The Animatrix
Interview with Andy Harbeck
Interview by Dan Lybarger, 20 June 2003

Seattle International Film Festival 2003

While former Kansas Citian Andy Harbeck is often credited as a lead animator, a texture artist, a digital painter or a digital compositor, he's in many ways more of a magician. Working with other computer artists, he makes an invaluable, if sometimes unheralded, contribution to movies by causing the impossible look real or even commonplace.

Harbeck graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1997. During his time in Cowtown, he directed and contributed to a series of short independent films and eventually landed gigs on Hollywood movies as diverse as the children's flick Richie Rich, and the shark thriller Deep Blue Sea. He was a lead, texture, shading and model artist on the all-digital science fiction adventure Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Currently associated with the Berkeley, California-based Tippett Studio, he's contributed to Blade II, The One, The Ring and Matrix: Revolutions.

Harbeck was back in his old stomping grounds for the Seventh Annual Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee. He's a past winner at the festival, and this time he returned with an impressive set of film clips. In the scene from Blade II, a digital Wesley Snipes leaps through a surreal digital series of tunnels and hallways. We also got to see trailers for The Matrix: Reloaded and The Final Flight of the Osiris.  The latter is part of a series of short animated films called The Animatrix, which are individual cartoons all themed around the original Matrix films. The script for Osiris was written by Matrix creators Andy and Larry Wachowski and directed by Andy Jones. It will be part of the Animatrix DVD and accompanied Dreamcatcher during that film's brief theatrical run 

Harbeck even demonstrated an eerily lifelike character he created named Acuna. Curiously, the most impressive effect he presented for the crowd wasn't otherworldly at all. In a brief scene from Gore Verbinski's The Ring, we watch Naomi Watts scream as a horse leaps nearly forty feat from the deck of a ferry. It looks like an animal rights activist's worst nightmare, but the falling and very real looking beast was computer-generated.

Afterwards, I cornered him in a coffee shop, and he talked about how he and his collaborators used computers to make these images possible.

Dan Lybarger: How did you go from making short films here in Kansas City to working with Hollywood studios and what was your involvement with them?

Andy Harbeck:  A lot of the short films that I started doing at the Art Institute were ones that I worked on as an assistant or ones that I directed and kind of put together. We did one based on a short story by Garbiel Garcia-Marquez called There Are No Thieves in This Town. We kind of combined that with the exteriors and interiors of Kansas City. We shot in my basement, with these really old stone, brick walls and things like that.

A lot of the films were projects that I was working on, but others were ones that I was hoping would be assisting friends and stuff like that. One of the bigger films was called For My Sister, which was a twenty-minute film. I think we did it in í97 with a company called Fearless Eye. They do some 3D things. We did story about a girl and her sister, but what that allowed us to do was create these visual effects like the girl hanging off the wall. We made it look like she was hanging off the building. We made this gun. We brought this (computer generated) gun out of the wall and stuff like that.

We did a lot of fun things that we werenít doing yet (professionally) but we wanted to do.

Other short films were all CG. Itís about these cartoon spiders and their fight over the light and simple things like that. It was fun to do simple, short all CG projects.

DL: How did these help you land Hollywood gigs?

AH: Very gradually. Being able to do some of the work was a way to prove we could do some of the work. For me, the biggest move for me was moving to San Jose to work with this company where the first project they did there was Richie Rich. We did about 500 shots in like five weeks and with only like six people, so we worked quite a bit, and we worked around the clock, but it was a lot of fun. It was such a small team and everybody became close. It was a way to get a springboard for other work. I was gradually doing some things I wanted to do.

DL: When you think of Richie Rich, you donít really think that there are a lot of CGIís.

AH: Itís not the first thing you think of, but it was an extreme amount of shots. We did a lot of snow shots, like putting snow into things that they shot in LA so that it would look like wintertime. We did the standard green-screen things where Richie gets to fly and stuff like that.

DL: Youíve Got Mail features some autumn colored leaves that were actually digitally alter from their spring colors. A lot of people condemn CGI but yet itís so omnipresent that you donít even know when itís being used.

AH:  A lot of times now it is becoming more subtle, and it is, I think, able to blend into what the story is about. In Deep Blue Sea, we created some extra water. They shot it on a stage, and we just continued it. Most people wouldnít know it was on a stage, and the water was made to look like it was out on the ocean.

DL: The horse stunt from The Ring is really astonishing. You really think a horse is falling off the ship.

AH: It helped them to show what they needed to show visually without upsetting a lot of people or hurting any animals. Youíd never be able to do it with a real horse. Youíd have to somehow be able to fake it with only having it jump a little bit and then cut to something else. So in a way youíre able to see a lot more than you would have before.

DL: Erin Brockovich has a car wreck that was helped by a digital combination of two separate shots that gives the illusion of a single shot of a car slamming into the vehicle with Julia Roberts in it.

