‘Automaton’: the beauty and fury of the elements explored

Unlike previous Pixar shorts that focused on characters like a baby desk lamp, a chess-loving elderly person, or a romantic volcano, automaton relies solely on environmental elements to tell its story, a welcome creative and technical challenge for the studio’s effects artists. The four-minute experimental short, a Pixar “cooperative” film produced by studio effects artists, using studio facilities, but on their own time and with their own funding (which was virtually none), depicts a bushfire destroying a field of grass, which eventually revives. The film began life before the world was overtaken by the coronavirus; it is written and directed by Krzysztof Rost and produced by Michael K. O’Brien, who laughs: “The secret is to enter the pandemic with a short film!

In 2018, Rost launched the idea of automaton at the workshop. “We had these rounds of fires all over California and I felt the results as I walked across the Bay Bridge,” he explains. “On the one hand you have these wonderful orange-colored weird lighting conditions while thinking about this existential concept of climate change and how it affects us on a daily basis at this point. It was born there. The fire, dust, smoke and wind. These are the characters. There is no conversation or dialogue. I started asking existential questions. From the Big Bang, we arrive at this moment where we are. C “is the reality around us. What do we do in the future? I loved this concept of playing with time back and forth. It started with color and goes back to this basic concept of black and white , the simple components of life at the atomic level. I am more interested in the mechanism, which is why I chose the title automaton.”

Take a few minutes and enjoy the film before learning more about its production:

Convincing the artists to work on the court was not a problem. “The reality is, we have a ton of talent,” O’Brien notes. “We work on effects in animated features that relate to characters and that’s great. But ultimately, it could relate to our business. Everyone took it as a challenge. Krzysztof had a great vision for the story and how he wanted to tell it. automaton never received official status at Pixar, further underscoring the commitment of those involved to make it happen. “There was a part of the time in 2018 where we were able to use all the other artists to produce the work,” Rost shares. “Then at some point everyone was drawn into other projects. Then we continued with composition and lighting, but it was a much smaller group. Especially the two of us. It continued for In 2019, that’s when we finally started cementing everything in place with editorial, sound and everything.

Enthusiasm for automaton was not limited to effects artists. “It was between assignments and rendering work,” O’Brien points out. “We were trying to find people who were like-minded, ready to have fun and wanted to put some energy into this idea. Krzysztof pitched all this cool stuff to the sound team, and we said: “We would love to have some help doing the sound. The sound guys said, ‘Okay, only if we can do everything in-house because we want to do everything end-to-end.’ We were like, ‘Great. Because we don’t have any dollars! That’s what we found all over the studio. That resonates on a lot of different levels. It’s different from a lot of things that we normally do. It was a great opportunity to try new things. We were like, ‘Go have some fun with this and see where you end up.’ Time and time again it exceeded our expectations.

In the film, there is a dramatic transition as debris caused by the off-screen fire blows into the frame. “I thought about the movement of the camera and the lenses,” says Rost. “I searched the internet to grab some conceptual ideas of what I thought progression should be and built it up to certain states. There’s a lot of footage happening now with drone photography and I always thought it introduced the top-down look. Direction was important to me, knowing where things fit into the frame and how we can maintain the horizontal composition division of a frame.

Each segment had its own difficulties. According to Rost, “When you’re in the real world, there’s a strict targeting system. But when you go into the abstract world, the microcosm of everything, it should be smoother. What is this interpretation? I thought of it more in terms of the microscopic Big Bang. I now have my doubts about the ending just because of how the composition looks. Some people told me it looked like a virus. COVID-19 has added another twist to all of this.

Everything was created within Houdini. “When things got cemented, eventually our lighter, James Gettinger, joined us and he brought some interesting things,” Rost remarks. “I was too busy to even think about how to put it all together. We put even more effort on the compositing side from what originally came from the renders to make it feel like it’s c t was in the same world James was new to Houdini and tackled the task with a big smile he kept moving forward and doing a color study so we could look at all the shots in that context and determine those that need work and those that need some tweaking. It was a great learning experience for me. Just being exposed to all of these different departments throughout this process.

Without a timeline or deadline, O’Brien worried about when the film would finally be finished. “My biggest concern as a producer was, ‘When are we going to finish?’ he admits. “We will always want to improve it. We got to a point where the whole team was looking at him and we were like, ‘This is beautiful. Let’s move on to the next thing. But he was independent. Krzysztof was good at being open to ideas. The abstract stuff was very abstract. It was good to be like, ‘Come on! This is the big final moment that we worked for. It gave people a free run to try new things and come up with new ideas. That’s what made the project fun to work on.

Trevor Hogg's photo

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and film profiles for Voice VFX, Animation magazineand British cinematographer.

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