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CGI for Television: Don't End Up In The Cartoon Graveyard

DCDC's Josh Prikryl relates ten years of experience and gives us advice about how to produce a successful full-CGI show for the crushing requirements of television.

Butt-Ugly Martians: an all-CG show delivered on time and on budget. © 2001 Universal Worldwide Television, Inc., Just Group PLC, Mike Young Productions, Inc., DCDC Limited

Butt-Ugly Martians: an all-CG show delivered on time and on budget. © 2001 Universal Worldwide Television, Inc., Just Group PLC, Mike Young Productions, Inc., DCDC Limited

TV animation is sometimes thought of as being the ultimate in disposable entertainment. It is mostly a 2D art form, but recently we've seen both some exciting, and not so exciting, forays into CGI animation for TV. The term 'tra-digital' comes to mind when I think of CGI productions that use 2D methodology and planning. Producers of TV animation, who only a few years ago were thrilled at the possibilities of CG production, now want to avoid what has become a cliché. CGI is now sometimes seen as an undependable and dangerous investment. A number (but not all) of CGI series have been delivered late, gone over budget and been difficult to control creatively. In general a feeling of overall predictability has eluded the producers who need to have control over what should be no more complicated than the 2D animation process. If CGI is to thrive as a commercial viability for television over the next few years, we must try to ensure that it will be as predictable as 2D animation production.

I have worked on most of the "all CG" animated TV shows that ever saw airtime and were produced in the United States. This gives you an idea about how small the CGI for television animation community is. Most recently I was CG animation director on Butt-Ugly Martians, which is currently airing, or is soon to air, in most territories worldwide. We completed 26 episodes of this all CG animated TV series on time and on budget. It was also my first experience working overseas, at DCDC, in Hong Kong. I have 10 years of production experience in the animation industry, and have signature approved close to 20,000 scenes as an animation supervisor. Having supervised two all CG animated TV series that were both completed on time (52 half-hour episodes), I would like to share with you my opinions; some of what I believe works for CGI television production and what does not.

Here are four areas of how some TV animation producers have gotten into trouble with CGI animation for TV and ended up in or close to that cartoon graveyard.

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Stylized sets and characters were hallmarks of the late series Voltron: The Third Dimension, on which Josh Prikryl was a supervising animator. TM & © World Events Productions.

1. The Producer's insistence on extreme realism, rather than a stylization of the characters and sets.

This points to producers' preference for realism in CG television, and although the technology might arguably be available, it is not always practical to produce realistic CG TV animation at this time. Why not, you ask? There have been very few realistic CGI TV shows that have been produced on time, so there's some history to think about. Kids don't necessarily prefer it, and they are the intended audience. It's a burnout for your animation crew to produce overly realistic scenes while on a TV animation schedule. People complain about the "weird" look the characters sometimes have. If it doesn't make good financial and practical sense to produce a realistically animated 2D production for television (can you name one?), then it probably doesn't make sense in 3D production. To develop a realistic look that is maintainable is one thing, but when one combines this difficulty with some of the other pitfalls it becomes impossible.

2. Producers and directors not heeding the limitations of CGI.

The hurdle of too many scenes per episode, and too many scene retakes, will cripple a CGI production. An unrestrained quantity of character and set models is often the case with "failed" productions. Writers must understand these limitations with CG animation upfront. If producers insist on not putting limits on this, they are probably going to have the episodes delivered late, no matter what any CG house tells them up front. It's easy to accept the large quantity of models in the boardroom, when budgets are being approved, as it's only theory at that point, but someone needs to be realistic. Often, we have producers requesting to remodel characters and models that were approved previously. This is another burden that is more common than one thinks, but even if it's necessary, it's a step toward failure.

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3. Incorrect software choices.

It seems unreasonable to be a trailblazer at this point in CG television production. Go with what works now, or what is already proven to work on a TV schedule. Render time, the technical equivalent to "cel painting" in the older 2D days, can make or break a TV animation production even if everything else goes right. If particular software has never been used before, or should have never been used, for television production, go with a more practical solution. It's simple math when everything goes right...but most of us can only be so lucky.

4. Finally, you cannot underestimate the importance of animator morale.

To complete a production with consistent quality, you must keep the animation team intact and with good morale. A good animation team needs solid leadership to produce animated scenes week after week after week faithfully. After all, to a large degree, and whether they know it or not, the animators decide whether scenes are turned in on time and a production succeeds or fails.

Solutions

Okay, so those are the pitfalls, which brings me to how to produce a successful CGI animated television show. Let's summarize some basic points that studios can improve upon for success, or, how to stay out of the cartoon graveyard:

Art? Reality? Cartoon? CG has the ability to do it all. A shot from Voltron: The Third Dimension. TM & © World Events Productions.

