Chris Landreth: The Interview

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Independent filmmaker, CG pioneer and facial animation expert Chris Landreth is responsible for the short animation classics The End (1995), Bingo (1998), Ryan (2004), and The Spine (2009).  Ryan received the Academy Award in 2005 for Best Animated Short Film, along with 60 other international awards.  His latest short ‘Subconscious Password’ has been appearing in festivals worldwide for the past 12 months to much acclaim, including winning ‘Best Animated Short’ at the 2013 Annecy International Animation Festival.  Chris’s films explore storytelling based on human psychology as much as photorealistic character animation, an approach Chris calls “psychorealism”.  

Alongside filmmaking, Chris has developed the Making Faces Masterclass, the definitive course in facial animation.   For the past 3 years, Chris has taught the class across 5 continents at studios (DreamWorks, Digital Domain), schools (the Georges Méliès School of Filmmaking) and conferences (FMX, Stuttgart, Germany).  In May 2013, Chris came to Shanghai to teach the masterclass and has just announced he is coming back for more classes in June 2014.  I caught up with Chris last May after the first day of his three day masterclass.

How was the first day?

It was very intense because on the first day we do a lot of acting and a lot of drawing. It’s the most artistic of the 3 days. We do drawing exercises of faces, of facial expressions and intensive acting exercises where we see the basic seven emotions of a human being – joy, sadness, fear, disgust, contempt, surprise and anger.

How do the students here compare to other classes in other countries?

I never know before I do a class about the level of skill, it’s really unpredictable, especially in drawing, in character drawing, face portraiture drawing. But today I found really advanced skills overall amongst students. They were doing some very uncanny portraits. There are twenty-eight people in the class which is a pretty high number for doing this class considering the interaction I like to have with the students. There was no point throughout the day that I didn’t see students engaging with me. And in spite of the language barrier – I’m afraid I don’t know any Mandarin at all – with the help of some excellent translation, we were able to do a course in which I think a lot of really complex stuff came across from my direction and from the students’ direction back to me.

What were the highlights of the day?

We had a method actor in the class who enacted those seven basic emotions and we caught it on videotape.   The actor ‘s portrayal was uncanny and we got some great emotional intensity. They’ve got genuine footage that serves as reference for the students.

How important is reference material and acting out in animation?

Reference material is everything. It’s how you observe the characters that you ultimately want to animate, because what you see in a real person and real emotion is the timing. Timing is everything when it comes to facial animation – how the muscles contract, in what order they contract. Like when you smile, you smile with your mouth first and then you smile just a split second later with your eyes. Your eyelids kind of crinkle up. Getting the timing of that right is something that people see and they don’t necessarily know it, but if you get it wrong we can see that it’s wrong. That’s why having reference material is so useful.

Why is facial animation especially important? 

Facial animation is the centre of the animation. Take feature films – somewhere between 60% and 80% of the shots in a feature film are close-ups. Take an intimate film like Black Swan, 80% of the shots in that film are close-ups of a human face. So that is where your story is going to come from, it’s where your character is going to be defined. So you really, really have to get that right if you’re making a film, and particularly if you’re doing animation. It’s a really hard part, particularly if you’re doing it realistically. Those characters have to have a psychological and emotional set-up that you and the audience can relate to. To do that you really need to know your stuff, about how a face works, about how a face responds to the real world.

Take us through the history of the course. When did you first develop it? Where have you taught it before?

I first really brought the course together three years ago when I was teaching at Seneca college in Toronto where I do a lot of my teaching and a lot of production for my films like Ryan and The Spine and my latest one Subconscious Password. I taught this course as a special graduate level course with Seneca Animation Department. Since then I’ve taken it on the road. I’ve taken it to Paris where I taught at the Georges Méliès School of Filmmaking. I took it to DreamWorks, California and to the DreamWorks studio in Bangalore, India. I took it to Digital Domain in Vancouver. I’ve taught this course in Sweden at University West. I’ve taught it in five different continents so far and now I’m here in China.

Why are you in China at this particular moment in time?

(IACC Director) Robin King is a friend of mine, going back to the 90s when I was working with Alias on developing Maya when it was first coming about. Robin was the department head of the Computer Animation course at Sheridan College. So we always hung out and crossed paths and I would do a lot of presentations at Sheridan. So we have a good history. And then we arranged two years ago for me to come out here as soon as I finished the short film that I was working on.

What is particularly interesting about China?

China has the biggest scene in animation in the world. There are approximately a half a million students in animation in China. That’s an astonishing number. To think of that number of people in this field, it just makes a lot of sense to come here and see how the passion is, how the creativity and the talent is. Coming here and checking it out has been a wonderful thing.

What are your impressions so far?

