- Absolut Vodka
- Spike Jonze
- VFX Supervisor (Method Studios)
- Andy Boyd
- Method Studios
- Los Angeles, New York
Francesca is a reckless free spirit; Sheldon is hopelessly committed. She leads him into a downward spiral of self-destruction. And they happen to be robots. I'm Here, the 28-minute film from internationally renowned director Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation), is a love story that's set in a modern reality where sentient robots exist as an underclass.
Actors Andrew Garfield and Sienna Guillory play Sheldon and Francesca, respectively. "They played their parts in robot costumes," explains visual effects supervisor Andy Boyd, "with their head inside a box with cut-out holes where their eyes and mouths are. Our task was to put in CG eyes and CG mouths and animate them to create facial expressions and help build their performance." The task was unlike other CG animation assignments; where most animated characters have roots in hand-drawn animation, the success of I'm Here depended heavily on Method's ability to capture the subtlety and nuance of Garfield and Guillory's performances using only the expressiveness of their eyes and mouths.
To meet this challenge, Jonze selected Method's New York and Los Angeles facilities to bring his characters to life. The facilities worked in tandem to execute 380+ visual effects shots within a tight six-week timeframe.
"All of the shots needed to communicate a tremendous amount about the characters' thoughts and feelings with very little detail," Boyd explains. "Sheldon and Francesca's faces are completely solid the whole time," he adds, "so all of the communicating has to be done through eyelid shapes, eye movements and some subtle mouth movements."
A simple, direct approach was vital to the success of the film. Jonze was very specific about the concept that the audience was supposed to see the characters and not think about the animation at all. "There could be a temptation to put in too much detail, to make the animation too elaborate," he explains. "Sheldon's head is essentially a big square and his face is a flat plane, which makes it especially interesting because of those intrinsic limitations. If you try to make a painting of a cube, it can be more challenging to make it appear real than something like a bowl of fruit. There's more detail to work with."
Additionally, the pacing and tone of I'm Here is very deliberate - there could be no relying on rapid cutting to help ‘sell’ the reality of the work. "There are shots where there where you’re just kind of staring at their faces and they’re not actually talking for quite some time. It can be tempting to 'over animate' the faces and get the most of that time, but actually the story worked best using very simple but very precise facial expressions."
Jonze helped the Method animators tremendously by minimizing the amount of guesswork when it came to the performances of his main characters. According to Boyd, "Spike was extremely explicit in what he wanted, to such an extent that he did a breakdown of every shot—what it was communicating, its purpose in the story and what each character should be feeling—and then he filmed his own face as he acted the parts." Given his direct approach, Jonze still allowed the Method team freedom to interpret his direction as needed. "(Jonze) trusted us to make the scenes work within the context of the eyes and mouths we were working with," Boyd continues, "The film is a love story and so there is an arc where you see Sheldon's confidence grow and he starts to fall in love. As Spike was finishing up work on Where the Wild Things Are, he would look at versions and give us notes and we would make the appropriate adjustments until every shot was exactly what he wanted."
"We're extremely proud of our work on Spike Jonze's very imaginative and wonderful film," says Method's Senior Creative Director Dan Glass. "The film is powerful on an emotional level, and when you look it, you can see how much of that comes from the level of 'performance' that Method brought to these faces. There are close-ups where Sheldon or Francesca is just reacting to something - not even speaking - and the CG face has to express everything that's going on in the character's mind."
"The biggest compliment for us," Boyd sums up, "was when Spike was reviewing the work, he didn't say, 'That's good animation.' He said, 'That's good acting.'"