Category Archives: Animation

Behind the Title: Aardman director/designer Gavin Strange

NAME: Gavin Strange

COMPANY: Bristol, England-based Aardman. They also have an office in NYC under the banner Aardman Nathan Love

CAN YOU DESCRIBE HOW YOUR CAREER AT AARDMAN BEGAN?
I can indeed! I started 10 years ago as a freelancer, joining the fledgling Interactive department (or Aardman Online as it was known back then). They needed a digital designer for a six-month project for the UK’s Channel 4.

I was a freelancer in Bristol at the time and I made it my business to be quite vocal on all the online platforms, always updating those platforms and my own website with my latest work — whether that be client work or self-initiated projects. Luckily for me, the creative director of Aardman Online, Dan Efergan, saw my work when he was searching for a designer and got in touch (it was the most exciting email ever, with the subject of “Hello from Aardman!”

The short version of this story is that I got Dan’s email, popped in for a cup of tea and a chat, and 10 years later I’m still here! Ha!

The slightly longer but still truncated version is that after the six-month freelance project was done, the role of senior designer for the online team became open and I gave up the freelance life and, very excitedly, joined the team as an official Aardmanite!

Thing is, I was never shy about sharing with my new colleagues the other work I did. My role in the beginning was primarily digital/graphic design, but in my own time, under the banner of JamFactory (my own artist alter-ego name) I put out all sorts of work that was purely passion projects; films, characters, toys, clothing, art.

Gavin Strange directed this Christmas spot for the luxury brand Fortnum & Mason .

Filmmaking was a huge passion of mine and even at the earliest stages in my career when I first started out (I didn’t go to university so I got my first role as a junior designer when I was 17) I’d always be blending graphic design and film together.

Over those 10 years at Aardman I continued to make films of all kinds and share them with my colleagues. Because of that more opportunities arose to develop my film work within my existing design role. I had the unique advantage of having a lot of brilliant mentors who guided me and helped me with my moving image projects.

Those opportunities continued to grow and happen more frequently. I was doing more and more directing here, finally becoming officially represented by Aardman and added to their roster of directors. It’s a dream come true for me, because, not only do I get to work at the place I’ve admired growing up, but I’ve been mentored and shaped by the very individuals who make this place so special — that’s a real privilege.

What I really love is that my role is so varied — I’m both a director and a senior designer. I float between projects, and I love that variety. Sometimes I’m directing a commercial, sometimes I’m illustrating icons, other times I’m animating motion graphics. To me though, I don’t see a difference — it’s all creating something engaging, beautiful and entertaining — whatever the final format or medium!

So that’s my Aardman story. Ten years in, and I just feel like I’m getting started. I love this place.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE OF DIRECTOR?
Hmm, it’s tricky, as I actually think that most people’s perception of being a director is true: it’s that person’s responsibility to bring the creative vision to life.

Maybe what people don’t know is how flexible the role is, depending on the project. I love smaller projects where I get to board, design and animate, but then I love larger jobs with a whole crew of people. It’s always hands-on, but in many different ways.

Perhaps what would surprise a lot of people is that it’s every directors responsibility to clean the toilets at the end of the day. That’s what Aardman has always told me and, of course, I honor that tradition. I mean, I haven’t actually ever seen anyone else do it, but that’s because everyone else just gets on with it quietly, right? Right!?

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Oh man, can I say everything!? I really, really enjoy the job as a whole — having that creative vision, working with yourself, your colleagues and your clients to bring it to life. Adapting and adjusting to changes and ensuring something great pops out the other end.

I really, genuinely, get a thrill seeing something on screen. I love concentrating on every single frame — it’s a win-win situation. You get to make a lovely image each frame, but when you stitch them together and play them really fast one after another, then you get a lovely movie — how great is that?

In short, I really love the sum total of the job. All those different exciting elements that all come together for the finished piece.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
I pride myself on being an optimist and being a right positive pain in the bum, so I don’t know if there’s any part I don’t enjoy — if anything is tricky I try and see it as a challenge and something that will only improve my skillset.

