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Posted at 8:30 AM ET, 04/ 7/2009

The Interview: 'Monsters' Animator Phil 'Captain 3D' McNally

By Michael Cavna

The leap from studying furniture design in London to becoming an animator on a multimillion-dollar 3-D film in Hollywood can sound like a doozy. But PHIL McNALLY, a Northern Ireland native who legally adopted the middle name "Captain 3D" even before coming to America, makes the progression seem just as natural as his fluidly animated figures.

McNally is the stereoscopic supervisor (more on that later) on DreamWorks's box office-topping film "Monsters vs. Aliens," which features state-of-the-art animation that the studio touts by the name "intru3D." This during a year in which Hollywood plans to release more than a dozen 3-D films. But McNally came to animating a 50-foot-tall woman (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) after years of using stereo photography on objects.

"After college, my wife, Deepa Agarwal -- who's a graphic designer -- introduced a computer into our home," says McNally, 42. "This was 1992. I hadn't done that much work, but I used PhotoShop and so did stereo photography [an art that produces a three-dimensional image]. We ended up freelancing for eight years in London."

His a-ha moment, though, came in 1997. He went to the SIGGRAPH computer animation festival in London and players including DreamWorks were there. "I came out of the festival and said: 'That's the type of industry I'd like to work in,' " McNally recalls.

McNally eventually got a short film of his own, titled "Pump Action," into the SIGGRAPH festival in 2000, he says. From there, within a couple of years he was a character animator on "Men in Black II," then "Hulk," "Van Helsing" and "War of the Worlds" before -- in a key step -- he became a stereographer on "Chicken Little."

Animators "were trying to work out the best way to go from 2-D to 3-D," and thanks to a friend who knew McNally's background, he was soon the stereographer for the conversion.

What excites McNally about cutting-edge intru3D, though, is that there's no conversion. "Authoring in 3-D is the goal of any creative person" in this field, says McNally, who also was stereoscopic supervisor on "Kung Fu Panda." "You want to work with the material in its natural content."

McNally, who likes to wear 3D glasses propped on his head, says intru3D marks "the first time we're using the depth as part of the flow and feel of the movie."

The action in "Monsters vs. Aliens," however, isn't always in 3-D; the approach is more subtle than that. McNally discusses a dramatic scene, for instance, in which the monsters fight the aliens on the Golden Gate Bridge. "Within a two-second shot, we go from 3-D to 2-D to 3-D," he says of these "hyrid shots." "We're artfully manipulating it to play down and then play up the 3-D" so the action reads smoothly.

McNally likens the effect to recording music. "You're at a big graphic equalizer, like a mixing desk, and you're trying to tweak all of these dials to support the story points as strongly as you can." McNally also works on the color via what he calls a "blending pass," so the stereo depth is orchestrated fluidly.

McNally, who is stereoscopic supervisor on "Shrek Goes Forth" and "How to Train Your Dragon" (both slated for 2010 release), is enthused by how many films are now being authored in this new technology. "The number one excitement is that so many artists are working in 3-D," he says. "There is this sense of discovery of what 3-D cinematic language can be."

McNALLY'S WINNING ANIMATED SHORT, "PUMP ACTION":

By Michael Cavna  | April 7, 2009; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation  
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