Petaluma animators magical journey from ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Pirates’ to award-winning ‘The Pig on the Hill’ MEG MCCONAHEY THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | December 1, 2018, 10:39AM | Updated 16 hours ago.
Pig lived a quiet comfortable life on the hill in solitary pursuits like assembling jigsaw puzzles and baking cakes until the morning when Duck moved into the neighborhood. Then his carefully ordered world took a turn — ultimately for the better.
A metaphorical tale of two opposing personalities who somehow make peace and wind up fast friends is at the heart of a new film by a Petaluma animation studio that is gaining lots of buzz, including the Oscar kind.
From a series of offices above the historic Great Petaluma Mill along the river, animators Jamy Wheless and John Helms create magical and mythical worlds and creatures, including the endearing Pig and Duck, whose friendly detente could be a lesson for a divided nation.
“The Pig on the Hill,” based on a book by British children’s author John Kelly, is making the rounds of prestigious film festivals like the Annency International Animation Festival in France, the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival in England. Jamy Wheless and John Helms of Petaluma's Lightstream Animation Studios have released the six-minute animated short "The Pig on the Hill." (lLightstream Animation Studios)
Wheless and Helms are both alumni of Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects powerhouse started by George Lucas and headquartered at his Digital Arts Center in San Francisco’s Presidio. They have poured their hearts and all of their combined talents into the six-minute short, calling on connections to snag A-lister Pierce Brosnan to narrate the story and Matthew Wilder, who wrote the Oscar-nominated score for Disney’s “Mulan,” to create original music.
The little gem has qualified for an Academy Award, the first step in the road to an Oscar nomination. But what Wheless and Helms are really hoping for is a major funder or distributor like Netflix or Amazon to provide the capital and backing to spin it off into a series or feature length film.
“We just need an investor for about $30 million and we’d take off,” said Wheless, with a wry grin.
But it’s not out of the question. Both guys, now in their early 50s, bring serious cred to their movie work, having had a piece of many memorable screen characters and moments. As an animator Wheless worked on Yoda in the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. And he was part of the 300-person, Oscar-winning team that turned actor Bill Nighy into the creepy creature Davy Jones, with an unforgettable moving Octopus beard in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series.
Helms, who is the lighting and visual effects wizard of the twosome, worked on such blockbusters as “Pearl Harbor,” “Star Wars Episode III,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”
But after working together for many years the pair left their steady gigs at ILM to open their own studio. Lightstream gives them the opportunity to tell the stories they want to tell, in the way they want to tell them.
“We want to make movies we want to see, and that give you a positive, hopeful and inspiring feeling,” said Wheless from their office, a playful place with posters of movies they’ve worked on, models of characters they created, a white board filled with sticky notes and the assorted toys that seem to be a part of every animation and techie office.
It’s conveniently situated a block from the Boulevard 14 Cinema. Cinema West CEO Dave Corkill makes screens available so they can watch their dailies (raw footage) or present private screenings.
Wheless described the leap of faith in starting Lightstream as “exhilarating fun.” But it was also risky to leave the cocoon of a major player like ILM. Wheless, who lives in Petaluma, is a father of four ranging in age from 19 to 27. Helms lives in Novato, where he raised three sons, one still in high school.
But they concluded it was necessary if they were going to expand their creative horizons.
“If you really do want to be on the production and producing end of filmmaking, the way to do that would be to try to do it ourselves,” Wheless said.
The pair set up shop in Petaluma with five other defectors. They are the last standing, the only ones who stuck it out through some tough times.
Initially, the partners had a promising project, “The Fourth Wise Man,” about a wayward Magi and his cynical camel who never make it to the Nativity. They designed characters and did a promo for the film that was well-received among a tough audience of their peers in Hollywood.
“We’re the small brave David against the Goliath,” Wheless said.
But then the project fell apart and they lost funding with no investor.
“We have bootstrapped it ever since to get commercial work whenever we can to keep the company going,” Wheless said.
