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TITAN A.E.: Star Wars Meets Star Trek By Way of Anime

Gary Goldman and Don Bluth on making cartoons for more than kids.

By Craig Reid     June 15, 2000

What do you get when you cross the frenetic paced, space sequences of STAR WARS with the planet forming magic of STAR TREK: WRATH OF KHAN, mix in a hint of Japanese anime then wrap it with the suspenseful soirees of HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and ENTER THE DRAGON? We get TITAN A.E., the first American-made, feature-length-narrative science fiction cartoon, compliments of Fox Animation Studios and directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman (ANASTASIA). For their unique combination of 2-D and 3-D animation, this renegade former Disney duo put together a tantalizing team of artists, animators and ILM special effects experts and invented electrifying neo-technologies and cutting- edge computer imagery to forge a new look for the Earth's future. And to top it off, it was accomplished for about a quarter of the budget of Disney's DINOSAUR, an obvious rip-off of Bluth and Goldman's THE LAND BEFORE TIME (1988) that was directed by someone who used to work for them. Hmmm.

Goldman discusses the project's evolution. 'We just finished ANASTASIA and were doing BARTOCK THE MAGNIFICENT, a prequel for ANASTASIA, when in 1996 Bill Mechanic [Fox's President] handed us the sci-fi script PLANET ICE, a live-action film. TITAN started 3 years ago; we came in 19 months ago. A lot of preproduction had been done, nebula and spaceship designs, character ideas, 4000 pieces of art ready for approval. Our normal production time is 24 months, but we were given 19 months to finish the most complex thing we've ever done. It's like making live action where everything is a composite with 4 elements per shot. It's a difficult project because the characters are human, which are the hardest to draw; plus, we're trying to create a dark, comic book, new reality look of a film.'

It's the year 3028, and man is the target for extinction. A vicious alien race composed of bio-energy and called the Drej has it in for Earthlings. In an instant, Earth is gone; seconds later, the moon is gone. The epic journey that follows marks the dawning of a new fight for mankind, survival. A boy named Cale, a girl named Akima, and a ship christened the TITAN are our only hope for the future.

Bluth laughingly comments, 'I had to fight to keep the moon destruction in; they wanted to get rid of it, but I was insistent. The film is really a departure for us. Animation is becoming more competitive and people are looking for different footprints. If you do a cute, charming movie, it's a wanna-be Disney film. Fox is looking for its own signature, and TITAN is a bit more adult. Cartoons are tattoos we put on as kids, but when kids don't want to be kids anymore, they grow up and throw off kid things, like cartoons. We grow back into it, but between those times you must offer something more palatable, and today's teens are used to CGI; it's their territory. This attitude is displayed and reflected into Cale's personality. We've all gone through that period--the defiance and anger you have. And Cale's anger is against his father who didn't keep his promise of returning to find him. We take you on a journey where he learns the truth.'

The characters are brought to life by a stellar voice cast, including Matt Damon (Cale), Bill Pullman (Captain Korso), John Leguizamo (eccentric navigator Gune), Nathan Lane (sleazy first mate Preed), and Drew Barrymore as the sexy Akima.

Bluth points out that the prerequisites for Akima were beauty, an age approximately of early 20s, shapely, not large breasts, Eurasian ethnicity, a hip attitude, thereby explaining her hair color, intelligence. And she had to be 'a pilot with a little attitude but not so much that she is a full-blown feminist,' he snickers. 'Cale is a regular guy, bit buffed from working and not working out. We wanted him to have the look of modern day young people, 2-tone hair, wears a tank top, and hides his anger in his rebellion, probably resulting in his tattoo. We struggled on that tattoo because we had to draw it and put a place for it on every drawing so in the final checking department they would map the tattoo onto his arm so it followed well with him. I mean, there were some scenes where it was floating around on his arm.'

Director of animation Len Simon says, 'I worked on Cale and Akima. To be the character, I'll draw from life experiences, live action references from filming live actors doing the scenes and music. When I did ANASTASIA's Rasputin, I listened to heavy metal music; for Cale I listened to Melda Roadstop and for Akima, soft rock and classical music. How much drawing is done? One minute of TV animation produces a one foot pile of drawings; feature film animation, 6 foot; and this kind of CGI film a 12 foot pile.' Simon now has a tattoo.

