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Re:vitalizing Animation Through Virtual Studios

In building a more personal, varied animation future, Greg Singer offers perspective for collaborating online.

"Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you are probably right." Henry Ford

With the advent of the commercial Internet, it was inevitable that filmmakers would be able to coordinate their efforts online, to work on projects of personal meaning and mutual benefit. Drawing upon the talents and skills of a community of artists, engineers and managers worldwide, a virtual studio literally and figuratively never sleeps. Whether doing service work for outside contractors, or developing independent properties that appeal to niche markets, the opportunity to create is limited only by one's creativity.

Producing films in cyberspace is not only a possibility, but an opportunity that has yet to realize its fullest potential.

This article will highlight three examples of animated films that were created using the Internet as an intermediary among project collaborators. These case studies are meant as encouragement for you, to stir your imagination toward the realization of your own creative goals and dreams.

Imagination

"No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land or opened a new heaven to the human spirit." -- Helen Keller

Cynthia and Geoff Wells, founders of The Digital Theater Group, have produced the traditionally animated film The Shadow of Doubt using online ingenuity.

The ten-minute film passes with grace and uncertainty through the memory of Talullah, as she returns to the Paris nightclub where she got her break years before. In thinking about the club owner, who was once himself a great musician but now content to serve drinks from behind the bar, Talullah reviews her life as a Jazz singer, and wonders with haunting doubt about her success and what it has done to her art.

Cynthia and Geoff Wells, director and producer of The Shadow of Doubt, and founders of The Digital Theater Group.

Cynthia and Geoff Wells, director and producer of The Shadow of Doubt, and founders of The Digital Theater Group.

Cynthia and Geoff Wells are no strangers to the entertainment business. Cynthia, the director on the film, graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, and has over 80 animation and directing credits to her name. Before Shadow, she made Interview with Talullah, Queen of the Universe, a satiric docu-drama with the same protagonist that garnered her two Annie Award nominations. Cynthia directed the animation sequences in the Academy Award nominated feature documentary, A Sense of Life, and was supervising animator on Once Upon a Forest and The Thief and the Cobbler. She has also worked as an animator on such features as Anastasia, Space Jam and The Quest for Camelot.

Geoff Wells, for his own part, began his career in advertising as a graphic artist and art director in South Africa. He has since worked as a director of marketing in the motion picture distribution business, and now, in heading up the information technology department for a major television and radio network (Disney's ABC), he concentrates on digital convergence strategies and business integration in broadcasting systems. For Shadow, using his creative background and technical experience, Geoff wrote the screenplay, edited the sound and picture, penned the lyrics for the film's title song and produced it with composer Steve Orich.

"In over twenty years of professional work, nothing was ringing true," Cynthia Wells explains, of why she and her partner bothered to establish a virtual studio. "We wanted to do our own projects."

In working on Talullah, in muddling through the process of financing and producing the film, Geoff and Cynthia found that it was a great experience. "We didn't even necessarily know what we were doing," Cynthia remembers, "we were figuring it out as we went along." She continues, "But it was so satisfying, that was when I found the true meaning of happiness. I thought, 'This is it, this is what I'm doing now, forever and ever, I don't care if I have to go shoeless.'"

singerv02.jpg Talullah, running from the ghosts in her head, in The Shadow of Doubt. © Digital Theater Group, 2001.

It was a real enjoyment when the film started winning praise at film festivals, with its song "Shadow Days" getting airplay on local Jazz stations.

Though it is generally the hope and aim for an artist to exhibit his or her work to audiences, the feeling of vulnerability in such open, public expression can be both exhilarating and terrifying. Interestingly, this undercurrent of desire and trepidation is the theme of The Shadow of Doubt, in exploring the conflict of creativity and insecurity within an artist.

"There's a creative side to everybody, and you always go through this process of self-questioning," Cynthia Wells says. "It's very exposing, it's very challenging, but it's a healthy process you have to go through."

Cynthia is interested in the theory of theater that "because a thing contains a contradiction within itself, it moves and acquires impulse and activity." She adds, "The distortions of form and shape that are necessary to achieve movement in animation are not unlike the layers of contradiction within each of us."

In addition to cultivating a unique style and voice, in creating films that are challenging and that have emotional and aesthetic appeal. "The other aspect, the reason we did all this," Cynthia says, "was just for quality of life." She asks, "Who do you want to spend your time with? Who do you want to collaborate with? At work, eight hours a day, you're spending most of your life with these people."

