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Interview: Richard Baneham Gets Oscar Animated
04 Mar 2010 : by Aileen Moon
This coming Sunday many eyes will be on our many Irish Oscar nominees. One such individual is Tallaght man Richard Baneham, nominated for his work on the international box office smash ĎAvatarí. The Ballyfermot College graduate and the man who was also behind the technological breakthrough that was Gollum, recently caught up with IFTN from his LA base.

Baneham took a break from the glam task of cleaning his L.A. home to talk to with IFTN about the phenomenal success of ‘Avatar’ animation in Ireland and how he plans to enjoy the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony.  “I’ve the parents coming over,” he says wryly “so I needed to get the place in order.” Very understandable! But, of course, what’s not mentioned is the reason behind the visit – as Richard’s parents are travelling from their home in Old Bawn, Tallaght, to accompany their son to the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood following his nomination as Animation Supervisor for James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’.

Richard [far left] with the Avatar special effects team at BAFTA

It quickly becomes apparent that this modest attitude is an automatic response from the Oscar nominee who is at all times unassuming and deeply appreciative of the animating foundations in the industry back home. More specifically, those laid in his old stomping ground Ballyfermot College of Further Education.

Richard revisited his alma mater at the start of March, accompanied by fellow classmates (and fellow Oscar nominees with their animated projects ‘The Secret of Kells’ and ‘Granny O’Grimm’) Tomm Moore and Darragh O’Connell where he gave a ‘how to’, as he describes it, session about ‘Avatar’. Richard describes the atmosphere of the college concisely, saying: “The very nature of Ballyfermot is that it is a vocational school and I think that speaks volumes for the kids that come through it. There are some fine teachers there, especially where visual language training and life drawing is concerned.”

It is the foundation of all film,” he continues, still on the topic of visual language. “The understanding of how to compose paintings, how to compose colour. And it took me about 8-10 years to understand why we had learned this and spent so much time on it, but I’ve been grateful ever since that we did it.”

So with three 2010 Oscar nominations for Richard and his former classmates, it’s understandably judged and enormous success story coming from one classroom.

The Secret of Kells

Yes, there seems to have been this very specific time period, or class, or just group where people like Tomm, Darragh, and Nicky have gone on to great success,” says Richard. “Also Cathal (Gaffney) was the year ahead of us but fell in with us. There was a fantastic creative atmosphere in our group – and a lovely camaraderie that came with that.”  And the effects wizz is quick to mention other notable names he studied alongside… “don’t forget the rest of the class, who haven’t been nominated like the Kavaleer guys; the Jam Media guys, Al and Johnny; Audrey Steadman who’s the head of layout on ‘Family Guy’; Brian Woods over at Disney. Also, of course, Stephen Deane who was the previsualisation artist for ‘Avatar’. In truth, it’s an outrageously successful class.

Following his graduation from Ballyfermot College, Richard left for L.A. and tells IFTN that it took him some time to feel like a proper animator: “After college I leaned on directors to tell me what it was they were trying to achieve as opposed to taking what the director wants and pushing it which is what I try to do now. It’s not just about making something pretty it’s about making conscious decisions before you start the scene and then achieving those decisions. You have to fundamentally connect with an audience.”

Lord of the Rings' Gollum

On to the movie of the moment, the blockbuster that last week officially became Ireland’s biggest box office hit, ‘Avatar’. James Cameron started work on the film in 1996 but famously had to wait for technology to advance enough to create his vision. As such, Richard and most of the crew are to be considered blow-ins, becoming involved a mere four and a half years ago at a test shoot for the film! Richard describes how his creation of the fiendish Gollum from multi-award winning ‘The Lord of the Rings’ series brought his work to Cameron’s attention: “When Jim saw ‘Two Towers’, where we had the real introduction of Gollum as a fully fledged character he said that it was the impetus to break out the ‘Avatar’ script. He felt then that the industry was ready. And that’s when I got a call.

Said “call” has led to a thriving professional partnership, obvious most recently where upon being presented with a Visual Effects Society honourary Lifetime Achievement Award, James thanked Richard his “right hand man” effusively.

And so the big question – with no hope of understanding the response - I find myself wondering if Richard could explain why the technology used on ‘Avatar’ is considered to have been such a breakthrough. “We shot the scenes with about six to eight high def reference cameras,” Richard begins. “We did a capture data step plus a 3mm lens camera attached to a head rig, and we reinforced these with cameras which took dedicated close up shots and wide shots which mimicked the coverage that we would do in live action, if that’s what we had been doing. One camera then captured the character’s visuals and then a virtual camera (basically an object with a monitor on it that’s trapped in 3D space) and these go through a couple of different systems and then feed back in real time though a special viewing device.

So we had all the high def reference cameras to lean on during the capture phase, for the animators to use to get information from different angles, which I actually think was this project’s big technological breakthrough. That is the understanding that says you should give the animators a full database, give them all the information possible.

Sam Worthington in Avatar

As to the casting, ‘Avatar’ sees a continuation of a pattern whereby James Cameron casts a relatively unknown actor who then goes on to enormous success (Michael Bean, Arnold Schwarzneger, Leonardo Di Caprio) or, as in this case, Sam Worthington, who is in upcoming blockbuster ‘Clash of the Titans’ amongst many other projects. Richard tells me that this life-changing role was very nearly given to someone else: “Sam was involved for a long time before we knew if he would be the lead – we obviously wanted him because he is great in the movie but the studio were nervous having an unknown in the lead. They wanted Jake Gyllenhaal and he came in for a test but it became obvious that Sam was just really comfortable with the role. The studio also pushed Tatum Channing but we always wanted Sam.”

Animation is a painstakingly long and drawn out process, and that’s before breakthrough technology becomes involved. Did the ‘Avatar’ animation team ever hit a wall I wonder? “Every bloody day,” comes the fervent response. “For things like making Grace’s skin look realistic in magenta light as a CG mono was ridiculously hard and all you can do is try to make it work somehow – rewrite code maybe or take a look at it from a different angle. We had a great technical crew though which helped a lot.” This then begs another question, ‘Avatar’ may look like the perfect marriage of technology, animation and live action to the untrained eye but is Richard completely happy with the finished product? “We got as close to perfection as we could in places.” He surmises “There’s many scenes that I would love to do over, I know we can do them better. But you don’t get a second bite of the cherry, that’s just the nature of filmmaking.”

As to the illustrious Oscar nomination that has been the cause for much Irish celebration and pride, Richard remains grounded. “It is a very complimentary period in my career,” he concedes, “but you can’t do this for trophies. There has to be a genuine love of animation and storytelling for the level of commitment that it demands. And if you don’t have that then there’s no point in pursuing it as a career.”

Despite admitting he finds awards ceremonies “relatively boring” Richard is looking forward to the upcoming Oscar ceremony on Sunday. “I’ll have my parents over and my wife Ashling will have her family over too so it’ll be the Governor’s Ball, a few pints with family and friends and then on to the ceremony.”

... best of luck to all the Irish this weekend!

  • The winners of the 82nd Academy Awards will be announced on Sunday, March 7th.
  • For a full list of the Oscar nominations visit: www.oscars.org


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