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A Bug's Life DVD Pixar talks
A Bug's Life

Yesterday, The Digital Bits had an opportunity to speak with Leo Hourvitz and Bill Kinder of Pixar, regarding their work on A Bug's Life (a DVD version of which will be released by Buena Vista later this month). Kinder served as an Editorial Supervisor on the project, having joined Pixar from Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope studios in 1996. Hourvitz was a Technical Director on the film and, prior to Pixar, worked extensively in the computer software industry, and studied at the MIT Media Lab. Both were very gracious with their time and information, and I think you'll enjoy the interview:

Bill Hunt - The Digital Bits: Guys, let's start things off by talking a little bit about Pixar as a whole, then moving on to your work on A Bug's Life. How big is your operation there, and how many different projects are you working at any given time?

Bill Kinder: Sure. Well, I think we're pushing 400 people on staff here now...

Leo Hourvitz: Yeah, and usually we've working on a couple different things at least.

Bill Kinder: Mostly shorts, and a few commercials aside from the feature film projects.

Bill Hunt: How long ago did work on A Bug's Life itself actually begin?

Bill Kinder: Gosh, I think the idea for Bug's Life started germinating even before Toy Story was done...

Leo Hourvitz: Yeah, the original concept had been around way back when, and serious story development, of course, started after everybody got back from Toy Story, and... you know... went home for a little R and R, and then came back, and then the story crew started iterating on what eventually became A Bug's Life.

Bill Hunt: So once work started on the film, how soon did you guys come up with the idea to recompose it for full-frame home video release?

Bill Kinder: Well, I think it was nearly from the very beginning, because the idea actually came out of the director John Lasseter's frustration at doing conventional pan-and-scan for home video versions of Toy Story - how frustrating it was to have to lose so much of the picture, that so many people had worked so hard on. And since he knew that he wanted to compose A Bug's Life in a much wider aspect ratio, that problem would only be worse. So from the outset, he said that we had to come up with a way to solve this problem, that was not panned-and-scanned.

The challenge was thrown down at the beginning, and we spent some time during the course of the production testing, and figuring out how we were going to do this. Then, the actual work of doing it - the creative and technical challenge of reframing the show, and then mastering it all digitally from Pixar's original digital source material - was begun after the production on the theatrical release wrapped.

Bill Hunt: It's interesting that the idea actually came from the director. You say he actually found the transfer work on Toy Story frustrating?

Leo Hourvitz: I think so. It might be - and this is my own theory - it might be even more frustrating for someone working on an animated film, than a live action film, because when you pan-and-scan something that a group of people have worked on for years - when you have to lose a character, say, that someone took weeks to animate, and you're actually cropping that out of the picture - that's painful. But if you're just cropping out a building that was there anyway, when you put the camera on a tripod, it's not as emotionally difficult.

Bill Hunt: It seems like the difference between trying to crop a photograph, as opposed to someone's painting...

Leo Hourvitz: Exactly.

Bill Hunt: So let's talk about the actual process of reframing the film. I've seen some of the before and after comparisons, and it looks like, in many cases, it involved subtle resizings of portions of the image, and moving things together slightly...

Leo Hourvitz: Well, like you said... actually, the painting analogy is a good one. The original frame was carefully composed to the widescreen "camera", and where that composition was just wrong for the full frame, we went in and recomposed the painting, as it were. Craig Good, who was the layout lead on the project, headed much of this - going back in and recomposing the way the characters were grouped around, and the way that they related to the boundaries of the frame, and looking at how they would "read" in the reframed version.

And there's also a lot of other stuff where, because we're in a virtual environment, there IS something out there. So in a lot of those shots, you can actually see more top and bottom than you did before. One of the things we talked a lot about as we produced the reframed version, was that in a lot of cases, you actually see more of the virtual environment than you did in the theater. There's more stuff there to look at.

Bill Hunt: Looking at the images, it almost seems as if some of the background elements were made smaller, to fit them into the new framing. Was there actual rescaling of elements done?

Leo Hourvitz: Not per say, although in a lot of cases, it seems like you're looking through a wider lens, so to speak, so that even if there's just more top and bottom, the subjective feel is very different. That feeling of a wider angle lens is what made the backgrounds seem smaller, or farther away. And it also changed the feeling of a lot of the close-up shots - it made them feel more intimate, in some cases. And it was always a learning process, about changing those kinds of things, and how that affected the impact and feel of the shot.

We usually didn't modify the "set" too much. To keep sane during the production, the actual sets are modeled fairly early on, and stay constant. And I don't think there were too many cases of us actually changing the relative proportions of items on the set. Those are determined by the director and the art director early, and we try to leave them alone.

