IndieWire is releasing Sketch to Screen, a new behind-the-scenes exploration of cutting-edge animation that kicks off with Oscar nominee “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” (Sony/Netflix).
From Oscar-winning producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) and first director Mike Rianda (“Gravity Falls”), “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” features a handmade watercolor aesthetic that perfectly matches the wild road trip of a family fighting the robot apocalypse, while contrasting it with the sleek perfection of the world of AI-created robots.
Rianda was encouraged by the audacity of “Into the Spider-Verse” to make his debut even more ambitious: “The reason we wanted the film to have a hand-drawn look is because when you see a drawing, you see all these little imperfections and… places where the pen goes, that you wouldn’t expect,” he said. “And it just feels really natural and organic. And our characters are natural, organic, imperfect. And they’re up against this perfect AI that can do it all. We wanted each character type to look like it was drawn by a person and we wanted that human hand feel.
This human touch was provided by production designer/character designer Lindsey Olivares, who made drawings in a watercolor marker style containing heavy lines that could be rendered in CG animation. But the art department allowed details to fall and bleed into the background to look more like 2D. “So you see the grid of a paper like a watercolor,” she said. “But it’s not romantic or nostalgic…we’re just sprucing up our real world and the painterly kind of look really helps bring it in.”
Translating Olivares’ work into animation meant breaking down each frame to understand the rules. Sony Pictures Imageworks responded by innovating a new outline tool to highlight illustrative character shapes, and a new shader tool to move characters through light as they overlay and blend in all watercolor strokes.
The world of robots and stealth robots
Unlike the organic, messy, tactile human world, the robot world is stark, minimal, and open, and the backgrounds evoke frustrating isolation. “We would model things differently where, in the robot world, it was very sharp, very smooth, very reflective and shiny,” said VFX Supervisor Michael Lasker. “Then we took our Mitchells characters and had to stick them in this robot world and they still had to work, so all of our styling in our render script, we just had to tone it down.”
But when it came to creating the killer Stealthbots, known as Pal Max Prime, Sony animation supervisor Alan Hawkins revisited a concept he was toying with at Ringling College of Art and Design, based on Boolean algebra. He came up with a new way for Stealthbots to transform as they moved, cutting and reassembling. Two new tools allowed Stealthbots to be deconstructed and rebuilt differently each time they moved. One tool allowed animators to draw any line through the character, then cut it in half and fill the gap with that shape’s internal coloring, while the other tool helped create negative space inside the character. inside the character. These could now be combined to produce an infinite number of shape and design combinations.
“I remember Alan Hawkins showing us that first test,” producer Miller said. “What if they moved like that?” And my reaction was, ‘I would never have thought of that at all. It’s really awesome.
If there’s one aspect that defines the freeform and handcrafted quality of “The Mitchells,” it’s Katie-Vision, which takes us inside the creative mind of the budding filmmaker. “I talked to Lindsey early on about doing collage stuff in the movie, like kids doing stuff on YouTube,” Rianda said. “But we couldn’t find a way to stick it in the movie itself until we realized that Katie is a filmmaker. We should make sure she’s the one editing the movie you’re watching. And that was this big breakthrough for us.
To create that student movie vibe, they mixed different types of 2D animation with stock photos, sock puppets, and bad green screen. “It was really honest in a flawed way, which we were trying to celebrate,” Olvares added. “And so we started to find it in his films, following different colors and rhythm. And it evolved. By visualizing it and finding elements that worked, it became a bigger element throughout the movie. Olvares led the small Katie-Vision team, which worked closely with the animators.
At first, however, they weren’t sure if Katie-Vision was going to work or be a distraction. Fortunately, the handmade aesthetic provided the necessary line. “It’s Katie’s movie, and so she was going to be able to put her own line of spin and styling, and add that stuff on top of it,” producer Lord said. “And all these little homemade doodles and mixed-media creations were something that we thought was fun, and then it ended up blending really well. A lot of the movie is about trying to see the world through the eyes of a 18 year old girl.