Basically the main challenge that studios must face today is to optimize the quality/productivity equation. For season 2 of The Mysterious Cities of Gold series, Blue Spirit Productions developed specific tools for harvesting and referencing object libraries as well as a system for managing media and in-house production tracking. Cube Creative, for its second season of Kaeloo chose to rethink its production organization and the fully automated rendering/compositing phase. Digital Graphics, which handled the watercolor rendering of Ernest & Celestine, developed SoftAnim, a software package to automate coloring work.
CEO, Project Manager, Art Director
Serge Umé founded Digital Graphics in 1994 with his brother. Together they have worked on more than 60 productions including Mr Nobody, Les Émotifs anonymes, The Secret of Kells, Ernest & Celestine and Death of a Shadow (Oscar 2013 nominated). Currently he is working on Loulou, the Incredible Secret produced by Prima Linea and The Song of the Sea, directed by Tomm Moore.
Blue Spirit Productions
Producer at Blue Spirit Productions, Armelle Glorennec started off as Line Producer at JPL Films working on animated films, before joining the Blue Spirit group in 2005. She is currently overseeing the production process through Blue Spirit’s integrated production studios located in Angoulême and Brussels.
Blue Spirit Productions
In 1990, Éric Jacquot founded the post-production and animation services providers TEVA and Toon Factory. After running them till 2004, he created Blue Spirit Productions. As Chairman and majority shareholder there he develops its activities of production and animation services.
Head of Productions
Pierrot Jacquet joined Cube Creative Productions in 2002 to work on advertising management, special formats and the Kaeloo series. He now oversees most of their productions.
Alexandre Bretheau joined Cube Creative in 2007. He first worked as a set up and animation supervisor before going on to be general supervisor on most of the studio's productions.
Co-Head of Editorial Content (conferences 2013), Consultant
René Broca is a freelance consultant who has been looking after the editorial concept of the Annecy professional conferences since 2005. He is also Co-Head of editorial content for the Forum Blanc.
As a freelance consultant he works particularly in the fields of animation and digital pictures, dividing these activities between preparing and coordinating conferences and professional events and writing studies about the sector. He is also Managing Director of the French Network of Animation Schools (Reca).
development, optimization, production tracking, TUBE, SoftAnim, Simone, Photomaton, Blue Spirit, Cube Creative, Digital Graphics, series, feature film.
As René Broca indicates, the aim of this conference is to focalize on ways to be competitive. It's true that in France and Europe it's hard to combat against Asian labor costs, on the one hand, and North American budgets, on the other. "Therefore the issue of productivity is a crucial one," something which is examined every year – under different avatars – at the Annecy conferences. René Broca adds that this definitely takes on a particular tone of importance this year, due to dual threats levied by Brussels: that of encompassing culture in the US/EU free trade treaty; and that of "de-territorializing" national subsidies, a point which would empty them of their substance and directly threaten jobs.
The Mysterious Cities of Gold is a mythical 1980s French series. The Blue Spirit studio – located in Paris, Angoulême and Brussels – was chosen to produce season 2 (26 x 23'). "The first issue we had to face was the necessity to ensure smooth graphic continuity of the series," Armelle Glorennec recalls. "For that, beginning in 2009, we began by testing the flexibility of the adaptation set-up. We explored pathways that were CGI-intense, with plenty of textures, before deciding to come back to the original slant, in 2D" – a decision that was carefully thought out, since the studio is more specialized in CGI productions. Finally the option was taken to do 2D-rendered CGI animation so as to preserve the spirit of the series without having to totally disrupt the tried-and-true production pipeline.
Éric Jacquot adds: "We also did testing on Flash but this did not turn out to be competitive either. The finality is thus a mix of 2D backgrounds and 3D (CGI) animation – the former were not made in France for reasons of cost. The production split was between France (for 80%) and Belgium; only the black and white layout and the color were outsourced to Asia." The production budget varies between 7 and 7.4 M€, for a maximum team of 100 people for 28 months of production.
In season 2, we follow the adventures of the three heroes through several regions in Asia, "and this therefore meant that a number of different backgrounds had to be designed," Armelle Glorennec explains. "We tried to rationalize the series with areas that were shared over 3 to 4 episodes before identifying 500 places in 9 different regions."
Pursuing the vein of rationalization, Blue Spirit worked with a system of character templates: there are 13 in all for a total 313 characters. "The idea was to begin with graphic research: the team made black and white stencils which were then line-tested or contoured. We integrate CGI far upstream and use it for the backgrounds (even if they are later done in 2D on Photoshop). This rough modeling is subsequently used for the black and white cleanup phase and has also proven to be handy for the decorators." Yet another element in optimizing: the coloring phase was switched downstream, after the CGI layout step.
