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Lots of Robots making of: Andy Murdock interview

We had the pleasure of interviewing Andy Murdock on the making of the short film Lots of Robots.

CG users are perfectly aware of the effort it takes to create a realistic, believable scene. Models, textures, dimensions, details, lights, environment, reflections; the list goes on and everything has to be taken into account. That’s why we can especially appreciate when we see an individual embark on a CG short film project only to bring back extraordinary results. In the case of Mr. Murdock he has decided to push the idea even further: his goal is to produce a feature-length 3D animated film. This long-term objective has undoubtedly driven him to integrate the process of CG filmmaking into his way of life.

Andy Murdock is also a multi-faceted artist. While studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, he has learned sculpture, painting, filmmaking and sound design. His passion for music and his professional experience as a recording engineer is one of the aspects that has helped carve “LOR” into a distinct film in the landscape of CG animations. Mr. Murdock’s playful use of the image in motion can be easily traced to musical concepts. Finally, if as many filmmakers are eager to assert, every director’s film is to a certain degree autobiographical, Mr. Murdock’s choice of subject (creation itself) can hardly come as a surprise. Both his constant need for expression as well as his personal history (past and recent) seem to point him in that direction.

Why? (Why did you start working on “LOR”?)

For 12 years I had been making animation and sound design at the direction of others, most of them brilliant artists, some just complete morons. I thought it was time to make something that was all mine. But most of all I wanted to tell a different kind of story. Not only the subject matter, but also the way the story is told. LOR is a creation myth that deals with all the little details of creation that I think are missed in many stories. Many creation myths will skim over the act of creation and just treat it as if a magic wand was passed over nothingness, and there you go, let’s move on to the part where man starts pissing off God. Like many myths, LOR takes forces of nature and embodies them into characters that play a part in a grand drama. In my story, LOR is the name of the creator of life, and he lives in a big metal spaceship under a big tree in an asteroid’s crater.

The robotic humming bird animated in 3DS Max, note the double set of wings, one perpendicular and one parallel to the camera

You mentioned that the original concept for LOR is related to your keen interest in science and nature. How did you first get involved with these subjects?

Honestly, it was public television and countless nature shows. One show in particular was called “Nature” narrated by George Page. One Saturday afternoon I was watching this show on TV and saw a humming bird filmed in super slow motion. The clip at normal speed lasted 2 seconds, but when slowed down we saw an entirely different world. The humming bird gracefully looked around and found a flower, and then did his business. Ten years later I decided to make an animation of this fascinating sight. So my interest is really in the beauty of all these little critters and not so much the scientific study of evolution.

A couple of movies that really inspired me were Baraka and Microcosmos. I first saw these while working at PDI as a rented artist from Mondo Media. I started making bugs and plants when I was doing a test for a possible sequel for Antz. PDI was interested in the possibility of having Mondo make the sequel, and I was on the team to impress them enough to get the job. Dreamworks eventually canned the sequel, but not my desire to make 3D bugs. I started experimenting with bugs and plants, but the beauty of nature is hard to compete with. The closer I got to making something look real the more it looked fake. I needed a look that was both part of and unique from reality. I made a few robot bugs just to work on animation techniques, and then story ideas started to come to mind about the robot bugs, and why they are there, and what they were doing.

How did you design the robots? What are you using as reference?

When I’m making animal robots, I simply google up some images of humming birds and pelicans to work from, then I build a skeleton to see if animating the character is going to be fun and practical. I’m really trying to keep the designs as simple as possible. The characters need to be easy to animate and deal with in the software or else production slows down. Simple characters are just better actors. The goal is to tell a story, not impress anyone with a huge amount of detail.

How was the initial sequence of the galaxy created?

That effect was created using Afterburn and Particle Flow. It’s something that I have been dabbling with for a long time. The form of the galaxy was created by spinning an emitter in a spiral pattern, and then taking a snapshot of the emitted particles. Afterburn was applied to the stilled particles and then a week of tweaking the lights and dividing it up into layers for rendering. This type of effect is something that I feel I can always improve upon, so I may revisit it for future releases just to see if I can make it better. On the LOR Volume Two DVD there is a tutorial discussing the basic principals of making this galaxy effect.

The characters of LOR inhabit and move around large spaces that portray different aspects of nature. How do you go about creating and animating the backgrounds for representing the spaces for the different scenes?

There are many different approaches in the movie. For some of the scenes, like the cavern and waterfall flythrough, the scene is a complete fully 360 degree 3D model with no matte painting. For this type of scene I start with a low poly proxy of the environment, and then I begin the animation process. I try and get most of the camera angles and camera animation into the scene before I start in on the detailing of the environment. This way I can avoid spending time making detail that does not get rendered.

