Nickelodeon's Smooth Move to All-Digital Animation
Workflow is always a major issue when creating broadcast animation, but when the animation becomes a digital process from drawing to post-production, workflow reigns supreme. Such was the thinking last year when cable television network Nickelodeon took the digital plunge from the ground up, creating a 100-percent-digital animation studio in New York. The success of the operation -- now the largest animation studio on the East Coast -- goes far to validate Nickelodeon's approach.
Hey, Hey, Hey
"Since we've taken all of our animation in house, we've been able to lower production costs, speed up production cycles, and retain greater creative control," said Jennifer Oxley, animation director for "Little Bill", one of two shows in production at the studio. "Little Bill," which appears on Nickelodeon's sibling channel, Nick Jr., is based on a series of children's books written by Bill Cosby and illustrated by Varnette Honeywood.
But creating a show from pencil sketch to digital file ready for broadcast requires the work of many professionals and a workflow that keeps everyone on the same page, according to Oxley.
"With every animation production, workflow is essential," said Oxley, "but what sets us apart is that virtually everything is done in-house -- from storyboarding to layout to animation to final edit -- and so workflow issues affect everyone involved."
The digital work begins, oddly enough, on paper, with two teams of animators creating "objects" for the show. "For example, we'll draw all character poses, walk cycles, head rotations, props, and backgrounds. We break everything down into what are essentially puppet pieces that can be reassembled on the computer," said Oxley.
Creatively, the result bears little resemblance to traditional cel animation, which is just fine with Oxley. "We wanted to create a style that was different from traditional outline animation. The books' illustrations use a cut-out look, and we recreated that for the show in a style we call storybook animation."
Once drawn, all elements are scanned at 300 dpi, catalogued using Portfolio by Extensis (sister company to Creativepro.com), and stored in the studio's animation and digital design archive for easy browsing. All animators and designers can access the files over the studio's network using standard keyword searches (though during the creation of the first 10 episodes, the studio had no network, and files were exchanged on Zip and Jaz drives, a process that caused confusion and slowed work down).
"We're creating a very huge archive of files, but it's growing slowly. For the first episode we created approximately 1,000 elements, but with each episode the number of new elements has gone down since we reuse elements as much as possible," said Oxley.
The ability to archive digital files also keeps Nickelodeon's property safe and alleviates worries about the quality of the images or footage degrading over time. The digital files are archived as layered Photoshop files, so designers can bring up files and quickly adjust color, lighting, positioning, and other factors to fit the needs of a new shot.
"Without the ability to re-use artwork, Nickelodeon would have a difficult time accomplishing the labor-intensive task of creating animated shows, without sending work outside," said Oxley.
Digital Tips and Tricks
The animators use a host of innovative methods to create a compelling program. Real cloth, for example, is often scanned into Photoshop and used as the basis for clothing. Cotton puffs might be scanned and used for clouds.
"Using real textures brings the show to life for children, as does the depth of the animation. Instead of using two-dimensional characters that also move in two dimensions, characters in "Little Bill" move in three dimensions -- forward and back and side to side. The result is that the show is more engaging for children," said Oxley.
For street scenes, designers take advantage of the precision of Illustrator to line up buildings, cars, and other scene elements before bringing the scene into Photoshop.
Getting a (Blue) Clue
Another Nickelodeon show in production, "Blue's Clues," combines live-action footage of host Steve Burns with animated shots of Blue the dog, Franklin the frog, and other characters. After drawing up initial storyboards detailing how a week's episode will unfold, modelers begin by creating elements of the set from clay and wood, modeling everything from characters to chairs. The models are shot from different angles using a digital camera connected directly to a desktop computer, and the footage is brought straight onto a Macintosh hard drive.
Twenty or so designers use Photoshop and Illustrator to manipulate the acquired images, to ensure that they have the correct positioning, lighting, shadows and other attributes for animation. Using After Effects, animators begin adding movement to the images, creating shots needed for the show. Steve's live-action footage is shot in front of a blue screen and composited with animated elements using Media 100 machines.
Once animation is completed and approved, it is imported into After Effects for rendering and for voice-over synchronization with the characters' lip movements. Then the file is passed off to the studio's post-production department, where final shots are cut into a pre-edited animatic -- a preliminary version -- using an Avid system. The animation is then output using the AVR-77 format for broadcast.
The production of both shows is also noteworthy for how audio is handled. Nickelodeon edits master audio voice tracks in the Avid and then exports them as digital files to the sound facility for design, mix, and playback to the broadcast master, using a Digital DSP and SSL sound design and mix platforms. "Audio therefore remains digital throughout the process," said Oxley.
It might seem as though Nickelodeon's all-digital process would be a nightmare of revision conflicts, file-name confusion, and other workflow snafus, but that hasn't been the case, Oxley reports.
"We worked really hard on workflow procedures when we set up the studio, and we were really strict about every process to ensure a smooth workflow. We're still evolving, but it hasn't been too rough, considering we have 70 to 80 people in house working on two shows simultaneously."
The efficient workflow is an especially important factor when delays in research or other up-front processes cause a time crunch on the back-end at the animation studios. And in addition to saving time, the digital approach has provided a high level of creative control, since the software tools are right on the desktop. "We can literally animate anything or create any scene on the desktop," Oxley said. "With cel animation, which involves physically painting the frames that make up a sequence, such creative freedom and experimentation simply isn't possible."
Eric J. Adams writes frequently about digital publishing technology.
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