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Chris Jones, animator, talks about The Passenger

Readersvoice.com aims to give people a few good reading tips. Chris Jones's short film The Passenger premiered and won Best Animation at the 2006 Los Angeles International Short Film Festival. It screened with the 2007 Oscar nominated shorts in theatres throughout the USA, and was scheduled for the NĂ©mo festival in Paris on April 30th. He talks about his film and his favorite books - like film novelisations.Also I emailed Mark Suchomel, president of the Independent Publishers Group, based in Chicago. He talks about the distribution business, and lists some of his favorite books.First up, Chris Jones.

READERSVOICE.COM: Can you recommend a few of your favorite books or magazines about 3d film-making, and maybe say a bit about why you like them?

CHRIS JONES: I used to collect Computer Graphics World magazine when I was starting out, as well as the occasional Cinefex. “The Making of Jurassic Park”, while not really a 3D film-making book, was a thoroughly good read at the time. When 3D became ubiquitous I found “making of” books to become a bit boring and repetitive, so I stopped collecting them.

These days I tend to gather most of my news and information from the internet, so it’s rare that I’ll buy any books of this nature, and if I do it’s probably just for the pictures. In the early days I was starved for information about concept art and special effects, and The Art of The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi books were my favourite sources of art inspiration.

The most engrossing movie book I read was Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects, which was packed with details about my favourite films. I couldn’t afford such an expensive book, so I had to make the most of it until it was due back at the library.

RV:The character Guy in your seven-minute film The Passenger is reading a thriller called The Passenger, and the film is in the horror genre. Are you a fan of thriller and horror books and if so which ones have you enjoyed?

CJ: I tend to prefer scifi/fantasy. I think a certain amount of “thriller” is a requirement for most stories. Generally I’m not really into horror, though I suppose it depends on the definition.

I enjoyed Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the movie Alien (it’s occurred to me that I mostly read movie novelizations…). I found it to be more suspenseful than the movie itself, and it gave me a better appreciation of the film.

RV: How did you make up the story of The Passenger? Where did you get the idea from and what principles were you watching when writing the story?

CJ: The story actually developed after I had started production, which is a bit unorthodox and not really ideal. I had decided to set it on a bus early on, just to get the ball rolling. A trip to the Siggraph computer graphics convention in 1998 involved a lot of getting around on buses, and that’s where the setting came from. I already had an atmosphere of creepy quirkiness and big movie spectacle in mind, so it was a matter of taking those elements and somehow threading them together with a narrative.

RV: Can you describe the steps involved in making a 3d animation film?

CJ: Generally it helps to start with a script… and from that you make storyboards. The storyboards are chopped up and edited into what eventually becomes an animatic, which is like a crude animated version of the entire film, complete with temporary sound effects and music. The animatic helps give an idea of timing and a feel for what’s working and what’s not.

After this comes a prolonged period of making models, painting textures, animating and lighting (all within the computer), and substituting the rough animations with increasingly polished ones, tightening up the edit along the way.

When shots are finished they are rendered nicely and then inserted back into place for final sound and music to be applied.

RV: What exactly is rendering and why is it so expensive and time-consuming, usually requiring a big studio budget?

CJ: Rendering is like taking a photo of your 3D scene through the virtual camera. The computer takes all the information you’ve given it – models, surfaces, lighting and such, and it takes a picture and outputs it as an image file.

You can view your scene while you’re working of course, but that isn’t going to be of the best quality. When you have a lot of detail and complex parameters, and you want the results to look more realistic, it takes more time for the computer to calculate all of this.

In the case of an animated film there are usually thousands of frames that have to be rendered, so it all adds up. Rendering is not necessarily expensive – it depends on how quickly you want the job done. The sooner you want it rendered, the more computers you’ll need; the faster the better. More computers can also allow you the luxury of turning on some of the fancier features that would normally be prohibitively slow to render. The big studios have hundreds if not thousands of computers in their “render farm” so they can add more detail and turn on the fancy features without slowing down production.

RV: I understand you turned down a $55,000 post-production grant, and a $40,000 offer to use a university computer to render the film, and instead used a Pentium III to render The Passenger. Why did you choose this option instead?

CJ: I turned down the grant because there were some contractual obligations that weren’t particularly favourable, so I decided to finish the film at my own expense. The supercomputer was offered to me at a cost of $40,000 which was based on a couple of dollars per frame I think, plus extra for someone to load scenes and keep the renders going. It would have been rendered in about a week, but I realised that since I wasn’t in that much of a hurry I could just buy two more Pentium 4s and render it myself while I continued working on the sound and music.

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