An Interview with Rhonda Smiley and Bob Brousseau – By Duane L. Martin

Last month I reviewed a film of a type that I don’t usually receive many of. It was a CGI animated, sci-fi film called Race. The film has sort of an old school CGI look to it, but I was amazed at not only how well it worked, but how well the voice acting draws the viewer into the story. What’s even more amazing is the story of how it was made in the first place. The project began in 2000, and thanks to financing problems and other work projects that forced the film to take a back seat to other projects, it was only pure luck and the dedication of its creators that gave this film the chance to live and to finally see the light of day on DVD. I asked my contact at the studio that made the film, Hyper Image, if they’d be up for an interview about the film, and he set me up with the film’s writer, director and producers, Rhonda Smiley and Rob Brosseau.

* * *

DLM: Let’s start this out by having you introduce yourselves.

RS: I’m Rhonda Smiley. I’m the writer/producer and also a co-owner of Hyper Image.

RB: I’m Rob Brousseau. I’m the director/producer of Race and also a co-owner of Hyper Image.

DLM: Your company was in business before you all decided to do the film Race. What kind of work was the company doing before the idea of Race came up?

RS: Rob & I started Hyper Image as a production company. We produced the second season of the animated series, "Mutant League" (based on the Sega Genesis game). Rob was the director/producer, I was writer & co-producer. We had always planned on doing our own IP at Hyper Image, but it turns out that’s pretty hard to do, financially, that is. So while we were developing our own projects in-house, we continued to work as a service industry, providing graphics, animation, and ultimately segueing into a full service post-production facility. We worked on the "Congo the Movie" videogame, "Hyperman" CD-ROM, visual effects for a bunch of Tapestry movies. It was after we finished animating several of the "Starship Troopers Chronicles" episodes that we thought we could tackle a movie of our own.

DLM: So tell us about the origins of Race. Who came up with the idea, and what went on in that early pre-production process?

RS: Rob.

RB: Well the idea for Race dates to 1998. The germ of the idea was that I wanted to make a “Speed Racer” in space kind of film crossed with the Tony Scott film “Days of Thunder” which kind of took us into the day to day operations of a racing team. It’s kind of funny now that in reviews we get dinged as a “Pod Racing” clone and a “Clone Wars” knock off yet the idea and development started way before those projects had come out. I truly believe that if we had made our 2001 completion date we would have been received differently in the market place. C’est la vie.
The entire crew at the time was heavily into video games as well and our idea was to make it like a film adaption of a video game yet there was no videogame. That’s what dictated the development and look of the film. It was exciting in building a backstory for all the characters and locations and the universe of the film. That was an ongoing process throughout the film and I believe added to the perceived depth of the visuals and world.
The actual story was hammered out by Kevin O’Donnell who was the creator of multiple animated television series, Rhonda and myself. Rhonda did a great job of getting the whole epic story told while keeping it essentially the story of this one downtrodden racing team.

DLM: This was way back in 2000. What sort of software and hardware were you using at the time you started working on Race?

RB: Good question. We had just completed working on “Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles” for Sony Animation. We had animators/modelers working on dual single core Zeon workstations rated at, I think, 800mhz. Our render farm consisted of another 8 of those machines. That’s it. So this was also formative in the development process as to what we could accomplish technically and what we couldn’t do. For example there are no real quadruped creatures in the film because we were using Character Studio for animation and it hadn’t really developed a system we felt would hold up on our schedule at the time. So those limitations were written into the script so to speak. The software was Autodesk 3D Studio Max 5.1 with Character Studio and After Effects. Even though through the years we upgraded our hardware, the basic tenets of the production never changed. There was very little coding going on and in order to meet our budget our goal was to use as much “out of the box” software as possible. We weren’t trying to compete with the Pixars of the world. Our idea and goal when we got funding was to put out one of these movies every 18 months and be able to get to market quickly. Again more plans that got blown up along the way.

DLM: Early on, you had financing problems, which led to huge delays in creating the film. What happened with that and how did you all deal with it and continue to move on with production?

RB: Well I can’t get to much into specifics about that but at the time our funding was coming from off-shore but the companies involved hit hard times and basically pulled out as we were completing pre-production. It was devastating to say the least but at that point we had to scramble by taking on outside work. We pared our staff down to about 4-5 full time employees and continued to work on the movie as a side project. I would say that 85% of the animation on the film was done by 2 individuals: Dean Jackson and Don Waters. These guys were amazing. We would do FX and compositing on other shows and when we had a spare minute we would work on Race. It became an inside project at that point and because of that it took a long time. It didn’t help that I was constantly adding and deleting entire scenes and tweaking story the whole time. This added time but I think allowed me to make more of the film that I wanted to make.

DLM: Tell us about some of the team that put the film together, and did you have the same team working on it throughout the production, or were there some changes here and there because of the time frame involved?

RB: Yeah as I said before, they were the core team of our studio so they were essentially on for the whole time. The three principle people who did the lighting, animation, and compositing were Dean Jackson, Don Waters, and myself. There were some others here and there but that team essentially completed this movie. If we hadn’t had to do work on other shows I think we would have completed around 2004 or early 2005. Much longer than originally estimated, but again I believe that would have put us in a different position in the marketplace.

DLM: Obviously the hardware and software changed over the years as production continued. Were you ever tempted by these advancements to scrap the original look of the film and start over with all new models and textures? Also, are there places in the film where you did take advantage of these advancements, or did you keep the whole thing true to the original look?

RB: Of course, but the film would never have been completed. The length of time to update the assets would have taken 2 years to complete. We couldn’t chase technology we had to push what we had. That was our goal.