I know that sounds super annoying doesn’t it? I know that can seem all floaty and idealistic, but I pride myself on being a “realistic’ idealist” — recognizing the reality of a tricky situation, but seeing it through an idealistic lens.

If I’m being honest, then probably that really early stage is my least favorite — when the project is properly kicking off and you’ve got that gap between what the treatment/script/vision says it will be and the huge gulf in between that and the finished thing. That’s also the most exciting too, the not knowing how it will turn out. It’s terrifying and thrilling, in all good measure. It surprises me every single time, but I think that panic is an essential part of any creative process.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
In an alternate world, I’d be a photographer, traveling the world, documenting everything I see, living the nomadic life. But that’s still a creative role, and I still class it as the same job, really. I love my graphic design roots too — print and digital design — but, again, I see it as all the same role really.

So that means, if I didn’t have this job, I’d be roaming the lands, offering to draw/paint/film/make for anyone that wanted it! (Is that a mercenary? Is there such a thing as a visual mercenary? I don’t really have the physique for that I don’t think.)

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION?
This profession chose me. I’m just kidding, that’s ridiculous, I just always wanted to say that.

I think, like most folks, I fell into it in a series of natural choices. Art, design, graphics and games always stole my attention as a kid, and I just followed the natural path into that, which turned into my career. I’m lucky enough that I didn’t feel the need to single out any one passion, and kept them all bubbling along even as I made my career choices as designer to director. I still did and still do indulge my passion for all types of mediums in my own time.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I’m not sure. I wasn’t particularly driven or focused as a kid. I knew I loved design and art, but I didn’t know of the many, many different roles out there that existed. I like that though, I see that as a positive, and also as an achievable way to progress through a career path. I speak to a lot of students and young professionals and I think it can be so overwhelming to plot a big ‘X’ on a career map and then feel all confused about how to get there. I’m an advocate of taking it one step at a time, and make more manageable advances forward — as things always get in the way and change anyway.

I love the idea of a meandering, surprising path. Who knows where it will lead!? I think as long as your aim is to make great work, then you’ll surprise yourself where you end up.

WHAT WAS IT ABOUT DIRECTING THAT ATTRACTED YOU?
I’ve always obsessed over films, and obsessed over the creation of them. I’ll watch a behind-the-scenes on any film or bit of moving image. I just love the fact that the role is to bring something to life — it’s to oversee and create something from nothing, ensuring every frame is right. The way it makes you feel, the way it looks, the way it sounds.

It’s just such an exciting role. There’s a lot of unknowns too, on every project. I think that’s where the good stuff lies. Trusting in the process and moving forwards, embracing it.

HOW DOES DIRECTING FOR ANIMATION DIFFER FROM DIRECTING FOR LIVE ACTION — OR DOES IT?
Technically it’s different — with animation your choices are pretty much made all up front, with the storyboards and animatic as your guides, and then they’re brought to life with animation. Whereas, for me, the excitement in live action is not really knowing what you’ll get until there’s a lens on it. And even then, it can come together in a totally new way in the edit.

I don’t try to differentiate myself as an “animation director” or “live-action” director. They’re just different tools for the job. Whatever tells the best story and connects with audiences!

HOW DO YOU PICK THE PEOPLE YOU WORK WITH ON A PARTICULAR PROJECT?
Their skillset is paramount, but equally as important is their passion and their kindness. There are so many great people out there, but I think it’s so important to work with people who are great and kind. Too many people get a free pass for being brilliant and feel that celebration of their work means it’s okay to mistreat others. It’s not okay… ever. I’m lucky that Aardman is a place full of excited, passionate and engaged folk who are a pleasure to work with, because you can tell they love what they do.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
I’ve been lucky enough to work on a real variety of projects recently. I directed an ident for the rebrand of BBC2, a celebratory Christmas spot for the luxury brand Fortnum & Mason and an autobiographical motion graphics short film about Maya Angelou for BBC Radio 4.

Maya Angelou short film for BBC Radio 4

I love the variety of them; just those three projects alone were so different. The BBC2 ident was live-action in-camera effects with a great crew of people, whereas the Maya Angelou film was just me on design, direction and animation. I love hopping between projects of all types and sizes!

