By IAN FAILES
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By IAN FAILES
At first, it might seem obvious that a visual effects studio could easily transition into an animation studio. Many of the tools and techniques used in production are the same, and the artist roles, such as riggers or lighters, can also be similar. Studios like Sony Pictures Imageworks, Animal Logic and Mac Guff have made the move into animated features, and several others have dabbled in the area, too.
But the path can be a challenging one. Not only does it require a re-thinking of ‘shot production,’ but there are also questions about working as a service provider or generating your own IP. And then there are technological, pipeline and talent issues to consider.
One studio that has also made the leap into animated features, in addition to visual effects offerings, is Cinesite. The studio has already delivered a number of projects and is now showcasing its latest animation wares with The Addams Family, directed by Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan, and released by MGM. To go behind the scenes of the journey, VFX Voice spoke to Cinesite key creatives and artists on The Addams Family.
Cinesite began on this road towards animated features after decades as a visual effects studio under parent company Kodak. The studio is now independent, with a presence in London, Montreal and Vancouver (via its merger with Image Engine and acquisition of Nitrogen Studios) and in Munich and Berlin (having acquired Trixter). Visual effects is still a large part of Cinesite’s work, but the push into animation began with Beans in 2013, a short CG film about a group of astronauts who encounter an alien on the moon.
“With Beans we were trying to develop our showreel,” says Cinesite Director of Animation Eamonn Butler. “Typically, what most studios would do is just a few tests or do some free work on shows. We said, ‘Well, let’s do something that rises above that, has a narrative, and can stand on its own feet.’”
Beans ended up with around 50 million views across various platforms. Buoyed by the success of the short, and looking to develop animated films at less cost than some of the other bigger studios around, Cinesite – then with only a London office – started up a presence in Montreal and began hiring animation development personnel. One of those was Dave Rosenbaum as Cinesite’s Chief Creative Officer, who had previously worked at Illumination and DreamWorks Animation.
“When I joined DreamWorks, it was a new company,” states Rosenbaum. “We were asking, ‘What are the new trends in animation? How can you do it better and smarter and more efficiently?’ And that was the same challenge when we started Illumination. Then, when I came to Cinesite, it was, ‘How can we be even more efficient?’”
The intention, therefore, was to make films at lower price points than Pixar or DreamWorks typically make. “One of the reasons for sticking the pin in the map on that particular budgetary area was it makes it easier to raise money,” says Butler. “It’s less of a risk, too. It gets you going quicker. That was really important to us.”
With budgetary plans in mind, choosing a location, bidding for jobs, pitching projects, establishing a pipeline and recruiting the right talent have all been challenges for Cinesite’s move into feature animation. Although there are certainly crossovers between visual effects and animation, Butler and Rosenbaum caution that the management of VFX versus the management of animated features differs greatly.
“With visual effects, you shoot the plates, of course, and then you put the effects and the characters into the plates. Whereas here, particularly with the richness of the Addams family [members], we are rendering everything, and in their own environments. So you’re getting the correct lighting and you get the correct shadows and interaction of the characters.”
—Neil Eskuri, Visual Effects Supervisor, Cinesite
“When we came [to Montreal] we were the only house doing feature animation. Now there are a few more, which is actually good because it means there’s more of an industry. But you still need to invest in the long term, and that means giving artists a chance to develop their skills over multiple projects, not just one. Or offering them developmental opportunities like becoming a lead or supervisor. We’ve managed to do that.”
—Eamonn Butler, Director of Animation, Cinesite
“Feature animation has to be leaner,” notes Butler. “We don’t look at it as a cost per shot, we look at it as an overall thing. It’s very hard to implement that in visual effects, even though a lot of people want to do it that way. It becomes shot-based there. “Now, shot-based costs are much higher because of that,” continues Butler. “You’re protecting and defending big days on shots because you’re a service company. Whereas in feature animation, we tend to wrap it up like it’s our own movie.”
Finding talent and building talent has been one of Cinesite’s major challenges in ramping up in animation. Partly, that is due to the growth of Montreal as a VFX and animation hub, where the recruitment of artists is now quite competitive. “When we came here,” recounts Butler, “we were the only house doing feature animation. Now there are a few more, which is actually good because it means there’s more of an industry. But you still need to invest in the long term, and that means giving artists a chance to develop their skills over multiple projects, not just one. Or offering them developmental opportunities like becoming a lead or supervisor. We’ve managed to do that.”
The Addams Family animated feature is based on the original comics by cartoonist Charles Addams about a strange family deeply entrenched in the macabre who seem to be unaware of their odd fit in society. It includes all the well-known characters – Gomez and Morticia Addams, their children Wednesday and Pugsley, Uncle Fester and Grandmama, the butler Lurch, the disembodied hand Thing and Gomez’s Cousin Itt. Realized previously as different TV series and films, this animated version brings the family into the 21st century.
The film was principally made at Cinesite’s Vancouver studio, formerly Nitrogen Studios, although scenes were ultimately shared between Vancouver and Montreal. “The film is around 83 minutes, and Vancouver is doing 66 minutes of the film, with Montreal delivering 17 minutes,” says Cinesite Visual Effects Supervisor Neil Eskuri. “Montreal did a lot of the asset builds and the initial lookdev, and then that got transferred over to Vancouver.”
The studio looked to the original single-panel The Addams Family comics as initial inspiration in order to turn that 2D world into a 3D animated one. “One of the interesting things for us, at first, was just seeing how those comics became character designs and then became 3D models,” discusses Cinesite head of lighting Laura Brousseau. “We took the essence of the comic and story, as well as the design, and brought it to life in this 3D world.”
Brousseau and Eskuri say the characters in the film are instantly recognizable – even in their newly animated form – as those from The Addams Family. However, there were things that naturally had to be adapted for the characters in their 3D representations. “For example,” says Brousseau, “one of the things with Morticia, because she’s so sort of naturally skeletal, was that we had to be very careful about how we lit her so that she didn’t get too gaunt or too skeletal looking. We took inspiration from the film noir lighting style on Anjelica Huston in the live-action films where she has this very soft strip of lighting across her eyes in a lot of shots.”
Cinesite moved to Foundry’s Katana for the show for lighting, with the idea to introduce a consistent approach to how shots and scenes would be managed. “We had long wanted to bring Katana into the studio,” says Brousseau. “So we saw that as a great opportunity, knowing that we were going to have a high volume of work to do and that we really wanted our artists to focus their time on lighting and artistic things.”
Katana – which handled renders out of RenderMan in Vancouver and out of Arnold in Montreal – enabled Cinesite to design lighting across multiple scenes. “Everything’s built in for you to do those things that we need to do in every shot,” points out Brousseau. “We basically would set up recipes for every scene. And that has meant we spend less time troubleshooting things – ‘Why isn’t my override working? Why is my render pass broken?’ – and we get to spend more time focusing on lighting and making each shot better.”
For Cinesite’s artists, The Addams Family was an opportunity to demonstrate just how far the studio has come in terms of animation, in addition to what it has already achieved in visual effects. “With visual effects,” notes Eskuri, “you shoot the plates, of course, and then you put the effects and the characters into the plates. Whereas here, particularly with the richness of the Addams family [members], we are rendering everything, and in their own environments. So you’re getting the correct lighting and you get the correct shadows and interaction of the characters.”
For the Vancouver studio, in particular, production on the film has been an extension to what was already becoming a significant amount of animation production in the region. “There’s always new people joining the industry here and coming over from visual effects,” suggests Brousseau. “So you sort of have this continual joy of getting to work with the same people and really seasoned Vancouver artists, and then having new people coming in.”
“Vancouver has grown dramatically over the last 10 years,” adds Eskuri. “Everybody works with everybody else. And that’s nice, because if you’re here, you have a lot of possibilities of other productions that are ramping up.”
With ambitions to create its own animated content, Cinesite started first as a services company. It has so far worked on The Star, Gnome Alone, The Addams Family and the short, SuperRoach.
At the peak of production on The Star, Cinesite in Montreal had 650 artists. Now the studio has the Vancouver office as well, with capacity for between 350 and 500 artists.
New projects in production or pre-production across the Vancouver and Montreal locations include Riverdance, Extinct, Princess Awesome and Harold Lloyd. That latter project is based on the life of the actor, comedian and stunt performer who appeared in numerous silent comedies in the early days of cinema.
“Harold is one of cinema’s most iconic filmmakers,” reflects Rosenbaum. “He in many ways is the father of comedy. His comedic timing was unprecedented at the time, and comedians today still emulate their styles after him. Having worked at many different studios, you start noticing that so many of the animators are referencing silent films, because those performances had to be exaggerated and you had to convey a story without words. We were watching them reference these icons, like Harold Lloyd, and we were thinking, ‘Why aren’t we just making a movie about him, starring him?’”
The studio approached Sue Lloyd, Harold’s granddaughter, who owns the rights and the film library, and managed to option all 200 of Lloyd’s silent films. Then they hired documentarian Leslie Iwerks to find a narrative across these movies. “So we’ve actually constructed an animatic that we can deliver to animators that will be 100% Harold Lloyd,” says Rosenbaum. “He will be performing in every shot, the shot setups, everything that he’s done, except it’ll be a completely new experience. It will take place in 1920s Hollywood. It will be an ode to Hollywood. We have some very exciting things planned for it including we’re going to do it with no dialogue.”
The Harold Lloyd film is also part of Cinesite’s plan to have a very diverse slate of films. “We don’t want to be locked into one model,” outlines Butler. “We want to go after the projects and hit the demographics that are underserved, and the projects that aren’t given enough attention. We think that’s where we’ll separate ourselves. We’re not going to separate ourselves by doing a knockoff of what the huge studios are doing. So we need to think of things that are not only creatively interesting stories, but creatively interesting ways to make the actual film.”