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Philip Edward Alexy - CGI Animator

Compiled and edited by C.A. Chicoine
Posted November 2015

Philip Edward Alexy - CGI Animator
Philip Edward Alexy




Philip Edward Alexy - CGI Animator
Harrold the Flying Sheep
Born in beautiful Vancouver, Canada, Philip graduated from Sheridan College's Classical Animation program in the summer of 1993. By the beginning of 1994, Philip was working for Industrial Light and Magic as a CG animator on the project "Casper". In 1999, after nearly seven years and working on such projects as "Jumanji", "Flubber", and "Star Wars: Episode One", Philip left ILM to work at C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures on the Gemini Award winning animation series "Angela Anaconda". By 2004, Philip had worked on projects ranging from "Santa Claus 2", "Need for Speed: Underground", "Modigliani" and "Das Gespenst von Canterville". Philip was then Animation Director/Supervisor at Styles and Stories in Berlin, Germany, developing children's television series and CG feature films. In 2007, he made what was supposed to be a brief 3-month stint into New Delhi, India, teaching computer animation, turn into a four year precedent-making joint venture of Centennial College of Canada and Maharishi Group-owned Picasso Animation College as Academic Head and National Lead Professor. In 2011, Philip made his way back to Canada, started up his own animation and design company, "Harrold the Flying Sheep", working on a variety of projects such as character and effects animation, company re-branding, and graphics imagery. In 2013, Philip joined the core staff of AE35 Media, a transmedia service company, based out of the Bay Area in California. He left AE35 Media in July 2015 and started work at Mr. X Inc., located in Toronto, ON, in August as a 3D Animator. 


Forward

I first came across Philip Edward Alexy while searching DeviantArt for Casper fan-art to feature on the Casper Portal Pinterest page. And I couldn't believe what I found! A photo of Fatso atop his car! Here I found a computer animator who worked on Casper! Searching through his gallery, I came across more Casper-related photos along with the stories behind them. And he was very forthright and honest answering questions posed to him by other members of the DeviantArt community about the film shots and his work. 

I then followed the links to his website, and to his Vimeo page where he has videos highlighting some of the work he has done on Casper and other projects. So, I contacted him and asked if he'd be interested in being interviewed for this website, and if I could use the images and videos. He was happy to oblige my request.

This article is an amalgamation of the content from his DeviantArt and Vimeo pages, intertwined with questions that I posed to him personally via email. I have also integrated previous interviews, articles and materials pertaining to Philip Edward Alexy and the movie Casper into the introduction section of this article.  



Introduction

Casper is an American comedy/fantasy adventure film, based on the 'Casper the Friendly Ghost' animated cartoons and comic books, released in 1995 by Universal Pictures and Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. It features a variety of special effects, but it is particularly significant in that it featured computer-generated characters in more scenes than any previous movie had. And Casper is the first feature film to have a fully CGI character in a leading role.

Casper film director, Brad Silberling, spent six months shooting with the production team. After that, he'd spent a year with the team from George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic effects factory –- working with approximately 25 animators and 150 staffers --ultimately creating about 360 computer-generated shots.   

Casper and his uncles -- the Ghostly Trio -- were on the screen for a total of more than 40 minutes. And they had to be able to deliver a performance just like a human actor.2 Casper's computer-generated characters were first sculptured as 10-inch maquettes by the experts at The Character Shop under the supervision of Dennis Muren. First, translucent versions were cast to help ILM and the production team visualize how the characters would look if they were slightly transparent. Having an actual 3-dimensional model that they could hold in their hands, rotate, and analyze how the light shone through was an incredible tool. Then, flexible white rubber versions with poseable wire skeletons were created to help ILM animators realize how the characters would move and look in different poses.3 Then a third set of castings were made; solid white versions were produced and given to ILM, which they used to create their CGI models by digitizing as 3-dimensional images into their computer database, which converted them into wireframe skeletons. These skeletons were used to build the characters and animate them -- a demanding process, because digital animators had to create a 3-D ghost that would still resemble the 2-D ghost of the original "Casper" cartoons on which the movie was based. The artists also had to achieve the correct degrees of smoothness and transparency for the ghosts, which would not receive their glow and shadows until the final stages of the work.1 The Character Shop also created full-scaled lightweight, posable maquettes for production use on set, providing visual reference for the director, floor f/x crew and animators, and also eyelines and physical characters for the actors to react to.3  

