Animation: Keeping Virtual Affordable

If you tuned into the Discovery Channel in December to see what looked an awful lot like Adolf Hitler plotting in the Wolf's Lair, you weren't hallucinating. No footage of the event exists and no witnesses survive, yet there it was. The film was Tiger Aspect's Virtual History: The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler, and it used cg tricks to replace an actor's face with that of the infamous dictator. This level of manufactured reality is just the beginning. As advanced as cg effects are, they're quickly becoming more sophisticated as technology gets faster and cheaper. Within the decade, any environment - or time - will be able to be built virtually, no matter the budget.
January 1, 2005

If you tuned into the Discovery Channel in December to see what looked an awful lot like Adolf Hitler plotting in the Wolf’s Lair, you weren’t hallucinating. No footage of the event exists and no witnesses survive, yet there it was. The film was Tiger Aspect’s Virtual History: The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler, and it used CG tricks to replace an actor’s face with that of the infamous dictator. This level of manufactured reality is just the beginning. As advanced as CG effects are, they’re quickly becoming more sophisticated as technology gets faster and cheaper. Within the decade, any environment – or time – will be able to be built virtually, no matter the budget.

Eager for a hook to grab ratings, broadcasters are hungry for high tech. But that’s not to say only cutting-edge FX are taking center stage. Once solely the domain of the event doc, CG is becoming a common storytelling tool for factual filmmakers writ large. With CG employed in almost every show produced by Dunedin-based NHNZ, the prodco’s MD Michael Stedman calls it ‘the most significant tool invented since the camera.’

With prices dropping – Stedman estimates he now spends US$8,000 to $12,000 per finished minute – producers no longer have to break from live action to cut to self-contained animations. CG is being seamlessly woven into the script to help drive the story, as it is in Virtual History. In fact, says Beth Stevenson, partner at Toronto-based producer/animator Decode Entertainment, CG costs have dropped so much that virtual reality can now be cheaper than live action. ‘In a weird way, it is actually more cost effective to build some things digitally,’ says Stevenson, whose company recently partnered with the Kratt brothers on the NH series Be the Creature. ‘If we send [the Kratts] to Africa and they wait for three weeks to get a lion to do something, I could have had that built already [in the studio],’ she notes.

But CG – be it 3-D animation, FX, composites, 2-D matte painting, or any number of other effects – is still a mysterious beast to many. Faced with competitive quotes from different houses, producers are often at a loss as to how they should judge which is the better offer because they don’t fully understand what the process involves. So RealScreen looked into the matter, and discovered that cg isn’t as imposing as it seems at first blush. In fact, a little knowledge can go a long way towards saving time and resources.

What about my needs?:
To CG or not to CG…

Bristol-based 422 South’s chief creative officer Andy Davies-Coward says most conflicts between clients and animators come down to a ‘mismatch of expectations.’ Popular media suggests, with some justification, that anything is possible in the virtual world, and producers – or, Heaven forbid, broadcasters – often set expectations by cutting-edge movies like Polar Express. Says Davies-Coward, ‘We are often caught in a vicious circle at an early stage where someone has committed to delivering something highly ambitious with a relatively mundane budget.’ Animators, he says, are then expected to bail them out.

Instead, he suggests filmmakers come through the door tabula rasa. ‘Don’t tell me what you’re looking for,’ he says. ‘Let’s talk about the problem you’ve got. Why is it you were thinking about CGI in the first place?’

Davies-Coward says that from his experience, 25% to 30% of the elements producers look for are unnecessary. ‘Many producers tend to jumble up a whole bunch of things and put ‘wow’ effects into their requests alongside must-have, key information points,’ he says. ‘I’d rather separate these things out and say: ‘What are the key communication issues here?”

An open mind is key, as solutions might take producers away from their script. Notes Davies-Coward, ‘It might not be CGI. It might be models, or a live-action based shoot, or 2-D animation. You don’t really know until you’ve got under the skin of the project.’

Although most producers aspire to photo-real CG, it remains out of reach for the majority of non-fiction budgets. Combining animation with elements such as live action or stock footage is also more expensive, as filmmakers have to pay for those elements, plus compositing time. And CG rendered to HD, estimates Jim Radford, creative head of 3-D, TV and commercials at London’s Moving Picture Company (the animators behind Virtual History), can add as much as 30% to 50% to the bottom line, depending on how much of the final frame is being taken up by CG elements.

By contrast, notes Stevenson, more stylized animation approaches – such as those used by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen in The Kid Stays in the Picture – are far more cost effective and still bring a unique flavor to ambitious programs with mid-range budgets.

All together now:
‘Animation is not post-production!’

Animation should be considered during pre-production. Although the tendency is to ‘catch it in post,’ filmmakers who treat animation as a post issue are wasting money. Early conversations with animators can save producers cash in ways they might not expect.

