ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 3.10 - January 1999
A New Land for
by Annick Teninge
Unveiling the plaque for the "FAC Pierre Ayma" school on the island. Photo by and © Annick Teninge.
The third "Crossroads of the Image of the Indian Ocean" took place from November 29 to December 2, 1998 on the Island of Réunion, a French overseas province located to the east of Madagascar. It was organized by the Indian Ocean Institute of the Image, a facility devoted to animation, graphics, and multimedia education. This event is usually held every other year, but was specially convened this year in homage to Pierre Ayma, the event's co-founder who recently passed away. Pierre Ayma also participated in founding Réunion of Pipangai, an animation studio on the island. [Please read Animation World Magazine's homage to Pierre Ayma.]
Over fifty international filmmakers, producers, distributors, teachers and representatives of institutions and organizations gathered to focus on the theme: "Transportation of images and sound in real-time for use in remote industry and education." Discussions also concerned the financing of production to a considerable extent, as the stakes are important for French and European industry. In a world where it is difficult to sell an idea and start a production, anything that can facilitate costs is interesting. The importance of this was underlined by the presence of Bertrand Mosca, Director of Children's Programming at France 3 television, the leading financier of animation programs in France (47%). Funding is essential for the Island of Réunion as well, since they are faced with a very high unemployment rate (40%) and the natural difficulties of their geographic isolation. As strong as the local government's (Regional Council) intentions are to spearhead the introduction of new technologies, they are nonetheless conscious that they should devote themselves to obtaining financial incentives, so that it can be competitive in the marketplace against such contenders as Asia.
Landscape of Réunion Island. Photo by and © Annick Teninge.
The French Market, A Favorable Environment
France is the third largest producer of animation worldwide, after the U.S. and Japan, with an annual business budget of about US $230,000,000. The average cost of a 26-episode half-hour series is US $8 million, with 50% French financing. A report from Christian Davin, President of SPFA (Federation of Animation Film Producers of France), was not cut and dried for the animation industry. The consistent demand from television stations and for export, even if it represents more of a cultural success than a financial one, are positive elements, as is the duration of series exploitation (20 to 30 years is a durable inheritance). Production itself has greatly developed with the introduction of thematic television channels. Demand for production grew, but due to the fragmentation of funding, putting productions together has become more difficult. France maintains its level thanks to quotas, but in the face of a very competitive market, should produce less and cheaper programming.
In the beginning of animation production, Davin continued, all phases of production were done by one company, the producer, in France. Companies didn't have any animation libraries, and there was a very large demand for programming. Then the market became saturated, and with the restriction of budgets, producers turned to new companies to provide pre-production and post-production (compositing, colorization, etc.) services. 1993 marked the introduction of new technologies with, at that time, a very inflated cost -- from $60,000 to $100,000 per work-station. Luckily, prices have gone down quite a bit. Since Asian countries are so competent in animation, having a long history in the field, mastering new production technologies and even entering into co-productions, it seems that today there is a strong interest in developing highly specialized, technical jobs, in Réunion.
Some Proper Financial Mechanisms
Within Europe, France has the distinction of benefitting from the financial support of the CNC [The National Cinematographic Center]. The second section of the statutes of support of the CNC, reserved for the audio-visual arts, was established in 1984 with the creation of a tax on television in the amount of 5.5% of the business income of all broadcasters (regular, cable and satellite), which went to help cinema and audiovisual productions. A special support fund in the form of a selective system of aid to producers of audio-visual works was created in 1986. Thanks to these support funds, a French production can benefit from financing by the CNC for 20% to 30% of the costs of a production made in France. A further bonus applies if the entire production is made in France. (This system has recently been attacked by the European Commission, because it is contrary to the Treaty of Rome which created the European Economic Union; a new decree is now being applied for, which would reduce the bonus to 80%).
At the Pipangai Studio, an artist works on painting Geleuil et Lebon, a PMMP TV series.
Photo by and © Annick Teninge.
Two other factors plague French production. One is there are too many co-productions being done where necessary choices are made during production to reduce costs that are detrimental to the artistic quality. Another weakness in France rests in the virtual absence of distributors that contribute to production financing. With only a few exceptions [Europe Image, Hachette], distributors assume none of the risk. As a result, some European companies have chosen vertical integration. Animation producer, Neurones, for example, placed production units in different countries in order to accumulate greater financing means, and created a distribution arm. This positioning as co-producer/distributor has permitted the business to thrive. If there is a drop in production (producer), the rentability of rights (distributor) continues.
