AMID all the glitz and the glamour of Sunday night’s Baftas, as London welcomed the great and good of the film world, Hans Rijpkema was on tenterhooks back in Los Angeles.
As one of the team behind the computer-generated Bengal tiger in Ang Lee’s magical Life of Pi, Hans helped create a big cat so realistic that many viewers thought it was real.
And, sure enough, the film – based on the fantastical tale by Yann Martel – stalked off with the Bafta for special visual effects, plus another for cinematography, at the awards ceremony which was attended by Mr Hollywood himself George Clooney and man of the hour Ben Affleck.
Hans may not have been walking the red carpet alongside Lee but he and the team at LA-based Rhythm and Hues studios had just as much reason to celebrate.
With up to 50 films, including Cats And Dogs, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Golden Compass, now under his belt, Hans is the one who develops the computer software for film characters so animators can add the magic touches of muscle, sinew and fur.
If those basics aren’t right then the creature won’t look right or move correctly.
“I write a lot of the software needed in order to do characters,” he explains when, ahead of the Baftas, I phone him in LA (where he’s busy at work at 8am).
The Life of Pi tiger, Richard Parker, has just won them the industry’s special effects awards and is, he says, “by far the best character we’ve ever done”.
He adds: “If people watch the movie and don’t know it’s a computer-generated tiger then we’ve done our job well. That’s a compliment.”
A real tiger was used in only 24 shots in the film – “80% of it is computer generated” – and Hans laughs when he tells how even the director mistook a computer-generated image of the tiger for the real one as he passed by one day as they were looking at it on screen.
Film fans can expect to hear a few more inside stories when Hans flies over to the region next week to give a talk at Animex, the international festival of animation and computer games, in Middlesbrough where he’s been a popular speaker since 2007.
While Richard Parker will no doubt be the main topic of conversation, audiences can expect a fascinating insight into an industry whose tools are changing and developing all the time with the result that what we’re seeing on the big screen is becoming ever more realistic.
Which means, of course, that what’s required of Hans is ever more demanding.
“We are told what they want the characters to do and we have to prove we can do it and there’s some level of confidence based on what we have done before,” he says.
Such skills means they can ensure that an animal does what it should do: its fur, for instance, ripples rather than clumps when it is in water – as with Richard Parker when he takes the plunge from a life boat into the (digital) Pacific Ocean.
“In The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, there was long fur that had to look completely realistic blowing in the wind and I had to come up with something in order to do that.”
He knew the Life of Pi tiger had to be better than The Chronicles of Narnia’s lion but before deciding on the tools he needs to develop, he always talks it over with animal experts.
“We get people to tell us how the biology of the animal works. We talk to biologists and paleontologists about how the body structure behaves, and we also study real animals.
“Then we build up the character from inside out.”
The constant quest to find tools to do this more quickly and efficiently means those used 10 years ago are now too slow and cumbersome.
While in 1995 the film Babe included use of real animals, by 2006’s Night at the Museum (and following the first Harry Potter film, with its talking hat and flying keys, in 2001) they’d come on in leaps and bounds.
“In The Golden Compass (2007) each person has a separate animal character – you wouldn’t have been able to do something like that 10 years earlier,” says Hans.
“It would have been too expensive to create these characters but suddenly it became possible to do movies like that.”
As for Life of Pi, that wouldn’t have been possible “even a couple of years ago”.
He adds: “The more you can do, the more people expect.”
And it’s even dictating the type of movies being made now. The more the studio starts pushing, and the higher the expectations, then the more they must look for ways to improve.
Hans loves those challenges – and what the animators and creators conjure up from his software.
Originally from the Netherlands where he studied for a computer science degree and worked at the National Institute for Computer Animation, it was while on a holiday in California that he decided to try his luck at the studio.
“I’d always been fascinated by the making of, and behind the scenes of, movies.
“Like Jurassic Park, I’d think ‘if I could only work on that stuff but who needs this little person from the Netherlands when they have these geniuses to do it’?
“But on vacation in 1996 I sent a couple of letters saying ‘I’m here, can I have an interview’? and I’ve been here ever since!”
The 13th Animex, hosted by Teesside University, runs from February 18-22, with a programme of talks, screenings, master-classes and workshops. Hans Rijpkema will give his talk, Taming Tigers and Ocean Waves – The visual effects of Life of Pi at 4pm on Thursday and Friday, February 21 and 22. He is also doing one for people in creative industries at 10am on Wednesday, February 20, at the university’s day-long AnimEXPO, presented by DigitalCity Innovation.
Other Animex speakers include Wyeth Johnson, art director of Epic Games, on February 18 and 19; and comic creator Marv Wolfman, former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, on February 20. Visit www.animex.net for the full programme.