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CGI Fridays

CGI Fridays | From Pepsiman to Iron Man, Will Anielewicz Made Superheroes Shine

Pipeline development engineer/artist Will Anielewicz talks about Pepsiman, Phantom Menace, Iron Man, and art in CGI Fridays Episode 8.

Will Anielewicz is an artist. Others have used pipeline development engineer/artist to describe what he does, but the Polish-born Canadian is motivated by a purer force. For all the credits on his IMDb, his proudest achievement is undeniably having his work exhibited in SIGGRAPH’s first-ever exhibition of computer art back in 1981.

“SIGGRAPH was initially very engineer oriented,” he tells Ed Kramer in CGI Fridays Episode 8. “Scientific papers, static documents. Then this one year, they decided to have an art exhibition with people like David Em the original computer graphics artists. That was the very first art exhibit of SIGGRAPH. Yes, I worked on feature films. But to me, that was my proudest moment.”

Unlike most artists – such as Episode 6’s Adam Howard who studied animation – Anielewicz saw his desire to create art inextricably linked to the enormous IBM machine that had seemingly emerged from the realm of science fiction to take up residence in the corner of his high school classroom.

“My high school was the first high school in Canada to have a computer. I saw this computer and I said, ‘That’s it – I’m gonna live in this room.’ Something just clicked for me. And I was instantly attracted to it. And I just spent the rest of my day, every day in there doing whatever I could learn. I sort of ran the computer. Nobody else knew how to run this thing. So I just ran it. Anybody needed anything, I would make that computer do it. It was a gigantic computer for those days – it was in the mid-60s. There were punch cards and reel-to-reel tape things going on and it mesmerized me.

“I went to university and started learning coding, [and] my professor suggested I go into an insurance company or I coded for business practices, etc. I said to him, ‘I don’t want to do that, I want to make art with these computers.’ I tried to build what I called a ‘graphics piano’, just making shapes, and then I started making art – plotter art.”

Will Anielewicz speaking to Ed Kramer during the recording of CGI Fridays Episode 8.

A plotter, typically used in CAD (computer-aided design) for technical drawings, raised and lowered a pen on an axis.

“The first one I think I made was in 1977. The operator of the plotter became a friend and allowed me to run out of ink all the time, like my plots would take a few hours to generate. Usually, it was a minute or two for other people’s work because they would just make pie charts. I can’t paint with my hands, but I could paint with this plotter.”

CGI Fridays | Adam Howard Made Phasers Pop on Star Trek: The Next Generation

From a firefighter’s mosaic to phasers and photon torpedoes, digital painter and animator Adam Howard reveals a passion for pyro in CGI Fridays Episode 6.

The Godfather of Maya

Will Anielewicz’s entryway into the industry seemingly occurred at the precise moment that the need emerged for digital artists, but digital artists didn’t yet exist. Anielewicz wasn’t quite what they were looking for, but at that time, nobody was.

“This very savvy producer manager who owned a company called Omnibus Video, Inc, which was a California company originally, moved into Toronto, and wanted to start a commercial division for making computer generated commercials. So he posted an advertisement saying they’re looking for a computer animator, this was in 1979. There weren’t any computer animators in 1979 so I answered the ad. I had been doing this kind of art for quite a while. I had a lot of coding experience. And I convinced them that I could be your animator. Since they had no other candidates at the time because there just weren’t any in Canada, […] they accepted me to take on the job.”

This early work was done using the NYIT (New York Institute of Technology) VI system which created solid objects using mathematical inputs, such as origin and radius for a sphere, rather than building it polygon by polygon.

“Anyone who is a modern-day computer artist that is an animator or a modeler would just go insane trying to generate things with that original system,” says Anielewicz. “It was so coder-centric, you had to be an engineer, in essence, to generate almost anything with it.”

After Ominus Video Inc, Anielewicz moved on to Alias Research Inc, to work on the system that would become Maya after their acquisition by Autodesk in 2006. PowerAnimator – often referred to simply as ‘Alias’ – was used to generate the water funnel in James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) and Robert Patrick’s liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

“They needed somebody to help create the Animator workstation and they hired me to do that myself and another fellow. Mike Sweeney wrote the renderer for Alias. I was doing the front end, I was trying to make the promotional imagery that would show off what this system could do. Doug MacMillan [and] Paul Griffin somehow ended up at ILM, they got in touch with me and said, ‘Hey, you want to try and get a job at ILM’ – Star Wars, you know – and I said, ‘Yeah, I want that, give me that!’”

Bringing Pepsiman to ILM

“It’s a wonderful education. If you had a question, every genius engineer was at ILM. I try to call it like a pilgrimage to make Star Wars. They hired people from all over the world, probably 400 engineer artists from all over the world, Germany, France, England, Canada, India, they just came from everywhere. That was a dream come true for me, really. I learned more in the first few months at ILM than I had the previous 10 years just learning from all of the people that were there that were at the epitome of the industry.”

