Animation Mentor co-founders Bobby Beck, Shawn Kelly and Carlos Baena launch groundbreaking distributed cloud-based production system.
Not a day goes by that we don’t see more and more astounding and inspiring work from visual artists all over the world, artists seemingly limited only by the confines of their own imagination and the short number of hours in a day. But artistic vision is always tempered by the harsh realities of resource constraints – time, money, talent and more often than not, production infrastructure. Though successfully harnessing the digital tools of creativity can yield amazing results, engineering and managing the pipeline needed to properly integrate all those tools can be a daunting, costly and often insurmountable task.
But if three animation industry veterans have their way, teams of artists will soon plug right into a fully operational production system, allowing them to focus their attention on creativity rather than pipeline logistics, ushering in a new era in global creative collaboration. The new system is named Artella, and the three creators are Bobby Beck, Shawn Kelly and Carlos Baena.
Artella is the brainchild of a trio already well-known as successful entrepreneurs within the community – the three partners co-founded Animation Mentor, a pioneering online school integrating top industry professional mentorship with production-focused animation and visual effects curriculum. Animation Mentor (AM) launched back in 2005 as a direct response to the founders’ questioning of the lack of industry specific, hands-on vocational training that gave students the specific skills needed to get jobs in animation and visual effects.
That same drive and desire to help artists “learn the trade” spurred Beck, Kelly and Baena to develop and launch Artella, using their collective professional experience to design a real world production system optimized for the types of projects today’s creative professionals most often develop, a system that removes what to so many artists is an impenetrable creative barrier: infrastructure wrangling.
At its core, Artella is a ground-breaking cloud-based production system where an artist can plug their existing high-end 3D software applications into a platform that then integrates all the necessary components, including the distributed communication and review tools, needed to manage a project wherever in the world team members reside. The Artella platform and tools are accessed and integrated completely through a web browser. Artists can work both online and offline depending upon their connection needs.
Key to their success with Animation Mentor, and central to Artella’s philosophy and ultimately, it’s entire design, has been the trio’s extensive professional experience, industry ties and foundation as artists steeped in the hands-on knowledge of how great animated work is produced at some of the top studios in the world. Beck, AM’s CEO, worked for years as an animator at Pixar on films like Toy Story 2, Monster’s Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, after stints at Walt Disney Animation and Tippet Studio. Kelly, who joined ILM in 1998, has worked as an animator on a long list of top films, including The Avengers, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Rango and Star Wars episodes I, II and III. Baena worked as an animator at Pixar for over a decade on a number of films including Monsters University, Toy Story 3, WALL·E and Ratatouille, and most recently, has written and directed the short films Market St. as well as the animated short La Noria, an online collaboration currently in production using the Artella pipeline.
In a recent conversation, Beck, Kelly and Baena walked me through the new system, sharing their vision for how creative professionals around the world will work together through Artella, enabling them to initiate and collaborate on projects they might not otherwise be able to successfully pursue.
Dan Sarto: What is Artella and what is the vision behind it?
Bobby Beck: Artella is a collaboration platform that empowers creatives to make animated content together. It enables people to start their own mini-studio and tap into a global talent pool to help bring their ideas to life directly through the platform, regardless of where they live.
The vision behind Artella is to unite and empower creatives of the world to build the future of entertainment. That is the spirit and vision that drives us.
Shawn Kelly: The challenge we aimed to solve when we started Animation Mentor [AM] in 2005 was creating great talent for the film and games industry. We love that part of it, and, over time, we began to see the bigger challenge was trying to find a way to create jobs. Many passionate artists can’t get work visas, or get their first “big break” to start their career. Many of them give up and that is such a missed opportunity.
As a result, we asked ourselves, “What would happen if we could get all that talent together, no matter where they lived, so they could create and work on projects that inspire them?” This includes writers, concept artists and storyboarders, as well as animators, lighters, sound designers, editors, etc. We wanted to find a way to bring them all together, and that is how Artella was born.