We eventually did take advantage of some advancements. I mean we weren’t oblivious. We knew what was going on around us. I think some of the sequences were finished in Max 7 so we could take advantage of some hair plugins and that sort of thing. But to deviate too much from the plan would have been complete failure.

We knew that the longer the film was taking to complete the more irrelevant the look and style of the animation would date us. It was a constant torturous feeling. That’s why we put so much insistence on making each shot as consistent as the previous one so that people would not be drawn out of the story, once they accepted the basic look and feel of the movie. Making sure the story was as clear and entertaining as possible was first priority. If it fails on those counts I take full responsibility.

DLM: Let’s talk about the voice acting now. I felt that the voice actors did a really good job with their characters. Tell us about the folks who lent their voices to the film and how you went about casting them.

RS: Thanks. We called upon some people we knew to come in and read, and basically did word-of-mouth auditions. Our production manager, Ricardo Ortiz-Barreto did a lot of theater work, so he got the word out to theater groups. Our main character, Trance, was played by James Hereth. James is primarily a writer, even though he’s done some acting ("Mowgli: the New Adventures of the Jungle Book"). We brought him into Hyper Image to write & produce a small project, but when we were casting Race, we thought he had the perfect voice. He still had to audition though. Bill Mendieta played both Gortak and Frikes, so he had many scenes with himself. As did Sola & Drayka, who were played by Terry Diab. Harold Cannon, who played Chancellor Nedon, is someone we’ve worked with before and he has such a great voice that we knew we wanted to work with him again. On a side note, James also edited Race and is now a partner at Hyper Image.

DLM: When you’re casting voice actors, do you look for people who can do the voice the way you have it in your heads, or do you just give them the script and let them find their own voice for the character?

RS: It’s a bit of both, actually. We have an idea of what we’re looking for, but actors bring their own take as well, and it’s usually a combination of the two. Having worked in animation before, casting and voice directing "Mutant League," we knew we needed the actors to be very expressive. That’s why we really wanted Harold onboard.

DLM: Aside from the financial difficulties, what were some of your biggest obstacles in getting this film made, and how did you get past them?

RS: Time was a huge factor. We knew we were fighting a losing battle against technology. It hurt us to know we had this vision that we couldn’t fulfill as time went on. And we knew it would hinder us when it came time to look for distribution. But we had committed to the movie and we knew the story would hold up, despite the incredible advances in technology that we couldn’t take advantage of. We were also a tad optimistic in terms of what the movie was, and learned as we went that we needed to scale down some story, so there was a lot of major rewriting while we were animating.

DLM: What parts of the film are you the most proud of, and what, if anything, do you think could have been done better?

RB: Honestly, completing the film with all the struggles we had was one of the most satisfying things in my life. It was the first time in my life where I honestly didn’t care how my work was reviewed because the journey was more important. It doesn’t bother me if someone doesn’t like the film (there are a few) because I am proud of everything that is on screen considering how it got there.

The parts of the film that I am most proud of comes down to little moments within a scene here or there where I feel we got it right. If I mentioned them specifically most people would think I was crazy so I will leave it at that.

DLM: What are you working on currently, and has the bad economy affected the amount of work your company has been getting?

RS: We have another project that we’re shopping around called “N.O.R.M.A.L.” Having financed Race, we decided never to do that again. We have a producer attached who is taking the project out, and we’re hoping to get interest. We’ve also developed Race as a series, and we’re shopping that around too. We think it’d be a really fun Saturday morning cartoon.

DLM: Looking back over the years, what’s the one project you’ve worked on that you’re the most proud of?

RS: I’ve written for a lot of shows and feel a sense of pride in all of them, but it’s hard not to be most proud of the project that was taken from start to finish, because there’s so much invested in it. Even though there are disappointing aspects of it, ultimately, it was a major feat for a small company.

DLM: There are a lot of people out there doing graphics work nowadays that probably have a romanticized image in their heads of what it’s like to work in the industry. What are some of the drawbacks of working in this industry that might give them a bit of a reality check. Alternatively, what are some of your favorite things about it?

RB: You will get abused as you work your way up. Long hours, stress, low pay. But the best thing about the industry is you are working in it. The worst thing about the industry is that you are working in it. That’s the rub. Plus it’s the only product in the world where everyone gets to have their name on it at the end. Try doing that in the insurance business. That’s crazy and fun.

DLM: Do you have any advice in general for people who really want to get into the industry?

RS: You have to really love it, or it’s not worth it. It can take a lot of determination and energy, and there can be a lot of rejection for most people. But if you know it’s what you’re meant to do, then do it. Meet people. You hear it all the time, “it’s who you know,” and there’s truth to that. You don’t have to be connected when you start out, but you have to make a point of getting connected and staying connected. There’s so much competition for any job in the industry and it’s much easier for an exec or producer to hire someone they know than someone they don’t know or have never heard of.

RB: Come in humble. Don’t come in to this business with a sense of entitlement or you will get crushed. You have to remember that you have to please a client and not yourself. If you can do that then I believe you will find some artistry and satisfaction in your career. The entertainment industry has evolved from an apprentice-based system, but the mindset is still there and you have to give in to it. We all want our work to be recognized in some way for who we are but at the end of the day it’s how well our work served the ultimate purpose.

DLM: Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we wrap this up?

RS: I’d like to say that I really appreciate your review. The fact that you mentioned our struggle with the advancing technology was nice to see, believe it or not. You know, you can’t put up a release or waiver before a movie, saying what hardships you went through to make it. People just want to be entertained and they don’t care that it took ten years or make, or that you had only 3 animators for the majority of the film. And they shouldn’t care about that. But on some level, it’s nice for someone to recognize that.

RB: Big Ditto.