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Mon, Oct 22 2012 22:59:38 UTC

Interview with The Looking Planet

Today we have an interview with Eric Law Anderson, a veteran of short film productions, creator of Horses On Mars which played at the Sundance Film Festival, and more recently working on the animated short The Looking Planet, due out next year and currently the object of a Kickstarter campaign.

Could you tell us who you are and what your background is?

I'm originally from Louisville, KY. I grew up in love with movies, especially Star Wars, and started making short films when I was 14. I got my first film job as a PA on a feature film shooting in Danville, KY where I met a bunch of like-minded people who liked making short films, too. We started making films together under the name Giant Dolphin Pictures. Eventually, our core group ended up at film school. I went to USC where I got an MFA in animation. My student film HORSES ON MARS played at festivals all over the world, including the Sundance Film Festival, and won several awards, including a College Emmy and an Audience Award for best short film at the Los Angeles Film Festival, as well as qualification for Academy Award consideration. From the success of that film, I started my professional career at Columbia Pictures writing a sci-fi feature film titled GIANTS (unproduced) based on my original story with co-writer J.C. Baldwin. I've worked as a visual effects artist for a number of TV shows, and I currently produce animation for an aerospace company working on NASA and JPL space exploration missions. I also continue to write screenplays and develop my own material, including continuing to produce small budget films with my friends under the Giant Dolphin Pictures banner.

How did you get the idea to make The Looking Planet?

The original idea for this film goes back to a short story I wrote before film school that was inspired both by a book I was reading at the time and from watching the movie APOLLO 13. The book, PARADIGMS LOST by physicist John L. Casti, is about several mysteries in science still to be answered. There is a chapter in the book about the search for ET and the various computations for the Drake Equation, and some specific ideas about the odds of certain aspects of the equation got me thinking in a certain direction. Then I saw APOLLO 13 and had an epiphany during a scene near the climax of the film. An idea about hyper-dimensional beings building the universe suddenly took hold in my mind. So the original ideas behind my story go back a ways, but I believe the premise to be more timely than ever considering the current state of the human exploration of space.

Who is involved in the project?

This has always been a very small production. Besides myself, my good friend Tim Cleary was the first to get involved by doing a lot of the early CG models. Jason Hayes also was involved pretty much from the beginning as the composer. Jason is best known for his scores on World of Warcraft and other Blizzard titles like Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo. We have been good friends ever since meeting on the festival circuit back when I was traveling around with Horses on Mars. A small group of character animators came on to help with a lot of the facial animation performances. Many were animation students from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and others are working professionals, classmates and good friends of mine from USC.

How long have you been working on it, and what kind of budget did you spend?

The project has something of long history. It really began as my thesis film at film school, but just as I had completed the motion capture shoot for it and put together the first rough cut, I sold my pitch to Columbia Pictures for GIANTS. I put the project on the shelf at that point. I thought I was done making shorts. Well, it didn't quite work out that way. After two years of development, Sony shelved the feature and I came back to the short wanting to find a way to make it work. There were a large number of technical problems to solve related to the original motion capture shoot. At the time, there wasn't a lot of software support for motion capture. It was a bit of a nightmare. So it kept getting put on the shelf as a series of other things came along and the realities of trying to pay the rent got in the way. Finally, after reshooting the motion capture, and solving the main technical issues thanks to the tremendous progress in mocap technology, I made the commitment to get it finished. I had to start over in a lot of ways. But there was something about this project -- I just couldn't give up on it. I might be crazy for sticking it out this long, but it's been over 2 years now just since starting all over, and I have spent about $15,000 from my own savings to get it to this point. A lot of that was for the character animators, models, some rigging and software costs.

Can you talk a bit about the software programs and other tools you used to make it?

First, I shot the motion capture at USC. I used MotionBuilder to handle the motion capture data and brought that into Maya. Originally, I started with the render engine Arnold for rendering everything. I was an early Arnold user, and if I had my choice, I'd use it for the whole film. I really love it. But for practical reasons, I am now in the process of converting everything over to Mentalray so I can get this on renderfarms and get freelance help to get through all the remaining shots. (Update: Solid Angle, the makers of the Arnold Software, have given the film their full support and they now have everything they need to finish rendering the film in Arnold, not Mentalray) I've also been using the plugin Vue 9 xStream for Maya. We're using Adobe After Effects for compositing and Premiere for editing.

You recently started a Kickstarter project to fund the rest, can you explain how that came about?

I had been doing a lot of the film on my own, and it was taking a long time. Too long. And then I learned I was going to be the father of twins. As soon as that dawned on me what that meant, I knew my time to finish the film was suddenly even more limited. I realized if I do not finish the film before their due date, I will have to abandon it. I was faced with a choice: just give up now -- or fight to make it happen by finding the the funds I would need to ramp up the scale of the production and finish in the time I have left. So I turned to kickstarter to save the film. Without the funds the film will simply not get completed. It's now or never to finish this long journey.

What made you decide to use Kickstarter instead of another mode of financing?

I have other filmmaker friends who have had success with it, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I did do some fund raising through private channels, but that wasn't going to be enough. Kickstarter seemed to be more oriented towards film and creative projects than other places, and in the end, that seemed more important than what percentage they take off the top.

From what you've seen in the industry, how are short animation films doing, is it easier to make them than before?

I think with the way the tools have progressed, its now easier than ever to make polished, professional quality work on much smaller budgets. Especially with animation. When I started there were no websites where you could download high quality affordable models. Just that alone is huge. There really are no more excuses anymore for not making a short that looks good. The flip side is, there is now so much sophisticated media coming at us from so many directions, and so many people producing things, it sometimes seems more daunting than ever to get your work noticed. And I still see a divide between what works well on the internet as viral videos and what works in the cinematic setting of a dark theater with an audience. I don't know if you are good at one, you are necessarily good at both. I say that because I feel my own work does not translate well to small screens and internet attention spans. I hope in the coming years of the wild west of the internet, festivals with theatrical screenings don't go away, because that is where the heart of short cinema will always be. Technology will change, and maybe people's attention spans will continue to shorten, but one thing that certainly will never change, people always want to be told a good story. And that's where you should always start -- you have to tell a good story.

How has feedback been so far, both towards the project and the financing campaign?

The feedback and support so far have been great. I had a kickstarter veteran write me within hours of launching, offering advice on some goofs I'd made. Extremely nice and helpful. There seems to be a community of support at kickstarter which I didn't really expect. And overall, people have have responded very positively to the project. More then ever, I feel like there could be an audience for this film when its done. And in the end, that is what we are really after. Finding that audience. Kickstarter seems to be a way to let that audience get involved and invested in the work early on rather than just being the passive recipients of it, which is a really interesting paradigm shift.

Should you get the funds, when will the project be completed?

March 2013. Absolutely. No later. Definitely no later.

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