AH: Itís a lot more shocking then, too, when you see it, and youíre not expecting it at that moment. Whereas a lot of times before, youíd see it, and then it would cut to a new shot and ďitĒ would happen, so it was a lot more expected. You were a lot more able to "read" the standard. Now it kind of frees you to be more surprising.

DL: Certainly in the clips you showed us from Blade II, you have this long shot where the camera follows a digital Wesley Snipes as he leaps and summersaults through these M.C. Escher-like hallways and passages. Iíd love to find a crane that could replicate that.

AH: It would be very difficult. Part of the thing the director (Guillermo del Toro) wanted to do was come up with a new style of camera being able to and kind of swing around the action. He wanted to start very close to the action, swing around, follow Blade spinning in the air and come all the way around to another shot in front of him. In some of the other shots where he jumps off the wall, the camera is completely following him all the way to see the sword go all the way through the vampire guy. A couple of the other shots where he runs out of the building, and you see him floating, flying in the air with his cape slashing. He lands, turns, spins around. Itís another dimension where itís allowed the director to free up the camera.

Its also creates the need for us to create the whole set digitally. Theyíll take just a bunch of photos, and weíll recreate the whole set digitally so we can put the camera anywhere on the set and do anything.

DL: When you were working on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, as a texture artist one of your challenges was to make the characters actually look like living humans.

AH: On Final Fantasy, my department wasn't working on the characters. On other films I was working on the characters {i.e., The One), but on this film our department was responsible for every set and prop except for the characters and FX.

A lot of the stuff that we did and even within the department that I was in as a lead artist, our department worked on every shot in the entire film, which was creating anything a lot of stuff in the real world in live action that you get for free.

[He points to a nearby wall with framed photos hanging from it] You get this reflection here for free. You donít have to create a separate reflection map or render for that. That bolt on the wall has to be painted. You also have think about where the dirtís going to go around the bolt. Normally, even if youíre a set designer, you put the bolts in and you have the surfaces already. If you want the surfaces to look like metal, you put metal up there. In our case, youíve to start with something gray. Youíve got to figure out what this has got to look like.

Is it supposed to be metallic? Is it supposed to be hard? Is it supposed to be soft? Is it supposed to be a rock? And then you have to come up with how the thing is weathered. Just creating a wall that matches the overall color of the real wall is going to make a flat blue wall. Whereas in the real world, thereís nothing flat about any wall.

DL: Like with this wall, some of the plaster is cracked.

AH: Exactly. Thatís the kind of detail that takes a long time. Youíve got to figure out "Whatís that wall been used for?" Thereís going to be plaster thatís coming off of it. If one of the pictures [hanging from the wall] is missing, youíre going to have a little shadow from where that picture was.

DL: When you mentioned what you had done with the water in Deep Blue Sea, I was reminded that Hayao Miyazakiís Studio Ghibli has people who specialize in water effects.

AH: We do, too. It depends on what studio youíre at, but thereís often a whole department for the effects side just for creating atmospheres in the room, creating smoke, anything thatís being illuminated. Water thatís particle-based needs a lot of simulation and things like that. It all has to be developed mathematically or artistically to simulate the physical world. Trying to imagine animating every water droplet in water takes you a long time. Thereís a lot of work with how the water moves and how these particles generation systems work Some of thatís starting to be built into some of these programs. It makes things a lot easier now.

DL: I was reading Roger Ebert's review of Spider-Man, where he said the swinging effects didn't show any gravity. When I saw the horse in The Ring, that's gravity in spades. You see certain parts of the horse getting more of a pull than others.

AH: A lot of the animators have really good eyes. There was no reference for that shot. We as texture artists look at a lot of different things as well as the animators for things that reference to that. So maybe you would look at something else that would be falling that would have some similarities. If we are doing explosions, we would be looking at different kinds of explosions and trying to apply that something that's not completely similar but might react in the same way.

DL: I could even see wind resistance on the digital horse.

AH: Which is just the good skill of the animator.

DL: When CGI is ineffective, the image is perfect. Things that you take for granted in the real world aren't there. You think, "Wait a second." When the actors are in a windy environment, and this object somehow remains smooth and untarnished.

AH: That's the difficulty of everybody's job, from layout, from the beginning to the final compositing is actually distorting and changing the cleanliness of what is happening. If we have a texture, even it looks a little clean, we've still got dirt on it. Even something clean has something like a fingerprint within the break of the surface.

DL: One striking aspect of the Matrix movies is that several special effects companies worked on them. Is that coordination tricky?

AH: It can be. At least, when we were on Blade II, there were other companies that were working on [it]. There was even one shot in Blade II where it starts out as our shot and then they blend back into the plate and back into our shot and into the plate and out into a completely different CGI shot dome by another company. Even in a single shot there can be more than one company working on it.

