John Cawley looks at how, in a matter of a few years, TV animation production has moved to rely on Flash more and more as a costing alternative.
The task of producing animation has flipped many a time since the first artists stacked their drawings under a camera. Production processes created in the golden age of animation would be as foreign to the modern studios as the silent movie process compared to digital filmmaking. However, the basics remain and that is how artists, producers and studios have been able to make shifts such as inking to Xerography or in-house to foreign production. And now studios are moving to Flash.
As the year progresses, more and more studios and networks are jumping on the Flash bandwagon. Just a few years ago series like ¡Mucha Lucha! and Atomic Betty were unique as TV productions done in Flash. Now the list of such productions is long and growing every month. Such series as Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, Yakkity Yak and Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends are all produced via Flash. They will be joined by such new and upcoming series as Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, Pucca, The Amazing Adrenalini Brothers, Yin Yang Yo!, Shuriken School, Rintindumb and El Tigre.
What makes the switch to Flash a slightly different conversion is the lack of a direct path in changing. When studios moved from black and white to color or silent to sound, or even hand ink to Xerography, it was usually a studio wide move in which all productions would partake. But with Flash, a number of studios continue to deal with series based on animation pre-production for overseas completion while other series are being produced in-house via Flash. This means that almost everyone at the studio must switch back and forth to accommodate the production mode for a specific series.
Another difference is that previous production changes created an earthquake-like shift from the previous, often costing established jobs and departments while creating new ones. Moving from standard overseas to Flash is more like a shift for daylight savings time. In fact, unlike some changes that caused a loss of employment, a change to Flash can actually increase the body count at a studio.
The good news is that the productions for Flash and common have much the same origination steps. Both need writing (usually scripts or outlines), storyboards, voices, designs and colors. Both processes also have the same conclusion with post, music, ADR and other technical wizardry. It is the subtle differences that make for challenges in the transferal.
For the creator, such changes can have the most lasting affect. Animator Bob Miller has been involved in the business for more than two decades, doing everything from storyboards, to layouts to effects animation to writing. He was involved in one of the early Flash series, LarryBoy. I grabbed him for a few comments about the artists side before looking at the production needs.
Miller related that the concept behind Flash is not totally unique and not a lot different for the board artist. If your series is limited animation, or planned animation as it was called by Joseph Barbera, then its virtually the same amount of work for the storyboard artist. Examples of limited animation would be Crusader Rabbit, the early Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons, Roger Ramjet, most Filmation series, a lot of Japanese TV animation and Powerpuff Girls. All could easily have been done in Flash. In fact, for a number of years, a number of folks actually thought Powerpuff Girls was done in Flash!
The storyboard artist stages the action to either minimize or imply character movement, while keeping viewer interest with strong posing and expressions for the characters. The reuse of stock footage (walk and run cycles), designs and backgrounds is encouraged. Its vital that character designs are simple and not detailed. The entire production team should be experienced and animation-savvy so they know what visual short cuts to take. All of this is necessary to keep the production as cost-efficient as possible. This, of course, should be true for both Flash and non-Flash series. In Dragon Tales, a conventional series, the same story panels would be used for Max and Emmy popping off to Dragon Land with variations, depending on the script.
As for the artist switching from a standard TV animation board to Flash boards, Miller said, its virtually the same, in my experience. This may not be true to new board artists coming onto a show. They need extra time to learn and apply the stock animation poses and backgrounds to their boards. So a ramping up time should be factored in as they acclimate themselves to the series and learn what drawings they can recycle.
But from a producers viewpoint, there is a definite shift in how one handles a standard production and one in Flash. In standard animation, the production crew needs only track a script, a board, a basic design pack and directing elements. The average episodes elements could fit in one or two standard shipping boxes that are then sent to the overseas studio. The crew then concentrates on the next episode.
For a Flash series, the elements that would go overseas are, instead, now distributed to another division in the studio. More like feature animation, the production force must track every image, audio bit or element through the completion of the episode.
Vincent (Vince) Aniceto has produced series, specials and pilots for Cartoon Network. His credits include standard TV production (Powerpuff Girls) and Flash (Fosters Home For Imaginary Friends). I asked Aniceto for his thoughts on how handling the two formats differed.
