Animation Artist, Filmmaker Shannon McGee Chats WRECK-IT RALPH's Oscar Nomination
Wreck-it Ralph has been nominated for best animated feature. As the senior lighting artist on this picture, can you share any interesting challenges that occurred?
Shannon McGee: First off, I think the director, Rich Moore, needs to be commended. His fingerprints are all over Wreck-It Ralph. Without him the movie wouldn't be what it is. He kept the film focused, ensuring that the cartoony look was consistent and character performances were on point.
Rich may be a first-time feature animation director, but don't let that fool you. He's been directing, producing, (The Simpsons, Futurama), and working in many other aspects of animation production for years - the man knows what he's doing. Plus he voices Sour Bill, my favorite Wreck-It Ralph character!
The movie was very challenging in scale alone. There are a lot of discreet locations (Game Central Station, Niceland and Sugar Rush, to name a few) that had to look and feel like distinct worlds or the film wouldn't have worked. They needed to be grand and believable, but also unique.
Sugar Rush, with its otherworldly clothes and physically modeled translucent gumdrops, represents about 50% of the movie. We needed to create food that looked good enough that you wish you could actually eat it, and making computer-generated food look appetizing is difficult beyond belief! At one point, I found myself inspecting a sugar cube through my desk lamp, pondering its mysterious properties and trying to decide how to give it just the right shine.
Those challenges are a lot of the reason why Wreck-It Ralph was the first movie to use bidirectional reflectance distribution functions (BRDFs). BRDFs allow us to create surfaces that behave and appear more consistently with the laws of physics than we could using previous shader technologies. That's helpful when you're trying to make appetizing-looking candy.
With the experience and perhaps wisdom from successful animated features you have worked on, what does it take to get nominated for best animated feature?
Shannon McGee: Story. It doesn't need all the prescribed twists and turns a lot of movies have, but the story it has needs to be tight and it needs to be good. No animated feature with a slow story has ever been very successful.
It also needs to be emotionally legitimate. It needs to have the blissfully depressing first ten minutes of Up, which can be relied upon to leave room after room in shambles, emotionally devastated. Then balloons make everything right again. It's cliche, but a good tragedy needs a couple of balloons.
Disney's Tangled is a breathtaking and beautiful picture. You were the senior technical director for lighting and color. Can you share any technical knowledge of how such a spectacular picture was achieved?
Shannon McGee: The design on Tangled was very organic - watching it is like being inside a synthetic, heavily saturated painting, and it's a truly beautiful film.
The Tangled crew began by studying paintings from Rapunzel's era. Much of their early inspiration came from the works of painters like Jean-Honore Fragonard. Disney has a way of focusing on the artistic merits of their films like no other studio.
Large portions of my work took place in the forest chase sequence at the beginning of the film. That sequence is set in an overgrown forest with scores of trees, millions of leaves, horses kicking up particles of dust, leaves and rocks every time they step, and an endless assortment of grasses, flowers, and shrubbery. It is a lot of geometry to consider.
Pair that kind of geometric detail with lots of intricate snap zooms, pans, and other camera moves that rendering software tends to find challenging. I spent days hand-pruning the shrubs, bushes, leaves, and branches.
Afterwards, these rendered frames were heavily processed in a 2-D compositing package to give it that saturated, atmospheric, painterly look. It takes a lot of extra time to make a movie look the way Tangled does, but it was worth it.
Shannon McGee: After finishing up on Ralph, I wanted to devote more time developing Santa's Helper, which is an epic animated holiday adventure written by Erik von Wodtke. It's an amazing story about overcoming adversity set against the backdrop of Dutch folklore. We are currently in development and seeking the right producer. If you are an animation fan, on IMDb you can check out some of the development art by Doug A. Sirois. It is going to be a wonderful picture.
Thank you Shannon. We'll think of you during the 2013 Academy Awards. You and your fellow animation artists are an inspiration to us all.