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Mike Young Figures Out How To Count CGI Sheep

Mike Young gives Sarah Baisley a step-by-step process of how his studio brought a lovable bunch of barnyard animals to CG life in Jakers! The Adventures Of Piggley Winks.

The entire cast of Jakers! The Adventures Of Piggley Winks. All images courtesy of and © Mike Young Prods.

If you haven't had a chance yet, check out the new PBS series, Jakers! The Adventures Of Piggley Winks. It looks like a lovely designed, stop-frame animated series for kids. But a talk with exec producer Mike Young, co-founder of Mike Young Prods., reveals that the series of 26 half-hour episodes is done entirely in computer-generated animation, and the producers never intended to mimic stop-motion.

The new series for kids 4-7 follows the adventures of Piggley Winks, a spunky eight-year-old pig, and his friends Dannan the Duck and Ferny the Bull on Raloo Farm in Ireland. While the intrepid trio are enjoying their escapades (Jakers! is their oft-used Irish expression of delight and amazement), American transplant Wiley, voiced by Mel Brooks, offers wild and woolly advice to his all-too-sheepish flock. Each story opens and closes with Piggley Winks as a granddad, telling these tales of childhood shenanigans and life lessons to his three contemporary, rambunctious city-dwelling grandpigs.

Mel Brooks lends his voice to Wiley.

Mike Young Prods in Woodland Hills, California, produces the series with London-based Entara, which created the property.

"This was to be Entara's first foray into kids television, and exec producers Stephanie Gougeon and Louisa Stretton were just beginning to build relationships in the animation industry," said Young, who is Welsh. "As luck would have it, they contacted me about the project just as I was on my way to the United Kingdom. They soon decided they shared a passion to create quality children's programming and that their Mr. Piggley character would make a great show.

They created a show bible containing information about the characters, where they live, the kinds of things they do, what happens in their community, with one thoroughly developed storyline and a half-dozen or so story ideas that indicate how the series will progress.

"Because of the reality and specificity of Piggley's world, we decided to use 3D CGI, and to aim for a quality previously seen only in feature films," said Young. "3D CGI lends a degree of realism, almost photographic in nature that you simply can't achieve with any other kind of animation."

The series is set in two very different, very specific places, so the use of textures, lighting, landscapes, clothing and props was going to be of the utmost importance to the series. Each episode opens and closes in Boston in 2003, while the bulk of each episode is set on Raloo Farm, Ireland in the 1950s.

The evolution of Piggley.

They decided to go with half-hour stories that would allow them to create more sophisticated stories, with "B" sub-plots. After commissioning storylines from a variety of writers, which are then read by the exec producers (including co-exec producer Bill Schultz), producers (Liz Young, John Over), director and story editor (Sindy McKay) of the series. Roughly one story in nine is selected to go into production. The writer makes a beat outlinea scene-by-scene breakdown of the entire story. Once the beat outline is approved, the first draft of the script begins. The screenwriter does the first two drafts of the script, then the story editor generally takes over and writes the final, or polish, draft.

Script notes are given at all stages by all the producers, the director and PBS KIDS. An educational consultant also reads and gives notes on all drafts and guides the curriculum of the series.

Once a final draft is approved, the story moves forward in two directions.

Young said the 2D pencil artist is still extremely important to his CGI production. The original designs of the characters, sets, and props were all produced in pencil first.

Set designs went through a rigorous process, according to Young. "We even produced architectural drawings called schematics for each set. This is why Piggley's barn looks like a real, working barn. Unlike in 2D, in 3D it is very difficult to cheat when designing characters and sets, because they need to be purely functional." Characters need enough room to move within a set to walk through doorways or sit in chairs. In 2D animation, this is often "cheated," he explained. "For instance, a character may be standing outside a tent of a certain size, but when he goes inside, the interior is of a completely different scale. You can't get away with that in 3D."

The production designer (John Over) went on a field trip to Wales and Ireland, and took a series of photographs of homes, roads, school houses and school rooms, barns, farms, walls, towns and villages, rivers, woodlands to be used as direct references by the pencil layout artist to design the world the characters live in. After the layouts were approved, the art director (Ellen Jin) and background painters, working digitally, but first in 2D, painted up and textured the sets.

The photo reference and the final CG house.

The 2D models, props and environments were scanned into computers using both Maya and SOFTIMAGE|XSI software. Then the 3D artists digitally sculpted the characters maquettes and key sets (or bgs in traditional terms), following the 2D designs as closely as possible. The sets were then lit for various times of the day -- e.g., barn in the morning, barn at noon, barn at dusk and barn at night.

While the result looks like a mix of stop-frame characters moving in a 3D set interspersed with many photographic or highly textured elements, the photos were just used to create realistic looking CGI elements.

"It was never our intention to mimic the look of stop-motion animation," said Young. "It was a by-product of the design of the show. Our Jakers! CGI-animation features a tremendous amount of textures, which tends to give it that stop-motion feel," explained Young.

When asked to describe the art style of Jakers! they strove for, Young said, "It's a mixture of Beatrix Potter and Stuart Little, combined with a heavy dose of our own producer/director, John Over's, and our art director, Ellen Jin's, own unique styles. We wanted it to be rich, robust and realistic. John and Ellen have done an incredible job in bringing to life the original vision for the series."

While this digital design work is underway, the storyboard artists spent up to six weeks storyboarding each script. The average Jakers! storyboard has upwards of 300 scenes and takes up to 600 pages. The storyboard is then scanned and given to the animatic editor (Ben Choo), who roughly time out the episode.

