The ‘real-time’ hand-drawn animatics process that made ‘Casper’ possible

And it was done on an…Amiga.

By 1995, Industrial Light & Magic had continued its powerhouse run as a visual effects studio that was constantly innovating in computer-generated imagery. Casper, from director Brad Silberling and producer Steven Spielberg, celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, was one of those early groundbreaking films for ILM. Not only did the Amblin film feature a fully-CG central character for the first time which had to interact with live-action actors, it also required hundreds – more than 300 – VFX shots.

These days, detailed previs might help inform the shoot for a film which would see live-action actors performing with (non-existent) CG characters, as was required on Casper. Back then, however, previs was not part of the process. Instead, the production employed a unique ‘live’ 2D animatics approach driven by animation director Phil Nibbelink.

Nibbelink had already worked as an animator on films such as The Fox and the Hound and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and had directed Amblin’s An American Tail: Fievel Goes West and We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story. For Casper, he first storyboarded the live action/animated combination sequences and then began a three-month on-set journey crafting hand-drawn animatics while the film was shooting.

‘Casper’ animation director Phil Nibbelink on the set with his Amiga set-up.

How the heck do you do live animatics?

The process, as Nibbelink described it to befores & afters, was fast-paced, and relied on the video playback set-up common to filmmaking at the time.

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“The imagery coming in through the lens is split and half the time it’s going to film and the other half it’s going to a video recorder,” explains Nibbelink. “The wire that comes out of the camera usually goes straight to video playback for the director and the actors. Well, I got the end of that cable and plugged it into my Amiga computer.”

Nibbelink says the Amiga was pretty much the only computer that could be used for this approach at the time, since it had the required video in and out ports. Video engineer Ian Kelly orchestrated the video playback capability.

“I could then bring the video into my computer and I could run it through Deluxe Paint,” says Nibbelink. “And then I could super-impose my Deluxe Paint drawings over the top of that video feed. I was drawing with a regular Wacom tablet connected to the Amiga. I taped a sheet of paper to the tablet to give me a bit of paper friction so I could better control the stylus.”

The workflow

The idea of the animatics, of course, was to provide a means for the actors and filmmakers to see where the eventual CG characters would be in the scene to help with framing, eyelines and prop hand-offs.

Nibbelink on set.

The actual process of doing those drawings on set for the animatics started with the blocking stage on each day of the shoot. “On set,” relates Nibbelink, “they had one of these large rubber maquettes. They’d rehearse the scene and Brad would hold, say, Casper by the neck and walk through the staging. Everyone would get their marks. While they were doing the run-through, I was making quick sketches of where Casper was going to be on the different marks.”

“By the time they’d done a run-through, I’d have all the Caspers properly drawn. As the actors would walk through the scene, I’d advance through the drawings and click them forward: 1-2-3-4-5. Then they would play back the video with my drawings overlaid and check if the eyes were lining up and if the prop hand-offs were working and if everyone was in position.”

Editing and VFX

Nibbelink’s animatics came in handy not just throughout the shoot, but also for the edit. Just as previs and postvis might serve as placeholders during assembly today, the live animatics on Casper were used by editor Michael Kahn as he worked through scenes.

“Rather than him editing just plates that had no characters, it was easier for them to edit using my rough animatic,” notes Nibbelink, “just so he could show everybody where Casper was going to be. It was fun that my work got taken that far.”

In fact, Silberling also had Nibbelink make some additional corrections and enhancements to the animatics as the edit progressed, for storytelling purposes. This then essentially became a template – dubbed ‘Caspermatics’ – that was given to ILM to follow for its final character animation. “It was great to create a tool that was clearly so helpful for everybody,” recalls Nibbelink.

A three-month odyssey

The Casper experience was extremely memorable for Nibbelink, not only for the opportunity to help shape the story, but also to be right there in the action each day. One particular moment on the Universal backlot stands out, he told befores & afters.

“I was sitting there with my computer and suddenly somebody ran around on the set yelling, ‘Dew! Dew!’ I didn’t know what that meant but it was explained to me that when the barometric pressure goes down, dew starts to fall on all the electronic equipment and it can create a fire or short the gear. So everyone began covering all the gear, including me!”

“Eventually they created a little shack over me, which was supposed to keep the dew from falling on my computer equipment. I’ll always remember that day.”

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