Creators Society Animation Podcast

Michael Surrey - Story & Animation at Spire Animation Studios - Formerly Disney & Dreamworks

May 05, 2022 Creators Society Season 2 Episode 9
Creators Society Animation Podcast
Michael Surrey - Story & Animation at Spire Animation Studios - Formerly Disney & Dreamworks
Show Notes Transcript

Spire Animation Studios is a new studio with some ambitious plans for combining high end features with realtime tech, but to do this they've assembled an all-star team of creatives. Michael Surrey, Creative Director of Story and Animation, is one of those all-stars, and the first of a few conversations with Spire creatives we'll have over the coming weeks.
Michael's career started out in 2D animation in classics like 'Beauty and The Beast', 'Aladdin' and 'The Lion King', and then 3D animation with projects like 'Tangled' and 'The Croods' before switching to the Story department. Now at Spire, he's tasked with helping shape Spire's initial projects, which include 'Trouble' from Danny McBride. I'm sure you'll enjoy walking through Michael's career and then our discussion about Spire.

This is our first in-person podcast, part of a few recorded on my recent trip to the US, so please excuse the less than perfect on location audio, tweaked by the masterful Mike Rocha.

You can check out Spire here: https://www.spirestudios.com

Please remember to like, rate and comment on your favourite podcasting platform and share the episode on social media.

If you have any comments or suggestions please get in touch. 

Host & Producer: Michael Wakelam (@mikewakelam)

Executive Producer: Eric M. Miller

Music by: Rich Dickerson (www.richdickerson.com)

Audio Engineering: Mike Rocha

Edited by: Zoe Wakelam

The Creators Society is a professional society for all disciplines of the animation industry. Our mission is to bring the animation community together to build strong relationships, provide education, and form a better understanding of the different roles we all play in creating animated stories. We celebrate and promote the love of animation, and all the talented Creators who breathe life and imagination into their work.

Learn more about the Creators Society, and how to become a member at creatorssociety.net

Michael Surrey:

Is that grass moving? And he goes, Yeah, he goes, I just jokingly said, Oh, can you make it taller? And he goes, Yeah, sure makes it grow. And I was like, what?!

Michael Wakelam:

Welcome back to The Creators Society Animation Podcast. I'm Michael Wakelam. We're all about animation and chatting with talented creators across the industry. Today, we have a first for the podcast, but before we get into it, if you're loving these episodes, please share with friends and colleagues and like rate, comment, shout about it from the rooftops, if you can. Now I mentioned we have a first that's because this podcast was born during the pandemic and every episode we've done so far has been via zoom. But today marks the very first Creators Society podcast chat that we've had in the flesh. And it's just my first time back in LA for two and a half years too. And so I'm here visiting with Michael Surry, of SPIRE studios. Is it Mike or Michael?

Michael Surrey:

Michael, my dad'll be happy if we go with Michael.

Michael Wakelam:

Alright. So it's Michael and Michael today, and so, welcome. Welcome, Michael. And thanks, I normally say thanks for joining me, but thanks for having me here.

Michael Surrey:

You're welcome. It's good to good to be your guinea pig. In the flesh, podcasting.

Michael Wakelam:

I'm also joined by Eric Miller, founder of the creative society, but he doesn't want to be mic'd up, so he's sitting in the corner for this auspicious occasion. Now, whether you've heard of SPIRE studios or not yet you, probably have, you soon will, they're really developing at a pace here. From what I understand and look forward to talking all about this. What I've read and heard through the grapevine is you're doing some really interesting work and I want to talk all about that. You're well funded. There was a big funding round recently and Epic Games was involved in that I understand, but you would certainly have heard of the projects that Michael has been part of some of your films that you have worked on from Beauty and the Beast, Lion King Aladdin into CG, with Tangled, Croods, Boss Baby, How to Train Your

Dragon:

The Hidden World. So there's plenty to talk about, I'm sure we're not going to be stuck for conversation. So let's get into it. Now, I don't know if you've heard any of our episodes, we always do a rewind, and we go back to find out where this creative spark started in your life and kind of walk through your career. And then we'll get to SPIRE. So I want to get into a lot of SPIRE so that front section may be a little bit more condensed today. But we have a mutual friend, Rich Draper, and he's given me some stories. You went to school with Rich.

Michael Surrey:

I did at Sheridan College, I met Rich, he was a year, year behind me, in college. And then we both after Sheridan, got scholarships to New York Institute of Technology. So I was there and then he came, like, I think, maybe eight months later, to work on a film and also get our BFA. The movie there was Strawberry Fields Forever, which was going to be CG and 2d animation. And this is like 87/88. So just to do that, then was like, how are we, how do you do it? The technology was certainly super, super slow. So when you wanted to do anything, it just took forever. And we thought, well, how are we gonna make a movie which takes forever just to do something that, that in 2d, we were able to do a lot quicker. So there's a learning curve and it went on for about a year or so. And they just realised I think they just couldn't find a place for it, but it was pretty cool. I mean, they had all the Beatle music and it was really cool. Some, a lot of great covers done by a lot of famous musicians, you would think at least that would be able to go out there as a CD at the time, but no.

Michael Wakelam:

Now did you also cross paths with Rex Grignon at Sheridan, or was that, was he before you?

Michael Surrey:

I think he would have been, he may have been after me. But I crossed paths with him at DreamWorks.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, definitely. So let's rewind even more than that, though. Let',you know what kind of got you started on this path, creative path in animation, was it you know when you were a kid? I mean, I spoke to someone the other day on the podcast, who started at three.

Michael Surrey:

Well, I mean, the drawing side of it, certainly, that's where I, I did a lot of my career, was in the drawing side of it. That started very young. I don't know exactly what age. My oldest brother, 10 years older and my oldest sister were very, you know, they were drawing all the time. So I, as a young kid, just to see them do that, you know, and you're just doing stuff as a young kid, just like simple stickman and stuff. And I would always try to move them and I was like, it's just on one piece of paper, so I'd draw a stickman here and then I'd say he's gonna run so I draw another stickman here and then now he's gonna jump off this cliff and I draw another. So in my brain I they're moving. Not knowing that, that you know, at that time it's animation and then you start watching it on TV all the Tom and Jerrys and Warner Brothers stuff. And then I started thinking, Oh, that's really cool. But again, I'm like eight or nine, I have no clue of like, is that a job? Like, do you do that for a living but it wasn't really until I went to college where I kind of figured out how does animation really work. Paper with little holes and you put it down and you draw here and another piece of paper and you. Oh, so I was super educated and a sponge when I was at Sheridan. So but leading up to that it was just all driven by just the love to draw.

Michael Wakelam:

Did you go to Sheridan because it had an animation programme?

Michael Surrey:

I did. Well, you had, at my high school they have and I'm sure they still do it now, where they have like career days where all the local universities and colleges come in and they promote, hey, come to our college, we have all these great programmes. And so I remember going into this one classroom, and it was Sheridan and they were talking about their business programme and we have this drama programme, and we have this graphics and animation. And I was like, wait, what, what are the animation there's a, there's, you can go to school for this? Like, I had no clue that, that you could actually go to school, and all you do is draw and learn how to animate so I said, okay, I'm gonna do that. My mother was like No, no, you're not-What are you going to do? You're just going to be drawing, you're not going to get a job. There's nothing that- you can't make any money doing that. And said I want to do it, I want to do it. It was so cheap. I mean, it was community college, it was like $500 a year for us to go to for a whole year to go to school. So as, so my parents were cool with that. And yeah, like I said, I just learned through all these other people. Because again, I think as you go to college, you find people that are like you and my daughter as she went into art school, she's now finding people like her. So it was very educational for me to walk her to an art school for like, exactly what I did just like, Okay, let's get your introduction. And when we showed up, there was like, 40/50 girls that looked just like my daughter, like just wearing this same. I went, Oh my God, these are like her people. These are her people. So it was kind of like that same thing when I went to school, like, Oh, he's really into what I'm into. And so's she and then you find- you sort of educate each other. Yeah. So was pretty, it was pretty fun years for me. As far as just learning how to animate I was just so excited about being able to do it. Your first assignment always is just bouncing a ball. And when you first see that happen, and you go wow, I just made something move. It's just a ball. Oh, my God. Yeah. So exciting. So it's come a long way since the bouncing ball, but that's where it all starts for everybody.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, so that was four years at Sheridan?

Michael Surrey:

Four years at Sheridan and then to New York Tech for about two years. I started to realise, you know, as I got married, and had my daughter and I realised, Okay, I gotta get a job to make money and work and plus, I don't- where we were going to school was on the map of animation community at that time. So I sent my portfolio, what little I had, which is mostly college work, and I just send it to Disney Florida, Disney LA, Disney Australia, Universal Studios in London and just said, you know, we're just going to go wherever we get, I get hired, we're going there.

Michael Wakelam:

And you went to London.

