Ever wanted to work on a life-sized movie character? Drew Turney meets a small design company who does every day and learns about life beyond the world of stationery and brochures.
Complex packaging or exhibition stands are a specialist skill few of us are lucky enough to get a crack at. A glance at most packaged products from software to laundry powder shows how easy it would be to create a design for every face of the box. Even with a few flourishes like rounded corners packaging isn’t a big stretch from flat design.
But in designing ‘real’ things like cars, computers or space shuttles, you’re entering the world not just of industrial design but design engineering. We can draw and imagine anything on paper, but the real world is a whole new ball game. Consider the humble robot. Robotic characters of popular culture from Metropolis’ Maria to Marvin the Paranoid Android are vageuly humanoid and have many of our articulated limbs and joints, but the stumbling block of robotics is that powering a self contained device the size of a human would need so much added weight in batteries or solar power conversion the resulting machine would be too heavy to carry itself around.
Even designing the real-life incantation of a pretend robot has its challenges, as the guys from JJ&A design in Los Angeles found when Desktop was lucky enough to visit their studio earlier this year.
Owners Jim Johnson and Bob Rembert oversee two designers and three structrual engineers who have what must be some of the coolest assignments in the design industry. JJ&A specialises in point of sale material for a who’s who of the movie industry like 20th Century Fox, Sony, Disney, Dreamworks, Universal and Warner Bros.
Next time you go to your local cinema and appreciate the work that’s gone into the at-times huge movie display ads (called ‘standees’), it’s a good bet it’s come from behind the doors of JJ&A’s nondescript Glendale building.
We were there to discuss one of their most interesting and challenging tasks, creation of a nine foot tall talking Wall.E sitting on top of a packing crate for Disney/Pixar’s 2008 hit.
A stroll through JJ&A’s two-storey premises is like a half hour education on what’s possible in large format printing. A standee for Universal’s Fast & Furious is done with a gloss laminate car image overprinted on a matt substrate. A six foot tall Kung Fu Panda for Dreamworks is made up of three individual pieces because the necessary material didn’t come in forms big enough to do it all in one. Nine foot tall displays for Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean featuring the film’s characters were printed with silk screening because the surface was too large for wide format digital.
An elaborate standee for Dreamworks’ Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is an articulated grassland about 30 square feet with a model of the horse from the film, with a styrene body and poly foam head and legs. Another, for the Weinstein-produced Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse films, depicts a seedy-looking cinema entrance playing the cult double bill, nine feet tall and 15 feet wide.
But JJA’s job is much more than making something look good. A huge standee for Disney’s Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian features an elaborate throne that takes our weight more than comfortably even though it’s only made out of 200 lb corrugated card (similar to 500gsm card in the Australasian market). They worked a similar miracle with the other major Wall.E standee, a white bench with Wall.E at one end and the iPod-like Eve at the other, just calling out to little bodies to sit between them for a photo.
In both cases, the comparatively punishing point of sale environment called for a toughness few design tasks require, but JJ&A produce pieces for transport and use across the globe. There were 2,500 alone of Wall.E on his crate, which included four variations for language (they’ve done up to 13 variations in one job). So using anything other than the usual printed substrates like paper or art board is out of the question.
But Wall.E standing on his packing crate was a new level of workmanship entirely. Often different materials are bought in to give displays an extra creative dimension, and in this case they included his plastic lens-like eye housings and the speakerbox, tripped by a motion sensor so he emitted his distinctive dialogue as cinemagoers walked past.
The first hurdle facing senior structural designer James Volpe was that Wall.E didn’t even exist in the real world. When Disney approached JJ&A, the character had been designed and rendered in the imaginations of writer/director Andrew Stanton and his team of animators a million times. But in not just the increasingly digital world of moviemaking but animation in general, who cares about the laws of physics?
Character designers for the film needed only give the merest thought to to how Wall.E would stay upright and move around. JJ&A had to use the same dimensions and ‘parts’ for Wall.E’s body that had already been animated in a US$180 million movie, and he had to stand up — in every sense of the word — in the real world.
Production on the film commenced in February 2007 and it was released in the US in May 2008, so Desktop expects that Disney was prepared so far in advance they provded JJ&A with sketches, schematics, video files, measurements and plans anything up to a year before the marketing deadline. But no, Disney gave the company a single Quicktime clip just one month out, and even that’s more time than usual — most of JJ&A’s jobs are turned around in just two or three weeks.
