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FJORG! 2008: Iron Animators 2

The popular FJORG! animation competition returned to SIGGRAPH 2008 last week in Los Angeles, and Eric Post was on hand once again with an in-depth report.

The winners of this year's FJORG! is Team Grojf: (l-r) Jacob Patrick, John Nguyen and Kevin Rucker. All images courtesy of SIGGRAPH.

FJORG! 2008, the second annual Iron Animator challenge, kicked off with the theme of "The Saddest Story Ever Told." Chief Viking Princess Patricia Beckmann-Wells (FJORG! Chair) made the announcement with enthusiasm and a grin. Beware the grin.

The rules this year were the same as last year. Animations are limited to a minimum of 15 seconds and maximum of 45 seconds and must include at least one voice file that was pre-loaded. Standard studio production is three to five seconds of animation a week. Sixteen teams of three animators spent 32 hours complete with sleep deprivation, artist block, distractions, and personality while they worked to create the winning animation.

Before diving into the second annual Iron Animator, here's an update from last year's launch of FJORG! Team Mocap, the winning team with their Railroad Tracks version of last year's theme, "A Fate Worse than Death," has met with success. Jacob Gardner was hired by DreamWorks. Jim Levasseur returned to his school and finished and is working on his demo reel. Tom Jech started an internship with Pixar. When asked how the experience was, now that a year has gone by, Gardner said it was "tough all the way."

This year, meanwhile, the team selection evolved slightly, in keeping with the overall Evolve theme. There were three times as many submissions this year. It is the first year that individuals were allowed to apply without a team association and last Sunday night, at dinner, just hours before FJORG! Two began, team Fjantastic Fjorgers met for the first time. Sean Coleman from the Art Center in Tucson,

Arizona, along with Valerie Morrison and Brad Bradbury met the challenge. They heard all the stories of FJORG! '07, including all of the distractions that are part of the competition. Coleman mentioned that "the belly dancers are unfair to the guys."

Blake Penido from last year's team Trible-Beat, found the ad-hoc team to be interesting. His take is that when you have two or three on a team, all with the same idea as is typical of pre-arranged teams, then you can locked in sometimes. "There are more options with fresh new ideas when you don't know what each other is like. This can work to the advantage."

FJORG! The Equipment and Software

Hewlet-Packard and Wacom provided more than 50 machines pre-loaded with sound effects, visuals and software. Each team had access to Maya, 3ds Max, Adobe CS3 Suite, Flash, SOFTIMAGE| XSI, ToonBoon, Audicity and NewTech LightWave.

The public area was equipped with 16 monitors, one for each team, and a switch box. This way interested industry professionals and any curious member of the press or public could switch to a particular workstation and a particular animator and watch the progress and workflow that was taking place.

Mentors from various industry studios were present for one-on-one sessions. Several members of the 2007 FJORG! teams were present for advice and mentoring. Scheduled lectures from DreamWorks, Walt Disney, Sony Pictures, PBS, and Rhythm & Hues were provided in the form of classes which were both distractions and lifesavers.

Most of the teams chose to model in Maya. The exceptions were Crappy and Happy, DarkNauts who used 3ds Max. The Fjantastic Fjorgers, like the uniqueness of the team, took a very unique approach to modeling. Valerie Morrison, who preferred 3ds Max, used the Softimage application to model. However, it didn't work out so well, so she switched to Maya. She thought the ad hoc team advantage was good and she would do that again. "You get stuck in a rut if you all know how each other thinks."

Chris Schloemp of Team Studio said the software was fine. There were some problems but it wasn't the software, it was their own difficulty.

FJORG! The Event

Bob Berger, Ph.D., started his routine of cognitive testing prior to the start time with his usual word completion and number grid exercises. This was a baseline used to compare the cognitive abilities of the team members at the end of the 32 hour event. Interestingly, at the end of the challenge when he retested, he found that this year's participants had higher cognitive scores than last year's teams. There was at most a 10% loss of cognitive ability after the sleep deprivation which is pretty incredible. This is a substantial change from last year when Dr. Berger announced that the sleep deprivation resulted in test cores similar to those with a .10 alcohol content.

At the 9:00 a.m. start time, each team began brainstorming and developing their story line. The room temperature was comfortable, maybe a tad warm. Each work station was on a six foot folding table with adequate elbow room. Props were handed out including FJORG! helmets and plastic ball and chain toys along with toy swords.

Each team immediately began brainstorming and by the fourth hour, most of the teams were well along with the storyboarding. Team CBK was named after the initials of the first names of the members. Christopher Torres, Benjamin Rosales and Krys Wada planned on six hours for storyline and it took eight. CBK used post-it notes for setting up the story. Wada said, "I was surprised at how long that took."

