An interview with Chris Landreth, a pioneering animator and director of the Oscar-winning animated short Ryan.
- My name is Chris Landreth. I am an animator and filmmaker, I'm based out of Toronto, Canada. For the past 25 years or so, I've been exploring strange world of CG animation. In that time, I've done many animated short films that have gotten me some notoriety. In addition to that, I do teaching of animation and I do research, out of the University of Toronto, in, hopefully, what we think are breakthrough things in animation, particularly character animation.
The things that keep me busy now are film making and research and teaching. I teach a course, a master class, called Making Faces. This is a course on character animation, but concentrating on a character's face. That opened up a big world of teaching and learning because there really isn't that much formal teaching on that subject, but it's a huge subject. I've developed a course which I take to universities and to studios, to schools, around the world.
I've taught this at Dreamworks, at Digital Domain, the University of Pennsylvania, many other places over the last five years. It focuses on what we do with our faces, and it goes out from that into, well, construction and, finally, animation of a face. And animation, in this case, really aligns with acting. What the course starts off being about is how a face works.
I go into the anatomy of a face, I go into how that could be translated into the way that you would rig a face. But the real thrust of the course is observing, observation about what we as human beings do with our faces to show, you know, happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and then those very nuanced emotions like conflict and jealousy and the kind of subtext that you show when you are showing one emotion but you're actually feeling another emotion.
That shows up on a face, and if you can see those things on a human face, you're gonna know a lot of what it takes to make your character really kick ass. Face of the character really does show intelligence and emotion and those things that really make a character come alive. I mean, I think we already have come out of the uncanny valley. You look at a lot of the work that, for example, I don't know if you're familiar with the ICT at the University of Southern California, with Paul Debevec's project.
What you're seeing there is coming out of the uncanny valley. The work that that group has done with, you know, you see someone that's actually at SIGGRAPH this year, the work with creating ultra realistic models, textures, shaders of human skin and combining that with perfect, arguably perfectly done motion capture, has brought us out of the uncanny valley.
But for animators who are trying to create characters and do the work that brings realism to their characters, we have a long way to go. And that requires not just the technical prowess that we've seen developed over the last 10 years, but that requires insight, and it requires getting what a face does, it requires being a detective and being really insightful. That's what I try to teach. Yes, some day we'll come out of that uncanny valley.
To me, that's not the point. The point is not realism. The point is believability and empathy, and whether a character looks uncannily real or whether that character looks like a cartoon character, you still gotta know that insight. And that's what I'm trying to teach. I got into CGI as a second life. My first life was being a mechanical engineer. That's what I got my Master's Degree in.
And for three years after doing that, I was doing research at the University of Illinois in fluid mechanics. And during that time, I realized that I'd really like to be applying the more left brain side of me to my life. And it was at that point that University of Illinois, that's where I was, became this kind of weird Mecca of early computer graphics research and education.
A professor named Donna Cox started the program there, called The Renaissance Experimental Laboratory. It was with Donna's group that I started getting, I quit my engineering job and started getting into CG, early CG animation. This is back in the late 1980s. Yeah, and from there, I started making this kind of leapfrog transition into the art side of what I do.
I worked at Supercomputer Center in North Carolina and did what is now called scientific visualization there, using CGI tools that were very in development at that point. Then I moved up to Canada and started working with what was then called Alias Research, which is now part of Autodesk. That was a good time to go up there because they were just developing Maya, or starting to think of developing this thing called Maya.
I came on, part of the design team. My role there was to help design the software, but also to test the software. And it was from that that I made couple of the short films that got me some notoriety. I'd done a film called Franz K way back in the early '90s that got me little bit into trouble because I was, at that time, working for Supercomputing Center and I did this weird artistic film that had Supercomputer-developed elements in it, but it was kind of a weird film.
You laugh, I think you know-- - [Voiceover] I've seen it. - You've seen it, yeah. So the notoriety of this film, Franz K, actually worked out for me because, at that time, it was SIGGRAPH 1993, the day that me and five other people from my group were fired. Yeah, no, no. Like, it was that day, I remember quite clearly, because we had just done this film, Franz K, and it was showing in Electronic Theater and people were saying all weird things about it.
