's food for thought and reflection -- but it's not my idea of enlivening material.” – Read more here.
I love Mike Leigh and it looks like he’s done it again – Another Year
Sacha Stone – “By the end of all of this madness, the standout film may remain Another Year. It is Mike Leigh at his absolute best. It is surely less irritating than Leigh’s recent films have been. It is up there with his best female-driven films, like Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake. How is it that Leigh can be so good and go so deep with these actors as he manages to do? It is one of the great mysteries.” – Read more here.
A look at the global financial crisis – Inside Job
Jeffrey Wells – “A highly absorbing, meticulously composed hammer doc about the causes of the '08 financial meltdown. Most of us have some kind of understanding of the whys and wherefores, but Ferguson lays it all out like a first-class table setting and makes this titanic crime seem extra vivid.” – Read more here.
Owen Gliberman – “Years from now, if you want to know how the American (and global) economic crisis really happened, if you want to grasp the ins and outs of its peculiar hybrid of greed and cluelessness and corporate treachery and political enabling, then Inside Job, the new documentary written and directed by Charles Ferguson, will stand as a definitive investigative primer on the disaster.” – Read more here.
An appropriate title? – Shit Year
Jeffrey Wells – “The first couple of walk-outs happened about 15 minutes in. People weren't soon walking out in droves, but they did continue body by body. Some, I noticed, decided to take naps. Myself among them, to be perfectly frank. When I woke up I noticed that Roger Friedman, who'd been sitting across the aisle, had left. So had several others. So I stuck it out for another 15 or 20 minutes, and then I slipped out myself.” – Read more here.