In the area of production, the biggest change is in the order of events. In standard overseas production, you put together and ship all the black and white art early on. This allows the overseas studio to begin layouts and animation. Then later you ship the color. But with Flash, you need to give the animators final color. Otherwise they will need to re-animate the material or re-color it all. Thus the pre-production process has to suddenly become one single step with all elements completed at once.
As for the size of the production crew, Aniceto noted that, for the actual production, we did not need a much bigger crew perhaps one extra production manager. Part of that was due to the complexity of the show.
However, the art crew was obviously larger. Fosters is not done in a traditional Flash style. The series is still totally hand drawn on paper and then scanned into the computer and cleaned up in Illustrator. Actually each model, prop and effect is elementalized (my word) with each part of the image cleaned up on separate levels. Hence on a character the arm would be cleaned up on one level, the body on another, the head on yet another. This way when it is imported into Flash it is already broken down.
Aniceto noted that, by beginning in Illustrator the characters are allowed to keep their separate brushes. Viewers may note that each character has different brushes used. For example Cocos hair [from Fosters] is really unique. This process is now being used on Nickelodeons new series, El Tigre.
Echoing Millers comments, Aniceto explained that, the series is quite challenging as a production, beginning at the board stage. Due to the nature of Flash, the boards need to be more two dimensional in nature. You have to get the artists to avoid using shots or movements. They need to think of it more as a left/right process. (This was also true when working on the Garfield series of the 1980s. Due to Garfields creator, Jim Daviss desire to keep the show looking like a comic strip, the artists had to continually be pulled back to a two dimensional world.)
Another challenge is to keep the show from looking Flashy, as we say around here, continued Aniceto. So many early shows, like ¡Mucha Lucha!, looked very flat and Flashy. That is one reason we keep all the character elements separate. From the models, to the props to even the backgrounds, all are cleaned up in sections. This allows us to move things more fluidly. We put an emphasis on extra poses and expressions. Even the effects need to be more than a simple water drawing; we need lots of line work to keep the show less Flashy. The advantage to all the extra drawing is that the show is able to have a lot of visual subtlety. We can play more with expressions and hair and other features. You usually cannot get very subtle things out of an overseas studio due to the limitations of the budgets and crew.
But in keeping with the standard line of producing, once the board is done, it goes to sluggers and sheet timers. Directing on Fosters also retains a classic stance, notes Aniceto. We are still directing the boards and sheets at 24-frames-a-second, treating it as film. This keeps the timing less Flashy.
Once it comes out of Flash, we composite the series in After Effects. Again, this helps keep the show from looking like a standard Flash production. By using so many programs, it really allows us the advantage of Flash animation, without some of the clichés of Flash.
When asked if there were any perceptions one ran into while doing a Flash series, Aniceto had no hesitations. Perhaps the biggest misconception about Flash I hear is that it saves money. We spend as much on Fosters as we do on other shows at the network. The difference is that we spend all the money over here, instead of splitting it between the studio and an overseas animation house.
Aniceto has recently moved onto yet another up and coming model for animation production, producing the new Transformers series for Cartoon Network. The series is being written and recorded over here, with key models created. The actual boards and models will be done in Japan. It is odd going from a small art staff on previous shows, to a whole studio with Flash, to almost no artists on this new series.
Though having an in-house animation department may be novel to the modern TV studio, it is not so new to those doing features, commercials or special projects. Yet they have the same issues and needs when they convert from a building full of traditional, pencil-pushing animators to a group of persons placing pixels.
One such studio is Renegade Prods. Overseen by Darrell Van Citters and Ashley Postlewaite, Renegade has a long list of productions that include commercials (Cheetos, Trix, and the classic Hare Jordan), special projects (Captain Sturdy and Line Up interstitial for Cartoon Network) and TV series (Elmo Aardvark). For the last few years they dabbled a bit with Flash on special projects for Disney. They went full bore when they began production on the recent Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi series for Cartoon Network. Postlewaite took a few moments to discuss the process they went through to convert a classic full, in-house animation house to an in-house Flash facility.
My first question was what changes in crew were necessary for moving from a studio of paper animation to Flash?
Some of the artists could do it, but not all, she said. We found that we had about a 50% conversion rate from paper animators to Flash animators. Luckily, our move into heavy Flash production came at a time of expansion, when we were bringing in new folks anyway. And at the same time we began building our new pipeline and fiddling with it. In some ways we were lucky not having done overseas production. That way we were building from scratch instead of trying to change an old way and retraining folks.