The Mexecutioners tied for second place.

Neil Bonsteel from Team Rocketpants said, "Our pipelining process was generally flawless. We're good friends, naturally, and we're keen on coherent communication so we managed to avoid any of the usual problems. No fights broke out, either! Our team came in pretty well prepared with the software we needed to use. The general rule is that if there was a program we weren't skilled at, we wouldn't bother using it. It wasn't practical to spend our 32 hours learning new software. Stick to your guns, you know? Because I knew the software, I used Adobe Premiere to create an animatic, even though we had animatic-specific software. Modeling, rigging and the animatic finished around the same time, allowing us to start the animation procedure."

Coleman from The Fjantastic Fjorgers said there was just a light panic during the event. Early on it was too soon to know you were in trouble with time. One of the challenges of the ad hoc was to figure out who was good at what. They thought they had this worked out by email and when they started all that went out the window. Morrison turned out to be the fastest animator. Coleman was the strongest with Maya and Bradbury was great with the storyline. Brad would play devil's advocate, he would take the ideas and say,"Yeah, but if we do the exact opposite..." And this got the team thinking again. They spent 10 hours on storyline and were happy with it when they went to animating.

Coleman shared more of his team's experience with VFXWorld.

"We agreed to use the free character rig 'Moom' because his design fit our story and we began to roughly lay out each shot. At this point we wanted shot composition to be evident so we set up our cameras and backgrounds. We took quick looks at everyone's and made necessary changes until we all approved. From here we finally went into actual animation. We blocked out all of the scenes and composited them again to get an idea of where we were at. We adjusted length of shot, and timing of actions to maintain the rhythm we were looking for in the overall film. Pace would be crucial to our film because it relied so heavily on the montage to be funny.

"Once rough blocking was approved we moved into the first pass of animation. At this point it was about one in the morning or so. We began to alternate naps. Since the other two teammates were less versed in Maya, whenever a prop or model was required, Sean would create it and it could be referenced in by anyone, again maintaining a speedy workflow.

"After [the] first pass was approved by all the teammates we continued onto second pass (which essentially was our polish stage, thanks to the time restraint). After a scene was finished, it would be handed off to Sean who would set it up for render (make sure the hi-res geometry was turned on, the render globals were set correctly, etc). After a last minute scene change by Brad, thanks to the advice of a mentor, and compositing in After Effects, we turned in our final film with 26 minutes to spare!"

By 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday, two teams had already turned in their work. Crappy and Happy even displayed a "Sorry, We're Done" message on the desktop.

Rucker from GROJF! said, "The biggest challenge was how much can we get done in 32 hours. They mentioned to have animation done early enough for render time. It never occurred to me we'd have time for rendering, I just figured we would just playblast everything. Luckily our teammate, John Nguyen, knew that stuff pretty well. Combine that with really fast computers and we had a rendered film."

Pastore from Studio Team said FJORG! was a real roller coaster ride. For those of you who want to try this, consider making a custom demo reel for the competition.

After the samba dancers finished, and with less than an hour to go, there was spontaneous dancing around the workstations. Most of the teams were in final render and just letting the machines work. Team Monsieur Goldswarthy with Alessandra Cejlia, Jon Gutman and Andy Lyon was the last to turn in their work with the entire floor counting down to zero. Yes, the animation was turned in with one second to spare. Of course, they had a prior version ready to go and wanted to use the extra time for a better render.

FJORG! The Distractions

Most of the distractions were the same as last year. The mimes and the samba dancers were at the top of the list. There were talks and classes on the software by industry leaders from Walt Disney and DreamWorks and Rhythm & Hues and Sony Pictures. The talks are educational and helpful and also something that some of the team members simply have to ignore and focus on the animation.

DarkNauts went against the Maya tide and chose to model in 3ds Max.

The list of speakers was very impressive this year. Walt Disney Animation Studio sent Ruben Aquino (supervising animator), Mark Empey (CG supervisor), Kevin Gollaher (story artist), T. Dan Hofstedt (animator), Wilbert Plijnaar, (story artist), Doug Rogers (production designer) and Doeri Welch (production manager).

Raman Hui, co-director of Shrek the Third, from PDI/DreamWorks along with Matt Logue, animation supervisor at Rhythm & Hues, Mark Marenghi, animation supervisor at Sony Pictures and Tom Sito, director, PBS, also contributed to the talks and support.

Pastore said they had the best seats in the house. It came with a price though. The workstations were right in front of the public area where reporters and industry scouts and public viewing could easily interrupt the work process by asking questions, though the team said that the public distractions were quite minimal except for one. Every hour or so the volunteers would hand out Viking helmets to the public if they would shout FJORG! and get a response from the floor. JJ said that was a little disconcerting.

