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3D Character Animation Comes of Age in the U.K.

Adrian Pennington explores the current explosion of 3D character animation as a result of the Harry Potter franchise among the four top London-based vfx studios.

Recently, the U.K.s visual effects capability has been matched by digital character animation from four main fx houses: Cinesite, MPC, Double Negative and Framestore CFC.

Recently, the U.K.s visual effects capability has been matched by digital character animation from four main fx houses: Cinesite, MPC, Double Negative and Framestore CFC.

London offers a capacity for engaging in high volumes of sophisticated visual effects, a world-class craft expertise and a reputation that has steadily grown in stature from the nadir of 1998s Lost in Space reputedly fraught with missed deadlines and poor execution.

Over the last two to three years that visual effects capability has begun to be matched by digital character animation as each of the four main vfx houses Cinesite, Moving Picture Co. (MPC), Double Negative and Framestore CFC has concentrated resources to win a bigger slice of the burgeoning character animation business.

What we as a community are doing now has traditionally been awarded to post houses in California, claims Courtney Vanderslice, head of production, Cinesite. The most exciting thing for all the major U.K. facilities has been the growth of a U.K. Plc.

The growth in 3D has come about to meet demand, adds Cinesite ceo Colin Brown (who resigned from the facility in September). The number of films with digital characters has risen and these are not just peripheral characters but performances central to the film.

The spurt in business has occurred despite the unhealthy spike of 2005 when major productions withdrew or threatened to withdraw from the U.K. after the government ended and failed to announce a replacement for the tax breaks that had helped create Sohos vfx industry.

According to William Sargent, joint chief exec of the U.K.s largest facility, Framestore CFC, U.S. studio funded pictures are the key driver for our business and they in turn respond to favorable tax scenarios. Even five years ago, we werent in the same league as Los Angeles or Wellington. If you wanted a career in visual effects, you had to go to the west coast. Now capacity has grown 10 fold and as a community we consistently execute the post-production lead on multiple Hollywood pictures.

Official figures from a study commissioned by the U.K. Film Council (July 2005), indicates that the U.K.s film post-production industry provides a breadth of resource that ranks second only to the U.S. More than 90% of the countrys facilities ranging from costume and make-up specialists to pyrotechnics, edit suites and CGI are located in the capital ringed by sound stages at Pinewood, Shepperton, Leavesden and Elstree. On a turnover of $740 million, the direct contribution of the film post-production industry to U.K. GDP is estimated to have been around $300 million in 2004.

Since no facility yet has the capacity to accommodate all the work for a vfx intensive project such as

Dneg pursues work overseas and has aggressively gone after U.S. productions. The house created 80 shots for Oliver Stones World Trade Center (2006). © Paramount Pictures Corp. Courtesy of Double Negative.

Dneg pursues work overseas and has aggressively gone after U.S. productions. The house created 80 shots for Oliver Stones World Trade Center (2006). © Paramount Pictures Corp. Courtesy of Double Negative.

The facial tracking technology was devised with Image Metrics (www.image-metrics.com). Instead of facial markers, our approach relies on recording the shapes of key features, such as the mouth and the eyes. The tracked shapes are then analyzed and compared to a database of human expression, which allows the system to extrapolate the combinations of muscular contractions that went into making the tracked shapes. This data is then fed to our facial animation rig. The techniques are being put into action for the first time on two unspecified current projects.

Franklin continues: Everything on Pitch Black was produced in Maya 1.0 with a philosophy that here was a new tool lets see what we can do with it. Now weve divided the character animation crew into rigging, animation and lighting sections. Weve a pretty heavyweight R&D team writing new Mel scripts as well as lot of proprietary code to hook into our asset management system. With a number of productions going through the facility at one time, we need a rigorous database to organize files.

The facility is constantly asked to commercialize these plug-ins such as DNA its proprietary particle rendering system, says Franklin. But we develop them ourselves for a reason which is to give us an edge on the competition. To be frank we dont want to share that edge. The facility produced its own tests for Roland Emmerichs 10,000 B.C., which is currently in production, and won a major creature sequence as a result. It is also the lead facility for the fifth Harry Potter taking on 800 shots. There is history with productions like Harry Potter where a certain facility has done things like particles, fluids or creatures previously so the same effect tends to go back to that house for the sequels.

Dnegs Paul Franklin (left) has played a strong part in the U.K. renaissance, while the firms new animation department is headed by former Disney Studios Eamonn Butler.

Dnegs Paul Franklin (left) has played a strong part in the U.K. renaissance, while the firms new animation department is headed by former Disney Studios Eamonn Butler.

Ceo Matt Holben is equally proud of wooing 80 shots for Oliver Stones World Trade Center (2006) to the facility, even though the production would receive no tax incentives to do so. We were very concerned at the prospect of U.K. production dropping off dramatically so we made a conscious decision to pursue work overseas and aggressively went after U.S. productions, he says.

Dnegs new animation department is headed by highly experienced artist Eamonn Butler, who had spent a decade at Walt Disney, departing as its head of feature animation after supervising Chicken Little.

When I left the U.K. 11 years ago there were very few 3D animators around, recalls Butler. Everything happened in L.A. Now theres no need to move away because the best projects are happening here. The U.K. has a strong reputation for delivering highly efficient pipelines and it attracts freelance talent from all over the world.

At Dneg were setting out to create a strong character and creature animation department to take on the most challenging projects because a bigger part of the vfx world is moving to digital characters which carry the movie.

Part of Butlers role is to recruit new talent to Dneg. I see a lot of showreels and what struck me is that young artists here are more imaginative, theyre taking more risks.

He adds, One of the things I like about London is the quicker turnaround on projects. You only learn by finishing a project and the drawback to features is the length of production. I was on Chicken Little for four-and-a-half years so it will be good to work on multiple, shorter pieces.

MPC developed primary tool-sets for puppets and rigging, and a set of character building skills. As a result, the house won character animation work on 10,000 B.C., Prince Caspian and the new Harry Potter. Courtesy of MPC.

MPC developed primary tool-sets for puppets and rigging, and a set of character building skills. As a result, the house won character animation work on 10,000 B.C., Prince Caspian and the new Harry Potter. Courtesy of MPC.

MPC Prepares for Prince Caspian

A short walk down the road at the Moving Picture Co. (2004 turnover $88m) a similar process has taken place following a decision to increase character animation capacity prior to the facilitys 2004 sale to Technicolor. MPC has been doing character animation for film, but we desired not just to develop animation practices but to build and render beautiful characters, says Jeffers.

To make this happen Jeffers enlisted the talents of animation director Adam Valdez, a veteran of DreamWorks PDI and Tippett Studio who acted as head of animation at Weta Digital for the first two Lord of the Rings movies before joining MPC to supervise work on Alien vs Predator.

Weve taken time to build capacity internally to meet rising demand, says Valdez. Its not just about buying in new software or investing in the best talent. Ramping character animation is about developing a best practice, a methodology, a routine for doing things from design to build to lighting.

The two primary tool-sets weve developed at MPC are those for puppets and rigging and their productivity tools and a set of character building skills such as skinning and muscling, fur and feature work.

The film group at MPC totals 300 employees of which 24 are animators, 17 are modeling and character finishing and about 18 rigging. MPC also has a substantial R&D team writing custom software up and down the character pipeline such as PUDDLE: a fluids system devised for the chocolate river in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Off-the-shelf software literally doesnt know how to move in a graceful or natural way, adds Valdez. So we try to build tools and rigs that produce good movement. You have to take ownership of the entire process how you set up for skin deformations, what productivity tools the animators have in their environment, even how you manage the editorial set-up. For example, MPC has proprietary crowd simulation software, ALICE, for use alongside its own Vicon MX40 MoCap facility.

As a direct result of this capacity-build, the house won character animation work on 10,000 B.C., including a woolly mammoth, a giant predatory bird sequence and crowd scenes (built with ALICE). It also has a large share of Prince Caspian. The character animation department is additionally working on characters for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Adds Valdez One of the reasons the U.K. is strong is because it can increasingly handle large-scale productions and it can do this because of its growing depth of experience. Its hard to maintain good practice when you scale-up operations, but U.K. facilities are doing so incrementally, building step-by-step. The expectation of what the U.K. can deliver to Hollywood has grown.

Cinesite had concentrated on vfx, model construction, unit photography and physical effects as seen in X-Men: The Last Stand (above), but now its making a move into character animation. © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reser

Cinesite had concentrated on vfx, model construction, unit photography and physical effects as seen in X-Men: The Last Stand (above), but now its making a move into character animation. © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reser

Cinesite: Creatures from Scratch

Cinesite (2004 turnover $50m) has significantly increased its creature department since its work on X-Men: The Last Stand, V For Vendetta, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Harry Potter films. Their work had concentrated on providing visual effects, model construction and unit photography, physical effects (from Pinewood based Effects Associates), film scanning and recording.

In the past weve not been focused on 3D because frankly 3D is an area that is difficult to extract a margin from, says Brown.

Previously character work has not been sustainable for us, agrees Vanderslice. Theres not been enough really meaty work to justify investment. We had to build a whole character department to get work to come to us. And work has arrived in the form of The Golden Compass, the bulk of which will be the character animation of the soul-mate daemons that accompany the characters and extensive 3D environments. They are also creating more than 400 shots on Disneys Underdog, which involves extensive facial rigging to a live-action dog. This volume of work has lead to Cinesite's 3D team increasing to more than 80, working on fur, modeling, rigging and lighting pipelines, including REACT, Cinesites own crowd simulation software. The facility is also pitching in on three character animation projects, including New Lines Inkheart.

Studios are more concerned about the structure of 3D teams than they used to be to the point where they specify key personnel an animation director or CG supervisor they want working on a show in the contract, Vanderslice argues. I think in the past theyve been pitched work and promised people but the teams have not been available when it comes to the actual production. Whats different between the U.K. and the U.S. is that here the talent moves to pick the project whereas in the U.S. theres less movement and staff tend to stay within a facility.

Feature animation is the U.K.s next goal, and Framestore CFC has taken the plunge, having built a solid pipeline that was used to produce the vfx for Walking With Dinosaurs (above). © BBC/Discovery Channel.

Feature animation is the U.K.s next goal, and Framestore CFC has taken the plunge, having built a solid pipeline that was used to produce the vfx for Walking With Dinosaurs (above). © BBC/Discovery Channel.

The Next Step: Feature Animation

All of Sohos main effects houses have been exploring animated feature work, but only Framestore CFC has taken the plunge. The reason, says Sargent, is that the deal was right. Everyone who works here aspired to make long-form animation. Hollywood was aware of our aspiration. Weve bided our time and found the right combination of studio and script. We already have a solid pipeline, which can be scaled to manage the 1,800 shots for this feature [Universals The Tale of Despereaux].

The solid pipeline has been built and refined to produce the visual effects for multi-award-winning television series Walking With Dinosaurs, Ocean Odyssey and Prehistoric Park, the latter featuring 22 different species of prehistoric creature, many of them with variant looks for different ages. It includes fcFur and Choreographer, proprietary tools developed to allow animators to handle scenes featuring scores of squirrel characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The facilitys alliance with Universal will see the studio fund production of The Tale of Despereaux. Former DreamWorks production head and Shrek 2 producer David Lipman oversees the new animation division as a Framestore partner, which will see 128 animators and a further 32 character animators employed. What alerted Universal to this company was the Hypogriff, asserts Lipman. Were not detracting from capacity in the rest of our business. This is an expansion.

The 3D Maya-modeled film is being designed and storyboarded in London by director Mike Johnson and producer Tracy Shaw (the team behind The Corpse Bride). Framestore CFC is preparing the build and rigging of the characters with layout to begin in March.

Part of the attraction for Universal is the quality of talent but also were not in competition for talent as Disney, Blue Sky, Pixar and DreamWorks are in the U.S.

Sargent doesnt rule out establishing an in-house creative team to originate future 3D projects and its part of Lipmans job to pull-in repeat business, which Eames will oversee at a creative level. A contract has already been signed, they say, for a second feature animation, which will begin pre-production early next year. We are not setting up as a one trick pony but to be in the feature animation business for the long term, says Eames.

The firms lead may be followed by Double Negative and MPC, which both claim to be eyeing potential scripts. It all comes down to the right deal at the right time, says Jeffers. Short term contracts for staff and kit can be very expensive so you need to ensure productions are lined-up afterwards.

You have to consider whether its a full time or downtime occupation and whether you want to commit to paying 150 animators for 12 months, argues Dnegs Holben. It only makes sense if youve got a project with well-known characters in the main markets then you dont have to spend all the money on advertising it.

Valdez says MPC has looked seriously at three mainstream feature animation offers. Theres a glut of 3D animated features and naturally some would look to find a home in London. The biggest drawback is the high dollar to pound exchange rates. Producing here isnt cheap.

Even The Mill, which withdrew from film effects after winning the U.K.s only Academy Award in that category for Gladiator (2000), admits to considering feature animation work.

If the U.K. can successfully complete work on the high-profile projects earmarked for the coming year, theres no reason to suggest its growth as a character animation center wont continue. Unsurprisingly, theres a genuine excitement about the work now being brought in. As Vanderslice observes, Whereas two to three years ago any big sequence was kept for ILM now the U.K. is winning that work.

Adrian Pennington is a U.K.-based freelance writer and editor of animation magazine Imagine.

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