German animation and VFX studio embarks on its first CG animated feature, 'Manou the Swift,' with a pipeline that includes Autodesk 3ds Max, The Foundry’s NUKE, Pixologic ZBrush, and Chaos Group’s V-Ray.
German effects company LUXX Studios, the VFX house behind Roland Emmerich’s White House Down and Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, has embarked on the company’s first animated feature film, Manou the Swift.
Directed and produced by Film Academy Baden-Wuerttemberg graduates and LUXX Studios founders Andrea Block and Christian Haas under the LUXX Film shingle, Manou the Swift is aimed at family audiences. The project evolved from a 2007 sailboat trip to Nice at the Cote d’Azur, in France, where the duo discovered a large rock in the middle of the city that acted as a nature sanctuary.
“We were fascinated by their play, how they were in control of the winds and the way their huge wingspan made their sailing abilities apparently effortless. Above the cliff drop off we noticed individual swifts flying in sharp curves, darting down towards the agitated sea, turning around instantly to fly up against the sun and land on vertical cliffs. The different ways the swifts and seagulls flew prompted a conversation about the core story, while the splendid scenario around us triggered our first ideas for design and settings,” Haas recounts. “But once we were back in Germany, we got very busy and the project got lost in a stack of paper collectives. After some years, Andrea picked it up again and we decided to bring a scriptwriter on board, and flesh it out. So we developed the exposé and applied successfully for regional funding on script and development, which has grown to production funding since then.”
“We wanted to be part of the process of which story is being told with our effects and our animation. We wanted to make it a subject which is really worth telling, and also we wanted the effects to be part of the story, that way they cannot be cut out,” Block adds. “This way we get complete control, and in the end, when it makes a profit, we get more out of it than we would if we were just doing the visual effects work.”
The German, French and Canadian co-production is being financed by a combination of international pre-sales and distribution partners as well as regional and national funds and private investments. Securing funding was particularly challenging for the filmmakers. “It has been a long road,” Haas says. “We are very happy about this great support by the regional MFG and national funding systems. It helps a lot when you start this kind of project. On the other hand, it defines how some of the money has to be spent in different regional areas. So we have to think about where each task needs to be done to stay in line with the requirements - which is an art in itself. Sometimes you would like to have a specific company do a specific task, but their funding does not support your project, which forces you to change the creative and/or service partner. This is not perfect in a creative way, but without the funding there would be no chance to do it at all, so we are very happy to be supported and get the opportunity to develop our own IP.”
While still in the pre-production stage, Manou the Swift is expected to be ready for release in late 2016, and Haas readily admits that animated features require more development than live-action movies. “First, we have to do thousands of Storyboard images – basically the entire movie,” he details. “Then we have to design the movie in every aspect, i.e. character designs, the world in which the characters live, etc. We literally have to build every single rock or leaf in this movie, for instance.”
For a fully animated CG feature, there are no filmed plates to start from, but rather a blank screen and a lot of ideas that need to be explored and selected. “Character creation, and building up of a complete world of sets become a huge design and art direction task,” Haas says. “Then we do the layouts that define point of view, content and camera movement, followed by blockings of animated characters and editing of animatics to check if they are working. We also built up a new pipeline for the whole movie, wrote all the necessary software, defined structures and workflows for the production. We chose an example scene to test, so we could refine the pipeline. When that was done, we started production in the existing pipeline and work on the shots.”
Read all about the production process for Manou the Swift in the Q&A with Luxx Studios co-founder Christian Haas below:
What type of team was assembled to complete production? How many people?
The pre-production team is a small team at the moment, around 12-14 people. We accumulated very well-trained, knowledgeable and experienced artists, so they can do many 2D/3D tasks and know exactly what is necessary for the next steps. This small team is great for creative input, connecting the different fields from design, modelling, rigging, animation to 3D set building, lighting and rendering, compositing and look development, setting up the pipeline and improving it. When we go into production, we will add more artists to this core team so the creative spirit stays with a set goal to achieve but we will gain faster turnaround and work progress at the same time.
What helped inspire the look of the film?
We love the old Pixar movies, especially Ratatouille. We try to get as close as possible to their quality, but of course we only have a fraction of their budgets. We did a lot of research work on the southern French Coast to melt it into a synthesis of character and set design, which is typical idealized Cote d’Azur. Of course we are stretching reality, and set our time period to 1963 when the Algerian War ended and many Northern African people made mainland France their new home. Since LUXX Studios is famous for full CG environments like on Roland Emmerich’s White House Down and [Wes Anderson’s] Grand Budapest Hotel, we obviously wanted to add our special flavor by creating very detailed, rich characters and environments for our own movie Manou too. The audience should be able to discover new thrilling details whenever they watch the movie another time.
Describe the storyboarding process.
