Interview - Trixter


Simone Kraus
co-owner and Animation Director of TRIXTER

From: Munich, Germany
Hello and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Tell us a bit about yourself…
I’ve been working in the animation and visual effects industry for the past 15 years. I have been the Animation Supervisor for many feature films, such as TRIXTER's work on Chris Columbus' Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Fox), the latest Wachowski Brother's Ninja Assassin (Warner Bros), and I was the overall Animation Supervisor on Lilly The Witch 1 and 2. 

Ninja Assassin received a lot of attention. Can you give us an insight on the process, the goals of the project and the difficult parts?
The challenge on Ninja Assassin was not only to create some invisible VFX, but also to develop the look for the more stylized effects and animation, particularly those for the digital blood and the trails of the shurikens, knives and chains. However, the most interesting parts for us was working on the chain weapon animation.

Our hero, Raizo, wields this long chain with a sharp knife and an iron ball at either end. An extremely lethal weapon, Raizo almost dances with it, a fact that made those sequences both challenging and exciting for us at the same time. The Director, James McTeigue, wanted us to think that the chain was inspired by its own self, almost alive, so to speak. Besides, he wanted to see the chain tracing real eye-catching shapes at key moments of the fights. In short, two tasks in one: credible motion but very graphical at the same time. We therefore tackled this task as the chain was a ‘character’ itself, although with an attention on real physics and dynamics. It was really fun for all of us, seeing how the chain drew more and more sinuous lines, refining its path version after version. Working for Director James McTeigue and the Producers, the Wachowskis, was a great honor and we learned a lot during this show. The other interesting part was to develop our communication pipeline even more, bringing us even closer, as if TRIXTER was next door to the major studios in California. 
For Percy Jackson and the Olympians, you managed to master VFX in a way that’s both professional and artistic. What programs/plugins do you use? Do you find it difficult to work on somebody else’s storyboard?

Not at all. The Director had a clear idea and a strong vision which was expressed through his Visual Effects Supervisors. We were lucky because sometimes there was more room for creative input, like in the magic pearl and the revealing map sequences - they were great, and that is one of the reasons why we are working in this business. Percy was a lot of fun! TRIXTER is generally based around a Maya, Renderman and Nuke pipeline, but we work in other software programs if needed. We continually develop plugins for the various packages as the needs arise; for example, we recently created a specific lens distort plugin for Nuke. 
What was the most difficult part in the HEXE LILLI - DER DRACHE UND DAS MAGISCHE BUCH project?

The most challenging part was to create a character based on a famous German comedy star. Especially when that character is a little fat green dragon! He obviously looks different to the actor but he should be recognizable by the audience. The other major challenge was to deliver work of an international high standard with very little budget. 
Do you recognize differences between VFX companies, in terms of style? How does your style compare to the best you’ve seen?
TRIXTER is very strong in Character Animation and is extremely experienced in working in a variety of styles. First, we need to understand what the Director wants to tell the audience. That becomes our mission: we believe that our work in a movie should always support the story telling, pushing the limits of the live action elements if needed, but always maintaining the Director’s vision. 
What can we expect from the Dragonhunters movie?

Entertainment that is not following the typical mainstream animation. It is a fun ride with characters that have a heart. And you can feel the passion of it’s creators. If you like graphic novels, you will love it. 
Trixter presented new stereoscopic activities at the FFF reception at the Bavarian representation during Berlinale 2010. Can you give us some details?
Over the past few years we have been developing techniques to handle VFX for stereoscopic films. That led us to having to find a solution for creating a stereoscopic image out of a flat one, a matte painting for example. After we found a process that worked, we started building up a production pipeline to convert entire flat 2D feature films, with a quality that totally surprised other film makers. In Cannes this year, film buyers at the market thought that the movie we screened was shot in stereo, but it wasn’t; we converted the entire feature from 2D into stereo 3D.
Which effect do you believe was the most difficult to achieve? (How did you do it?)
In Ninja Assassin, the sequence in the Dojo, presented a certain level of complexity. All the assets are present there: there’s CG blood, there are swords, sabers and chains, severed limbs and there are CG embers falling from the burning roof. And we wanted to create a more attractive look by introducing shafts of light coming from the windows. Here the action is very elaborate and it involves Raizo, four more ninjas and finally Takeshi. The intention was to wrap the scene with embers without hiding it, and to make the interaction between swiping weapons, acrobatic stunts and embers not only credible but spectacular as well.

The embers dragged around by the air turbulence and depressions, rapid accelerations and sudden slow downs enhanced all the dynamics. We even considered relating their temperature, their intensity, to their speed in the action. So we rendered a secondary velocity pass the compositors could use to adjust their color correction on the embers. Other tools were in use to fine tune the density of them, in order to evenly fill the space and occasionally recalibrate their distribution. I am particularly happy with the result, but what counts the most is that so was the client. 
What is the typical starting point in a VFX project? How long does it usually take?
The start is normally the final script. In long meetings with the Director, DOP and Producers, a VFX breakdown has to be made. After that we start the calculation, both in regard to the finances and the time requirements. That then becomes part of the contract. For the 450 VFX shots of Lilly The Witch, many involving complex character animation, it took about half a year. Converting a movie from flat to stereo 3D it takes around three or four months. 
What’s the one project that you received the most praise for?

You know, sometimes you are surprised by the way an audience reacts. It was a very small, low budget TV event movie, with an old, ugly looking character. We got the German and the Bavarian TV Award for the animation and VFX of The Wonder Of Loch Ness.
Do you think computer graphics changed visual advertisement and consumer behaviour?
Absolutely! Computer Graphics now make everything visually possible, and there are no limits. However, years ago film makers could sell movies because of CG elements. Now audiences gets used to Visual Effects, and they want to watch stories; they are looking for strong characters. 
What are your company goals?
Keeping a healthy balance between working for International and German clients and our own productions. We want the audience to forget that they are watching CG and always keep everything real and alive.

With the market becoming more and more competitive, what do you believe is a must that an artist has in his portfolio or skills?
An artist must have an ability to see the world in a slightly more acute way, and be able to break down the various elements that create that. This could be the way a dog moves in the park, or the light shines on a leaf or how the arc of a chair sweeps into the seat. This applies to the whole world of VFX: CG modeling, animation, lighting and compositing. For example, photography, sketching, personal films, these all help to train and develop an eye for detail and an understanding of the visual world around us. 
What is your favourite movie/ commercial?
Coen Brother’s FARGO. Disney’s The Jungle Book. 

What do you have up your sleeve for future projects?
We are working on various projects at the moment that unfortunately we are not allowed to talk about. We are also currently in production on “The Seven Dwarves”, which is a fully animated stereo 3D movie. 
If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be?
James Cameron. 
If you had unlimited resources (from artists to money) what path would you take?
I would love to be able to push the boundaries of our CG world even more. The idea of developing new tecniques, whether it be how to create the perfect human or the most believable waterfall, these are the things that I would love to pursue. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to specialize in special effects and 3D for advertising?
My advice would be to be passionate about your craft. And never forget: people want to be entertained. If they are entertained, you can deliver any message.