Historically and currently, the production pipeline has its origins in factory work. Geoff explains, "I think what you need to do is take the factory mentality out of the creative process of making a film, and bring it back to a cottage industry mentality, where you have people, as during the early part of the Industrial Revolution, making these crafts out of their homes and then collaborating at the marketplace." He suggests, "The Internet does that today. That's why we call it a virtual studio, or global village."

singerv03.jpgView a café scene from The Shadow of Doubt. © Digital Theater Group, 2001.

Cynthia and Geoff made use of the hub and spoke model of production, whereby the director and producer act as a central touchstone for an array of collaborating artists and technicians.

Given the artists' varying degrees of familiarity with the Internet and the tools involved, Geoff comments, "It really shocked me, in a way, how successful it was. We would get an email, we'd review it, we'd instantly respond, because it took two seconds to evaluate what changes or direction were needed... We'd shoot a reply back to the artists, at their desks... They'd pick it up, do their work, and say, 'Here, take a look at this.'"

In speaking to the productivity of artists working from their homes, and the possible loss of studio culture in working remotely, Cynthia remarks, "You can have virtual meetings, and exchange the same amount of information over the Internet through emailing; the occasional trip of the director or producer to visit artists; or you can meet as a team every once in a great while."

Geoff adds, "I think there is a necessity to bond, but it doesn't have to happen on a daily basis. In fact, it sometimes gets in the way."

In comparison to traditional brick-and-mortar studios, Geoff and Cynthia are convinced that, given the scope and the highly distributive nature of the Internet, one can get the same amount of work done, of equal or better quality, in less time and with better economics.

"Simply the logistics of moving people around and maintaining a facility incurs huge overhead costs," Geoff says. In a virtual studio setting, this same money can be invested directly in the artists and film. More attention and consideration can be given to the quality of the work being produced, and in providing the necessary technical training and equipment to ensure platform and software compatibility among team members.

"If there is a [facility] that you need to keep pouring costs into," Cynthia explains, "the pressure is on, out of necessity ... which drives you to constantly have to find projects, any old commercial work, just to keep the lights on. But that is a grind. You eat up a lot of time on projects on which you don't necessarily have creative say-so, in terms of time, budget or artistic direction... And then you look back, wondering, 'How many years have I been doing this?' Fussing over the look of a candy bar or some other commercial product... That's not really what I want to do with my life." She concludes, "Sure, do it for a while, make some money... But what have I really said, artistically?"

In establishing and running a well-oiled and efficient virtual production, it is a continual process of experiment and refinement. In finding the occasion to tell the stories that we would like to tell, as artists, we need to trust "beyond a shadow of a doubt" in our own ability, resourcefulness and imagination. For anything to be possible, we must first be able to imagine it.

Infrastructure

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Over the course of its two-year production, the short CGI animated film Major Damage passed through the volunteered time and hands of roughly 100 teammates from all over the world, from the United States, New Zealand, Brazil and points in between.

Producer Kellie-Bea Cooper says, "Our wrap party was remarkable for the fact that most of the crew had never met in person until the party!"

Inspired by the comic book artists of his youth -- such as Harvey Kurtzman of MAD Magazine, Marie Severin and Stan Lee of Marvel Comics, and the Jack Kirby monster comics of the 1950s -- director Chris Bailey originally developed the superhero mayhem of Major Damage as a comic book.

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Bailey's day job, over the years, has included animating on such Walt Disney features as The Little Mermaid and Hercules, as well as directing the 1995 Academy Award nominated short Disney film Runaway Brain. More recently, Bailey directed Kevin Smith's animated television series Clerks (1998), which has led to his current position as director and co-executive producer on Kim Possible, a traditional animated series for the Disney Channel.

During his spare time, Bailey expanded the Major Damage comic into a storyboard for a short film, where the idea sat for several years. "I wanted to make it in CG," he says, "but the technology didn't exist for me to produce it as a one man show."

While a guest speaker for a Women in Animation group, Bailey mentioned Major Damage and attracted the interest of independent film producer Kellie-Bea Cooper. Bailey recalls, "Kellie-Bea put Damage on the fast track. Between her, myself, and CG supervisor Doug Cooper, we had the creative, technical and organizational chops to make it happen."

singerv05.jpg Kellie-Bea Cooper, producer and founder of The Better Mousetrap.

Bailey adds, "I thought about doing Major Damage with an existing CG house as a partner, but there were always strings attached where I would have had to give up the rights to the characters. That wasn't a trade-off I felt comfortable with. Luckily, Kellie-Bea understood that and put our studio together around that limitation."

