by Peter Rasmussen

Interview – Killer Robot – Filmink

1. First off, tell me a bit about yourself. Eg. Your career highlights, any formal animation training (or any other kind), past films you’ve made etc.
Back in the days when I still thought having a digital watch was pretty cool I did an apprenticeship to become a Scientific Instrument Maker. My technical background is a boundless resource for writing science fiction and leaping the technical hurdles associated with animation. Pressure gauges and power plants weren’t that much fun so I ran away to join the theatre.

I’ve had no formal animation training. The only animation I had done before Killer Robot was a five-minute film “Rendezvous”. I did study cinematography at The Australian Film and Television School.

I was one of the writers on the no budget movie “Mad Bomber In Love” and technical consultant on the shoot. I co-wrote the screen adaptation of the Tim Winton Novel “In the Winter Dark”. The film opened the 1998 Sydney Film Festival. I made a ten-minute film “The Picture Woman” a life in 180 images. It was awarded Best Australian Short Film by the Film Critic’s Circle of Australia. Now I’m pursuing a full time career in cafe loitering.

2. In your own words, what’s “Killer Robot” about?
Killer Robot runs for 70min.
Sam’s an AI robot tootling around on Mars. He loves his work. Mira, another robot, doesn’t. She want’s him to come adventuring with her. Mira is a wise-ass, a binary Bill Murray. She’s mad bad and carry’s a hammer. Mira’s mania drags Sam further and further into the Martian desert wilderness. The Desert isn’t just rocks and dust. It’s where Sam discovers the truth about his all time hero and master unit and has to take his life into his own hands for the first time. Well not hands, he doesn’t have any, but you know what I mean.

3. Tell us a bit about the process involved in making the film.
Machinima is animation in a game engine. More than half of the production is taken up with constructing the locations and characters. I do the “shoot” in conventional animation software witch spits out a “piano roll” of xyz co-ordinates. This is read by the game engine, which plays it back instantly in it’s finished form.

Because the results are immediate the shoot is like video editing in 3D. The action is usually blocked first and followed by the camera coverage. But it can be practical with a complex camera move to fit the action last.

And in the afternoon when I’ve pounded my brain empty like a sauce bottle I go on line and blast the snot out of some other gamers avitar. All part of the process.

4. How long did it take you to make?
From blank page to wrap party it took 2 years and 4 months to complete Killer Robot. Ten months of that was the shoot. I moved house three times trying to find a conducive environment. As the Japanese say, it takes great peace of mind to do good work.

5. What possessed you to make this all by yourself-
the animation, the script, the voices etc? Do you have some sort of egomaniacal tendencies you want to share?
It was very liberating.
So much energy in the film biz goes into convincing people to give you their money or to give you their time. Or to just waiting. It’s a dog doesn’t phone other dog back world out there. I thought I’d try taking people and dogs out of the equation for once. I also wanted to be where the buck stops. It’s very empowering and gives you much more confidence to make hard choices. Strangely it’s made me feel better equipped to leading a cast and crew, which I’m looking forward to on the next one.

I also wanted to see if a character could be constructed completely artificially. I was surprised to discover how much of the character and performance comes directly from the shape of the dialogue. It helps me understand better why great actors say they learn to do less.

6. What freedoms did the animation process, using
Machinima, allow you?
Instant results. Ten seconds of conventional 3D animation can easily take 10 hours to render. By that time you forget what you changed and why you changed it and where the hell you put your keys. With Machinima it’s more like working on a live action set. You can walk the camera around until you find the best shot knowing you’re looking at the scene as it’s going to be. It closes the gap between Eureka! And “Print it!” It allows you to make the movie in the moment.

7. Why do you prefer animation over live-action?
I wouldn’t say I prefer it. Animation should only be used where it’s appropriate.
But I do love animation.
Particularly with stylised animation an audience can indulge more abstract creatures and concepts in stranger situations. It rises to the challenge of science fiction.

8. What challenges did you face making the film?
They were mostly technical. About one a day. Being freeware the Festival speech synthesis system was impossible to get working on my machine. Don’t get me wrong. Festival’s programing is very sophisticated, mine isn’t. Their web site has a page where you can type in a line of text to hear how it sounds. Wanting to get the show on the road I recorded the entire dialogue track for Killer Robot in this way. It took me a couple of weeks.

Truespace, the conventional animation software I use and GameStudio the game authoring software I play back in have a completely different way of handling the directional xyz coordinates and the pan tilt roll. It was a real mind F**k.

I upgraded GameStudio half way through the production and some of the wheels on the characters started going the wrong way some of the time.

The reason game engines are instant is they render everything up front. On a large complicated scene this can take many hours, even days. The software doesn’t like organic shapes like landscapes. I was on a steep learning curve getting some of the locations to look half-reasonable.

The game engine is designed to keep everything in it going all the time when it came to stopping each frame to capture for video the particle effects just kept going. It’s like trying to build the Eiffel Tower out of confetti in a wind tunnel. I had to resort to taking a wild stab at how much to slow the particles down by for each pass.

9. Was there a message to your film or is it just a
chance to give the viewer a good belly-chuckle?
I try to make a film open enough that an audience can enjoy it in the way that takes their fancy. Sam does go on a right of passage journey. For even a light comedy to be good it has to be based in things that matter to us. That stuff is there for people who enjoy it. But if you just want a romp I believe it’s there.

10. What do you think about the way computer-animation is growing and consequently the way traditional hand-drawn animation is taking a back seat?
Like any new medium it allows the preceding one to go to it’s strength. Film takes the burden of presenting photographic reality away from theatre. I suspect as time passes hand drawn animation will be reserved for particular subjects where it taps the imagination in ways other forms can’t.

11. What do you think of the animation culture in
Mostly harmless. Mostly. Not big enough, yet.

12. Where do you hope making this film will lead you?
To Mars. Or at least to more animated films. I’d like to cultivate a situation were I can generate projects with low production costs and high production values. Keeping the cost down means that you aren’t forced to kowtow to the lowest common denominator. Potentially you can make films for a niche audience and still make them financially viable.

Software called ‘Antics’ has recently been released that allows you to do command driven animation. You tell a character to pick up the scotch bottle and if the bottle is in the next room it uses AI to navigate the room open the door, find the bottle and pick it up. It puts more immediate control into the hands of the artist. It’s an indicator that in the near future more ambitious projects will be accomplished by smaller teams and that the more unusual ideas will see the light of day and maybe even a bit of money left over for more scotch.

13. So what’s next for you? Working on anything right now?
I’m up to my elbows in the next feature length Machinima movie. It’s a robot detective story. I’m using all the things I learned on Killer Robot to get the best out of the medium and to make it bigger bolder and more compelling.


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