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Gamma, Gamma, Hey!: Alphanim, Betacam, 'Delta State'

Is it live-action? Is it animation? Christopher Panzner looks at Alphanim's new rotoscoped series Delta State to find out more about the buzz that's spreading across Europe.

Delta State, the first rotoscoped television series was not done cheaply or quickly, but was done well. All images © 2004 Alphanim, France 2, Nelvana Limited, Deltanim Productions Inc.

Delta State, the first rotoscoped television series was not done cheaply or quickly, but was done well. All images © 2004 Alphanim, France 2, Nelvana Limited, Deltanim Productions Inc.

Okay, so it was a stretch for the Greek alphabet gag, but the definition of gamma (used as an adjective) according to Merriam-Webster is: of, relating to, or being one of three or more closely related chemical substances. The chemicals, here? Good, Cheap and Fast. Of which, I remind you, the universal laws of Nature dictate that a maximum of only two are possible at any given time.

And, more often than not, only one at a time.

Why the alchemical intro? Because French producer Alphanims newest animated series, Delta State (26x26) the first entirely-rotoscoped animated television series ever made may not have been cheap ($11 million) or fast (27 months from shoot to post), but its good real good. And not only does it turn the traditional pencil lead of rotoscopy into digital animated gold, the degree of contrast another definition of gamma with existing programs for young adults is intense.

Alphanim's Christian Davin (left) took the Socratic route and made Delta State,

Alphanim's Christian Davin (left) took the Socratic route and made Delta State, "for the kids we believe we once had been." Clément Calvet looks toward a second series and a feature film.

Out of the Inkwell and into the Fire

First invented by Max Fleischer in 1915 and used for his series of films, Out of the Inkwell, rotoscopy is consistently debunked by animation purists. In spite of the fact that such nobility as Walt Disney (for the Prince and heroine of Snow White, no less), George Dunning (Yellow Submarine, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sequence), Ralph Bakshi (Lord of the Rings, Wizards, etc.) and Don Bluth (Anastasia) not to mention Fleischer himself, the creator of Koko the Clown, Betty Boop and Popeye have used it successfully.

Or, unsuccessfully, as its detractors will argue, the realism of the result incompatible with artistic license and the medium itself (the act of tracing a crime!) That said, the purists are more forgiving, fans even, of nobler uses of the technology where characters are mixed with live action and animated traditionally like Anchors Away (1945), Mary Poppins (1964) or Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). And, of course, of the special effects in live-action films perfected over the last 60 years or more as a result of its analog and digital use. (No less an animation icon than Ub Iwerks himself pioneered the use of rotoscopy in the `40s for live-action cinema special effects, notably on Hitchcocks The Birds.)

For the most part, however, the visual results of rotoscoping (Fleischers Gullivers Travels (1939), for example for the anecdote, the second animated feature ever made, two years after Snow White) were, and still are, considered cheating, trick photography, legerdemain.

So why rotoscopy? It was a creative choice, first and foremost, says Alphanims managing director, Clément Calvet.

Based on an American comic book, Delta State explores a group with paranormal powers who must defend mankind from the mysterious Rifters, while delving into the parallel dimension of the delta state to retrieve secrets to their past lives.

Based on an American comic book, Delta State explores a group with paranormal powers who must defend mankind from the mysterious Rifters, while delving into the parallel dimension of the delta state to retrieve secrets to their past lives.

The genesis of the project was the comic book created by American Douglas Gayeton about four twenty-somethings with paranormal powers safeguarding the future of mankind from the mysterious Rifters. He pitched the concept to president Christian Davin based on a pilot he had shot in Los Angeles and reworked in Photoshop. The pilot was kind of rough but, at the same time, it was amazing to watch, says Davin. Ive worked in animation a long time and I had never seen anything like it, adds first-time director Pascal David, it had this underground feel to it. Canal+ and FR2 liked the concept and the pilot, sort of, and came on board.

I liked the `garage quality, David continues, but, for a full-on series, it had to be slicker, more uniform and, especially, vectorial. Tests were done with a simple home video camera at first and the decision to import the video into Flash, create the bgs in Photoshop and do the fx in After Effects was made at this time. More tests followed and the graphic result, inspired by skate/surf culture and `70s cult TV series, was very convincing. Nelvana came on board as co-producer and Canadian broadcaster TELETOON followed. Luxanimation in Luxembourg and DQ Entertainment in India completed the financing.

Thats right: four countries, three continents, two languages, unique technical pipeline and a first-time director with no live experience. Did I mention the notoriously fickle, easily bored, fashion-victim 12+ target audience? Davins take on the search for the Philosophers Stone: There wasnt anything rational in going ahead with this production. The series pulled us in because of its magic. We all know that there is no such thing as a 12+ target audience. These kids dont even know who they are, so how could we pretend to reach them? Like Socrates, knowing we knew nothing, we made this series for the kids we believe we once had been. And it seems to work.

Shot like a live-action sitcom, Delta State uses no storyboards for the initial shoot and shoots with multiple camera setups in three locations.

Shot like a live-action sitcom, Delta State uses no storyboards for the initial shoot and shoots with multiple camera setups in three locations.

