I had the chance to speak with Jim Su, a professional illustrator and CGI artist. After graduating from Sheridan College for Computer Animation, he was hired by Mainframe Entertainment in 1999 as a CGI modeler. As he points out, many recognize him for his work with the popular Reboot series. He is currently the president of Beach Creative Studios Inc. and has worked on some mega block busters including Captain America: Winter Soldier and Wolf of Wallstreet, where he largely performed the role of rigging supervisor.
We talked about a variety of things including the development of CG animation, Reboot in comic book form and the general passion surrounding the beloved series. Though he isn’t involved with any potential revitalization of Reboot, which may or may not be coming from Rainmaker Entertainment Inc., he had some interesting things to say.
He will be at the Saskatoon Comic Expo this weekend, and so will I. Muahaha. More content to come.
Were you at the Saskatoon Comic Expo last year?
No I wasn’t. I went to the Regina Fan Expo earlier this year, that was the first time I set foot in Saskatchewan actually. It was great, I was surprised with the turnout. It was the inaugural show in Regina and the show was a success from a financial standpoint, which is partially why I wanted to jump on the expo in Saskatoon. I’m starting to branch off to do these smaller shows outside of Toronto and Montreal because I sell the Reboot art book and posters, and Reboot has this cult following in Canada. It seems like wherever I go to show these books off it’s met with a very positive reaction and good sales. People will come up to me, flip through some of my stuff, glance over pretty much everything but then they see Reboot and go “What?! you worked on Reboot. I love that show!”
I understand while you were growing up you were a big fan of Reboot. How did it feel being able to work on something you loved as a kid once you began working in graphic design/modeling?
That was pretty exciting because when I started working at Mainframe I think it was pretty much understood that Reboot was finished after Season Three. They were able to however, arrange for what I sometimes call a bonus season, and being assigned as the modeling lead on Reboot Season Four was just an exciting time and an honour. I knew its place in history back then already, but little did I know how much of a cult reaction there was in Canada. I think shortly after Season Four was finished, I pitched a comic book internally at Mainframe for Reboot. I didn’t have any data to gauge how big Reboot was with fans but later on when I left Mainframe I discovered how big it was and that’s why I pitched the art book to Rainmaker.
Do you still think there’s potential for a comic book surrounding Reboot?
Absolutely. I think – without revealing any plans Rainmaker has – a comic book is always a way we could tie up loose ends from the original series. Budget wise, it’s a lot cheaper than creating an animated show. Also, there’s been some precedence for that. I believe Buffy had its last season in comic book form which was written by Joss Whedon. I think it’s definitely possible in that sense.
Aside from the fact that the series is left wide open for more Reboot-related stories to be told, what is it about the source material that makes it an attractive project to tell stories in comic book form?
I think the strength of Reboot is no longer about its graphics. Although it still has this quirkiness in its visuals that people seem to still love, it truly is about the story that its creators crafted. Reboot was ahead of its time for North American animation because because of its longer story arcs, which people in Japan were used to. North American animation was generally comprised of episodic stories that wrapped up after each episode, that has changed today, but back then it wasn’t like that. When Reboot started, it stayed very true to North American animation storytelling, but then it started to develop this long story arc in Season Three, which lends itself very well to comic books.
Were you ever frustrated that the show ended on such a cliffhanger? And do you have ideas that you’d like to somehow see implemented within the Reboot universe?
I wasn’t frustrated at the time because we were slated to do three movies and we only got to do two – My Two Bobs and Daemon Rising – but even the creators back then Gavin Blair and Ian Pearson thought there was always going to be another season. They never thought that would be the end but there was never any real guarantee that the show would be renewed for another season, and that goes for any TV show really. But in the case of Reboot, these seasons came out years after the previous one, so there was never any regularity or consistency with the seasons of Reboot and so I wasn’t frustrated about that. However, it has been a long time, over 10 years, since Season Four finished up and the amazing thing is the strength of the show. It really shows because people still recall it vividly, and I think it’s reinforced by the fact that it was continually played on reruns after it was cancelled.
Is cosplay a big part of that dedication to the series?
It absolutely is. During the first convention I brought Gavin Blair to a fan expo, which I believe was in 2007 or 2008, and when fans got word of Gavin appearing, they did an entire cosplay show with pretty much everyone from the Reboot cast. They reenacted the guitar battle at the Fan Expo masquerade on Saturday night. They won best in the show and the cosplay was top notch. I mean, they had Captain Capacitor, Phong. I see a couple fans at every show I go to dressed up as people from Reboot, which is really cool.
When you started working with Reboot, what were some of the things you wanted to bring to the table? Do you think you succeeded?
