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Q&A with Visual Effects Supervisor Brian Van't Hul

Part 2 of a four part interview series with ParaNorman's creators

Visual Effects Supervisor Brian Van't Hul

Brian Van't Hul works at animation studio LAIKA, and was also the visual effects supervisor on the company's Oscar-nominated 2009 feature "Coraline."  His previous stop-motion credits include Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James & the Giant Peach."

Q: What was your initial approach to the visual effects work in PARANORMAN?

A. At the beginning of the show, the main marching orders that we had for visual effects, the one thing that Travis [Knight] really wanted to have us focus on was to open up the scope of the stop-motion world. And what that usually comes down to is set extensions, making the sets bigger.  It was our job in many cases to extend the sets with digital buildings and create a much larger environment.  Then once we created this larger environment, we had to make it feel alive with digital people.  So since it takes such a long time create a great performance with a stop motion puppet, it helps to have alternative ways to create a crowd of 20 characters standing around that main character. 

For this film, we worked very closely with the art and puppet departments in order to lock down the designs and create additional background characters for the film.  So when you see the mob storming the courthouse and standing around the parents as they're all looking up at Norman on the tower, a lot of those characters in the shot are ours.  At first we tried to bury them behind the puppet characters, so our puppet department created a large cast of their background characters.  But through scheduling, mixing and matching and trying to get puppets from stage to stage and what not, it ended up many times that there were bigger pockets than we first imagined.


Q: Is your work primarily done in post-production?

A:  We work side-by-side and day-to-day with the rest of production.  Being part of the
studio instead of an outside vendor makes it possible for me and the rest of the VFX team to review and comment on shots as they're being setup, tested and shot.  It's our job during pre-production and shooting to collaborate with the other departments to find solutions to problems and challenges that work for everyone. Good post-production relies on good pre-production.

Q: Can you give us specific instances of how your department supports the animators' work?

A:  Easy, rig removal. Digital shooting and post digital paint and rig removal has helped create the opportunity for an animator to focus on acting. Traditionally in stop-motion it's been up to the animator to hide any rigs, wires or other supports used to hold puppets up during a walk or a jump through the air.  It usually takes a lot of technical time to keep on top of this during shooting.  If an animator can stay in a creative acting zone in as long and as uninterrupted a block of time as possible then their performance will be stronger.  Allowing animators to use rigs and not having them worry about them, frees them up to concentrate on acting.  As a side benefit, this usually helps speed up their shooting time and, in some cases, provides a means to create finer, smoother motion.

Q: Where on ParaNorman were you most impressed with your LAIKA colleagues in the Rapid Prototyping department's work?

A:  The incredible number of faces needed for the show and the level of creative and technical detail that goes into the engineering of all the different characters.

Q: What's unique about the movies you work on at LAIKA?

A:  We're using the most advanced techniques to support one of the oldest forms of animation.  Stopmotion is an art form and many other studios have abandoned it as being outdated or complicated.  I'm often asked, "Why stop motion and not CG?" and my usual response is to ask them back, "Why paint a portrait when it would be easier to take a photograph?".  Laika is dedicated to preserving a way of artistically telling a story visually that we all feel the audience appreciates.  There's a lot of amazing CG animation out there but I think our films will always stand out as being special due to the tactile quality of using miniatures and puppets.

Q: What tools of the trade do you swear by?
A: Nuke, Maya, Renderman, Houdini, Shotgun

Q: Which animation system are you most comfortable with?
A:  Anyone hired to shoot out on the stages.

Q: What facilities have you been impressed with in recent years?
A:  The state of the art is such that everyone is doing amazing work.  It's often less the VFX and more the quality of the story, directing and acting that gets your work recognized and appreciated as being good or bad.  There's been some really great work in really average or bad films and some really average work being done in really great films.  Overall, we should all be very proud of how much progress has been made in the past couple decades and be excited about what potentially is yet to come.

To read Part 1 (Q&A with Director of Photography Tristan Oliver) click here.

To read Part 3 (Q&A with Animation Supervisor Brad Schiff) click here.

To read Part 4 (Q&A with Creative Supervisor of Replacement Animation & Engineering Brian McLean) click here.

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Related Keywords:PARANORMAN, LAIKA, Nuke, Maya, Renderman, Houdini, Shotgun, animation, post production, visual effects

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  • Q&A with Visual Effects Supervisor Brian Van't Hul by DMN Editorial at Aug. 13, 2012 4:16 pm gmt

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