The film's distinctly different look and feel stems from the captivatingly cool blend of traditional 2-D animation with 3-D computer graphics beautifully translated into far out visuals like the Earth and moon's destruction, space battles, chases with the Drej amidst explosive hydrogen trees, romantic interludes with Wake Angels, corporeal collaboration with Gauols, and arguably the film's most tense moment: the suspenseful cat-and-mouse game amongst giant, floating ice crystals in the ice rings of Tigrin.

Enter, David Dozoretz (PHANTOM MENACE, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE), the animatic's supervisor at Persistence of Vision Digital Entertainment (POVDE). 'My partner Martin Smith and I were asked, 'That thing you do with animatics--can you come and do this on TITAN?' They had a couple of action sequences; they wanted to see how they'd look before putting time and resources into animating them. So my crew and I went to Phoenix, spent 2 months working with Don and Gary, doing rough computer animation on the ice crystal and Wake Angel sequences. It's known as animatics, and is called pre-visualization, basically low resolution, moving storyboards of shots in the rough cut of a film. It's not something you'd show the audience, and it's using off the shelf computers and soft ware to do a very fast version of the sequence. A final FX shot for the screen would take months, yet we did a 10-minute pre-vis sequence in about 3 weeks. So now the animators know exactly what is going on here in the shot and how many frames are needed. We initially had pink fog in the sequence but changed it to green. Pink was too fun for a dark and spooky sequence.'

Adding to the ice crystal sequence's tension was the magnificent sonic symphony created by sound editor Christopher Boyes (PHANTOM MENACE, TITANIC). He elaborates, 'I wanted to bring out the peril and anxiety that these ice crystals could develop as Cale and Akima are hiding from the ship Valkyrie in a way that they get close to the crystals but not get crushed. To do this sonically, I recorded sounds in Yellow Stone National Park, while pressing huge sheets of ice and cracking it in ways that it groaned. On a skiing vacation, when I stabbed my ski poles and bent them in dry snow, it created bizarre squeaks and metallic tearing sounds. A third component of sound came from a friend of mine who recorded breaking up glaciers and floating icebergs bumping into each other while she was on a biological expedition in Alaska. It created organic, tectonic explosions. For that vocal, ethereal quality to the ice crystal movements, I used humpback whale sounds and blended them in strange ways that don't sound like whales.'

POVDE also did the effects work on the wake angelsa scene wherein Cale gets his first chance to drive a spaceship through a cathedral-like nebula, as stingray-shaped space creatures glide playfully alongside the ship like dolphins. Bluth explains, 'Originally the wake angel scene was to be in an asteroid field, but we wanted to create obstacles for the ship to fly through, a nebula, and you can't tell if it's solid or gaseous until 'whoops,' he flew through it. We wanted this to be fun and colorful because the rest of the film is dark and moody. The angels are blue, and the nebula's color changes the film's emotion, for a moment.'

The extent of this 2-D and 3-D integration was the filmmakers' greatest challenge. Some sequences had 2-D characters inside 3-D spacesuits riding 3-D vehicles. Goldman elucidates, 'It was a tough nut to crack. Hand-painted textures helped to integrate the 2-D and 3-D worlds, softening the image and the 'clean' CGI look. The CGI allowed us to incorporate the little Drej nuances we couldn't draw by hand like the delineation of their skeletal structure and the energy that pulsated through them.'

Although the use of CGI is revolutionizing the animation industry, will it eventually replace conventional 2-D animation and traditional animation artists? Goldman quips, 'I don't think 2-D animation will ever be outdated. Over the next 5 years you'll see a lot of CGI, but the real business of any art form is not the execution of the production but the execution of the story. Eighty five percent of this film has some form of CGI combined with traditional animation. We've used CGI before, since ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN. CGI doesn't work on doing hair, feathers, and glassy eye images. Making photo-real CGI humans currently can't be done. Lighting is also difficult. On TITAN we had to pull back on the lighting, or the product would've looked plastic. So we'd create the wire frame, animate the spaceships and weapons, then have the background department hand paint tiles that would be mapped onto those objects to give the spaceships texture.'

Bluth finally muses on what the film is really about. 'To me the film is about the indomitable human spirit and the search for an identity. It asks, 'What are we about? Are we worth saving? Can we go home again?' And it all starts with the power of one kid, Cale, whose father created a ship called the Titan that has the ability to create another planet and he hides it in outer space. Cale is genetically coded to his father in such a way that he becomes the map to find the ship.'

So join Cale and Akima as they begin 'bob-bing' (can you figure out the joke?) for a new Earth. It's an adventure worth watching.


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