Some of the distractions were self-made. Mark DeRidder from Studio Team was squeezing a stress ball and it exploded sending white powder all over Chris Schoemp's keyboard. Jovial response. When Chris was asked by VFXWorld what he planned to do when this was over... "Shower -- twice!"

A few moments later members of Team GROJF! made a bit of a commotion pointing at their monitor and yelling "NO." Not to be alarmed, they were acting out arm movements.

Some of the distractions were impromptu. A group of volunteers wearing plastic Viking helmets roamed the SIGGRAPH show and found the New Tech Demo Rome Reborn and discovered a volunteer student dressed in Roman attire. Well, since the Vikings and the Romans had their differences, it was only natural to do what roaming Vikings did, raid the exhibit! Take a prisoner! The group brought the Roman to the FJORG! floor and had a ceremonial execution with warnings that there would be more raiding in the morning.

Morrison from The Fjantastic Fjorgers said, "The easiest thing was staying awake." Just like a student that is up late hours and working hard, this was routine. She took a two-hour sleep. Her biggest distraction was the martial arts. Also the guest speakers. The speakers were all good and had good information and she knew that was good for the team but it was also a distraction.

Beckmann-Wells stayed on site through the night and slept in a tent. "I remember the beat of the techno music going at night." Last year Patricia mentioned that her least favorite part of the competition was the lack of sleep. Bonsteel from Team Rocketpants said, "Lack of sleep and huge workloads often come with periods of wild antics. You won't see it on the documentary, but the sleep mattresses were once stacked maybe 15 feet high. My teammate, Brianne, and I saw to it that it fell in a beautifully destructive manner as we attempted to scale it. (It was our Mount Everest.) Then we took the fallen mattresses and barricaded Patricia's tent several layers thick. I slept maybe eight minutes for the entire competition."

Team Mocap, last year's winner, said they rotated sleep and each member took two hours. This seemed to be a common choice among most of the teams this year.

The advice to this year's challengers -- don't listen to the messages between the techno segments.

FJORG! The Judges and Winners

Beckmann-Wells introduced each team's animation and played them for the audience at the final awards ceremony. When VFXWorld asked what was different this year, she simply said, "They all knew what was coming."

Emmett Hamilton of the Art College in Tucson volunteered to help keep the equipment going. This is his last year at the school and he wants to be a FJORG! participant next year. Emmett introduced the judges:

  • Julien Bocabelle, who created Oktapadi with a student team from Goblins, "won most every major festival in the world";

  • Bill Kroyer, senior animator at Rhythm & Hues, is an award-winning director of animation and CG commercials and a 1988 Academy Award winner for his short animation Technological Threat;

  • Maggie Malone is Walt Disney's director of creative development;

  • Dan Sarto is AWN's very own co-founder and co-publisher;

  • Simon Smith is a director with DreamWorks who recently completed work on the movie Bee Movie;

  • And the sixth judge is none other than Team Mocap, last year's FJORG! winner with 1/3 vote each going to Gardner, Jech and Levasseur.

Professsional lectures, samba and mimes were among the distractions as the 32 hours wore on.

One thing that was readily apparent when the animations were shown was that almost every team tried to come up with a twist at the end. Remember, beware the grin when the theme announcement was made. Whether it was irony or funny, each team had a punch line, save one. Not surprisingly, the judges did mention that many of the endings needed to be connected better.

Sarto said the critical part of an animation was the context. This was not a festival for entertainment value; it was an assessment of strong elements of effort.

With many of the animations, there was one thing that just didn't hit home or click. So the idea was not to judge by what didn't work, but by what did. The story and setup are the most important aspects to the film, according to Sarto. Think it through. You can't go past 45 seconds so simplify the metaphor. If it takes more scenes to explain something, then the story line is too complex and the team has written a story line for a longer animation.

First honorable went to Mouthful of Cookies for Pretty People -- The Bar Scene. It was a late night at the bar with two lonely (and quite homely looking) people at last call realizing that if they were going hook up, it would take a lot more alcohol to make it happen. They drank, and when they tried to hook up for the night, they threw up. So sad. Bocabeille said, "The animation is really great. Not as sad as we could have expected but very nice and very clean and to the point. Good screenplay action."

Second honorable mention was Awesome Guy by Trikings. A newfound superhero had difficulty finding himself in life. Jeff Gill and Will White competed last year as team The Village People. Superhero was a 2D animation, as was the submission last year, and several commented during the making of the animation that this was a good 2D. Not just for the 32 hours, but something to be proud of entirely.

