J. Paul Peszko looks into the growing business trend of VFX companies branching out into 3D animation.
While Sony Pictures Imageworks took 10 years to plan its new animation division, which launches Sept. 29, 2006, with the opening of Open Season, the digital revolution is now changing the rest of the CG landscape at a much faster rate. Whereas the major studios had been the sole suppliers of animated features, smaller players are now rapidly expanding to provide product for the box office. For example, Australian vfx house Animal Logic is in production on its first 3D-animated feature, Happy Feet, which opens November through Warner Bros. Pictures.
In London, Framestore CFC has recently formed Framestore Feature Animation. Founded with the aim of becoming London's premiere permanent feature animation studio, Framestore Feature Animation has commenced work on its first project, The Tale of Despereaux, in partnership with Universal Studios. Meanwhile, Santa Monica-based Digital Dimension opened a feature animation studio in Montreal some two years ago and now has several animated features in the pipeline.
But its not just feature entertainment that is fueling the expansion. Guava, a New York visual effects studio, has significantly expanded its 3D animation department to keep up with growing client demand for character animation, effects animation, virtual 3D sets, compositing and related effects.
In that same regard, David Waller and Geoff McAuliffe, co-owners of bi-coastal Brickyard VFX, have taken the shrink and grow approach by launching a new 3D division to be run by Jay Lichtman, Yafei Wu and Robert Sethi. Lichtman was head of production and Wu was senior 3D lead at Glassworks and Sethi was lead character animator at Double Negative.
According to Waller, expansion was a matter of necessity. If the people arent in house, you dont have access to them all the time. It seems like with CG, people get gobbled up quickly on big projects and disappear for a while. So if you expect to be competitive with these higher end jobs, then you need to get a (CG) department in house.
What prompted Brickyard, with offices in Boston and Santa Monica, to go to London to select talent? Jay Lichtman, is a talented guy an uncommonly talented guy, acknowledges Waller, and we heard he wanted to come back to the States. We thought that maybe he would be a good person to lead the department. And he had suggested a couple of guys [Wu and Sethi] he knew in London that were really, really good and that really wanted to move to L. A. As a team, he thought the three of them might be able to function well right off the bat from day one and start making pictures. So, it takes more than raw talent to set up a new CG core.
Besides skill and synergy, Waller pointed out another contributing factor to the hire: versatility. One of the things we liked about these two artists (Wu and Sethi) was that they werent so far down any road that they were so specialized that they wouldnt be able to work in a small place. You get some people who can just do tracking or they can just do shading. Thats their thing. These guys could do pretty much everything.
How long has Brickyard been planning this expansion? Probably six months with just tinkering with the idea, says Waller, and then about four or five months in finding the people and getting them in place. It was a little difficult because we imported them from Europe. There was some paperwork involved that made it a little more complicated. Then it was just weeks or a month to get it physically set up, and were constantly adding on to it as we get jobs.
Brickyards 3D department quickly expanded in January to eight with several projects going at the same time. Now weve gone back to the three core guys, explains Waller. And right now were looking to pick up a couple of people full time. We try to keep the core small and then grow or shrink as the jobs go so we dont have that overhead until we have a bigger client base.
On a somewhat larger scale, Digital Dimension began its expansion some two years ago. Digital Dimension president Ben Girard says it was no easy task by any means. Basically two-and-a-half years ago, we opened another studio in Montreal. When you do that its amazing how you discover rapidly how things get more complicated very fast. Its not only adding more seats and artists; its a new layer of management. Especially in this case we had a lot of (in-house) artists that were XSI trained for 3D, and we had to basically make sure that everyone (they hired) was trained in that specific software. And the biggest thing, too, when you man the seats and add the artists, you realize very quickly that the management or the orchestration of the production is not the same anymore.
The larger the project, the higher the stakes, so Girard and his staff needed to put in place an orchestration and asset management system to keep track of all that additional work. You need to make sure the alignment of the company remains just as tight as if it were a small group. We had to put in a ton of effort and money. Teaming up with Microsoft, they now have in place a task system so the producer can be accountable in real time. Not only that but were in the middle right now of tying everything into our accounting system. So in real time we can see where our budgets are going and have a better reporting mechanism if you will.
The firm expects to have 100 employees in Montreal very soon. We had to add 50 employees almost from scratch and now were adding another 25. With expansion, what would happen is freaky. All your resources are already tied in [to current projects]. Its very difficult to get the recruiting going, and the infrastructure is very difficult to manage at that point because its all busy working on the show. Theres quite a bit of planning and orchestration basically to make that work.
If opening a new studio was such a monumental task, why did the company feel it was something they had to do? There are seven major studios out there [producing feature animation], but I think that is changing with the digital economy, Girard adds. Our goal was to get into content ownership. In order to jump start that successfully requires a lot of planning because you dont want to destroy your current business obviously.
Just how much planning? I would say it took us a year to plan before we opened the other office. First of all we needed to come up with the right people and make sure we had enough projects in the queue to afford it because you dont want it to fold two months after you open it. So, you have to make sure your team is ready to go with the right project and the right timing, and when the timing hits, boom, then you do it.
