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CG on a Budget: A Zen Art

J. Paul Peszko looks at how companies create CG series on a TV budget.

When it comes to creating low-budgeted work like Lucy, The Daughter of the Devil, Fluid Animation finds that overall style can transcend technical compromises. All Lucy images © &  2006 Cartoon Network & Adult Swim.

When it comes to animation for television, splurging is not one of the categories in the budget, either above the line or below it. Unlike feature animation, where major studios spend money hand over fist trying to outdo one another, television budgets are much more modest. Even more modest still are the lower-budget CG productions that are well below a million dollars, hovering around a half-million and even lower. Normally, visual effects and CG present many challenges, but CG on a budget is far more challenging.

To discover just what some of these challenges are and how they have been overcome, I surveyed a couple of companies that have worked on low-budget productions.

Fluids Seth Piezas, formerly of Pixar, learned that with low budgets, you have to learn to pick your battles well.

The ever-present challenge for any CG production is adhering to schedule, states Erik Shepherd, computer graphics supervisor for Fluid Animation and their production of Lucy: Daughter of the Devil for Adult Swim. This is especially true for low-budget CG, where the slightest failure in a pipeline can have major budgetary ramifications. Another issue that arises is the efficient division of labor. What helps our studio is our artists are skilled in more than one facet of production.

Seth Piezas, director of Fluid Animation and a former designer at Pixar, agrees. Creating Lucy makes you rethink many of your assumptions, especially coming from the Pixar world of large-scale production. While it is highly effective -- mandatory in many ways -- to have highly specialized individuals when producing complex long-format content, it is impossible to carry the associated overhead costs when the budgets are highly aggressive.

Also, it takes a whole lot of time properly targeting the crews energy. Crews are artists. And artists always want to put 200 percent into almost every facet of their work -- perfecting everything. Thats wonderful. Thats why we do this. But with low budgets, you have to learn to pick your battles well. It becomes a Zen art for everyone to learn how to spend their time.

To overcome these challenges, Shepherd concurs with Piezas that picking your battles is very important in low-budget CG. You can't have everything. The trick is getting as much value out of your efforts as possible. Ideally, we dont want to spend time on things viewers wont see. Any corners we do cut will hopefully be overshadowed by the overall style of the show.

Fluid keeps costs down by using techniques and internal technology that reduce the overhead expense of rendering.

Style saves your tush more times than youd imagine, adds Piezas. On Lucy, we have a brilliant art director, Albert Truong. Between Albert, Erik, and Loren [Bouchard, the director], they found a style both in art direction and animation that looks great, but has a small production footprint. Its the hybrid car of animation production.

As for technology, Piezas says, It helped a lot to use techniques and internal technology that reduced the overhead costs of rendering. When you think low-cost, you have to act like you cant wait on the computer to do anything. Rendering -- even if its tens of seconds per frame -- is unacceptable. Artist time is paramount and they cant be waiting on feedback constantly.

Of course with larger-budget productions, it's great when you find that you can do more with what you have, but what happens when you discover you must cut back on visual effects?

If you're consistent with your look, people will focus on the story, which is the most important thing, Shepherd explains. If people are focusing on your animation walk-cycle, then theyre not lost in the story. An aesthetic style can be both simple and effective, like South Park. Just make sure your production value is even.

Erik Shepherd (l), CG supervisor for Fluid Animation, finds that the big challenge for any CG production is adhering to schedule, while Fluids assistant director Patty Jordan thinks that a consistent style is paramount.

Lucys assistant director, Patty Jordan, agrees that it is all about a consistent style. Its not about making cuts across the board. Its about finding a consistent style that can be achieved within time and budget constraints throughout the entire show, film, or commercial, and then picking and choosing the shots to plus. There is a lot of back and forth and open dialogue between the production company and the client to find out which aspects they are comfortable with cutting back and simplifying and which parts they are really concerned with perfecting and focusing a lot of energy on.

I guess the visual effects bug was whipped out of me a long time ago, explains Piezas. Visual effects can be a wonderful addition to a story. But they are not the story. Compelling experiences are not hung on effects. Its the other way around. Everyone can name more than one film where effects lured them into buying a ticket, but they felt pretty empty, poorer, and sometimes abused leaving the theater. Maybe thats just the theater I go to (joke). Lately, Ive had a very welcoming attitude to cutting back visual effects. It also helps amazingly when you have a director like Loren [Bouchard], who champions the same thing.