Michael Surrey:

I ended up going to London because I got rejected at Florida twice. I thought I got rejected in California and Australia was going to take me in but there was, the visa process is a lot longer even though I'm Canadian might Yeah. And it would be fine. But my wife's American it was like it was taking time they didn't say-

Michael Wakelam:

No, we don't let people in.

Michael Surrey:

I signed a contract to go to Universal and worked on my first feature which would be American Tale 2. And ironically, you meet people there, which is sort of a bigger version of college. Same kind of people like they're just all into what you're into, but we're getting paid and there's multiple levels of experience. The irony be that a lot of those people I met in 1990 I worked with them as recent as a year or two years before I joined SPIRE. Like a lot of those same people show up in your world because-

Michael Wakelam:

It's a pretty small world.

Michael Surrey:

It's amazing, yeah. I was just sort of like wow, look, I know I remember you and oh, did we work together on Oh, yeah, do you remember so and so? and it's crazy. I eventually made the trek from Universal in London, because I did get accepted into the programme at Disney as a trainee and I went okay, that's where I want to go. So we sort of loaded up the Nissan Sentra, no air conditioning and drove across country and my wife was pregnant at the time with our second so she was gonna just going to fly. A friend of mine and a friend of Rich's, he helped me, he drove his car I drove my car and we just sort of took everything I had. I came here to Glendale and just started working.

Michael Wakelam:

Been here ever since.

Michael Surrey:

Yeah, I know. I'll say didn't think I was gonna be here more than two years because everywhere else you go it was almost like it just the two year stint and then you're just like, Okay, we'll be here for a couple years and then we'll probably be somewhere else. That was like decades ago. Still here.

Michael Wakelam:

Obviously starting out at Disney you went straight in with Beauty and the Beast wasn't it?

Michael Surrey:

Prince and the Pauper was my first actual..got to animate I think two scenes. I came in just as they were finishing that. And I managed to get like two quick like simple scenes to do of Mickey Mouse being catapulted onto, into the castle or something, I think was the first shot I did. And then from that, went into Beauty and the Beast as an animating assistant. So you're still being trained, you have a mentor. They don't normally let you do production but it's up to the mentor to give you production scenes. So he gave me a bunch of production scenes to play with. And I was doing okay with it, I was figuring it out. So they just kept giving me more. But I also realised, in order for me to become an animator, these aren't going to be enough for me to show what I can do. Not to get into the weeds of it too much, but my pattern would be, I'd work on what they gave me, I would go home, help my wife with our kids, once they went to sleep, I go back to work, so about seven o'clock or eight o'clock, I would go back to work and start working on a personal test, using one of the characters they had is just just to do my own thing just to show I know what I'm, I can animate. And that would go to about midnight or one go home, my son would be waking up, help feeding and then back to bed and then the cycle would be that. Paid off, though.

Michael Wakelam:

How long do you do that?

Michael Surrey:

-well, for the length of the, I guess would have been eight months, six or eight months of the training, then they'd review you and then they'd say okay, here's our last review. What are we doing with these five or six trainees? Do we keep them training? Or do we promote them? And then I got promoted to being an animator for Aladdin.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, I mean, I find that with a lot of people that I talk to, there's a period in their lives where they have to really push hard to get to that next level, to separate themselves from the rest of the pack, so to speak.

Michael Surrey:

Yeah, I mean, I think they can tell you here the rules of what we're doing. But then you have to sort of read between what the rules are and see where you're not breaking the rules but you're just adding your own rule to like, well, in order for me to get to that next level- I think this goes across the board for any business or any kind of work you're in, they tell you, this is what we expect of you, but if I give you more then how're you going to say no to that if I'm showing you more. Aand to just jump way ahead here I'll give certainly the credit to was Jeffrey Katzenberg so when we go to DreamWorks, new employees would come in, and he would greet everybody in the theatre and just talk about the company and, and everything, but he would ask us if we have any questions, ask him. So somebody had asked the question, well, what is what is the one lesson that you've learned in your career over the decades? And the one thing that he said, which I think is very true, and a good lesson is every meeting you go into every situation you go into, always exceed expectations, like always come in with more than what they've asked you to do. And you'll never fail. I just looked at that and I go, well, you can't argue with that. I mean, no one's gonna say what do you do, Michael? Why do you do all this work?

Michael Wakelam:

Well, I mean, it's an easy math problem, then, isn't it? It's like this, what they asked plus, this is going to continue to get me further along. So Aladdin, Lion King, Hunchback, you know, you worked on all of these great films, then I find it interesting that you switch to CG animation to 3d. How was that for you?

