All about PDI and Eric Darnell’s ‘Gas Planet’.
Before Eric Darnell co-founded interactive VR/AR outfit Baobab Studios, and before he directed Antz and the Madagascar films, he was part of the groundbreaking animation team at PDI.
In 1992, Darnell and PDI’s computer animated short Gas Planet was released. The stylized film featured long snouted, balloon-shaped creatures that eat some kind of alien plant life; the results ‘speak’ for themselves.
This was a time when CG shorts were starting to pop up more and more, but it was still, of course, early days in computer animation. I was curious about the environment for creating these shorts during the early 90s, so decided to ask Darnell about it recently while he was attending the VIEW Conference in Turin this year.
b&a: How did Gas Planet come about?
Eric Darnell: Actually, the original inspiration for it came from my grandfather, who was a cattle rancher in southern Kansas. Gas Planet was a small little scene in a much larger story. This was about three young calves who had gone off to explore the world away from the herd. The bigger idea was way beyond the scope of what I could do in my spare time, you know, between morphing the front end of a ’91 Ford truck into the ’92 Ford truck, or whatever the current project was [PDI was well-known for its morphing artistry at the time]. So I distilled it down into a little story all by itself about these aliens.
b&a: When you were working on Gas Planet, what do you remember were things that you knew would be challenging, technically, back then?
Eric Darnell: There were a number of things. For example, I didn’t want to make a film that had dialogue because I hadn’t done any dialogue yet with characters. I wanted to design characters that were simple and easy to animate. So, they have one leg, basically a bathroom plunger, and that’s how we generated the sound for them when they hop around.
But the hardest thing was that for me was that, while I loved computer animation and was blown away by what it was capable of, I was getting bored with the sort of the perfection of CG back then – you know, the chrome orbs and the glinting typefaces – it just always felt a little cold. So, I was just racking my brain, trying to figure out a way to put a little bit of organic character in the piece, but I didn’t have enough knowledge or skill to really know how to do it.
I asked one of the old guard at PDI, Michael Collery, what he thought about the project and he offered to help. I couldn’t have been more grateful because he had all this experience, he was interested in the idea and came up with a solution that was really simple and really elegant and didn’t require all the lighting and highlights and shiny surfaces you normally see in CG.
Instead it allowed us to do a really simple render and then just push and pull the pixels around to give it an illustrative quality, almost like it had been drawn in pencil.
b&a: How did you and Michael actually arrive at that look?
Eric Darnell: Michael saw some of my early attempts at lighting, which were awful, and he just went away and thought about it and came back with this idea. And what he did was actually really simple. Basically, he generated a noise pattern. A noise pattern has light areas and dark areas.
Then, based upon whether there’s a light area or a dark area, it takes that pixel and smears it either up and to the right or down and to the left. It generates what appear to be pencil strokes where it starts dark and then as it moves, it’s like the pencil’s lifting off the surface and it gets lighter until it goes away.
Then, each frame, that noise pattern is re-generated, which means you get a different set of these pencil strokes. Then you take the simple render of the characters, with whatever surface color they have on them, and you use that same texture to push and pull the edges of those characters so all those clean lines get broken up.
Then you composite that same pencil-like texture onto the characters themselves. We were not trying to trick people that it was drawn in pencil, but it has the same sort of organic quality. The edges are fuzzy and soft. There are these strokes that are changing on every frame so that you get the sense of this craftsman-like approach, this handcrafted quality. I really have Michael to thank for that.
b&a: What was the state of play with CG shorts at that time?
Eric Darnell: They were starting to get attention from festivals and being recognized as a somewhat unique medium. If you chose to submit a short to a film festival, they might accept it or it could get accepted at a conference like SIGGRAPH.
At the time, Gas Planet became one of the many calling cards for PDI. We could morph something, we could do a flying logo, an animated character, your television commercial. And then we could do these artistic shorts, too. And I wasn’t the only one that was doing these kinds of projects. It was something that PDI really supported. It was also the nature of the business that you might have a few weeks where you didn’t have a job on, so they encouraged us to do personal projects.
b&a: After Gas Planet and before Antz, were there any other shorts or similar projects you worked on?
Eric Darnell: I started working on another piece that was called ‘Drive to Big Smoke’, which was essentially another cowboy story. And aliens were also a part of it. They needed the cow horns to somehow power their spaceships. They would mount them on the front of their spaceships like a Texan might on the hood of their Cadillac.
It became a conflict story between these 19th century cowboys and these aliens that could travel through time, as the cowboys would try to defend their cattle from getting their horns chopped off. I did a test for it, but then I left PDI before I finished that. Eventually I was hired by DreamWorks Animation and came back full circle to work with PDI on Antz.
b&a: I wanted to draw a line from those early days of PDI to what you’ve been doing now at Baobab, where it feels like you’ve been re-inventing things all over again for VR and AR. What comparisons do you see there? Does it feel similar in terms of inventing new things and discovering new things in animation?
Eric Darnell: You’re right, because back in those days people were in computer animation because they were just blown away by it, you know, so fascinated by it. They just wanted with all their heart and soul, to be a part of it. And it wasn’t about making money or anything else. It was just about this passion, and people sacrificed a lot to be involved in that.
PDI was a small company, about 40 people or so when I joined them, and it had this sort of scrappy attitude, that ‘let’s do it!’ feeling. A client would come in and they’d want a furry werewolf in their advertisement, and we’d say, ‘Okay, sure, we can do that.’ And then they’d leave and we’d turn to each other and say, ‘We’ve never done hair before! Do we know how to do hair? No? I guess we’ll have to figure it out…’. And then, you know, somebody would figure it out.
That was kind of the nature of the business back then. Everything that we did was new and everything we did was an experiment. People accepted that and embraced it. Over the years it became very quantifiable and standardized, and pipelines and procedures were all very solidly laid down. And there’s a lot of reasons why that’s a good thing. When you’re making movies that are going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, you have to have a pretty good idea of how you’re going to make that movie, how to get it done and be on time and under budget.
But now that I’ve left that world and I’ve started this VR company with Maureen [Fan] and Larry [Cutler], it feels more like those old days where we’d say, ‘How do we do it? I don’t know. Let’s figure it out.’ Anything we do could be a failure and everything we do is an experiment. It’s like we are on the edge of this undiscovered country.
I initially thought creating stuff in VR would be like making a movie, but maybe in ‘super-3D’. I quickly learned that, no, this is not cinema at all. It’s a completely different medium and it has a completely different set of strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t diminish the role of the director, but the things that you have to think about it in VR and consider as a director are very often very different than they are in filmmaking. I still think we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible.