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December 03
2017

ISSUE

Winter 2018

ANIMATION GAINING TECHNICAL FREEDOM TO EXPLORE NEW CREATIVE FRONTIERS

By TREVOR HOGG

Ever since Walt Disney incorporated sound into Steamboat Willie (1928) and utilized the multiplane camera to create a depth of field for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), creative aspirations driving technological innovations have been an integral part of animation industry. When the Academy Awards presented the first Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2001, it was in recognition of the medium maturing into a global cinematic art form with the ability to entertain and explore social concerns no matter the age of audience members. To find out what to expect in 2018, executives, producers and VFX supervisors at leading animation studios, along with filmmakers responsible for The Little Prince, The Breadwinner and Smurfs: The Lost Village, were asked about what they believe will be the creative and technical trends shaping the industry.

Aardman Animation teamed with Google Spotlight Stories to produce Special Delivery for mobile devices. (Courtesy of Google Spotlight Stories)

Heather Wright, Executive Producer and Head of Partner Content, Aardman Animation, United Kingdom

Look for growth in real-time animation engines for personalizing audience/customer interactions as chatbots or AR using characters to develop emotional connections. A return to craft with visible evidence of the artist in the work. Strong original work to create memorable cut-through in a noisy world. Less individual pieces at a higher quality that demand brave clients. Virtual reality will see the big players knuckle down and continue to invest to improve the experiences and reduce hardware costs to generate demand, reversing the push from manufacturers to a pull from audiences.

“Virtual reality will see the big players knuckle down and continue to invest to improve the experiences and reduce hardware costs to generate demand, reversing the push from manufacturers to a pull from audiences.”

—Heather Wright, Executive Producer & Head of Partner Content, Aardman Animation

Blue Sky Studios has some fun with Ferdinand in which a captured gentle bull tries to reunite with his family. (Image copyright © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.)

“VR/AR is being used and explored in the animation pipeline. There is a lot of excitement about the potential for intuitive and immersive production tools that could improve department workflows and flexibility.”

—Kirk Garfield, CG Supervisor, Blue Sky Studios

Kirk Garfield, CG Supervisor, Blue Sky Studios, Greenwich, Connecticut

We see an increasing trend from our creative directors for a more handcrafted approach with stylized animation, and pushed styling in our character designs. The desire for clean lines, specific shapes and characters that must perform a wide range of complex motion from all angles, makes for extremely challenging character design and execution. Also, the desire for specific styling greatly pushes the limits of how we incorporate simulation of garments and hair, which is physically based. It is more difficult, but the efforts are in pursuit of crafting a unique feel and look that serves to transport audiences ever more fully into our stories.

Another technical trend is striving for more real-time, or close-to-real-time interactivity for artists. As evidenced at SIGGRAPH, we are seeing a huge push in using the graphics card in all areas of our pipeline to achieve faster interactivity, and greater levels of artistic iteration which allow artists to be more creative and explore options not able to be achieved in traditional schedules. Usually these advances have other associated costs like hardware upgrades [network, workstation, gfx cards]. It will be interesting to see how a studio’s systems infrastructure will need to adapt to real-time rendering from 300+ artists across the pipeline.

There is a prevalent use of Global Illumination at other studios – we were first of course to use stochastic Monte Carlo raytracing, but while we have seen that push, we will also be seeing a move to explore looks that depart from physically-based rendering approaches, in an effort to create experiences that are very different than what audiences have grown accustomed to. Also, VR/AR is being used and explored in the animation pipeline. There is a lot of excitement about the potential for intuitive and immersive production tools that could improve department workflows and flexibility.

As the industry went fully digital [between the ‘90s and early 2000s] we no longer could hide issues behind film grain. When stereoscopic resurged [2003 to present] it became even harder to employ mono compositing techniques to paint problems away. The bar has been raised again with 4K and HDR. Not only do we all have to contend with increased render times and the required resources to do so, but it also reveals issues or visual anomalies we would have not have perceived before. We continue to look for ways to innovate how we mitigate problems before, during and after render. Advancements in Machine Learning and Deep Learning are becoming more exciting for solving problems like noise.

