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David James-Flushed Away

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When thinking of the primary differences between being a productiondesigner for live-action films versus animation, David A.S. Jameslaughs that “you work for longer and you get paid less.” But he’s quickto add that actually “it’s the best of all possible worlds. You get tocreate environments out of thin air.” In the DreamWorks Animation andAardman Features co-production Flushed Away, James did just that,helping to realize a bustling rat-populated metropolis beneath London,replete with all manner and class of rodents, as well as a couple ofkey frogs.He’s helped realize animated worlds before, as a sequence design artiston DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado, a layout artist on Spirit:Stallion of the Cimarron, and an art director on the studio’s Sinbadproject.Now, as production designer, more of that “realization” is in hishands, and comparing his job to that of his live-action counterparts,he acknowledges that early on, they use “similar or identical tools”for lighting and rendering sets—two of those tools being AdobePhotoshop and Autodesk Maya.But then, James continues, he gets to light and dress his sets, too.”It’s ridiculous to build something and hand it over,” he says,especially when “you’ve got the resources”—and the technology, and theparticular medium—to see the job through, nearly to the end.And there’s no absolute moment of turnover, where the PD has to handover the keys to his newly built world. Sometimes, “productiondesigners in animation actually color-time the film,” he says. “We’remuch closer to cinematographers,” than his live-action counterparts getto be.And while his involvement might be much greater than non-animationproduction designers, James is also quick to credit others on his teamwho make the journey worthwhile, including art director Pierre-OlivierVincent, who was really the “concept designer,” providing “geniussketches of the underground world.”Of course, James also likes to “carve off a juicy bit of design to domyself,” and in this case, it was the boat piloted by Rita (voiced byKate Winslet). But that wasn’t the only thing he would build—virtuallyor actually—in the course of production.James recounts that he went to Bristol in the UK, where Aardman’sstudio is located, and with the folks there “built a quarter-scale setout of junk,” scoured from the thrift stores of that fair town.The idea, of course, wasn’t to make an actual set for filming—the wayAardman does for its claymation Wallace and Gromit adventures—butrather to “get the essence of the concepts”—space, layout, feel—beforethe 3D rendering.James also talks about a peculiar Aardman look that comes from thelimitations of that Bristol space—much as good sourdough bread comesfrom particular aspects of the air around San Francisco: There’s a”very strange feeling of light” that comes from both the limited sizeof the soundstages there (40 ft. x 40 ft.), and the space above them.James estimates that the highest key light could only be hung 27 ft.above the stage—creating “very dynamic shadow lines” with suchhorizontal positioning.But away from the junk shops and key lights of Bristol, was Aardmangiving up its signature “look” to work in an all-digital format?James allows there may have been some “relinquishing of aesthetic” forthe demands of this particular film, but ultimately says they wound upwith an “Aardman feel [created] within a DreamWorks pipeline,” although”the tempo of this film is much closer to a DreamWorks film.”Still, the project unfolded with “lengthy consultations with theAardman team,” which included the challenge of “reigning ourselvesin”—on the Dreamworks side—in order to give the characters “space andtime” to be themselves, even if they are ones and zeroes, albeitvoiced, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Bill Nighy and others joinedWinslet in providing tonsils.Then, after all the sequence designing and storyboarding and roughlayout/previs work comes the actual shooting of rendered sets andfinished characters, and after all that comes… the lighting!”We light after we shoot,” James says. Light—and thus, mood—are oftenadded after the characters are blocked, and the camera moves set.Though even then, James allows himself some wiggle room: “I love thatI’m not locked down to a camera move, a pan,” he continues. If thestory seems to require it, even those can be changed. It’s all part ofan involvement that James puts down to “how well props work or not.”According to James the whole process is “very porous,” with “fewerfiefdoms,” but still, “we tend not to move the chess pieces” unlessthey have to be moved. The wiggle room is great, but James is alsoaware of getting “too fancy” with digital tools. “It can gild thelily,” he says. “I like creative constraint. It breeds a certaindiscipline.” And somewhere in that nexus between the age-old restraintsanimators have always worked under, and “tools so fantastic, I don’tknow understand why anyone wouldn’t want to use them,” James finds aprocess that simply “has a magic to it.”Regardless of what your title is on a film, you can’t ask for betterthan that.

Written by Mark London Williams

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