The ‘I Am VFX/PDX’ series continues with Portlander Susanna Luck, a traditionally trained artist and FX Animator who has found a home at LAIKA. Often times she gets the call to provide FX that, although existing in a digital world, are still created by hand. We’re talking frame… by… painstaking… frame.
Her evolution of pen into a Wacom stylus is fascinating, as Susanna moved from working traditionally to digitally. Her unique work slots right in as the bridge between the digital VFX accents being created by machine, and the tangible, physical, “real” world being shot on the stop-motion stages. Often, with a wave of her stylus, Susanna can take the digital edge off of an effect such as the flame from a torch – that would otherwise be generated procedurally or simulated using VFX software – and give it that human, hand-made touch sewing the digital and analog realms together. Her work is seen in LAIKA’s most recent animated feature, ParaNorman, and we’ll talk plenty about that, but also reflect on her formative years as an artist, and what about Portland makes her heart race. (other than the coffee!)
VFX/PDX: In your case, Susanna, I might just have to talk current events for a moment and then work our way back, since we’re hot off the heels of the ParaNorman Oscar nomination just a few days ago. Exciting! I can imagine everyone is dying to hear about your recent experience on ParaNorman at LAIKA, so let’s not keep them waiting. I might just have to go all the way back to… yesterday?
What’s a typical day like at work for you? Or, let’s say a typical day during ParaNorman?
Susanna: It would vary quite a lot from day to day. Sometimes I had a brief from the directors or my supervisors and I’d just be left to get on with it, which means that I’d come in to the office I was sharing with four funny, smart, incredibly talented guys, laugh a lot, get some coffee and then sit down in front of my Mac, plug in to some music or a podcast and get to work. Sometimes I would be scheduled for a meeting with the VFX Supervisor, who would give me feedback on something I was working on, or give me a launch on something new – which means that he’d interpret for me what he thought the directors wanted, based on his much deeper knowledge of the overall project and what we were all aiming for. Often there were meetings during the day where a group of us would sit in the screening room in the FX department and look at what everyone was working on and receive feedback and notes from the VFX Supervisor.
About once or twice a week (and more frequently toward the end of the production), we’d all schlep across the street to the main building and screen the scenes for “Director Review” that week in the main screening room, and get feedback from the directors themselves. Sometimes I’d also meet separately with the directors in the smaller editorial suite and they’d give me a launch on a new scene, or notes on what I’d done so far. And then I would draw and draw and draw and make things look like they’re moving around.
What was your favorite effect that you helped create on ParaNorman? Will you ever look at a teddy bear the same again?
Susanna: The burning teddy bear was a lot of fun to work on. I was so excited to get my hands on that scene, I totally went overboard at first and had to pull the flames back quite a bit.
But Angry Aggie was by far my favorite effect to work on. One of the things I really love about working in animation is the collaborative nature of the work. And Aggie was such a collaboration. I think nearly everyone in the 68-person VFX department contributed to her look at some point. In the end, I think we came up with something truly unique – I certainly have never seen anything like it – it was a great combination of stop-motion puppet, hand-drawn FX and CG animation.
VFX/PDX: Awesome Aggie is more like it. Definitely one of the more creative antagonists in recent memory. And it seems everyone else thinks so too, as the work on Aggie’s “Ink Blot Electricity” effect was recently nominated for a VES award. Probably the most interesting thing about that character (for me) was seeing what she began as – a stop-motion puppet sort of ‘skeleton,’ just one step removed from an armature, that had such raw, frenetic, in-your-face animation. I’m vaguely remembering the scene in Fight Club where the Tyler Durden character is explaining the subliminal single frame cuts he was splicing into a film. Aggie would be hovering above Norman in one frame and cowering in a fetal position the next, showing the poles at the extreme ends of her personality. Hats off to the stop-mo animators and facial team for some very creative and emotional animation there. But then the animated skeleton would pass through VFX for the final look on screen: complete with the raging Medusa-like ‘Tesla’ hair, an electric dress, glowing features, aura, and lest we forget something the script referred to as ‘ejecta’ that was tossing Norman about like a rag doll.
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