The story of Elephant King appears as cut-outs while present-day Kabul unfolds in traditional 2D computer animation in The Breadwinner produced by Cartoon Saloon, Aircraft Pictures and Melusine Productions. (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

Nora Twomey, Co-Founder, Cartoon Saloon, Ireland

Animation is such a broad term. We look at films that are classified as live-action but they’re animated films. The technology dates and you can easily spot what makes movie look like it comes from the era of 10 years ago. At the time, you couldn’t tell. It was state of the art and looked so real. What’s always interesting to me is making things accessible to artists so they don’t have to think too technically. The more restrictions that are taken away from animators, the more interesting work we are going to see. Exciting times ahead for sure.

“What’s always interesting to me is making things accessible to artists so they don’t have to think too technically. The more restrictions that are taken away from animators, the more interesting work we are going to see. Exciting times ahead for sure.”

—Nora Twomey, Co-Founder, Cartoon Saloon

The sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2 won six Annie Awards including Best Animated Feature for DreamWorks Animation. (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Creatively, I look forward to an evolution in the look of animated films. Films like The Jungle Book and Moana challenge traditional audience expectations for what animation should look like. This, coupled with more powerful tools challenges us as artists to further push our creative boundaries.”

—Dave Walvoord, VFX Supervisor, DreamWorks Animation

Dave Walvoord, VFX Supervisor, DreamWorks Animation, Los Angeles

DreamWorks will continue its push into highly scalable parallel computing for 2018. As we continue to work towards having the ability to efficiently leverage arbitrary numbers of cores for animation, simulation and rendering, it means that all of our images can increase in visual richness.

Historically, Feature Animation adopted a rigid department- based pipeline that leveraged economy of scale for data management. Likewise, our artists became highly specialized to fit into those rigid responsibilities. This limited our ability to solve creative challenges in innovative ways and to work outside the constraints of the pipeline. For How to Train Your Dragon 3 we have streamlined our tool set so that multiple departments are using the same tools and this has resulted in collaboration between departments becoming easier than it ever has been. Now we are asking ourselves where and how we would like to solve a problem independent of pipeline constraints. Creatively, I look forward to an evolution in the look of animated films. Films like The Jungle Book and Moana challenge traditional audience expectations for what animation should look like. This, coupled with more powerful tools, challenges us as artists to further push our creative boundaries.

LAIKA uses stop-motion, computer animation and origami in Kubo and the Two Strings. (Image copyright LAIKA/Focus Features)

Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor, LAIKA, Portland, Oregon

In an age of consumption, animation professionals will need to create higher-quality content faster than ever before and figure out where to stash all the zeroes and ones. Artificial intelligence will enable us to create better images more efficiently while remote, cloud-based services will eliminate the need for expensive pipelines and hardware infrastructure.

At LAIKA, because our performances and sets are captured in-camera, we use a live-action visual effects workflow. The only difference is scale and the fact that we capture performances one frame at a time over the course of days, weeks and sometimes even months. When you’re doing visual effects for live-action animation, it’s critical that all of the computer-generated elements in a shot feel photoreal.

“Imagine a world where a group of artists crowd-fund an idea for an animated feature film. They use the money to access cutting-edge software and hardware resources. They build assets, animate, light their scenes and send them off to a distant render farm that is quietly teaching itself how to make images more beautiful, more quickly.”

—Steve Emerson, VFX Supervisor, LAIKA

Photorealism is achieved by using rendering systems to simulate the real-world flow of light. The more light rays the better. However, simulating light rays is processor-intensive and there never seems to be enough rendering resources to move through a given week’s inventory. We have the option to render at lower quality and use fewer rays, but the resulting noise makes these elements unusable for the final film.

Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning are technical trends that will have an impact on this issue. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara, Disney and Pixar are creating software that trains a deep-learning model called a convolutional neural network. The system learns how to transform noisy images into renders that resemble those computed with more light rays. This technology will enable animation studios to create more high-quality content – faster and with fewer rendering resources.

Animation studios will also leverage online, cloud-based resources to meet increasing demands for content. ‘Studio-in-abox’ services like Foundry’s Elara will enable storytellers to access software, data storage and rendering resources on-demand from any web-connected device. Independent productions and even solo artists will have access to cutting-edge technology and limitless computing power without having to shoulder the burden of building a pipeline and purchasing expensive hardware infrastructure.

Imagine a world where a group of artists crowd-fund an idea for an animated feature film. They use the money to access cutting- edge software and hardware resources. They build assets, animate, light their scenes and send them off to a distant render farm that is quietly teaching itself how to make images more beautiful, more quickly.

