Digital Technology in Asian Studios

From Korea to India and from digital ink and paint to motioncapture, Milt Vallas discusses the introduction of digital technology intothe animation production process of Asian studios.

It wasn't that many years ago that I would have been shocked if someone had told me that I would be writing an article on digital technology in animation. What I knew about computers was about as much as I knew about the fertility rites of primitive tribes in New Guinea. I was convinced that mixing computers and animation was intriguing only to those people who loved computers but knew little about animation. A visionary I was not. To me, platforms were ugly shoes that girls wore and chips were things you used to scoop up guacamole. Motherboards, CPUs, bitmaps, vector based and motion capture were all terms that sounded like they came out of a sci-fi novel. `Like the Hula-Hoop,' I told myself, `this too shall pass.'

Someone once said that the future is only a nanosecond (whatever that is?) away. The Brave New World has arrived and digital technology is now as much a part of animation production as 2-B pencils and peg holes.

Technology in Asia

Digital technology has established a foothold in Asia much as it has everywhere else. For the purpose of this article I will examine Digital Ink and Paint (DIP), 3D Animation and Motion Capture separately. The majority of animation studios in Asia now offer some form of DIP and many also have 3D capabilities. Motion capture systems however, have not found their way into main stream animation studios as of yet, but may be found in many post and digital studios in the area.

Digital Ink and Paint

Technology is great, but unless it fills a need, it will sit there like that terribly expensive espresso machine you treated yourself to last year and have only used twice. It's neat to have and to show to your friends, but it sure costs a lot for a cup of coffee.

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Wang Film in Taiwan was the first Asian animation studio to make a major commitment to digital ink and paint. Courtesy and © Jean Koo.

Asian 2D studios have had virtually the same access to digital systems as studios in the west, but they have been slower to dive into this sea of new technology. It is one thing for a large animation company producing a television series to invest in one or two digital seats to access their work being delivered from Asia. It is quite another thing for an Asian subcontracting studio to invest in thirty to sixty seats to perform the work itself. The core business of the Asian studios has always been based upon their ability to make a profit as subcontractors for western clients. Digital ink and paint systems required a major capital investment and few Asian studios were willing to experiment with expensive new technology that few of their clients demanded, or even wished them to use.

In fact, a short time ago many western production executives expressly demanded that their shows be produced using traditional ink and paint and filmed under camera. The reason for this was two fold, many producers believed that Asian studios didn't have a fall back if their digital systems went down. With traditional production, studios could always ship out work to other studios should they fall behind schedule. The other reason was that certain clients (Disney and others) had internal policies that required a film negative for every show. This conservative approach was explained to me as a safeguard against the unknown life span of digital masters. When one considers the cost of creating a film negative from a digital source, one can understand why these clients required their work to be produced with traditional methods.

The first Asian animation studio to make a substantial commitment to digital ink and paint was Wang Film in Taiwan. In 1991, Wang Film struck a deal with partner, Hanna-Barbera Productions to acquire their proprietary digital system. This was a large, platform-based system that required a good deal of support to operate and maintain. It didn't take Wang Film long to conclude that the system was like a five hundred-pound can opener; it worked all right, but was it worth the effort? Wang Film immediately set out to redesign the system and develop something that was workable for the high volume production needs of their studio. Eventually they came up with their own proprietary PC-based system (ANIMAX) which they now market.

vallasasiatech2a.jpgvallasasiatech2b.jpg Now at Wang Films, digital and traditional artists work together to create the final product. Courtesy and © Jean Koo.

While Wang Films struggled to develop their own system through the early 90s, they continued to rely upon traditional ink and paint for most of their production work. The majority of other studios in Asia, while intrigued, made no serious commitment to the new technology. A few made token gestures by adding a digital seat or two (mainly SoftImage), but these were used only for special projects such as commercials or main titles, not in actual series production.

By the mid-90s, attitudes began to change. A number of companies were introducing new software and it became clear that this new technology would become the standard way to produce animated films in the very near future. The question for Asian studios was not if they should jump on the bandwagon, but when they should jump, and on which bandwagon to land. Any decision involved some risk, even if it was to stand pat and wait to see if any particular software emerged as the clear winner in the marketplace. The problem was that none of the major systems could be easily handicapped as the clear favorite. Of the major systems on the market, SoftImage Toonz had been around the longest but was expensive and viewed as being less user friendly than the new PixiBox (now Media Pegs) or Cambridge Animo systems. Also in the running were other systems such as AXA and Retass Pro from Japan. To add even more confusion was the rumored entry into the marketplace of US Animation (Toon Boom Technologies) software, which many stateside producers were familiar with in the production of high-end commercials.