Michael Surrey:

It was it was bumpy at first. I was, so I was at Disney, Disney was starting to go into into the CG world full throttle, but they had already staffed up what they needed. So I left Disney went to DreamWorks. And that's where I learned CG. So I was in a classroom with you know, guys that have been doing animation for 15/20 years like me and now we're all like going, what? Where do we like where, what, what folder? Huh? Like, we're just like just hitting buttons and not know what we're doing. And it took a while to sort of break away from the technical side of what CG animation is because as when you're animating with paper and with drawing it some- everything is so instantaneous, and and it's just instinct, right? You're just like, I'm going to draw this shape. Okay, no, maybe I'll draw this shape. Yeah, that shape works better. And then you, you're always just in the moment of doing it. But with CG you inherit, everything that's already been built that's already been run. This is what the character looks like, you don't have to worry about all that. All we need you to do is move it.

Michael Wakelam:

But then there's limitations as to how

Michael Surrey:

Right. So then you get frustrated in that you can move it. aspect of like, I want to do Oh, it won't do that, oh, you can't do that because that shape, the arm isn't built that way. And so

Michael Wakelam:

Ah this was the other The Toy Story three. Okay, you get frustrated and you start to feel like you're, you're sort of animating with one hand. And you know, you can't do what you want to do. And it took a while. But you sit back and you realise it's not that different. In the hand drawn animation versus CG. It's still performance based, you still have to make these characters come to life. So if you just keep your head over there and don't get caught up with the fact that everything's in a graph, or it's a column of information and not like actual tools of drawing and an eraser, then you kind of start, I started to kind of get it. And I was enjoying it. I was really having a good time with it. I just think when I was started at DreamWorks with it, it was just they had so many animators so I found myself animating scenes that I had done already kind of into 2d, just the complexity of the scene was very much what I yeah.

Michael Surrey:

So I don't know if that's where you're going but had already- so I realised I go, I've already animated scenes like this, like there's no challenge, that I'm like, I don't want to have a whole career just redoing my career in yeah.

Michael Wakelam:

No no that wasn't where I was going but 2d and CG. So it got to a crossroads where I had a chance that's interesting. I didn't have the other Toy Story 3 on my to go back to Disney and help out on Toy Story 3, but this is during the period where Michael Eisner was still there and- radar-

Michael Surrey:

-That was, that lasted about a year because I think we just realised we were just part of a bargaining tool or chip in the in the in the game between Pixar or Steve Jobs and Michael Eisner. So when Pixar was purchased and John Lasseter and tEd Catmull came in and took over the department that pretty much said, Okay, we're not doing these here. They'll be done at Pixar. That when I transitioned full, pretty much full time into story at that point.

Michael Wakelam:

Okay. And you worked on Princess and the Frog. Did you animate on that?

Michael Surrey:

So I went over to work with Glen Keane on Rapunzel. Before it was Tangled.

Michael Wakelam:

Before it was Tangled, yeah.

Michael Surrey:

And I did story with him on that for about two years. Then they brought back John Musker, and Ron Clements, and they were going to do this movie based in New Orleans. And I thought, Oh, here's my chance to, one last chance to animate. I felt like, Okay, this will be it, this'll probably be the last. So I thought, well, you know, I'd like to do it. And I asked, Can I join your crew? And they said, Yeah. Glenn was fine with me leaving story. And just, I just wanted to try it one more time. That was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed that.

Michael Wakelam:

Do you think it'll come back again, at all? I mean, obviously, it's back. And there's a lot of 2d animation being done. But I guess in this scale, because you're seeing a crossover now like of things were 3d looks 2d like The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and clever things that they did in there, and Into the Spiderverse, Sony are doing some interesting things. Do you think that there'll be another 2d big budget film?

Michael Surrey:

No, I don't think so. I think it'll always be something that they'll do. Like moments in the movie where a character might go, I remember a time where... and they would go back into a sort of maybe a 2d version of that. But a whole movie... We even found just doing Princess and the Frog, that the infrastructure that was set for decades was kind of lost. People had to sort of have meetings to go, So what do we do after, who, who does this after this? And like they, their people, those people didn't work there anymore. Just to build that pipeline and that infrastructure I think would take... I think the money and the time for that I just don't know if it's worth-

Michael Wakelam:

On a commercial level -

Michael Surrey:

Yeah, not to say it can't be done. I mean, it's just a matter of the complexity of the movie, I guess, when you want to do it in 2d form.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah. Interesting. So I know it was a big effort for Klaus when they were putting that film together in a way that you know, that they recruit people from all over the world to be able to do that. I guess that's the most recent-

Michael Surrey:

Yeah, it would be the most recent example of the success in doing that, because they did, I mean, they did a great job it was a beautiful movie.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah. I mean, it had some elements of 3d in there as well, mixed in. So then you went back to DreamWorks. And you just focused on the story?