Having studied interactive media, children's literature and puppetry, Cooper has worked for the Jim Henson Company, Warner Bros. Television Animation and Phil Roman Entertainment. She is presently the owner and director of her own studio, The Better Mouse Trap, as well as The Webisode Academy, a specialty school teaching episodic animation skills for the Web.

For Major Damage, Cooper negotiated alliances with Hewlett Packard and Alias|Wavefront to secure the hardware and software for the project, and she was on a constant recruiting drive to solicit help from friends and colleagues in the animation industry.

Cooper says, "Since the project was a volunteer effort, we needed a way to work that would accommodate people's lifestyles and family time. Letting people work from home, and not require a central gathering to do their work was key to recruiting the kind of talent we needed for the show."

"Given that we all had day jobs," Bailey agrees, "working virtually gave us the most flexibility with our time."

The production process was broken up into departments: modeling, rigging, character animation, facial animation, effects animation, skinning, layout, lighting and so on. Most departments had a supervisor who was responsible not only for his/her own shots, but for communicating and directing the shot assignments for the entire departmental team. The lighting team, for example, was comprised of artists in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, the United Kingdom, and other locales, with the lighting supervisor in Tampa, Florida. Departments were often scattered globally, with no middle management other than the producer and the Internet-based assignment and shot status Web pages.

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Doug Cooper, CG supervisor for Major Damage, has always been interested in combining computers and art. Programming since an early age, Cooper worked on Balto at Amblimation, and he is now a CG supervisor at DreamWorks, having worked on The Prince of Egypt and most recently Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

In describing the off-the-shelf tools that made Major Damage possible, Cooper explains, "Everything was produced in Maya modeling, animation, textures, effects, lighting and rendering. Artists had their own computers, or computers that we provided to them loaded with Maya and an Internet connection. Animators would download the character and set models from our Website, then animate and upload individual shots. Our director would review AVI's and JPEG images of the work they uploaded and send creative direction and commentary back to them via email."

In moving around such heavy graphics files, the speed, reliability and security of the studio's infrastructure was an essential component for the project's success. Besides the workstations at individuals' homes, the key to supporting the production workflow was the centralized Web and file server. The server was run on the Linux operating system, and had several custom Web applications developed for it including a graphical scene browser, which showed thumbnails of the current renders for every shot; and the File Depot, which was an online database of all the files created for the show.

Doug Cooper says, "We used a great deal of open source and freely available software, such as Linux, and MySQL, but also developed some of our own. The server was connected to the Internet through a consumer DSL line, and most artists dialed into it through 56k modems. Some artists also had DSL or cable modems to get better performance."

singerv07.jpg Major Damage, in his 3D superhero glory. and © Chris Bailey, 2001. All rights reserved.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Cooper continues, "In addition to the server infrastructure, we developed a number of custom tools for Maya in MEL that assisted in packaging up scene files and all of their components (such as textures, and animation files) for uploading to the File Depot. Our MEL scripts helped to make sure that all of the pieces needed to render a shot were delivered to the server as one package."

One of the challenges of working virtually, nonetheless, is keeping everyone productive. Producer Kellie-Bea Cooper emphasizes that a virtual studio can only thrive in an atmosphere of self-motivation, professionalism, communication and managerial trust.

Cooper comments, "Professionalism is a big factor in working virtually. Working alone can create great focus, but it can also create perfectionism. Virtual workers still need to respectfully take directions and mind deadlines."

Director Chris Bailey says, "To make things interesting for the artists involved, I tried to keep my direction broad so that they could inject some of themselves into the work, or at least more of themselves than usually allowed at the major studios. In general, I have found that people do better work if not directed too tightly." He adds, "Besides, it's more exciting to be surprised with what people come up with than for everyone to just be extensions of my hands."

singerv08.jpg Development artwork for Major Damage by Alan Battino. View a short clip from the film now. and © Chris Bailey, 2001. All rights reserved.

Cooper observes, "Probably the most difficult factor for managers to accept is having trust among the working staff; meaning, the ability to put full responsibility back into the workers' hands without second guessing or middle managing them. This trust factor establishes a sense of worth and accomplishment for everyone on the project. On Major Damage, the constant stream of email communication, plus the online shot status reports, helped to keep us updated on the progress of scenes. This open and trusting tracking and management system worked very well."

Whatever the hardware or software needs for the production, whether it is scanning, pencil testing, editing, compositing, ink and painting, video conferencing, or otherwise, a lot of the enabling technologies are available for relatively little or no expense. There are limitations, of course, but it is nothing that proper communication and effective production management cannot surmount.

