NAB ’09: An Informal Report

To all of you who decided to stay home from NAB this year, I thank you. But I also say, you’re missing out! It’s a refreshing luxury to come to this massive broadcasting show, where tens of thousands to over a hundred thousand people from industries as diverse as software and cable covers, editing suites and greenscreens, HD cameras and helicopters converge in Sin City to talk some risky business–after all, despite the piles of money you can almost smell as you walk by the enormous booths full of flashing HD monitors, entertainment is nothing if not a gamble.

My feelings are mixed in observing the turn out this year. While it’s still a big show and there are no empty booths full of tumbleweeds (or agitated big wigs on their BlackBerrys trying to find their next meeting) as we’ve seen in some other markets since the recession, there is a lot more breathing room. The notoriously bad taxi lines at LV International are refreshingly manageable, traversing the show floor is not a battle of elbows and laptop bags, and for the first time in history you can find a seat in the cafe in South Hall. It seems like the meteorite has landed, and the tenacious mammals who have been holding on through the boom and bust find themselves walking in the sunlight, free from the shadows of the media market dinosaurs who had blotted it out.

The software giants–Mac, Autodesk, HP, etc.–are making a big show as always. There is a lot of buzz about camera/switcher/router/editing equipment innovators Grass Valley and their sizeable display, celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary. Grass Valley has used the occasion to launch a brand new high-end producion switcher, the Kayenne, and they’re already boasting major international orders. This celebration also marks a turning point for GV as parent company Thomson is in the middle of selling off the equipment outfit and has received several very serious offers at the show already.

Though your faithful Animag booth jockey spent much of the day behind a table (drop by #SL4310!), meeting some interesting animation fans (most of whom are trapped in tech-guru bodies, who knew?) and handing out free copies of our April/May issue, I did manage to sneak away to enjoy one of NAB’s awesome super sessions. Stereoscopic 3-D leaders RealD presented an interesting lecture and Q&A with stop-motion maestro Henry Selick on the topic of using new media (especially 3-D as in his latest hit, Coraline) to augment the classic art of stop-motion animation. Though I returned to find that a gaggle of disenfranchised booth babes had left a collection of Pepsi cups all over my table, it was so worth it.

Selick began the session with a brief description of the history of stop-motion animation, an art form nearly as old as cinema itself. He recalled his first experience with the medium: “I was five or six when I saw my first Harryhausen [film]… his monsters terrified and astonished me. If someone had told me these living nightmares were just poseable puppets made of steel and rubber, I would have called them a liar.” The director observed that though stop-motion was a popular medium for commercials (Selick worked on the late ’80s Pillsbury Doughboy spots), 100 percent stop-motion features are much rarer. Though Selick reignited audiences’ affinity for stop-mo with The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, the advent of quality CG animation swept stop-mo under the rug for a while. “The writing on the wall–and the Disney marketing execs–told me…stop motion was toast,” he quipped, getting a chuckle out of the room. On CG’s overtaking of other animation techniques: “Every Pixar film is, if not a great masterpiece, at least a minor masterpiece–[however] I think we’re at a time when the audience has seen so much CG they’re ready for something else.” He cites the popularity of Coraline and Disney’s return to 2D features with The Princess and the Frog as examples of animation regaining its variety.

What followed were a series of clips from Nightmare, James and Coraline (in 3-D!) which Selick used to illustrate how he’s used new and emerging technologies (however retro they may seem now) in each of his films to augment the magic of this veary hand-made genre. From the advent of motion-control camera rigs and frame grabbers which added immeasurably to the super-smooth quality of Nightmare, to the DIY of programming in-camera effects, light-capturing techniques and incorporation of CG and live-action blended with stop-mo in James, all the way to the utterly high-tech and innovative full 3-D shooting of Coraline. Even though Coraline has the advantage of being the latest with the access to the most techy tricks, it actually contains far more hand-crafted elements than either of the previous films! Selick explained the painstaking process which made these characters the most expressive yet: Shots of the models’ faces were scanned onto a CG image, then 2D artists would draw a new expression over the scanned face–the new face was then printed out and used as reference for the modellers to create new heads by hand. Coraline also benefitted from rapid prototyping technologies, which were used to create the hundreds of flowers in the Other World garden (which Selick estimates was about 95 percent real elements), as well as the mice for Bobinski’s jumping mouse circus.

For the second half, Selick was joined by Variety‘s Ann Thompson, who questioned him on topics ranging from the technical details of Coraline, his opinions on the state of 3-D capabilities in theaters and in the home, the possibilities of holographic 3-D (we hear there is very industrious man in Russia working on making this an accessable technology!) and his thoughts on furthur upcoming 3-D projects.

There were far too many witty quips and snippets of info to do justice to here, but we whole heartedly agree with Selick’s sentiment which he reiterated throughout the event: That technology, no matter how spectacular, can only serve to enhance stories, to enliven artistry, and to put a little sparkle on a thing which is crafted with the care, emotion and delicate sensibilities that can only be created by artists who wish to tell a story, and tell it beautifullly–that is the true human touch in animation which we’ll never be able to simulate.