Like first time new car buyers, Asian studio owners and executives looked under a number of hoods, and kicked a good many tires. In the end, decisions were made based upon solid business concerns. If a studio, for example, had contracts for a large number shows with a French producer who used the PixiBox software, it made no sense to go with another system. On the other hand, if a great deal of their work came from Japan, it would be foolish not to consider going with the Retass Pro, software designed in Japan to run on a Macintosh platform. Some studios opted for the shotgun approach: license a few seats each of different software, and announce they could work in any system a potential client wished. Other studios simply passed, deciding to stick with traditional ink and paint and film for as long as they could. As in all periods of major change within an industry, there was a blend of opportunity and risk. The opportunity was to become established as a leader in this new technology and get in on the ground floor. The risk was that you could spend a great deal of money on a system, that only a small percentage of your clients would allow you to employ -- and which could be obsolete before you even got it paid off.

The dynamics of change are often more plodding than dynamic. As more clients become comfortable and secure with new technology, the more Asian studios are joining the parade and making a full change-over to digital production. Few clients now question the benefits of digital ink and paint over traditional means of production, but some still have elected to wait for the reasons I've noted above. This caution however, is clearly waning. The majority of producers now sending their work to Asia, favor digital production as it greatly reduces retakes stemming from technical errors. This reduction in the number of retakes is a benefit to the Asian subcontractor as much as it is to the client. It now seems that it is only a matter of time until all animation is produced with some form of digital technology.

Presently, nearly all large animation studios in Asia offer digital ink and paint using one or more software packages. Media Pegs, US Animation and Animo seem to have emerged as the clear winners in this market. All three have their supporters and detractors but it is not in the scope of this article (or ability of this writer) to examine the strengths and weaknesses of each system.

3D and Motion Capture

3D Television Series Animation

A few traditional Asian animation studios have made some exploratory commitments to 3D animation, but the key word is exploratory. As with digital ink and paint, studios are cautious. As of now there is very little business in television 3D animation being subcontracted to Asia. The series that have aired or are currently being produced, have not strayed offshore into Asia. There are several reasons why these shows, as of yet, have not followed the well traveled path of 2D animation to Asia.

To begin with, the production techniques and tools used for 3D animation are still evolving. Everyone is still trying to figure out how to best utilize the software and hardware that is available, and how to organize and develop efficient methods for mass production. Producer/clients have felt that they need to work with specialists in this new medium, and so far, have favored experienced digital/CGI houses over 2D animation studios trying to break new ground in 3D.

Another factor is cost. Asian studios have built their business based upon a simple paradigm: produce large volumes of work of acceptable quality, at a substantially lower cost than the client would incur onshore. As CGI/motion capture production can be produced with a smaller work force (fewer artists but expensive technology), the cost savings in Asia may not end up as favorable as in 2D animation. The three elements a client looks at are time, money and quality (not necessarily in that order). It is often said that you can have two, but seldom all three. The point here is that the 3D/motion capture ship is still on a shakedown cruise as related to television series animation. Up until now the market for this work has been relatively small (compared to traditional 2D animation), but it is showing strong signs of growth. Asian studios do not lack access to the hardware or software needed to produce 3D shows, in fact, Japan alone has more installed motion capture systems than the United States and Europe combined. What is lacking at present is the Asian studio's ability to offer the comfort and creative control a nervous client may need when first working in this new medium. When you are still trying to figure out how to do it yourself, it is hard to subcontract the job to someone six thousand miles away and hope it comes back the way you've envisioned.

Sinbad producer Sriram Rajan critiques an artist's work at Pentafour in India. Courtesy Improvision.

3D animation producer, Evan Ricks of Improvision, offered some insight into why the CGI/motion capture work for Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists was completed in Los Angeles, rather than at his client's CGI studio in India. Ricks, while working for Pentafour, opted to complete the 3D and motion capture elements of the feature film at House of Moves in Playa Del Rey, California. While expressing praise for Pentafour's CGI studio in India, Ricks indicated that he felt the need on this project for a high degree of creative control and technical support. Using technical and creative staff, who had been down the road before and were near at hand, helped fulfill this need. Tom Tooles, who runs House of Moves, feels that few clients fully understand the complexities of producing a motion capture show. Tooles points out that while anyone can buy one of the leading motion capture systems, knowing how to use it is the real trick. File naming conventions and administrative support are vital according to Tooles. Without a developed production system and experienced staff, motion capture can become a nightmare. Tooles asks, "Even if you capture some great shots, what's the use if you can't call up the files when you want them?"

Another viewpoint regarding the future of 3D animation production in Asia comes from Jeffery Harrison, Chairman of ImagineAsia, a combined 2D/3D studio in Manila. Harrison is convinced that 3D animation will travel overseas as more shows are produced in this format. Harrison and his partner Michael Collinson, have backed this belief by building a high-tech studio facility in the Philippines that is prepared to produce work in any format a client may desire, including motion capture. Harrison feels that by training experienced 2D artists to work in 3D technology, he can offer the best of both worlds to his clients. He acknowledges that the cost model will be a driving force in persuading clients to consider sending series work overseas, but reasons that 3D animation is here to stay and by building his creative staff with 2D veteran animators, designers, layout artists and background artists, he can offer creative comfort, as well as attractive pricing.

