Karl Cohen reviews Doing Their Bit, a well researched reference book about WWII cartoons.
Much is being said about the new primetime 3D-animated show Father of the Pride, co-created by DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and produced by DreamWorks in collaboration with the Hong Kong-based studio Imagi. Because the show imagines the off-stage antics of the white tigers in the famed animal act of Siegfried & Roy, some industry watchers have wondered whether Roy Horn's mauling by a tiger would halt or postpone production. Others have wondered if the show's edgy dialogue voiced by the likes of John Goodman and Carl Reiner would confuse viewers who think animal animation implies family-friendly fare. But one thing that isn't debatable is that Father of the Pride represents a breakthrough trans-Pacific collaboration for the Glendale, California-based DreamWorks Animation, which selected the three-year-old Imagi to generate the 13 inaugural episodes ordered by NBC. The network has slated Father of the Pride for the Tuesday, 9:00 pm slot vacated by the perennial hit Frasier, so the show will certainly be given a chance to shine.
VFXWorld spoke to two key DreamWorks execs, Richard Chuang and Joe Aguilar, who were instrumental in setting up the collaboration with Imagi and making it work. Chuang, who supervised this international production, was one of the founders of PDI, the DreamWorks company that produced the two Shrek blockbusters, while co-exec producer Aguilar previously won an Emmy for the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries Taken.
It was Chuang's responsibility to find the Asian studio that would handle the modeling, animation, lighting effects, compositing and rendering for Father of the Pride. He recalls, "I happened to be on the board of the Tokyo International Film Festival and in my travels I visited studios throughout Asia. This stirred up interest at DreamWorks, so I spent about six months visiting studios. Because of my years of experience, I had `open doors' from everybody, in terms of getting insight into how they worked. I came up with a model of what it would take to elevate these studios to the level that we needed. Having been on their end for 20 years (during PDI's independent days) I didn't want us at DreamWorks to be a bad client. I wanted us to be a studio to that brings value to the table."
From Imagi's perspective, it was a huge break. The studio had been founded with just 10 employees, and was originally a division of a company that manufactured artificial Christmas trees. But under the direction of founder Francis Kao, a graduate of Sacramento State University in California, Imagi began pursuing an ambitious strategy to make its name in animation. Their cartoon series Zentrix was shown in France and Japan and won film festival honors in Hong Kong as well. While Imagi had grown to about 120 employees when Chuang first visited, substantial growth was required. To accommodate DreamWorks' needs, they doubled their staff, including several twenty-something animators. Kao notes, "Most of our animators have been with the company for more than two years making the CG TV series Zentrix. New animators are usually hired fresh out of school and require six months of training until they're fully productive."
Aguilar notes that "Imagi was working on its own project but they were willing to put that aside and devote all of their staffing to our project. Some of the other studios that Richard talked to had existing projects that they wanted to continue working on as well as take on Father of the Pride. There were going to be competing interests, from our point of view, in terms of how much energy they were going to devote to just our project. Imagi was not fully ramped up in terms of employees to do our project they definitely had to ramp up further but yet they were willing to put their own project on the back burner and focus all of their energy on Father of the Pride."
Chuang adds, "They really wanted to be a partner. They were able to give us 140 people right away and that really helped us out tremendously. Because they had never done anybody else's project; I spent several months over there helping them put their production pipeline in place, and helping them find and train some of their production management. We trained them with both Maya and PDI processes. It was less about the tools and more about understanding our production `language.' I found in my travels that this is the biggest hurdle. Everybody uses similar tools, but they have a different way of looking at the process. When we talk about a `review' or a `test' we have to be speaking about the same thing."
Initially, notes Aguilar, "We brought about 12 people over artists as well as production management people." And it wasn't a brief visit, either. Chuang recalls, "I spent about three months over there initially but I haven't been there since February because things have been going well!"
DreamWorks typically keeps a team of three or four of their experts at Imagi. "We've had character setup people and some pipeline people as well," says Chuang. "Joe was very instrumental in finding the resources that we needed to elevate the quality of the work. We didn't just put a bunch of storyboards over there and say, 'Good Luck.' We have been willing to send top talent from DreamWorks to help out."
Key among those people has been supervising animator Raman Hui, whose credits include supervising the animation on Antz and both Shrek movies. The Hong Kong-born Hui relocated from California to oversee Imagi's work, and Aguilar admits, "Having Raman over there makes all the difference. He has worked very hard at teaching them what our needs are and getting them to understand us."
Chuang stresses that the real education has come in the area of production processes. "One thing that we have at PDI/DreamWorks is knowledge about production that is very meaningful. We understand what shortcuts to take, which helps Joe and his team tremendously."
While Father of the Pride is being created at Imagi using Alias' Maya (bolstered by plug-ins that DreamWorks developed for its upcoming feature Shark Tale), the key issues don't revolve around technology. In Chuang's view, "There's really not much technology. I can't go to Joe and say, `We're going to take 12 weeks to develop this new effect.' We don't have the time or the budget for new technology! We've had to use what's in front of us and make it work."