An additional challenge was the fact that digital artists had to make Casper's face expressive. To aid them in their work, the artists used a motion-capture system to transfer information about live actor's facial movements into the computer and develop a library of facial expressions that could be used on the ghost characters as needed. The capture system was also used to create lip movements. But even working from filmed images, it still took special effects experts from two weeks to two months to animate a single shot.1

Since they had four or five animators animating one character throughout the film, they had to make sure that they all had the same character -- set of qualities -- that the personality didn't change depending on who is animating.2 

Once the animation phase was complete, the computer-generated characters still had to be composited with other scene elements. Their placement was assisted by animatics -- what they referred to on the set as "Caspermatics" -- made during live-action filming. That became their road map of positions in the frame as the camera is moving or as the scene is progressing. They extrapolated a lot of the acting information – the size of the character, where he is, what's his look and mood from that. Drawn on the set, these rough sketches were combined with a video recording of the live action. And the resulting videotape was played back so the actors and technicians could get an idea of the ghosts' positions. So, the animators had three references as a guideline for where the characters are in the frame from which to use – a “shot package” - which contained; the full-scale maquette reference section, the Caspermatic, and the plain background blank plate.2  

CGI animation was still in its infancy. And the folks at ILM brought computer animation to a new level. Philip Edward Alexy was one of those animators. However, that wasn't the direction he was taking after graduating high school. “After high school, I opted for civil engineering at the University of Toronto. But I was in love with art. It was art that pulled me into animation. I quit engineering after 3 months because I couldn’t see my self designing sewers, traffic systems and bridges,” laughed Philip.3

Philip first earned a certificate in Art Fundamentals before earning his diploma in Classical Animation from Sheridan College in 1993. "I learnt the basics of art and the various aspects involved in it. After I finished the course, I landed myself a job at ILM and there was no looking back after that”, said Philip.4

The Canadian born animator has worked on more than twenty films thus far, including the movies JumanjiFlubberStar Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace101 DalmatiansJack Frost, Deep Impact, Mercury Rising, Eraser, Peter PanV for VendettaCharlotte's Web and, of course, Casper. He worked on the TV series Stargate SG-1 and the children's TV series Angela Anaconda. And he also worked on the computer game Need For Speed: Underground and Prodigal.5

Casper was his first project starting work at ILM. In all, Philip worked on thirteen shots. The following section of this article features Philip's very candid remarks to the scenes he worked on -- helping to bring the ghostly characters to life! 



“Casper will always be an important part of my life." ~Philip Edward Alexy



"A long time ago, the first movie I ever worked on was "Casper", way back in 1994 when I was at Industrial Light + Magic. I've stumbled across some of my notebooks from the time (every day when my shots were reviewed, I took a note pad with me to write down notes and changes, and even added a sketch or two to illustrate whether or not I understood what was needed for me to add or change) and here, for posterity's sake, is a collection of sketches from said notes. You will see a fair number of Fatso drawings because that was the character I animated the most. It was also the only character I could reliably draw that LOOKED like the character in the movie.
Anyway, I thought some of you might get a kick out of seeing a little of the workings behind the animation in this film."

©2012-2015 harroldsheep
©2012-2015 harroldsheepUsed with permission



"Before we started animating Casper, we took a few months just to train in the computer systems we were using, take acting classes, and do some storyboarding exercises. Here is one of mine of Fatso and Stretch."

https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/casper__breakfast_sequence__boards__version_a_by_harroldsheep-d5nuhb7.jpg?attredirects=0
©2012-2015 harroldsheepUsed with permission


https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/casper__breakfast_sequence__boards__version_b_by_harroldsheep-d5nuhs0.jpg?attredirects=0
©2012-2015 harroldsheepUsed with permission



"Everything starts somewhere and this is where I began. This was my first ever animation shot that I did for ILM, that I did for film."



https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/e4169d9fbd222b94988f64fb9b209a4e-d211r4q.jpg?attredirects=0
"Fatso and Stretch are eating breakfast. That piece of donut Stretch is swallowing? My idea! But I look back on it now and think, damn! The animation is terrible!"



