With years of experience at top studios around the world, Ben Rush knows a thing or two about making animated films. Currently an animator on Pixar’s “Finding Dory”, Rush most recently was at Google ATAP on the upcoming Spotlight Story “On Ice” and developed the Beast character for Disney’s live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” – all after a 13 year stint at DreamWorks Animation where he pulled double duty as a supervising animator and character technical director.
With his own animated film “Only a Dream” currently in production, we talked to the veteran animator to find out what it takes to get a dream on screen.
Twenty years ago, I had this crazy dream about a little girl who had a giant bipedal machine as her bodyguard. It was her muscle. She was about 6, wild hair, tough, no-nonsense. I thought it was a cool idea for a story so started playing around with it. Flash forward to today, and I’ve made it three times. The first two cracks at it were completely different stories, made on my own on the laptop. Neither of these were very successful, but I learned a lot by showing my mistakes to people. One director told me a good story is like a puzzle. Sometimes you just need to throw up the pieces and see where they land. This idea of staying loose with things was very helpful.
With this in mind, I wrote the feature screenplay and brought on some of my uber talented friends at DreamWorks, guys like Ares Deveaux, Ken Fountain, Pierre Perifel and Jason Ryan. They definitely helped me bring it to another level. Things started to gel. The story began to tell me what it wanted to be, rather than the other way around, which was a bit of an indicator for me that it was working. From there, my small group snowballed into a much larger team made up of students of mine from iAnimate.net and industry friends who worked after hours to help create the 10 minute proof-of-concept we currently have in production.
It’s about an orphan named Lucy Hawkins, a loner teen trying to forget her past, confronting her own demons, and the demon-spawn of other kids as well. It’s definitely a walk on the scary side… but it’s also about friendship, love and growing up. It’s loaded with heart, comedy and epic warfare between misfit kids and the monsters they conjure in their imaginations.
We are about 65% animated. We were in the 90s, but we’ve added 2 killer new sequences to boost the fun. We have yet to begin lighting, compositing, and there is much left to do in modeling, surfacing, and FX.
Ultimately, we want to make the feature. The short film proof-of-concept currently in production will hopefully help us sell that this is a viable feature project. We believe we can do it for a third of the cost of making it at a big studio. Still, it’s a tough sell even though the story is good, because nobody’s ever seen a PG-13 CG hand-animated scary movie. Walt Disney wasn’t afraid to do things like the “Night on Bald Mountain” (or “Bambi”), and DreamWorks and Pixar have also explored themes other than pure comedy, we’re just putting the pedal to the metal and going all the way into a new genre to see if it’s possible. With a good story, good characters, I have to believe it is. It’s essentially a fusion of the live-action dark superhero genre and the family friendly animated feature.
What are some of the challenges of trying to make your own film on the side while working full time at a studio?
At times it’s felt like pushing a boulder uphill. I’ve played the role of writer, producer, director, recruiter, PA, gopher, admin, janitor, beggar and everything between. I also teach animation and have 3 kids. Plenty of times the boulder has gone nowhere, or comes rolling back at me, but now it’s finally gaining some momentum. I’m not the only one pushing, and I can’t tell you how good that feels. The people who’ve helped have done so with amazing passion and dedication, especially considering our current budget is zero dollars. It’s very inspiring…all these people working just because they believe in the project. It’s literally a dream come true.
Nearly 100 people have worked on it to date. Many feature-level professionals from DreamWorks and Disney, as well as many aspiring professionals. You can see the full list at OnlyADreamMovie.com. That group will become much stronger if we get the feature funded, because we’ll be able to add stellar leadership from Academy Award winning industry giants. In many cases these people and companies have already made huge contributions to help this project succeed.
So far production has all been done online in our virtual studio, L7 Pictures over video teleconferencing software. We have a central hub where assets are uploaded. Production is tracked with a free tool called Basecamp. Everything is free on this production. We even had a solar powered render farm at one point.
Right now we are a little over 10 minutes on the short. A seasoned feature editor, Christopher Capp is currently working to trim that down. The feature would come in at around 94 minutes as it stands today.
Any advice for pros looking to make their own films on the side?
I can sum it up with two words: Perseverance and Belief. One gives rise to the other. You need to believe in your project to have perseverance, and you need perseverance to carry you through all the ups and downs, which fuels the belief.
I’ve had so many “no” moments during this process that “no” ceased to have meaning. If something failed, I tried something else. The only thing that fueled me through all those failures was that I knew the idea was good. I knew it was a story that needed to be told. This process also evolved the story, made it stronger, more bulletproof. Eventually, others agreed to the point where now we have something that I believe people are genuinely excited about.
If you’re thinking about making a film or are in the midst of it, stay open, flexible, and adapt. Be ready to take your blows. It’ll thicken your skin and make you a better artist.
What do you wish you had known when you started that you learned in the course of production?
The single biggest thing is the way we organize and process our data – the infrastructure. I would have invested in an off-the-shelf, checkin/checkout package like Perforce, rather than writing our own tools. It would have been helpful to have all this figured out and tested before we began. We’re a fairly organized production, but not as well as we could be.
The crowdfunding efforts for Ben Rush’s film “Only a Dream” go live in a month or two, so keep an eye out for upcoming announcements. Once the campaign begins, they’ll be in search of talented animators, lighters, compositors, texture artists, vfx artists, modelers, you name it!
If you are interested in joining the crew, please contact Ben Rush via Zerply and share your reel.
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