For the characters, 13 templates (of which over half are clones) were first designed with the aim of rolling them out later on and saving on production time. "Generally it takes 2 weeks to model a character and to get it to work in line testing," Éric Jacquot explains. "Here, for example for the Esteban character and his dozen versions, it took us only 3 days – so the cost-savings are immediate. Another example, Mendoza – the children's protector – required 50 days of modeling, mainly due to problems of animating his cape. But his different versions were made over ½ day to 9 days, depending on whether or not fabric had to be created. Overall, we attempted to stay within a 3-day limit for creating our template roll-outs."
Blue Spirit also developed in-house tools for streamlining work flow. Photomaton is thus used for photographing some 700 objects of the series, from every angle, before storing them – after director's OK – in the management system nicknamed Simone (an allusion to Andrew Niccol's feature film). "Simone was set up about 4 years ago," Éric Jacquot says, "and continues to progress over the course of our work. It offers an in-house tool for tracking production while managing the various media and also more financial items such as payroll."
CGI layout is done with Max for Storyboard, combined with ToonBoom. Max for Storyboard is a software brick developed in-house which ensures a shot's conformity and scale when it moves onto storyboarding. In concrete terms, "we do a CGI pre-layout to position the various elements of a scene before a 3D shoot. The 2D layout is then appended to the first one and when the conformity is OK'd, the CGI objects are integrated into the 2D scene."
For the animation phase, Blue Spirit also developed an interface which has a panel on the left of the work screen with "large body areas – head, arms, legs, trunk – as well as a second panel especially for facial expressions, with a special slot for lip-sync only. Any modification can be done in symmetrical or independent manner, depending on needs."
A module called USAGA was also designed in-house for the rendering/compositing work, to "do different types of rendering separately."
With so many innovations, were you able to optimize production flow?
This was the good news of the production: our animators were able to get 8 to 9 seconds out per day. But we lagged behind on some other indicators. In a way you could say that this production was optimized "live". We learned so much, and season 3 should help us grow even more competitive.
Did the idea of CGI pre-modeling of backgrounds get buy-in from all of the storyboarders?
Some caught on perfectly and integrated it into their work; others did not. No matter what, this step was not carried out on all of the backgrounds.
Cube Creative is a Paris-based studio that makes and produces commercials, 3D stereoscopic movies and TV series. Kaeloo is its first televised series.
"As such, the world of series was something new to us," admits Pierrot Jacquet in his introduction. "We produced season 1 of Kaeloo with Blue Spirit Productions and we wanted to 'internalize' season 2 for a number of reasons, the first of which was to begin setting up a structured production pipeline, with the idea of launching the studio on the feature-film front." Conversely, ending the Blue Spirit partnership meant losing regional funding (Poitou-Charentes region) as well as no longer being able to access the assets created for season 1: "with the modified pipeline, it became hard to re-use them."
To offset this economic and technical shortfall, the studio began to pinpoint areas where cost leverage was possible: production management, on the one hand, and the rendering/compositing phase, on the other hand, through a strategy of simplification and automation.
The studio set up TUBE, an automatic data saving and management tool which takes the form of a web interface designed with MySQL. TUBE is plugged onto studio production tools: 3dsMax, Maya, Nuke, Vegas, TBDL and Photoshop.
As Alexandre Bretheau explains, "TUBE is based on the logics that each asset has tasks configured upstream via users-rights management. For each of the 1,700 assets of season 2, the system enables per-episode tracking as well as per-user tracking so as to understand what users' work schedules are like."
Connections to software like 3dsMax are done through an asset manager imbedded in the interface which links it to the TUBE system.
Likewise, all of the shots are created within the system itself and, similar to the assets, are tracked step by step.
"In our production flow approach, it's the sound which leads to the image," Pierrot Jacquet reminds us. "We begin by recording the final voices separately and beforehand. This process is hugely beneficial in terms of acting, on two fronts: voice-wise, this imparts a total freedom of expression; production-wise, this freedom from constraint makes it possible to 'stick' perfectly to actors' performances. In this way the animatics matches within a frame's breadth, and thereby we were able to get a compliant edit for 50 of the 52 episodes of the series. This is what you could call useful animation."
Another savings: the storyboarders are also editors, "so we only need to clean-up what's needed," Alexandre Bretheau specifies. "The posing is clearly defined in the storyboarding step and then all the animators have to do then is to animate." And finally, such well-framed animatics facilitate rapid green-lighting by the TV stations.
The edit is done using Sony Vegas Pro 2.5 and Vegas Shot Breakdown which enables recovery of all the elements of an edit, updated as the production rolls on.
