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The Not So Rat Race

Charlex Inc. founder Alex Weil discusses One Rat Short, which won Best of Show in the Siggraph Computer Animation Festival, qualifying the film for Academy Award consideration.

By Pamela Coleman

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Charlex, Inc. might be known as a pioneering digital design and production studio for television commercials for companies from AMEX to Verizon, but if founder Alex Weil and President Chris Byrnes have their way, One Rat Short will pave the way for even taller tales.

"The most frequent question we get," says Chris Byrnes, President and Executive producer of the SIGGRAPH award-winning short film One Rat Short, "is how much is computer graphics and how much was filmed?" Byrnes answers the question himself: "All computer graphics is the answer; every single pixel is computer generated."

SIGGRAPH 2006, the 33rd International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, will be held July 30 through Aug. 3 in Boston. www.siggraph.org

The SIGGRAPH 2006 Computer Animation Festival jury selected two award winners from 726 entries for exemplary use of computer-generated imagery and animation, and compelling storytelling. One Rat Short was awarded Best in Show.

One Rat Short, a 10-minute film written and directed by Charlex, Inc. co-founder Alex Weil, is not just a technical marvel, however. "This piece immediately stood out to the Jury for many reasons," said Terrence Masson, Computer Animation Festival chair from Digital Fauxtography Inc. "The film's emotional tone, cinematography and technical realization all melded wonderfully into a simple yet touching short film. Repeatedly, the two lead characters transfixed our gaze with extreme close-ups, and we instantly wondered what they were thinking. Our ability to clearly empathize with the main characters' desires is one of the film's single greatest achievements."

Weil was enthusiastic about the award. "The SIGGRAPH announcement was exciting. It's our first award and it is huge for us." Byrnes adds: "in 1998, SIGGRAPH negotiated with the Academy [of Motion Pictures] so that Best of Show brings automatic qualification [for Academy Award consideration.] It's great to get that right out of the box." Weil adds, "Best in Show at SIGGRAPH was instant affirmation that we had something good."

Byrnes, Weil and editor John Zawisha were interviewed recently at Charlex's offices in New York City, only two weeks after final edits to the film were completed and a scant 12 hours after Weil and Byrnes returned from the Cinevegas Film Festival in Las Vegas. The response of their first live audience at Cinevegas was especially gratifying to the team. Says Byrnes, "Cinevegas was our first live audience and we appreciated their honest reactions." Byrnes reports that the film received two rounds of applause after its first ever screening. Weil said playing to an audience was very special. "I understand now why stars need love. We worked so hard and then felt the love for it. It was very rewarding."

Neither Charlex nor Weil is new to the filmmaking world. "I've made thousands of short films... all less than 60 seconds long," says Weil, whose portfolio includes MTV's first ever Best Music Video Award for pioneering work with multi-layered video effects for The Cars' 'You Might Think' video, the Emmy award winning opening for Saturday Night Live, the Grammy nominated '90125' long form video for the band Yes, and scores of advertising industry awards for over 300 of the top Fortune 500 companies. And movies aren't just part of his profession; they're his hobby. Weil explains, "Sometimes, I'll watch 10-15 movies in a weekend."

Weil says he was always drawn to filmmaking. "Isn't everyone?" At age 14, young Weil was asked what he wanted to do for a living. "Advertising just popped out of my mouth," he says. However, despite his prescience, Weil initially attended Johns Hopkins University but lost interest in science and math when he couldn't keep up with the University's required chemistry curriculum. Instead, in 1979, he co-founded Charlex and has been making movies ever since.

Weil's favorite movies are Cinema Paradiso, the Red Balloon and Apocalypse Now. Elements of each can be seen in One Rat Short, an alternately dark and hyper-bright film that follows our hero rat from his home on the streets, to the sterile, experimental laboratory home of his future love.

Weil and Byrnes both say the goal of the short film was to grow Charlex's Computer Graphics department. "Our field is highly competitive so we can't stand still for even five minutes. We are in the fast lane and always have to grow creatively," Weil says. "We also need to change to keep the people who work here interested."

Editor John Zawisha found the experience to be extremely gratifying. A veteran of 20 years in the commercial making business and formerly with the Childrens Television Workshop, Zawisha says that while it was a relief to finish the project, "if this is what it's like to work on a film, then great, I'd love to work on another one." Zawisha described the luxury of working on a project without the tight time frame usually associated with television commercials, and said he especially appreciated the consensus decision-making process employed by Weil.

At two years in pre-production and one year in the making, One Rat Short also became a new employee recruitment tool. "We took over another floor in our building to accommodate the film's production," says Weil. When asked how much the project cost to complete, neither Weil nor Byrnes could answer, except to say that by the end of the process, what had started as a small team had grown to 25 Charlex employees; work time on the film squeezed in between other jobs. Although they state it is impossible to know how many hours were involved, Charlex was able to recruit employees by making the film and so, says Byrnes, "Indirectly, it made us money."

Considering that Charlex employs 97 people, the film was certainly not an idle pastime. Indeed, Weil wants to move Charlex into filmmaking and agrees that an "East cost Pixar is not a bad business model to follow." It is easy to see that Weil is serious about an entrance into the movie business when he states, "We need to grow as an organization to push responsibility downward to give me time to do movies."

Weil says entry into the movie business is definitely not out of fear of the demise of the television advertising business. "We are in a healthy and thriving business. And anyway, it would be difficult to walk away from a life's work." Weil founded Charlex 27 years ago. Byrnes joined 20 years ago. The company's employees see Charlex as a long term commitment. "It's an institution," says Weil, who describes moviemaking as branching out. "We want to do it all, and why not?"

For Weil's first short film (longer than 60 seconds that is), he "wanted to experiment by creating a feeling of revulsion, and then having it turn into a love story. I wanted the audience to immediately ask 'how will this turn out?'"

Weil believes the strategy of using underexposed and dark, or overexposed and bright settings causes the viewer to peer in close or look away, thus allowing the audience to more deeply identify with the characters because "you have to look at them more closely." He adds, "One of the techniques we used was to give a lot of the camera work a hand-held feel and to keep it a little behind the action so that the scenes didn't seem staged."

As for Charlex's next project, Byrnes says that the film team has been kept in place with a feature film as their goal. Weil says he "has a story in my head" and believes a feature-length film can arise from One Rat Short, using a minimum of anthromorphic action, no talking characters, with dark and richly textured sets, and with music, sound and light driving the film. However, Weil wonders aloud whether the format of One Rat Short could be expanded to a 75-minute feature without losing some audience.

For now though, Charlex has submitted One Rat Short to festivals around the world. It has already been accepted to Cannes Short Corner, and the LA, Golden Line, and Melbourne International Film Festivals. Weil says he knows the short is not going to make money but he "wants it to run all over the world. We're going to Swaziland because we were invited and, because, how great is it that Swaziland has a film festival!" Weil believes the film can play successfully to audiences around the world because "it's a feeling film. You don't need words. There's no language barrier."

Charlex has been doling out stories for television audiences in small doses for over 20 years, with and without words. One Rat Short leaves audiences asking for more, and Alex Weil seems set on delivering.

For more information, visit http://www.oneratshort.com/ and http://www.charlex.com. For more information about the Siggraph Computer Animation Festival, visit http://www.siggraph.org/s2006/index.php.