By TREVOR HOGG
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
During the coronavirus pandemic it was announced that Weta Digital and RISE VFX will be making animated features. Combining visual effects with animation has become more attractive with the growing demand for animated content driven by streamers such as Netflix. From a talent and technology perspective, there is already an infrastructure to build upon which helps to mitigate the expenses usually associated with a start-up venture. There is also the advantage of not being so heavily reliant on live-action projects that are susceptible to delays and shrinking post-production schedules. The business model is sustainable as Sony Pictures Imageworks, Animal Logic and Cinesite have multiple animated features in various stages of production. DNEG Animation is following these animation innovators and creating its co-production debut, Ron’s Gone Wrong.
At the forefront has been Sony Pictures Imageworks, which partnered with filmmaker Robert Zemeckis on The Polar Express (2004) and went on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). “There are lots of great things and overlap in doing CG and live-action features, but they are different,” states Michelle Grady, Executive Vice President and General Manager at Sony Pictures Imageworks. “You have to understand the strengths and challenges of each to do both well. In live-action you need a lot of parameters on character rigs to get them to perform in a way that is photoreal. You want to remove those parameters in order to be flexible, creative and out of the box as CG features demand.
“There are lots of great things and overlap in doing CG and live-action features, but they are different. You have to understand the strengths and challenges of each to do both well. … Also, the technology and production pipelines, the way that you interact with your client, and the priorities are really different in some ways. We have been doing both since the early 2000s, so we have a lot of practice in negotiating the balance.”
—Michelle Grady, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Sony Pictures Imageworks
Also, the technology and production pipelines, the way that you interact with your client, and the priorities are really different in some ways. We have been doing both since the early 2000s so we have a lot of practice in negotiating the balance. Even how you set up a show, whether that would be pipeline, finance or production, has to be consistent or else it’s just mayhem; that becomes the framework. Once you’ve got that framework in place, you have to give each snowflake enough room to be able to problem-solve in their own unique way.”
A turning point for Animal Logic was working with filmmaker George Miller on Happy Feet (2006) and subsequently becoming known for establishing The LEGO Movie franchise. “I don’t know if it’s the pandemic or just the changing nature of the industry [that is causing more visual effects companies to explore making animated features],” notes Ingrid Johnston, Head of Production at Animal Logic.
“There is an explosion in demand for animated features. Historically, they’ve done well at the box office and are seen as a safe bet by studios.” One of the reasons that Animal Logic enjoys working on animated features is being able to partner with studios and filmmakers on the entire production. “Some animated studios have a house style and are building on their technology in a logical way so the films come from the same universe stylistically,” observes Johnston, “whereas Animal Logic has gone from penguins to owls to plastic bricks to realistic bunnies. Even the films that we have coming up, they all look different but are all exciting to us because of who we are working with and what the movie is.”
“The Vancouver studio was opened specifically to service animated fare that fell under the umbrella of our deal with Warner Bros.,” remarks Cabral Rock, General Manager at Animal Logic. “The Sydney studio was always bisected doing both animated and visual effects work. They have transitioned in recent years to focusing exclusively on animated fare, but the visual effects capability is still there. We reserve judgment for certain filmmaking partners whom we want to work with again. We have a presence in Los Angeles as well servicing our filmmaking partners there. We have our story and development teams at Animal Logic Entertainment and Truant Pictures. A significant IT infrastructure is based in Los Angeles to support the other sites. There are some restrictions around tax incentives and where the workforce is claimed, but if a project in Vancouver is getting a slowdown in assets and a project in Sydney is still full-steam ahead, there is some flexibility to shift resources across sites.” Streaming services have democratized the type of content being produced. “There was a time not too long ago,” comments Rock, “if you weren’t opening on 4,000 screens nationwide, your movie didn’t have much of a chance of finding an audience and taking root. But that’s not the case anymore. Anybody who has a phone or a broadband connection has access now.”
Cinesite started off collaborating with Sony Pictures Animation and the Jim Henson Company on The Star (2017) and has gone on to launch The Addams Family franchise with MGM Studios. “The biggest difference is that with visual effects we will be staffing according to the type of shots that we’re going to deliver for a movie but we’re not making the whole thing,” observes Eamonn Butler, Head of the Animation Division at Cinesite. “In animation you’re making everything, so you start with story and editorial, go into building assets [modeling, texturing] and finally animation. It is a long-established process. It’s all plannable.” The Montreal studio was built from the ground up,” he says. “Everybody had to be hired for every department. Now we have an established crew, excellent pipeline, and the capacity to handle two movies at the same time. But it takes many years to build that crew up to that standard. Training is always important. It’s something we try to do in downtime between shows. Mentorship is important too. Bringing in senior talent with lots of creative experience, it’s inspiring to younger artists and can help them avoid making bad choices in their performances or will lift their abilities and give them instant wisdom. The combination of training and leadership is important, and is something that we absolutely foster in the company.”
Emerging from the shadows with the release of Ron’s Gone Wrong is DNEG Animation, which was established in 2014. “The first two years was entirely spent on prep,” states Tom Jacomb, President at DNEG Animation. “It was looking at what the visual effects studio had, and seeing where the differences were and where we were going to be lacking for a feature animation pipeline and talent. We were trying to build a strong artistic team to be able to do that. That takes time. You can’t just take it on and start on day one.” DNEG having the ability to push through a vast number of renders and shots at scale for shows like Fast & Furious meant that their animation studio did not have to begin from scratch. “There are huge benefits in the way that we work and do things in animation,” adds Jacomb. “It’s methodical and planned. You’re able to look at a schedule two and a half years down the line and say, ‘This is what I’m doing at this stage.’ That is something visual effects doesn’t often have the opportunity to do.”
DNEG Animation is a separate studio within the visual effects company. “You may be able to leverage 80% of a talent set from a certain department or pipeline, but the 20% that is different, you have to make sure is taken care of,” notes David Prescott, Senior Vice President of Creative Production at DNEG Animation. “Previs in animation is a lot of the same toolset used for live-action, but a lot of the time what the directors are trying to get out of the process is something different. I know that a lot of people see visual effects and animation colliding closely together. There are live-action directors and producers who have cool properties that they haven’t figured out how to do because coming to the market with high-end animated projects wasn’t a thing even five years ago. DNEG Animation allows them to bring those projects to the table. Within that realm, there are a lot of properties out there that have a different storytelling method animation is used to, like more long series story arcs. The properties that we have right now from Ron’s Gone Wrong to the short film, Mr. Spam Gets A New Hat, to the other projects coming out after that are all different filmmakers and styles of storytelling.”
Despite Weta Animated being a new venture, Weta Digital had previously combined motion capture and animation for Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and has become renowned for crafting CG characters, like Gollum, Caesar, Thanos and Alita. “Creating our own animated content has long been a dream for our founders, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, as well as many of us across the business,” states Prem Akkaraju, CEO at Weta Digital. “It’s a natural extension of the creative energy and work at Weta Digital. We consider our visual effects background a strength as the scope of visual effects work has moved well beyond photorealism, so the style of our work is driven more by the director’s vision and creativity than reality or the laws of physics. This lends itself well to animation where there is even more freedom to let your imagination guide the worlds and stories you create.”
Weta Digital’s new cloud-based software service will be a key component in creating next-generation animation pipelines that enable collaborations with artists from around the world. “Ultimately,” states Akkaraju, “our goal is to pursue excellence in storytelling and creativity, unlock the imaginations of some of our generation’s greatest storytellers and make thoroughly entertaining animations.”