There already exist database and tracking software (e.g., www.alienbrain.com), or applications to whiteboard one's work on a shared desktop during real-time meetings (e.g., www.microsoft.com/netmeeting). Or one can build simpler versions of these programs.

During the coming years, as virtual pipeline software and processes become more user-friendly and function more smoothly, we can expect more elaborate and ambitious productions. Producer Kellie-Bea Cooper says, "Now that 'the damage is done,' I'd like to begin work on a CGI television series or feature as a virtual studio. I have begun mapping out these two productions and I'm tremendously excited about the possibilities."

Integrity

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the sea." -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

For the last several years, the United Nations International Children's Education Fund (UNICEF) has been guiding the Cartoons for Children's Rights campaign, a broadcast initiative to educate about the rights of children. Partnering with animation studios and independent animators from all over the world, 30-second public service announcements have been created to promote understanding and awareness of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a landmark 1989 treaty that outlines in forty or so articles the rights that should be guaranteed to every person under eighteen years of age: the right to protection from armed conflict, to health care, to education, to adequate standard of living, to freedom from abuse and exploitation, to name and nationality, and so on.

Among the previous contributors to the campaign have been Disney Feature Animation, Nickelodeon, MTV Animation, Pixar, Fil-Cartoons, Saban, HBO Animation, Children's Television Workshop, DIC and Warner Bros.

During the Spring of 2000, a Web-based public forum of animation artists and enthusiasts was considering the possibility of collaborating on a project, using the Internet as a facilitator and platform for production. In corralling together everyone's time, talent and enthusiasm, it was suggested to create a public service announcement for the UNICEF campaign.

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Gord Groat, an award-winning and professional artist of twenty-five years, and also a leading instructor and technical advisor for the SCETCH College of Art and Design in Saskatchewan, Canada, remembers, "I felt fortunate to have been introduced to the Cartoons for Children's Rights project. As a father of three, I cherished the opportunity to help UNICEF communicate this important message."

Groat, a graduate of Sheridan College, served as the writer, conceptual and storyboard artist, and director for the forum-inspired public service announcement. He says, "What sparked my imagination was the idea of creating an animated film of international scope, using a global talent pool. I was intrigued by the creative possibilities and wanted to explore the technical, organizational and management challenges inherent in such a project."

The moderator of the forum graciously agreed to host the production on the Website. Roles were determined among forum members, as character designers, sound designers, animators, cleanup artists, colorists, and the like. The fledgling team was drawn from people in Texas, California, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Missouri, Utah, and from such "faraway" places as Canada and Slovenia. In correspondence with UNICEF, the team decided that they would animate Article 2 of the Convention treaty, the right of every child to non-discrimination.

Paul Naas, independent animator, and one of the original supervisors for the UNICEF spot.

Paul Naas, independent animator, and one of the original supervisors for the UNICEF spot.

The Internet became a window for the online community to follow the making of the short animation, as well as a central exchange for contributing members to post, review and access the materials of the production.

Paul Naas, who has fifteen years of experience working as an independent animator and director for video games and location-based entertainment, and one of the early animators hired by the Disney Institute, served as a supervising animator for the Web-produced UNICEF cartoon. He remarks, "The great part of collaborating online is that geography is not a limitation. Our physical distance was not an issue, as we were able to use a central site to communicate information and coordinate workflow. Also, for the same reasons, an online production allows you to work with folks whom you might otherwise never work with in your career."

Groat adds, "There were many benefits to working in a virtual environment. The most profound was freedom of access. When a studio crosses numerous time zones, the tradition of nine to five becomes a moot point. Artists are freed to work during the hours they are most productive, because it doesn't matter where they are in the world, it's the middle of the work day somewhere on the planet."

Naas says, "I found the whole process of the UNICEF production to be very well organized. The director handed out scene assignments via the Website, and made the necessary model sheets, boards and animatics available for download, and I dug right in. Doing the actual animation was no different than any other production I've worked on. Once I'd finished my keys and prepared the x-sheet, I scanned the drawings and did a quick test to make sure the timing was right. Once I was satisfied, I forwarded everything on to the director, along with any related production notes I thought he should have. From there, my materials were sent to the inbetweener, who finished up the scene."

Because of time constraints for delivery of the spot to UNICEF, there was a special interest to use readily available Internet-friendly software such as Macromedia Freehand and Flash. Steve Spatucci, a New Jersey-based graphic designer and illustrator, and owner of Plasmic Studio, through his tireless efforts helped to achieve the final animation.

Steve Spatucci, graphic designer, illustrator and owner of Plasmic Studio.

Steve Spatucci, graphic designer, illustrator and owner of Plasmic Studio.