First off, notes Stevenson, some elements can be bought whole. Unlike when she began working in CG years ago on animated projects like ReBoot, for which everything was proprietary, many basic CG elements are now available to rent or buy. Animators may have elements on file, while others might come from third-party sources. ‘Someone, somewhere has probably built what you need,’ notes Stevenson.

That’s not to say you can get the oversized reptile you saw in Walking with Dinosaurs, however. Most elements that have been broadcast are proprietary. But filmmakers should inquire early about what elements might be available off-the-shelf so resources can be reallocated during the planning phase.

Once producers commit to CG, full storyboards should be prepared at the scripting phase for all animated elements. Even if nothing else in the film is storyboarded, they’re key to preventing ill-prepared shots, and can keep producers from missing animation elements. For example, not using a green screen when it’s required might mean producers have to rotoscope elements in later – literally cutting and pasting components from one moving image over another. That is a much more expensive process.

422′s Davies-Coward says if he can’t see scripts and boards, he’ll take treatments. Failing that, he will sometimes ask for dummy narration in order to glean the key points of the shot. It’s also important for him to know the channel, demographic and the rough time of transmission so he can target the animation.

Planning the CG elements at the scripting phase also allows filmmakers to use their CG as wisely as possible. Notes Michael Davis, visual effects producer at London animation house Framestore CFC, CG elements ‘represent a large proportion of overall costs, so to actually build a CG character – i.e. scan a maquette, model a creature, rig it, texture it and give it to the animators – requires a large proportion of the money you spend. If the character only appears once, it’s a bad use of your money.’ Tiger Aspect head of special projects Dunja Noack suggests that to get more bang for your buck, CG elements can be looked at from different editorial angles: they can be repeated, have experts comment on them, or be dissected as a piece of archive would.

Having fewer CG characters on the screen at one time can also represent a significant cost savings, notes Davies-Coward. Animating one element instead of five is understandably far less complicated. For creatures such as dinos, scale them down, change their color and reuse them. Says Framestore CFC visual effects producer Jo Nodwell, ‘I can reuse the animation, or I can shoot from a different angle that will be better for us in terms of budget. If you come in with a script, then we can flesh it out and highlight areas that are not feasible for the budget.’

Those sorts of early talks can also prepare producers for conversations with ces wanting to know why they can’t have Polar Express. They also allow the animators to create the pipeline required for the film. In a perfect situation, filmmakers come back from the live-action shoot and step right into the CG world, with back plates prepared and simple CG characters to work with. On more complicated projects, NHNZ’s Stedman advises having a visual effects supervisor to help smooth the flow between live action and animated elements. The VFX supervisor will go to the shoots, check rushes and make sure required elements are being picked up. ‘They are really the bridge between two technologies,’ observes Stedman. ‘We’ve put a huge emphasis on that bridge… so it’s not like the film suddenly stops and the animation starts.’

Into the cutting room:
Editing for fun and profit

It sounds simple enough, but Davies-Coward’s main advice during editing is: don’t disappear. ‘People go off on location and make it impossible for you to contact them,’ he observes. ‘Once the process is started, every day on the machine costs money.’ With enormous files taking up server space, animation houses can’t jump from project to project and that will affect the budget, or at the very least, your relationship with the animation house.

This advice also applies to commissioning editors and other decision makers required for the process. Have them available as required, and let the animation house know who needs to sign-off so they aren’t surprised later by additional edits.

MPC’s Radford advises that producers lock off the edit as soon as they can. If not, he explains, ‘we have no choice but to start on massively over-length shots. If you have a five-second shot… we might have to work on a 10-second shot because we have to get started on it… This is one area in which time equals money.’ Unused animation is expensive. And more importantly perhaps, it takes time away from other elements.

Framestore CFC’s Nodwell underlines that a locked edit does not mean the end to producer changes. She notes that filmmakers can still re-write or re-time voice-overs, and shots can still be moved.

Mucking about:
‘What happens if we…?’

With their budget, delivery date and butts on the line, it’s the producer’s responsibility to understand what they are asking for. Observes Tiger Aspect’s Noack, ‘A lot of CG houses have very big commercial clients and as a documentary filmmaker, you just have to imbue into them the feeling that you are not a client, you are all working together on this one. So you want to be alerted to the problems you are creating.

‘When you say: ‘We want this shot,’ you have to insist that the graphics house tells you what the complication is for that shot. As a cameraman or producer, it is not obvious to you. You don’t know that it is tricky to track that face movement, for example. I would have covered myself a lot more [on Virtual History] by giving the cg house options, so they could say: ‘This is a very tricky shot. We’d rather not do this. [Instead], we’d rather go for the easier reveal option.’ Everything should be done in collaboration and discussed before you shoot and storyboard.’

422 South’s Davies-Coward supports Noack’s assertion. ‘The medium is so opaque sometimes, certainly to the producers, that they simply don’t understand how disruptive the utterances they make can be.’