Original widescreen composition...

...and the same shot reframed for home video.
Recomposition at work - note the way the
foreground characters have been moved to the
left, and more of the virtual world is visible
in the reframed version (below).

Bill Hunt: You're right - the effect seems to be very subtle, but the recomposition does seem to slightly change the feel of each scene. One question that raises, is how - if you're moving characters together, and making other subtle changes - how did that affect the timing of shots, and the film as a whole?

Bill Kinder: Well, we had to work very hard to prevent that from happening. We made sure that the editor of the film, Lee Unkrich, was involved in reviewing all the material for those kind of issues. And, because we had a wider choice of techniques to use other than just opening up the top and bottom - we could actually move characters around as you say - that gave us a few ways to wiggle out of any timing issues that might have come up.

Leo Hourvitz: One of the other things that we would do, and I know that we had a couple of shots with respect to exactly that issue, is we would reposition the characters, but then realize that we also needed to "reoperate the camera". We actually had the virtual camera move somewhere different in the scene, now that a different composition was involved, to still give you the same feel for the pace of a scene, and so that it would cut together with the other scenes around it.

Bill Hunt: So since you had to completely rerender everything, it's basically a second version of the same film...

Bill Kinder: That's correct.

Bill Hunt: How long was the process of recomposing and rerendering? How much time after the theatrical version was done was involved?

Bill Kinder: It took a sizeable crew of people working for many weeks after the film was in theaters.

Leo Hourvitz: Yeah, because we didn't just first reposition everything and then rerender the whole thing. We pretty much followed the production order of the film, doing a piece at a time, a reel at a time. And so we'd go through one small part of the film, and reoperate the camera, do any repositioning of the characters that was necessary, and then the technical crew would take over, start to rerender, and look for problems - look for all the things that you could now see that you weren't supposed to, and fix those. They would kind of follow behind Craig and the layout crew, to find all of the animation bits that needed to be revised accordingly.

Bill Hunt: How involved was the director through all of this? Was he constantly monitoring the process, and comparing the two versions?

Leo Hourvitz: Definitely. He and, as Bill said, the editor were viewing every reel - we would do a pass on the reel, and they would take a look at it, have a bunch of changes, and then they would review the changes as well. So we were getting very direct feedback from them on what they wanted, and on what things were working or not working.

Bill Hunt: In terms of the DVD, how did the idea actually come about to take your original animation files, and move them directly into a home video master, without doing a standard telecine transfer?

Bill Kinder: Well, I think we figured that since we had the files readily available, why not repurpose the pixels, so to speak? One of the issues that anyone who has been through a film-to-tape transfer will tell you, is that there are so many compromises required by that process, in terms of the color rendition, and the clarity you can get in resolution, from film-to-tape, in even the best situation. That has a lot to do with all of the variables that arise from going to an analog format like film - the photo-chemical process in film, and so forth. What's the best looking thing in a theater, is not always the easiest thing to transfer in a telecine suite. So you wind up with a difficult project at best.

Leo Hourvitz: You know, we always called A Bug's Life, an epic of miniature proportions. And very early on in the film, this idea of using epic widescreen, and lush coloration and lighting was a big part of what we wanted in the movie. And we really wanted to be sure that that wasn't getting lost when we went through the post process to home video. We wanted to make sure that somebody was going to get, especially on the DVD - the highest quality home video release - all of the quality that we put in. We tried to make sure that all of the potential sources of loss of image quality were being addressed and minimized.

Bill Hunt: And certainly, you don't have to worry about things like print damage, or dust, which can appear on even the very best film transfers.

Leo Hourvitz: Yes, exactly.

Bill Hunt: Now in terms of the original rendered animation files - are you able to output to a variety of different resolutions for, say DVD or HDTV?

Bill Kinder: Well, originally of course, the animation was rendered at a film resolution, which is higher. And the master for the DVD was D1, which is fully digital, and sort of the top end of quality as far as NTSC. Interestingly, though, at the time we did all this, there weren't any great options to get our digital files to videotape other than D1, which is still standard resolution. There was no good way to go to HDTV, in terms of equipment. D5, which is the popular production tape format for HDTV right now, uses a lossy compression, which you can actually see. So even if we had figured out a way to get there, who knows what artifacts would be introduced in that step.

Leo Hourvitz: But you're right, when we render our animation, we can pick out target resolution. So we picked a film resolution for all the original work. And we did, since we knew we were delivering on D1 for DVD, we did render to D1 resolution for home video, because we knew that was all of the resolution we were going to use. And other than some equipment issues, mathematical calculations and rendering time, there's nothing stopping us from rendering specifically to HDTV either.

