This episode is an adventure, from Amsterdam to Pixar in California, to the non distant future. We bring you the story of a storyteller in Colin Levy. Ollie takes you through what it took for Colin to bring Skywatch to life after a seven year journey, but first we start with where he's been.
You can find more of Colin's work at https://colinlevy.com and watch Skywatch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mv30ExfoKcc. A big thank you to Colin for supplying some of the music and sound from Skywatch for this episode.
This is a two part series, come back next week to uncover just what it takes to bring your world to life as we look to how Colin built Skywatch and how a certain Jude Law made it into his short film.
Ollie: [00:00:00] when you take the bizarre leap to be a storyteller for a living, there are three things that happen. The first is that everyone tells you that what you're doing is a waste of time. You'll never make it. Why don't you do something normal? If you ever come, that you start to really, really want to work for a company that made all the stories that made you want to become a storyteller.
[00:00:24] You start buying books, watching and listening to any bit of behind the scenes content. You can get your hands on, then you start to make things. Maybe you start to have some success for the companies that you used to idolize, but then comes to edge from a bit of advice you heard years ago. Create what you want to see in the love thing is when you're working for someone else, it's really hard to do that.
[00:00:47] Today, we have a story about someone who made it. That that itch, it took hold and wouldn't let him go. Story starts off in a grocery store.
[00:01:00] Colin Levy: [00:01:00] So much of my weekends were taken up by life maintenance chores. I remember standing in line at the grocery, like wondering when this is like, when we're going to solve this problem because of society. And this was like 2013. It just kind of before, you know, delivery food options were. Everywhere. And in fact it was like before Uber pool, you know, it was like, it was just at the cusp of a lot of this game-changing lifestyle stuff.
[00:01:31] And this is before Amazon announced its drone delivery system also. But yeah, I just kind of got, I started geeking out about what that future might look like. Like what would the ideal system, you know, most seamless implementation, the most convenient. Way of getting food from out there in the world, into my fridge.
[00:01:53] And like the dream really is to have a fridge restock itself automatically. And I think that one day might be possible in certain circumstances, but rolling back. Okay. Not quite that far in the future, you know, drone delivery, you know, in an urban system, but I wanted to do something that was really seamless.
[00:02:12] And so the thing that I really ended up like, Oh, there's gotta be a story in here was. Like developing this new fangled appliance that's, you know, in this world as normal as a fridge, which can be on your wall, it can be in your kitchen. And this is where stuff goes in and out of it, it's like the Jetsons thing, or it's not just operating, it's not 3d printing something out of nothing.
[00:02:36] It is. Delivering something, but there's an, uh, beautiful, like seamless infrastructure in an apartment complex, for example, that will help take a pod from a drone from the roof, you know, and route it into your home. Um, so. I just started sketching, you know, and doodling. And that was, it was the world came first.
[00:02:59] And then knowing I wanted to make us sort of conspiracy movie and something with kids, like it was just trying to find the right characters in the right window into, into that
[00:03:09] Music: [00:03:09] world.
[00:03:17] Colin Levy: [00:03:17] This is Pathfinder. The show about storytelling.
[00:03:21] Ollie: [00:03:21] A few weeks ago, I sat down to talk to Colin levy, a filmmaker who in a few short years has managed to do things so many of us could only dream of.
[00:03:29] Colin Levy: [00:03:29] I feel very lucky that I've gotten this far is I sort of assumed since the very beginning that. Yeah, this is just an unachievable dream because there's creative things and those artistic paths, but like, you're just programmed from such an early age, like to think in terms of practical w you know, job, uh, directions or whatever.
[00:03:49] Um, for me, I think it just, so a lot of this stuff has started with experimentation. Just the, instead of like, deciding I'm going to pursue this with my life, which is a really big decision. It's more like, I'm going to dabble in this thing for an hour and see if I like it. I'm curious about this, you know, program, I don't know, Photoshop, or I want to learn how to build a website or whatever it is.
[00:04:13] It's just sort of pursuing the impulse of idle curiosity, uh, and allowing sort of, yeah. That creative impulse to guide how you spend your time. And for me, I feel pretty lucky that I was able to dedicate as much time as I did in my teenage years to this. Passion, because I think that gave me the confidence.
[00:04:36] By the time I was looking at colleges, by the time I was thinking a little bit more seriously about my own path. I had already been doing it for such a long time that I knew I, I had to keep going in my wildest dreams, I guess probably I've had the, the dream of making a feature film for over a decade.
[00:04:58] And it hasn't happened yet. So I think probably when I was in high school, like the idea of being a filmmaker and, and really making something huge is definitely an end goal. But then at the same time, I'm balancing that with, I just want to do something better than I've done in the past. It's like little, little goals, little challenges for myself that that can kind of run parallel to those world.