Disruptions and disasters, while unavoidable, can be greatly lessened by going into the process informed. Experienced hands like Decode’s Stevenson or NHNZ’s Stedman stress the need for new entries into the field to do their homework. ‘Talk to companies who have worked in CG,’ says Stedman. ‘Look at CG. Talk about CG with production companies that have used it, and shop around. If you go in blind, you can get burnt.’

So, how much?
Animators admit it’s a fair question – but that doesn’t mean there’s an answer. Notes Andy Davies-Coward at Bristol’s 422 South, producers usually can’t give enough initial information for him to offer an iron-clad quote. Although he says experience allows him to ballpark costs, the best place for producers to start is by revealing their budget, even if it is only provisional. ‘All you can do is say: ‘This is the amount of money I am prepared to put on the table. What can you do for it?” says Davies-Coward. ‘At that point, you can compare the responses you get [from animation houses] in terms of originality, professionalism or depth of understanding of your editorial issues.’

The problem is, it’s a ‘How long is a piece of string?’ question. Is it a simple build, like an Egyptian pyramid that the camera can fly around? In that case, you can run the sequence for hours at no additional cost. Or does the script call for a moving creature, like a stalking cat? In that case, each frame has to be fought for. Screen time and cost don’t always share a linear relationship.

Failing an estimate carved in stone, producers should look for quotes that explain precisely what they are getting for their money. Notes London-based Framestore CFC’s Jo Nodwell, ‘We hand over a schedule to the client that is completely transparent. There is no hidden time.’

Here among the frogs:
Decode builds an amphibious anchor

Toronto-based Decode Entertainment has tackled the challenge of a photo-real frog host for its new series, Your Big Backyard – a natural history pseudo news show with animated creatures as cast. A copro with the National Wildlife Federation in Virginia, the series began taking shape in the spring of 2003 when the deal with NWF was finalized. Decode built the frog in April, and took the summer to write a full script and bible. This winter will be spent researching so that a sked that sees a summer shoot and February, 2006 wrap can be met. The budget for the 52 x 11-minute series is somewhere near US$180,000, although that number depends on whether the series becomes an international copro or not.

So why build the frog first? To convince buyers it could be done, explains Decode partner Beth Stevenson. Stevenson says she has had to resort to strange tactics when pitching her programs – including using finger puppets for shows like Angela Anaconda or Blobheads. ‘We found that you need to test and you need to show broadcasters what it is actually going to look like,’ she says.

Putting a face on the past
Tiger Aspect and Discovery resurrect Hitler

Virtual History: The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler is a 90-minute special from London prodco Tiger Aspect for the Discovery Channel. Although it aired last November, the process began three years ago over lunch. When David Abraham, managing director of Discovery Europe, asked Dunja Noack and her Tiger Aspect team what the next big thing after Walking with Dinosaurs might be, it was agreed that animated people would be the next sensation – à la Final Fantasy or Lord of the Rings‘ Gollum. Noack followed up with some animation houses in London, asking: ‘Could we recreate somebody who everyone has a mental image of, walking and talking?’ Their response: ‘Well… maybe.’

London’s Moving Picture Company took up the challenge, producing an eight-minute test paid for by Discovery. An actor wore a rig on his face during a live-action shoot, over which MPC laid a CG build of Hitler’s face. A host of problems were uncovered, recalls Noack, including tracking, masking and retargeting issues. The original actor also had a head shaped differently than the dictator’s, which meant a total virtual reconstruction. (For the film, a more physically representative actor was cast.) Three days of live shoots gave way to two months of CG work, with the test wrapping in July, 2003. Eight CG scenes were included at a lower resolution than would be used for the final film.

Discovery was impressed, but took time negotiating a production agreement. The special was greenlighted and went into pre-production in October/November, 2003. Full storyboards were created for shoots that began in March, 2004. After three weeks of filming live action, the footage was turned over to MPC in April so it could work its magic. Wrapping in July/August, the finished film had 20 full cg shots: 10 of Hitler and five each of Roosevelt and Churchill. Several additional shots contained no cg effects – i.e., the actor’s face was obscured or turned away – but required the archive-look treatment that was given to all the scenes. The actors were made up to look like their characters to help with the illusion, with Churchill requiring full body prosthetics.

‘We were really trying for the holy grail,’ says Noack. ‘Hitler was a hard choice because everybody has a mental image of him and they all differ. You might think of Hitler as the young man ranting, but in my mental image, Hitler is the old guy at the end of the war – much more chubby. It is a different face. I think if I had to do it all over again, I would go for Marilyn Monroe because she was young. It’s just easier to do.’

But easy is never exciting for viewers – or animators. Talks are underway for a follow-up series that will feature CG unblemished by archival treatment. That means more photo-real characters with no grime to hide behind. As mpc creative head of 3-D Jim Radford jokingly says of the continual push to advance: ‘Give us more for less and better – that’s the usual infernal triangle.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.