And we get a fax, those days before email, we get a fax that afternoon from the director of the Supercomputer Center, saying, it was a really positively worded fax saying that, now we're going squarely on the path of success, unlike what we were doing before, and what that means is that all these groups, like the visualization group, will be eliminated now. So we just find this out. I mean, I would say that, if you're in visualization, computer graphics, and you find out your whole group is being phased out, there's no better place to be when you find out that news than SIGGRAPH on the day before, or the day of, a wild party put on by Industrial Light and Magic.
At that party, I hung out with a bunch of Alias people because my friend, Steve (mumbles), knows all these guys from Alias. "Hey, really ought to meet 'em." "Yeah, looks like I'm looking for work, "as of today, I find out," and they're, like, "Come on board, we need you. "We're working on this new software." So yeah, that's what happened. Within a couple of months I was there and working on my first of two short films, which was called The End.
Yeah, that was using a proto-version of Maya that was then called PowerAnimator, Alias PowerAnimator. Alias, at that time, was just coming out of, it was either bankruptcy or near bankruptcy. Their business model was not doing that well because they were concentrating on CAD and modeling. So new blood came into Alias right at the time I was coming into Alias, or maybe a year before, in the form of this guy, Rob Burgess.
Rob was like this savior guy. He turned the company around. The way that he and his team came in and turned the company around was that they got it into animation, in a big way. I, my timing couldn't have been better. My luck couldn't have been better, because I was coming on in Zen Animator at the time that they were trying to make themselves known as an animation tool. So I got to play with their new software and to make animated films out of them, and that's how I did The End, back in 1995.
Right as I was making The End, this film, The End, the development team was starting to make, or starting to conceive of this new software called Maya. So I came on right after I finished The End and worked with a team of about 120 people on developing this software, Maya. So that's how I did the film Bingo. I left Alias in the year 2000.
Shortly after leaving Alias, I was working as a freelancer, I was doing some work with a animation company called Melvana in Canada. At that time, I was asked to be on the selection committee for the Ottowa International Animation Festival. It was there that I met one of the other members of the selection committee, this dude that the organizer of the committee thought would be kinda interesting to bring him on because he was a person who had kind of left animation many years before.
His name was Ryan Larkin. Chris had brought him on after seeing him panhandling on the streets of Montreal. So I got to meet this dude that year, couple months after leaving Alias, and decided I needed to do a film about him, because he was such a remarkable guy. That was when I contacted, actually kind of cold contacted, the National Film Board.
That's how I got to meet and to hang out with Marcy Page. Do you, yeah, okay, (mumbles). Yeah, so yeah, Marcy's one of these legend producers at the Film Board, and been around for about 30 years doing some of the greatest films, three of which have been nominated for Academy Awards. She came on board and worked with me in Toronto, even though the National Film Board's based, they're based in Montreal, I'm in Toronto.
We work something out and that's how I started working with them and created the film Ryan. - [Voiceover] (mumbles) an Oscar. - And that won an Oscar. That is a great thing about a leap of faith on everyone's part there. They took a leap of faith with me. I took a leap of faith that I can work with these guys and that it would be cool. There is, with the National Film Board, a great deal of artistic freedom.
Certainly in the case of Ryan and in the case of many of my other films, it's a degree of realism, verisimilitude, a sense that, although what I'm showing you is animation, what I'm capturing is not cartoon land, it's not fantasy land, it is realism and it's a kind of, in the case of Ryan, it's a kind of realism that is very mundane. I love seeing the mundane part of the way that we act, you know, the way that we, you know, tousle our hair or look down when we're trying to think of something, those ordinary things that we do to get through real life.
I think, like, in the case of Ryan, in the case of a lot of the stuff that I try to tell in my stories, there is a great, what I try to get across is the extraordinary epic value of what we, as human beings, go through every day even though on the surface it's boring and mundane. That's one thing that inspires me. When I was getting into this, there was a cutting edge, like CG is, like what, a cutting edge.
And CG has so matured right now. So there are many, there are 1,000s of cutting edges. In a sense, I've stepped back from that. But in another sense, I'm seeing and I'm working on the kind of, I think the kind of research that informs what you were asking about before, getting out of the uncanny valley. How we as human beings can inform CG, computers, whatever you wanna call that, artificial intelligence, how we can inform that about real intelligence as we show it in our behavior.
The research that I do at the University of Toronto is on faces. The current, for example, the current line of research that we are working on, I'm working on with a professor named Karan Singh, another named Eugene Fiume, and my comrade at arms there, a guy named Pif Edwards, we, as a team, are developing some procedures for how a person speaks. The way that a person speaks is with a combination of facial muscles and with a combination of how we use our tongue and jaw.