Art? Reality? Cartoon? CG has the ability to do it all. A shot from Voltron: The Third Dimension. TM & © World Events Productions.

1. The CG studios and producers need to develop a maintainable quality, and must plan their schedules accurately if they, and CGI animation productions worldwide, are to not only survive, but become as predictable as 2D animation. Although a company might have a great looking demo, they must quickly adapt a quality that is maintainable for 13 episodes and up in order to best serve their client. The stylization of a CG design for a show is not only more maintainable for the crew, but, as we know from 2D animation, a character's body and facial antics read better with some exaggeration, which isn't as easy with photo-realistic animation productions.

Producers must be willing to accept a quality that is reasonable, and understand that the entire schedule is in jeopardy if they allow too much pride to enter the production. Shrek took 4 years -- what can we do in four weeks? This should not however be seen as an excuse to produce a low standard quality. There is a balance between the "higher than TV" quality and what I would call "low standard animation." A failure to understand this medium ground has had great consequences for even the biggest studios that are attempting television CG animation production. A production's goal is to deliver a message the story. Unfortunately, there isn't time to finesse each and every movement when it comes to TV.

2. The scene count problem, and the model quantity, is one of the least understood areas of CG production for animated TV producers. Studios must set parameters early enough so the writers can structure the stories in a strategic way for CG production. To be safe, keep it under 400 scenes total, and 10% retakes are a good standard for which to try. There is also a problem of storyboarders not following the look and design of sets, which slows down the animation process greatly, so we need storyboarders to follow a model guide, and work with a more cinematic style when storyboarding. Ultimately what CG houses do is to interpret the 2D vision of the producers, via storyboards, and turn it into a comparable and quality 3D product. For that reason the importance of storyboard quality cannot be underestimated.

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Making characters "cartoony" helps them read. These Martians are obviously evil! © 2001 Universal Worldwide Television, Inc., Just Group PLC, Mike Young Productions, Inc., DCDC Limited

3. It cannot be stressed enough that the software chosen must be able to render effortlessly for CGI television production. Certainly more than a few productions have fallen victim to this incorrect software trap. Think about it -- one half-hour show has close to 40,000 individual frames. If you're doing four render tests per scene, you have a severe situation if the software can't render efficiently, to say nothing of attempting multiple episodes per month.

4. Maintain animator morale. It is my opinion that animators will more easily follow a leader, who can him or herself animate any scene in the production in a way to which the animators can aspire. It doesn't work to have a 2D storyboarder direct the animators, at least one on one, because there is no understood empathy or practicality toward problem solving in regards to the animator's workload and creative issues.

The voices behind the characters of Butt-Ugly Martians (l to r): Charlie Schlatter (B. Bop-A-Luna), Rob Paulsen (2-T-Fru-T), Josh Prikryl (CG director) and Jess Harnell (Do-Wah Diddy). Photo courtesy of Josh Prikryl.

The voices behind the characters of Butt-Ugly Martians (l to r): Charlie Schlatter (B. Bop-A-Luna), Rob Paulsen (2-T-Fru-T), Josh Prikryl (CG director) and Jess Harnell (Do-Wah Diddy). Photo courtesy of Josh Prikryl.

A few good rules for a CG director to follow to maintain animator morale is: listen to them, don't yell at them, and if they are having trouble with an assignment, try and empathize with them. Also, if they have a great idea, let them do it! That's common sense. How many times in past jobs have we been asked to do something, which we KNEW our bosses could not or would not do? Grumble, grumble! Your director and team leaders must lead by example, and be good animators themselves. Follow these rules, and the animators will work harder than you can imagine for the show, week after week. Oh, and plenty of treats for the animators now and then can't hurt.

CGI's look is widely accepted by both children and adults; it has a quality that we instantly relate to because it looks somehow real. I believe that CGI has an important role in the future of animation as it can be rendered to look real, stylized, or even just like a 2D cartoon. Probably the most exciting aspect of CGI is, it is still developing as an art form, and we have only scratched the surface with the possibilities of the art's direction. There are very few limits -- beyond the budget and schedule.

I hope that Butt-Ugly Martians, and shows like it, will help prove to the world that indeed CG television can be as predictable and profitable a production as any successful 2D animated show. By consistently turning in episodes on time, and always striving for increased quality, CG studios can prove to producers that CGI is as dependable as any 2D show.

Josh Prikryl is the CG animation director for Butt-Ugly Martians at DCDC in Hong Kong. He has supervised a total of 52 half-hours of CGI animation production for both Voltron and Butt-Ugly Martians with over 18,000 scenes combined. Other CG TV shows he has worked on include: Nascar Racers, Xyber 9, Starship Troopers, Max Steel and Dan Dare. Before you start writing letters (!) -- he is a great fan of both 2D and 3D animation of all styles.

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