It started quietly in 1987 with Landmark Entertainment’s Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future and exploded with ABC’s 1994 debut of Mainframe’s Reboot. Today, computer-generated animation is a well-established technique, regularly grabbing kids attention with eye-popping vistas, swooping camera moves and spectacular graphic images.
And, as they say, the best is yet to come. CGI is evolving and undergoing a makeover as new artists, new studios and lower production costs contribute to new looks for CGI. Replacing the awkward robots and monsters that stereotyped computer-created programming in recent years, fantastical creative-driven series along the lines of Nelvana’s Rolie Polie Olie are pushing the envelope at one end of the CGI spectrum, while offerings such as Columbia Pictures’ summer flick Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within are raising the photo-realism bar at the other end.
Now that the technology has been fine-tuned, traditional animation artists, art directors, designers and children’s book illustrators are taking over from the technicians. ‘The difference between Noddy and those other robotic shows is that we are putting acting and emotion into our characters,’ says Paul Sabella, co-founder of SD Entertainment, which is currently producing the animation for Chorion’s new Make Way For Noddy CGI revamp. SD, a California-based studio staffed by traditional 2-D animators now plying their craft in 3-D, is embracing computer techniques and shaping them to suit its own purposes.
‘Watching Paul work with traditional art directors in making the transition to CGI has given us a very, very clean look-this is the beginning of stylizing the medium,’ says Jonathan Dern, Sabella’s SD partner.
This new-look CGI is poised to explode into the mainstream later this year when shows like Universal International’s Sitting Ducks, Nelvana’s Pecola, Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron and the new Noddy hit the market. The genre is also experiencing a huge DTV and film boom, with kidvid projects like Mainframe’s Barbie in the Nutcracker and BKN’s Rudolph and the Land of Misfit Toys, as well as theatricals such as DreamWorks’ Shrek, Columbia Pictures’ Final Fantasy and Disney/Pixar’s Monsters Inc., currently in various stages of production and post-production.
Despite a wider acceptance of CGI generally, Mainframe Entertainment’s senior VP of creative affairs Dan DiDio says that producing high-quality CG animation for TV is still a tough job. ‘The problem is that when you’re on a limited budget and timeline to get these shows done, more of your weaknesses are exposed.
‘Yeah, sure,’ DiDio continues, ‘Final Fantasy is going to look gorgeous, but hell, how long has Columbia been working on it? Seven years? When we go out and pitch product for TV, the standard they hold us to is theatrical features. And worse than that, there’s a potential stigma that affects the entire computer animation business: If one company doesn’t do something well, all the companies are tarred with the same brush.’
DiDio sees artist-driven stylization as one way to avoid being compared to big-budget theatricals. ‘We want to develop multiple looks for Mainframe; we don’t want to have a house style,’ he says. ‘Scary Godmother, Dots Bots and Gate Crasher: All three of them are trying to push the boundaries of what people perceive computer animation to be in different ways.’
Though costs for such productions have come down in recent years, producers are quick to point out that this style is comparable to or higher than traditional live action or 2-D toons. ‘A misconception that people have about CGI is that’s it’s quick and easy,’ says Walt Kubiak, head of The Krislin Company, which is currently producing animation for Universal’s Sitting Ducks. ‘People forget that in order to set up a studio, you have to invest a couple of million dollars just to buy the hardware. And six months from now, that hardware is outdated. For me to set up a 2-D animator to work, all he needs is a US$15 pegbar, a piece of glass and a light. For one seat on the show we are doing now, you’re looking at a US$15,000 investment.’
‘We are all getting the same software,’ says Mainframe’s DiDio. ‘What it comes down to is the quality of your animators. The fact of the matter is that it takes more detail and work in order to get that level of animation you need to suspend reality-to create the illusion of the character. You need to have the best people and that keeps the costs high.’
Since producing its first CGI series in 1997 with Donkey Kong Country, Nelvana achieved a breakthrough hit in 1998 with Rolie Polie Olie. The series has sustained popularity through four seasons, airing in 164 countries and winning numerous awards, including an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program in 2000. Nelvana’s latest CGI project is Pecola, a co-pro with Japan’s Milky Cartoons that features a cute band of origami animals. Intended for the five to seven demo, the 13 x half-hour series is slated for a fall launch on Canada’s Teletoon.