I’m working on development of a stop-frame short at the moment, which is all I can say for now, but just the process alone going from idea to a scribble in a notebook to a script is so exciting. Who knows what 2019 holds!?

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
Oh man, that’s a tough one! A few years back I co-directed a title sequence for a creative festival called OFFF, which happens every year in Barcelona. I worked with Aardman legend Merlin Crossingham to bring this thing to life, and it’s a proper celebration of what we both love — it ended up being what we lovingly refer to as our “stop-frame live-action motion-graphics rap-video title-sequence.” It really was all those things.

That was really special as not only did we have a great crew, I got to work with one of my favorite rappers, P.O.S., who kindly provided the beats and the raps for the film.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
– My iPhone. It’s my music player, Internet checker, email giver, tweet maker, picture capturer.
– My Leica M6 35mm camera. It’s my absolute pride and joy. I love the images it makes.
– My Screens. At work I have a 27-inch iMac and then two 25-inch monitors on either side. I just love screens. If I could have more, I would!

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I genuinely love what I do, so I rarely feel like I “need to get away from it all.” But I do enjoy life outside of work. I’m a drummer and that really helps with any and all stress really. Even just practicing on a practice pad is cathartic, but nothing compares to smashing away on a real kit.

I like to run, and I sometimes do a street dance class, which is both great fun and excruciatingly frustrating because I’m not very good.

I’m a big gamer, even though I don’t have much time for it anymore. A blast on the PS4 is a treat. In fact, after this I’m going to have a little session on God of War before bedtime.

I love hanging with my family. My wife Jane, our young son Sullivan and our dog Peggy. Just hanging out, being a dad and being a husband is the best for de-stressing. Unless Sullivan gets up at 3am, then I change my answer back to the PS4.

I’m kidding, I love my family, I wouldn’t be anything or be anywhere without them.

Making an animated series with Adobe Character Animator

By Mike McCarthy

In a departure from my normal film production technology focus, I have also been working on an animated web series called Grounds of Freedom. Over the past year I have been directing the effort and working with a team of people across the country who are helping in various ways. After a year of meetings, experimentation and work we finally started releasing finished episodes on YouTube.

The show takes place in Grounds of Freedom, a coffee shop where a variety of animated mini-figures gather to discuss freedom and its application to present-day cultural issues and events. The show is created with a workflow that weaves through a variety of Adobe Creative Cloud apps. Back in October I presented our workflow during Adobe Max in LA, and I wanted to share it with postPerspective’s readers as well.

When we first started planning for the series, we considered using live action. Ultimately, after being inspired by the preview releases of Adobe Character Animator, I decided to pursue a new digital approach to brick filming (a film made using Legos), which is traditionally accomplished through stop-motion animation. Once everyone else realized the simpler workflow possibilities and increased level of creative control offered by that new animation process, they were excited to pioneer this new approach. Animation gives us more control and flexibility over the message and dialog, lowers production costs and eases collaboration over long distances, as there is no “source footage” to share.

Creating the Characters
The biggest challenge to using Character Animator is creating digital puppets, which are deeply layered Photoshop PSDs with very precise layer naming and stacking. There are ways to generate the underlying source imagery in 3D animation programs, but I wanted the realism and authenticity of sourcing from actual photographs of the models and figures. So we took lots of 5K macro shots of our sets and characters in various positions with our Canon 60D and 70D DSLRs and cut out hundreds of layers of content in Photoshop to create our characters and all of their various possible body positions. The only thing that was synthetically generated was the various facial expressions digitally painted onto their clean yellow heads, usually to match an existing physical reference character face.

Mike McCarthy shooting stills.

Once we had our source imagery organized into huge PSDs, we rigged those puppets in Character Animator with various triggers, behaviors and controls. The walking was accomplished by cycling through various layers, instead of the default bending of the leg elements. We created arm movement by mapping each arm position to a MIDI key. We controlled facial expressions and head movement via webcam, and the mouth positions were calculated by the program based on the accompanying audio dialog.