Unusually for a guest on CGI Fridays, though Will Anielewicz later went on to work on many blockbuster movies – among them Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Space Cowboys (2000), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Men in Black II (2002), and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) – he was initially hired by ILM Commercial Production. 

“There were a number of award winning commercials that we worked on. And of course in the commercial division, the most fun we had was Pepsiman. You want to quench your thirst – schwa – that was his only power. The Japanese artists that were behind Pepsi Man were kind of making fun of America through Pepsiman.”

Pepsiman, a glistening aluminium Adonis with unsettling blow-up doll lips, was the cola company’s mascot in Japan. ILM was hired in order to – as a spokesperson for Pepsico Japan commented in 1997 – “make the ads look as if they were really popular in the US.” The ads, which play as a satire of American commercials as well as superheroes, are objectively incredible: the buffed Pepsi can metal of his body is great and the music is an absolute earworm.

“I did lighting. I did shader development, [and] some pipeline work on it. I also got to matchmove, I got to go on set and be a pesky person on a shoot and the cinematographers and the directors found us very annoying because we had to take measurements, we had to figure out how to integrate the CG character into a set. I had to get people to stop for a moment and let me take measurements and take photographs of elements that we could reflect in Pepsiman, it was really a bit of a battle because they didn’t know why we were there.”

At least 15 Pepsiman commercials were filmed, many under the supervision of ILM’s Wade Howie (who shares his story in the expansive YouTube documentary, The Secret History of Pepsiman), and Anielewicz recalls one in particular.

“The most fun I had was one of the Pepsiman spots was him jumping out of an apartment building into the apartment building pool. I had to take pictures of the very expensive models in bikinis so that I could get reflections of them. And I tried to explain why I’m taking photographs of them. These models were paid $10,000 an hour, something like that. They were very well known and attractive, and I would ask them, could you just stand there while I take pictures of you?

“[In] most of the commercials, that was part of the background. CG people would make sure that nothing silly was going on that would make it almost impossible to integrate a CG character into a set or a camera angle. The cinematographers and the director would go ‘No, we don’t care what you think your job is going to be getting that CG character into this set. Don’t tell us how to shoot this.’”

The Phantom Menace and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

“I got to work on texturing [and] creating some of the CG sets. I got to work on lightsaber shots. I was a Star Wars fan from the very beginning when I saw the first original movies. For me to work on saber shots was a magical experience.”

Whilst working on Star Wars was the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition for Will Anielewicz, his experiences are strikingly similar to Adam Howard’s in the last episode of CGI Fridays. For all The Phantom Menace (1999) was held up as being a triumph of technicality over traditional filmmaking, a story emerges of ILM being increasingly expected to ‘fix’ imperfect shots. When the live-action component was so straightforward – two guys embarking on a highly choreographed fight against a green screen, for example – it seems baffling how often the footage simply wasn’t doing what it was supposed to be.

“There was a shot where Darth Maul and [Obi-Wan Kenobi] were in a fight, and he was supposed to kick him in the head. Well, he missed by about three feet, I had to stretch his leg to make it look like it had contact with his chin. I spent many a day trying to figure out how to morph the picture of his leg or the moving action of his leg and kind of stretch it in toward the other guy’s head.”

Obi-Wan Kenibi (Ewan McGregor) and Darth Maul (Ray Park) duel at the climax of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. | Lucasfilm, 1999.

Anielewicz speaks frankly of some of the frustrations he faced as a droid down on the factory floor.

“I didn’t understand why we were exerting so much effort. There was an angle where Darth Maul’s saber was right in front of the camera. It was a close-up shot of him holding this lightsaber. The plastic on the lightsaber got so broken on set for whatever reason that they couldn’t use that in the shot. We had to figure out how to matchmove and fix that lightsaber.

“If somebody had looked through the camera in that shot, and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, just turn the lightsaber two degrees, and nobody will have to spend weeks post working on the shot.’ Who knows how much money would have been saved?”

A close up of Darth Maul (Ray Park) as he parries a blow from Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor)’s lightsaber in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. | Lucasfilm, 1999.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) represents a creative frustration of a different flavor. The project had begun under Stanley Kubrick, and was finally born with Steven Speilberg with the auteur’s death on March 7, 1999. The juxtaposition between the two styles was jarring to both critics and Anielewicz, who contributed to the breathtaking neon-baked environments of Brian Aldiss’ future city, and supervised some of the underwater sequences.

“The best part of that movie was the storyboards. What we got to see, the original storyboards, were so beautiful, so mysterious, there was a darkness to that movie that was clear through the first half. And then, unfortunately, it kind of turned into an E T. movie, but the original movie by the original director who died before the movie was finished, was a beautifully dark, sort of Blade Runner-ish, kind of mode. 

