A flesh-toned dancing fool has pulled in 25 million YouTube views by loping down the streets of Los Angeles in his birthday suit. The animated star of the most recent video, “Late for Meeting,” and the original blockbuster, “Going to the Store” came to sublimely dorky life after creator David Lewandowski witnessed CGI malfunctions while doing digital effects for sci-fi movie Tron: Legacy.
Lewandowski explains, “If rigs get bound to the facial geometry just a few units off center, the character’s face explodes. His eyeballs go one mile in one direction, the back of his head goes one mile in the other direction, and the photo-realistic teeth stay in place talking to the camera, married to the audio. The other animators would go ‘delete delete delete’ but I thought that stuff was hysterical.”
During the year he spent animating Tron: Legacy visual effects at Los Angeles-based Digital Domain, Lewandowski became increasingly captivated with VFX screw-ups. “As I explored how things go wrong in character animation, I realized there might be an appetite for things that break in these beautiful and grotesque ways.”
To make “Late for Meeting,” Lewandowski strolled around his East Los Angeles neighborhood shooting live-action backdrops with a Canon 5D camera. He designed the spastic hero, affectionately nicknamed “Idiot” or “Rubber Man,” using Cinema 4D 3-D modeling software. “When you create a character in 3-D,” Lewandowski says, “you normally design a restrictor plate so the kneecaps, for example, can’t move in impossible ways.”
But Lewandowski wanted unnatural movement so he disrupted the standard settings. “This idea of broken motion capture data, where all the bones are inverted and flipped and looping incorrectly and contorting, has been used very effectively in horror films for creatures and stuff, but I haven’t really seen it exploited in comedy.”
Once he’d programmed Rubber Man’s anatomically impossible moves, the self-taught animator set the choreography to tinkling instrumentals licensed from 84-year-old French composer Jean Jacques Perrey. Lewandowski says, “I don’t know if he’s seen the work; I’d hope Perrey thinks the films are appropriate for his silly feel-good songs.”
Lewandowski has been toggling between work-for-hire assignments and DIY projects ever since 2004, when the FBI busted into his apartment, confiscated his computers and escorted him to the police station.
The crime? While working on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Lewandowski made the mistake of emailing watermarked images to a few of his friends. “Within hours the images were on a Harry Potter fan site and the next thing I knew all my electronics were confiscated and I was in this Federal Building taking a polygraph,” Lewandowski recalls. “I was blackballed and told I would never work for Warner Bros. or Disney again.”
Lewandowski bounced back when director Joseph Koskinski brought him on for Tron: Legacy and this year’s Oblivion. Lewandowski laughs, “Thank God Disney didn’t do a background check.”
In between his blockbuster jobs and the Rubber Man shorts, Lewandowski directed the effects-intensive Flying Lotus music video Tiny Tortures starring Elijah Wood and a self-assembling bio-mechanical arm. Using DropBox digital file sharing, Lewandowski out-sourced tasks to VFX volunteers from Austria, Germany, Canada, New York and northern California. They were happy to pitch in, he says. “I have friends in the animation world who’ve gotten to that creatively bankrupt space where they crave authenticity. They were all interested in helping to rig, and model, animate and light and track and match-move shots because they’d rather do something cool with people who provide less psychic tension than work with people who might be talented but are terrible to be around.”
Lewandowski recently returned from a visit to London, where he took an informal crash course in algorithms, page curation, analytics, ad revenue and merchandising from Google number-crunchers and YouTube content producers. He says, “I wanted to find out how these people make a living off of YouTube.”
Next up? “I want to do something in this weird Japanese/David Lynch/experimental space,” Lewandowski says. “It might be a TV show, might be another short film, or, I might just make “Going to the Store 3.”
Working out of his apartment surrounded by a couple of Mac Pro workstations, a Kinect, two vintage arcade machines and a constant corgi companion, Lewandowski sounds like he’s in no hurry to take on hired-hand assignments when he can exercise total creative control over his own stories. He says, “To be able to work hard and make people laugh–why wouldn’t I stay the course? So no, I’m not out there pitching the $200 million blockbuster–just yet.”