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Animation Studios

These days, multidisciplinary teams are required to fulfill clients’ needs and to continue to astonish an increasingly savvy audience.

By Christine Bunish

Animation Studios

Animation and VFX are often inextricably linked these days; so many animation studios have become interdisciplinary creative shops where multiple skill sets come into play.

“You don’t do one without the other anymore,” says Ed Dye, director of design and VFX at Atlanta-based Artistic Image (AI). “You’re not just an animation studio, you’re enhancing the animation with VFX and completing the piece. It’s all a combined skill now – not separated by departments like it used to be.”

Artistic Image Defends the Dome

Ed Dye, director of design and VFX at Artistic Image.
Ed Dye, director of design and VFX at Artistic Image.

AI will be expanding its range of offerings by investing in Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve color correction suite. “It’s an important step,” says Dye. “We’ll be able to take color work to another level. With Resolve more companies are able to afford a DaVinci room, and you see more people doing great color.”

The start of the NFL season found AI (www.artisticimage.com) helping the Atlanta Falcons “Defend The Dome” with animation for the Georgia Dome’s big screen that amped up the excitement level among fans. The :60 player intro, from Team Retail First/Atlanta, merged live-action clips of the Atlanta Falcons and running footage of this season’s featured vehicle, the Ford Explorer, with bold animation of the team’s namesake raptor to create a monumental video displayed during home games.

“Giving the live footage a graphic look and balancing that with the 3D animation was the greatest challenge,” says Dye. The player intro opened with enormous 3D “Defend The Dome” lettering snapping on the screen in the red and black team colors. It cut to live action of the players emerging from the stadium’s tunnel through smoke effects to a cheering crowd. An animated stadium, radiating energy waves, called to a falcon in the woods, which left the forest to pursue a Ford Explorer on the interstate. The bird merged with the fast-moving vehicle, mapping its image on the Explorer as live-action clips of star players, sporting animated falcon wings, were freeze-framed against bold, graphic backgrounds. Finally, the Explorer entered the Georgia Dome and the falcon unmapped itself from the vehicle in time to catch a pass with its talons from Matt Ryan. “It’s time to rise up and Defend The Dome!”

Dye notes that the Georgia Dome’s super-wide big screen gave AI an unusual canvas on which to work. “It wasn’t 16:9 but three times as wide – an odd shape to design for. We had to play to that format as well as to traditional 16:9 monitors scattered throughout the arena. The animation had to work in both aspect ratios – we couldn’t create it twice.”

Daniel Wiggins modeled and animated the falcon and the Explorer using Autodesk Maya. Daniel Barnes modeled the stadium, textured the vehicle and rotoscoped the players; Jeff Ling lit and textured the animation. Andy Sapp and Owen Chikazawa handled the 2D animation and rotoscoping using Adobe After Effects.

“One of our biggest challenges was building a falcon that not only moved like a real bird, but also translated into a graphic illustration – and looked amazing in both applications,” says Dye. “We also had to figure out how the falcon would wrap on the car and come off the car. That animation needed to be quick, but still portray to the audience what was happening. Overall, our goal was translating a graphic look to video while still keeping it three-dimensional and balanced with the live footage.”

Still from ìDefend The Domeî spot.
Still from “Defend The Dome” spot.

Wiggins crafted a falcon with all the attributes of a real bird and rigged it so it moved its wings, turned its head and flexed its talons like a real bird. “He had to build a very photographically-rendered bird that also worked as a graphic element and matched the print campaign the agency had previously developed,” Dye explains.

Baco Bryles, a freelance editor in San Francisco, cut the player intro. AI’s Owen Chikazawa performed the color correction in After Effects. “The graphic novel-type illustrative footage had to match the live action: We didn’t want it to look separate,” says Dye. “Owen had to match the color palettes and use the same black and mid-tone highlights so it all cut well together.”
Matt Melburg at Riot Atlanta sweetened the audio for “Defend The Dome.”

