Thru the Moebius Strip (2005)


Moebius & Foster Journey
Thru the Moebius Strip

By Joe Fordham

To aficionados of the comic book and visual arts worlds, designer Jean Giraud -- Moebius -- needs little introduction. From his early comic strips for the French satirical magazine Hara-Kiri, through the creation of his Western hero Lieutenant Blueberry and the co-founding of Metal Hurlant magazine in 1975, Moebius became widely known for his elegant, highly detailed visual style and offbeat sense of humor. National Lampoon's Heavy Metal magazine, an American version of Metal Hurlant, brought Moebius' art to a wider stateside audience, particularly with his science fiction and fantasy stories Arzach and The Airtight Garage. Moebius became part of the design team involved with director Alejandro Jodorowsky's legendary attempted adaptation of Dune. The collapse of that legendary mid-'70s project led Moebius indirectly to a brief stint on Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), whose samurai-armored spacesuits bear a distinctly Moebius feel. Tron (1982), The Abyss (1989) and The Fifth Element (1998) followed, though the animated feature Les Maitres du Temps(Time Masters), directed by René Laloux in 1982, has been the only film Moebius designed completely. On Aug. 23, Moebius himself revealed to an audience at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles that this is about to change.

A Moebius Strip design created in Photoshop. © 2000 and courtesy Global Digital Creations Group, Hong Kong.

The Cinematheque audience had gathered to view the first public screening in the United States of Laloux's French-language science-fiction film, a thoughtful, imaginative space adventure about a rescue mission to save a child lost on a hostile alien planet. Moebius, a relaxed and eloquent speaker with a mellifluous accent, took pleasure in recounting tales of the film's production, which -- despite its TV budget and accelerated schedule -- held the audience's interest with unexpected twists of character and plot. "There were one and a half years between the storyboard and the moment when I first saw the story on the screen, so there were distortions and I first thought it was a disaster," Moebius recalled. "But that feeling has diminished now. It's surrealistic to see it now because we are seeing a movie from another time. It's not exploitation. It has dignity. It's not perfect, but it's timeless."


Moebius' charm and grace are evident in Laloux's film. The artist also admitted there were ironic parallels with the current project that has brought him to Los Angeles. Joining Moebius for the conclusion of his interview, director and co-producer Frank Foster filled the audience in on the status of Thru the Moebius Strip. This completely digital, animated 80-minute film, conceived and designed by Moebius, was in the final stages of pre-production in West Los Angeles. The project is scheduled to move to full production -- with Foster directing a team of 200 artists -- at co-producer Raymond Neoh's Global Digital Productions (GDP) in Kowloon, Hong Kong. A Paris premiere is planned for summer 2003.


Moebius & Foster. © 2000 and courtesy Global Digital Creations Group, Hong Kong.

A week after the screening, on Moebius' final day in the United States, Foster displayed the work in progress. Among stacks of sketchbooks and rooms of layout artists, colorists and digital modelers at workstations, a non-linear animatic was emerging of the film -- scanned storyboard frames edited to describe the beat and rhythm of the animation yet to come. "We're using the DPS Velocity software card, which is designed specifically for animation and visual effects people," Foster said. "It's a very efficient way of assembling your dailies and creating animation. It gives us real-time effects, such as dissolves, page turns and titles, which helps us estimate how many frames each shot will wind up being. By the end of pre-production, we'll have the entire movie in this animatic form, so we'll be able to cut it down and start to add our first temporary shots. This becomes an evolving story reel that at any moment allows us to see the level of progress on any aspect of the film. It's a technique that my PC-based department developed at Sony Pictures Imageworks years ago. We used it on a lot of projects, and by the time of Stuart Little it had become the standard method for viewing digital dailies."


Foster was a founding senior vice president of Sony Pictures Imageworks and is widely regarded to have helped instigate the use of previsualization in feature film production. As director of SIGGRAPH's The Story of Computer Graphics, he also documented interviews with more than 60 digital imaging pioneers, tracing the first 50 years of computer graphics. He recalled how his association with Sony led him to his first encounter with Moebius and took time with Moebius to elaborate on their plans and discuss the genesis of the project.


"Several years ago, I was going through Asia, looking for facilities that Sony could use for offshore 3D animation," Foster said. "That was when I met Raymond Neoh, who was working with Arnie Wong to set up the feature project for Moebius in Hong Kong. This is a project that Arnie and Moebius have wanted to do since they met 18 years ago working on Tron."


Moebius had his own associations with Sony, dating back to an early aborted attempt to film his epic The Airtight Garage and a return engagement designing Sony's San Francisco Metreon entertainment complex. Through this common ground, Foster found himself privy to the embryonic realization of what had been a lifelong dream for Moebius: the creation of his own feature film.

Moebius holding a development vehicle model. © 2000 and courtesy Global Digital Creations Group, Hong Kong.

In the beginning I had one idea about an original kind of spaceship and it gave me some ideas for a story," Moebius said. "After I met with Raymond, he became the central person in charge of the money on the project and finding most of the people to work on the movie in France. We started talking to Frank and spent 10 days writing the story together, meeting every day with Frank taking notes."


"Jean intuitively explained the story in much in the same way as a parent might tell a child a story, to entertain them," Foster said. "My job was to listen and try to help him piece together the various elements. It was magical the way it came together. I drafted that into a rough nine-page treatment, then presented this to our screenwriter, Jim Cox (FernGully, The Rescuers Down Under), who used that as the basis for his first draft. Last spring that draft was presented to Jean, who came to L.A. for a week, and he worked with Jim and me, making adjustments. When Jim completed that second draft, we started three months of pre-production."


