The Adventures of Kentucky JacksonFrom Legos to CGI: An Interview with Kris Theorin Andrea Comiskey January 2023 The Geometry of Movement: Computer-Generated Imagery in Film Issue 104 Kris Theorin is lead Animation Director at Something’s Awry, a Philadelphia animation studio that specializes in short CG works for brands and other clients. Theorin, self-taught, began animating as a child in the late 2000s, making brickfilms—that is, stop-motion shorts using LEGOs. The brickfilm tradition has a long history within amateur filmmaking, with shorts such as The Magic Portal (Lindsay Fleay, 1989) gaining particular renown. Theorin’s animations, such as The Adventures of Kentucky Jackson (2016), emerged amidst an increased cultural salience of all things LEGO following the release of The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014), which spawned numerous theatrical and TV sequels and spinoffs. Though it is a CGI feature, The LEGO Movie strove to mimic the look of the amateur stop-motion brickfilm tradition by limiting its virtual mise-en-scene to bricks, minifigs, and other LEGO elements, and by constraining the ways that these virtual objects could move. (With this approach, it departed from the more conventional visual style of earlier official LEGO animated productions like the Bionicle series and The Legend of Clutch Powers; recent works like LEGO DC: Shazam! Magic and Monsters have abandoned the brickfilm aesthetic and returned to a more fluid, ‘bendy’ animation style.) Due to, among other things, the number of virtual bricks involved, and the sheer visual scale and polish of the production, the imagery of The LEGO Movie could never have been created via stop motion. Regardless, there was some genuine confusion among viewers regarding the film’s production processes, and at least one library-catalog index tags the film as a work of stop motion. The LEGO Movie thus heralded the ability of CGI to convincingly replicate the fundamental visual affordances of stop-motion animation: its textural and volumetric qualities as well as its motion cadences. (In taking on shiny, plastic, rigid LEGO bricks, the effort is not unlike Pixar using toys as subject matter for its first CGI feature.) Ever since, CGI replications—re-mediations?—of various forms of stop motion (not just brickfilms, but also cutout and puppet film) have constituted a growing niche in the animation market. And this is where Theorin comes in. With the exposure he gained online with his stop-motion shorts, Theorin was soon able to turn his hobby into a profession. He created brickfilms for LEGO, including a short promoting a new Beatles-themed set, and similar toy-based animations for companies like Stikbot. However, as his career—and the family-run Something’s Awry—took off, Theorin shifted from animating with stop-motion and profilmic materials to working entirely in CGI (again, self-taught). Though he animates in a variety of styles, a significant portion of his commissioned work cites and replicates stop-motion aesthetics—especially 3D papercraft. (This form of paper animation, which involves puppets and other dimensional objects made of paper, can be distinguished from ‘flatter’ types of paper cutout animation.) Examples include spots for QuickSlice Pizza, Eli Lilly, and the three major global airline alliances. He’s also done clay-style shorts for the Paper & Packaging Board. Something’s Awry maintains an affiliation with NYC animation studio Nathan Love, which often connects the Theorins with commissioned projects. With experience in CGI as well as animation using profilmic materials, Theorin, 25, is well poised to help explore the work and the visual rhetoric of different types of image creation. These issues subtend popular (as well as scholarly) discourses on craft, labor, aesthetics, and value in our purportedly dematerializing mediascape—for instance, debates over the use of ‘practical’ versus virtual effects in film and TV. He can also offer a glimpse into the realities of navigating a career in CGI, much of which we encounter via pervasive but relatively ephemeral animation in online and broadcast advertising. Theorin and I spoke via Zoom in December 2022. Something’s Awry Producer Amy Theorin (AT) joined the conversation at several points to share her expertise on business matters and other logistics. How did you arrive at your current job as a CGI animator? Around 2012, we found Tongal, a crowdsourcing commercial website where a company like LEGO says, “Hey, we got this project, here’s the money,” and creators can apply and do pitches. So, we got our start doing LEGO projects. Around 2018, that was sort of fizzling out. Stop-motion work is always harder to come by, especially LEGO animation. Luckily, once the stop-motion work phased out, I was starting to ramp up learning 3D. I made a bunch of really small shorts early in that learning process, which then got more complex and eventually culminated in things like Grump in the Night and Unlucky Charms, which are four-minute shorts with all sorts of facial animation, character animation, lots of shots. Was your shift to CGI mainly due to it being where the work was? Or was it what you were becoming more interested in as an animator? The latter, for sure. Doing stop motion is a very exhausting job. You’re standing up for 12 hours in a dark room animating all day. And so it was my fantasy to be, instead of standing up in the basement, upstairs in the light by a window on my computer. Doing 3D is just more freeing. You’re able to do bigger worlds, more detailed characters. Stop motion was a great way to get started—learning characters, how to animate, and establishing my style. But 3D was the natural extension beyond that. It gave me more freedom, allowing me to do more with less work. In stop motion, we had to hire other