Michael Surrey:

Well, the very beginning of it was to come back, and I was gonna work on a movie called Me and My Shadow.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah. So I was just talking with, was it Joe Moshier, or-

Michael Surrey:

Oh, yeah. Joe.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, I just chatted with him a couple of weeks ago and he was talking about working on that, on again, off again.

Michael Surrey:

It was always I think, what would be considered a boutique kind of movie, like, it would be a nice little story of this very simple man whose life gets changed by his shadow and makes him come out of a shell. Just back then, it's just, like a lot of the movies at DreamWorks, they needed to have that BIG we need it to be big, saving the world. And they kept pushing the movie to try to be that it just had a hard time sort of finding its way I think. They did a lot of work on it. We helped develop a an animation tool that you would do on a Cintiq, just a digital animation tool with a third party company that came in and we just worked with them told them what we liked, and it worked. It was great. And then we were able to use the 2d stuff for all the shadow stuff that would be brought into the 3d environment. And it was working when it worked. It was it was really kind of cool to be able to sit there and draw something flat, like a shadow, and then hit a button and it goes into your CG environment and immediately maps on all the geometry perfectly. And it was just like, oh, this is great, but it just didn't find its way. And I think I just slowly was getting burned out with animation just in general. And I think because I had done story with Glenn and prior to that I did some on Tarzan that I kind of enjoyed the process there a lot. And I thought, well, maybe this might be a time to transition out of animation. And the way the business was as far as being an animator, as a CG animator, a lot of the fun elements for me were being kind of taken out of it.

Michael Wakelam:

Telling the story and you could do that still in the story department but you couldn't do it so much in animation.

Michael Surrey:

Yeah, when you were an animator, when I animated on Lion King so I can look at what I did on that movie, it maybe is two.. two minutes of a movie, 90 minute movie or however long it is. Whereas with story you're looking at big chunks. So when I see a sequence even though it's not literally my work, but I can go oh, I helped structure that I can see that they started where I suggested and the pages and I drew that and did the composition to end us here, like it's bigger pieces of the movie. So it was just a little bit more of a contribution I thought was kind of fun, fun place, and it was just a lot less stressful. Animation is deadlines every week and quotas and it's you know, a grind. It can be a real grind. But story has its ups and downs like we, you push for about six weeks really hard to get a screening and then stop and you talk about it, you figure it out and then slowly just start to get back in and it doesn't kill your life.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, can be quite common in this industry. Interesting that see, you know, you went through this story stage, all through How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. Yeah, you were you were there until dragons three.

Michael Surrey:

And the last thing I worked on is The Bad Guys, which is coming out.

Michael Wakelam:

Which looks amazing. It looks really cool.

Michael Surrey:

Yeah, it's really, really cool to watch it from the outside. After being on the inside and watching it being put together. So that's pretty cool.

Michael Wakelam:

I mean, I spoke with Rex Grignon as well about the tools, the animation tools that they developed and you know were able to make the animation process a lot more fluid and intuitive for the animators. But that was probably by the time that you'd already left.

Michael Surrey:

I mean, I've heard the animators that use their software, DreamWorks' Primo, and it's just again, all the stuff I was talking about early on where it's a mouse and a keyboard. Well, now that you can style this you can just grab, you can grab on the screen, it's a lot more like you're sculpting and drawing than it is like typing in tab this and click HQ and hold this key down and click that. And it just felt a little bit more like animators are being a little bit more using their creative side versus the technical side.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah. All right. Let's talk about SPIRE. Yeah. Because you're here now I first heard about SPIRE with most everyone else in the industry. But then I started hearing mumblings about what was happening here, and you have to tell us more and maybe as much as you can. But I heard you know, your doing some really different things as far as pushing the envelope with technology, especially integrating real time tech into the pipeline, which may not be your area but that's a subject I'm really interested in. But first of all, what drew you here to SPIRE?