Mark Osborne captures the essence of The Little Prince manuscript with stop-motion while the narration centers on a modern-day young girl in 2D computer animation. (Photo courtesy of Mark Osborne)

“It is my greatest hope that creative and technical boundaries will continue to get pushed by everyone from the top down, not just the artists. I am thrilled to see excitement and open minds at the highest levels right now when it comes to innovative and creative new ideas.”

—Mark Osborne, Filmmaker

Mark Osborne, Filmmaker, New York City

I really believe that in an effort to get away from the clutter, animated feature films will have to continue to find ways to innovate, both stylistically and in storytelling. A lot of CGI films have been looking so similar lately that it’s increasingly harder to get audiences excited about animation – aside from the wellknown brands. It is my greatest hope that creative and technical boundaries will continue to get pushed by everyone from the top down, not just the artists. I am thrilled to see the excitement and open minds at the highest levels right now when it comes to innovative and creative new ideas.

The mixed-media approach of The Little Prince was a huge challenge, and a perfect fit for what we were trying to do from a storytelling standpoint. Using stop motion animation and CGI to represent two entirely different points of view was a very scary and exciting challenge. Everyone involved stepped up to make it work, and audiences loved that the film was so different and visually unique. It was always the hope that by doing the film with those different animation techniques that it could push the boundaries and open minds and doors to all the amazing possibilities that animation offers storytellers.

Filmmaker Eva Cvijanovi´c utilizes stop-motion animation in Hedgehog’s Home. (Image courtesy of National Film Board of Canada)

Michael Fukushima, Executive Producer of English Program Animation Studio, National Film Board of Canada, Montreal

A notable creative trend I see is a continuing shift towards and love for stop-motion animation. The arrival of Wes Anderson’s new Isle of Dogs is a clear sign of this in the features world, but amongst short-form animation it’s even more pronounced. Curiously, it’s younger filmmakers who are fascinated by tactile animation and I see more and more of it on the festival circuit. Our own Hedgehog’s Home, by Eva Cvijanovic, has been racking up awards since it launched at Berlin in February, but it’s only one of several stop-mo shorts picking up festival awards everywhere.

Indie features, primarily hand-drawn digital 2D, are becoming a viable alternative – albeit with limited distribution – to the big studio blockbusters. The National Film Board (NFB) had some wonderful success this past year with Window Horses, which we co-produced with filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming and her production company. Meanwhile, Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon launched The Breadwinner, there’s a recent film from the creators of Ernest and Celestine, and U.S. distributor GKIDS has positioned three or four films for Oscar contention this year. It’s a good time to be thinking of feature animation in the low-budget, indie sphere.

“Indie features, primarily hand-drawn digital 2D, are becoming a viable alternative – albeit with limited distribution – to the big studio blockbusters. … It’s a good time to be thinking of feature animation in the low-budget, indie sphere.”

—Michael Fukushima, Executive Producer of English Program Animation Studio, National Film Board of Canada

Technically, the exploration of VR space is continuing apace in animation, with Google Spotlight Stories really taking the lead there. The NFB is doing its share in experimenting with the form with younger filmmakers like Paloma Dawkins [Museum of Symmetry] and Jeff Barnaby [West Wind], but Spotlight Stories is getting veterans into the field and testing their storytelling limits.

It’s all pretty exciting stuff that happily keeps me young at heart as a producer.

With Inside Out, Pixar Animation Studios combines cartoony as well as more grounded animation to reflect the inner turmoil of an uprooted 12-year-old girl. (Image copyright © 2015 Disney/Pixar)

“We’ll see an uptick in the development of new techniques that will make big impacts in efficiency for rendering, simulation and character animation. Rendering in particular produces a ton of data – imagine leveraging that to produce rendering algorithms that get faster every time you use them.”

—Steve May, Chief Technical Officer, Pixar Animation Studios

Steve May, Chief Technical Officer, Pixar Animation Studios, Emeryville, California

Machine learning is an overused buzzword right now, but through 2018 we will see more practical applications of machine learning for animation production. A lot of this will still be in the research phase, but I think we’ll see an uptick in the development of new techniques that will make big impacts in efficiency for rendering, simulation and character animation. Rendering in particular produces a ton of data – imagine leveraging that to produce rendering algorithms that get faster every time you use them.