Cube's teams created a generic set-up for each of the series' characters through 3 types of visualization: complete, puppet and facial only. In addition to this, there's a final set-up, "where the greatest number of elements are deactivated so that the animation can be pushed further." Once this has been completed, the remaining task is to clean up the animation scene before sending it into rendering. "The clean-up is done automatically," Alexandre Bretheau explains, "so this helps speed up the approval process." Once approved, the scene goes directly into rendering/compositing. In short, one episode containing hundreds of shots could be processed in a week's time.
"What we were really able to obtain was complete buy-in by our graphic artists," Pierrot Jacquet concludes. "Our aim is to produce feature films and for this we had to ramp up our image quality. Hence we wanted to free ourselves as much as possible from the technical side of things."
Time-wise, how much animation was produced?
We reached 7 seconds of animation per animator per day, with a team of 6 animators and one lead animator.
Why develop an in-house tool when others are already on the market?
We had to meet very specific needs, which was not possible with available tools. Besides, the pipeline changed during production. So we had a person on hand in charge of development who could process our questions/suggestions the very same day. Last of all, we studied the costs of this type of solution; within a range of 50 to 100 US$/user/day, in-house development turned out to be less expensive.
Digital Graphics was founded near Liege in 1994 by Marc and Serge Umé, one a trained aerospace engineer and the other an architect. Since then, the company has worked on over 65 films, providing digital special effects' services to the movie industry (since 1998) and doing postproduction for 2D, CGI and stop motion animation. The company also develops software such as SoftAnim, a series of tools for 2D animation and colorization, and – more widely – tools designed for specific needs, usually under Linux. Among Digital Graphics' recent joint projects: Loulou, the Incredible Secret (Prima Linea Productions), The Song of the Sea (Cartoon Saloon), The Day of the Crows (Finalement) as well as Ernest & Celestine (Les Armateurs).
"We spent nearly a year developing the software used for the watercolor rendering of Ernest & Celestine by multiplying different types of simulations under Shake," Serge Umé explains. "The idea was to determine, as precisely as possible, what a pigment was, or a blur effect, or how to create paint seepage/spread, etc." As an added difficulty, the contour line around the characters is not systematically a closed line, to comply with the strictures of the original work by writer Gabrielle Vincent.
The directors – Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier – used Flash software like a drawing table, at a special studio set up within Les Armateurs' premises. As for Digital Graphics, it implemented a nomenclature of the various elements to be integrated into the rendering phase so as to use automated controls when coloring needed to be done. Then, using SoftAnim, the company began its work: "the idea is that it's the contour line which pulls in or pushes out textures along to a pre-set distance, a little like automatic warping," Serge Umé explains. "In a way therefore, it could be said that the watercolor follows the stroke lines." Of course it was also possible to add spill lines and other pigments if need was felt. Overall, the software allowed up to 50 different parameters per color to be managed.
The co-founder of Digital Graphics goes on to explain that with regard to the movements of the watercolor itself: "all of the edges of the colored arrays are automatic, but the insides are animated by hand, with a few animation keys."
At Les Armateurs the studio's teams split into two groups: one team doing the line animation and the other doing the color animation. "We downloaded the Flash files, then separated each of the colors, and sometimes ended up with scenes that contained up to 100,000 layers!"
Once integrated into the software which automatically managed the files, "we obtained different layers: line, color with textures, non-textured colors, shading, etc."
Serge Umé admits that it ended up being "one of the most complex productions to manage but also one of the easiest since we were so motivated by the challenge. At all times we had to be extremely precise, because modifying a single parameter on a single color could often lead to 90' additional rendering time." To optimize this phase, Digital Graphics relied on the parallel-processing CUDA architecture perfected by NVIDIA, allowing a tenfold increase of system computing performances by mining the power of the GPUs. "The computations, relatively simple, were totally boosted by this since we moved from 90' to almost real time." Continuing with the intent of streamlining the process, the 50 color parameters were redesigned to yield a series of 5 to 6, "not by simplifying them but by linking them together to make it easier." At the peak of production, 15 shots/day were rendered. Serge Umé nonetheless concludes by mentioning a constraint tied to the system: "We could not split up the sequences, so that meant that once processing had begun, we had to wait until it was finished to carry out any modifications, if such were the case." The water effects were then added semi-randomly whereas the paper texture remained set once and for all during the entire production.
Did you have to do lots of retakes?
There were 60% of retakes on this production. This may seem enormous, but we had highly-reactive directors and this helped us in the approval phase.
Has SoftAnim been used on other productions?
SoftAnim is bitmap software, with PNG export, and it's been used successfully on Loulou, the Incredible Secret and The Song of the Sea.
Drafted by Stéphane Malagnac, Prop'Ose, France
Translated by Sheila Adrian
The Annecy 2013 Conferences Summaries are produced with the support of:
under the editorial direction of René Broca and Christian Jacquemart