Michael Surrey:

Well, I met Brad Lewis is a co founder of SPIRE I met Brad on Dragon's three. So he came in your the last maybe eight months of the movie to kind of help finish it out producing it. So he made a point of coming by going, hey, you know, it's Brad Lewis. And I thought, Okay, well, normally, you don't get producers that do that. And he made a point of us as story, as a story team for Dragon's, to keep us together. A lot of times they don't, they just want to, we have a screening, they just loan you out to other movies, and then you're just sort of never getting that time together to talk about the film. And he protected that, you know, he was just a nice person. And he's easy to talk to and just joke around with and very relaxed. And then just one day, he just said like, Hey, I'm planning this. I got this idea. And I went Oh, what? I was still at DreamWorks- but I just got this idea. But you know, you know, I'll email you. I'll email you. I went, Okay. Months go by, months go by and then I forgot. And then all of a sudden it's like hey it's Brad. He goes hey, can you meet me for, for a drink in Pasadena, I just wanna talk to you about what I'm talking, what I'm dealing w- what I'm thinking up. And he'd already left at that point. And I went sure. So he started to tell me the basic structure of what he was trying to build, which is now SPIRE, just getting cre- a lot of good creative people a lot of experience, but also bringing in new talent. And just really, let's not deal with all the stuff that we've all had to deal with with big studios. And we can just get into the building good ideas and do it smart. And I went oh, okay, he goes I don't have it all figured out yet. And this is all before P.J. Gunsagar before we had any kind of funding. So again, months went by, and then he eventually popped up again and said, Hey, we got all this and we've got everything lined up, and do you want to join us? And then that's where I decided at that point, I was like, where I am now, in my career, if I don't do this now, I'll never do it. And I just think that I'm not in a place where I'm pining for something that I need to- oh, I need to direct I need to, you know, I just want to have fun making movies. And what Brad was offering was, that was fun. It was gonna be fun. I mean, it's a lot of work. And it's hard and all that. But you just want to have the fun of building something from nothing. And trying to help be a big part of building that up...excited me and I thought, well, I've again, I've done a lot of stuff. Great Movies at Disney and DreamWorks. I thought, you know, why not? Yeah, I'll join you. And then he started telling me about the other people that we were getting.

Michael Wakelam:

He really recruited an all star team like-

Michael Surrey:

Yeah, I was like, you know, and outside of Philippe Brochu, who we have, who I knew from Dreamworks and Brad, I didn't know- I joined when there was about nine of us, I think. So Dave Smith, Philippe and Shawn Krause, who came from Pixar, I had never met them. So we had a meeting once in Palo Alto at their office there and that whole time I'm driving up I go man I hope these people are good people. I don't want to be leaving this company but I don't want to be in a room where like, these people aren't good. But everybody was like, Oh my god so, so nice. And so, it was just such a great drive back. When I drove back down here to LA, I just like, ah, such a good decision because these people are all smart, experienced, and they all are doing, wanting the same things I am. And then from 9, we've grown to over 60. Well in, I guess what's almost a year and a half since I've joined.

Michael Wakelam:

And you're creative director of story and animation is that right? You get to have your hands in-

Michael Surrey:

Yeah, I get to play in both worlds. But then I can always go, I'm gonna go back to story you guys figure it out in animation. So that's, and Shawn is doing the like, his expertise is, his career has always been in animation. And so he'll be Animation Story. We're now in a position where we're helping Brad with the movie we're working on now through, I'm helping him through the story apart and then, we're all leaning on each other. But once it gets into into the actual animation production, he'll lean more on Shawn, but I'll still be a voice in the room. Because, you know, we both have experience in that so.

Michael Wakelam:

I understand you're kind of leaning into this real time tech. And I'm just curious as to how that's changed your approach and the timeline of the movie, are you doing more pre production, because some of that animation, because you can do real time, enabling you to iterate faster with the real time tech?

Michael Surrey:

It's I mean, we're in the early stages of playing with it. We did a test when, early on when we were very small, I think we're 15/16 under 20 people. And we were going to do a test trying to use the Unreal Engine as much as we can. And so one of the artists we have here, Cosku Turhan and who, who knows, Unreal. So again, we're all virtual, so he could share his screen. And it's the first time I'm seeing and he was in showing our environment that we had, that fully virtue had built. In this case, it was one of the movie ideas of the Century Goddess and he had built this whole temple area that takes part in the movie, this one element is, would be the test these two characters going up to this temple. And so Josh got on the screen in the Unreal Engine, and he was like moving it around. And I'm just like going, what the heck. And he would stop it. And then you'd see the grass moving and I go, is that grass moving? And he goes, Yeah, and he was, I just jokingly said, Oh, can you make it, can you make it taller? And he goes, Yeah, and sure makes it grow. And I was like, what? I just like I was, hey can you move the sun? He was yeah, what do you want the sun, you want it over here. And just the whole environment is just, I mean, we're all seeing it now. It's very much out there on all social medias, you can see what the Unreal Engines power is. But for me back then is like, a year and a half ago I'm just like, what, you can do all this stuff? So your mind is is going okay, what can we do? How do we play in this? So the idea of us sort of going full into there, we're trying to think, obviously, we'd like to animate. Right now it's like you animate in Maya, and then you come into Unreal. But the idea is that yeah, we're all trying to figure out what is that magic formula that allows you to stay in the Unreal Engine. We're trying to also use that to our advantage and story doing story capture, which is also, people are doing. But the one thing that I've been hearing from other people here, as we're making this movie Trouble is that the thing that's really kind of cool about what we're doing is that we're able to, the speed in which we can just go Oh, what about this? What about that? And people are able to show like 10 examples of something. And I'm hearing them say, if we did this, like wherever they came from they go this would take two months. We're doing this in a week. So the process of getting, if it's Brad saying I want this place to feel very magical, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, they can go and do something and show him either that day or the next day.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah there's no three day renders.

Michael Surrey:

And I think that's part of a the structure of the company is that we're small, and you have a lot of experienced and excited people. And the technology that we're using, I think is just aiding in making the process move a little quicker. And again, everybody gets excited, because you know, somebody, like our production designer, we have Ricky Nierva, he, we draw something, and then Charles Elson our modeller, would just go, like this? And we're like, oh my god, you just, you just modelled that, like he does it like that, where it's not this, you know, red tapey kind of take time. And so in all the-

Michael Wakelam:

So you're really behaving more like a startup and with that startup mentality of doing sprints, and you know, being able to develop a minimum viable product very quickly, you know, but in the animation world.

Michael Surrey:

And again, it's it's still the big beast is still out there for us, which is a feature so that we all understand that and that's just going to take a lot of people, but in order for us to get to a place where you're handing that out to them, to the rest of the crew to sort of actually execute the making of it. The process of doing those you know, what about this? What about this? What not Oh, it's too blue. No, it's too big. All those choices that you get to make before you... That area is the area that gets so destroyed a lot of times in bigger studios, because there's time, like we got to get, this movie has to come out here, we have this much to spend, it has to start here. And once it starts, we can't spend any more and you can't stop. Once that ball starts rolling, you can't slow it down or stop it. And if you do, it's going to cost more money. And it's all those things. So anything that we can do leading into that ball starting to roll in a production, we're going to be in a healthier place.

Michael Wakelam:

Yeah, yeah, we did our first project with Unreal Engine last year in London, and we just found that a lot of that, that production stuff came to the pre production side and allowed us to, like you say play around with things. And then when you get into production, it technically should be it... but also from from what I've, you know, when I've spoken to other people who are, you know, dabbling in it as well there is a shortage of talent. I mean, obviously, everyone wants to use Unreal at the moment, but there's not a lot of people who can use it. Yes, you can do more upfront, but there's also more front loading in regards to training. Are you finding that as well? You just teaching-

Michael Surrey:

Yeah, I think that's sort of a little bit of, again, the benefit of being smaller. And we're sort of just ramping that startup muscle, like some people have been able to take some of the Unreal fellowship and be able to learn it and have time to learn it. Versus like getting somebody or, or needing somebody right out of the gate that knows it. I mean, we have a handful of people here that do. And hopefully that's the people that will help the other people that have taken the course and learned what it can do and what it can't do. But all that aside, once you're in there, it doesn't do all the work. You got to, you got to do it. And I think that's the trick of it. If I had a box of 12 colours sitting here and a piece of paper, then versus a computer with Photoshop, which has 1000s of colours, am I going to make a better picture on that in Photoshop than I will on a piece of paper with 12 colours? It's sometimes you, when you're limited, you do a lot better work. Because you're saying well, I only have this much to work with. So you make creative and more, you know, economical or smarter choices. When you have 1000s of dollars to play with. You're like, Oh, what if I did this? And what if I played with that? And I think Unreal can kind of... that floods in real quick because you just see like, oh, like we're saying, Oh can you move this? What happens if you do this? Can you bring in clouds? Sure. Do you want it to be Oh, can great. Can it snow? Like it just you can clutter it and get lost in all of the power.

Michael Wakelam:

What you want is those tools, but you don't want to tell everyone everything those tools can do.

Michael Surrey:

Exactly. You don't need to show everything. I mean, it's you know, just you don't have to do it all but it's-

Michael Wakelam:

When it comes down to it, yeah, you can do all of this. But it still comes down to storytelling and telling compelling stories. And so for that I imagine nothing has changed for you. It's still business as usual.