We draw thousands of storyboards as visual translation of our script. After drawing, we scan the images and import them into our in-house management and pipeline tool, “Project Explorer.” With that tool we can add, arrange and modify the images and assign a bundle of viewpoints to one shot, adding up to sequences and eventually the full animatic movie. With one click we can export this animatic directly into Avid, edit the sequences and send it back to our pipeline tool for the right timing, which is basis for previs and blocking. That way we can try things out quickly, check it in the edit and find the best solution for each shot and sequence.
Describe the animation pipeline at LUXX Studios. Which tools were used for character animation, and which tools were used for environments and lighting?
For character design we used [Pixologic] ZBrush after a lot of sketches and studies by hand scribbles, observations, video footage and photo research. Those were translated into patterns, variables and common to form the type of breed, the family and then the detailed characters. Color studies and palettes were added for each type of bird and character. Fur and feathers were set up for all characters [using the] Onatrix [Hair for 3ds Max plugin from Ephere]. Our 3D core pipeline consists of [Autodesk] 3ds Max, [Chaos Group] V-Ray, [The Foundry’s] NUKE for compositing, and we extend it with lots of commercial plugins and self-developed tools. Autodesk and Chaos Group have provided us with really great support on this project; we have a close connection to their developers and they support us as much as possible in our project scopes.
For the pipeline and management system, we wrote our own tools, mainly “Project Explorer” and “Asset Explorer,” which do all the communication, creation of scenes files, conversions, task system, mailings, organizations and much more. We couldn´t be as powerful and effective with such a small team without these in-house tools. Tasks for which other companies need extra people, we can do automatically. Bug reports and wish lists are built-in features too, so artists can suggest wish lists, which get included and ready to use in around 30 minutes (usually) if it is a good feature for the team.
We also wrote connection tools for 3ds Max and NUKE to incorporate the features of “Project Explorer” and “Asset Explorer” directly into them. For example, the artists usually don´t have to deal with naming conventions, they just select a task assigned to them, press a button and 3ds Max starts with a new generated scene file with all settings defined for this shot, including output render paths and much more. When the rendering is finished, the compositor gets a message, then you press a button and NUKE starts with a new generated scene file, including all render passes combined and will send out to correct output passes. When this comp render job is finished, the editor gets a message, press another button and all the new shots and version will be converted into the Avid format, copied onto the Avid raid and then, we just need to load the Avid project and everything is up to date. This way we avoid many problems and human errors on any updated version.
Which tools are used for rendering, and why were they selected?
We use V-Ray 3.0 because we think it is one of the best rendering engines out there. Also there is a big pool of artists who use it and publish fantastic images and clips. We also develop tools, which are not existing on the market, but for rendering with 3ds Max, V-Ray works up to our quality check so we can concentrate on other important tasks.
This is LUXX Studios’ first animated feature. What is it like to produce an entire animated feature as opposed to creating visual effects for a project at another studio? Are there major differences, and how did the studio prepare for them?
There are a lot of differences. We are responsible for the budget, we are responsible for the creative output, the visuals, designs, everything. On any service for animation or visual effects movie, we first have to find out what the vision of the client and then try to find the best way to enhance it and deliver the images they would like to see for their movie. We are creative partners on that process and can make suggestions which often add to the result, but the decisions, if it is congruent with the overall scheme, lies on the client side. For our own film, we have to decide for each sequence or shot if it is with budget and time, congruent to design and content, shows correct timing and best camera angle. So we have more degrees of freedom of expression combined with many more responsibilities and tasks.
We have to split our time between filmmaking aspects and creative decisions as directors and producers while on the other hand we lead a production team as visual effects supervisors, art directors and managers. We learn a lot about the perspective of our clients and embrace booth fields of production and services. We are sure it will help us to better understand and improve our work and communication with producers and directors in the future for VFX and animation services. We will continue to provide visual effects and animation as a creative service company parallel to our in-house development, design and production of own intellectual properties in the future.
What were the biggest technological challenges LUXX Studios faced on the project?
The biggest challenges are the buildup of the new animated feature pipeline. Before this movie, the maximum amount of shots we did for a project was around 400 shots for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, but now we have to deal with 1,400 shots. It is not just about the shots, but also the tasks for this shots, the data and management, the amount of jobs on the farm. As a solution, we executed a complete rewrite of our in-house pipeline and data management tools and extended them for 64bit usage. Now we can handle a lot more data without crashing our software. We collected all ideas for best data management, shot communication, asset building and retrieval, sending out task for creative and follow up team work and organized the work flow better. We added storyboard capabilities, sequences structures and much more. We also developed a lot of 3ds Max and NUKE tools to fit it together and try to extend on missing features for our animation pipeline.
What are the next steps with this property? When and where will it release? Are there any plans for international distribution?
The release is scheduled for second half of 2016. A first teaser will be released soon. Our world sales agency SOLA MEDIA are successfully preselling since Cannes 2014, many territorial distributors have bought Manou already, some territories are still available. Next market will be at Toronto followed by AFM. We co-produce Manou with French Canada and France as an original English movie with two main American cast [members], so the international distribution was our main focus from the beginning and works quite well.