CGI on TV: Not Just a Feature Animation Game

With the growing ease of CG production, Joe Strike charts the growth in computer-generated 3D productions on TV in North America.

A year before Toy Story hit the theatres, ReBoot, the first CG-animated TV series premiered on ABC. © Mainframe Ent.

A year before Toy Story hit the theatres, ReBoot, the first CG-animated TV series premiered on ABC. © Mainframe Ent.

A handful of years into the 21st century, traditional 2D theatrical animation looks to be an all but extinct species. Today, CGI films rule, filling the feature pipeline as far as the eye can see. It will be quite a while before we find out if Disneys Frog Princess the first flat film from the studio since 2004s Home on the Range and still in the planning stages is a harbinger of the mediums return or a doomed, noble gesture.

In the meantime, 2D is safe, sound and thriving in TV series and direct-to-video releases but even here computer animation is becoming more and more of a player every day. NBCs primetime Father of the Pride came and went quickly in 2004 and there are only a relative handful of 3D CG series now on the air, its still a far cry from 1994 when ReBoot, the first CG-animated network TV series premiered on ABC a year ahead of Toy Storys arrival in movie theaters.

ReBoot was created by a four-man team that included Ian Pearson and Gavin Blair, the pair responsible for the primitively animated appliance movers in Dire Straits famous Money for Nothing MTV video. On the strength of that single credit and backed by a British company that subsequently fell by the wayside, the show was sold to ABC and Canadas YTV. Mainframe, a CG production facility named for ReBoots mythical computer city, was launched in Vancouver Canada to produce the series.

We made every mistake possible, says Dan Didio, at the time an ABC programming exec and, later, ReBoots story editor. Thats the only way youre going to learn, and we wound up thriving for it. We were charting new territory, which made it kind of fun. We didnt understand the production problems at the time. Mainframe was pushing programs further than ever before. We became pretty much a beta test site for computer software that was applied later on down the line. The first of its kind, ReBoot had to cope with the all the challenges of being a pioneer. After airing four episodes in the fall of 94, the show actually went off the air until January to allow for the longer than anticipated production schedules.

Dire Straits blockheaded workmen made a cameo appearance in an early episode where they were unceremoniously clobbered by falling sandbags. Ian cant stand being reminded about those characters all the time, Didio confides. He wanted to kill them in ReBoot because he hated being held to that standard.

Mainframes Rick Mischel recalls that ReBoot was quite an achievement at its time, both technically and creative. It was also more expensive to produce than conventional animation.

Mainframes Rick Mischel recalls that ReBoot was quite an achievement at its time, both technically and creative. It was also more expensive to produce than conventional animation.

Mainframe grew beyond its origins into a powerhouse animation studio producing numerous CG series and direct-to-video features starring well-known characters from Spider-Man to Barbie. Rick Mischel, the studios current ceo compares those early days (before he joined the company) to todays animation scene. ReBoot was quite an achievement at its time, both technically and creative. The cost differential [between the series and conventional animation] back then was probably 30-40%. It was much more expensive than today because of the cost of technology then. But the whole model was different then, licensing fees were five times higher. With a bigger budget and longer timelines you could afford to do a show like ReBoot. These days thankfully, technology caught up with medium. Between faster rendering time and better software packages you can now produce a CG show in the same time as a 2D one.

The Disney Channel is most committed to CG of any cable channel, going back to its highly successful 1998 series, Rolie Polie Olie: three of its preschool Playhouse Disney shows are CG with a fourth in the works, as are two series on companion channel Toon Disney.

While CG and 2D production schedules may have fallen more in line, it still costs more to do a show in three dimensions. Meredith Metz, svp of creative affairs at Disneys TV animation division estimates that a CG show costs 25% more to produce than a comparative 2D show. Nancy Kantor, Disney Channels svp of original programming, sees production costs for the two different techniques merging. I think its all coming closer together. CG costs are down, Flash in some ways is going up, because its beginning to approach what you can do in 2D. We dont find the cost differentials to be wildly different.

Youre juggling any number of factors, including your financial limitations, says Disney vp Mike Moon, who oversees both the channel and the TV animation division. A CG show that introduces new characters, locations every week isnt one any studio would want to produce. The cost of setting up new characters or environments has to be amortized across an entire series.

Carefully structuring those elements is one way to keep a CG series budget within haling distance of a 2D one. We might limit the number of models or additional characters at first, Kantor explains. Once youve built that library, you can add to it later on. In a second season you can quickly get up to where you want.