We took the best parts of social networks and married them with powerful production tools that allow anyone to start a project, find the right talent, review the work and manage all the project files with a professional-level production pipeline.
Carlos Baena: Around 2010-2011 we noticed the animation industry had big creative limitations and roadblocks in the kinds of stories that were being told and that many artists and filmmakers, myself included, wanted to see and work on other sorts of projects...not just the ones aimed at children and that cost way too much money to make. So we started looking for solutions to include those kinds of stories in our industry. We wanted to learn what it was about these pipelines and productions that cost so much, and what’s stopping creative people from making stories of any kind. Over the last few years, we’ve met with professional artists, pipeline developers, producers, filmmakers, etc., to figure out what’s been working and what’s not been working for them. Those were the roots of our conversations and where we’ve been focusing the last several years.
DS: What is the market for Artella? Who is the intended audience and customer base?
BB: Artella is for creatives of all levels from studio professionals who want to make something new, down to students who are just at the beginning of pushing themselves to make great things.
There's an amazing amount of incredibly talented people out there that want to see their ideas come to life, or who want to create something bigger than themselves. Those people are our core audience and who we want to empower.
Learning, growth and sharing are a big part of our vision for the community and we will work hard to cultivate these aspects so that people grow together. We’ve gained a lot of experience running AM over the last 11 years and we want to bring that same sense of community into Artella.
DS: How do you envision the platform being used?
BB: In the beginning, people will make short films and dabble with games and VR projects. We think this is a healthy way to start using the platform, as smaller projects give people an understanding of how to take that learning into bigger visions they can tackle the second and third time around.
With that said, ultimately we envision people using Artella to build their own studios. We have one studio that is doing this now. They use Artella as their production infrastructure. They have artists all over the world, they pay them and they make great things together. That is so exciting and our hope is that people see they can do the same thing.
For instance, there’s no reason someone couldn’t go to a marketing firm that is looking to have an animated ad created and say, “My studio can do that for you.” If they get the job awarded, they could start that project on Artella, tap into the community, pay artists for their work and then build up to managing bigger projects as well as getting to a place where they can have their artists working with them on a consistent basis.
Not all projects will have budgets. However, we encourage people to leverage the power of crowdfunding and other recurring social funding platforms like Patreon where necessary.
Do we see people creating feature films and successful game titles through Artella? Absolutely, without a doubt.
CB: Having worked at Pixar for many years, we’ve always been inspired by their philosophy in a variety of ways. In their early days, Pixar started small and solved issues by creating short films prior to doing their first feature length animated film. Even after Toy Story came out, over the years, they've done different kinds of things such as Teddy Newton's 2D-3D short film Day and Night, which was a much different film. One day I'd love to see all kinds of different style feature films. So Pixar's spirit of innovation inspired us to figure out how productions could be made at a more affordable cost while also putting more creative control into the hands of the artists.
With Artella, we started small to see what worked, what broke, what to fix, etc., in the same way that a story needs to be reworked and cut multiple times to get to something you think will excite and engage people.
We now feel we have a solid foundation, and we’re excited to continue shaping and pushing it with the input and feedback of the community.
DS: Can anyone just signup and start a project?
BB: Anyone can start a project. In fact, we want to make that part as easy as possible so that our members don’t get intimidated to put their ideas out there.
There’s a big “New Project” button that persists in the main header of the site. When ready, you simply click the button and you’re off and running. You can work on your overview - pitch page for as long as you want before you publish it. You can have as many draft projects as you’d like. In that way it serves as a place to capture your ideas and, when ready, publish them for the community to see and start getting behind.
We don’t want to curate projects; we want people to feel empowered to start something no matter who they are or at what level they may be. You never know where the next big talent is going to come from.
DS: Artella can be used to manage films, visual effects, games and VR projects. Can you talk a little more about how the system works?