Volpe’s first step while rotating the render of Wall.E through only a single plane was to literally sit and think. Trained as a structural engineer, his job is to imagine how to produce something in three dimensions using only flat pieces. It resulted in a lot of hand sketches of Wall.E’s distinctive wheel tracks, his extendable arms and their receptacles, the joints in his neck and his squat, square chassis.
But the detail goes much deeper. Look at the shape of Wall.E’s arm in the images that accompany this story. The outside edge is flat so when his arms are withdrawn into his body they’re flush with the sides of his chassis, but the inside edges are rounded, which means a curved surface extended from one edge of the flat face to lock into the opposite edge. Such details would have meant a few numeric variables in Maya or Cinema 4D but they present countless challenges when you’re trying to do the same thing with paper or card stock.
The next step was to fabricate the model using unprinted stock so the team could determine the best materials and configuration. Structural designer Volpe’s hand sketches helped get it straight in his head and the next step was to create CAD files to isolate the individual pieces needed to build the model in accordance with Wall.E’s parts.
He used Ashlar Vellum’s Graphite to create the 27 pieces that make up Wall.E’s body (not including structural appliances) and the uncoloured kraft corrugated sample was produced by sending the CAD files to a plotter.
After cutting and assembling the pieces Wall.E’s first real-life incantation outside Pixar was bought to life. The other real departure from most of JJ&A’s projects was that usually a new model calls for a series of miniatures, but at every scale Wall.E would have different weight behaviours and material constraints, so there was no choice but to go straight for a full-scale test, the uncoloured version of which it’s said is still in Pixar head honcho John Lasseter’s office.
Next step was to go to the art team. While the CAD files were repurposed as dielines the graphics guys could open in Photoshop and Illustrator, Disney artists provided the artwork of Wall.E’s surfaces like the patterns of his tracks and his rust-speckled chassis as Photoshop files, retouching or adjusting them as necessary to fit JJ&A’s dielines. The next step was simply to lay the artwork over the flat schematics for each piece of Wall.E’s body and it was ready to send to output to a HP plotter.
Proofs were run out and a working, life-sized dummy was ready to show Disney – and remember, this are no ordinary client. In this age where the talent has so much sway over every aspect of a film’s realisation, often it’s not just studio marketing who gives the go ahead (from both Disney and Pixar, in this case) but directors, producers and even extremely powerful actors who might not like the shade of their face in print. It’s easy to imagine an animation studio with a reputation like Pixar’s being exacting — to say the least — when it comes to colour approval.
Travels with artboard
Wall.E’s body was put together by a dizzying array of locking tabs to hold it together, and the complexity of the job made it one of the few JJ&A assembled themselves prior to shipping.
As well as being tough and creative, the other challenge normally facing standee designers is to make assembly easy. Most — 99 percent according to JJ&A — go out flat packed, and if you’ve ever watched the semi-literate 17 year olds who work at some cinemas and wonder how they can even scoop popcorn unsupervised, you’ll understand how important it is to make movie standees easy to assemble.
Wall.E offered a deceptively clever solution you probably didn’t even notice when the movie was in cinemas. That large black box he was sitting on in the cinema lobby is the one he was delivered in, only his head waiting to be attached by a tube of jute fibre.
That gave rise to a further engineering challenge in the packaging. Not only did Wall.E’s body have extended arms, grasping ‘hands’ and tracks that didn’t fit into a simple square shape, they were made of cardboard that would be easily crushed or water-damaged in their long journeys in container ships, unloaded at filthy docks and thrown onto trucks for transport to cinemas around the world.
So inside the box with him were seven corrugated fillers and a bubble pack for his head to mnimise movement within the crate, the whole display then poly bagged.
So that’s the story of how over two thousand Wall.Es arrived in movie theatres throughout the latter half of 2008, but where did they all go? Technically, point of sale marketing material for films remains the property of the distributor, giving them the opportunity to save money and reuse them in retail stores where movies make msot of their money these days (on DVD). But by then few of them remain in good condition.
And of those that mysteriously make their way out of cinemas, it isn’t always the light-fingered fanboy staff. The Australian Disney distributor told Desktop we wouldn’t believe the number of standees stolen by the general public, in some cases before the film had even opened.
So after all that painstaking design, engineering and fabricating and a co-ordinated, global shipping program, Wall.Es everywhere are probably slowly degrading in the garages of film nerds the world over.