Shoot: The force is strong with this one…

George Lucas has expanded his star wars universe yet again. Miguel Gonzalez spoke with Justin Mettam, an Aussie who is using the force as a 3d story artist.

“At Lucas Animation we go straight from the script into 3D layout,” Mettam explains about the process that skips the traditional storyboard stage. “The job description of 3D story artist was developed as Lucas Animation,” Mettam says. “3D story is the merging of traditional drawn storyboarding and 3D layout. Lucas wanted to create a piece of software that would help the director previsualise the story; something much more sophisticated than traditional animatics, allowing the director to move around the virtual set in 3D, block out the acting and shoot it, then cut it all together in the same piece of software.

The team starts by discussing the script, to understand the relationships between characters. “[Supervising director] Dave Filoni knows the Star Wars universe better than anyone, with the exception of George Lucas. He really drives these meetings and communicates [what the story needs] to the episodic director and the 3D story team.” The script is then divided and given to the 3D story team. Laying out the story in 3D is ‘the fun part of the job’. “At the end of four weeks, a team of four 3D story artists should have the 20 minute episode blocked out and in editorial. The final four weeks are about finessing what we have created, and at the end we should have a solid story laid out in 3D and ready for the animator and lighters to work with.”

The number of 3D animated TV series has grown exponentially over the last ten years, but due to budget and schedule limitations the results tend to be, visually, a far cry away from their feature film counterparts. That, however, is not the case with The Clone Wars, and living up to feature standards is one of Mettam’s greatest challenges. “I haven’t seen any other computer generated shows on TV that have been able to reach our level of quality. We are constantly honing the way we work and developing new methodologies, so we can have an effective model that can be replicated for other shows.” Mettam was working at Animal Logic when he left the country in 2001. Over the years he’s worked on Beowulf, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Sin City, and he’s seen his former employers flourish. “Animal Logic are regarded, along with Weta in New Zealand, as among the best in the world. I really haven’t seen many other companies step into the international spotlight like they have,” Mettam says. “Since the release of Happy Feet, people are much more aware of Australia as a viable contender for film and animation production. Overseas artists are also more aware of Australia as a place to go and find work, though I know Australian artists don’t want to hear that.”

It is sometimes expected that big projects might help reverse the ‘brain drain’ and bring Australian talent back into the country, but the attraction of such high profile work is not strong enough to lure everyone, Mettam included. “It wouldn’t be enough for me to leave my current position and go back. The perfect job is one that offers normal working hours, stability, and a cool project.” According to Mettam, previsualisation and motion capture are currently the major trends in animation. “I feel very excited to be doing the previsualisation work I am doing, because we do feel like we are trying something new that will change the way films are made in the future.” Star Wars: The Clone Wars screens every Friday at 5pm on Cartoon Network.


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