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Vanguard Taps Maya Pipeline for Valiant

Vanguard Animation has built its CG pipeline with Maya software from Alias, starting with its feature debut, the 3D VALIANT. This business model will allow them to produce more Hollywood-quality animated features faster, and for a much lower cost than is typical in the industry.

VALIANT releases in Europe on March 25, 2005, and across the U.S. on April 15.

Taking advantage of Maya software, the price and performance of modern PCs from IBM and Boxx Technologies, plus a pool of animation, production and technical talent, Vanguards producers reduced the cost of delivering VALIANT to below $0.5 million per minute and completed the delivery of all 3D assets in under 15 months.

Vanguard Animation was founded in 2002 by John H. Williams, the producer of SHREK, SHREK 2 and VALIANT. VALIANT is the first of 10 full-length animated features it has planned. Once financing was in place, pre-production started in L.A. in January 2003. The principal production was then shifted to Ealing Studios, West London, where Vanguard established Europes first purpose-built, digital CG production studio. Maya modeling, animation and camera layout began on Sept. 15 2003, with all of the 3D assets completed on Dec. 10, 2004.

The 75-minute family film is the story of a little wood pigeon named Valiant who, despite his small size, aspires to become a member of the Royal Homing Pigeon Service during World War II, delivering vital messages from the French Resistance to Allied Forces, while trying to evade lethal enemy falcons. The movie has an all-star cast, including the voice talents of Ewan Mcgregor as Valiant, plus John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, Tim Curry, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Laurie.

History says you cannot deliver a film of this quality at this in less than five years and for under $80 million, commented co-producer Curtis Augspurger, the movies co-producer. But, with Maya at the core of our pipeline, we have done it in less than two years, and for $40 millionWith VALIANT the whole landscape for CG animation has changed. The paradigm shift that VALIANT represents is likely to make major studios rethink the way they deliver animated films.

The starting premise was that we could finance more films if we could reduce the overall costs, and Valiant is proof of our new paradigm, added Valiant co-producer Buckley Collum. Alias put us into play on this movie. Maya helped give our investors the confidence to back the project. Its a recognized name, that offers off-the-shelf plug and play-ability and instantly allowed us to tap into a large pool of animation talent.

During the production stage at Ealing Studios, Vanguard recruited 135 digital artists from around the world, representing 17 different nationalities, with Maya skills covering character animation and rigging, modeling, camera set-up and layout, sets, lighting, effects and rendering.

A key decision from the outset was to base VALIANT on a vfx pipeline where background plates and characters are created and rendered-out as separate layers from Maya for subsequent compositing rather than rendering complete scenes in camera, a potentially time-consuming and costly process. VALIANT contains approximately 1,150 shots and the animation team was able to deliver 100 shots per week during peak production.

The way we pipelined with Maya meant we hit our marks every time and kept costs low, added Collum. The big advantage with the vfx pipeline approach was that we had total creative and technical control of the images throughout the animation and compositing stages. If any shots or animation needed changing, or the final renders contained any errors, we could quickly re-render those components with our Maya-based pipeline and send them off to the compositing team, instead of going through the time-consuming, and potentially uncertain, process of re-rendering entire scenes. It also gave us control of the lighting balance and overall look of the movie throughout.

Optimizing the character rigging was also fundamental to the efficiency of the pipeline. The characters are virtually all birds, with feathered wings that function as gestural arms and fingers, as well as wings.

To make the animation processes easy and fast, Vanguard developed one highly sophisticated, stand-alone character rig in Maya, which could be adapted as required to other bird characters in the movie. This ensured that every animator would be familiar with any characters controls, allowing them to work with any character on any shot. In addition, a custom-developed Maya plug-in called Chanko enabled the animation team to create a library of poses and clips, which could then be shared between the character animators, ensuring shot-to-shot continuity.

To maximize rendering speed and efficiency, Vanguard harnessed the full range of Mayas native, mental ray and RenderMan rendering options.

RenderMan was the chosen rendering tool for most of the characters, sets and props. Optimizing the RIB output in Maya meant characters could be output quickly, with the advantage that the animation team was able to deepen the visual experience by adding wardrobe and military regalia over the feathers.

Using mental ray, Vanguards technical directors were able to light scenes and produce global illumination renders, then bake the lighting information into the color textures. This did away with the need to render the sets using multiple shadow-casting lights, and which ultimately made rendering much faster. The Maya native renderer was used to render visual effects passes, such as smoke, steam, atmospheric dust, fires and explosions.

Delivering a CG film production like VALIANT would not have been so fast and efficient five years ago, and Maya played a pivotal role, added Curtis Augspurger.

VALIANT is a Vanguard Animation Production in association with Ealing Studios. The movie will be distributed internationally by Odyssey Ent., and in the U.S. by Buena Vista Pictures. Gary Chapman is the director. Exec producers are Barnaby Thompson for Ealing Studios, Ralph Kamp for Odyssey Ent, Neil Braun for Vanguard Animation, Robert Jones for the UK Film Council and Keith Evans from Baker Street Media Finance. Co-Producers are Eric M. Bennett, Curtis Augspurger and Buckley Collum for Vanguard Animation.

As a leading innovator of 3D graphics technology, Alias (www.alias.com) develops award-winning software, custom development, and training solutions for the film and video, games, Web, interactive media, automotive, industrial design, education, and visualization markets.

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