I love being here (in Shanghai). I’m hanging out in this incredible city with this incredible architecture. I’m floored by the architecture. I live in Toronto, which is a nice grand city, much smaller than Shanghai obviously. But Toronto has a very staid British sensibility to it and it comes through in the architecture. It’s very rectangular, glass and steel. It seems afraid to really rock the boat too much. It’s not like that in Shanghai. In Shanghai you look at ordinary factories and train stations, college campuses and you see some imagination. I love that. It’s a great inspiration and I hope people from North America see it and it inspires them to do some weird stuff with their cities.

What is your knowledge of the Chinese independent animation scene?

Chinese animation is traditionally known for its service work rather than the auteur work. We see a bit of the auteur stuff at the animation festivals like Annecy. I’m imagining a really independent animation scene where animated films come organically from independent visions of individuals here in China. I wonder what that would look like. I think it would be pretty amazing.

What are the signs that a scene might be developing?

You cannot predict where a scene is going to develop. For example New York has this really unlikely but really ongoing, thriving, independent animation scene whereas LA doesn’t. There are a few independent animators at CalTech but mostly it is an industry in LA. You really can’t predict from one city to another, Beijing or Shanghai or whatever, where it is going to develop. It’s incredibly unpredictable – it just happens. People start doing weird, cool, sick stuff. And then an animation scene starts to form around it. That’s my personal preference – to see people do experimental stuff. What if people do stuff completely on a ‘WTF’ basis? Then you start to see an organic thing happening that would probably be offensive and grotesque but also have room to have some really cool, beautiful stuff in it. LAndreth111112

What inspires you?

Reality and realism. I’m not a big fantasy guy. I don’t like to escape. I like to stay here. So my films try to make sense of real people in the real world doing real things, thinking real thoughts and feeling real feelings. There’s a lot there, even when it seems really dull or mundane, going through our lives as we do, with our brains. Even figuring out how to remember a person’s name when you’re at a party, it’s a miracle. I try to show that sense of miraculousness.

Who’s your favourite facial character, animated or otherwise?

The work that DreamWorks has done on their last couple of films, in particular How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods, is incredibly advanced. I tip my hat to DreamWorks for that. Obviously Pixar has really pushed the envelope too. I would say The Incredibles is probably the best I’ve seen as far as their facial animation goes. As for live action, Michael Gambon comes to mind. And Michael Sheen, the British actor – I love his face. I love what he does with his smile. I could go on but I’m isolating these people – they are not necessarily the only exceptional ones but they are great. Kevin Spacey is the best person I know who acts by not acting. His face is dead in much of what he does, but he knows how to take a dead face and to turn it into something incredibly intense.

Tell us about your latest film.

It’s called Subconscious Password and it will be out in festivals near you! It’s been selected for Annecy (and subsequently won Best Animated Short). It’s an 11-minute short film about what happens in the subconscious of the protagonist, who looks a lot like me, when he’s at a party, and a friend comes up to him and he can’t remember the name of this guy. What happens? How does he try to remember the name? We go into his brain and see how he unlocks that, which is actually via a game show.

Why do your films often feature yourself or someone very similar to yourself?

Because I don’t want to wish what happens to me in these films on anyone else. I can do a lot with myself that I can’t do with other people. I can do it honestly and as the saying goes ‘he who learns to laugh at himself gets a lifetime of entertainment’.

You won the Academy Award for Ryan in 2004. Why was it so well-received?

Ryan seemed to hit a chord with people. It seemed to resonate. I think that people identified with the character, the real person that was in that film, Ryan Larkin. There’s a story there that is a cautionary tale of sorts. It’s a tale that hooks into people’s fears about what will happen to them as they get older. Will they go into decline? Will they go into addiction? Will they end up on the street? And there’s Ryan who is on the street. But what a guy, what a soul. People relate to that, they see that broken part of him and they know that all of us are broken in some way, maybe in a similar way to Ryan. Which is no less human.

Where did your inspiration for Bingo come from?

Bingo was 15 years ago. It was based on a play. I think it is the only animated film, short or otherwise, that is actually a play by a Theatre Company called the Neo Futurists in Chicago . They are famous for every week doing 30 plays in 60 minutes, that’s their tagline. Their show is called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind and between 11.30 and 12.30 on every Saturday night they do 30 plays in 60 minutes – throwaway plays. Some of them are a few seconds long and the longest ones are maybe 5 minutes. They did a play, this one with Bingo, which was one of their longer ones. So I put microphones on them and had them act it out. It turned into this animated film. I stripped away the visual of them doing the play and replaced it with animation, but it is them performing.

Chris Landreth will be in Shanghai from June 26th – July 4th teaching, lecturing and generally catching up with the local scene.

Contact c.colman@detaoma.com for more information.