Animating Digital Puppets
The puppets had to be finished and fully functional before we could start animating on the digital stages we had created. We had been writing the scripts during that time, parallel to generating the puppet art, so we were ready to record the dialog by the time the puppets were finished. We initially attempted to record live in Character Animator while capturing the animation motions as well, but we didn’t have the level of audio editing functionality we needed available to us in Character Animator. So during that first session, we switched over to Adobe Audition, and planned to animate as a separate process, once the audio was edited.

That whole idea of live capturing audio and facial animation data is laughable now, looking back, since we usually spend a week editing the dialog before we do any animating. We edited each character audio on a separate track and exported those separate tracks to Character Animator. We computed lipsync for each puppet based on their dedicated dialog track and usually exported immediately. This provided a draft visual that allowed us to continue editing the dialog within Premiere Pro. Having a visual reference makes a big difference when trying to determine how a conversation will feel, so that was an important step — even though we had to throw away our previous work in Character Animator once we made significant edit changes that altered sync.

We repeated the process once we had a more final edit. We carried on from there in Character Animator, recording arm and leg motions with the MIDI keyboard in realtime for each character. Once those trigger layers had been cleaned up and refined, we recorded the facial expressions, head positions and eye gaze with a single pass on the webcam. Every re-record to alter a particular section adds a layer to the already complicated timeline, so we limited that as much as possible, usually re-recording instead of making quick fixes unless we were nearly finished.

Compositing the Characters Together
Once we had fully animated scenes in Character Animator, we would turn off the background elements, and isolate each character layer to be exported in Media Encoder via dynamic link. I did a lot of testing before settling on JPEG2000 MXF as the format of choice. I wanted a highly compressed file, but need alpha channel support, and that was the best option available. Each of those renders became a character layer, which was composited into our stage layers in After Effects. We could have dynamically linked the characters directly into AE, but with that many layers that would decrease performance for the interactive part of the compositing work. We added shadows and reflections in AE, as well as various other effects.

Walking was one of the most challenging effects to properly recreate digitally. Our layer cycling in Character Animator resulted in a static figure swinging its legs, but people (and mini figures) have a bounce to their step, and move forward at an uneven rate as they take steps. With some pixel measurement and analysis, I was able to use anchor point keyframes in After Effects to get a repeating movement cycle that made the character appear to be walking on a treadmill.

I then used carefully calculated position keyframes to add the appropriate amount of travel per frame for the feet to stick to the ground, which varies based on the scale as the character moves toward the camera. (In my case the velocity was half the scale value in pixels per seconds.) We then duplicated that layer to create the reflection and shadow of the character as well. That result can then be composited onto various digital stages. In our case, the first two shots of the intro were designed to use the same walk animation with different background images.

All of the character layers were pre-comped, so we only needed to update a single location when a new version of a character was rendered out of Media Encoder, or when we brought in a dynamically linked layer. It would propagate all the necessary comp layers to generate updated reflections and shadows. Once the main compositing work was finished, we usually only needed to make slight changes in each scene between episodes. These scenes were composited at 5K, based on the resolution off the DSLR photos of the sets we had built. These 5K plates could be dynamically linked directly into Premiere Pro, and occasionally used later in the process to ripple slight changes through the workflow. For the interactive work, we got far better editing performance by rendering out flattened files. We started with DNxHR 5K assets, but eventually switched to HEVC files since they were 30x smaller and imperceptibly different in quality with our relatively static animated content.

Editing the Animated Scenes
In Premiere Pro, we had the original audio edit, and usually a draft render of the characters with just their mouths moving. Once we had the plate renders, we placed them each in their own 5K scene sub-sequence and used those sequences as source on our master timeline. This allowed us to easily update the content when new renders were available, or source from dynamically linked layers instead if needed. Our master timeline was 1080p, so with 5K source content we could push in two and a half times the frame size without losing resolution. This allowed us to digitally frame every shot, usually based on one of two rendered angles, and gave us lots of flexibility all the way to the end of the editing process.

