Last month saw the first Move Summit in Edinburgh. This was the largest dedicated commercial animation event in Scotland, bringing together creatives from across the industry. There were some big names on the speaker list including Axis Animation, 59 Productions, Red knuckles and MPC showcasing some seriously impressive work.
As a Motion Graphics designer myself, I found it incredibly insightful to see the story behind the yearly show reels. And to see even the best in the industry go through the same blockers and issues as everyone else. How do the likes of Axis Animation, whose client list included Halo and Dawn of War III, get their inspiration and deal with challenging feedback all with strict deadlines looming?
Inspiration amidst deadlines
In the first talk of the afternoon, Debbie Ross and Jon Beeston from Axis Animation shared what I felt was one of the most insightful talks of the day.
After a mind-blowing show reel, (which made me question everything I’ve done up to now), Axis discussed their work on the upcoming Dawn of War III. The Warhammer owned franchise is well known in the gaming world but had lost its position as a genre leader. Axis was tasked with breathing new life into the game, all while appeasing the strict licenses of Warhammer and the game studio, Relic. Anyone who has worked on an established IP will understand the complications involved!
Four directors each pitched their concept for the new release trailer, all considering budgets and timelines. Except one. Axis’ concept stood out as more ambitious than the others, taking Dawn of War III to a darker grittier realisation than ever before using inspiration from Polish artist, Beksinski. Despite being more work and over budget, Relic and Warhammer both went for it.
Axis produced some stunning character designs blending the themes behind Beksinski’s work and the established Warhammer franchise. But of course this is an established IP and getting sign off from both Relic and Warhammer was challenging. So much so that the initial time of 6 weeks for pre-production ended up being 12 weeks. How would Axis recover?
Focus on art direction
The answer it seems was in the art direction. In Beksinski’s work the use of fog to obscure environments was widely used. By reducing the work on the background and cleverly using fog to fill the frames, Axis found a solution. The results were fantastic. Axis managed to produce a stunning piece of work that, despite the many blockers, did not appear at all compromised. Was this due to luck or well-planned art direction? No doubt a bit of both, but let’s pretend it’s all in the art direction. Watch the final video from Axis below.
The animation jungle
Another standout for me was a presentation from Doug Larmour of MPC, whose portfolio of work includes almost every Hollywood blockbuster of the last year. MPC are behemoths in the industry with offices in London, Vancouver, LA, Montreal and Bangalore. They specialise in VFX and recently picked up the visual effects Oscar for the Jungle Book reboot. They used this as their topic of conversation, explaining the process behind their masterpiece.
Impressively, the movie was filmed entirely on a blue screen with just one live actor. All the environments and talking animals had to be created in 3D. As Doug Larmour joked, "we couldn’t mo-cap a tiger, as they don’t like having reflective balls attached to their bums. So had to rely on good old-fashioned animation."
I’ve always wondered how an entire blue screen set is filmed from a photography sense, as you can’t see what you’re shooting. MPC however had a clever solution to this. They built all the set layouts in 3D and mapped them to the studio set. Then, using an iPad, they could view and move around the blue screen set, all while being able to see their 3D scenes. Genius!
Surprisingly, MPC weren’t at all daunted by the fact that they had to create twenty photo-realistic, talking animals, but instead were more concerned about creating the environments. Producing life-like animals, utilising individual muscle rigs, was bread and butter compared to creating a photo-real jungle! These environments had to look both incredible and believable. Fortunately, having an office in Bangalore with the jungle on its doorstep, they were able to get some amazing reference shots. The craft in each scene came down to sculpting and positioning individual leaves in order to create the perfect effect. However, this incredible level of detail lead to a fundamental problem: render times.
30 million hours
MPC had sequences of VFX that took up to 24hours to render a single frame. There was no way for them to render the movie in time at that level of quality. Months of optimising managed to get the render times down to 8 hours per frame, a much more manageable number. Although even with the times reduced they still needed to borrow the render farm at Disney in order to help with the demanding workload. The total render time for the movie was 30 million hours, with times so high they were only able to render certain animals once. In perspective, that would take 3,400 years on a single machine. It was a brave move, but one that paid off – a well-deserved Oscar proudly displayed in their cabinet.
See you next year?
The Move Summit was certainly a source of inspiration and showcased the risks and rewards of being on the cutting edge. I certainly hope this will be a regular feature in the animation event list, as I would heartily recommend going to it next year.