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Economic Perspectives on Remote Animation Production

Fluids Michael Fu and Josh Piezas look at various economic issues surrounding remote animation production.

Sandra Walters and Mark Gravas of Kapow Pictures believe creative and financial collaboration go hand-in-hand.

Sandra Walters and Mark Gravas of Kapow Pictures believe creative and financial collaboration go hand-in-hand.

Computer technology has transformed the animation industry, and its not just because of flashy computer-generated imagery. Advances and standardization in technologies such as telephony may have more impact on long-term industry economics than the CG images currently drawing box office dollars. These changes facilitate collaboration with partners from around the globe. In this smaller world, the term remote production takes on a far more significant meaning as more projects are produced in geographically separate facilities and new business models are developed.

Business reality drives animation producers to consider remote production of their footage despite the logistical difficulties this presents to the creative team and to quality control. Three business models are emerging to make the most of remote production: outsourced, partnered and distributed production.

Outsourced Production

There are many incentives for outsourcing production work, but the primary reason is to reduce production cost. Foreign subcontractors are often less expensive, as they maintain studios in countries with lower-wage structures. Furthermore, unless a producer has a continual stream of work, subcontracting reduces the burden of carrying production crew overhead on a budget.

Threshold found bandwidth an issue when transmitting data for its Foodfight! feature. © Threshold Digital Research Lab.

Threshold found bandwidth an issue when transmitting data for its Foodfight! feature. © Threshold Digital Research Lab.

An outsourced production implies that subcontractors produce most or all of the animation. Sometimes components of a production can be outsourced, but this practice is more easily accomplished through a highly standardized process. The lack of standardization in CG technology and processes means that traditional animation represents the bulk of outsourced work. In spite of the hurdles, an increasing number of computer animation studios are looking to make subcontracting a viable production method for the CGI segment as well.

Despite labor costs, remote production locations may also be chosen for other financial reasons, such as currency exchange rates. Also, governments may offer subsidies, grants and tax credits to attract outside business to help grow their domestic industries. These government financial mechanisms essentially provide the same result creating more production for less direct investment.

While financial consideration is often central to subcontracting work, other criteria may also affect the decision to outsource a project. For instance, production talent may be unavailable in a geographic area. Or a certain crew or studio may be better positioned to execute the work.

Partnering Another Perspective

Sometimes outsourcing animation production falls short of making a project financially viable. Internationally, animated project budgets are shrinking. Making a project into reality may mean financial collaboration in addition to creative collaboration. As director Mark Gravas of Kapow Pictures notes, Digital remote [production] goes hand-in-hand with finding your partner.

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Kapow produced the short Show and Tell (left) and the series Yakkity Yak. On the television project, Kapow worked remotely via a secure FTP site with its Canadian partner Studio B. © Kapow Pictures.

Kapow Pictures is an animation studio based in Sydney, Australia. The award-winning studio recently completed production of the CG short Show and Tell and is developing animated programming for television. Sandra Walters, exec producer for Kapow, notes that approximately 50% of a production budget can be raised domestically perhaps 20% can be raised from a broadcaster, 10-15% from the FFC (Film Finance Corp. a government organization). Access to these funds will often stipulate geographic parameters for the production. The balance will come from pre-sales and advances on distribution. The remaining 50% would come from a partner.

For the Flash-animated series, Yakkity Yak, Kapow partnered with Canadas Studio B to execute the project. Kapow had a simple approach to the remote production problem: it provided remote access to assets through an FTP site. Kapow and its partner were able to send plans, artwork and files back and forth. At each location, a studio would upload the progress from the end of the day so that the other location would have it when they started their day. The two studios coordinated via e-mail and conference calls. A common language also reduced the challenge of working remotely. Still, despite solutions to information sharing at any level, remote production success depends upon the experience of the individuals or groups working remotely.

However, problems can arise, spawned in part by cultural and creative differences. In the end, compromise is paramount. While downloading sequences to view show status may not be as engaging as walking into an animators office and commenting on actual production for a director, the process does work. As Gravas states, I dont see any difference in doing CG, traditional or a combination [by remote]. Essentially, youre left with the same tools to work with as far as getting information back and forth.

For future production, Kapow looks to maintain creative control, where they develop the project in-house and send out animation to Korea. Key artistic work would remain at Kapow such as design, modeling and texturing, but then animation would take advantage of the talented animators in Korea. When completed, the work would come back to Kapow for final touches such as compositing.

Distributed A New Perspective

Utilizing advancements in connectivity and standardization, Threshold Digital Research Lab has taken remote production in a very different direction. In an effort to address the problem of producing high-quality projects on smaller budgets, Threshold introduced a business model advocating distributed remote production. Instead of simply outsourcing work to another facility, Threshold is attempting to blend a traditional studio with the cost benefits of remote production in this instance, remote individuals. The intent is to create a process with the creative and quality controls of on-site production and the economic advantages of remote staff.

Threshold, with headquarters in Santa Monica, California, is working with single artists in various countries, including the United States and Korea. While groups throughout the world are employed, Threshold believes this can only occur when the group philosophy is in tune with the philosophy of the product.

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The idea of remote production for them is very interesting. Not only has Threshold enlisted talented animators from studios such as Disney, but its system also allows access to talent from almost anywhere. The practice opens up exciting opportunities to many talented artists around the globe. As Thresholds chief animation and technology officer George Johnsen says, We want people with passion, and passion has no geographic limitation. Threshold is always on the look out for great talent who have a passion for animation. And if they can meet the technical requirements to work with Thresholds system, their location isnt an obstacle.

The production process for Threshold isnt much different from the traditional production process. However, with artists distributed across different locations and time zones, managing all the resources becomes even more significant. Johnsen emphasizes that planning is key. The best post production starts in pre-production.

Faced with these challenges, Threshold has partnered with IBM to create an asset management solution to deal with the hurdles of remote production. It is already a challenge to manage production onsite, but with people spread out all over the world, Threshold is faced with production management on a whole new level. Their asset management system allows remote artists to check in and out their work, and is advanced enough to flag vital changes that can affect other work in progress.

In addition to partnering on the asset management system, Threshold is also leveraging IBMs Render on Demand services. Johnsen comments that it gives us, essentially, a resource that is almost limitless when you need it, but you dont pay for the overhead when you dont.

Despite the improved access and speed of connection, one of the greatest challenges is currently telephony. Bandwidth is a major issue, explains Johnsen. Even with high-speed connections such as OC3 (155Mbps) or OC12 (622Mbps), it is still a major hurdle to transmit all the data needed for a feature film such as Foodfight! Johnsen also recognizes that you do lose some of the collaboration and creative spark that you get from being physically present with other artists. To address this, Threshold encourages online chats among the artists and even offers online activities and parties from time to time.

Conclusion

Technology continues to illuminate the various ways distant groups or individuals can work together. Business necessity may drive the need for remote production, but the companies are no longer simply subcontracting work. Instead, they are finding creative new ways to use these tools to collaborate with partners and colleagues from around the globe.

Michael Fu is a partner at Fluid, a production management and technology company specializing in high-end, computer-animated feature film. Fu recently departed Pixar Animation Studios where he was a unit lead for Finding Nemo. His other credits include Monsters, Inc., Toy Story 2 and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Josh Piezas, also a partner at Fluid, handles business development and other non-technical aspects of the business. Prior to joining the Fluid team, Piezas managed the start-up of NSI Innovations for the toy company NSI Toys, and worked in film distribution, leading the international licensing efforts for Troma Ent.

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