Nowadays animation studios are "all increasingly having to deal with issues of asset management applied to production purposes. It's necessary to adapt to each new production, to fine-tune tracking tools and – a result of more and more complex projects – to manage and optimize an often-voluminous data base." (Marie-Pierre Journet). In addition to this situation, further complexity is emerging because of transmedia, creating a whole new state of affairs. While TV series like Family Guy have managed to sustainably progress over time, others have bet on sectorial convergence (animation, video gaming) to pool costs and skill sets, while yet others have opted for R&D imbedded in the creative process. Tools such as Toon Boom Harmony exist alongside various proprietary solutions.
Finance and Strategy Director, France
Nicolas Romain is Finance and Strategy Director of Forge Animation. He is interested in the relationship between man and machine, from production level to media usage patterns.
Founder, CEO, France
Founder, CEO, France
Chief Technology Officer, CEO, Canada
Toon Boom Animation Inc.
Francisco Del Cueto is responsible for vision, planning and development of all software used by the Toon Boom company.
An expert in animation production, he advises various studios how to optimize the production chain.
Fox TV Animation
Animation Supervising Producer, USA
Fox TV Animation
Prizewinner of an Annie and an Emmy Award, Peter works for television and theatrical animation. He is well-known for his role of supervising director of "Family Guy" (FOX) since it began in 1999.
Chaiman, Producer, Founder, France
In 2005, Guillaume Hellouin, along with four other partners, founded TeamTO: "a team of producers, innovators in 3D, sharing the same passion for animation cinema."
Senior Production Manager, France
Marie-Pierre Journet is Director of France Animation/MoonScoop.
She focuses mainly on the development of coherent pipelines to optimise procedures, tools, and human resources in accord with each production's own obligations (calendars, budgets, and artistic direction).
Toon Boom, TeamTO, Forge, Fox TV, Family Guy, real time, transmedia, R&D, asset management, production management, DAM
Without empty prolegomena, Marie-Pierre Journet, moderator and also production director at MoonScoop, plunged right into the heart of the topic by explaining that "from this point onward we are all increasingly having to deal with issues of asset management applied to production purposes. It's necessary to adapt to each new production, to fine-tune tracking tools and – a result of more and more complex projects – to manage and optimize an often-voluminous data base." In addition to this situation, further complexity is emerging because of transmedia, creating a whole new state of affairs.
First founded in 1994, the Toon Boom company now covers 122 countries, its animation software is taught in over 4,000 schools and training centers and in 2011 no fewer than 150,000 minutes of animation were produced with its tools.
After a quick run-through describing the Toon Boom line – covering software for roughs on through to animation software, including specific ones for storyboarding – Francisco Del Cueto, the CEO of Toon Boom Animation Inc, lauds Harmony, their production assets management software launched in 2004.
The production use of this type of tool can be summed up easily: on-the-dot knowledge of what's going on with a production at any given time, for all who need to know; utilization of a more effective production pipeline; and decrease of project-specific problems (retakes, versioning, multi-location productions, etc).
"What's crucial is to communicate among members of a team which is often spread out over several different sites, nationally or internationally", explained Francisco Del Cueto "Who needs to communicate? The members of the team, the directors, the line managers and their staff, the different production facilities and, last of all, the production entity and its customers, the producers." In answer to the query raised about why communication is needed, the following ensues: "Because it's necessary to know who's doing what, what is the state of each production phase, what is the state of the assets, how is each pipeline element working. Do they need more data or materials? Will each task be finished on time? Which portion requires adjustments or corrections?"
Many are the challenges, especially from the coproduction point of view: different countries, languages, cultures, communications styles and even differences in behavior. "Poor communication is a real problem but the paradox is that some teams use this as an excuse for their running late, for a poor design or for something else. To remedy all of that, three types of management tools are needed: one for production, which carries out task-tracking, another for managing assets and, last, one for handling the supply of the latter."
Toon Boom's CEO has much expertise in this field and has seen a number of management infrastructures implemented over the past few years: "Either the tool is custom-made, to fill a precise need and to match a given configuration; or else readymade tools are taken and tweaked by the studios themselves." No matter what the case, the configuration must necessarily be taken apart before it can be rebuilt according to stated needs. At times an outside consultant may be called in so as to configure and then adjust the tool as production is ongoing. And the last possibility – although not the best – is a tool designed upstream with no possibilities for adjustments. In that case, its rigidity is also its weakness.