That right project was The Legend of Secret Pass, a 3D-animated feature they are co-producing with JC2 Ent. For us, it was important to get a pipeline with a CG feature in place so we could tag on more projects and move toward our goal of content ownership. And tag on more feature projects they have, including Race to Mars, The Covenant, the new Will Farrell feature currently titled, Talladega Nights, and another project in development with Walden Media. In addition to its feature projects, the companys visual effects work on feature films continues to increase at its studio in Los Angeles, where they have added 15 new CG artists over the past two years.
But its not only vfx companies expanding into 3D. The Van Nuys, California-based interactive game company, Brain Zoo has taken its first step. Were trying to expand our horizons to get into different markets because essentially the techniques and the way we do things works for both industries, says Brain Zoos president/ceo Mohammad Davoudian. One [feature film] is high-resolution, which were able to spend more time on vs. games which you have to do on a quick turn around. With that in mind, Davoudian has hired André Bustanoby to supervise visual effects at Brain Zoo Studios. Bustanoby brings 12 years of film and television visual effects experience to the Brain Zoo team, having worked on such high-profile projects as Titanic, Fantastic 4, Sky Captain and, most recently, Eight Below.
What were looking at doing with Andre is two-fold, continues Davoudian. Obviously getting into the visual effects side of things at the same time mixing what Andre knows with the game industry and vice versa using game technology within the feature film industry.
Somewhat new to me, and Im getting my head into it very quickly, admits Bustanoby, is the interactive gaming side of things. Although its a bit newer, its maybe where visual effects were in the late 80s or early 90s. Now more than ever you need to tell good stories and tell good stories visually, whether it be through straight up cinematic storytelling or utilizing the uniqueness of that medium. So its very exciting to explore as were designing shots or were designing looks. Were working on new lighting methodologies or how to tell an interesting story visually using this new realtime technology.
Davoudian adds, When were doing a lot of the cinematic and interactive work theres a certain pipeline we have to set up and move with speed because in a game cinematic or interactive arena you dont have the luxury of time that you might have in a feature in order to do your shots. Pretty much most of the projects last anywhere from six to 12 weeks, and you have to go from storyboarding all the way through rendering and delivery within that amount of time, which is really compressed. Its like guerilla filmmaking. You have to figure out ways around everything in order to cut your time down to be able to complete the project. But with every project, things are more and more complex, especially now since things are all going HD. Everything has to be at a much higher resolution. So, the two industries are colliding pretty quickly.
Maya is Brain Zoos core animation and modeling software. In addition, Bustanoby has added some ZBrush and SOFTIMAGE|XSI. For rendering they use the Maya native renderer and mental ray. But, as Bustanoby explains, he is not opposed to making changes as Brain Zoo expands in the future. The philosophy that I have is that the tools should not dictate the kind of artist one hires and collaborates with. If an artist comes in and theyre an exceptional sculptor, and where theyre prolific is say ZBrush or XSI or LightWave, then were going to consider what that artist brings to the table with that tool and their talent but also with the pipeline issues that a new tool brings in and how to open it up a bit to allow multiple tool inputs.
"Theres a business sense to consider as well, if youve got 12 million different packages and a lot of support, contracts and inherent infrastructural logistics to deal with. So, its definitely a balance, and were looking at keeping the pipeline as streamline as we can, but also flexible, open and, at the end of the day, something that can be supported from a business standpoint.
Talking about his role as the new head of production at New York City visual effects house Guava, Jim Riche says, I came on board officially in June of last year, and one of my main tasks was building this company up. And building 3D was the main, single most important ingredient. To that end, Riche hired veteran 3D animator Steve Talkowski as director of animation. With more than a decade of 3D experience, Talkowski comes to Guava from New York's Hornet, where, as animation director, he collaborated closely with Guava, on several projects.
Talkowski says that, despite some interesting growing pains, he has been able to put together a solid team, consisting of himself and three other new hires. Adrian Graham, the head td, comes to Guava from a feature background and also does seminars for Alias. David Bernkopf is a digital products placement specialist and onsite effects supervisor. Spyro Servos is another td that Riche considers to be an all-around artist who can give them just about anything they need.
As with most CG expansions, synergy played an important role at Guava. Its always tough having to go through demo reels and see whos got what to offer, Talkowski admits. I like to find A-list people because thats who Im used to working with. So, you just have to go through and weed out the reels and then, once you have the interview process, see if you guys are going to mesh or not. Now that were all together, everyone is working out pretty well.
So, what exactly does this expansion do for Guava? Now we have full capability with our sister companies, Freestyle Collective and Nice Shoes that makes us competitive with anyone else in New York, Riche states and sees the expansion continuing. Were expanding even now. Weve got nine workstations right now, all running Maya 7. Weve just installed a shared media system called Sledgehammer made by Maximum Throughput. It has two terabytes expandable of storage along with another Maximum Throughput system called Xstoner. It allows all of our workstations and all four of our Flames and one Inferno to see each other and share storage. They can move files around at will. We no longer have to export from Flame and import. Xstoner allows you access directly into Flame.
Riche believes that business is picking up and getting better and better because of the expansion. Weve done some really good work recently where we combined 3D with visual effects off the Flame. Those projects include two spots for PODS, the storage system, a spot for Folgers, and another for ongoing client, Maybeline, which is using 3D for the first time with Guavas help.
The fact that producers enjoy the cost effectiveness of the one-stop shop could make the current trend in 3D expansion a long-term one. Is it possible that the standard vfx house will someday be as obsolete as a VCR? Dont blink.
J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isnt writing, he teaches communications courses.