Monday, 11 November 2013

How do you make an animated TV series? - Blue Zoo reveal the secrets

Q Pootle 5 by Blue Zoo
Last week Bucks New University students went to the Blue GFX Expo at London's South Bank - a treasure trove of visual effects industry lectures and workshops. Among the excellent presentations was a talk by Adam Shaw of London's Blue Zoo, who created the animated TV series Q Pootle 5. In effect, his lecture was a fully-fledged workshop in how to put a TV series together from start to finish. So, if you have ever wondered - how do you get your own TV series off the ground? - here's how they pulled it off.

The series was based on books by writer and illustrator Nick Butterworth, who was looking for a production house to bring his hand-drawn characters to life. Nick came in just as Blue Zoo had begun looking for children’s book properties - so the timing was perfect for both partners.

To get started, and to show potential broadcasters that they were serious, Blue Zoo made a fully animated teaser, which they took to Cartoon Forum in 2009, to pitch their idea in front of European broadcasters and distributors. At this point of course they had to spend their own money, in order to get the project off the ground - development of this sort is always a risky enterprise.

Cartoon Forum - the place to pitch animated TV series
The teaser only involved two characters, which was cheaper than animating the full cast, but it "gave a flavour of the show". What they needed to do was "make the broadcasters confident" in the look and feel of the project. They managed to get Martin Freeman to do the voice of Pootle, though due to a conflict with another show he ended up not doing the series.

The key to the cast is that they are all strongly contrasting characters. The stories are about the everyday things they get up to; in effect they are kids pretending to be adults.

Small black eyes are a challenge for eye expressions
To find the look of the series, they had to turn Nick Butterworth’s illustrations into 3D characters, as the series was to be a 3D project. They began by doing 2D expression sheets based on Nick's designs. One of the challenges was that the characters are all designed with black dots for eyes. This can make it more of a challenge to get expressions out of them, so they did 3D expression sheets to make sure they could get a full range of emotion, and also added some whites to the eyes for side glances.

They also had to design the universe, and create a full digital map of the planet that the characters live on. Nicks’ world felt "as if it was made by British Leyland many years ago - as if everything was tired and used, and didn’t quite work. It is very retro - things put together by hand but not quite fitting". This vintage feel "makes the alien world feel familiar, warm and friendly. The colour palette also is muted and aged, and a bit washed out".

British Leyland Austin Cambridge. Photo: Wikipedia
The landscapes were inspired by California, and the American West. Blue Zoo built a full digital map of the set; all the parts of the set fit together in hexagons like a honeycomb. They built the whole set so they would always be able to be consistent about locations and the relative positions of all the elements.

To render it they used Mental Ray, using Final Gather. They had a number of difficulties, especially aliasing problems with the grasses.

The production is all made in the UK in London, there is no outsourcing to Asia. One advantage of this is great communication between the departments - nothing gets lost in translation. They had a very diverse cast, which they were able to record ensemble in the sound booth in Soho - which really helped to get a great performance from the voice talent.
Redboard - storyboards and 3D previs combined into one process
They used Redboard for 3D previsualisation. They created 3D models as low resolution digital assets, imported onto Redboard. Then, they sketched expressions over the top, to make the characters and expressions stronger. In effect, they combined the process of storyboard and layout by going straight to 3D layout - which saved them the work of a whole extra 3D layout process after storyboards. It also helped them to makes big changes early on with relative ease. The only disadvantage is that it tends to restrict the performance of the board artists somewhat, but by using the drawing tools on top of the 3D models they were able to make the characters look more dynamic.

In terms of the overall pipeline, they had three animation teams going at once. At the top of the pyramid was the director, below him three animation directors (one for each team) and three post production supervisors to oversee the technical process.

At the end of the talk I asked a few questions, such as how much work was each animator asked to produce every week? They had five animators on each show, working over 3 weeks to produce the whole episode. Each episode is ten minutes long, so that's two minutes per animator. That works out at around 40 seconds a week per animator, or 8 seconds a day. That is a ton of work. But, on the plus side, with smaller teams, you get more ownership by each individual artist. And, frankly, we're lucky these jobs are staying in the UK, and not going overseas.

(Editor's note: For more on Blue gfx, check out our post here. Also, to see more about Blue Zoo, click here.  To read about how you might pitch a TV series at Cartoon Forum, read this article, and for the equivalent event to pitch movie ideas at Cartoon Movie, see this post. )

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