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Ellen Poon Ellen Poon
So You Want to Be in Pixels: Ellen Poon

NOVA: What does a visual effects supervisor do?

EP: I'm in charge of the visual effects. That's normally computer animation, computer effects, compositing, blue screen photography and miniatures. So if any films have those effects involved then I'll work with the director and the producer and the designers to bring these to the screen. And within ILM I have technical directors and animators and stage people working for me. I make sure that everything looks great, and the effects are to the client's satisfaction.

NOVA: What inspired you to pursue visual effects?

EP: I really started doing this when I was at the University of London in the early 1980s. My degree was actually more towards the mathematical side of things. And then I saw pictures being drawn on computers, and I thought, you can do that?

NOVA: What films first intrigued you about computer animation?

EP: The ones that impressed me were Pixar's early research. Formed in 1986, Pixar has created numerous CG short films, "Toy Story" and the upcoming "A Bug's Life." "Luxo Junior" and "Red's Dream." They're so alive. You know, these are inanimate objects, two lamps in "Luxo Junior" and a unicycle in "Red's Dream." Normally they're objects that you don't associate emotion with. They're just hardware. But you look at these films and it's, wow. These characters you can almost imagine having as a friend.

In terms of photorealistic animation, I liked the Genesis Effect in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and the dream sequence in "Star Trek IV: The Journey Home." It's been 10, 15 years and they still look great. And more recently, "Terminator 2," "The Abyss" and "Jurassic Park." How could they do that? How could anyone achieve that? You're so wowed by it that you kind of just think these people who have done this work are like gods, you know.

NOVA: What films have you worked on recently at ILM?

EP: The last one was "Small Soldiers". And before that was "Men In Black," "Mars Attacks" and "Jumanji." My forte is creature animation or character animation films. I get a lot of satisfaction out of making something come to life. You can see a character being drawn on a piece of paper. But then it's another thing seeing it in front of you moving and having emotion and being in an environment where it looks like it's completely part of it and the audience can empathize with them. To have characters that can talk and walk, react, it strikes a chord. And I think that's something that you can never get from any other kind of art form.

NOVA: What kind of research do you do to create characters?

EP: I have to study a lot of different things. That's why people in this job are very observant. You have to study animals, watch nature films. I go to zoos. I spend time watching animals and just studying what they do. Strange habits, what they do when they get hungry, what they do when they get angry. How birds flap their wings. And I touch their skin and have a tactile experience of what they're like. Then sometimes for human beings I go to restaurants and just sit and watch people. It's amazing what kind of people you bump into. And if you're animating human beings you study people, real people. You study caricatures that exist in cartoons or on television. You have to draw so much from different disciplines that you're just constantly looking at things.

NOVA: How does your computer science background come into play?

EP: The software and hardware are your tools. So if you're a carpenter you want to make sure that you have the right chisel, you have the right saw, you have the latest innovation. Because it makes your job easier. The same thing with computer animation. I get involved in the R & D, to make sure that the next generation of software tools is right for the job. Only about half of the software we use is from outside companies. The other half is written inside the company, and we have a big say in the direction it takes.

NOVA: Do you use your mathematics background?

EP: Everything has to do with math, I think. The whole universe works in a mathematical way that you don't even notice. The other basic for an animator is physics. When you animate a bouncing ball, for example, you're dealing with acceleration and deceleration of motion, gravity, momentum, friction. That's mathematics. And when you work with lighting, you have to understand the properties of light. The art and science work hand in hand together.

NOVA: How do you create dinosaurs—the ones in "Jurassic Park"—since you can't observe them?

EP: You talk to paleontologists. You extrapolate from living animals. If you study animals long enough you understand that they all move in a similar way, it's just scaled differently. You look at a skeleton of a dinosaur, and then observe something that's similar. You just think, well, it has the mass of an elephant. But it's bipedal. So you look at kangaroos, or an ostrich. Then you experiment, and if it feels right and looks right, you know you've got something.

NOVA: What kind of skills or abilities do you think someone interested in animation should try to cultivate?

EP: If they're interested in computer animation, then they should look into doing biology to help you understand animal anatomy. And also, mathematics, and then maybe drawing and painting, because you have to be able to draw in order to animate, and design, because design ties everything in together. And you want to get into the computer science part, mathematics, and the sciences. So the key subjects would be biology, design, drawing, mathematics and computer science.

NOVA: What do you think films will be like in 20 years with hardware and software capabilities changing so fast?

EP: Films will be more high tech. That's the thing—there's a lot of artistic sides associated with filmmaking but also there's a technical side. And I think a lot of the aspects of a film will be computer-generated. Films will be digital, on disk, not 35mm pieces of film. A lot of characters will be created virtually.

NOVA: What's the hardest thing to do in computer animation right now?

EP: Humans. But I'm not sure I want to do computer humans. It's something a lot of people might want to do, but it's not something that I fancy doing, because we have humans and can film them. I'd like to do entirely computer-generated environments, that look realistic but they're not real. People just keep thinking that a lot of things are impossible. But everything is possible. That's the bottom line. Everything is possible. You can do anything you want.



Photo: (1) ©1998 ILM/David Owen.

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