Jenga Zamani Mwendo


A Natural Success Story
Jazz toons - Sunday, March 27, 2005

Artists from New Orleans help make 'Robots' a hit

By Michael H. Kleinschrodt, Movie writer

Digital artist Jenga Zamani Mwendo still remembers what inspired her to pursue a career in animation.

"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 release.

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 long journeys.

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 to do."

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 called extras.)

"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 detail.

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 film's highlights.

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 the film.

Mwendo said, "To see all of your work coming together to create this amazing piece was wonderful."

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 in 2006.

Michael H. Kleinschrodt covers movies. He can be reached at mkleinschrodt@timespicayune.com or at (504) 826-3456.

SOURCE: http://www.nola.com/search/index.ssf?/base/living-4/111211890075910.xml?nola

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