Setting the bar at a realistic level is necessary when adjusting the pipeline and workflow for low-budget CG. Fluid knows things are not going to be up to film standards, but they stick to what works for efficient production and good storytelling.

When it comes to adjusting your pipeline and workflow for low-budget CG, Shepherd recommends that you set the bar at a realistic level. Things are not going to be perfect and up to film standards. With our combined experience, we've learned what to avoid. We've seen what bogs down productions and pipelines. We stick to what works for efficient production and good storytelling.

Patty Jordan adds, Its extremely helpful to hire people who can multi-task, generalists, as we like to call them. That way, when they have any down time and are waiting for feedback on their primary task, they can move on to other things.

A lot of legwork in the early stages of a project must be done -- lots of planning, lots of scheduling -- so that supervisors are prepared to shuffle resources and re-arrange tasks if anything unexpected comes up.

I think I said this before, Piezas reiterates. Remove anything that delays artist feedback. Computation time. Communication delays. Boxes in front of doorways. Anything. And I agree with Patty. Perhaps the largest adjustment required is training people to expect the unexpected and balance accordingly.

How do they think they did with Lucy? I think we did pretty well, responds Piezas. We combined efficient production technology and techniques with an interesting style and managed it with an eye for anticipating production stalls. In this way, we were able to run three episodes in production, deliver on time, and have the crew work at a pace that I think was quite manageable. Thats one of the things that I was proudest of. I am not a fan of burning out a crew. Thats no way to run a company for the long term.

Mike Young of Mike Young Productions, which produces Jakers!, places emphasis on management to keep budgets low. He strives to make decisions quickly, which streamlines the production process. Courtesy of & © Mike Young Productions.

Discussing the differences in higher-budget ($1,000,000 and up) and lower-budget CG, Mike Young, co-founder, producer and partner at Mike Young Productions, places the emphasis on management. This sort of budget ($1,000,000 per episode) would be a wish-fulfillment fantasy for us. The average Nickelodeon/Cartoon Network/ Disney Channel show costs an average of $500-600,000 per episode. Ours are in the range of $350-$400,000. We probably use management and staff more efficiently than big studios. The decision-making process both creatively and in terms of management is quicker and more streamlined.

Often the big studios have staff hanging around for management decisions, as well as many meddling noodlers -- one major studio recently told us that a certain executive costs them a million dollars every time he walks in the room and changes his mind about something or other at the wrong stage in the process. Yet we have won more Emmys for our shows than any other comparable studio during the last four years.

Young tries to stay ahead in production techniques in order to maintain low budgets. For example, his company was the first to use India for production. Pet Alien courtesy of & © Mike Young Productions.

That says a lot for the quality of their productions, which include shows like Dive Olly Dive!, Growing Up Creepie, I Got A Rocket!, Jakers!, Pet Alien, Toddworld and He-Man. But how do they maintain such high quality while overcoming the challenges of low-budget production? Run between the bigger boys' legs, stay ahead in production techniques, says Young. We were the first to use India for production, first to use live-action reference to back up our storyboards, first to use management teams on multiple series, provide long-term jobs for our artists and not hire and fire like the majors. Our pay rates are comparable to all the others, yet our output is much higher.

When I asked Young what happens when he discovers he must cut back on visual effects due to budget constraints, he responded in just two words: Never happens. As for making adjustments to their pipeline and workflow for low-budget projects, Young pretty much reiterated what Patty Jordan and Seth Piezas had previously stated: Multi-tasking teams, producers who know the state of the art and are very experienced in their field (3D CGI, 2D, Flash).

To sum up what we have learned about the essentials for creating low-budget CG, first you need versatile artists who can multi-task and work together as a team. Next you need to develop a consistent style, and you must have effective time-management, especially when it comes to rendering. Staying up-to-date on the latest production techniques and picking the scenes where you feel you can get the most bang for your buck are essential. Finally, it may help to have a Zen monk on your staff.

J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews, as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.