Spatucci comments, "I would regularly update the piece online, sending notes to the producer on what had been added, altered or deleted with each new file posting. At times phone calls would be needed to work out more involved points, or just to have a real-time discussion rather than a volley of back-and-forth email." He adds, "I work from my home regularly, and though there is always temptation (more so than usual) to fall behind schedule this way, with a good dose of discipline and regular communication, this can be a more flexible and productive style of working than a traditional in-studio situation."

Communication is one of the biggest challenges for any virtual production. Being physically separated from people complicates the process of giving creative direction, as well as addressing technical issues. Artists who are best suited for working in a virtual studio are excellent communicators, and capable of doing a great deal of technical support and problem solving for themselves.

While working at home during odd hours can be enjoyable, freeing and rewarding, nothing can really replace working face to face with other creative people, in maintaining enthusiasm and focus on a project.

Naas says, "One of the biggest differences in collaborating online is that you never really meet or share space with the people you're working with."

"There are always advantages to working directly with someone," Spatucci agrees. "Being able to see the expression on a person's face and hear the tone in their voice allows for much more immediate and accurate interpersonal communication, and often clears up or avoids potential misunderstandings."

Screenshot of the production Website for the UNICEF

Screenshot of the production Website for the UNICEF "Right to Non-Discrimination" public service announcement. Courtesy of Joe Tracy.

In remarking on the working conditions and virtual studio culture, Groat recalls, "No one complained about the room temperature, bad lighting or the commute to work."

"But seriously," he continues, "I developed a better understanding of virtual environments, and the communities they support. Studio dynamics such as artists learning new skills and techniques from each other, encouragement in the form of inspirational and motivational conversations, random brainstorming -- and many other casual day to day interactions that naturally occur in a traditional studio environment, and that foster a team atmosphere and make a studio a fun place to learn and work it had to be emulated online."

In June 2001, along with the works of other studios, the completed "Right to Non-Discrimination" animation screened at the Annecy International Film Festival in France. The public service announcements created for the Cartoons for Children's Rights campaign have been distributed on videotape to UNICEF field offices in 170 countries for broadcast.

Storyboard panel and final Flash-based render from the UNICEF cartoon. © UNICEF.

Storyboard panel and final Flash-based render from the UNICEF cartoon. © UNICEF.

Virtual studios can benefit the animation industry as a whole. Groat explains, "Animation companies maintain a fluctuating work force, that expand and contract in relation to industry demand. This fluctuation plays havoc on an artist's life. They either have to live in one of the major animation centers, or move every time there is a change in demand. A virtual studio allows the artist to choose their location and work in their own communities. They also have the ability to move from job to job at anytime, whether the job is downtown, or on the other side of the planet."

Given the nature of the work, it is imperative for online collaborators to be professional, reliable and committed team members. In juggling personal and professional obligations and responsibilities, artists need to be self-disciplined and self-directed, so they can work with minimal supervision within the schedule and budget.

Groat concludes, "A virtual studio is a viable business model, because it's merely a mechanism. The heart of any business is the people. The mechanism only provides a space for these people to congregate, whether it's a building or an electronic environment. As technologies advance and virtual environments become as pervasive as telephone conversations, decentralized work forces will become more commonplace."

Theory And Practice

"The future is not to be forecast, but created." Arthur Clarke

At a minimum, these are the three essential ingredients for the success of any "interprising" animation team: imagination, infrastructure and integrity.

Imagination not only for what to create, but for how to get it done.

Infrastructure for providing a safe, reliable environment to collaborate and to protect your intellectual property.

And, integrity for offering your commitment, dedication and professional best.

In building a more personal and varied animation future, you have more power and resources available, at your fingertips, than you may realize. Make your own luck. Have patience, diligence and fortitude in working, stepwise and piecemeal, toward the realization of your artistic goals. Build your own relationships, and carve out your own happiness and niche.

As we gather around the modern fires and flicker shows of our computer, television and cinema screens, what kinds of stories are we telling ourselves? What kinds of stories are we living by?

By every clever and moral means under the sun, find the talent, find the time, find the resources to make it happen. You are only limited by your own imagination.

Greg Singer has worked as an assistant editor for Animation World Magazine and Animation Journal, as well as part of the production management teams for such animation houses as Flinch Studio, Netter Digital Entertainment, VirtualMagic Animation, Fox Feature Animation and DreamWorks Feature Animation. Presently, he takes long walks through his neighborhood, watching the skunks waddle down the sidewalk with complete and carefree oblivion to the rest of the world.

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