“A lot of the work that I did on that was extending the reflection pipeline that we were developing at ILM. Rendering an image with two renderers was not easy, because they each use a little bit of different math. They had different color spaces. Trying to get the geometry to match perfectly and land on each other wasn’t easy. I was very much involved in that, making a bunch of materials, a lot of shader work that I got into, but I got to technical direct a number of shots on A.I. as well.”

The underwater blue fairy in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) which was directed by Steven Spielberg from a 1969 short story by the late Brian Aldis, Supertoys Last All Summer Long. | Warner Bros/DreamWorks, 2001.

Whilst much of Anielewicz’s work was as an engineer on the pipeline, focusing on the integration of 3D- rendering applications and shaders “that gives the lighting person a way to make something look photoreal.” It’s part art and part math, coding the light sources and how the 3D environments react to them. It’s not that far off plotter art in the grand scheme of things. 

“The renderer is the critical thing,” he explains. “It’s really where the heavy heavy duty math goes into the renderer. The shader is something that looks like skin, something that looks like the cloth mesh of a spacesuit, something that looks like nickel or gold. Those things have certain properties that you can emulate with, if you give a shader enough flexibility to go from gold to silver to whatever other materials you want to create.”

CGI Fridays | Matchmove Master Alia Agha Touched The Abyss

From answering the phones at ILM to previs on The Phantom Menace, Alia Agha tells Ed Kramer how she became a “matchmove master” in CGI Fridays Episode 5.

Men in Black II and Iron Man

As a render engineer and shader developer, Will Anielewicz was vital to the work behind the scenes at ILM, but it’s a lot harder to point to the screen and go, ‘That’s me.’ Fortunately, Men in Black II saw him take on the sequence supervisor role for the alien criminal Jarra (John Alexander), who turns out to be that classic comic-book gag – four smaller aliens stacked on top of each other.

The Jarra (John Alexander) broken down into their creepy constituent parts – dubbed the ‘Jarettes’ by the VFX team – in Men in Black II (2002). | Sony Pictures, 2002.

“To me, that looked like me. I was sort of doing a self-portrait with this because he was a bit ugly-ish looking. I was behind the pipeline for that shader work, making it as easy as possible for technical directors to be able to render in two different renderers and get a fairly easy good connection between RenderMan and Mental Ray.

“I got to help other technical directors run their shots. I was trying to convince the ILM dev department, the engineers who are writing some of the tools for artists, ‘Hey, spend a day with an artist and feel their pain.’ And then you can really make tools that they’ll appreciate and be able to use. Because if you’re just a software engineer, you don’t know what these people go through to make their image, their scenes look good. You don’t really understand what they need, and what would really make them happy.”

After Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Anielewicz joined an exodus of ex-ILM talent to The Orphanage to work on Superman Returns (2006), The Last Mimzy (2007), In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007), and Die Hard 4.0 (2007). After Star Wars and Spielberg, it all seemed a little subdued, and with The Orphanage struggling to secure work befitting their elite CGI talent pool, they went all-in on Marvel’s franchise-starter, Iron Man (2008).

“They actually created their own shot, just to be hired to do that movie,” recalls Anielewicz. “And they spent a lot on that shot. Interestingly enough, the shot that they put together as their bid for being in the movie ended up in the movie, because the director of the movie loved the idea so much.

“My job was, again, more MentalRay reflections, the material shader development, making that armature look as good as it did on set, and fully in full CG was a challenge. I mean, it had a kind of iridescence to it, that was pretty difficult to emulate because it was an unusual metal. It wasn’t really a metal that exists. Whoever created the actual models of the Ironman suit. I don’t know how they made that material, but it reacted to light very strangely. The other conundrum that we had was that the texture maps were incredibly high resolution– it took eight hours a frame to render. 

“The shot The Orphanage worked on got a bad review from some of the people that got to see an early preview of that shot. They said it looked like a video game and the producers of the movie decided that it should be taken out of the hands of The Orphanage and given to ILM. So one day we had like 10 people from ILM come to The Orphanage offices and take away everything. I thought, in the end, Orphanage did a better job than ILM did on the clips because a couple of shots stayed in the movie.”

Looking back on his career from the vantage point of retirement, Will Anielewicz is still passionate about the art, and perhaps clearer sighted on those bits of the job that took him away from his canvas in the code.

“I think of myself as an artist. I mean, I happened to be a coder, I was taking computer science courses and stuff, but my dream was to be an artist. I thought I could just be Salvador Dali, and just make art and just do it for me. And if people liked it or disliked it, I didn’t care. I did it for me and I wanted to express things. 

“My little thought of the VFX industry is when you get a job, everything gets screwed up. The whole motivation of why I wanted to do this got changed for money. I did it for money, instead of my inspiration, my desire to be an artist that makes pieces that are close to me emotionally or aesthetically.”

Whatever Will Anielewicz does next, you can be sure it’ll be on his own terms.

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