Put This in Your Pipeline and Smoke It

To animation people, nothing seems easier than the point and shoot of digital video. Cheap and fast. But Delta State isnt a live-action series. Its shot like one a sitcom, no less but its not. Rotoscopy is an animation technique. In geek speak, its spatio-temporal segmentation or object image sequence representation. Mixing synthetic data into real video. To you and me, thats multi-media or special effects. In this case, 676 minutes of it, 11.5 hours. Long and expensive. Here comes the science

The adaptation of the comic book was done in Paris by Vincent Bonjour, who also wrote some of the scripts. In Toronto, Nicole Demerse handled other scripting duties and David Cole script edited. The casting was done by Nelvana in Montreal. Once the actors, Ilona Elkin (Claire), Lizz Alexander (Luna), Duncan Dukic (Martin) and Nicolas Wright (Phillip), were decided upon, Alphanims Jan Van Rijsselberge did turnarounds in Flash for the MIT grads, synthetic replicas and pre-production (color models, props, bg keys, etc.) started. (BTW, the actors/characters looked nothing like those in the comic.) With the exception of the delta state sequences, a surreal parallel universe, no storyboard was done for the initial shoot. Yup, you heard right. Camera positions were decided in situ.

The five-camera shoot, directed by Wayne Moss, was done in a huge blue screen studio in Montreal with limited props, the bare necessities. Like a sitcom, there were only three main locations: an apartment, a bar and a music store. Lighting was rudimentary since it was all to be reworked in Flash. It was also shot in 16/9 and converted to 1/33 to stretch out the characters. The actors had thick black lines drawn on their faces to distinguish noses, eyebrows and jaw lines and hair was gelled, braided, etc., in order to facilitate things later. To avoid motion blur, the fastest shutter speed was used. No camera moves were done on the set therefore, no expensive cranes or mocon but some were added later at the compositing stage. As were fx, although imaginative camera angles (i.e., top shots) and stylized lenses (i.e., fisheye) were used.

Delta State's success lies in the post-modern, cheeky scripts, unpretentious music and its sexy, neo-retro art direction.

Delta State's success lies in the post-modern, cheeky scripts, unpretentious music and its sexy, neo-retro art direction.

To give you an idea of the rhythm, a sitcom normally shoots about five or six pages of script a day. On Delta State, approximately 15 pages were shot a day. Twenty scenes a day, two episodes a week: Monday, script read-through and technical rehearsal; Tuesday/Wednesday, one episode; Thursday/Friday, another; Saturday/Sunday, pre-edit. To keep up, an assistant director, Gilles Cazaux, was brought in to help deliver the 26 episodes in the scheduled four months.

Back in Paris, the storyboard was done from printouts of the video, heavily manipulated at layout (by Caramel) in Flash, and backgrounds (Cécile Thomas) were done in Photoshop. The video was sent to India where 200 inbetweeners and graphic artists, supervised by Jérémy Thomas and Koon Raenarts for Alphanim, traced and painted, frame-by-frame, the approximately 18-20,000 drawings per episode (12 drawings/second in 25 fps PAL) directly in Flash. There were no dope sheets, except for some complicated effects sequences, and the lip synch was done directly from the video. Compositing, fx (Jola Kundela) and limited 3D were done in Luxembourg, final picture post (Patrick Gonidec) in Paris and post sound in Montreal with music by Kid Loco.

Although Richard Linklaters Waking Life (2001) used propriety software called Color Engine and several software packages offer rotoscoping in one form or another (Flint/Flame/Fire/Smoke, Combustion, Curious gFx Pro, Digital Fusion, Shake, Commotion, Matador, Aura, Roto DV, etc.), the Flash/Photoshop/After Effects mix was home brew. It really took us until about the 10th episode before things smoothed out, comments David, the real problem was the novelty of the thing, making it up as we went along.

MTVs Downtown Meets The X-Files

At the Annecy Animation Festival this year, Delta State won Special Prize for a TV Series and it certainly wasnt on technical achievement alone. The scripts are sophisticated, cheeky, post-modern; the music cool, unpretentious, ambient; and the neo-retro art direction sexy and, in the delta state, downright trippy. The temptation is to call the series a living comic, but were a far cry from 1985s Take on Me rotoscoped video from Norwegian MTV darlings, a-ha.

Rather, Delta State is the stuff of graphic novels, light psychodrama, and the same target audience, young adults. Matrix, wot.

Delta State's demo audience is older young adults who will find the characters cool, funny and empowering.

Delta State's demo audience is older young adults who will find the characters cool, funny and empowering.

The 12+ demographic is a nightmare for most producers and broadcasters (not to mention most parents.) But its especially tricky for animation, whose usual appeal to teenagers is humor: Celebrity Death Match, The Simpsons, South Park. (And getting that right is no cakewalk, either.) By junior high, kids are watching live-action shows, playing sophisticated role-playing or violent videogames, surfing the Web, dabbling in the metaphysical, trying to find themselves, act older, rebelling (maybe sneaking the occasional cigarette, huffin the hay, groping) working on their cool. Proto-adult stuff. Cartoons are for, well, kids.

Delta State hits the demographics trifecta: cool, funny and, especially, empowering. The characters are young adults, only older. The appeal, and certainly the success of the show, will be in the understatement (wish fulfillment): they share an apartment (no parents, the tribe), work at cool/slacker jobs (money, independence), have a mentor (protection, wisdom); Claire and Martin are a couple (intimacy, sex), etc. And, they have power. Paranormal (the unknown, the occult) power that they use to save the world (innocence, idealism) from the soul-stealing Rifters with an attitude (humor, sarcasm), of course.

Asked about his directorial début on such a tough show, David smiles wryly, and answers in character: I didnt bankrupt the producer and he didnt bust my give me a hard time. In spite of the challenges of the past two and a half years and the $423,000 per episode price tag, Alphanim couldnt be happier. Says Calvet, Were ready to do the second series and the film. All of the people involved were really motivated and passionate, a pleasure to work with. In other words, pure chemistry.

Between home shopping and the colorization of black-and-white movies, Chris Panzner admits to having contributed to the downfall of western civilization. He has tried to redeem himself over the past 13 years in animation, but writing about rotoscopy means he might not have entirely mended his evil ways. He recently created a writing company, Power Lines, and a production/distribution company, Eye & Ear.

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