October 9, 2003
Rustmonkey On My Back: wherein Josh Jabcuga talks with CGI artist Dan Thron of Rustmonkey Studios regarding pitching an all-CGI-based film to George Clooney’s Section 8 films, working on Eidos THIEF III, and “the Schindler’s List red-dress girl of cola advertising.”
Joshua Jabcuga: Daniel, can you please give me a little background on your own career? How did you get involved doing CG work and how long have you been doing it? Please give us some of your credits, too.
Daniel Thron/RustMonkey: I didn’t start any sort of career until I was twenty-five or so. The only thing I’d managed to accomplish at that point was dropping out of a community college after one year. The rest was pretty much getting drunk, eating O’Grady’s potato chips, and reading back issues of ALPHA FLIGHT. I fell into freelance illustrating for a while, but I had no formal training at all, so the best gigs I could get was
stuff like the tiny drawings on the sides of patio furniture packing boxes – the ones that identify the genus of the lawn chair within. It was ridiculous. An artist in Gilliam’s BRAZIL would have that job.
I was hired by Looking Glass Studios as a texture artist, even though I knew nothing at all about CG. But they liked the work I’d done for a book I co-wrote with my friends Todd Shaughnessy and Chris Elliot—a parody of role-
playing games called HOL: Human Occupied Landfill that White Wolf published. For the first couple of years I worked there, I did grass textures for their British Open golf game. Two years of drawing 128x128 pixel swatches of grass. I thought I would scrape my eyes out.
But from bitching about wanting to make movies all the time, I eventually got them to let me try some cut-scene work, which is when I did the movies for Looking Glass’ cult classics THIEF and THIEF II. They’ve since collapsed, but the rights to the THIEF series got picked up by Eidos and Ion Storm, so Rustmonkey has hooked up with them recently to do the movies for THIEF III.
After Looking Glass folded, I ended up working at another short-lived game company called Hardwired, where I met Brian White, with whom I co-founded Rustmonkey. And
Brian is a stinkin’ genius. He’s self-trained as well, and has a Rainman-like attention to detail in his art. He also came from a game background – he did awesome cutscene work for Westwood Studios’ COMMAND & CONQUER and BLADERUNNER. We love the same stuff, want to make the same kinds of films, but the thing that really impressed me was that he’s one of the few effects people I’ve ever met who knows that the best effects are the ones you don’t notice. Once the audience thinks “That was awesome—how did you do that?” you’ve blown it. The movie is what people paid to see, not your demo reel.
Joshua Jabcuga: Who are some of your influences? This obviously could be anything from people, music, movies, whatever.
Dan Thron: The crew here mixes everything and anything. Here’s an undifferentiated blastocyst: The Coen brothers, BINARY STAR, ALIENS, RONIN (the comic), RONIN (the DeNiro tax write-off), OZU, THE SEARCHERS, SOLARIS (old), SOLARIS (new), CRYPTONOMICON, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, RADIOHEAD, THE CONVERSATION, JAWS, THE CURE, Altoids (cinnamon), Altoids (ginger), Phillip Glass, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Kim Stanley Robinson, CHUNKING EXPRESS, LONESOME DOVE, THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF THE LUCKIEST BASTARD YOU EVER SAW, Grass, BJORK, the Bjork-makes-out-with-Bjork robot video, FAST FOOD NATION, BOTTLE ROCKET, MISS KITTEN, SKINNY LEGS AND ALL, Greg Egan, GEEK LOVE, ERASERHEAD, WOMAN IN THE DUNES, Eddie Izzard, MEMENTO, and BIM SKALA BIM, who Brian used to play some mean drums for.
Joshua Jabcuga: What led you to pursuing CG animation as a career,--was it a passion for art, movies, comic books, animation…?
Dan Thron: What I was nine, my older brother told my parents that he was brining me to some Disney movie, but then snuck me in to ALIEN instead. He had to explain to our parents why Snow White made me pee my Toughskins. But my parents were cool. My mom was giving me books like THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and DUNE when I was in the seventh grade, and getting me into Kurasawa and Steve Martin. Nerd down to the bone.
So yeah, I don’t know. I read all the time. Good stuff, crappy stuff, I don’t care. Screenplays, nonfiction, comics. And movies, Jesus. It’s almost impossible to talk about how much I love movies without sounding like a scene from ICE CASTLES. But I do think there is a big difference between loving watching films and loving making them; you have to be a little bit of a masochist to enjoy the process of making movies; the stress level is brutal, and you can never really be sure that it’s coming together until it’s way too late. It’s like when you change the mag for a camera; you have to fiddle around with the film in this black bag to get it loaded, and you have to do it fast, because the whole crew is waiting on you. But you can’t see what you’re doing—it feels right, but for all you know, the whole thing will be fucked when you pull it out of the bag. You can’t be sure. That’s what it seems like at this stage, anyway. Rustmonkey’s only put together shorts. But I guess the thing that really draws me to moviemaking, though, is that you are forced to give up control. You have to have faith in the folks around you, in their talent. Plus it coordinates every kind of art. It’s as collaborative an experience as you can have, I think. Outside of that Amish barn-building thing, which I hear rocks pretty hard.
Joshua Jabcuga: So you stumbled across my article about A SCANNER DARKLY and the Charlie Kaufman version of the script, which led you to sending me a copy of your company’s proposal that was shown to Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s Section 8 films. I have to say that I was completely blown away by what I saw. It was total eye candy, but it was relevant, too, not mindless. I can’t imagine the people at Section 8 being anything but thrilled when they viewed it. How did they, in fact, respond?
Dan Thron: Once we heard that they had picked up the rights, Brian and I turned out the animated preview by ourselves in just two weeks. We got it through to Section 8 via a wonderful woman at Screen Gems. But it still took a while for all that to happen, and in that time, we received a very nice letter from them saying that they had decided to hold off on the idea of it being an animated piece, and were reconsidering live-
action. But it was very exciting to have them look at the work. We’re going to make a feature in this style if I have to sell Brian’s kidneys, however. We’d just love it to be SCANNER, is all.
Joshua Jabcuga: What exactly is your take on A SCANNER DARKLY,--would it be like the reel that I saw, and ideally, would it be entirely black and white and CG-based?
Dan Thron: Black and white would be the cat’s pajamas. Though if we did Kaufman’s script, I’d be tempted to do all the Coke logos in vivid red. Make Coke’s logo into the SCHINDLER’S LIST red-dress girl of cola advertising.
The choice to make it black and white wasn’t to be arty, it’s just that, it seemed to make it funnier, more pathetically ironic. If it were in color, it would simply be bleak. But black and white lends this heavy, serious tone that is both appropriate and ridiculous at the same time, like DOCTOR STRANGELOVE.
Joshua Jabcuga: If people want to see it for themselves, they can view a sample of your take on A SCANNER DARKLY, which I can’t praise enough, right at your Web site, right?
Dan Thron: We absolutely welcome it; the images we’ve put together inspired by PKD’s work have become iconic of where we want to take the company. Please let us know what you think!
Visit www.rustmonkey.com to view clips of their take on A SCANNER DARKLY.
Next week: Part 2 of Squib Central’s interview with Daniel Thron of Rustmonkey Studios regarding his thoughts on the current state of animation, the future of CGI filmmaking, and his opinion on the prospects of a full-length all-CGI-based film for mature audiences.
Thanks for bleeding, er, I mean reading Squib Central! See you in 7 days!
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