[00:05:27] Conquering, unrealistic. Goals, I think early on, you know, it's like, I need to get to the end of this tutorial or I want to impress my mom, like, look, look what I could do. You know, look what I made. And as soon I found, uh, like a community of folks online who were posting their artwork and, and I, I think early on that was pretty instrumental to my own motivation.
[00:05:51] Like I'm going to just. I'm going to post my progress or I'm going to post this artwork for critique and learn from it. And that was wonderful feedback. Um, and a lot of encouragement, you know, mixed in with notes, which, uh, which I think was a really great environment to kind of get, um, dip my toe into creatively.
[00:06:12] Ollie: [00:06:12] time went on, Colin started looking at the ways he could build the stories he wanted to tell at the time shooting a feature film. Wasn't really on the cards. So he turned to his computer where with a bit of effort, he could build his own worlds.
[00:06:25] Colin Levy: [00:06:25] Um, that was kind of a magical path for me. Um, I wasn't like I'm going to learn blender or I'm going to learn 3d animation.
[00:06:33] It was kind of, um, An organic learning process. And I liked all sorts of stuff filmmaking wise, and just like I liked graphic design. I was, I was sort of just dabbling with, you know, music I was trying to, to explore, um, really liked photography and that kind of thing. And I kind of came into the world of animation and blender specifically through live action.
[00:06:59] So, you know, I had recently. I've been starting to make little backyard movies, you know, with my brothers, you know, it was a digitally cam quarter. So it was really the first generation of digital filmmaking tools, you know, consumer level that you could plug in, you know, a camera into a FireWire port. You know, my family iMac pretty much first generation and for the first time being able to get digital footage in there to edit.
[00:07:26] And it was pretty soon after that, that I started seeing on, I was a member of this star Wars fan film forum, which, uh, was just, uh, the home of a bunch of geeks making lightsaber battles. And I realized that you could film something and then do your own effects. And so it was through the idea of like adding a spaceship to live action footage, like find a way of, of doing visual effects in 3d.
[00:07:57] Try it a couple different, really cheap. Programs a morpheme was my very first 3d program and it didn't allow animation. It was just static images and it was like clay sculpting based. Um, I got the pro version on eBay, which allowed you to set eight key frames. And that was it. It was very good. Bizarre at this point
[00:08:20] Ollie: [00:08:20] in the story, I need to explain what blender is.
[00:08:23] If you haven't ever come across it. Blender is a 3d design tool. It allows you to create characters, animate them design sets and create effects. What makes blender special is that it's free it's professional counterpart Meyer, which is quite expensive, is used by most major studios. In the past few years, blender has become quite competitive with Maya and has started to take hold and become something bigger than something you just downloaded off the internet.
[00:08:49] Once Colin took it seriously and it has become a
[00:08:52] Colin Levy: [00:08:52] large part of his story. I kind of came to blender because it was free. I didn't really like Maya was clearly the best at the time and, uh, I just couldn't, uh, couldn't afford it. So explored blender. And, you know, my first experience with it was pretty negative and it was so frustrating and I deleted it and didn't come back to it for another six months.
[00:09:16] But, uh, yeah, basically following tutorials, I kinda got hooked and, um, spent a lot of time just. Poking around at this interface, trying to figure out how to make it work. Um, did some visual effects stuff for, you know, my little high school, like effects, tests, and little movies. And, um, really I've spent more time in blender than probably any other application.
[00:09:40] And that's saying something cause I've spent most of my life in front of a computer. Yeah. Really fell in love and fell in love with the community too. It's a really. Great and growing, but passionate group of folks online. And I was just posting my work. I was one of hundreds and hundreds of people posting the renders and getting feedback and participating on the forums and that kind of thing.
[00:10:05] Ollie: [00:10:05] After a few months of tinkering and figuring out how all of this works, Colin had an opportunity to show off his work to someone that would propel his career in a very
[00:10:12] Colin Levy: [00:10:12] interesting, the direction it's to this day, the luckiest thing that's happened in my career. I. Got the chance to meet Tom Rosendahl the lead developer and producer of these open movie projects at SIGGRAPH in 2006, I think.
[00:10:31] And that was in Boston. And, um, I got the chance to show him basically some of the work I was doing and I ended up kind of presenting some of it at the blender booth. It was a really low key thing, but I was showing how I. Modeled and shaded and rendered and composited, you know, this CG creature into a live action shot, you know, in my film.