One cool thing I wanted to work on was an update in the graphics, and that wasn’t just me spearheading it, a lot of people were involved. I got to work on the super viruses, so Daemon and Daecon, and you got to see an upgrade in the modeling, the facial development was more advanced. They were a little more up to date versus the general cast of Reboot. There were other people trying to make the facial developments of the other characters more advanced, but one of the things Gavin didn’t like was, because we were trying to upgrade the facial systems of the characters, they didn’t quite act look like what fans had known to that point. The more advanced they got, the less they felt like the characters from Season One.
It’s the same type of argument you can make with Yoda. You had the Jim Henson puppet that everybody loves and then when they had the prequel they had this full CG Yoda in the Phantom Menace. Fans were like, ‘that’s not Yoda’ and in the next two films they regressed it and gave him more of that puppeteer facial system. That’s one of the interesting things about Reboot is that you really saw the CG progression from Season One to Season Four. In Season One, there wasn’t even any shadow casting and by the fourth season there was. Even the rendering, the software we used changed from Season Two to Season Three, so you saw a huge leap in the rendering quality. I’m sure Reboot would have progressed the same way in future seasons, with updates and new graphics. That’s kind of what Mainframe did. It’s also hard to keep the old graphics as well. (Laughs) We can’t just dust off what we used 20 years ago and make it run. Even if Rainmaker were to complete the series today they would have a hard time achieving the same look the show had 10 years ago. Everything would be updated.
Was the rapid development of graphics in the Reboot series a reflection of how fast graphics are progressing within the industry in general, or is it more of a testament to Mainframe’s dedication to Reboot at the time?
I think its more of a reflection of how quickly things change. I’ve been in the CG industry for 15 years now and it’s just constantly evolving. As an artist and a technician I constantly have to keep up to date with what’s going on in the field. For instance, the stuff that I do now in feature films, is night and day compared to what I did in television years ago.
What’s it been like working on movies with big ties to pop culture?
It’s cool, I mean I am working on these movies and contributing to pop culture but I’m just a small cog in the process. It’s still nice to say that I worked on Captain America, Tron Legacy or Resident Evil. It’s fun working on these tent pole movies that nearly everyone walking into a convention has seen.
When you watch a movie, would you rather see actors push physical limits as far as they can, or have 3D animation or some kind of special effect step in and be implemented even when the possibility of an actor performing those stunts is still possible?
That’s a good question. I think there are a lot of times in this day and age when an actor is not allowed to perform certain stunts. It’s just written in their contracts, the actor can’t do a certain thing. So it’s not necessarily about an actor’s limits, in fact, a lot of the time during our CGI process we’re replacing a stunt actor’s face with the actor’s face. You’re seeing two different people and that happens a lot. Sometimes, they just don’t like the actor’s performance, the actor couldn’t pull it off. We’ll then use CG to enhance the performance either by integrating some CG with the actor’s performance or completely removing the actor entirely with the exception of his or her face. There’s a lot of that going on. A lot of the stunts Mila Jovovich did in Resident Evil, we replaced her entire body so all that was left was her hair or her face. Her face could be projected on an actual CG surface, which is kind of neat. There are several different options.
What is your advice for anyone trying to enter the post-production field? Would that advice have been different 10 years ago?
I think the most important advice wouldn’t change from a decade ago and today, and that is the fact that it’s still an art form and you need to learn the art fundamentals such as human anatomy, usually for a modeler, animator, or in my position a character TD (technical director). You still need to know your anatomy and you should be strong, or at least disciplined, in illustration and sculpting. There’s usually a lot of competition for any given position, so your artistic talents are still the deciding factors for you getting a job. That hasn’t changed. However, today there seems to be a new epicentre for where you can get these jobs. You can’t just freelance from your home in Saskatoon, unless you’re in pre-production working as a character designer, but if you want to work on the actual post-production on a movie, generally speaking, in this country, these jobs are in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal so you have to be willing to move to those cities. Even though the work I do is in the digital realm, CG, the traditional skills are still just as important. They form the foundation for any work that you’re going to do digitally.
There is also less of a barrier when it comes to entering the software aspect of the work, so while maybe 20 years ago the artists that were working on Pixar or Mainframe projects were more technologically inclined, that’s not the case anymore today. The best CGI modelers today who are going to get those jobs are the ones that are talented in a traditional sense. It’s definitely a competition for natural talent, not just talent when it comes to the operation of software, although, that is still important. You can’t just walk in being an oil painter and not have any exposure to the computer software and think you can be the best in that sense. There’s still a balance, but traditional talent still trumps all.