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SIGGRAPH keynote review: Jim Morris, Pixar’s General Manager

SIGGRAPH keynote review: Jim Morris, Pixar’s General Manager

Jim Morris SIGGRAPH keynote speech feature image

The SIGGRAPH 2010 conference has come and gone, with many people behind it pushing to make it a success. Presenting during its precious few days in Los Angeles were not one, but two major players that gave a keynote presentation. Besides Carnegie Mellon’s Don Marinelli, Pixar’s General Manager and Executive Vice President of Production, Jim Morris, took the stand for a special hour-and-a-half presentation. Icrontic was there to document what he had to say.

But first, here’s a little about what makes Jim such a Big Deal™. He has worked on many successful movies, including “The Abyss” and “Always”, supervised “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” and “Hook”, and was general manager of Industrial Light & Magic, which brought forth technical masterpieces such as “Jurassic Park” and “Forrest Gump”. More recently, he became part of Pixar’s executive team, where he was the production executive of “Ratatouille”, “Up”, “Toy Story 3”, and more. Suffice it to say, he knows his stuff.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars first inspired Jim

Jim began by talking about what lead up to his career shooting major motion pictures. He was originally inspired by movies when he was a kid, such as the 1964 sci-fi flick, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars“. Realizing he couldn’t jump directly into the movies business, he started with local television studios, followed by working on TV commercials. He finally got a leg in the industry by joining the commercial division at ILM.

Jim then went on to talk about a few behind-the-scenes anecdotes from some of his early movies in the visual effects department. In Stephen Spielberg’s “Always” forest fire scene, they took 10,000 Christmas trees and lit them aflame. Ultralights (a type of airplane) were flown through with video cameras on them, while footage of the characters in the plane were done in a studio with the hellish flames being added by a video projector behind them.

The Abyss was the diving board for CGI

He then went on to discuss the water-like pseudopods in “The Abyss”. Hydraulic gags and traditional 2D animation were considered, but in order to maintain the serious tone, CG was used. With the set being shot within the cooling plates of an offline nuclear power plant and coupled with high-end CG for the time, “The Abyss” became “the diving board into major CGI”, as Jim put it.

Jurassic Park brought photo-realistic dinos

After talking a little about rotoscopy in “Terminator 2” and realistic digital skin in “Death Becomes Her”, Jim went on to talk about the big tamale: “Jurassic Park”. The dinosaurs were originally planned to be sophisticated animatronics coupled with puppets. However, after seeing how realistic a run cycle of dinosaur skeletons running across a virtual field could look, George Lucas himself decided that CG was the way to go—to the dismay of a guy named Phil, who was originally going to be a stop motion animator. However, they were still able to use his talents in CG, and they created the “Dino Input Device”, or “DID”: an animatronic dinosaur used to help control the CG characters.

On the other side of the visual effects coin was something that Jim referred to as “invisible effects”. Using “Forrest Gump” as an example, invisible effects are the hundreds of subtle effects that are digitally added, such as birds taking flight and fighter jets dropping bombs in the Vietnam scene. “Gump” brought major achievements in how to use subtle CG to add to a film without looking over-the-top. As Jim put it, “both “Gump” and “Jurassic Park” were billboards of what was possible with CG”.

It was at this point that Jim became involved with Pixar. Pixar was purchased by Steve Jobs at Apple, while Jim was president of ILM. He quickly become friends with Ed Catmull, who along with John Lasseter had a vision of how to use CG to tell a story. Pixar’s first all-CG short film, “The Adventures of André and Wally B.” blew people’s minds at the time, as it was unheard of to have a computer animated cartoon with a story.

Toy Story forever reinvented animation

A decade later, Pixar made a full feature length film, “Toy Story”. It was then that they were able to fully reinvent how animation was done. Rendering tools were used in order to create realistic plastic surfaces, which naturally had a lot of usefulness in a movie featuring animated toys.

The next step after full CG movies was motion capture. Being able to capture the movements of real-life actors and applying them to digitally created characters became a backbone to movies. A few that engaged in heavy use of this tool was “The Mummy” for scenes of decayed undead humanoids, as well as the octopus-faced Davy Jones in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”. “Star Wars: Episode I” also used motion capture with the likes of Jar Jar Binks. Jim went on record by publicly apologizing (yet again) for including what became by far one of the most obnoxious supporting characters of all time.

WALL•E became Jim's own Crusoe on Mars

By the time “Star Wars: Episode III” came out, Jim had left ILM. He was fed the idea of a little robot who was left on an abandoned earth in order to clean up what humanity had left behind. He was able to come in and give a new level of visual grit, a post-apocalyptic world filled with rubbish. At last, Jim could finally live his dream of creating a new version of “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”. “WALL•E” went on to win the Oscar for Best Animation Feature, earning Jim the Producer of the Year Award in Animated Theatrical Motion Pictures from the Producer’s Guild of America.

Jim closed his presentation by talking a little about the future of the industry. He admits that while people are complaining that there are a lot of crap movies that are using new techniques as gimmicks, he retorts by saying that there will always be bad movies. There were many before, and there will continue to be many more; his hope of course is that there will be enough good movies to outweigh the bad. He also noted that audiences seem to be favorably receptive to stereoscopic 3D movies, which will continue to pave the way to newer and better cinematic experiences.


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