Animation in Motion

On Dec. 12, Academy of Art University Principles of Animation instructor Dave Facchini brought in visual effects and lighting specialist Ray Gilberti to provide advice to students and feedback for the class’ final film review. Gilberti is a film industry veteran with 27 years of experience beginning with his work on Dragonslayer for Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), with whom he worked for 23 of those years.

Gilberti has worked on massive feature films including Star Wars Episode I, Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach and Planet of the Apes. Now he is retired, but occasionally works on independent films, including a 25-minute stop motion short film slated for pre-production in 2019, called Crickets Would Sing.

His career path meandered quite a bit, but he stressed the importance of improvisation and persistence in career success. “When I was back in college at San Francisco State as an anthropology student, I was watching a lot of ethnographic films, and I decided I really wanted to get involved in documentary filmmaking,” Gilberti said. “I couldn’t get any hands on equipment at the time, but I really wanted to shoot. I met someone from Industrial Light & Magic when they first moved up here from L.A. They invited me to come in.”

Gilberti conceded that there are not many stop motion films being produced in the film industry of today, but there is still a lot of work in animation. “Things have changed now. CG (computer graphics) seems to be the form these days. If you really want to do animation you have to see a path for yourself,” he said. “I just shot other students’ films. I entered ILM as a camera assistant, but I was on the level of a second assistant. When there was an opening they asked me to step up. People are looking for artists with a good background.”

Gilberti’s expertise lies in his experience lighting and producing visual effects in a long career at ILM, where he originally met Henry Selick for work on The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach and Monkey Bone. These projects were also how he fell in love with stop motion work. “We were given whole sequences that we could light ourselves and shoot,” he said. “All under the auspices of Henry Selick, of course.”

“Make sure to keep knocking on doors. If you have the talent and the will, there’s always a path to find."

His extensive experience shows in his work on the promotional trailer for Crickets Would Sing, an independent stop motion project about a Holocaust survivor and her pet cricket. “To get feedback from Ray was a great honor. I didn’t realize that there was so much we could do with lighting as a storytelling aspect,” said Tairelle Jean-Felix, a first year animation student whose final project, White Noise, was a class favorite. “In the trailer for Crickets Would Sing, there’s a great transitional shot that uses lighting alone to make the transition from an old woman to herself as a girl.”

Claire Pettebone, whose final project, Marlowe, received praise for the high production value set, echoed the comments about lighting but also the resourcefulness of Gilberti’s work. “Ray said a lot of great things about lighting and in general. It was super cool that he was able to show us what to do with a small budget,” said Pettebone. “He showed us a puppet that was not fully made, it was half of a puppet. It didn’t occur to me that you can show what you want if you’re smart about staging, only creating what you need to create.”

Gilberti’s time in the industry allowed him to offer unique feedback and perspective for students in the class, which was focused more heavily on the staging aspect of filmmaking.  “You’re doing good work. You get good training and have good instructors here,” he said. “Make sure to keep knocking on doors. If you have the talent and the will, there’s always a path to find.”