Game and Multimedia Production

If there is one area of digital technology where Asia is exploding, it is in the production of games and multimedia. Game producers, post groups and digital houses throughout the region are geared up to the teeth with digital technology. In both Taiwan and South Korea the government is supporting digital media development with programs that offer training, as well as financial incentives to companies involved in digital technology. Dean LaCoe, Vice President of Motion Analysis Corporation which markets one of the leading optical motion capture systems, is very high on the Asian market. He has sold and installed his system in over 30 sites in Japan alone. Users cover a broad spectrum of organizations specializing in game production, broadcast, education and industry. LaCoe has also installed systems in mainland China, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Australia, and sees the market clearly growing in the region. In Taiwan, Ivan Shih and Andy Tsao of CGCG Company have been running their digital production house for over ten years. They confide that it has been a struggle at times, but they have survived and prospered by staying on the cutting edge of technology by biting the bullet when the time comes to upgrade hardware or license new software. They have focused their business on video game production, commercials and special effects. Both men would like to expand their market base by attracting western clients, but acknowledge that it is a difficult goal, particularly in commercials. The company has produced regional CGI spots for international products such as Coca-Cola, but has not yet broken much ground in attracting work, directly from outside the region. Both feel that the blocks that stand in their way have nothing to do with technology, but rather are ones of creativity and control. While still hopeful, they understand that clients who produce high-end commercials are obsessed with nuance, and nuance by definition is "a slight variation of tone, color or meaning." This, rather than technology, is the challenge for Asian producers wanting to attract work from the west. Don't Forget India While not always thought culturally as being Asian, India is very much a part of Asia. Companies in India and Pakistan are well established internationally in computer science and software development. Both of these countries churn out a high percentage of university graduates with degrees in computer science and other related fields. This phenomenon (abundant technical staff available in a developing nation) has driven the success of this industry.

RM-USL's cast of characters. Courtesy of Ram Mohan.

Many software companies in India are subsidiaries of large financial groups that are cash positive and eager to take advantage of their technological strengths by entering into the mass media market. Some of these companies have established animation/CGI divisions to produce home market product, and seek subcontracting work from international clients. The development of these animation/digital companies in India has met with only partial success up until now. Like their Asian neighbors (and competitors), India can offer potential clients lower production costs and a high degree of technical support; but they fall short in the experience of animating product for the western market.

To overcome this problem, several Indian studios have recruited experienced animation staff from other countries in the region. The goal is to jump-start their industry by employing experienced animators to teach local staff and work on actual productions.

Silvertoon, Pentafour and RM-USL are three companies that have all made serious inroads in the 2D and 3D marketplace. They are all supported by strong financial backing and have demonstrated a willingness to invest in the future of the animation industry in India. The only thing lacking is the experience that comes with time. With patience and a continued commitment of resources, that experience will be gained.

Will 3D Follow 2D?

The world of digital media is alive and growing in Asia, as it is everywhere else. Technology is technology is technology. Asian artists working with Alias|Wavefront's Maya, SoftImage, Nichimen Graphics or Prism software, have the same creative tools available to them as artists in Los Angeles, London or Toronto. How creatively these tools are used is the real question. Will 3D/CGI animation flow to Asia as 2D animation did twenty years ago? In time, probably yes. If technology, is technology, is technology, then business, is business, is business. If there is any flaw in the economic model, it involves the question of how well western producers can learn to package their 3D/CGI work to travel offshore. Remember when 2D animation was first sent to Asia for production? The methods and techniques used to make television animation were well established and not highly experimental. If anything, television animation called for a simplification of traditional animation. No one was in the dark or confused about how it should be done. What was needed was a large number of artists, to work at a greatly reduced cost, who could follow highly detailed instructions on an exposure sheet. Client control was achieved by preparing a thorough and comprehensive package of pre-production materials for the offshore studio to follow. When more comfort was needed, the client would send one person to the subcontracting studio to oversee the production and help local artists understand what was desired and approve their work. Unlike 2D television animation, the production techniques used to produce 3D/CGI animation are still constantly being upgraded and evolving as technology improves. This reality makes it difficult to establish a system of preparing the work for offshore production. Once clients figure out how to efficiently communicate their creative vision to an offshore studio, and can see it reasonably accomplished, you can look for simple economics to drive the deals that send the work overseas. Many people I've talked to feel that this day is close at hand. Contrarily, I believe high-budget commercials and feature film 3D/CGI projects will stay at home, for the same reason high-end 2D animation has stayed put. This type of work is budgeted for maximum quality and maximum control; requirements that do not fit the high volume, quick turnaround methods of production found in offshore studios. How much 3D animation will go overseas depends on the popularity of the medium and forces within the market. If 3D/CGI animation becomes a staple fare for Saturday morning, look for everyone to try to find out how to send a major portion of the production offshore. The technology is there already, now it is just a matter of figuring out how to use it to deliver an acceptable product, at a reduced cost, on schedule. Milt Vallas is an independent producer and consultant, specializing in the production, development and financing of animated television and film projects. His company, Media Vision serves a wide range of industry clients. Currently he is producing the overseas animation for a feature film slated to be released late this summer by Columbia-TriStar.

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