Disney program sparks toon experiments

Spark program lets animators clear their schedules to try something new

Some 30 years ago, a Disney animator fresh out of school decided to experiment with computer-generated backgrounds for a picture he hoped to make, “The Brave Little Toaster.”

John Lasseter did his experiments mostly in secret. The results were promising. But when he screened his test footage for Disney’s higher-ups, they killed the project on the spot and minutes later fired him. That forced the young hotshot to link up with a computer graphics pioneer named Ed Catmull and a new company with ambitions to someday make CG-animated movies: Pixar.

Eventually Disney shoveled a mountain of cash at Pixar to put Catmull and Lasseter in charge of Disney’s animation efforts. Lasseter never forgot that firing, however, and today he and Catmull are trying to ensure they don’t fire the next John Lasseter for daring to experiment.

The Spark program, started in late 2010, lets Disney animators clear their schedules to try something new.

“There are so many artists here, and when they arrive we start assigning them to our big feature projects,” says Kristina Reed, producer of Disney’s striking new short “Paperman.” “They have ideas and they have new thoughts about how to do something, but they move from feature to feature to feature and we aren’t necessarily tapping into the greatness they have inside of them.”

Once accepted into the Spark program artists are given 20 days to pursue their idea. The catch is: At the end of those 20 days, they have to screen the results for the company.

“The idea was to make it completely safe to not have achieved any great milestone,” says Reed. “All we are looking for is a proof of concept.”

The first Spark screening showcased a technique for applying hand-drawn lines to CG characters and making them stick as the character or camera moves. It was developed by a quartet led by Patrick Osborne and Jeff Turley. It’s a key technology for “Paperman,” which will play ahead of “Wreck-It Ralph” this fall. Osborne became animation supervisor and Turley art director on “Paperman.”

Disney’s philosophy of tech development, says Reed, comes directly from Ed Catmull: “Make a lot of tools, show people how to use them, but don’t force them to use them, and don’t necessarily make a tool only if somebody needs it. So make cool stuff and then sort of leave it lying around.”

For “Paperman,” director John Kahrs was looking for a way to bring a more painterly look back to animation.

“John Kahrs and I had worked in CG for so long before ‘Paperman’ and felt like there was a steady march toward photorealism or hyperrealism, and getting better and better joints and better eyelashes and more realistic hair,” Reed says. “And that’s not always the tool you want to use to tell your story.”

It seemed like a happy accident that Disney’s Brian Whited happened to be working on a software tool, dubbed Meander, that could deliver the handmade look Kahrs and Reed wanted. “But the truth is,” says Reed, “Ed Catmull sent Brian Whited off on this discovery process months and months before without no notion what we would use it for. Then he stepped back and let John and Brian find each other.”

Reed says the Spark program is proving so valuable to Disney that the costs of an artist’s (or a team’s) salary for 20 days is trivial. One benefit is simply morale. Even animation production can turn into drudgery, she says, but through the Spark showcases “you see what people are doing in the company and you go back to your desk and you’re just energized.”

Another benefit is more far-reaching. CG animation is becoming more and more sophisticated — “Rango” pushed CG to new heights of photorealistic lighting and textures — but it’s also becoming commoditized. “There’s a dozen to 20 animated pictures coming out every year,” says Reed. “We really need to bring something different to the party.” Kahrs and Reed feel that “something” is going to be the unique stamp of their artists, and so it’s crucial to cultivate artists’ creativity and nurture their new ideas.

“John (Lasseter)’s known that all along,” says Reed.


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