Tangent Labs co-founder Jeff Bell shares how their platform integrates asset management, production and task management, review and collaboration, sketching, draw overs, and note taking to enable transparent, accessible, and innovative animation and VFX creativity.
During a career as a CG and VFX supervisor as well as an executive at both IDT Entertainment and Starz Animation, Jeff Bell has been around the animation development block, contributing to films such as Everybody’s Hero, Hoodwinked 2 and Tim Burton’s 9. So, it was no surprise that after spending almost two decades working in animation, Bell, along with Ken Zorniak and Phillis Laing, founded Tangent Studios in 2015, an animation studio based in Toronto and Winnipeg, Canada that specializes in animation production, and building asset and production management pipeline software for animation and visual effects.
“Our goal was to realize a dream and vision we had formed throughout our careers: changing the paradigm of production while working on exciting, animated shows, with the best talent and creative technology in the world,” says Bell, who also created Tangent Animation that same year, and Tangent Labs in 2017 to provide technology efficiencies for Tangent Animation. “Everything we produce at Tangent, including our technology, is geared towards putting the focus back on the creative to put more on screen,” he adds. “We created Tangent Labs with a mission of creating technology for artists, by artists.”
With their team, comprised of artists, technical directors, producers, and supervisors with years of experience in the creative industry, Tangent aimed to develop a creatively transparent, accessible, collaborative, and innovative production process. Tangent was part of the production on Arcadia Motion Pictures’ Ozzy and Baozou’s NextGen, and it was while working on the 2018 animated feature - that was purchased by Netflix just prior to completion - that Bell and his team developed the core of LoUPE, a complete cloud-based all-in-one production pipeline tool for animation, VFX, and gaming projects.
“One trend I observed early-on, and one that continued to become more prominent, was the role of technology in creative production,” Bell explains. “Over the years, advancements in computer infrastructure have done wonders to accelerate the production process, but it became obvious that software technology for managing those productions had not been living up to the same potential. Artists or studios would rely on several disparate software tools to access, create, view, and manage digital elements. In most cases, these tools would not speak to, or integrate well, with each other.”
Previously, studios might have used a commercial production management application to manage tasks, spreadsheet applications to manage timelines and data, and commercial review tools to view shot progress. But Tangent’s LoUPE ties together all aspects of animated content creation in one simplified interface.
“Those other applications might be good at one task or another, but the artist ends up having to use multiple applications in order to ascertain the status of a current shot or element,” says Bell. “In doing so, the artist is forced to focus more on technology and less on the creative output, with the result being that the art suffers. I witnessed this time and time again, so we decided to design a better system. That is where LoUPE was born, designed with the user experience at the forefront, with enough flexibility and functionality to understand real time project status at a glance.”
The 2016 animated feature Ozzy, Bell says, served as a proving ground for the commercial use of Blender on an animated feature. The production of 2017’s NextGen brought development on the asset manager that would eventually become the backbone of LoUPE, and the catalyst for Tangent Labs. The newest company, Tangent Interactive, Tangent’s game division, is also currently using LoUPE while developing an interactive 3D storytelling app.
LoUPE V1.0, which is commercially available today, includes integrated asset management, production and task management, review and collaboration with drag and drop playlist creation, sketching, draw overs and note taking with no software downloads required, plus render management that, through partnerships with AWS and AWS Thinkbox, enables artists and studios to render utilizing on-premises infrastructure as well as in the cloud in a seamless fashion.
“A studio can choose the local/cloud ratio and deployment based on their requirements, which enables a painless transition to the cloud,” Bell notes.
LoUPE also features real-time reporting and analytics with heat maps, dashboards, and metrics enabled from a live OData connection, as well as virtual workstations, enabling teams to collaborate remotely around the world, minimizing on-prem hardware requirements.
“The result is better organization, real-time data and analytics on project progress, and more efficient production overall,” says Bell. “The major benefit of LoUPE is having one place, one application to collaboratively create, manage, view, review and oversee all project data.”
LoUPE currently supports Blender and Autodesk Maya; the company is working on integrations for SideFX Houdini, Unreal Engine and various 2D animation applications. With the de facto industry standard being Maya, Tangent’s integration with Blender served as a bit of a surprise.
“We expected our use of Blender for feature film production to be a shock to the community but were determined to set Tangent Animation on a course that broke new ground,” says Bell, who was part of the team that first brought Alias / Wavefront’s Maya to market. “After watching Blender’s progress over the years, Tangent created a three-minute internal short in 2015 entirely in Blender, to assess its production-readiness. While we were pleased by how mature several modules had become, the areas requiring additional work were quickly identified and a plan was developed.”
Using funds that would otherwise have been earmarked for commercial digital content creation software licenses, Tangent instead entered into sponsorship of the Blender Foundation and also dedicated internal engineering resources to Blender development. Their work was subsequently submitted back to Blender to be made available to the entire community.
“This has resulted in others picking up this work and taking it even further, which is of benefit to all,” says Bell. “We’re very committed to contributing to building a tool that’s beneficial to the entire community.”
Bell further explains that while LoUPE was born from a vision to address the same challenges that he and his team have experienced in their own animation business, their experience is just one piece of the puzzle. “Tangent Labs is part of a global community of artists and businesses looking to tell amazing stories and our commitment to that community is to enable them to actually direct the direction of LoUPE,” he shares. “We are currently developing ‘The Feedback LoUPE’ to ensure that the community is informed, engaged, and empowered to assist in LoUPE’s future direction, and are actively soliciting input from both individual artists and production studios.”
Plus, through their REST API, the technical directors, software engineers, and those in other technical roles on an animation, VFX and gaming production have the same access to the back end of LoUPE that Tangent’s developers have, to create their own tools and plugins to extend the system functionality and easily integrate it into custom pipelines. Tangent is also working on LoUPE’s integration of Pixar’s USD file format, which will enable any USD capable package to communicate with LoUPE, and exchange data between disparate packages.
“LoUPE also boasts a fully customizable template system that enables artists and studios to completely customize the structure of both their data on disk, and the tasks and processes attached to those assets in order to aid production tracking,” Bell says. “This exposes the ‘magic’ that typically gets buried into custom pipeline code, simplifying the setup of projects, and exposing the underlying logic and structure for asset and task management.” We currently ship with pre-set templates for VFX and animation workflows and are working on templates for games, but the system is flexible enough that there is no reason you couldn’t manage your productions in design, commercial, VR, architecture, or other industry verticals.”
Tangent Labs has big plans for the future of LoUPE, including additional DCC integrations, expanding their use of triggers and tags for notes, as well as version reviews and comparisons, allowing teams to review old and new variations of their animations. LoUPE’s highly user-friendly user interface is all in the name of allowing creators to focus more on the quality of what’s being put on screen rather than straining over the process to get it there.
“LoUPE really is the realization of my dream for the industry,” Bell reveals. “I have had roles as a technologist, but I really am an artist at heart. I have spent my career trying to remove barriers to the creative process and have long envisioned a different paradigm for production. That paradigm, now enabled by LoUPE, embodies a production process that is creatively transparent, accessible, collaborative and innovative.”
Tangent is currently focusing on the next version of the application; their next major release is planned for Summer 2021.