Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Erik Schmidt introduces the Danish independent film Otto is a Rhino

Otto the Rhino breaks into the animated film market
Erik Schmidt is an animator with a vast experience of working in Los Angeles for studios such as Disney, DreamWorks and ILM. Recently he traded Hollywood for Copenhagen, working as animation director on the upcoming independent film Otto is a Rhino.

FLIP: You recently completed work as animation director on the independent Danish animated film Otto is a Rhino - how was that experience?

Erik: This was my entrance into the world of directing and it naturally felt like being thrown into the deep end head first; scary but you learn to swim remarkably fast. The production was the third of three films made from novels of Ole Lund Kirkegaard. This one is titled: Otto is a Rhino and is about a boy that draws a rhino on the wall of his living room that comes to life (It is the rhino that comes to life, not the living room).
No translation needed
Ole Lund Kirkegaard is a very beloved Danish author of children's literature. He was very prolific during his rather short life. He died in 1979, just 39 years old, but his books are still very popular to this day. A common thread in his stories is the divide between the child's world and that of grown-ups.

He was very fond of the child's way of approaching his or her surroundings, unspoiled and without pre-judging the world. The title of his last novel, published posthumously, had the tag line: "A barking mad crime novel for children and other sensible people".

Kirkegaard illustrated all his books himself. He had a rather crude but highly personal and charming style. Since all the books were illustrated in a similar style, it was a natural decision for the producers to re-use as much as possible from one production to the next in order to maximise the limited budgets for the three films. Thus, on the first production, all the assets had to be generated from scratch, while the second film was produced with 50% re-use. The third film was able to re-use 80% of the assets from the previous two movies.

FLIP: You worked a great deal with a studio in China - how did that work out?

Erik: The first one movie was done in collaboration with Xing Xing in Beijing. Whereas the second of ours, the last one, was done with GDC in Shenzhen. Working with GDC was a real pleasure. They were extremely accomodating and engaged in the process from start to finish.

The pre-production - set and character design, as well as a 3d animation layout, with a corresponding soundtrack, mostly final voice work and the temp score and foley - was all done here in Denmark. GDC then handled the production itself - modelling, rigging, animation, lighting, rendering and compositing. It was then sent back to Denmark again for post production - final sound, editing, grading etc.

For modelling, most of the designs were re-used from the previous production, though a few of the main characters and sets had to be designed from scratch. The rest was done with minor alterations of previously generated assets. In regards to animation, each sequence was kicked off by a video handout explaning what was going on in that particular sequence and why. For lighting, rendering and compositing, we provided color sketches, photo references and lighting diagrams.

The direction itself was done mostly by writing notes in a spreadsheet for each sequence, as well as generating Photoshop files for visual reference. In the beginning I found the process rather daunting, but I soon learned to appreciate the advantage of this system. It was a great way to keep track of all the correspondence, notes and images. Once the production was up to full speed I had to give notes and provide reference for about 60-80 shots a day. That may not sound like a lot, but when you operate as a one man band, that kind of workload is immense.

FLIP: You worked alongside a live action director - how did you divide up the duties and responsibilities?

Erik: That's right. Kenneth Kainz was the overall director of the movie. Officially the work was divided up between us, so that Kenneth was responsible for the pre and post production, whereas I was to oversee the actual production. Though, once we got going, the process became much more collaborative between us. We typically met once or twice a week to discuss what had been to done and how to move forward.

I've always enjoyed working with people from a non-animation background. It is very easy to slip into a state where you do things this way or that way just because "that is how it has always been done in animation". Working with people from outside animation industry, you are constantly challenged with questions and suggestions of how to approach things differently. It is very healthy.

FLIP: You have worked for top animation studios in LA such as DreamWorks and Disney - what made you want to return to Denmark?

 I never really had a strong desire to move to LA. It was more because of a random chain of events that I ended up there. I very much enjoyed the fifteen years I was there, and I wouldn't have swapped it for anything, but I never saw myself growing old and retiring there. The desire to return to Europe at some point was always there. It was more a matter of "when" rather than "if".

Though there are many things that I miss, I really enjoy being home again. I have more or less stopped driving and do most of my commutes by bike. I live about 15 miles North of Copenhagen. It's about an hour ride back and forth every day, cycling through forests and fields for about half of it. I love the independence of not having to worry about rush hour traffic, train times, etc. plus I get two hours of exercise every day. On top of that, you don't have to worry about schools and healthcare, though you do pay higher taxes.

FLIP: Working on an independent production must be very different from a Hollywood Studio - was it hard to adjust?

The only difference, really, is the budget. However, that does of course dictate everything else. Our budget was about $2.3m, or €2m, which is extremely small. I used to joke that, what we had a year to do on a big Hollywood production, we roughly had a week to accomplish on this production. That sort of put things into perspective. Thus, the key is to be as efficient as possible; to make choices that gives you most bang for your bucks.

Another thing that the low budget has an impact on, is the training that normally goes prior to a big Hollywood production. Because of the low budget there is no ramp-up time. Instead, you are expected to hit the ground running. Therefore, if you want it or think it is needed, you have to provide your own R&D. I have started to do half an hour to an hour of reading every morning before everybody else gets up. I've been doing it for nearly 2 years now. It is really invigorating.
FLIP: What other projects are you working on?

Erik: Right now I'm working in commercials. It is a nice change from the long schedule of a feature production. It allows you to explore and wide variety of styles and concept in a very short space of time. It is also a good way to meet new people and create a network. I do have a few ideas for features that I'm developing parallel to this. Only time will tell which direction things will go.

Editor's Note: Otto is a Rhino will be released on 7th February 2013, in Denmark.

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