Michael Surrey:

Pretty much it's it's nothing different from what I've done in the past. It's the good part again with spire is that our connection to the beginning parts of the movie are a little bit more- you're lot closer to it. So the movie Trouble that we're working on now connected with Danny McBride. So you know you're with Brad, so your small team, you go into a meeting a Zoom meeting, and you're in there with Danny and you have his writers and who are helping us write the movie and we're all talking about the movie and I'm thinking well, this would never happen whenever I was at Disney or if I was a DreamWorks. And we're all trying to work and figure out and get the creative part of it and make the story and make it you know, an engaging, fun experience. I mean, it's just been nice to be exposed more to that than we were probably used to before. But it's not that different. When you get down to everybody goes, you know, end meeting, you know, it's still script pages, and somebody has to draw somebody else to do all the storyboard panels.

Michael Wakelam:

Exactly. And you've got to create compelling characters and great story. So beyond the feature, if you're working in real time tech, are you envisaging these characters in these stories living on in different ways, virtual ways and interactive ways?

Michael Surrey:

I think. I think that's certainly the goal. I think as we, you know, having Epic Games with us now and, or us with them, however you want to put it, it's inevitable, I think we should think about how to, how do youshowcase your film in ways that maybe hasn't been done before. Or because we are small, we can turn quicker than the bigger studios. So is it, is it to our advantage to take the idea that we are small that we can dive into something that's brand new that everybody sort of... I mean, again, the pandemic hits and streaming becomes a way of watching new movies and it becomes you know, I mean, going back to the theatres is starting to happen again now, but for a while there, you're thinking, Oh, well, wait a minute. You know, people were kind of like not minding sitting in their home theatre and watching the newest animated movie or newest film that comes out. So it starts to make you think about what are the other ways in which we can attack our movies. And does it have to be just a movie? Can it be other things? And does that other thing have to happen after? Or can it happen before? You know, you get involved with it, with Epic Games, which is, again, that's a little mind blowing as to what they can do. And then you think well, is there something there that we can maybe help each other? You know, hey, we'd like to do this. And they go we know exactly what to.. come with us we'll show you. So I think there's a little hole that will help each other figure out what that new way is. Yeah, I don't think we're all about let's, make a movie, put in the theatre. Okay, what's the next movie? Let's go to the next. I think there's more to be done with what we're doing.

Michael Wakelam:

And is there any thinking around TV and episodic?

Michael Surrey:

Nothing that we've, nothing that we've openly talked about or discussed. Right now, we're so focused, I think, you know, getting our resources sort of figuring out this one movie. But we still know that we need to start developing, we do have other films that are being very slowly developed outside of that, but this is the one we need to start to figure out and it becomes the guinea pig for any new process that we're going to do, a new pipeline thing. Well, let's take a little bit of it and shove it through the pipeline and see. So everything is going to aid that I think because that's sort of, I think, going to help in the coming years sort of say who we are to the world versus us just talking about SPIRE and saying SPIREs great.. you know, like, we can actually say, Hi, I'm from SPIRE, blah, blah, blah, take a look for yourself and then show people what we're doing. Yes. I mean, that's the that's the goal.

Michael Wakelam:

Well we look forward to everything that you've got to come. When's trouble due?

Michael Surrey:

We don't really have a release date as yet. The great part about working, again, is that- You can just go, what if? What if? Have a great weekend and we just, you know, there's no hard deadlines

Michael Wakelam:

-You don't have to have the release date. sitting out there for us to panic too much. I think we're more concerned about let's just make sure we're getting this right. Again, we don't have anything prior to this. So you just want to make sure when you do come out that you come out and people just remember you for the right reasons. Yeah. Excellent. Look forward to seeing it. Thanks so much for taking the time today to chat.

Michael Surrey:

Yeah it's been great. Yeah, thank you. Thanks for having me.

Michael Wakelam:

Thanks for joining me so good to hear about new studios like SPIRE and what they're doing. In two weeks we have an episode with Michael's colleague, Shawn Krauss from SPIRE and next week, we have Kristen McGregor, also recorded in person in LA. If you'd like to get in touch or to shoot us any feedback then please email podcast@thecreatorssociety.org. You can find me on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Please subscribe, like or share the podcast if you're enjoying it. I'd like to give a shout out to Rich Dickerson for the music Mike Rocha for the mix and our exec producer Eric Miller. Thanks again. See you next time.