"It sounds corny, but it
was a Listerine commercial -- the one with the bottle swinging
through the jungle. It looked so real," she said.
Mwendo was calling from
the White Plains, N.Y., headquarters of
Blue Sky Studios, where
she worked as a modeler on the computer-animated hit "Robots." The
movie has earned more than $66 million in its first two weeks of
The film, directed by
Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha and distributed by 20th Century
Fox, tells the story of a robot's "Wizard of Oz"-like journey to
meet his idol and to foil a dastardly plot.
Mwendo is no stranger to
Her family lives in New
Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. She attended Eleanor McMain High School
while studying visual art at the New Orleans Center for Creative
Arts, graduating in 1995.
"Going to NOCCA made me
focus," she said. "It made me decide this was something I wanted
After a year of studying
in Savannah, Ga., Mwendo transferred to the School of Visual Arts
in New York. Her senior thesis adviser worked at Blue Sky and
recommended her for a job there. After a brief stint creating 3-D
effects and commercials at Nickelodeon Digital, Mwendo started at
Blue Sky as a production assistant. That was about five years ago.
Her work on "Robots" began
in 2002. She modeled the character of Mr. Gunk, a gruff diner
owner, as well as the diner set. Modelers, working from drawings
created by designers, are the film's digital sculptors,
translating the 2-D drawings into 3-D objects in the computer.
Mwendo also helped model
the Robot City train station, where the movie's hero, Rodney
Copperbottom, first meets manic sidekick Fender. Other assignments
included modeling the movie's scary robot Chop Shop and a few of
the miscellaneous characters. (Just like on a live set, they're
"Robots" even turned
Mwendo into a digital hairstylist. She was called upon to draft a
looser, more casual coif for business executive Cappy, an uptight
robot who usually keeps her hair in a tidy bun.
Meanwhile, another former
New Orleanian was putting his own stamp on the film.
Kevin Thomason, who was
born and raised in Metairie, worked on "Robots" as the technical
lead/layout artist and as an additional rigger.
A rigger creates the
skeletons inside the modeled characters and defines each joint's
range of motion.
Layout artists, who work
from storyboards prepared by others, are responsible for taking
the characters and sets constructed by the modelers and
establishing their rough positions within a scene as well as
plotting basic camera movements.
The layout artists' work
is later refined by animators, lighters, effects artists and
others in a daunting step-by-step process with many levels of
Thomason said his biggest
contribution to "Robots" was the layout of a chunk of the
Crosstown Express sequence in which Rodney and Fender traverse the
Rube Goldberg-inspired Robot City while inside a ball-shaped cage.
Many reviews have cited the completed sequence as one of the
Thomason said he always
was interested in art, sketching cartoons and designing T-shirt
illustrations as a child. He was drawn to animation by his love of
the Bugs Bunny cartoons directed by Bob Clampett in the 1930s and
'40s. "They really pushed the edge of propriety," he said.
After graduating from
Jesuit High School in 1988, Thomason attended the University of
Virginia. He drew editorial cartoons and comic strips for campus
publications, but he majored in Latin and Greek.
"That was that Jesuit
influence asserting itself," he said.
He went on to graduate
school at Texas A&M University, where he earned a master of
science degree in visualization science. The hybrid degree program
focused on the intersection of art and technology.
"I made my degree as artsy
as I could and still get an M.S.," Thomason said, pointing out
that others concentrated on the technical side.
He graduated just as the
field of computer animation was exploding, thanks to the work of
companies such as Blue Sky, Pixar Animation Studios, Pacific Data
Imaging (now DreamWorks PDI), and George Lucas' famed digital
effects house, Industrial Light & Magic.
Thomason, hired right out
of graduate school, has been with Blue Sky since 1997.
Thomason describes 3-D
animation as a complex world with many sub-disciplines. "It's
tough to master them all," he said, advising aspiring artists to
try all of the specialties to see where their talents and
ambitions lie before deciding upon a career path.
Mwendo said, "The most
important thing (for an aspiring animator to know) is that the
computer is not the answer. It doesn't do the work for you. You
have to have the traditional skills. . . . Anybody can learn to
use a computer or to use a piece of software."
She said she found
sculpting classes to be particularly helpful.
Both artists are pleased
with the way "Robots" turned out.
Thomason said he is most
impressed with the physical look of the film. "The lighting and
materials are really enhanced by our ray-tracing rendering
software," he said.
Animation houses develop
their own proprietary software, so each studio produces films with
a unique look. Blue Sky favors a bright, open feel, while Pixar,
for example, favors moodier lighting and more pronounced shadows.
Thomason also praised
production designer William Joyce, the children's
author-illustrator from Shreveport whose work inspired the look of
Mwendo said, "To see all
of your work coming together to create this amazing piece was
Of course, she has another
reason to be proud.
Her one-year-old daughter,
Azana Zamani Olusola, is credited in the film as one of the "Blue
Sky Babies Assembled During Production."
Mwendo, who commutes to
White Plains from her home an hour and a half away in Brooklyn,
said she tries to visit New Orleans once or twice a year to see
her family. Her daughter's birth has made such visits even more of
a priority, she said.
Thomason, too, faces a
long daily commute. He lives in New York City's East Village. "It
feels like New Orleans -- funky and laid-back," he said.
"Every time I go back (to
New Orleans), I start to instantly relax. I visit at least once a
year, which is not nearly enough," he said.
Mwendo and Thomason
currently are working on "Ice Age 2," a sequel to Blue Sky's $176
million hit from 2002. That movie was Blue Sky's first
computer-animated feature. The sequel is expected to be released
Michael H. Kleinschrodt
covers movies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or at (504) 826-3456.