Collaborative Benefits of Dynamic Link
While Dynamic Link doesn’t offer the best playback performance without making temp renders, it does have two major benefits in this workflow. It ripples change to the source PSD all the way to the final edit in Premiere just by bringing each app into focus once. (I added a name tag to one character’s PSD during my presentation, and 10 seconds later, it was visible throughout my final edit.) Even more importantly, it allows us to collaborate online without having to share any exported video assets. As long as each member of the team has the source PSD artwork and audio files, all we have to exchange online are the Character Animator project (which is small once the temp files are removed), the .AEP file and the .PrProj file.

This gives any of us the option to render full-quality visual assets anytime we need them, but the work we do on those assets is all contained within the project files that we sync to each other. The coffee shop was built and shot in Idaho, our voice artist was in Florida, our puppets faces were created in LA. I animate and edit in Northern California, the AE compositing was done in LA, and the audio is mixed in New Jersey. We did all of that with nothing but a Dropbox account, using the workflow I have just outlined.

Past that point, it was a fairly traditional finish, in that we edited in music and sound effects, and sent an OMF to Steve, our sound guy at DAWPro Studios http://dawpro.com/photo_gallery.html for the final mix. During that time we added other b-roll visuals or other effects, and once we had the final audio back we rendered the final result to H.264 at 1080p and uploaded to YouTube.


Mike McCarthy is an online editor/workflow consultant with over 10 years of experience on feature films and commercials. He has been involved in pioneering new solutions for tapeless workflows, DSLR filmmaking and multi-screen and surround video experiences. Check out his site.

DigitalGlue 12.3

Logan uses CG to showcase the luxury of the Lexus ES series

Logan, a creative studio with offices in Los Angeles and New York, worked on the new Lexus ES series “A Product of Mastery” campaign with agency Team One. The goal was to showcase the interior craftsmanship and amenities of this luxury sedan with detailed animations. Viewers are at first given just a glimpse of these features as the spot builds toward a reveal of the sedan’s design.

The campaign was created entirely in CG. “When we first saw Team One’s creative brief, we realized we would be able to control the environments, lighting and the overall mood better by using CG, which allowed us to make the campaign stand apart aesthetically and dramatically compared to shooting the products practically. From day one, our team and Team One were aligned on everything and they were an incredible partner throughout the entire process,” says Logan executive producer Paul Abatemarco.

The three spots in the campaign totaled 23 shots, highlighting things like the car’s high-end Mark Levinson sound system. They also reveal the craftsmanship of the driver seat’s reverse ventilation as infinite bars of light while in another spot, the sedan’s wide-view high-definition monitor is unveiled through a vivid use of color and shape.

Autodesk Maya was Logan’s main CG tool, but for the speaker spot they also called on Side Effects Houdini and Cinema 4D. All previs was done in Maya.

Editing was done on Adobe Premiere and they color graded in Resolve in their certified-Dolby Color Studio.

 According to Waka Ichinose and Sakona Kong, co-creative leads on the project, “We had a lot of visual ideas, and there was a lot of exploration on the design side of things. But finding the balance between the beautiful, abstract imagery and then clearly conveying the meaning of each product so that the viewers were intrigued and ultimately excited was a challenge. But it was also really fun and ultimately very satisfying to solve.”


Storage for VFX Studios

By Karen Moltenbrey

Visual effects are dazzling — inviting eye candy, if you will. But when you mention the term “storage,” the wide eyes may turn into a stifled yawn from viewers of the amazing content. Not so for the makers of that content.

They know that the key to a successful project rests within the reliability of their storage solutions. Here, we look at two visual effects studios — both top players in television and feature film effects — as they discuss how data storage enables them to excel at their craft.

Zoic Studios
A Culver City-based visual effects facility, with shops in Vancouver and New York, Zoic Studios has been crafting visual effects for a host of television series since its founding in 2002, starting with Firefly. In addition to a full plate of episodics, Zoic also counts numerous feature films and spots to its credits.

Saker Klippsten

According to Saker Klippsten, CTO, the facility has used a range of storage solutions over the past 16 years from BlueArc (before it was acquired by Hitachi), DataDirect Networks and others, but now uses Dell EMC’s Isilon cluster file storage system for its current needs. “We’ve been a fan of theirs for quite a long time now. I think we were customer number two,” he says, “back when they were trying to break into the media and entertainment sector.”