"Where Casper comes out of the fridge with plates full of yummy Hostess goodness (and, yes, we HAD to use Hostess because I believe the company paid for the product placement -- and all of them had to be modelled and then approved for shape and colour by Hostess's reps.). I went out and bought a whole bunch of Hostess Twinkies and the like because I was animating the scene where Casper comes out of the ice box with plates of the stuff. Sadly, I ate most of them, which will probably, even today, help preserve my corpse after I pass on."

https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/casper-movie-screencaps.com-4367.jpg


"This was even more frustrating at times since I animated ALL of the ghosts in this shot. Add that with the extremely high-resolution geometry, for back then, needed for the snacks (since they were Twinkies and Ho-Hos licensed from Hostess Foods so they had to look just like the real ones), and I think I spent over a month on this shot."

https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/casper-movie-screencaps.com-4368.jpg?attredirects=0


https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/casper-movie-screencaps.com-4387.jpg?attredirects=0


https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/casper-movie-screencaps.com-4375.jpg?attredirects=0

"...and the end of the shot, where I was WAY over my head, animation-wise, animating four characters at the same time. Not my best work."

https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/ghosts_by_harroldsheep-d5tegan.jpg?attredirects=0
         ©2012-2015 harroldsheep Used with permission

"This is what I saw when I animated this scene."



"The hardest shot in the whole film for me. Animating three characters at the same time with as little experience as I had then, there were times I honestly felt like giving up. The final result, in my eyes…it could have been much better."



"A little more experience and eating a LOT of junk food lead to a point where I was most comfortable animating Fatso."



"That left wrist…embodiment of pure gimbal lock evil."




https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/Harvey_pants.png

"I shared animation duties with two other animators on this shot -- Susan Campbell and I cannot remember the other."



"Fastest shot from blocking to final animation: two days."

https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/Casper__SF01__Stretch_Yells_by_harroldsheep.jpg?attredirects=0

"The fastest shot I ever animated on Casper: one day blocking, one day refining, one day implementing changes. When you see the movie, can you spot the continuity error??? In earlier shots, Stretch was using a golf club as his weapon. But in this shot, where you can see here, it's changed to an umbrella. It couldn't be altered in post because the plunger held by Pullman and the 'brolly are both practical, filmed elements."




https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/casper__bf37__cg_always_works__by_harroldsheep-d5nuhxc.jpg?attredirects=0                                  ©2012-2015 harroldsheep Used with permission

"CG always works! ...well, ok, sometimes it doesn't. Here's one time that something went terribly wrong from my animation file to the rough render.
Luckily, I took a screen-grab to save this for posterity."



"Casper remembers where the Lazarus Chamber is and is, apparently, terribly excited about it. The shot almost broke me. I just could not get the animation to what the director wanted. I must have started from scratch on this shot at least three times and was two weeks over schedule. On a technical note.... gimbal lock sucks. It sucks dead bunnies thru a bent straw. You'll know what I mean when you try and fly a CG character 'round in a circle in Softimage|3D."

https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/Casper__LZ08__Smell_My_Finger_by_harroldsheep.jpg?attredirects=0




"Fatso in Drag: When I heard about this shot, I begged, I pleaded. Yeah, I even threw myself onto the floor in abject humility so that I could animate this shot. Luckily, the animator who WAS assigned the shot got deathly sick, and I got it!"

https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/Fatso_in_Drag_by_harroldsheep.jpg?attredirects=0


"Well, okay, I admit it. This is my favourite shot. I also learned the highly-technical term that is forever etched into my brain: jelloating bazookies. Mark Austin helped with the chuckle at the end."




"Honestly, I was surprised I was given this shot, considering I had more experience with "manic" action."



"Animated with Eric Armstrong."



"This shot was the first of two that required re-animating at least twice because of gimbal lock issues. I just could not get the animation to what the director wanted. I must have started from scratch on this shot at least three times and was two weeks over schedule." 




https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/Casper__CC09__C__s_Big_Chest_by_harroldsheep.jpg?attredirects=0
"Miss Carrigan's ghost has a very big, er..., chest. The hair, WAY before hair simulation, was a real pain to do."



As a CGI animator, did you meet any of the actors?

"We got to meet Cathy Moriarty and had an hour meeting with the Ghostly Trio actors –   Joe Nipote, Joe Alaskey, and Brad Garrett. And I did meet Bill Pullman."



Were you involved with the Pizza Hut or Pepsi commercials?   

"No, I wasn’t involved with the commercials at all.  In fact, it looks like they just took shots from the film itself for the Universal Studios ad.  The Comfort Inn one does the same, but with a little more imaginative compositing.  The Pepsi commercial WAS done by some of the animators for ILM commercials, though.  And, though I’m not too sure, I think it was the same for the Stretch and Stinky in the Pizza Hut commercial, while for the second one, it is repurposed shots from the film."



On the Casper DVD/Blu-ray - "Bonus Materials" feature Revealing Casper, Eric Armstrong said, “Everyone who knows anything about animation, knows that a lot of the animator is in the shot”. Is there a little of you in your work on Casper?