Pipangai: A Response to Delocalization
This animation studio, initiated during a round-table discussion at the Island of Réunion in 1993, has benefited from professional support and political policy to boost French production. Today this animation studio employs 200 people, including 70 involved in CGI. It is equipped with 100 computers, including 80 Silicon Graphics machines. The capacity for production is 10 episodes a month; production today, however, remains at about 8 episodes a month. For a series of 26 half-hour episodes, each episode is invoiced at $30,000 to $50,000, depending on the number of characters, the difficulty of the animation, the number of backgrounds, etc. Among the recent series produced here are Inspector Mouse and Pim I and II for PMMP; Princess Sissi (scanning and painting only) for Saban/Touten Kartoon, and Manara for Rooster Studio.
The total number of programs digitally painted at Réunion represents 15% of the global volume of French animation. To keep the Pipangai staff working steadily, the volume of production needs to be enlarged. This could be done by the passing of one or two laws that would reduce the amount of taxation for French companies exporting their work to Réunion. Also developing training and new technologies on the island would promote more rewarding jobs and salaries that would keep employees at Pipangai.
A Viable Product?
The island of Réunion benefits from a certain amount of aid for industrial development, including a total exemption from employers fees (additional taxes employers must pay per employee) for jobs of little value (colorization); aid for investment, with tax exemptions for investments in buildings and equipment; and an exemption from professional tax in the case of setting up a business in an urban zone. Nonetheless, in spite of these measures, production on Réunion is still more expensive than Korea. Could laws concerning the exportation of goods be adapted to include the production of animated cartoons? The current system of SOFICA (financial placement with fiscal incentives) functions relatively well. Renumeration already exists in fiscal terms, so the financial risk (return on investment) is very little. Perhaps the cinema sector should receive expanded aid for exportation, which already exists for other sectors of the economy (maritime). Another option would be to extend the existing Pons law, which allows for tax exemptions for overseas businesses, to include Réunion. It remains to be seen what the criteria for extending the Pons law will be. The ball is in the politicians' hands...
An outdoor lunch at the Arts School. Participants include (foreground, from left to right): Jean-Marc Moisi, CNC; Philippe Mounier, PMMP; Claude Schiffmann, CNC. Photo by and © Annick Teninge.
Technological Stakes For Long-Distance Work
The technology to transfer files over long distances exists through the Internet, but cannot yet be used to transfer final images in a cost-effective fashion. As the technology matures, it will permit one to work in real-time with remote locations after compositing. France Telecom, the fourth largest telecommunications provider in the world, has offered for the last several years the product Numeris, which permits high output transmissions, direct connection from one point to another and access to the Internet. The cost remains high, perhaps because this market still isn't sufficiently important. A pilot project that unites technology providers with production companies through an inter-enterprise network at high output was recently set up in Paris, with a transmission capacity between 2 and 10 megabytes. It offers higher performance than Numeris (which offers access channels at 64 Kbit), but it doesn't allow one to send a high-definition image with good quality. That's "the reality of the market" today.
During a seminar, Softimage France and Fantome demonstrated the management possibilities of a long-distance production of an animated series in 2D or 3D, with technical support from France Telecom, Pixel Systems, and the Institute of the Image. Two connections were established simultaneously between Réunion and Studio France Telecom in Paris, a distance of over 6,000 miles. A visual-conference connection permitted both studios to see and speak directly with each other while an ISDN connection transferred data. Participants in this Forum could be present at:
a presentation of the possibilities of 2D/3D integration between the programs Toonz and Softimage 3D. This presentation, executed by a Softimage demonstrator on a PC in Paris, was projected in real-time in an Institute of the Image auditorium.
a simulation of a working session between a director located in Paris and the production studio in Réunion, on a sequence involving the 3D synthesis of images for an extract from the series The Girafes, co-produced by Fantome. Sharing of databases, transfer of files, checking the animation and the texturing were all done interactively in real-time.
2D Production -- Two Different Approaches
PMMP produces 52 half-hour shows each year (2 series of 26 episodes) for a cost of $7,600,000 per series. The animation is done in Asia (Korea, China, Japan). The colorization, compositing and painting of backgrounds is done 100% in Pipangai. PMMP has been working with Pipangai since 1995. For PMMP, Pipangai is clearly more expensive than Asia, but working with Pipangai offers a greater control of quality. Furthermore, there are no problems with language, nor, with Réunion's three hour time difference to Paris, with adjusting to an opposite time-of-day schedule.
PMMP uses a physical transfer of files. The designs for backgrounds, characters and props are sent from Paris to Réunion on ZIP discs (or via the Internet when it is very urgent). The retakes are sent directly on digital Beta cassette. For PMMP, on-line transmission of the finished work is still not a reality. For the transport of data the best combination of quality and price remains the Boeing 747!