The Disneys Channels commitment to 3D CG animation is strongest in its preschool Playhouse Disney block, with three series currently on air Handy Manny is a production of Nelvana Ltd., Higglytown Heroes is a production of Wild Brain and both are produced in association with Disney Channel while Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is produced in-house. A second in-house effort starring two more of Disneys (in Meredith Metzs words) fabulous five core characters, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger is in the works and due for a fall 07 premiere.

The Disneys Channels commitment to CG animation is strongest in its preschool Playhouse Disney block, which features Handy Manny (left) and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. © Disney.

The Disneys Channels commitment to CG animation is strongest in its preschool Playhouse Disney block, which features Handy Manny (left) and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. © Disney.

Preschool-targeted CG has a particular appeal to its audience, but comes with its own set of drawbacks. According to Kantor, CG works really well with preschoolers because its a fully dimensionalized world. Its very real its tangible, approachable. You can also get textures in CG like a soft fuzzy, stuffed animal look that makes the characters feel more like playthings. However, Metz admits the process can also be very, very tricky. A lot of R&D went into those two shows, with special attention to the warmth of these characters. For preschoolers, you want to make sure they dont look scary with glass eyes.

These shows usually have slower pacing to engage preschoolers, she adds. They dont move too fast. Longer scenes take longer to render. If you want to tweak something small, it might turn into a three-day render. Weve had to direct differently and add more cuts. Its something that doesnt impact our Flash shows.

Toon Disneys Jetix action/adventure block features two fully-CG series, Get Ed and Dragon Booster along with Oban Star Racers, a 2D/3D hybrid. Youre going to see more CG filtering its way onto Disney Channel, promises Moon, pointing to the channels recently launched Shorty McShorts Shorts block. Theyre all try-outs for series and several of them are CG. Were also developing an original movie that may be done in CG.

Toon Disneys Jetix action-adventure block features two fully-CG series, Get Ed (left) and Dragon Booster. Disneys Mike Moon promises viewers will see more CG on Disney Channel soon. © Disney.

Toon Disneys Jetix action-adventure block features two fully-CG series, Get Ed (left) and Dragon Booster. Disneys Mike Moon promises viewers will see more CG on Disney Channel soon. © Disney.

CGs toughest challenge may be recreating classic 2D characters in three dimensions for new projects. If its a character people know, Metz cautions, its a great scaffolding from which you can fall. Everyones familiar with Mickey Mouses round ears and how they remain circles no matter which direction he faces. Recreating that was a huge challenge actually, Kantor admits. We had some funny misses trying to make sure you didnt see his ears constantly revolving around his head. We had to really work to get same effect as in 2D.

Kantor says the decision to CG-ize Mickey and his pals was to have it feel like a fresh, more contemporary show. We thought if we could feel true to the essence of Mickeys character and make it consistent with his past it would be very exciting for us to do. It took us a long time, but we were successful. Kids recognize him immediately as the same Mickey theyve seen before.

Oban Star Racers, a 2D/3D hybrid, appears on Toon Disneys Jetix block. The channel is also developing an original CG movie. © Sav! The World Productions / Jetix Europe 2005. All rights reserved.

Oban Star Racers, a 2D/3D hybrid, appears on Toon Disneys Jetix block. The channel is also developing an original CG movie. © Sav! The World Productions / Jetix Europe 2005. All rights reserved.

Done wrong, a 2D-to-3D upgrade can leave familiar characters looking and moving like lifeless automatons. Mischel of Mainframe (where CG versions of Popeye, Casper and Inspector Gadget were created) bases the potential for success on the degree to which a character springs from a fantasy background. Some shows arent appropriate for CG. Its hard to imagine The Simpsons in 3D. (Mischel may have missed the shows 1995 Halloween episode spoofing CG animation.) The more its set in a familiar world, the less likely youd produce it in CG. SpongeBob is very cartoony and could be in CG, but it wouldnt have the same feel. Part of its humor is the simplicity of its animation you dont want the richness of CG to distract from its comedy. Inspector Gadget looked great in CG. When you have the fantasy element of things springing out of his coat, its a great device for CG.

While theyre growing in number, no one seems to be rushing to do a CG show simply to have a CG show on their channel. Like his fellow executives, Eric Coleman, Nickelodeons vp of animation development and production, talks about choosing the medium that brings a creators vision alive in the most effective way possible. For example, we used anime-style 2D for Avatar and Flash for El Tigre to give it the look of Mexican folk art. With three seasons of Jimmy Neutron under the channels belt, Nicks upcoming CG shows include Steve Oedekerks feature film spin-off Barnyard and the videogame based Tak and the Power of Juju.

