It was a frigid and rainy night when my car broke down along the I-5 corridor on the southern outskirts of Glendale. There was a power outage and all the service stations were closed. I began wandering around, eventually finding myself on the railroad tracks, where I came across a one-toed hobo.
He invited me out of the pouring rain and into his boxcar, where he lit a small pile of straw afire to keep me warm, poured a cup of something that tasted like it was stolen from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s private reserve, and began regaling me with the tale of a local legend often heard of but rarely seen that went by the name of “Captain 3D.”
Captain 3D was born Phil McNally. While in high school in Formby, England, he borrowed his father’s 8mm film camera and began a career in filmmaking.
This was followed by college and a career in furniture design. As McNally explains in 1991 in his diaries:
“My furniture ideas are interesting to experience in the short-term, but who wants to live with a Spider Chair for 20 years? Especially at a ridiculous one-off price. But put that in a film and the audience only lives with it for an appropriate length of time and the money and effort required to produce a single object are justified as it is in fact mass-produced in its most important social aspect – Visual.”
A year later, in 1992, the idea had progressed:
“Computer Lead…Film/TV/Theatre? Maybe these could combine into some thing visual – A computer generated piece of furniture that can change and adapt – the ultimate adjustable chair – produced through a story on TV by computer. Not a physical thing but a fantasy experience. These are the ideas that excite me.”
To give you an idea as to where computer animation was at the time, the current two major players, Pixar and Dreamworks (the CG division then known as PDI) were creating television commercials. Both companies were working on short films. In fact, Pixar’s Oscar-winning short Knickknack, which had been presented at SIGGRAPH in 3D, was released only four years earlier. And PDI was contributing computer animated visual effects to a number of major movies, including Terminator 2. Fully computer animated features were still a few years off.
1995 was a pivotal year. PDI produced a CG segment for the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror titled Homer3. The segment would later be reformatted for the IMAX 3D format as part of the compilation Cyberworld. Pixar, with distribution partner Disney, released Toy Story. And Phil McNally was freelancing in the digital and visual arts in London. Quite a bit of his work would involve 3D.
In 2000, he completed 14 months of work animating a four-minute short called Pump-Action. The award-winning piece helped him win a position with George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. He worked on such films as Men in Black II, The Hulk, and Van Helsing as a character animator.
Now here’s where things get a little sketchy. This is how the one-toed hobo explained it and a couple of others in the industry believe it to be mostly true.
So, a year after Toy Story comes out, 1996, Disney wants to pursue realistic computer animation, so they purchase a leading vfx house called Dream Quest Images. They rename it The Secret Lab and put it to work on Dinosaur, a combination of CG characters with live action background plates. The film flops at the box office and the Secret Lab, with all of Dream Quest’s visionary history, becomes history itself in 2002.
Things start to fizzle between Pixar and their distributor, the Walt Disney Company. In 2004, they cannot come to terms on a new agreement. Disney has the rights to make sequels to Pixar’s theatrical films using only Disney talent and without any input from Pixar. Circle 7 Studios is established to produce the first of these – Toy Story 3 (not the Pixar version that was released last year).
Disney, also not set to gain access to any new original Pixar characters after the final film in the distribution contract, Cars, eliminates most of their cel animation operations in favor of new CG films produced by the Disney Studios.
The first of these films to be scheduled for release was Chicken Little. Mind you, this was being developed as a 2D film. A lot was riding on Chicken Little. If it failed, Pixar would have more leeway in negotiating a new contract or might approach another Hollywood studio altogether.
The followup CG film to Chicken Little was Meet the Robinsons. The animators were having difficulty establishing the layout of one of the scenes in this second film. So McNally was asked to help out. Not only did he present the solution in CG, but he presented it stereographically. The animators and Disney executives were blown away and a rush decision was made to release Chicken Little in 2005 in 3D.
The animation completed in Burbank was sent up to ILM, where McNally supervised the conversion to 3D. At ILM, he would also supervise the conversion of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas before joining Disney as stereoscopic supervisor for Meet the Robinsons. Since 2007, Phil “Captain 3D” has held the prestigious title of Global Stereoscopic Supervisor for Dreamworks Animation, where he has overseen 3D animation from Monsters vs. Aliens to Kung Fu Panda 2.
Tomorrow, all merges as we take Phil McNally, Hugh Murray, T-Rex, Chicken Little, and James Cameron, and throw them all in one big pot leading to Avatar.
Phil McNally’s diary listings, portfolio and Pump-Action can all be found on his website, www.captain3d.com.