Interview with Karl Herbst - Hotel Transylvania 2

Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)
PG  |  89 min  |  Animation |  25 September 2015 (USA)

I had the opportunity to chat with VFX supervisor of Hotel Transylvania 2, Karl Herbst. This guy is super legit in his field and I could have spent hours hearing him talk about his trade. But we take what we can get. Enjoy. 

Matt Mungle: Do you and your team have a special, personal celebration that you do opening weekend? Especially a film like this that so much went into. Is there something you guys do?

Karl Herbst: Unfortunately by the time we finish, everybody scatters. The team isn't together any more. Everybody is on to another film or even sometimes to another facility. Myself, Genndy [Genndy Tartakovsky - Director] and others who are on the film will text each other or email each other through the weekend as we're hearing the buzz and how audiences are responding. For the rest of the team unfortunately, everybody's moved on. The idea of everybody getting together and having a glass of champagne and say, "Hey, we did it." We end up doing that right as we finish and then we move on. Everybody moves on in some cases going right on to the next film that they're working on. 

MM: Let's go back in time a little bit then to that moment when your team put your final period on "Hotel Transylvania 2." Was there something in your mind when you first planned it, that you were, "Guys, we have to nail this. This is job one on this project." Then, at the end of the day going back and reflecting on that. Did you hit it?

KH: We obviously learned a lot in the first film. The first film was Genndy's first time doing full animation. He came in with a lot of reservations that we could actually get his style and do it. I think in some case he held back a little bit. By the end of that film, we knew that now from what we learned we need to go fix these areas, so that we can do this better next time. I think we hit some of them but not all of them. Part of it is letting the animators have a better sense of what Genndy's striving for. We worked on tools for that. 

Other areas were added support for cloth simulation, hair simulation. Those are very difficult to do in this style of animation. Then, we changed some of the rendering and lighting tools to not only the ... We're not trying to go for photo reel, but to give a little bit more sense of a live action lit movie when it's appropriate and then other times where it feels really graphic. Also, change our motion blur and not be physically accurate, so it gets more of the style of tree smearing that Genndy really likes from when he was doing stuff like "Samurai Jack."

MM: You talked about lighting which seems in most minds, it's like it's so ... Why would you have to light something that's animated? Is it so that we as an audience forget we're watching animation?

KH: Animation is drawing an outline and filling in, try it with color. In a lot of cases cell animation can take on having lots shadows cast in it and some sense of realism of how light would work. Computer graphics with the style that we're doing, we're building actual environments that are in essence scale modals of everything that you would have. We could actually build a scale model in reality of what this thing is and shine lights on it. That's what we do in the computer. A lot of cases though like in "Edge of Tomorrow," there you're trying to match physical reality. 

Here, we're trying to simplify that, so that we look at reality ... A really great thing is lens flares. Lens flares are something that happen when you shoot film or you shoot digitally with a camera. We want to use that because it's something that people know as a signature thing in movies, but we don't want one that feels like it happened for real. We want one that feels like it's designed. That's what we do. We try to simplify the shapes or designs the shapes to give us that affect of a lens flare that's done for animation. 

MM: Right. As we call them, the J.J. Abrams touch. 

KH: Yeah. Those were the real ones in those films. They use little laser lights that hit the lens with it to make certain types of blooms. Here, we're just designing our own to make that feel but not use reality so perfectly. 

MM: You touched base a little bit earlier when you were talking about hair and clothing. What were some of the obstacles and maybe some of the advancements in technology since the first one to this one that allow you to get that better texture so that it does look like you just draped the characters in something.

KH: Yeah. It's actually a combination of things. Again, we learned a lot on the first film. What we knew is that any sensibility to physical reality of how clothes work is not what he's [Genndy] looking for. That's a tall order for us because all of the things we use for cloth simulation especially are based on physics. We came up with a solution that's a blend of animation posing certain things and we might blend between that. We'll have the animation version of it where the animator actually sculpted it up into their pose. We'll run actual simulation just right out of the box without ... We're ignoring that. 

Then, we have tools where we can blend between the two. A leading edge of how a shirt [follow 00:05:25] across Johnny can be blended to the animation, but allow the back to flow. The difficulty with that Genndy style is the fact that anatomy doesn't mean much in the sense that Johnny can have really wide shoulders in one second and then have none at all twenty frames later. That would have basically turned his shirt into a potato sack that want to fall off of his body. We had to develop tools that could predict that stuff happening and re-setup what we call our sim garments along the way. It adapts to that so that the clothes wouldn't fall off or disappear. We're constantly learning, we're constantly adapting to whatever the goals are for our filmmakers. 

MM: From a personal perspective in what you do daily, has the technology made it easier or has it made it harder because it now makes you want to do more?

KH: It's both. I mean, there's areas that made it easier. The thing with it is, it's just a tool set. The artistry and the craftsmanship of what goes into these things is really ... You're always trying to make tools to make that easier but as you make that easier, the expectations of taking it farther goes up as well. Farther can mean lots of things.You can make a new piece of hardware that's twenty times faster and will bring it to its knees within three months. Right? We're always trying to go to that next level no matter what it is.

The craftsmanship in this film is a great example. We have a demo I think is going to go out soon that talks about how we animate in this movie, where it's three hours worth of work to make this one pose that Genndy really wanted for the mummy. We condense it down the three minutes, so you can see how much work goes into just getting this thing that's onscreen for three frames, four frames. 

You feel it when you watch it, but you have no understanding of how much work went into just that moment. Because to get that, you can't build rigs that can predict everything Genndy's going to want to do. There's a moment where the rigs that we do, the armatures that move our characters around, you can only go so far with those. Then, the animators are literally sculpting the model, it's like clay. That's where the complication comes in all the way through the pipeline which it brings up the artistry level for everyone else involved all the way down to where you light it and get it out in film. 

MM: It just seems like it would just be so laborious. There has to be an addiction and a drug, and something in this that drives you to go to the next project and go, "I want to do this again. As big a headache as this was and all the deadlines and the changes." What's that drug for you? When's that moment in the process where you go, "This is why I do it." 

KH: It really happens about the last third of the film. Because the schedules that we're on, how fast we're moving, it just feels like a massive adrenaline rush everyday. To be honest, those are days I can't wait to get to work. I can't wait to get in the screen room, see what we have for the day to talk about. Our days are long at that point. We go in the screen room at 9:00 in morning and not come out until 7:00 at night, just with a lunch break in between. I also know for myself personally, when we finish the film, I need two or three weeks to decompress. 

It took me about two weeks after I was out of the building when we finished that. You're standing there and you finally go, "Aaaaa," like that tension and get relief. That's also a time you start thinking about, "Okay, next time you got to this." You start applying that to the next project you're going to. I think we're addicted to improving image quality, improving the technology, makes that product and makes that performance better. We love it. Otherwise, I don't think we'd do it because it's really tough. It's a tough job to have. 

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