A double rotor pelican soars through the clouds

Some of the scenes employ a cubic sphere projection for the backgrounds. This technique requires you to render an environment from 6 cameras, each rendering a 90 degree square image. It’s the same concept as the cubic reflection map. Then I take a box with 20 segment in each dimension, then apply a spherify modifier to and reverse the normals. The 6 camera renders are then set into the correct cube sides. Then I scale the cubic sphere so that no parallax distortion will be apparent as the scene rendering cameras move through it. This allows me to render a 360 degree environment quickly, and also I can paint on the environment renderings. This works only when you are not moving the camera’s position too much and not zooming into the background where upon the environment texture maps become too blurry.

LOR relies heavily on post processing. Could you explain some of the compositing techniques you used for coming up with this aesthetic?

I think of rendering from 3D the same way I think of multi track music recording. When recording a guitar, you get the best raw sound possible, but you wait to apply the delay, reverb and other effects until you get to the final mix. The compositing software plays the part of the mixing board. So when I render, I try and get a good lighting scale that has no pixels going completely hot or dark or totally saturated with color. This leaves me with a lot more room to play with it when I start color adjusting and adding the blooming effect that I enjoy so much. This blooming effect is simple, each rendering pass is rendered just a little too dark and low contrast, then I apply an adjustment layer and add a blur to the adjustment layer, then I set the adjustment layer inking mode to screen or add. This creates a nice soft glow to the scene, and gives the feeling of atmosphere. There is a lot more to it than I just described, sometimes I use a combination of different inking modes to this blurred layer, like overlay or softlight as well as other glowing plugins.

You use depth of field for expressive effects frequently in LOR. In your experience which of the tools (plugins) offered has given you the best results?

There are two After Effects plugins that I use, one is Image Lounge’s TrueCamera blur and the other is Frischluft’s Depth of Field. They both work on the same principle of using a zdepth image and blurring the pixels based on that. They both work really well, Image Lounge is faster and works well in most situations and Frischluft has fewer artifacts but requires far more render time. I try Image Lounge first and if that does not work, I use the other.

The music you composed for LOR supports and dictates the way the movie flows during many of its sequences. Other sounds, however, are sometimes used out of sync, and provide a low “sense of materiality”. Could you explain to us the concept behind the sound design for the film?

Great question, let me first explain the process for making the sound. First of all, the animation takes forever… very tedious. When it comes time for the sound and music, I’m nearing the end of the process for making the sequence and I’m very excited about hooking up the sound and getting it done. I start by composing the music, and as I get each theme ready and in a rough state, I start to build a rough edit, then spaces start to emerge for other non-musical sound events. You may think that everything that happens in the animation needs a sound. This is not true. It’s a process of watching the piece over and over, adding the most important sounds and dealing with spaces and feelings of emptiness as they present themselves. Think of the piece as perfect without sound. Add one sound and you have now you have to fix the entire movie. Add the music… and when the music can’t fill up the experience I start to justify the actions in the animation with sound effects. This may sound like art school mumbo jumbo, but it is really how I think about sound design and how I work.

Walking balls approach the pelican, ready to perform their hypnotic dance

For some sequences I really pay attention to the actions in a practical way and build a sound environment that matches action for sound. These are mostly the fast action sequences. It’s just a matter of finding the right sound effect to sync with the footstep or robot arm twist and so on. Here I’m just correcting the absence of sound and dealing with my natural expectations. Then there are the moments where a story needs to be told from off screen, or a mood needs to be enhanced. This is where sound effects can become characters in the play. I love these moments. So in the end, I end up with a 5.1 music sub-mix, a sound effects 5.1 sub-mix, and an in-between 5.1 sub-mix that is best described as musical sound effects. The spatial placement and reverb environment that the sound design exists in also have a great deal of influence in how the viewer experiences the tone of the scene, so I pay a lot of attention to how the mix comes into play. A viewer really needs to hear LOR in 5.1 surround to know what I’m talking about.

What are the main things you’ve learned from the experience of working on this film?

Well my mantra has always been “Don’t ask for permission to follow your dreams”, meaning that if you have an idea, you should just figure out how to get it done and do it. But after being an independent animator for so long, the ‘permission’ part becomes a bit moot. Joseph Cambell told us to follow our bliss and that is exactly what I’m doing. There are so many visions of what success ought to be that it all gets a bit too confusing. You really have to focus on all the little details, one at a time.

Any improvements in Max that you think could’ve made your work easier?

The one thing I want to see is a global time warp curve. I want to be able to render a scene slow, fast and backwards all dependant on a single curve. That’s all I really want.

Finally, a question we can’t refrain from asking: how many robots?

I know you want me to say “Lots” but that’s far too easy. The real figure will be revealed in the fullness of time… so stay tuned.

Many thanks to Andy Murdock for answering our many questions and providing us with
such a detailed account of numerous aspects of LOR’s creation process.

LOR the movie:
MaxScripts, tools and experiments related to the creation of LOR:
Lots of Robots public forums:

Images courtesy of Andy Murdock.
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