The key to the prodco’s success in the CGI realm is that it has been selective about the projects that make it onto the production slate-for both artistic and budgetary reasons. ‘We didn’t step into the 3-D world until we felt we could really control the costs, the schedules and the budgets,’ says Nelvana’s chief technical officer Scott Dwyer. ‘There’s no doubt that the initial Donkey Kong and Rolie Polie Olie shows were a bit larger than the typical Nelvana production, but we very quickly found a model that reduced the price.’ Dwyer estimates that nowadays, a typical CGI series would be budgeted around 10% higher than a 2-D series.
Creating a business plan that incorporates the advantages of CGI with the integrity of a good show is the challenge facing producers today. ‘People working with us understand that they are getting more than just episodes of a show,’ says SD’s Dern. ‘We have a completely different business model. The images we create are used in other areas of media, and we amortize the expense over the entire property. That allows the budget to make sense.’
Nickelodeon is amortizing the cost of its Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius feature film-which is scheduled for theatrical release this fall from Paramount Pictures-by using digital assets of the production in a series of two-minute comedic interstitials that have just begun to air on Nick, in on-line content, and in the creation of a Jimmy Neutron TV series set to premiere on Nick in fall 2002.
Sony Pictures Family Entertainment also employed the getting-more-bang-for-your-buck strategy with photo-realistic series Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles. ‘Starship Troopers, the movie, cost over US$100 million,’ says Bob Higgins, senior VP of creative affairs at SPFE. ‘We are able to deliver 40 episodes with the same type of action and a comparable look for a quarter of that budget.’ He adds: ‘To do it well as a live-action half-hour series, it would cost you well over US$1 million an episode. We did the CGI version for under half of that.’
Sony just released a Roughnecks direct-to-video compilation of the first five episodes. Higgins reports that the entire series was intentionally comprised of eight five-ep story arcs so the studio could create eight mini-movies out of the completed series-clever, especially given that SPFE doesn’t spend an inordinate amount on its CGI offerings. ‘We produce our CG shows for the same budget as our cel series,’ says Higgins. ‘You can save some money in preproduction on a CG show because you’re not doing as much detailed design work on paper. Your overseas studio can work with rougher designs.’
Krislin’s Kubiak agrees that the computer has its advantages as a tool, but as with any animated project, there is still a lot of work. ‘Once I have the model in the computer, I don’t have to draw the character again, but I still have to animate the model, pose the model, texture the model and render the model. There is no `animate’ button on the computer. A staffer still has to move the characters.’
Despite the extra effort CGI requires, Kubiak expects the genre’s pay-off to more than compensate. ‘My personal opinion is that CGI is the future of film,’ he says. ‘If you create a CGI character that people will accept as real, you can create your own stable of actors that are yours forever. I think within the next 10 years, we are going to start seeing films with Arnold Schwarzenegger and some cyber characters mixed together, and we’ll never know the difference.’
But does photo-realistic CGI make sense for kids programming? Mainframe’s DiDio doesn’t think so. ‘When you do something photo-realistic, you’re trying to capture actual people’s real movements. And what do you have? You have things that look like real people, moving like real people. Why bother?
‘With Barbie in The Nutcracker, we are doing some motion capture, but on certain elements we are extending reality. We have to bring a fantasy element into the cartoon to justify doing it in that format.’ The DTV title will be released in the U.S. by Artisan Home Entertainment in October.
Nelvana’s Dwyer feels the same way. ‘I don’t want to be overly critical of photo-realistic shows; they’re good in their own way. But it’s dangerous, I think, to try to recreate reality when there are plenty of other mechanisms for creating reality-like shooting live action-that are better. I prefer to see what we can do with the medium. If that means characters have a human look to them but are exaggerated, stylized and differentiated somehow, that could be interesting. The danger with photo-realism is that you get it just close enough to be disconcerting or uncomfortable.’
SPFE’s Higgins defends the technique when it’s used for the right subject. ‘Let’s just take Roughnecks for example. You could do it in cel, but it would look like any other cel show. Going 3-D allowed us to create entire worlds, put our characters into them, and surround them with millions of really threatening bugs. We could never have done that in cel animation.’
Sony’s new CGI series Heavy Gear is based on an Activision video game and Bandai toy line. Columbia TriStar is launching the series internationally this fall, with a spring 2002 U.S. debut through domestic distributor BKN. Heavy Gear features a semi-realistic animation style and, according to Higgins, ‘is basically Smackdown with robots.’