Most notable to Chuang is that Father of the Pride is being rendered in Maya, too. "That surprises most people. When our Maya rendering team saw it, they asked, `What renderer did you use?' I said, `We used yours.' They didn't quite believe it."
While Chuang is a vocal advocate of using Linux-based hardware in digital production, he says, "This show is mostly done on Windows boxes. We didn't want to mess what works for Imagi. Having respect for their process is very important."
The prime technologies that DreamWorks has relied on for Father of the Pride have been in networking and videoconferencing, which facilitate communication between Glendale's staff of 85 plus 13 writers, and the 240 Imagi people in Hong Kong. Of course, bridging 15 time zones can be tricky, and online communications have been key. As Chuang notes, "We use a lot of online review tools for this project. I've been trying to deal with this for many years at PDI, so I have a lot of experience or at least I've made all the mistakes already.
"We're actually connected to Imagi on the TS3 network 24/7. We have videoconferencing 24/7 and we have online training. If they run into problems, we can bring the best DreamWorks people online and provide assistance. The idea is to really support them with the full-scale abilities of DreamWorks to make this possible. Joe has access to the best people from across the company, because we don't need them full time we just need them to answer specific questions."
The networking approach used with Imagi isn't too different from what the company has used in past collaborations between Northern California-based PDI and DreamWorks in Southern California. Chuang adds, "I tested some of these ideas on our feature work, and we ended up adapting a lot of it for this project."
While the collaboration with Imagi started out with daily conferences, Chuang continues, "It's been going so smoothly that we've cut it down. Now we talk to them pretty much every other day. But we're so well synched-up electronically that we can see the work 24/7 and they can see our information 24/7, so it's really transparent."
Aguilar explains the creative give-and-take by describing how the Father of the Pride production team proceeds with an animation review. "Our writers go through their notes and then we have a session with Jeffrey Katzenberg where we play back, for his benefit, the sequences that have come from Imagi. He gives us notes, and while we're doing that, we're videotaping ourselves. As we're seeing the animation, if there are any performance issues, we actually act them out on camera. So we get really detailed about exactly the timing and/or the expressions or whatever we want to demonstrate to Imagi. Then we send it to them so they have it to watch as many times as they want. And if there are any questions, they will e-mail us and ask, `Can we meet tonight and discuss this note?' Then we'll show up with the whole production staff though typically not with Jeffrey and they'll ask us their questions in a realtime videoconference. Even art reviews are done in that fashion. We're able to bring up particular images and they're able to see it at the same time as we are on the video screen."
Aguilar recalls, "The one hiccup that we've had and it's not a bad hiccup was having to work hard at getting them to understand our creative process. They don't understand this because they've never had experience with the American method of getting notes and of how many notes there are! The level of detail is something that they struggle with. They don't understand why, when something is 80% OK, that we still want to push it to 100%. They think `It's close enough; we need to move on.' And we say, `No.'"
Cross-cultural issues may be at play here, acknowledges Aguilar. "In this show the humor is in the words. We're not very broad in our acting, so there are lots of very subtle eyebrow lifts or deadpan expressions. We've had to continually ask for less. The smiles were too big, the eyes widened too much." Aguilar's observation prompts Chuang to crack, "If I had to do this over again, I would have sent somebody over to teach a class in improv!"
Father of the Pride promises to offer 3D CGI that's at a higher level than what has been seen on television before. The reason, Aguilar thinks, "Is the realism. If you look at (UPN's) Game Over and (Nickelodeon's) Jimmy Neutron, the animation is very stylized and curvaceous, and not grounded in a sense of realism." For his part, Chuang believes, "We brought a level of richness and acting that's more akin to feature animation. There are subtleties in the facial expressions and the performance that's more in line with features."
Which is a long way from a project that Chuang recalls was originally envisioned as "more a direct-to-video project. But Jeffrey got NBC to buy into this, which caught us all a little off guard. He laid out the greatest challenge for all of us to come up with a way to deliver quality on this scale."
With 13 episodes in production, DreamWorks expects to hear from NBC in October as to whether they will produce 22 more episodes for next year. "That will basically be a show every two weeks," says Chuang "Twenty-two episodes in high-def in one year is equivalent to making six feature films. So we're moving at an incredible clip." Building a digital backlot will be crucial, he observes. "We need to reuse as much as we can, even though we have over 100 characters by now." (The guest voices for Father of the Pride already include Lisa Kudrow, Kelsey Grammar and Dave Foley not to mention an appearance by Eddie Murphy, when his Donkey character from Shrek goes to Las Vegas to make a commercial.)
Looking back on the two-and-a-half years that he's been involved in the project, Chuang concludes, "The real story behind this project has been the challenge of taking all the knowledge and experience we have and putting it to the best use. We can all remember the many years when people just talked about doing something like this, and now we have."
Ellen Wolff is a Southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the Website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.