Student Oscar Finalist Gets Unusual Second Go-Round

Filmmaker Nirvan Mullick shouldn’t be among this year’s finalists for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 31st Annual Student Academy Awards competition, but he is. His short film, The Box Man, was actually selected as one of last year’s final round picks, but a certain snafu took it out of the running.

Mullick was in Indonesia when he found out that his short film was up for last year’s Student Academy Awards. Since they needed the print right away, Mullick e-mailed the film festival that had it and requested that it be forwarded it to the Academy. On the day of the judging, he got a phone call from the Academy informing him that the wrong print had been sent. Instead of his painstakingly produced stop-motion film, the judges found themselves viewing a live-action short on basketball.

"I don’t think anything like that had ever happened before," Mullick tells Animation Magazine Online. "It was impossible to re-assemble all the member’s of the Academy just to watch my short, so the Academy decided to allow it as an automatic finalist again this year, which was pretty cool of them. I made sure to deliver the print myself this time."

The five-minute film was made over the course of two years while Mullick was a student at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). The animator offered the following insights on the process of making The Box Man.

Animation Magazine Online: Roughly how much time was spent on each major aspect of production?

Nirvan Mullick: An average shot would take three days to set up and light and another day or two to animate. The physical production lasted a year and a half. Six months were spent building the puppet and sets, with one month devoted to carving brick walls alone. The animation was spread out over eight months, working around other students’ schedules.

AMO: What was your animation set-up like?

NM: I was the first student to recieve FotoKem’s Student Grant, which completely covered the cost of film services all the way to the answer print. I wouldn’t have been able to afford shooting on 35mm otherwise. Because I was shooting on 35mm (for the first time), it really pushed me to make everything look as good as possible–sets, lighting, animation etc.

My set-up was pretty elaborate for a student production. CalArts has a studio called the Butler Building, which is devoted to stop-motion. It has a motion-control rig and a 35mm camera, as well as good grip and lights. So I was able to take advantage of all these resources. I couldn’t see through the camera while I was filming, so everything had to be planned out ahead of time and then just hope for the best. Sometimes I would use two video lunchboxes. One I would set up as close to the camera’s lens as possible. The other I would set up at a completely different angle so I could see if the puppet’s movement was off axis. I sort of triangulated in order to make sure the movement was smooth from two different angles. I figured if it looked good from those angles, it would look good to the camera.

AMO: Any digital post work?

NM: Yes, actually quite a bit. But we did it in a way that you can’t notice. We fixed camera bumps, lighting pops, even a shot that went out of focus. Post-production lasted three months and was all done on home computers.

The 35mm footage was transferred to High Def for post-production, then went back out to film from the digital files. Once the film was in the digital realm, we (Benjamin Goldman, Jamie Caliri and myself) used After Effects, Final Cut Pro and Photoshop to fix mistakes and polish the film in ways that an optical printer could not have done. I can’t give Jamie and Benji enough credit for the work they put in.

Once the film was polished, we went back out to film, courtesy of Mike Broderson at FotoKem’s Digital Division, who donated services not covered by FotoKem’s Student Grant.

Because I started on film, we were able to keep the image quality very high, much higher than if we had started with High Def.

AMO: What was the most challenging aspect of production?

NM: I was trying to make everything very smooth and clean, which is difficult in stop-motion, especially when you are setting everything up by yourself and then animating.

The most grueling shot was my opening sequence, a one minute continuous camera move, which is a very difficult thing to do with stop-motion because you only have one chance to get it right. It took nine days to program the camera and set up the shot and another seven days to animate it. The shot involved an elaborate two-part camera move that I wanted to appear seamless. After spending five days animating the puppet into position, a motor in the camera stopped working during the shot. In animation you don‚t want to even touch the camera, yet alone take it apart in the middle of a shot. But that’s what we had to do. There was no time to re-do the shot because another student needed the room. To fix it, I needed to create a two-frame dissolve in post.

AMO: What are some of the elements in your approach to character animation?

NM: Well, I like to watch people. I like to find little moments–certain grace notes that reveal something psychological. I also like to reflect the character in the over-all design of the film. With The Box Man, I was also trying to use stop-motion in a very realistic way to create a sense of alienation so that the world has a sense of reality but there is something not quite right about it. The film is in part about isolation, as was the process of making this film.

A philosophy student-turned-animator, Mullick has been making films independently since 1997. The Box Man, his CalArts thesis project, has played in more than 50 festivals worldwide including Cannes and Annecy, winning numerous awards. In 2003, he directed the title sequence animation for New Line’s remake of Willard, starring Crispin Glover. He has also developed an animated television series for Nelvana based on his first film, Fish Eye Guy, and is currently writing/directing his first live-action feature film, which is being produced by Michael Besman (About Schmidt, The Opposite of Sex). For more on his work, including his animated IMAX work in progress (The 1-Second Film), visit www.nirvan.com.