It seems to go relatively well especially when we get information as far as what it's supposed to look like visually. The supervisors are usually pretty good about passing on that information. When we start on it, we know we're going to have to do something like that. At least with the plate, there's a common ground.

DL: A lot of your projects sound like emergency work because the deadlines you described for The One sounded really tight. 

AH: We only had six weeks, and we needed to create three digital characters and a lot of different effects, like the characters breaking apart into hundreds of pieces. We worked quite a bit to fast-forward the process as far as like put in research and thought on how we were going to do it, and we just started to work on the shot then.

DL: With Final Fantasy, the work was done from day one.

AH: I wasn't even there as long as a lot of people were. A lot of time was spent. Final Fantasy did open some of the potential to be able to do this a lot faster and a lot quicker. There was a lot more confidence in creating characters like this after that.

DL: Final Fantasy didn't do that well at the box office, but it's had an enormous impact.

AH: I hear it's kind of two-sided. With some people it's like they saw it and liked it a lot, and other people visually they liked how it was, but they didn't connect with it, maybe. We always hear within the industry that it was received pretty well. It does seem unfortunate that a lot more people didn't see it when it was out. Maybe, as people remember, they'll come back to it and buy it on DVD.

DL: Is there an effect you've done that you're especially proud of?

AH: I think it's more in general the satisfaction of coming to a point where it's very visually interesting where it has a tactile quality even though it doesn't exist. You kind of say, "Wow, it almost looks like it exists within the world."

DL: With emotional involvement, you can sometimes make up for lapses in technology. In the Wallace and Gromit shorts, you can see the animators' thumbprints, but you've gotten so far into the story that you don't even think this is cheesy.

AH: Sometimes it's cool to see the technique, like in an oil painting. Sometimes I like to see a brushstroke. I like to see the texture. There are different styles of painting, but sometimes it's good to see where the artist was and things like that.

DL: Are you aware that people have been buying tickets to Dreamcatcher just to see The Final Flight of the Osiris?

AH: [grins shyly] We've heard some rumors like that, actually. It's nice that they were able to attach that to the front of a movie, and I wish they would do that with other short films, even with some independent films. You'd probably get some people that were lukewarm about seeing the main film, and so they'll come and see the main film.

DL: Those sentinels in The Matrix clips you showed were all about the same size, and there were thirty-five of them. One of them has to stick out. How do you do that?

AH: In The Matrix, the shots are so visually intense, and in the trailer, that one shot is only fifteen frames long. When you see the shot, it's very quick, but you get a sense. The overall thing is to get a sense of what's happening. When you get a full shot in the film, you'll be able to see a lot more things.

In other productions, with any kind of artwork, there always needs to be some kind of focus. In other shots, there's different ways of doing it with lighting, movement, color. When we do something with Blade 2, we try to light it and make it stick out a certain way, but you're focusing on what the director wants to show.

DL: Did you have any anatomy classes?

AH: Nothing more than the standard curriculum at the school.

DL: My brother's an immunologist, and you and he use A LOT of the same terminology.

AH: A lot of our research does become very technical. If you're only painting it's a little bit more representative, but when you start shading surfaces, you get more into the physical or medical "why's" of a surface. "What does the light do when it hits my face, and how does it change the color?" In certain light, there's different texture that will reveal different things, different wavelengths of light.

With CG a lot of things don't react the same way to light so we have to tweak them different ways. With live action, you're always running around trying to find the right time of day.

DL: How do you make sure that your work can sync up with the live action?

AH: When we get a movie, there are people from our studio who go to the set to make sure that we get what we need to make the shot work. When they get back from that, they know what we need. Most of the time, they're pretty good about getting what we would need to do a shot.

DL: During the talk, you said that your firm would look for someone with an artistic rather than a computer background.

AH: We look for people who have experience in general, but a lot times companies don't give you the experience that you want. We look for more or less artists that are capable of doing some of the work. Maybe they haven't done a lot of the work in the past.

For instance, maybe they have a good portfolio: lots of nice drawings, paintings and stuff like that, some work that they've done on their in 3D or 2D. But they haven't worked on any films or anything like that. A lot of times we can see what kind of art was there. 

If they do have some of those basic skill sets, they're kind of able to quickly learn one of the 3D things. You do rely a lot on texture painting, but you also work with a model on how itís shaded, how the light is interacting on the surfaces and things like that. A lot of those skills come from a strong artistic background.

DL: When you showed us your own character Acuna, even though it resembles no known creature, its skin gives you a sense it has a circulatory system.

AH: That one's been a lot of fun because the surface is so kind of translucent and dead-skinnish with a little wetness to it. Sometimes the reaction I get with it when people see it is [laughs] is they don't want to look at it because it's almost gross. In a way that's almost satisfactory because people are reacting to it instead of visually seeing something and saying, "Oh it's computer-generated."

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