Even if everyone agrees on the necessity and relevancy of DAM software (Digital Asset Management), on-job practices tend to show a totally different take. "First of all, you've got to know the strengths and limits of the tool, and not trust blindly in it. You must also remember that it's often the artistic people who can be the most adverse to change: at the slightest hitch, the least bottleneck, they may stop using it or else blame it for their running behind schedule… and then question its worth." So there's no perfect software!
For the head of Toon Boom, the best tool is one which "fits the studio's needs and expectations. Either it's flexible enough to be adapted or set aside for another to be used, or it's easy to use and, above all, optimizes work flow."
Guillaume Hellouin founded TeamTO in 2005 with two purposes in mind: to produce animated series and to produce them in France. The ensuing motto is simple: "Our main challenge is productivity. Since we're dedicated to producing our series in France, we obviously have to be very careful about keeping a handle on costs." After a brief and enlightening digression on a comparison of wage scales (social charges + gross) between France, Europe and Asia, Guillaume Hellouin pointed out that optimizing a pipeline is an issue transcending technical considerations: "It's an entire coherent system that – at one and the same time – links together individuals, teams, manufacturing processes and asset management in conjunction with the production. A good tool does not guarantee success but rather allows talent to be emulated and budgets… to be guaranteed."
The TeamTO CEO uses synergy between artists and developers as a foundation for dealing with the human aspects. "The right balance has to be found. On the one hand it's a question of hiring experienced individuals, as well as scouting young talents and placing them in contexts that bring them up to a recognized level of skills. On the other hand, there should be great synergy among artists, developers and production; the choice of R&D firmly ingrained in projects (including designing a job for a person in charge of data management); an alert and informed production team that plays a key role in coordination and linkage." In short, the studio is hoping to create pairings along the lines of: 'the artist expresses a need, the developer hears the request and, through exchanges, suggests a solution that in turn opens up more creative space for the artist.'
For these reasons TeamTO set up a pipeline that tried to take these needs into account, including conjoint research with TD (Technical Directors) and developers to get buy-in and empowerment by all, with a shared trunk that was tested and consolidated on various productions, and a plug-in-based architecture to allow for per-production specializations. Concretely the studio bases its item list compliance on its historical tool nicknamed LISA and Artforge (the DAM by HD3D) which includes an asset management and intuitive and ergonomic tallying tool, as well as a module managing file versions (management of the naming stipulations).
"The guiding light here is to safeguard and shape the artists' work without constraining it. Scripts enable a fine-tuned handling of file content conformity criteria in respect to different productions, departments and types of assets. In addition there's a safeguarded and reversible mechanism for making elements available across various departments. Content generation is as automatic as possible so as to ensure that an animator will only do animation or a graphics artist will only do shading, and enhance the time that each artist spends on artistic endeavors." And for those who might think that automating things means lesser quality, Guillaume Hellouin emphasized that "this represents better organization for freeing oneself from repetitive tasks. With our investment in R&D time, combined with our artists' work, we generate more pervasive quality through script-sourced quality." The head of TeamTO did admit that this type of implementation should be kept specifically for long projects.
In concluding, it appears that tool integration is part of the overall tool, and that the ergonomics is almost as important as the tool's functions. "Keep manufacturing processes in mind!"
In answer to a question on whether TeamTO uses cloud computing, Guillaume Hellouin replied that "the topic is not on our agenda at present."
In answer to a question on where to find the right R&D developers, the ATI Department of Université Paris 8 was mentioned.
In answer to a question by a representative from HoBSoft on the cost-savings drawn from this automation, Guillaume Hellouin gave a single figure: "We manage 70 to 90% of the shots with script, after the automatic animation." R&D staff members represent around 5% of the total permanent employee count.
Family Guy (in French Les Griffin) is a series produced by Fox TV Animation that started in 1999 and is still being aired in the US today, a total of 10 seasons times 20 episodes. Between the first episode and the last season, what must be done to help the graphic style evolve and to optimize the production chain while still maintaining the series as an integral whole?
Shannon Smith, producer at Fox TV Animation, gave a quick introduction on the series' manufacturing process: "We start with six weeks of storyboard done on Toon Boom Storyboard Pro, and then we alternate between edits and animatics or story reel for four weeks, using Final Cut Pro software. The animatics are then screened to the teams and the rewriting phase begins with an additional two weeks of work. To finish up, we gel the animatics."