"Is there any of me in Casper?  Of course!  It was my first film and I really wanted to make my mark in the world.  This meant, at times, that I wasn’t able to see the big picture and the personality arcs of the characters properly, much to the annoyance of my animation supervisor.  But, in the end, I was able to understand that the animation should be as seamless as possible, from animator to animator.  There are still contributions I was able to make, like the twirling fingers of Fatso in the Fatso in Drag shot, and other little things that I can point to as my own, but that it didn’t turn out to be a mish-mash of different animation styles, especially back then when the number of computer animators could fill a medium-sized room, is a reflection on the professionalism of the other animators I worked with and the diligence of the leads and supervisors."



Was there anything that you learned from working on Casper that you may not have otherwise learned that has benefited you on future projects?

"Casper was ground-breaking in many ways, and so many processes and methods I did learn are still relevant today, I think even more so, as I find that studios are relying more and more upon motion-capture and letting the computer do the acting work.  I think this is an awful direction to head in because with the comparably-primative technology we had available to use twenty years ago, the team was able to create something that I think still will convince people that ghosts are for real."




“Casper will always be an important part of my life; it was my first real animation job after graduating from college, it was my first feature film, it signaled a move from Canada to California where I would spend the next six years of my life working at ILM, getting married, having a child, and watching that marriage fall apart.  But it was also about the work.  The team that ILM assembled for that project, under the guidance of Steven Spielberg, was unique. HR went out of its way to hire people who didn't have a background in computers or a degree in programming.  It took a rag-tag bunch of artists, classically-trained animators, and spent untold amounts of money to set-up dozens of bleeding edge hardware (SGI Indigos with 64MB of online memory and HUGE 256MB hard drives) and software (Softimage3|D @ $30,000 USD per seat).  We took the first three months just LEARNING Softimage.  It was an incredible, exciting time.  Which then turned into a mind-numbing, soul-breaking year-and-a-half of long days and endless revisions.  But it was still an amazing time.  And one thing I remember most above all, is the truly incredible people I had the honour of working with back then on "Casper" and other projects.”




https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/caspertee_01_by_harroldsheep-d83pfej.jpg
©2014-2015 harroldsheepUsed with permission

Casper Crew T-Shirt, by Tom Bertino

"I was going thru some of my old crap (and I mean OLD, like stuck in a box for over 10 years OLD), and I found this crew t-shirt for the film Casper [1995].  It's not an official t-shirt, but one that was drawn by one of the animation supervisors, Tom Bertino.
So I present it here.  Can you figure out which "ghost" is me?"




https://sites.google.com/site/thecasperportal/Resources/philip-edward-alexy/Fatso_on_my_Car_by_harroldsheep.jpg
 ©2009-2015 harroldsheepUsed with permission

"That's me in 1995 with my 1976 Celica GT. And, yes, that is Fatso sitting on top of the car. In fact, it was the official maquette used for the movie "Casper" so the actors would know where to talk to during rehearsals. (Sorry for the poor quality: it's a photo of a photo.)"




Thank you to Philip Alexy for sharing his fabulous work and we wish him continued success in all his endeavours!




To date, Philip has worked on over twenty projects. Here is his demo reel highlighting some of those projects.





Philip Edward Alexy's Web Presence:

 
http://www.flyingsheep.org/
 
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0019016/
 
http://harroldsheep.deviantart.com/
 
https://vimeo.com/philipedwardalexy
 
https://www.facebook.com/harrold.the.flying.sheep
 
https://www.youtube.com/user/harroldsheep

 
https://twitter.com/harroldsheep
 
https://www.pinterest.com/harroldsheep/
 
https://plus.google.com/114113958644333002356/posts
 
https://www.linkedin.com/in/harroldsheep

 


Sources:
  1. Encyclopedia of Special Effects, by Patricia D. Netzley -- Oryx Press 2000
  2. Casper DVD/Blu-ray - "Bonus Materials", Revealing Casper.
    • Brad Silberling - Director
    • Phil Nibbelink - Animation Director
    • Kyle Odermatt - Digital Character Modeling Supervisor
    • Scott Farrar - Visual Effects Plate Supervisor
    • Dennis Muren - Digital Character Supervision
    • Eric Armstrong - Animation Director
    • Stefan Fangmeier - Digital Character Co-Supervision
  3. The Character Shop Helps Create Casper Characters -- The Character Shop 
  4. "Art Pulled Me Into Animation" -- The Hindu [August 12, 2007]
  5. IMDb - Philip Edward Alexy 



C.A. Chicoine resides in Massachusetts where he writes stories, poetry, lyrics and music. Other online articles edited and compiled by this writer include the following: