Sophie Trainor delves into the globalization of technology markets and how it affects the growth of 3D animation and vfx around the world.
Nowadays, the entertainment-based computer graphics marketplace can be called an established industry, with a history spanning approximately 30 years. Film directors have been using computers to create effects-laden content for films since before the 1970s. Today, however, we are witnessing an upsurge in the use of 3D animation. Although 3D has been around for a substantial amount of time, we are now seeing this medium become the standard method of effects production overtaking many approaches, including physical effects and 2D/hand-drawn animation. In many regards, it is 3D that is now seen as the future of graphic content for broadcast projects, and, with this in mind, technology is paramount.
The aim of creating the very best in 3D computer graphic content has resulted in a workforce that strives to break the boundaries of current thinking and technological know how. Visual effects artists and technical directors are among the worlds most technologically savvy folk, and in using their skills they are continually creating new methods to give the public the most exciting cinematographic experiences. 3D animation now manifests itself in the majority of projects created internationally, from television commercials, broadcast television series and, of course, big budget movies. Previously used primarily in Hollywood movies and shorter form projects around the world, this wider adoption of the techniques is very exciting.
Over the past five years, there have been an increased number of fully CG films created within Europe, including Kaena La Prophétie from Chaman Prods. in France, El Bosque Animado from Dygra Films in Spain and Valiant, currently under production in the U.K. from Vanguard Animation. London has been seen as a center for graphics development for many years, working on increasing amount of 3D content for high profile films for decades (thanks to the contributions of Double Negative, Mill Film and Cinesite), a trend that is looking likely to continue with the establishment and expansion of companies to focus specifically on movies. This more widespread adoption of 3D computer animation techniques can be attributed to a number of factors, including the expectations of the viewing public, larger number of courses of study and teaching levels, location of talent, advances in technology leading to the decrease in equipment prices and the outsourcing of projects around the world.
In 2003, we are lucky to live in an age where individuals and companies have tools on hand that allow us daily communication on a global scale, meaning we are much closer to friends, families and colleagues around the world. This very fact has implications for todays 3D community. Much has been written about the profound impact that the Internet has had on our everyday lives. For the producers of 3D content, the same can be said of the relatively new approval systems that are now a part of our everyday lives. There are a number of systems based both in and out of house in London and one which strives to set the industry standard is BEAM.TV (www.beam.tv). This method allows artists working in London to show work to clients based around the world via an Internet-based database of clips held as both QuickTime files and MPEG files and a decoding beam box rather than needing to create and send tapes, hence saving time and money. The box itself is small enough to sit on top of a monitor. Matt Cooper, managing director of BEAM.TV said, BEAM is now a tried and tested solution. We are not only working with global agencies, but now global advertisers who are finding that at last you can work where ever you like with whoever you like and still save money and equally importantly time. Clients are able to work in many different locations on casting, shooting and on/offline and still approve same day, in DVD quality on their TV set. It couldnt be any easier.
The creation of technologies such as these has already facilitated the production of projects in one location for clients in another. However, there are other advantages of these systems, such as being able to use companies in different time zones, which could theoretically allow work to be carried out around the clock, with shots finally being uploaded to a central database. Similarly, it means that talented individuals based in different areas of the globe can work on projects together. Distributors based in one hemisphere could realistically produce a project with the animation team in the other. This global reach, in turn, giving scope for a wider creative input and wider ownership of the projects, which, in turn, must create a richer product.
With globally linked or networked systems and the decreased cost of hard and software, we have witnessed some evidence of the emergence of new centres for 3D animation with talented individuals setting up in differing locations around the globe. While studios are still on the increase in the U.S., U.K. and Europe, these companies are outsourcing work to more cost-effective countries, many of who now offer tax incentives to companies supporting their film industries. Korea has witnessed overseas film investment increase seven fold between 1985 and 2000 (www.kofic.or.kr/english), with companies partly financing projects there. This upsurge in 3D seems to follow countries that have seen a history of traditional or 2D animation. Is this another example of the shift toward 3D from 2D animation as technology takes over? Munjal Shroff, director and cto at Graphiti Multimedia Private Ltd. (www.graphiti.net), in Mumbai, India, agrees: With the fixed costs of 2D animation, it is understandable that 3D animation is on the increase, especially in animated television production where costs per episode decrease over a longer series. Graphiti is working on two childrens series, The Tree House Set and Action Hero. When asked about the outsourcing of work from the U.S., U.K. and Europe to India, Shroff commented, Outsourcing is interesting, but in the main companies in India are interested in pitching their own shows and are looking for co-productions and part-funding from companies in varying marketplaces. So, creativity and ownership are as important as ever, but with the right technology in place it seems that budget restrictions may be more manageable.
Additionally, recent macro economic conditions have attributed to a marked consolidation within the global 3D suppliers market. Hardware and software equipment manufacturers have, in the main, decreased their costs over the past four years. With some manufacturers consolidating and others, unfortunately, disappearing. In this less solid economic environment competition has flourished and we have seen price wars launched by the major suppliers in order to gain market share. Added to this is the proliferation of free downloadable programs from the Internet. Link both these points and the fact that the average home computer now has enough equipment to run sophisticated high-end 3D animation software and you understand how it is now possible to set up a studio for a lot less outlay. With animation package licenses being less cost prohibitive, the industry is booming with grassroots 3D animations currently being created all over the world, on all budgets and by animation teams numbering anywhere from one to hundreds. The number of examples of work being created and distributed now that wouldnt have been possible with the cost implications of setting up a studio a few years ago is certainly exciting. One of these examples is El Bosque Animado or The Living Forest, which was created by a small group of animators in Northern Spain two years ago.
Additionally, offers such as Alias Maya personal learning edition, which is free to download from the Internet, has resulted in an inevitable and exciting increase in part-time animators working in their own homes. Maya Personal Learning Edition, launched in April 2002, saw 100,000 downloads in the six weeks post launch. Also, with the Internet acting as a distribution channel, there is the possibility to distribute work globally.
While there is no doubt that this increased accessibility to software will help develop the 3D industry, there are concerns that product research and development may suffer. Even though vendors are continuing to carry out product development, it seems likely that the decreased revenues that the packages now command can only result in less money available for this. With prices for Maya Complete dropping from $7,500 to $1,999, one would hope that there would be a volume increase in unit sales comparable to the previous revenue injected into research and development. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely.
To surmount this problem, one could look toward the user base, which are of a technological bent and are already testing and pushing the boundaries of the kit they use. Many animators share ideas and problem solving techniques, but workload and copyright issues may well thwart this.
Another related issue is that all tools used within a pipeline will need to be working to the same level. Additional programs and software will need to be able to plug into the pipelines and hardware will need to be of high enough capability to support it.
By definition, the 3D community is perfectly situated and equipped to set its own parameters with regard to the tools it requires. By creating specific tools to facilitate global working, projects can be created more cheaply and efficiently with the development of both the project and the industry in mind. However, the 3D computer graphics community cannot survive without the technology and the talent to help further possibilities. With talent learning more advanced techniques and coming from more diverse places, it is likely that the images we will see in 10 years will be far removed from what we see today.
Now based in the public relations and marketing department at the Moving Picture Co., Sophie Trainor, until recently, was festival manager for the London Effects and Animation Festival from 2000-2003. She is also a director of Shine Solutions (www.shinesolutions.com).