The disinterest in doing a CG show for its own sake is reflected in the fact that shows pitched as 3D projects can wind up in 2D and vice-versa. PBS Kids Linda Simensky (who has two CG projects in the works) describes a pitch she received for a 2D show featuring animal characters. I looked at it and said it feels like should be a 3D project. The producer admitted his first partner really pushed it to be 2D, he was more comfortable with it that way. When he left they immediately switched to 3D. Id never worked on a show that switched styles in midstream either. I actually think it looks more interesting, works much better as a 3D show.

Nickelodeon is planning an upcoming CG show based on Steve Oedekerks feature film Barnyard (above). © 2006 by Paramount Pictures and Viacom Intl Inc. All rights reserved.

Nickelodeon is planning an upcoming CG show based on Steve Oedekerks feature film Barnyard (above). © 2006 by Paramount Pictures and Viacom Intl Inc. All rights reserved.

Disneys Kantor says the 2D/3D decision is in large part based on trying to imagine how character best comes to life. Some projects like Charlie and Lola were originally picture books so they already have an established style. We wanted to capture that style so we never thought of translating it into a 3D image. Then again, the characters in Handy Mandy originally had a storybook look to them its original creators were picture book illustrators.

Manny is a fixit guy with a toolbox of talking tools. We felt we needed the tools to really seem alive. Its much easier to do that in CG, where they would have a lot more movement and we could move the camera a lot more than in 2D. We tested out a lot of different styles and studios before Nelvana came up with a really good translation of the look. Its true to the creators intentions while giving them something that pops a little bit more.

At the moment, Cartoon Networks only CG shows are a pair of acquisitions, the hybrid Code Lyoko and Transformers Cybertron. However, svp of programming and development Bob Higgins is looking at a CG show currently in the works from Billy and Mandy creator Maxwell Atoms. Typically, we give our creators not complete freedom we have to make sure their shows are directed toward our audience but we dont dictate their look. If Maxwell makes a pilot and we go you showed us, its fantastic, then well make a CG show. If it looks funky or we test it and it feels wrong, well end up just not making it, because the whole isnt working not just the methodology by which its animated.

The choice may also be based on whether a show is action or comedy oriented. A decade ago replicating reality was the goal in CG animation. The idea of an affordable computer-animated series seemed kind of fantastical back then, Simensky recalls, and making one that was funny seemed way off. At that point a lot of it was used for action, hard-edged things. We werent at the point where you could do squash and stretch, funny animation or warm and cuddly characters.

Cartoon Networks only CG shows are a pair of acquisitions, the hybrid Code Lyoko (above) and Transformers Cybertron. However, CN is considering new projects in CG but only if they work as a whole. © Cartoon Network.

Cartoon Networks only CG shows are a pair of acquisitions, the hybrid Code Lyoko (above) and Transformers Cybertron. However, CN is considering new projects in CG but only if they work as a whole. © Cartoon Network.

Since then, increasingly sophisticated software has made it easier to create and animate more fanciful characters. Still, Disneys Moon feels that while CG does action beautifully, comedy in CG is more a balancing act. A lot of shows are better served in Flash where its easier to get the snappy timing and scene cutting of traditional 2D. Ying Yang Yo! is a perfect example Flash is absolutely the right tool for that show. But I think as people become more comfortable with CG, well see it get more stylized. That for me is what helps the jokes play, that creates that great suspension of disbelief. Its exciting because the more realistic it is, the less you can buy the world. It becomes crucial that it every detail is correct. If you set up a world that is very cartoonish and flat, you can make that leap a lot easier. What 3d does for us, gives us another arena to play in. It helps mix up, balance and dimensionalize what we have on air.

While the percentage of CG shows on Cartoon, Nick and Disney is gradually increasing, none of them are interested in following the lead of theatrical animation producers and throwing 2D to the wolves. However, Playhouse Disneys Kantor predicts that in a few years 25-30% of her schedule will consist of CG shows, while at PBS, Simensky foresees TV migrating into a mixed media universe where youre going to see a little bit of everything, even in single shows.

From Mischels perspective at Mainframe, economics will lead the way toward more CG series. As the technology becomes more affordable, youll get the perfect storm where the cost differential between 2D and 3D shows disappears. The differential between Flash and CG is now between 15-20%. When you can produce either for exactly same money, more companies will create more CG products. Its all kind of a domino effect. You dont have as many CG projects out there, so you dont see as many on TV because there arent a lot to choose from.

If anyone has the right to be jaded over computer animation, it would have to be Cartoon Networks Higgins who, by his own estimate, has waded through, hundreds of CG shows a year from around the world, most of which have never crossed the U.S. border.

Freshly back from screening even more potential acquisitions at MIPCOM Jr., Higgins only allows that, a couple of things look interesting, some of which may be CG. Ever the optimist, he admits, we know its something we dont have. If we find one were going to be really excited.

Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.

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