"Each movie is a little bit like a startup," says Lincoln Wallen, chief technology officer of DreamWorks Animation. "The filmmakers have a vision of what they want to put on-screen and we have to create a pipeline to create it."
With hundreds of animators and tech wizards, reams of digital assets, and millions of dollars in that pipeline, it’s been Wallen’s job to bring some hard science to the intensely creative process of making a major animated film. Wallen, who was previously DreamWorks Animation’s Head of Animation Technology, isn’t your typical Hollywood executive. Before joining the entertainment industry, he was a professor at Oxford University and the first director for the multidisciplinary Smith Institute for Industrial Mathematics and Systems Engineering. In addition to degrees in math and physics from Durham University, he also holds a PhD in Artificial Intelligence from Edinburgh University.
With DreamWorks Animation’s latest project, The Croods, hitting theaters on Friday, we talked to Wallen about the studio’s process for producing cutting-edge animation with an eye to efficiency.
Co.Create: You’re a former professor with a background in math, physics, and artificial Intelligence. How does that background translate to your work at DreamWorks?
Lincoln Wallen: Up until the last few months of the process of creating a CG movie, the process is about creating this large human-driven system, which is essentially a program that is capable of generating the right images in the right sequence. A lot of the coding and processes we use are similar to many of the challenges that computer scientists faced in modeling the real world back in the day of robotics. You are building a system that has to represent everything in view, which is really a world.
We’ve got hundreds of thousands if not billions of assets in one movie. We have to be able to process it all at speed and at scale. Given my background, I’m able to bring a long-term perspective to what will work and what won’t.
Is DreamWorks developing animation and effects tools in-house?
We do extensive external development, but we also rely extensively on third-party tools.
We do internal development in the core areas, the animation itself. We invest heavily in effects tools that allow us to put increasing realism, complexity, and subtlety on the screen.
The characters drive the emotional engagement and the effects drive the sense of immersion and reality in the world of The Croods. We build very specific tools to allow our artists to express themselves.
What sorts of new technological approaches were used during the making of The Croods?
It’s a story about a Stone Age prehistoric family at the dawn of the modern world as the continents divide. They’re trying to survive through this great upheaval in order to make it into the modern world, the discovery of fire and tools.
One of the challenges that the filmmakers faced was that they wanted to create a sense that the Croods’ world was always erupting and moving, not just the terrain, but also the creatures that the Croods family encounters.
You can see the echoes of what the creatures will become, but they’re also mixed up in a way that suggests that evolution has not yet happened. The elephants look like rats and mice, yet they’ve got tusks and trunks. It’s a wonderful mix-up of genetic types.
To produce that range of characters, we had to put together a character system that would allow these characters to be described and built out of more base components, so we could have the variety in the movie that we wanted to depict.
To create the effects of the terrain, the explosions, and how to create that feeling of volcanic eruption at a very high resolution involved new technology for representing volumes, which we’ve open sourced and given out to third parties to use in their films.
How can the "Six Sigma" approach (a quality improvement methodology more associated with companies like GE than making movies) be used in a creative enterprise such as filmmaking?
It’s a term that comes from forms of automation and forms of efficiency in processes, which all smack of manufacturing and lack of variability of human touch, whereas moviemaking seems to be at the other extreme where you have artists expressing themselves, which is anything but mechanical.
I’d like to turn that on its head and say that filmmaking is a highly creative process and it requires the most extreme forms of process control and scalability. A creative aspiration has to come hand in hand with the ability to deliver that expression with the scale.
One example in The Croods is where you see a wonderful cloud of smoke and in a few seconds, you can absorb the impression that the family is splashing around in a lovely clear blue lake. You can almost touch the water and feel the wetness.
To create that feeling, there’s data and mathematics that’s being processed as a massive scale across thousands of individual computers. The ability to harness algorithms, fluid dynamics, and mathematics, and put that capability in the hands of someone who can express himself or herself is the challenge.
All of that power and all of that complexity has to be packaged in a way so that someone with an artistic sensibility can actually mold the experience. It is deeply technological and very sophisticated manufacturing offered up at the service of highly creative people.
How do you use data and disciplines from different fields in a creative project like a film?
We use cloud computing to bring the processing power required to create these images. We helped develop the systems that manage the cloud computing. We also rely on solutions from partners such as Red Hat and HP. Some of the systems that have been forged in the making of digital movies have found their way into messaging systems that are used in the financial world or the communications world, anything involving high-transaction environments.
How do you balance the need for efficiencies and cost-effectiveness with creativity?
Aspiration costs time and money. Our focus is generally on improving our ability to change something and change it at a lower cost, so the faster an artist can change what they have in front of them and get it right, the easier it is for them to design. To some extent, efficiency is an enabler for greater creativity.
What sort of role does the director play in all of this?
At the beginning of a project, we generally run a highly visually creative envisioning process where directors can use any technique they like. From those images and discussions about the look and feel of a film, we work backwards to try to create technology and software solutions that can be run at scale and run by artists.
The challenge is really all on the technology side in delivering to the creative artists their aspiration. Most of the time we succeed and it is the director’s vision you see on the screen.
Where do you see the future of animation?
The way performances are created is going to become more and more vital. Just look at the arc of animation. People used to draw every frame, then we moved to using computers to draw images so we could start moving the camera. It’s only with the advent of movies like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Beauty and the Beast that you have sweeping camera moves like you see in live action films.
Then with CG animation, everything is digital, but even today animation is still very slow. Before our new set of tools, our animators would do a few seconds of animation a week. It’s a very painstaking process. As we go forward, we’re going to be able to make that process much more real time.
Our artists are getting real opportunity to express themselves and get back to the immediacy that a line drawing gets you. The future of animation is just that the performances will get spectacular, the worlds will be fantastic, beyond what you see today in terms of live action movies like The Lord of the Rings. The two sides—live action and CG animation—will come closer together. It’s going to be a very great time.
[Images Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation]