It is perhaps impossible to summarize the careers of Richard Edlund and Bill Kroyer without turning a blog into a full-blown magazine article. But, for the uninitiated:
Richard is a four-time Academy Award visual effects winner – for Star Wars, Empire, Raiders and Return of the Jedi – governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, founding chairman of the AMPAS visual effects branch, chairman of the AMPAS Scientific and Technical Awards Committee, 2007 recipient of the AMPAS John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation, 2008 recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers Presidents Award, board member of the Visual Effects Society and co-designer of the Pignose amplifier.
Bill, for the last eight years, has been professor and director of the Digital Arts Program at Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, at Chapman University. He is AMPAS governor of the Short Films and Feature Animation branch, co-chair of the AMPAS Science and Technology Council, former animation co-director at Rhythm & Hues Studios, first recipient of the International Animation Society’s June Foray award, Oscar nominee for his 1989 short Technological Threat, Disney alumnus, and shared credit, with Jerry Rees, as ‘computer image choreographer’ overseeing digital animation on Disney’s 1982 feature TRON.
Both gentlemen are mellifluous, talented and passionate about their crafts, and are currently honoring the art by mentoring students of film and animation at Chapman University, in Orange Country, California, where Edlund recently embarked on the Dodge College Pankey Distinguished Artist program. “I guess I’m considered a distinguished artist,” Richard Edlund wryly observed. “I’ve done about 30 features, a lot of commercials and ride films, and so I’ve gone through the School of Hard Knocks. I’m now going down memory lane, revisiting a lot of movies that I’ve worked on, and trying to give young filmmakers a sense of how we got here.”
Across campus, Bill Kroyer’s students, undergraduates in the animation visual effects program aged between 18 to 22, engage in the creation of animated films or visual effects, working with live-action filmmakers in Chapman’s graduate program. “We are also getting into virtual/augmented reality projects now,” related Kroyer. “It’s pretty active, innovative stuff.” As an early adopter of digital technology, Kroyer still espouses core disciplines. “The fundamental skills are unchanged. Those include performance, staging, composition, design – all the qualities that attract the eye, and create an emotional impression. On the other end of the spectrum, technology is evolving daily, and my kids are way ahead of their professors. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, you’ll never know more than the kids, because the stuff they’re learning about was just invented yesterday. I’d put my sophomore cinematographer up against any member of the Academy for testing VR cameras. It’s unbelievable what these kids are doing, and it’s a very exciting time. It’s very different from the old paradigm where the professor had all the knowledge. Now, it’s more like I’m teaching you this and you teach me that.”
Edlund’s teaching experience, at his alma mater University of Southern California in the Peter Stark Producing Program for visual effects and emerging technologies, influenced his current course trajectory. “It is invigorating to be dealing with young talented students,” Edlund concurred. “At USC, students were neurologists and lawyers who didn’t want to follow those professions and wanted to get into film. I had all these fertile minds, 50 of them in a class, and they’d all seen just about every film that had been made in the recent times, so I was being quizzed by people who were really up on what’s happening in the world of modern technology, upper the upper echelon IQs, and they’d ask questions that cause you to rethink your own ideas.” Edlund’s current curriculum, surveying visual effects from the analog era to this year’s Academy Award-nominated VFX films, emphasizes the breadth of film history. “I’ve done a lot of sci-fi movies, but that’s not my main interest in cinema. I enjoy great dramatic accomplishments in film, but I find that many of my younger students don’t go back much further than The Lord of the Rings. They’ve seen all the modern movies, but when you mention Citizen Kane or Casablanca, they haven’t seen those milestones of cinema. I’m trying to bring them back a little bit further, and I’m working on a series of one-hour shows on visual effects, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the present, showing how we got here by interviewing the people that came up with those stepping stones. The kind of ingenuity we had to us in the analog era was entirely different from the ingenuity we have now. We’ve gone from blacksmithing to neuro-surgery. It’s a whole different Megillah.”
Viewed in historical perspective, the crop of five visual effects nominees for the 90th Academy Awards – from Star Wars: The Last Jedi, War for the Planet of the Apes, Kong: Skull Island, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 to Blade Runner 2049 – may be unique in that each prominently features digital characters interpreted, in varying degrees, through interactive human performances and animation. “Technology allows us now to solve problems and introduce new characters in ways we never could before,” noted Kroyer. “That has opened up the field creatively and that will only continue as the years go by. There is no question about that; and it poses two questions. On the creative side, what will people do that the audience will respond to? And on the awards side, how to evaluate those factors as a voting member of the Academy, the Visual Effects Society, or the Animation Society? How do we reward those performances if they have become a team endeavor? That’s something that we are looking at very critically, especially in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, involving all our branches.”
The increased prevalence of visual effects has had manifold effects on audience expectations. “I think it has been liberating,” observed Edlund. “It’s an arduous process. A lot more people put a lot more work into shots nowadays than there used to be. And there are so many shots in effects films. It seems there’s not a day that Marvel doesn’t have a thousand shots in the pipeline. And that that means people are fighting for the opportunity of getting into some of these shots. We have monstrous shows with monstrous needs. And the interesting thing is that audiences have seen so much, and the material is so transparent, nothing excites them. It gets to the point where you’ve been so over-exposed to super reality that it’s like, so what’s new? Even for those of us who’ve spent our lives in visual effects, when we’re evaluating the work, we don’t know what’s been added and what wasn’t. That’s why recently we’ve asked visual effects supervisors to put ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots into their presentation reels so we can see what they started with and what we’ve wound up with. That’s a new development for us. Back when Doug Trumbull was presenting his work on Close Encounters, he did a before and after effects reel, and we felt that that was not copacetic – but Star Wars won, anyway!”
The incorporation of ‘making of’ reels into visual effects evaluations informs more detailed award categories. “We have to have intelligent and informed data about exactly how performances are created to make our decisions,” said Kroyer. “The VES is now is finally incorporating the ‘making of’ reels because even the most trained eye can no longer tell what’s been manufactured and what is natural. That has extended into the area of character performance – whether it’s a photo-real human, or an anthropomorphic monster or ape, it is impossible to evaluate the work, unless you really dig in and look at it. Years ago, when Bob Zemeckis directed The Polar Express, the Academy sent me in to look at the files and the data to see exactly what the animators had brought to those performances, and how much was straight parse-through from the actor. In that case, when I sat with the animators, I examined the source files and the finals, and it was very obvious that the animators had keyframed and tweaked almost every frame. Our definition of an animated film is that the performances are created by the animators.” The five current AMPAS animated feature nominations include diverse stylizations of computer graphics, and a hand-painted independent feature based on the life and work of Vincent van Gogh. “Look at Loving Vincent – that is not a photo-real CG film, but the question was, is this a film where filmmakers have simply rotoscoped live actors? We examined all the files, and we found that animators were making critical performance decisions, and we decided, even though the film made use of actors, what was on screen was done frame-by-frame by talented animators. It was not just parsed through a technical process, these were real performances, by top-rated, experienced, professional character animators who made decisions to create that work.”
Voting procedures have evolved alongside technology. “We go through this every year,” said Edlund. “You have people thinking that maybe Andy Serkis should get an Academy Award for motion capture. But you have to realize that his motion capture then gets tweaked by numerous animators. If, at some point, we’re going to recognize motion capture actors as actors in a movie, we will then have to include the animators in those awards. It will be similar to the question of numerous writers writing a screenplay, when each screenplay along the road gets reworked by another screenwriter: each draft gets read by somebody, who then has to decide who gets the ‘ampersand’ and who gets the ‘and’ – ‘and’ and ‘ampersand’ are a big deal different – and the positioning of those credits falls into the Writers Guild’s domain, not the producer.”
Despite the mainstream media spin – pitting digital against analog, motion capture against keyframe animation – visual effects voting criteria remain an open field. “As an artist and an animator, an audience member and a film-lover,” remarked Kroyer, “I really don’t care at all how they do it. I only care if I am moved by a performance. My problem comes with being an Academy voter, where I have to make decisions about who should be rewarded. There’s no evil or good in technology, and the idea of trying to say, ‘this is better than that’ – that’s an irrelevant argument in everything except the awards process. That’s when we have to analyze what really makes a performance, what really had the impact on the audience, who was chiefly responsible, and to what degree were they sharing that performance. Very few organizations are digging into these questions as deeply as we are at the Academy. We have access to the people who are driving the bus – Oscar-winning actors, technologists, and visual effects artists – and we are getting them together, having extremely interesting examinations, and I must say we are having fun looking at these questions. Everybody is interested, because it is relevant. The educated step that we can take right now is one of learning, because there’s so much happening in this field, you really have to understand its nuances.”
- Bill Kroyer at Chapman University
- Richard Edlund at Chapman University
- Chapman U, Digital Arts Program
- 90th Academy Awards of Merit, rules
- TRON, Cinefex 8
- Return of the Jedi, Cinefex 13
Thanks to Ryan Smith, Rogers & Cowan, Meagan O’Shea, Chapman University.