So, like, one of the things that you see is, if a person's very adamant, they'll enunciate, overly enunciate with facial muscles, like this. As opposed to a person who's just hanging out, who's just forming their consonants and vowels and stuff just by opening and closing their jaw, as I'm showing here. And then just some combination that we tend to do that is dependent on our level of engagement with the person we're talking to, or our emotional state as a whole, and how do those things come out? When you smile when you talk, and even if you don't see the person smiling, you can hear the smile in their voice.
You know, like telemarketers are told to smile when they talk because the person on the other end can hear that smile. You can hear the emotion, even when the person's not intending to do that. So what is it in those vocal cues that you can make a, like a face, behave in a way that intelligently shows that? That kind of research, very much along, like, the kind of research that I'm, or along what I was just telling you about, the realism in getting the intelligence of human behavior into a simulation.
What we wanna do is to take actual, a person's speech, real speech, and to be able to drive behavior. We're starting with the way that the person moves their mouth to create that speech, and not to replace the animator, but to get insight from what animators would do and to inform animators, and to make their life easier.
But to find out things, not just about CGI but about human behavior, about human facial behavior, and this is where you get psychology and anatomy and acting and animation and CG tools for driving animation all coming together very, in an interdisciplinary kind of way. In the course that I teach on faces, I don't have happiness knobs or sadness knobs, because, you know, what I try to teach is that those emotions are actually a little bit more complex and are shown in a more complex way than just to dial the happiness meter up.
There's always some text, where I use, again, where, yeah, you can show happiness really easily by, well, zygomatic muscles in the face. And so you smile, right? But if there's really true happiness going on, then it's not just that happening, but a little bit of this happening, the eye lids going up. And if there is any kind of embarrassment with that smile, then there's a little bit of this happening, that corners of the mouth inadvertently coming down a little bit.
And if there's a little bit of contempt with that happiness, then there's a little bit of this going on. So there's a bunch of muscles that create the shading of an emotion. That's what I try to get people to see and to teach. And that's how I try to teach that. There is a lot of body language that we do research on. Like for example, the use of your hand, bringing it close to your head, sometimes touching, you know, scratching your head.
You know, that's a big gesture right there. I show footage, this sort of infamous piece of footage that Andy Warhol did, of Bob Dylan, in which Bob Dylan looks really uncomfortable in that piece of footage, and then he kind of touches his hand to his head. And, you know, why does he do that? And you find out, or I tell the story later, that it's a big piece of drama in which their friendship ended that day, and you're seeing it on this piece of film.
What's going on there that's driving Bob Dylan to do this weird stuff with his hands? I mean, one of the people who I was working with at the U of T, he's been at Pixar for the last five years, doing procedural simulation-based character stuff. His thesis was on the forcefulness of a person walking as a function of that person's emotional state.
So yeah, you see some simulations of that. And they look pretty good. I mean, I'll say the obvious here. But just remaining curious, like, do not let your curiosity dry up. Yeah, always be able to take on the terrifying aspects of new stuff. And I'm doing that a lot. Directing films is always a lesson in terror because as, I think, any director, particularly a director in animation, will tell you, that there are, like, the terror for me right now is 2D animation.
Like, for you, I guess, it was simple. You made the leap right into cell animation. I am dealing with 2D having always been a 3D guy. I mean, it's fun because I'm working with students on, yeah, that's another thing I haven't mentioned, which is that I work with students at Seneca College in Toronto, and they worked with me on my last three films, Ryan, The Spine, and Subconscious Password. They're working with me on sort of a proto-film for this new film that I'm trying to do, and we're working in 2D for about half of the film.
I am constantly making a fool of myself, commenting on and trying to second guess what should be done. But I'm learning tons of stuff by doing that. And it's terrifying, in a great way. Well, I am hoping to learn how to do a big film, a feature film. Yeah, to answer the question that I wasn't answering before, I'll be kind of vague about it, I am setting up, actually working with this group of students at Seneca College for the beginning parts of this, working on a feature-length animated documentary film.
You know, Ryan was a 14-minute animated documentary. What I think I can do with that form, with that kind of genre, if you will, I think could be pretty cool, pretty major, and I'm working to develop this thing. I already have a person, a subject, who it's based on. And, yeah, over the next four years, that's gonna be my big project.