They’ve been largely successful, doing everything from commercials and virtual reality to video gaming. They’ve recently developed an application to visualize medical data that promises to be an important diagnostic tool that doesn’t involve radiation or other methods that could be harmful to the body, said Helms.
They also contributed to some feature films, like “The Greatest Showman” with Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams released last Christmas. Their most significant project was a film years in the making that has not yet been released: “The King’s Daughter,” featuring the voices of Pierce Brosnan and William Hurt. Lightstream designed and animated a mermaid for the full-length animated feature.
Whenever they have a major project they assemble a team, which takes over a bank of computer stations in a studio across from their office. The crew includes everything from modelers to animators to lighting experts and compositors.
“It’s interesting the number of disciplines it takes to make a movie, and that’s part of the fun of it,” said Helms, who grew up in Southern California and Oregon, and studied engineering and visual arts at Oregon State University. “One of the things Jamy and I have had success with is finding artists that have a whole lot of promise but don’t yet have the credentials.”
They look for people who will fit into their culture of “sharing and giving” and who will “bring a lot of fun to the work,” he explained.
Between major contracts they squeezed in time to work on “The Pig on the Hill,” a charming children’s story with universal themes. Pig, who is a bit OCD, at first is irritated by the ADD duck, who is as noisy and boisterous as Pig is reserved.” The film has some deeper themes that would resonate with people of all ages, from anxiety to empathy.
Wheless said he learned from a screenwriting teacher that any good story, however short or long, must be character driven. The pair want to do stories that are more than spectacles of action and special effects, but explore the human condition.
“I think it really comes back to a simple thing,” Helms said. “What really gives us value in our lives? Something that has value. So we’re trying to explore and focus on those things. There’s lots of things we could do to draw attention. But is it lasting? Does it really have any weight ultimately?”
Wheless met and befriend both Brosnan and Wilder through Wheless’ daughter Avery, a budding director who is doing music videos in Los Angeles. Brosnan was so enthusiastic about the project he also has promised to help sell it to distributors.
It actually was the former James Bond’s wife, Keely, who suggested he provide the narration for their friend’s short film, catching Wheless by surprise.
Brosnan said he found the characters of Pig and Duck “lovable” and believable.
“I’ve always enjoyed the theatricality of the odd couple pairing, and I thought it was beautifully written and had a charm of its own. It had its own unique world,” the actor said of the story. He was speaking by phone from Hawaii, where he has taken refuge in the wake of the Woolsey fire that did some damage to his Malibu property and ravaged his community.
“Jamy’s animation is so fresh and crisp and has a delightful naiveté and grace,” he said.
The pair connected as artists.
“I paint and he’s in animation, and he’s a great artist so we have a shared love of the arts,” Brosnan said. “His work is just so prolific and iconic that I was just totally beguiled by his personality and his work ethic, the work he’s done and the characters he’s created.”
Wilder, a record producer and performer who had a pop hit in the ’80s called “Break my Stride,” said he was persuaded to score “The Pig on the Hill” because of its quality.
“I felt it had high integrity. And that really is the name of the game, being inspired by great art,” said Wilder, who pulled together a 25-piece orchestra of experienced studio musicians to elevate the little story of an unlikely friendship. The short ends with a bouncy feel-good song, “You Never Know Who You Might Meet.”
Lightstream’s logo is an image of a boy releasing fireflies from a jar. It was inspired by Wheless’ experience capturing lightning bugs when he was a boy growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And later, there was a director who used to say to the team, “You guys are like lightning in a bottle.”
“But we’re letting the light out,” Wheless said of the dreamy image of the boy releasing his treasure into the twilight. “It’s us giving our stories to the world.”
Wheless never lost his love of good stories, which was ignited when he was a kid devouring Marvel comic books. After graduating from Auburn University he worked as an illustrator in Atlanta. But he had dreamed of being an animator ever since he was a child and taught himself.
“I still have my old comic books. Hulk, Spider-Man, Captain America, Avengers. And the irony of it all is that at 12 years old I’m drawing Hulk and at 32 years old I’m animating Hulk with Ang Lee. It as kind of a dream.”