people to create all these detailed sets. We bought a bunch of doll furniture and things like that. And you really are just limited by the amount of space you have or the other hardships that come with stop-motion animation. Visual effects and CGI workers work under some of the most difficult conditions in the media industries—it’s often very precarious labor. Do you feel that crunch? We’re separated from the harsher crunch that can happen with, especially, visual effects places that work on bigger movies like Marvel and Star Wars. That can come about because of the power that a company like Disney has to make people work much, much harder than they reasonably should. For the type of projects we work on, it’s nowhere near as bad. Doing a lottery ad or something, it’s much lower stakes, much less animation you have to produce. We never have to face the intense crunch that might come from the exorbitant amounts of content that, say, a Marvel show has to do. How do you think you’ve managed to land in this somewhat more comfortable position? (AT) From a business perspective, the fact that we are very small core team and we don’t have a lot of overhead. We have an office, but we don’t have a lot of people on salary. We do have to make a certain amount of money, but we’re not covering hundreds of people’s payrolls. So as a small studio owner, the pressure isn’t there to get people to work as much as they can for as cheap as they can. On a typical project, what are you doing and how are you collaborating with other workers? Could we use the Paper & Packaging campaign as an example? That’s pretty close to the typical project we get. We did a few of those. We were able to outsource the modeling of various characters—all the birds, salamanders, and deer. (AT) We also worked with other artists on visual development. I handled all the environment work—modeling trees, kitchen environments. But we were able to get a 2D designer to create a kitchen that looked appealing and a stylized forest. And then we were able to get animators to go in and animate lizards, birds, things like that. It’s awesome when I can just work on making it all look good and not have to mess around with animating creatures for days on end. And I’m always the animation supervisor, where I give my notes on what they give me. (AT) If the budget’s there, we’ll hire animators. All along this process, Kris will be overseeing everything. And then once we get it to the point where we have animation and all the environments built, he’ll take over everything and put it all together—do all the texturing and lighting, all the VFX, the sound design. So for bigger projects, he oversees teams of people. What’s a typical timeline—or maybe, what’s a fairly generous timeline versus more of a crunch—for, say, a 30-second spot? (AT): For 30–60 seconds, we’ve done it as quickly as four weeks, but we’d rather have three months. The funny thing about most of the animation projects we’ve gotten to pitch on, and some that we’ve won, is that they’ve done preproduction on them for months. But then when they come to us, the pitch and the actual timeline is often around four to five weeks. Some have been even less. We’ve gotten or applied for a handful of jobs that say, “We need this 30-second spot in three weeks. Can you do this and make a pitch in four days?” And that’s really not a lot of time at all. So those would be a real crunch. I think our shortest project was the Maine Lottery job a few years ago. That one was very last minute and, I think, done in about three, three-and-a-half weeks. And that was, luckily, a more simple job, and we had a team that we could connect to around the world. (AT) For some faster projects, if it’s something Kris can do with motion capture, that cuts down a ton of time. If it has to be animated, we probably need at least four weeks. Let’s turn to visual style. How do you approach the challenge of replicating a physical, material form like stop-motion in CGI? We come to it with a bit of an advantage because we did it for years and know the details that go into stop motion. One big thing is the stylized proportions. Whenever we’re trying to do a cabinet, for example, we’re trying to emulate what a doll-furniture cabinet might look like as opposed to modeling it based on a real cabinet that won’t look like a stop motion set. It’ll just look like you took a real cabinet and put it in this otherwise normal room. Another example would be fuzzy pajamas. If you’re trying to emulate what real life looks like, you wouldn’t see the little fibers on it. But with stop motion, like Coraline, all the fibers are super big or super fuzzy, and kind of long, because it’s a miniature and we’re close up on it. And then there’s adding that whimsical, art-directed look to the whole set by slanting corners, making things not perfectly rigid, making furniture taper to give it that cartoony look that you find in stop-motion where there’s an artist making every piece of furniture. Many of your spots involve paper textures—are there particular tricks to simulating those? 