After having studied and worked as an engineer for years, Chris Landreth was hired by Alias in 1994 as an in-house artist, testing the earliest versions of Maya when working as an animation tool. Landreth’s work was a driving force in developing Maya 1.0 and his short film, ‘The End’, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1996.
In 2005, Landreth’s ‘Ryan’, an animated short that pioneered Psychorealism (a style where surreal CG imagery is used to show the phsychology of its characters) received the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and over 60 other awards, including prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and Grand Prize at the 2004 Ottawa International Animation Festival.
We talk to Landreth to discover more about his pioneering 3D animation career and his latest short film, ‘Subconscious Password’.
I first gained interest in CGI over 20 years ago, actually about 1989 or 1990. I went to my first SIGGRAPH in Boston in 1989 and I got hooked. My career at that point had been in research engineering and I was at the university of Illinois. After going to SIGGRAPH I made a big career turn and got into CGI.
For a year I wasn’t making any money at all, but fortunately I had saved enough money to just live off of my savings while I was kind of learning how to do computer graphics and computer animation. It eventually got me a job in a place called the North Carolina Super Computing Center and I was doing computer animation there but it was more of a scientific computer animation. That then turned into me coming to Canada and working at Alias.
2. Could you describe the project and your work developing Maya? In what ways did you test and even abuse the software?
I was hired and started working at Alias in 1994. At that time Alias was also a software package that was being used as a modelling tool, not really an animation tool. What my job turned into was to use the developing software, which was to become Maya, to create an actual animated film to test the software on and to make it robust before it was actually launched and released. Then, once the short film was done, to be able to exhibit it at places like SIGGRAPH and animation festivals, I had to spread the word that Alias could now be used to do full production. That’s how I did ‘Bingo’ when I was at Alias, as well as another film called ‘The End’.
The main objective was to make a complete end user package that could be used for modelling, texturing, rigging, special effects, lighting, everything. It was very much a challenge. On one hand, it was really cool to be able to use cutting-edge software before anyone gets his or her hands on it, that’s the fun part. The less fun part is that because it’s cutting-edge software that’s never been used by anyone else, its broken. ‘Bingo’ took almost two years to do even though it was a five-minute film, largely because most of the time it took to make the film wasn’t spent on the film itself, but finding out all of the problems in the software, reporting these bugs and having them fixed, so it was a very long and tedious process.
At the beginning stages of ‘Bingo’, even modelling and trying to animate a sphere was impossible because it was so rudimentary. It was a very gradual process to being able to do the things you see in the film. We spent a very long time getting the modelling tools to work and then working on rigging tools such as blend shapes and bind skin, as well as the things that we now use all the time in character rigging. To get kinematics to work, as well as to get skinning to work so you could bind to joints, was a very long, gradual process, getting the software up to form by the time it was released in the spring of 1998. Obviously, over the next few years Maya became very much an industry standard.
Because I’d done ‘The End’ a couple of years before, which got an Academy Award nomination, there was a certain amount of trust that in hindsight was pretty incredible. There wasn’t really a pitching process, they kind of entrusted me to do a short film that would do the animation software justice, and I was very much letting people know what the film was about, it was really my vision.
I was on the selection committee on the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the organiser of that festival, the artistic director, had known about Ryan Larkin for many years. Ryan had been a great animator in the Sixties and early Seventies and the organiser had seen him panhandling on the streets of Montreal. He had then decided almost on a whim to invite Ryan to the selection committee for that year’s festival, so Ryan was part of that selection committee even though he had been a pan-handler for many years.
Ryan hadn’t animated anything for three decades, but I got to know him over that week and it was an incredible time that we spent together in the selection committee. We were all quite emotionally moved by Ryan’s story. I used Maya again for this short – though by this point I wasn’t working at Alias anymore.
I like using detailed photorealistic imagery but I’m not that crazy about just trying to copy reality, which is what Maya is used a lot for quite successfully today. Reality is boring. It’s much more interesting to be able to bend that image into something that has some kind of symbolic or allegorical meaning and one of the coolest ways that I know of to do that is to show a thought process or an emotional process.
6. Why did you decide to leave the development side of Maya with Alias?
I wanted to do my own films. That’s what I wanted to do and it turned out I was able to do just that while working with the National Film Board of Canada.
Generally you want to avoid uncanny valley, but in the film ‘Subconscious Password’ I actually wanted to go into the uncanny valley. So the characters are kind of uncanny valley characters.
The similarity that this short has with my other recent films is that there’s very much a psychological element, because we’re going into somebody’s head and into their subconscious. Maya did get used, a lot.