We’ll see the use of more real-time rendering and game engines to produce content. This will force us to rethink the traditional assembly-line-style pipeline common in feature animation and move us towards a pipeline that is more collaborative and interactive for our artists.

Global illumination and path tracing is now ubiquitous in high-end animation production. By default, this can produce a visual style of animation that is photorealistic. I hope that we’ll see more artistic experimentation with global illumination to produce non-photorealistic looks and give directors and artists more creative options.

Rainmaker Entertainment relaunches the 24-year-old Reboot franchise with ReBoot: The Guardian Code. (Image courtesy of Rainmaker & Mainframe Studios)

Gregory Little, SVP Content, Rainmaker & Mainframe Studios, Los Angeles, California

My watch list is out of control. So is everyone else’s. To find fans, we need to go narrow and deep: understand what our specific audience wants and give them a pure visual dose from the first frame. It’s an exciting time because we don’t have to make a show for everyone. It’s better to be the first click for a smaller audience than a third click for bigger. Castlevania, the new show on Netflix by our sister company Frederator Studios, is a good example of this.

To push our visual creativity, we’ve worked to free ourselves from technical constraints, then build what we need if necessary to achieve a look. This started two years ago on ReBoot: The Guardian Code when we built an Unreal game engine pipeline to deliver the huge, AI-driven world of the show. It was torture at times but really paid off. The show looks amazing and we’re delivering it in 4K at a TV budget. This is a real advantage for us, so much so that we’re moving to Redshift for our conventional CG pipeline. We’ve also launched a 2D group, and have a new project that’s a hybrid with hand-drawn characters in a live-action world. It’s total chaos! But our artists love the room it gives them creatively and the work is more original and interesting.

“It’s an exciting time because we don’t have to make a show for everyone. It’s better to be the first click for a smaller audience than a third click for bigger.”

—Gregory Little, SVP Content, Rainmaker & Mainframe Studios

We want to keep fans once we’ve earned them, so we’re working really hard to build multi-platform engagement into shows when it makes sense. Here again, the game engine plays a big role. VR, AR, gaming, secondary content – it’s all much easier working in this platform, assuming you design it that way at the start.

Bottom line, we’re having more fun than we’ve ever had. Kids content can be a grind sometimes, but the world has opened up. Serialization makes storytelling much more interesting. Buyers are desperate for shows that stand out and willing to spend money to get them. Let’s hope it lasts!

Dracula overturns the lives of characters on a cruise ship in Hotel Transylvania 3. (Image copyright © 2017 Sony Pictures Entertainment)

“One of the most significant trends is VR. Filmmakers are interested in this new, appealing format and seeking ways to be involved. VR will help change the way we develop and deliver stories. Another trend is driven by alternate ways to distribute our work. New platforms allow us to reach different, targeted audiences and tell different kinds of stories.”

—Pam Marsden, Head of Production, Sony Pictures Animation

Pam Marsden, Head of Production, Sony Pictures, Animation, Culver City, California

There are significant and obvious innovations and smaller tweaks in existing technology that shape our business and our work/life balance. One of the most significant trends is VR. Filmmakers are interested in this new, appealing format and seeking ways to be involved. VR will help change the way we develop and deliver stories. Another trend is driven by alternate ways to distribute our work. New platforms allow us to reach different, targeted audiences and tell different kinds of stories.

Meanwhile, on a more personal level, cheap video conferencing and simple secure file-transfer technology allows filmmakers to work from home, which then means that we can work with an even more diverse group of artists. Our movies are now typically influenced by artists from all over the world. The nature of collaboration is evolving and becoming more international.

Stephan Franck, director of The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow, created Silver, a vampire graphic novel currently being developed as a movie. (Image copyright © 2017 Dark Planet Comics)

Stephan Franck, Filmmaker & Founder of Dark Planet Comics, Los Angeles, California

In my opinion, the game changer will continue to be the digital platforms distributing animated content, as they have broken down the rigid categories in which animated programs previously had to fit. Creatively, that may mean an increase in unique and atypical projects. Or it might just mean that animation will allow itself to tackle a broader choice of genres and subject matters and be unapologetic about it. I think the audience has been there for a while, we’re just now catching up.

“In my opinion, the game changer will continue to be the digital platforms distributing animated content, as they have broken down the rigid categories in which animated programs previously had to fit.”

—Stephan Franck, Filmmaker/Founder, Dark Planet Comics


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