[00:10:53] And I was like, you know, 17 or so. So I think I made an impression, um, and I got to meet some of the folks who worked on the first, uh, open movie project, which is called elephant stream. And it came out that same year just because I was already kind of, I was such a blender fan. I knew that w when the second one was announced, I want it to be a part of it.
[00:11:18] And that was a short called big buck bunny, which is sort of a classic internet animation. And I applied and, um, you know, it was just like an open call for submissions kind of thing. And I didn't, I didn't get in, but I was on the wait list. So there basically, if they had gotten a little bit more budget, they would have been able to hire me.
[00:11:39] And that would have been really exciting. Uh, so it was sort of a near miss, but it put me in touch with the, with the producer and Todd and I kind of kept in touch and I guess he was keeping tabs on my, on the work that I was posting online. Cause I was still putting my 3d stuff, but also my films. And like two years later, he wanted to do another, a third movie, a little short it's
[00:12:05] Ollie: [00:12:05] important to note that while Colin's skills in 3d were growing blender in 3d animation was still just a way of him expressing himself.
[00:12:12] He still loved live action film and was still pushing
[00:12:15] Colin Levy: [00:12:15] towards being a director. He was looking for someone who was already in the blender animation community and someone who wanted it. To direct. And there's the overlap between 3d artists and directors. It's a Venn diagram, but there's, it's a select pool, especially in those days.
[00:12:32] And then, but he didn't ask me first. He asked two other people who had to decline before he got to me. So, uh, but I was so, so excited about that opportunity and. Uh, I dropped out of school, film school to move to Amsterdam and, uh, got to live there for a year and direct as the youngest member of a team of 10 or so people I had never directed before.
[00:12:59] Ollie: [00:12:59] So Colin has dropped out of school, has little direction, knowledge, and an animation studio is giving him the opportunity to direct. It's something that I think we all wish we had, but can you imagine having that weight on your shoulders, you've never done this before. You've got a team waiting for you in a different country.
[00:13:18] No less, and you've got to make it happen.
[00:13:21] Colin Levy: [00:13:21] So it was like, really felt like I was thrown into the deep end and, um, it was like the most stressful, but most gratifying experience in my life. I had a budget of almost a half, a million dollars. I mean, this is really where I fell in love with directing and I'm still so thankful for that opportunity.
[00:13:40] Since, since I was 15, I knew I wanted to make movies, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to do that in live action or an animation. And there's such different industries, different career paths. But at the end of the day, it's still, you're telling a story visually through the medium of cinema. So, I mean, I love, I loved Pixar movies growing up.
[00:13:58] It was definitely a goal for a long time to work at Pixar. But basically by the time I was kind of midway through film school, I was like, Okay. After this, I'm going to move to LA. I'm going to try to get my career started in live action. Then I got the opportunity to direct a Syntel, the animated short and Amsterdam, which changed the course of my
[00:14:18] Music: [00:14:18] life.
[00:14:21] What brings you
[00:14:22] Colin Levy: [00:14:22] to the land
[00:14:23] Music: [00:14:23] of the gatekeepers
[00:14:28] I'm searching for?
[00:14:31] Colin Levy: [00:14:31] And I realized how much I love animation. Uh, I mean, I already knew, but like, God, that was so cool. So fun. And I learned so much and I was really proud of the final product. And now my real, you know, an animation with some are stronger than what I've done in live action. So far
[00:14:50] Ollie: [00:14:50] Colin finished Cintel and went back to film school where he finished a live action project that he was committed to.
[00:14:56] It was around this time that he started applying for a job at one of the companies that always feels like a bit of a far off dream picks up.
[00:15:06] Colin Levy: [00:15:06] they've got so many departments and I wasn't sure what, cause I'm a 3d generalist, you know, I like so many aspects of the process. So I kind of shotgunned applications to a bunch of different internships that, that, you know, when animation, when was it a TD sort of internship and. Uh, one was editing. I liked editing too.
[00:15:29] Like, what am I supposed to do? Just give me a chance, but, uh, Basically by that point, one of my responsibility and something I really enjoyed doing for Syntel, the short was a layout. And I basically realized that that was a thing, that part of the process, because of like behind the scenes that I had seen at Pixar on Pixar DVDs.
[00:15:52] So I. I basically did an animatic, a cheap pre Visy version of the movie to help me figure out how, how the heck it was going to unfold and how it was going to be shot in the short film. So that ended up being a reel that I submitted to the layout department at Pixar. And I'd actually interviewed. Once prior to that, in that same department.
[00:16:15] So this is my third time, you know, but now I had this much bigger project on my reel and they had seen my growth and, um, and yeah, I got the chance basically. They gave me a residency, um, opportunity, which is like a long-term internship. It's going to be a full year right out of school. So it was like another lucky break.