SK: Sure. We took our combined knowledge of working in film, VFX and games, then brought on other professional artists at top studios to help us design the ideal distributed production pipeline. We came up with a concept we call, “curated workflows.” This means that for film, games, and VR project types, Artella comes preconfigured with a file management system, the production pipeline, built around industry best practices. Artists don’t have to wonder if they’re doing it right -- the platform just knows how to do it. Of course you can customize this, but doing it this way gives artists the confidence to know that they can just focus on being creative.
DS: How will the system be priced?
BB: Artella will always be free to join, so you can setup your profile, follow people, give and get reviews of each other’s work. For projects, eventually there will be a monthly fee. However, when we launch, the use of the entire platform will be free for at least the first 90 days. We will work directly with the community to determine the monthly value per project team member per month and this cost will most likely live in the $15 - $20 range at the low end.
More importantly, we will not take any ownership rights in people’s creations. We merely want to be the space where artists come together to make great things. We want to make Artella a no-brainer choice for creatives.
DS: What have been the main challenges in bringing this product to market?
BB: Honestly, distributed production has never been done at scale and we’ll be the first ones to market tackling the challenge head-on. For us, that means there was nothing else to look at other than our knowledge of working in studios and the experience we garnered through Animation Mentor. We had to test our ideas and, in the end, we created something we think has the potential to change things in a big way and put the power into the artist's hands.
We didn’t build Artella for big studios. It’ll take them quite a while to fully embrace this way of working, but they are very interested. Our goal is to show them that distributed production is possible, viable and that it will give people, and studios, more options.
DS: How does Artella compare with competitive systems? What will it enable artists to do that they currently can’t do, or aren’t able to do easily and affordably?
CB: With Artella, we've seen small teams quickly come together, create a project, and get into pre-production in an incredibly short amount of time. Rather than needing a bunch of different services or a support team to get things set up, everything they need is located on our platform.
It’s a very different tool and approach all around. For example, production pipelines are inherently something very complex to create, change or update. We’ve seen it ourselves through a variety of projects. If you try to change or update things on certain pipelines it almost feels like taking a piece out of a Jenga game where the whole thing can fall into pieces. We had to experience this ourselves many times and learn from it to figure out how to make the pipeline as flexible as a Rubik’s cube.
BB: Currently, starting an animated project outside of a studio is confusing. It’s hard to know where to start. Many people go down paths for years only to find out slightly less cumbersome ways of slowly moving towards their goal. Many give up and so bigger studios continue to dominate. That needs to change so that everyone has the opportunity to make content. That’s the balance we aim to shift.
To make content, teams big and small need workstations, software licenses, technical pipeline infrastructure, rendering horsepower and access to talent to make their projects come to life. The good news is that Artella offers the big pieces directly in the platform, namely artist-friendly pipeline infrastructure, access to talent and scalable cloud rendering services that easily plug in together.
Since Artella is web-based, everything has a URL/Link, so sending people directly to the areas they need to work on is a snap. You open files directly in the pipeline and Artella knows to fetch other pieces (plugins and files) you may need. This is transparent. When you save your file it makes new versions automatically and you can access and rollback to previous versions with a couple clicks.
On the software side of things, we’ve seen companies like Adobe and Autodesk going the route of monthly subscriptions for professionals and, in the case of Autodesk and RenderMan, being free for students. This is dramatically accelerating the removal of one big barrier to entry.
There are a handful of pretty robust platforms aimed at production. The problem is that they tend to be incredibly complex to set up and not built with artists in mind. Typically, you need software developers to really custom tune them to be the thing you need. That’s awesome, but it’s not typically within the budget or desire of many independent projects.
DS: When will Artella launch and how will people be able to start using it?
SK: We’re gearing up for launch now. We have about 20 projects going at the moment and are letting new members in each week.
If people want to stay in the loop on our launch date, or get early access, they can sign up to our newsletter or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We’ll announce launch info on those channels and then people will simply be able to go, sign up for free and begin paving the way for this new, exciting way of working together.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.