There was no third place. The judges were tied so there were two second place winners. Sarto explained that the judges had 2½ hours and were simply divided on the second and third place. "Discussion would ensue on each animation and someone would comment and say, 'Yeah, but what about this?' And then the vote would change. It was a tough call."

The two second place winners were The Fjantastic Fjorgers and Mexicutioners.

Smith commented on the Mexicutions' Pinata animation saying "The combination of candy and guts was very strange and unique. Beautifully put together." He felt that the pinata theme worked well for Southern California.

Bocabeille commented on The Fjantastic Fjorgers. This animation was about a young man, unable to get a date who tries to commit suicide. Every attempt failed and at the end, he meets a girl. Just then, Bang! Struck by lightning! The closing credits would have been fine here but there was one short segment after the ending text. The girl began the sequence of attempting suicide the same way that the young man had in the beginning of the film. Bocabeille said that it was a very nice ending and there was something more than just the scripted ones.

Kroyer announced this year's winner: GROJF! (FJORG! spelled backwards) won with their Red Truck animation. "This is the film that had no laughs; it was really sad. You were waiting for the punch line and it didn't come. These filmmakers went with an idea that had some poignancy and it was a very simple idea. We loved the graphic design of it." One thing that was quite evident is that the Red Truck was more than just the winner. It was the only short that didn't have a clever ending. The story was the voice of a boy who wanted "the red one" and the animation of dad saying he spent his last dollar, and rather angrily. The setting was in a washroom and mostly subdued colors except for the red truck that dad obviously did buy after all. In the end, dad put the red truck on the boy's coffin at his funeral. "Jesus it was really sad," was the repeated comment from several judges. The judges were all visibly moved by this animation and reported that they were crying when they finished watching it.

VFXWorld asked Keven Rucker of GROJF!: How did you come up with your storyline?

"The first thing I wrote down when I hear the theme, 'the saddest story ever told,' was death and orphan. When our team huddled together, John had this idea of a father going to his own son's funeral. So we were on the same track to some kind of death storyline.

"After getting the basic idea down, we listened to all the sounds (we had to use at least one provided audio clip) and found something that fit. Then we just started from the beginning describing the story. One of us had a sketchbook and started drawing some rough storyboards. It wasn't anything official, just quick drawings to get the idea of character placement and camera angle. John had the sets built pretty quickly, so we were able to get a camera in the scenes to start layout and fine tune the cinematic feel of the film.

It looks like FJORG! will be an annual event during SIGGRAPH.

"At one time we had a line in there that was leaning more towards a laugh, but we knew if we took it out and kept it completely on the serious side, we had something different. We also had two other ideas that had pathos, but felt the 'The Red Truck' idea was stronger. When you can empathize with a character, that's when the audience will get hooked in the story, and that's what we tried to achieve. Any laughs and it would have lessened the father's regret and sadness."

A few disasters occurred. One animation included a scene where grandpa was trying to entertain his grandson and at one point pulled a coin out of the boy's pants. The judges spend some time discussing where the coin might have really come from and Sarto simply said, "It was a little bit creepy." Another comment from the panel was that a gay proposal was a bit risky. Several of the judges felt that the endings were not as connected as they should have been. One animation with oxygen bottles probably left more questions than answers as to why the actor didn't have enough money and how the good oxygen bottle ended up coming out of the machine. Perhaps some of the stories were indeed written for longer animations and the jumps from one scene to another were too much of a stretch.

The Future of FJORG!

Beckmann-Wells said after last year's FJORG! that she hoped people would write in to SIGGRAPH and let the planning committee know that they want FJORG! to be an annual event. It looks like she got her wish.

Last year's Blake Penito from Trible-Beat was honored by Beckmann-Wells as the one outstanding individual who helped inspire teamwork and started the tradition of the FJORG! dinner. Penito was the guy who really had a team personality and encouraged others and inspired others to do the same.

Sarto said this is a unique event. "I am surprised at the number of industry professionals involved. Especially since Disney set the Gold Standard for innovation for half a century. Energizing to see this."

Becky Wible Searles, from the Art College in Tucson and now the Dean of the Art College in New Mexico, returned this year for her second effort as floor runner said, "Congrats to all and may you FJORG! well in the future."

Where do they go from here? Well, the participants and winners are sure to have been noticed by industry scouts. No sad endings here. See you at FJORG! in New Orleans in 2009!

Eric Post is an attorney, journalist, computer graphic artist, helicopter pilot/mechanic and former pastor. Although he is a traditional artist, he enjoys modeling and landscape scenes in CG and uses various applications for medical illustrations at his office. From 2004-2006, Post was senior technical editor for the Renderosity magazine and e-zine. From 2006-2007, Post served as a staff writer for the Renderosity Front Page News, and edited various Renderosity publications.