The evolving tale, Thru the Moebius Strip, tells the story of physicist Dr. Simon Weir, who disappears through a transportation portal, where his family of space travelers pursues him to a planet inhabited by giant aliens. "It was interesting what Jim did," Moebius said. "He connected my story to a fairy tale, so it took on a classic resonance."

A sample of Moebius Strip's production design. © 2000 and courtesy Global Digital Creations Group, Hong Kong.

Foster emphasized that the story will continue to evolve throughout production, but his primary intention is to capture its author's vision. "Jean has told me many times that this is the first time he has been involved with a film project where he really feels that his heart and soul is in not just the images, but in the story, the characters and the emotion of the film. He has been in tune with what emotion a sequence conveys, how the characters react to each other and what the back-story is. He came up with lots of detail on why characters are the way they are, why the technology works a certain way. We may reveal aspects of this in our upcoming Web site that audiences may or may not glean from the actual movie."

In his three months in Los Angeles, Moebius estimated, he generated approximately 300 designs for the film. He occasionally worked in Photoshop, but mostly worked by hand, sketching rapidly in pencil, designing characters, vehicles, props and settings, as well as roughing out pages of postage-stamp-sized storyboard frames. Production illustrator Sylvain Despretz then worked closely at Moebius' side, leading a team of artists who transformed the original drawings into finished renderings for approval and adaptation into digital models. "I have known Sylvain for more than 15 years," Moebius said, "since the beginning of his career. We became friends and he has grown better and better -- better than I -- so it has been a great surprise to have him working on this film."

Sylvain Despretz hard at work. © 2000 and courtesy Global Digital Creations Group, Hong Kong.

Despretz's familiarity with Moebius' style became a crucial touchstone for Foster. "I think Sylvain will be instrumental in maintaining the colors, artwork and textures of the film," Foster said. "Sylvain also speaks French, which is a big asset to me, not only during pre-production, but periodically through different stages of production, to ensure that we remain immersed in Moebius' world. He has the kind of insight that when I have a question, 'Should this be red or purple?' he seems to know what Jean would do."


At the conclusion of his California excursion, Moebius was scheduled to return to Paris to resume duties on his next Lieutenant Blueberry book. Foster planned to remain in contact by sending video updates of the animatic story reel while keeping in touch with the animation studio, GDP in Hong Kong, via an FTP cable connection. "Their morning is our night, so it has worked quite well," Foster said. "During the day I can view dailies and leave e-mail notes, then they can come in the morning, work on those changes, render them and put them out on the site by the next morning."

Working on pre-production layouts. © 2000 and courtesy Global Digital Creations Group, Hong Kong.

Foster has been visiting GDP frequently, offering his assistance to train animation artists for the project through Shenzen University in China while setting up the technical requirements in Kowloon. Foster hopes to make use of the Internet connection in the coming months -- particularly as he and his wife, Frankie, are expecting their first child in November -- but he foresees further visits as inevitable. "When it comes to finishing the modeling, and starting and approving the stages of character animation, I will be physically in Hong Kong," he said.


Tweaking the film's digital models. © 2000 and courtesy Global Digital Creations Group, Hong Kong.

Voice artists have yet to be assigned. Foster estimated casting would begin in Los Angeles in early 2001, although this was one area in which Moebius had no preconceptions. "The characters must be alive and we need to control the speed of their delivery and the silences, but I'm not familiar enough with American stardom to choose somebody," Moebius said. "I will offer my suggestions, but that is mainly something Frank will do."


An exclusive! A sneak peek at Moebius Strip's lead villain. © 2000 and courtesy Global Digital Creations Group, Hong Kong.

Foster said the film will depend heavily on key-frame character animation for nuances of performance, but he also plans to make strategic use of procedural techniques and, occasionally, motion capture to animate the many martial arts sequences. "We have a lot of crowd scenes in our story, and scenes involving hundreds of aliens and humans fighting," Foster said. "I've had quite a long association with Biped software from 3D Studio Max. This was written by the husband/wife team of Michael Girard and Susan Amkraut -- who practically invented inverse kinematics for character animation while they were students at Ohio State University -- and we'll be using that software for animating crowd control. I perceive that there are three main ways of doing character animation as far as body movements are concerned: There's key-frame animation, procedural techniques like Biped -- for dynamics, gravity and footstep-driven work -- and then of course motion capture. But it's important to remember that without the intimacy of our character scenes, we'll lose the impact of our big action sequences."

But scale, Moebius emphasized, is a matter of perspective, given the film's $6 million budget. "All of the CG movies that have been made so far have been made with almost an army," Moebius said. "It has become crazy. With every sequel they increase their staff, they have a lot of money and the production becomes a kind of monster. We are absolutely not in that league. We are human. We are a few people, with not a great deal of money, so we are trying to push in every way we can with our imaginations."

Both Moebius and Foster cited Japanese anime masters Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo as having perfected this balance. "I admire what Otomo did for 'Memories' (1996), for example," Moebius said. "It was exactly like something I would like to do: Realistic, with simple lines, but with a lot of attention to the precision of gesture and building every character. My ideal wish would be to do a movie, either in traditional animation or in computer animation, which would be more intimate -- no monsters, no object-dodging, no special effects -- just focused on the people in normal life. Miyazaki did that in his animation. We have big monsters in our movie, and I like that, but the best part for me is the kind of scene where the family might arrive in the country, they start to run around their new house and the little girls go to play. It's simple, nothing special, it could be done in live-action, but the animation brings something more. I think one day if we had a real movie in computer animation with nothing strange, nothing fantastic, it would be an incredible experience, because then we could really see the power of that animation."

Visit a gallery of Moebius' artwork.

Joe Fordham is the editor of

Republished from VFXPro, a fellow Creative Planet community Web site, and on-line news resource for the visual effects community affiliated with the Visual Effects Society