Pros with Macs - An Interview With Doug Chiang: The Man Behind Robota

by , 10:45 AM EST, November 17th, 2004

What do Forrest Gump, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Death Becomes Her, and The Matrix: Revolutions all have in common, beyond the obvious fact that they are all movies?

All of these movies, and many more include special computerized effects that were, in large part, due to the creative mind of Doug Chiang. Mr. Chiang has won more awards than you can shake a stick at, including the prestigious American and British Academy Awards for his work in Death Becomes Her. He's also spent time creating independent film director, receiving many awards for the movies he directed.

Somewhere in between creating unbelievably believable effects in such movies as Terminator 2, and directing his own movies such as the award winning independent film, Mental Block, and managing a full personal life, Mr. Chiang manages to find the time to create the world of Robota.

What is Robota?

Kaantur's City

Imagine a world that has been invaded, conquered, and then ruled by intelligent machines. A world called Orpheus, where humans are the endangered species. The best way to fully appreciate the world of Robota is to visit the Web site and take it all in; there you will find the story line of Robota, drawings, and several trailers which look more like clips from a feature length movie than trailers designed to promote interest.

You might say that Robota is Doug Chiang's pet project. In 2000, Mr. Chiang launched the Doug Chiang Studio Web site and introduced the world to Robota, and it has steadily gained momentum as more people see the work Mr. Chiang has done so far. Even famed Science Fiction writer Orson Scott Card has signed on to the Robota team.

Mr. Chiang is currently lending his talents to the production of DreamWorks' The Polar Express, which hit the theaters in November of 2004.

As busy as he is, Mr. Chiang, a Mac user, took some time to answer a few questions for The Mac Observer (TMO):

TMO: Can you tell us where Macs were used in the creation of the world of Robota?

D. Chiang: We're mostly a Mac-based studio, so we use Macs in practically all stages of our production design process.

For example, the design and look of the robots for these teasers were all conceptualized and designed on the Mac. We also use the Mac to provide elements for the final shots, creating matte paintings and textures using Photoshop. All the elements were then composited in AfterEffects on a Mac.

One of the techniques we experimented with in making this teaser was to try and create all the background environments through painting projections. We painted detailed matte paintings, then projected these paintings onto simple geometry to get some 3D parallax. This allowed us to create the illusion of highly complex and rich looking scenes while only using low-resolution models. In essence, most of our shots were done this way using the so called 2 and 1/2 D matte paintings. And with careful planning and limiting our camera moves we were able to maximize the 3D effect in each shot to take advantage of our limited computer resources.


TMO: Do you (personally) use Macs exclusively, or do you have a favorite system to perform certain functions in your creative process?

D. Chiang: I'm a Mac guy, although I've used Windows before on other films I've worked on such as The Matrix: Revolutions. But given a choice, I always lean towards the Mac. I'm just more comfortable with it.

The only other tools I use are plain old pen and ink and marker on paper, so I haven't gone completely digital yet � but close.

TMO: You mentioned in your 9/1/2004 update that Pixar reviewed your work. How is Pixar involved in the Robota project?

D. Chiang: Pixar is not involved in Robota. I was invited by Pixar last year to do a presentation and signing for my book Robota. During the presentation, I gave them a sneak peek at some of the animation and look development tests I was doing for the teaser.

It was a good opportunity for me to show the work in progress and get feedback and criticism at an early stage. Thankfully they were very positive and supportive of what they saw.

TMO: Orson Scott Card is a well known Sci-Fi author. How were you able to involve him in the Robota project?

D. Chiang: Orson got involve in Robota nearly four years ago, shortly after I sold the book rights to Chronicle Books. At that time, I was in the middle of talking to Sony Pictures Imageworks about forming a relationship with Sony to develop Robota in other media and a friend of mine suggested that I contact Orson to get his thoughts on the story.

To be honest, I really didn't think he would be interested in what I was doing but surprisingly he connected with the material and liked what I had written. In fact, he liked the story enough to pitch the novel adaptation to his publisher. From there, our collaboration just grew.

I think he's one of the finest writers today and his support was definitely a huge boost for me.

A Hunter

TMO: In your latest trailer we were intrigued to see what appears to be a live actor imposed in a purely CG landscape. Was this bit of magic done on a Mac?

D. Chiang: The live actress was composited on a Mac. We extracted her using Shake. When we first started to work on this teaser, we weren't really sure how far we could push home computing technology. It was really an experiment to see what a handful of guys working at night and on weekends using off the shelf equipment and software can do.

We all wanted to see how close we could get to theatrical quality work using our limited resources and augmenting that with lots of tricks we've learned over the years. And part of that original plan was to see if we could create an all digital human that would hold up in a close-up shot. It was our biggest gamble and unfortunately the reality of our day jobs working on the film The Polar Express left us very little time to focus enough energy on that aspect. In the end we simply couldn't devote the resources necessary to make a digital human work and had to resort to plan 'B' � shooting a live action actor and compositing her into our environment.

We shot the actress with a DV camera on a small green screen that we hung in the studio. It took about half a day to set up and shoot. Then the select shots were processed and composited into the scene using aftereffects. We carefully matched the lighting and color to fit the environment. Then we added film grain, depth of field, and light wrap to the element to finish the composite. We used a lot of heavy pancake makeup to give her a slight CG, unreal look so she would fit in better to our stylized background.

Only two close-ups were done this way. The other shots of the human were all digital characters, animated to match mo-cap reference we had previously captured.

TMO: Will there ever be a Robota movie? If so, can you give us any details?

D. Chiang: I can give you some details but it's really too early to says where this is all headed. Currently, I am actively pursing the film development and am refining the treatment with my producers. With the book finally published and the video game in development at Sony Pictures Imageworks, I can now devote more of my attention on the film development part.

By the way, these teasers have been instrumental in showing the studio heads the potential of what the film could look like. So as I move forward, look for more teasers to come.

Check out the latest Robota teaser at Doug Chiang's Web site, and while you are there, take a thorough look at the world of Robota. We think you'll be anxious for more.