In AIís ìDefend The Dome,î a falcon follows a Ford Explorer to the Georgia Dome.
In AI’s “Defend The Dome,” a falcon follows a Ford Explorer to the Georgia Dome.

Charlex Brings Notebook Doodles to Life
New York City’s Charlex (www.charlex.com) is fueled by a diverse talent pool of designers, animators and Flame artists who enable the company to follow “a multidisciplinary approach while keeping an eye on the creative process as well,” says Ryan Dunn, who describes his role at Charlex as a hybrid of commercial director and creative director. “It’s all about servicing the client while making sure from a creative director standpoint that you don’t get lost in the diversity – the jack-of-all-trades syndrome. You want the end result to be more than the client could ever have imagined.”

The venerable Charlex has revamped its 3D pipeline over the past year and transitioned to Chaos Group’s V-Ray for rendering. “It’s a big step forward in modernizing the pipeline and improving aesthetically what we’re able to produce in a very efficient way,” says Dunn of the software switch. Charlex also has transformed its stage into a “top-level studio” complete with a bluescreen, lighting grid, cameras and other toys.
Despite a roster of sophisticated tools and capabilities, the company turned to whimsical, hand-drawn animation for the :15 “Notebook,” one of its recent spots for the Subway restaurant chain via MMB Boston. Charlex has a strong rapport with the agency, which trusts Charlex to “connect the dots” in a highly collaborative spirit.

Charlexís ìNotebookî spot for Subway.
Charlex’s “Notebook” spot for Subway.

“For the back-to-school spot ‘Notebook,’ we knew they wanted to focus on the journey through a high-school student’s notebook, including the $25 Subway card and a free sandwich promotion,” says Dunn. “The nuance and details, the way we move through the book, was up to us. Our job almost felt like an artist’s commission – we really got to have fun.”

Ryan Dunn, creative director at Charlex and one of the animated shots produced for Subwayís ìNotebook.î
Ryan Dunn, creative director at Charlex.

The light-hearted nature of the spot was an ideal assignment for illustrator Masayoshi Nakamura’s idiosyncratic style and hand-drawn doodles; 2D animators Elena Wen and Lucas Borras brought a complementary aesthetic to the project. The trio drew on paper with colored pencils, Sharpie markers, and pen and ink. Nakamura created the main key frames, including characters of a skateboarding boy, a cheerleader, a kitten DJ and a retro-style rocketship, while Wen and Borass contributed food elements, such as a crying onion and a green pepper that hinges open like a lighter, and even a trumpet-playing octopus.

“We made a library of stand-alone doodles with about 20 percent more elements than you see in the spot,” says Dunn. In addition, digital cel animation done in Adobe Photoshop produced frame-by-frame animations of surfing submarine sandwiches (based on an idea of Dunn’s), traveling outline arrows and the typographic supers.

“We knew where to place the hero elements: the skateboarder traveling with the arrow, the Subway card, the tabletop footage,” Dunn recalls. “But we needed a bridge. We thought about a football player, but I came up with surfing subs” who ride an animated wave to the conclusion of the commercial. “The animators fleshed out the missing bits and made the spot rich,” Dunn points out. “It’s the kind of spot you want to watch over and over and still see things you missed.”

Dunn brought creative director Manny Bernardez on-board to execute the stop-motion shoot of the environment. By combining VFX trickery and elements of stop motion, Bernardez was able to seamlessly build the entire environment where the doodles lived. “There’s been a resurgence of that DIY-type of look the past couple of years,” says Dunn. “That expressive, more analog style of animation is what I like to do. I like the immediacy and sense of accomplishment that stop motion gives you.”

Next year, he looks for Charlex to “push the boundaries of what people have seen us do. We’re starting to see boards run the gamut, and we’re excited to bring different types of skill sets to a wider mix of media and techniques.”

one of the animated shots produced for Subwayís ìNotebook.î
One of the animated shots produced for Subway’s “Notebook.”