Bill Hunt: How are all the animation data files actually stored? Do you have the data sitting just on multiple hard drives at Pixar?

Leo Hourvitz: As it happens, right now we do. But that's so much data, that generally we have to stage it on and off. We'll have large portions of the movie in our online storage at a given time, in final film resolution, but not all of it. Because, as you're actually doing the work, you often have two or three different versions of a shot done that you want to compare, and you've got to keep all of that available. As you wrap that, you can work it all down to maybe just one copy of the final work. But we actually had the bulk of the film, as well as the reframed stuff, online at the same time. It was incredibly handy for us, producing the new version, to be able to compare both.

Bill Hunt: So how much storage space do you have available at Pixar?

Bill Kinder: Terabytes (laughs)...

Leo Hourvitz: We're definitely into terabytes. We actually have hierarchical levels of storage, where the data goes from online discs, to our semi-offline suite, to eventual storage in our offsite archives, and backup archives, on digital tape.

Bill Hunt: Getting back to the actual transfer process, going from the data to a D1 master, how did that actually work?

Leo Hourvitz: Well, we have a video preview system in-house, that we use during the film production to look at what we've done, made by Sierra Design Labs - they have various pieces of equipment that we use. And that equipment has actual direct-digital D1 outputs built in. So we download the rendered data to the hard discs in our digital disc recorders, and then we can preview the animation in real time. We watch that on calibrated monitors, and that's what we actually look at around the studio as we work. And then when we're ready, we can dub that data directly onto D1 tape, via the outputs.

Bill Kinder: To underscore that, one way to describe the final DVD version, is that it looks just like the picture as we saw it here in the studio, while we were working on the project. This is exactly what the director looked, here at Pixar, before it even went to film. This is the highest quality we have available in-house. And many people comment that it looks better than what they experienced in the theaters.

Leo Hourvitz: Yeah, when you look at the DVD, the playback is luscious - all of the color and scope, and the talent of the crew, comes right out to your screen, and that's really what we were hoping for.

Bill Kinder: And one thing too - I don't know a lot about MPEG-2 compression for DVD, which was all handled by Buena Vista, but I have to believe that it's easier to compress something like this, than live action stuff, just because there's no analog noise flying around that can make compression difficult. This DVD really looks different than most - no jitter caused by the projector mechanism, no dust, no print damage. It's just really tremendous.

Bill Hunt: So I take it you guys are big DVD fans as well?

Bill Kinder: Love DVD!

Leo Hourvitz: Oh, yeah...

Bill Hunt: Is there one particular moment or experience, that each of you had working on this project, that just really stands out as special or memorable?

Leo Hourvitz: One of the moments that really hit me, in terms of just realizing how much we were going to be able to do, was when we would sit in what we call our layout lounge, and watch these reels with the director. And the preview monitor there is a good 27" - just looking at Hopper, for example, filling the reframed version top to bottom, really in-your-face, was very motivating. Every character that was in the - what I usually prefer - the widescreen, letterboxed version, is in the reframed version - you lose nothing. And that we could deliver both, and have both versions look beautiful for once, was really satisfying.

Bill Kinder: I agree. I can recall the director, in those same sessions, saying, "Oh - this shot actually works better in the new format, than it did in widescreen." That feeling that this was not a compromise, that it was just a separate project in a way, with its own merit, was exciting and unique. And the DVD will feature both versions, on a dual-layer thing, so you can compare them without having to flip the disc over. It's very cool.

Bill Hunt: So is this recomposing process something that you're going to do again, with future films?

Bill Kinder: I hope so. We haven't planned out the next one, but once this one is out there, and selling well, we'll start thinking about doing it again, I'm sure.

Bill Hunt: So what's coming up next from Pixar? I understand there's Toy Story 2, which is straight to video, is that right?

Bill Kinder: No, actually that will be a theatrical release due out for the holiday season. It originally was just going to be straight to video, but when they saw how awesome it was starting to look, they changed their minds, and decided that it was worthy of theatrical release. It's just gonna be great.

Leo Hourvitz: There are some other things that we're working on, but it's too early to talk about them. Toy Story 2 is definitely the main focus now. It'll be pretty special.

Bill Hunt: Well guys, it's really been great talking with you. I know you've been making the interview rounds today, so thanks for taking the time to speak with the Bits - I'm sure our readers will appreciate it.

Bill Kinder: It's our pleasure.

Leo Hourvitz: Yeah. You guys really have a great web site, so thanks a lot.

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