[00:16:41] Ollie: [00:16:41] So Colin went to work for Pixar in a department that oddly combined his 3d know-how with a bit of live action layout is where artists lay out the scenes for animated films. It requires knowledge of lenses blocking and lighting much like you would do in real life, which seemed like a perfect fit for a person who had previously had a foot
[00:16:59] Colin Levy: [00:16:59] in both worlds, kind of it definitely built on the momentum built on that first opportunity to work on Cintel.
[00:17:06] And that's what brought me to California. And, um, I had an incredible credible experience at Pixar and one year ended up turning into almost five. It started in 2011 on monsters university and got the chance to work on seven projects while I was there, including inside, out finding Dory and to be dinosaur hyper the short film, I was the cinematographer for lava, the volcano singing volcano short film that came out for inside out.
[00:17:41] And I learned so much and got to absorb so much from my heroes. And I really love. Love that department and yeah, it's basically cinematography like camera work for animation, which is definitely like a niche that I found it really is. I think if I, if I do have a string, that is it, it's sort of figuring out how to execute cinematically, a sequence of shots.
[00:18:09] What, what is the camera doing? What's a shot flow between shots. I just think in. Composition camera and I love, I love being behind a camera, like in real life. And I also love animating CG cameras. It's just, uh, one of my favorite things. It was interesting just being at Pixar because I really truly still have no idea how these movies get made.
[00:18:35] I only see like a really, um, narrow. Peek at one part of the process, which is layout and layout butts up against story. So I get to see storyboards and actually the evolution of an edit and the whole, you know, I guess the whole studio to some degree, it gets to see as these movies evolve because you're watching every three months or so.
[00:18:59] On a film crew, you're watching the story reels evolve. You'd get to watch the movie as it takes shape. But yeah, I kind of got to see story as well as editorial, but what are the character rigors? Do? I don't know what their tools look like. What are the effects artists do? I mean, I sit. They're kind of in the same corner as layout is in the physical building, but the pipeline is so complex and there isn't a huge amount of overlap between you kind of like finish your part of the puzzle and ship it off.
[00:19:31] And you kind of it's, you know, it's an assembly line to some degree. So, um, my experience was very defined by those people. Who were in my department and you know, this, I really liked at the blender animation studio, getting to light shots, getting to, I mean, in my case I was directing. So of course I get to kind of see.
[00:19:53] All aspects as, as this whole coming together and direct voice actors and that kind of thing.
[00:19:58] Ollie: [00:19:58] Pixar surf column. Well, we got, see how everything came together and work on some amazing projects. But in the midst of all of this, he was working on his own project, a short film called Skype. The short film had some momentum.
[00:20:12] However his job at Pixar was holding him back. This guy watch ended up taking seven years to complete. And at the time Colin had to make the decision whether to chase his own thing or stay in his dream job.
[00:20:22] Colin Levy: [00:20:22] I actually love the work, but the speed of the work is just demoralizing for me. The most frustrating moment though, was when I have this burning desire to make progress happen.
[00:20:37] But, but life is not allowing me to even put in the time. And that means I have other priorities. And in this case it was literally my job at Pixar because I was working so hard at work and just having so little to give to sky watch. And that's part of the reason it took as long as it did is because it was just a passion project that had to fit into nights and weekends for two thirds of this period of time.
[00:21:09] It got to the point, basically where I, after finding Dory, after my work on finding when I was wrapped, I took a leave of absence and I was, it was six months. And the hope was that I could just finish the movie or get a huge chunk of it done and release this frustration that had been building up. And by the end of that, six months had made so little progress that I knew I had a decision made.
[00:21:37] It was basically either I give up on this short film, because at this rate, you know, I'm going to be 40 by the time it's done or. I quit my job and, uh, and go full time on this. Sure. And you know, at that point, because of the amount of time I had put into it and the amount of promises I had made the people, how many?
[00:22:04] Yeah, there's a lot of dreams wrapped up in this and it wasn't just me anymore. Um, not to mention other people's money. I felt like I, the answer was clear, you know, I ha I had to, I had to leave Pixar and. Worked full-time on squash until it was done
[00:22:26] Ollie: [00:22:26] next week on Pathfinder, we go back to the grocery store and enter the world of sky watch and the story of how Colin kept pushing to bring his project to life. Thank you so much for listening to Pathfinder, a big thank you to Colin levy for sharing his amazing story. You can find out more about his work at collinlevy.com.
[00:23:08] Ollie: [00:23:08] episode was written by me, Ollie Judge, and edited by Rodger Morley. We'll see you next week with a surprise cameo from Jude law.