Each episode has approximately 400 expo sheets. It takes two to three weeks to perfect the design, two more to apply color using Photoshop, and 14 for animation to be done in the Seoul studio (since 2007). The assets data base is anchored to FileMaker software so that transfers can be done between the two locations. "A first cut gives us a 21-minute version (excluding credits) before we do the sound reel, with the help of 40-90 musicians depending on the episode. After the final mix, the editors tie up any loose ends."
On a far different level compared to Europe, the Fox company declared that about 175 people work on each episode. This is heavy and complex artillery, and the requirement is to be able to maintain the spirit of the series.
Peter Shin, who's been working on the series since it started, and today is animation production supervisor, added: "The characters have not changed, but the tools have forced them to evolve, with the move from paper-based to computer-based work. Yet others have nonetheless changed due to the creative approach of the artists."
With the Wacom Cintiq now on the scene, new creative avenues have appeared since its cut-and-paste function creates re-use shortcuts, and re-sizing can be done to heighten dramatic effects.
One other transition, albeit less proactive, was the switchover from 4:3 to 16:9. "All of a sudden there were more surfaces to fill. Before, the characters were centered and the comic effects, for example, were positioned there automatically. The new format forced us to re-think the staging so as to improve the arrangements."
The Fox company therefore relocated part of its production in South Korea from 2007 on. This led to additional issues: "We had to undertake a real communications effort, building joint lexicons, shared reference terms, and two-party endorsed approval processes. We set up a whole array of document-tracking weapons, counting extensively on technology as a communications tool." In spite of this, Peter Shin admits that "nothing can replace face-to-face meetings. That's why we go to Seoul twice a year to readjust, redirect and, if need be, modify our production pipeline."
In answer to a question on the cost per episode, Shannon Smith ventured the amount of 2 million dollars. "Sometimes there may be bigger budgets, such as when we designed a Disney-like episode, or for full CG work which affects our expenditures."
"Long relegated to children's viewership alone, animation should now be returned to adult viewers, in the opinion of Forge Animation's teams", began Nicolas Romain "Our structure is seen as both a production studio and a film-making entity for the digital generation, with a transmedia ambition to federate a group of companies working on an R&D and contents program."
Right now the studio is developing three projects, the first of which is the CG-animated feature film, Windwalkers, Chronicle of the 34th Horde, directed by Jan Kounen (with Marc Caro as art director) based on Alain Damasio's book, La Horde du Contrevent. The studio has also scheduled another feature film, 2D this time, adapted from Abyme, a book by Mathieu Gaborit. The third project is still in its infancy.
Forge's reasoning is to move forward both in animation and in video gaming for the so-called digital generation, the 15 to 35 year-olds: "This is a trend that will definitely expand, since this generation will age and earn more and therefore consume more multi-screen content. This transmedia angle, by the way, must be planned very far upstream, when the writing phase begins, so that economies of scale can be made." For Nicolas Romain, Taylor-type production of contents is old hat: in future times, it will be necessary to envision joint workshops or an apprenticeship-like approach with a strong accent on multiple skill sets.
Here again, for cost-pooling purposes, Forge wants to accentuate the synchronicity of marketing launch campaigns with relevant contents, something which "led us to build a cluster, or rather a digital ecosystem for joint work within a production committee." Presently located in Aix-in-Provence, besides Forge Animation this cluster is composed of: the Caribara animation studio, Shibuya International (in charge of promoting French operations in Japan), the Japanese producer Digital Frontier, two companies from the video gaming world, Morphée Interactive and Artefacts Studio, and Primcode, the software publisher of the DAMAS asset management package. "This software is at the center of our discussions for implementing a transmedia DAM which would intermesh a data base, storage and filing capacity, a network and adapted interfaces."
Forge now hopes to lay out the cluster in a star pattern, with independent production units (UAP) of about a dozen people each. "This interdependence not only helps pool creative costs, which we hope will be about 25% of all costs, but also allows for a diversity of skills which will give added value."
Drafted by Stéphane Malagnac, Prop'Ose, France
Conferences organized by CITIA
under the editorial direction of René Broca and Christian Jacquemart
Translated by Sheila Adrian