Neurones is a co-producer and therefore, provides 10-30% of the budget on their shows. Neurones now has the capacity for producing 4 series a year, and produced or co-produced more than 100 half-hour shows in 1998. Neurones studios particularly collaborated on the production of Franklin (26 thirteen-minute episodes) with NELVANA, and Air Academy (26 half-hours) with Antefilms, M6 and Cinar. For all of its productions, Neurones takes charge of producing the animation in its Korean studio in Seoul. Following the production, the layouts, colorization, compositing and backgrounds are given to Neurones' European studios (France, Luxembourg and Belgium). The cost of production begins at $150,000 per episode from layout to the final rushes on PAL digital Beta.
The Neurones group has developed its own software programs for transferring pencil tests between Seoul and its other production studios via the Internet. Neurones uses special lines designated only for this use, and makes sure the transmissions are 100% secure. However, Neurones never uses this type of transmission for the completed color artwork from Seoul to Europe, since the costs would be too expensive. For retakes, the director verifies the test either on VHS or on-line. Instructions for retakes are also sent via the Internet. Some hours later Seoul sends the corrections ready to be colored. Like PMMP, real-time transmission does not appear to be indispensable for Neurones, because the current technology is satisfactory with only a short delay. When Seoul sends some drawings at the end of their working day, they arrive at the beginning of the work day in Europe, so there is no loss of time. A real-time transmission would require a night team in Europe. Perhaps it will be useful for 3D animation production that is shared between several studios who are working in the same time zone.
A Real Improvement?
The transfer of files in real-time is undeniably a technological advancement; it should be able to facilitate the dialogue between technicians and artists, and improve the everyday control of production. Surprisingly, while everyone agrees that this technology is useful, no one really seems to think it is vital for their current productions. The reasons are both structural and financial. Because production is taking place in multiple locations, producers already have to face increases in supervision staff. Advanced technology implies additional structural changes which have to be accommodated. On the other hand, the impact of transferring materials in real-time is difficult to measure in terms of production costs. Currently, the financial advantages of the new technology of real-time transfer is unknown, unlike tax exemptions, other government incentives and alternative means of financing.
The other issue grappled with in the course of the conference was that of on-line education, with a tentative evaluation of the existing tools, and the presentation of various experiments that have already been conducted.
Personalized on-line education (as opposed to group education) seems to be promising. It offers a wide array of possibilities, flexible interaction, and a mutualization of knowledge for the participants. In this spirit, two on-line training courses were developed by the School of Image-Gobelin Center (Paris): a studio for Photography with self-instruction in the digital treatment of images, and a studio for Multimedia production with on-line instruction in the language Lingo Director. The tutoring program goes through three phases: an intensive introductory phase, a period of individual work, and a final period that involves the making of a CD-ROM portfolio. This type of educational program allows a student to work with the accompaniment of an expert, have access to equipment, and create a tangible portfolio proving their newly acquired skills.
One important factor is this method of education being validated by the professionals. It is essential to work in synergy with the industry so that teachers know, for example, the latest versions of software in use. Companies like Softimage have expressed their willingness to work in partnership with schools. SupinfoCom (Valenciennes) is already working on specialized learning (coloring) with production companies (L'Usine à Images).
L'AFDAS is about to sign an agreement with regional organizations to acknowledge the channels for working one's way up on the Island of Réunion. The CNC aid to various stages of education continues, whether in business or directly to the educational bodies, to a degree commensurate with satisfying the needs of the profession (in essence, learning to use computers for making animated films). If the means of education as defined would include on-line instruction, the CNC would equally support that kind of tutoring. Mediadesk France, which devotes around 15% of its 300 million Euro to education, supports 10 programs for teaching new technologies. On-line tutoring could be included in these programs.
Experiments with putting training on a network have proven to be, in practical terms, relatively complicated, which limits the educational opportunities to very precise areas. Technology will certainly overcome that in the near future. Meanwhile, some original experiments have seen the light of day. A project for cooperative work over the Internet was signed at the time of the seminar. This is a collaboration between the College of Fine Arts in Réunion and the College of Architecture in Marseille, France, which has a unique post-graduate course including both architecture and fine art students, working on multimedia products (CD-ROM, web sites or interactive terminals).
The central theme of this collaborative project between Réunion and Marseilles will be "The Port City," since both cities are located on harbors. The multimedia project will highlight different aspects of the cities' foundations, construction, evolution and future. Port City (Réunion) and Marseille (France) are both confronted today with the necessity of urban transformation, which must, however, not negate its past. It is this parallel aspect of the two towns that will unite the students from Marseille and Réunion, while they use new Internet and multimedia technologies to let them see and tell the passionate history of their respective cities.
For all information about this project, you can consult the following site: http://www.gamsau.archi.fr/DPea/
Translated from French by Dr. William Moritz.
Annick Teninge is the General Manager of Animation World Network.
Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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