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HomeCraftsArt Dept: Animatronics and Creatures

Art Dept: Animatronics and Creatures

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For Lee Romaire, presiding over his own effects house fulfills a dream he’s had since he was five years old. For Randall Rosa, working next to Oscar-winning (Terminator 2, Aliens) creature master Stan Winston at his state-of-the-art Stan Winston Studios has provided a career filled with challenges on some of the biggest films in the world.Yet while both men compete in a business where the search for the next assignment never ends, each has survived long enough to notice massive technical advances in the CGI and animatronic fields, and to witness physical effects’ battle for survival as the two disciplines vie for the attention of producers. They also are uniquely qualified to discuss where they believe the industry is going and growing, as effects are no longer the focus of summer blockbusters, but are incorporated into the mix of scenes in earth-bound stories as well.“Our perception of animatronics versus digital is that it’s not a competition but the use of both to make a superior product,” says Rosa, who has worked with Winston for the past three years. “The basic pitch is to have a one-stop shop and create it all here rather than having to design a basic sculpture of a creature and then send that to a digital house elsewhere. Before we started with digital, it was frustrating for Stan to send his characters away to be digitally replicated by others.”Rosa also notes that one key advantage of being a one-stop FX shop is that the final product has one main team of creative minds behind it, enabling the final effects to be more seamlessly integrated and less obvious and distracting to the audience. Besides, in combining the two formats, the limitations of each can be overcome at a more affordable price.Additionally, for 3D animation purposes, Winston’s team uses Softimage XSI. According to Rosa, its strengths lie in “having a lot of tools with that package and great support from them to customize animation software so we can do things that aren’t available to the public. Technology is just a tool like a paintbrush for the artist, because you’ll never get what looks good just from technology.”The Winston-related films released this year alone show the startling versatility available both from the studio’s staff itself and from the technology they utilize. For instance, Rosa discusses the tech issues inherent in the upcoming summer superhero film The Fantastic Four, but also notes that an array of subtler effects were also employed in the February family film Because of Winn-Dixie.“We used animatronics for insert pieces and support pieces in Winn-Dixie for its numerous scenes involving animals, but digital was used to do little things like putting a smile on the dog,” explained Rosa. “On the other hand, for Fantastic Four we’re in charge of the Invisible Woman, and our digital division is leveraging the entire Winston studio’s talent on what is invisibility? We’re not erasing her or having her floating clothes walk around, but rather creating a very interesting and exciting look.”For his part, Romaire agrees with Rosa in believing that CGI and more traditional animatronic effects should be able to complement more than compete with each other. Running an admittedly small shop ranging from one to five employees at a time, he has still managed to perform animatronic work for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming The War of the Worlds while also presently designing an animatronic goose for the upcoming animated film Goose and creating a secret theme-park ride project for Disney Imagineering.Romaire opened his shop after the CGI revolution, so he “didn’t notice its business effects” while acknowledging that industry peers have noted CGI has both brought business to and taken business away from more traditional houses. He takes pride in keeping his focus thus far on more traditional makeup effects and puppets, believing their look “is more real, even if it’s harder to shoot on sets.”Ultimately, Romaire uses no “tricks of the trade” or particularly specialized equipment. He knows that as his shop grows, it’s important to draw a mix of clients who seek his staff out. He enjoys just taking the pitch from a client and writing, directing, shooting and producing the entire final product in-house, where he feels the small staff-size enables everyone there to feel personally and creatively fulfilled.“If you use CG for the whole effect, it kind of falls flat because people go in knowing how it’s done, and I’ve heard people say it pulls them out of the moment. At the same time, I think CG will get better and move to a farther level,” said Romaire. “Who knows, we may be using CG in the shop in two years because you have to adapt, and I’m not afraid of it.”

Written by Carl Kozlowski

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