Mirada Takes IBM’s Watson to the Doctor
Last year, LA-based Mirada (www.mirada.com) launched as a studio to explore the possibilities of storytelling across all media, a place to visualize and collaborate as a creative partner on projects from concept through finished VFX and final delivery. The studio encompasses conceptual design, development, animation, VFX, compositing, editorial and finishing.

“We’re no longer just postproduction,” says VFX supervisor Jonah Hall. “We’re involved in prepro and production, too. We spend a lot of time working with the director and creative teams planning live action shoots, the story and design. We’re part of the whole process. ”

Mirada produced VFX for IBMís ìWatson, M.D.î spot.
Mirada produced VFX for IBM’s “Watson, M.D.” spot.

One of Mirada’s recent standout projects was the :30 IBM spot, “Watson, M.D.,” directed by Motion Theory’s Mathew Cullen for Ogilvy&Mather/NY. The visually complex commercial posits how IBM’s Jeopardy-winning supercomputer, Watson, could assist a physician in diagnosing patients. A young man, played by an actor, is engaged with a real doctor in a patient/doctor interview. The voiceover explains that as the body of medical knowledge doubles every five years, IBM is developing new solutions, based on Watson, to help physicians analyze a patient’s history, symptoms and the latest medical literature to make faster, more accurate diagnoses.

Mirada VFX Supervisor Jonah Hall.
Mirada VFX Supervisor Jonah Hall.

Mirada was involved from the spot’s pitch stage and helped develop and design the array of images moving, sorting and collating around the patient and doctor. Consultation with a physician produced a list of generic live-action elements to shoot based on doctors’ commonly asked questions about their patients’ recent activities, food consumption and travel. Cullen and DP Guillermo Navarro used a pair of RED EPIC digital cinema cameras and an ARRI ALEXA to capture the live action performance as well as plates of insects, livestock, plants and other elements on greenscreen.

In the commercial, multilayered moving imagery illustrates the amount of data the doctor needs to sift through to arrive at a diagnosis. Live-action stills – flora and fauna, actual medical visualizations of the young actor’s anatomy, photos of family members, and images of pathogens, viruses, allergens and bacteria – form ribbons and stacks of documents for the physician to mentally page through as he ultimately homes in on a graphic display of probable diagnoses at the end of the spot.

Mirada’s extensive tool kit includes Sidefx’s Houdini, which Hall dubs “a vital part of our visual effects toolkit. It allows you to do a lot of 3D animation, data visualization, programming and scripting, and compositing under one process instead of breaking them out separately.”

Instead of creating a simple particle system and attaching the array of images to it, Mirada used a procedural algorithm to sort through the data to display onscreen. “We used math to create a system to collate, organize, present and discard the information, and play with its shape,” says Hall.

“It started very randomly – you saw stuff everywhere in the spot. It was very important to Mathew Cullen that it be very clean and organized; you could see the immensity of the information, but it couldn’t be so cluttered that you didn’t see the organizational structure behind it.”

So Mirada came up with a hexagonal cage structure, “like a giant mathematical honeycomb,” that enabled the doctor to visually piece together information that leads to Lyme disease as a high-probability cause of the young man’s illness. The Mirada team used scripting language to describe the behavior of the imagery and tell Houdini how to run all the graphics; there was almost no keyframe animation in the spot. They tapped The Foundry’s Nuke and Autodesk Flame for compositing.

Mirada used a hexagonal cage structure to illustrate the doctor piecing together a diagnosis.
Mirada used a hexagonal cage structure to illustrate the doctor piecing together a diagnosis.

Mirada also had to be cautious in the spot’s storytelling. “We had an obligation not to imply that Watson is actually doing this,” Hall explains. “Watson is not in practical use yet for medical applications. This is an example of where IBM can take the technology in the future.”

Production took just four weeks and included the medical consultations, a three-day live-action shoot, editorial, developing the animation engine and final integration of VFX.

November 26, 2012