2020 was a big “paper” year for us. After we did the QuickSlice spot, we put a lot of time into making a paper material that would hold up in all sorts of scenarios. On the surface, imitating a material like paper doesn’t feel like it should be a hard thing to do. There are a bunch of paper textures online that you can use for 3D. It’s really about all the little details you find with paper. After a few projects using these paper sets, we realized that, while they looked good, there are little details you can add to make it look even more realistic. So, on every prop made of paper, we took a little corner and bent it upwards just slightly so that the light actually catches those bent edges. It makes it feel not like a perfectly flat CGI object, but something that was actually cut with scissors and glued together. Another detail is to take every paper edge and make it ever so slightly uneven or rough, like it was cut a bit. We add little notches to make it look as if it wasn’t cut perfectly straight. So we get rid of any straight lines. You don’t notice these things watching most of our films, but hopefully, at least subconsciously, it makes it feel a bit more real and enhances the paper material. You mentioned that you can recreate the look of stop motion without being limited to all its constraints, and with the ability to enhance it in various ways. Could you say more about how you can use the basic premises and materiality of stop motion but then use CGI to do certain things that you might not be able to do with physical materials? This relates to the point about being able to achieve similar things but taking a lot more time in stop motion. When I say we’re able to take the stop-motion aesthetic and enhance it, what that means is that it cuts out a lot of the hassle of stop motion—like drilling a character’s foot into the floor for every step. Luckily, we’re not constrained by gravity in 3D. With things like lighting, in a traditional stop-motion set, if you wanted to get it more “cinematic,” you’re constrained by the physical limitations of the room you’re in, the size of the lights you have. If you wanted to rig up a little lamp in the corner, you’ve got to get a tiny LED bulb and create a special prop that wires it through the lamp post. And you can do all those things, but it’s a lot more work. You’ve got to hire more people. But in CG, you just put a light in there and it’s done. You still do have to get over the technical hump before you can even think about doing any of that. So, it’s definitely not an easy solution. It’s a whole bunch of work either way. Part of the promotional rhetoric surrounding stop motion is the idea that it’s more challenging and exciting than CGI, which Henry Selick, director of Coraline, has described as “sitting at a computer all day.” And it’s easier to appreciate the embodied nature of stop motion—in behind-the-scenes materials, you’re constantly seeing the hands of craftspeople, people hunched over and cutting things out and sewing tiny costumes. With CGI, it’s harder to visualize what the actual labor is like, and it has this reputation of being disembodied and mechanical, and those qualities then get mapped onto the visual styles of the two forms. But in your behind-the-scenes videos, you’re doing things like hand drawing and running around for motion capture. So, could you talk about CGI as labor? Earlier, though, you did say that part of the impetus for moving into CGI was being able to hang out in the office and work on the computer! So, it’s tricky. I think I would agree with Selick in that it’s definitely more physically exhausting to do all the stuff stop-motion animators do, since it’s just longer and you stand up most of the time— Exposure to toxic chemicals. I know that’s an issue for people in stop motion. Yeah, that as well. With us in front of our computers, there’s not as much of that. But doing CGI, 3D animation, it definitely can be a more technical medium, which is why I imagine some people say it’s more mechanical, more lacking some of the artistry or charm and maybe emotion. And that is certainly true. There are so many 3D animations out there that do feel very cold. And that’s really what we try to avoid, at least with our particular aesthetic with the quasi-stop-motion look. We try and get a bit more of that warmth back by making it feel more photoreal. But laborwise, it certainly is easier to do. If I were to create a short film like Grump in the Night using stop motion, it would have taken me at least two or three years. With CGI, I’m able to still do so much work and be exhausted every other day doing it, but in the end, I’m able to create a short film in four months as opposed to two years. That’s not to detract from all the work that goes into the motion capture, the modeling, compositing, rendering, lighting—but, you know, it’s just a more freeing way of of doing animation. And I’m able to accomplish more as just one person. Could you say a bit about the possibilities, opportunities, threats, or other aspects of AI’s role in animation? Is it something animators are worried about, or do they welcome its possibilities, or perhaps both? Animation, at least now, is a very human-driven process. As an animator, you’re putting so much detail and life into a character, say, walking across a screen—things a computer or even motion capture can’t quite replicate. But I’m looking forward, in the next few years, to AI coming into other parts of CG animation because it’s a very technical medium, and what AI is great at is the technical stuff. So we can automate a lot of the really tedious things that there are whole companies devoted to doing—these very grinding technical challenges that no one else wants to do. For example, certain aspects of modeling. You have to model a character, then you have to get it ready for animation—make it animatable. It’s a very painstaking process of going back over the model and reconfiguring it to work well with a facial rig and be able to smile without looking creepy and bend its limbs. And then there’s a whole other process of taking the model and unwrapping its skin so you can texture it. And that’s another technical, tedious process that can drive many people crazy because there’s nothing fun about it. That’s not why you got into doing CG animation. And we already see parts of that being automated by AI, but it’s early days. So in the next few years, it’ll be basically a click of a button and it’s done for you. And we get to go off and spend our time actually being creative and doing what we love to do.