The idea of a stock system, often discussed in Flash production, is not something one usually uses in full animation. But Renegade was prepared for the shift. Darrell is a student of animation and well versed in much of its history, said Postlewaite. While setting up our production pipeline, we constantly thought back to the Hanna-Barbera TV and UPA processes. Of course, technology makes a Flash stock system much more sophisticated than the ones of earlier times. First, we dont have to keep rooms of folders like those earlier studios. Well, actually we do have folders, but they are on the computer. In fact, our database can handle tens of thousands of images. The key word search ability allows us to instantly call up every tree or car for re-use, revision or reference.
As Aniceto mentioned with his switch to final color, Postlewaite noted, with most of our Flash projects, the animation is now being done on fully colored models and designs, literally animating in color. Of course that means some things have simply shifted in the pipeline, but still, it is still amazing at times how quickly productions can progress.
I wondered if switching to Flash made a lot of production actually easier. Definitely!, exclaims Postlewaite. Actually, just moving to digital ink and paint speeded up the process. I still remember how Darrell would rush the drawings to the camera company often driving them there in the middle of the night. Then I would rush out in the morning to pick up the film and get it to our editor. They would then need to cut things in and get us a work print. Moving to digital turned a two-day process into something that now can take an hour.
We could not be doing most of our projects today if not for Flash, at least not doing them in the states, she continued. Cost was a reason so much animation went overseas. Not only does Flash save money, but it is so much more efficient. It really helps up front with clients. We can tailor the budget to almost any project. Often the client tells us what they want to pay, and we can quickly show them options that can be kept quite firm. In hand animation, once you start the production you get to a point where new ideas or changes can get quite expensive. In Flash, changes can be handled far easier and with better budget control.
Speaking of clients, I asked if any of them had an aversion to Flash. After all, with CGI taking the traditional world, did Flash also have a stigma to it? Yes, we do find that some still consider Flash a bad word in the market place, Postlewaite admitted. Folks tend to think of if as flat or stiff. We think that is due to the large amount of Flash that showed up on the web during the dot-com boom. At that time you had just about anyone, many without real art training, putting things up. The complaints most folks have of Flash are not necessarily the fault of the software, but the one using it. We often get clients discuss a move or a visual and then ask Can we do it in Flash? At that time we push that the skill of the artist is what really limits the final project.
We prefer to discuss it as paperless 2D animation, she said. That way we try to keep the focus on the art, not the tools being used. When we discuss a project, we try to find what the client wants and offer them a variety of options. For example, we have a new production in which we are animating oil paintings via Flash and it is turning out great. Again, it is really the artist behind the tool. When someone comes in with an idea, we try to get him or her to understand the wide range of tools available from paper, to Flash, to clay, to CGI. It should not make a difference what tools we use to create the final project whether it is Flash, After Effects or some other program. Obviously, the clients enjoy the speed of using Flash, and the ability to make changes always a double-edged sword.
Renegade is continuing to push into the world of Flash. Its working on a feature done in Flash Christmas Is Here Again. Meanwhile, it keeps busy with TV series (Reanimated for Cartoon Network) and special projects (a Mary Poppins project with Disney).
Overall, the switch to Flash at most animation houses seems to have been accomplished with little real difficulty. As with any comparison between animation processes, there will be many factors that can affect the duties and final outcome. Schedule and budget are the most obvious, and often the least adjustable. Art style, creator awareness, knowledge of production staff and perception of final approvers can all affect the work process and final production.
But it seems that Flash is now a major contender in the world of animation production. Like Renegade, more studios will no doubt convert to Flash. Like Cartoon Network, more studios will experiment with manipulating the process of Flash. So the future promises even more shifts in the way animation gets through the pipeline. It will be up to the studios to keep their production people well versed in change, and history. For as much as some may see Flash as something new in some ways, it is as classic as ink and paint.
John Cawley is a producer of animation (television and features) at Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank, California. Cawley is also a writer ( Dexters Lab, Bugs Bunny, Disney features), an author ( Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars, Cartoon Confidential), an editor ( Get Animated!), a publisher ( Faster! Cheaper!), a lecturer and a performer.