Meanwhile, after exhaustive auditioning, each of the characters was cast with a voice over actor, including Brooks as Wiley the Sheep, chosen for his comedic timing and the contrast of his American/Bronx sound amongst the Irish accents of the rest.

Rounding out the cast are some of the industry's most well-know voice actors, including Maile Flanagan as Piggley (Men In Black, The Series); Russi Taylor (the official voice of Minnie Mouse) as Ferny the Bull and as Mrs. Winks; Tara Strong (Bubbles in Powerpuff Girls) as Dannan the Duck and Molly (Piggley's little sister); Paeder Lambe as Grandpa Piggley; Nika Futterman (Catdog) as twin grandpigs Sean and Seamus; Melissa Disney (Ginger in As Told By Ginger) as Meg (the twins' older sister); Charlie Adler (Rugrats In Paris) as Da (Dad) Winks and as schoolteacher Mr. Hornsby; Fernando Escandon (The Pagemaster) as Don Toro (Ferny's father); and Pamela Segall Adlon (Bobby in King of the Hill) as Hector (Piggley's teasing schoolmate).

Maile Flanagan and her alter ego Piggley.

For each episode, the actors record a script together at Salami Studios in Los Angeles, under the guidance of the voice director (Kelly Ward). Well, almost all, says Young, "Our Grandpa Piggley, actor Peadar Lambe, sends his authentic Irish brogue straight from a recording studio in Ireland." Once all the dialogue is recorded, the track is given to the animatic editor. The AE, working with the show director, times out the acting on the storyboard to fit with and around the dialogue.

While working on its Butt-Ugly Martian series, Young and his crew found it helpful to have live-action actors actually perform each scene on video to give the animators valuable reference material. Character performance director Larry Swerdlove directs the troupe of character performance artists. So they stuck to this extra step on Jakers! "It's one thing to read in the script: An exhilarated Piggley and Ferny leap up from the tall grassthey are STOKED!'" said Young. "It's quite another to see that action, from the facial expressions to the physical leap, performed by real actors.

Once the scripts, voices, characters, settings and background designs, animatic, timing and live-action performances have all been completed, the package is exported, both digitally and physically, to the sub-contracting animation studio, Crest in Mumbai, India to animate.

The overseas director (Upen Fyzee) works directly with the animation team while remaining in constant communication with the producers at MYP. Programs used for the animation, lighting, rendering and compositing include SOFTIMAGE|XSI, Photoshop, USAnimation, After Effects, Adobe Premiere and Avid Symphonies.

The overseas studio animates the characters following the storyboard, timing and live-action reference, sets up and follows the lighting directions on a scene-by-scene basis, renders and composits all the elements and outputs them to either digital broadcast quality tape or DLT drives to ship back to MYP. A number of scenes may also, under extreme deadline, be delivered via FTP sites.

Storyboards from the series.

Young has grown to be more confident about sending 3D work outside contractors than with 2D animation. One of the great advantages of CGI production, according to Young, "Is that once the infrastructure is built, it cannot be changed, and, unlike 2D, is not subject to varying artist and studio styles.

MYP has sent work to many countries, including growing production areas such as China. This is one of the few American productions entrusted to a studio in India for an entire series. Production capabilities have dramatically increased in this country, but experiences and results have been spotty for the most part according to production chiefs at various animation and visual effects houses in the U.S. and Europe. However, Young said working with a studio in India has growing advantages. "For starters," according to Young, "We all speak the same language, which is a huge advantage! The communication was not only easier but we all understood the same jokes and gags.

"In regards to Crest specifically, they had produced a test for Jakers! that really blew us away," Young continued. "Although they and the country of India in general are not as well established as their Asian counterparts, we felt the quality of the CGI was unrivaled and immediately felt comfortable collaborating with them on the project."

MYP receives the completed animation in unedited batches of scenes, and then digitizes it into an AVID editing system. The editor roughly assembles the show and then sits with the director to call retakes to the studio in India and they do the scene again. Changes are usually completed more quickly than in 2D, especially when altering a design element such as color. The editor (Michael Bradley, supervising editor is Richard Finn) and director fine-tune the scenes and tighten up the lip-synch.

Once the episode has been cut to the correct length and assembled to everyone's directions, a cut is made and tapes are sent to the composer (Steve Marston) and sound effects editor (Locky Butler).

The music and sound are synched up to the picture, the sound levels are mixed and the show may be tweaked with some color correction before it is ready to deliver to the broadcaster.

Jakers! was output in high definition and digibeta in-house at MYP while The Farm in Ireland produced the high definition version.

Acting references for the animators.

"We also created a 14x9 hybrid version specifically for PBS KIDS," Young added, "which allows audiences without widescreen TV in their homes to see the entire picture with only a small element of letter-boxing effect."

Production started in March 2002 on the first 26 episodes and the show debuted on PBS KIDS in September 7, 2003.

Young says his studio has been at the forefront of creating shows in CGI since the technology first became available. "We have produced more programs in this medium than any other independent production company to date," claims Young. "Therefore, we've experienced firsthand the amazing progress that's been made in this format and have encouraged our 2D artists to embrace the 3D software. Five years ago, CGI was used mainly by computer experts who were not necessarily artists. Today, many talented animators are now skilled computer experts too!"

Jakers! The Adventures Of Piggley Winks is a strong example of a 2D sensibility and innovative production applications by Mike Young Prods. translating into rich, visually appealing CGI entertainment.

Sarah Baisley is the editor of Animation World Network.