Locally, the studio uses Intel and NVMe drives for its workstations. NVMe, or non-volatile memory express, is an open logical device interface specification for accessing all-flash storage media attached via PCI Express (PCIe) bus. Previously, Zoic had been using Samsung SSD drives, with Samsung 1TB and 2TB EVO drives, but in the past year and a half, began migrating to NVMe on the local workstations.

Zoic transitioned to the Isilon system in 2004-2005 because of the heavy usage its renderfarm was getting. “Renderfarms work 24/7 and don’t take breaks. Our storage was getting really beat up, and people were starting to complain that it was slow accessing the file system and affecting playback of their footage and media,” explains Klippsten. “We needed to find something that could scale out horizontally.”

At the time, however, file-level storage was pretty much all that was available — “you were limited to this sort of vertical pool of storage,” says Klippsten. “You might have a lot of storage behind it, but you were still limited at the spigot, at the top end. You couldn’t get the data out fast enough.” But Isilon broke through that barrier by creating a cluster storage system that allotted the scale horizontally, “so we could balance our load, our render nodes and our artists across a number of machines, and access and update in parallel at the same time,” he adds.

Klippsten believes that solution was a big breakthrough for a lot of users; nevertheless, it took some time for others to get onboard. “In the media and entertainment industry, everyone seemed to be locked into BlueArc or NetApp,” he notes. Not so with Zoic.

Fairly recently, some new players have come onto the market, including Qumulo, touted as a “next-generation NAS company” built around advanced, distributed software running on commodity hardware. “That’s another storage platform that we have looked at and tested,” says Klippsten, adding that Zoic even has a number of nodes from the vendor.

There are other open-source options out there as well. Recently, Red Hat began offering Gluster Storage, an open, software-defined storage platform for physical, virtual and cloud environments. “And now with NVMe, it’s eliminating a lot of these problems as well,” Klippsten says.

Back when Zoic selected Isilon, there were a number of major issues that affected the studio’s decision making. As Klippsten notes, they had just opened the Vancouver office and were transferring data back and forth. “How do we back up that data? How do we protect it? Storage snapshot technology didn’t really exist at the time,” he says. But, Isilon had a number of features that the studio liked, including SyncIQ, software for asynchronous replication of data. “It could push data between different Isilon clusters from a block level, in a more automated fashion. It was very convenient. It offered a lot of parameters, such as moving data by time of day and access frequency.”

SyncIQ enabled the studio to archive the data. And for dealing with interim changes, such as a mistakenly deleted file, Zoic found Isilon’s SnapshotIQ ideal for fast data recovery. Moreover, Isilon was one of the first to support Aspera, right on the Isilon cluster. “You didn’t have to run it on a separate machine. It was a huge benefit because we transfer a lot of secure, encrypted data between us and a lot of our clients,” notes Klippsten.

Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Within the pipeline, Zoic’s storage system sits at the core. It is used immediately as the studio ingests the media, whether it is downloaded or transferred from hard drives – terabytes upon terabytes of data. The data is then cleaned up and distributed to project folders for tasks assigned to the various artists. In essence, it acts as a holding tank for the main production storage as an artist begins working on those specific shots, Klippsten explains.

Aside from using the storage at the floor level, the studio also employs it at the archive level, for data recovery as well as material that might not be accessed for weeks. “We have sort of a tiered level of storage — high-performance and deep-archival storage,” he says.

And the system is invaluable, as Zoic is handling 400 to 500 shots a week. If you multiply that by the number of revisions and versions that take place during that time frame, it adds up to hundreds of terabytes weekly. “Per day, we transfer between LA, Vancouver and New York somewhere around 20TB to 30TB,” he estimates. “That number increases quite a bit because we do a lot of cloud rendering. So, we’re pushing a lot of data up to Google and back for cloud rendering, and all of that hits our Isilon storage.”

When Zoic was founded, it originally saw itself as a visual effects company, but at the end of the day, Klippsten says they’re really a technology company that makes pretty pictures. “We push data and move it around to its limits. We’re constantly coming up with new, creative ideas, trying to find partners that can help provide solutions collaboratively if we cannot create them ourselves. The shot cost is constantly being squeezed by studios, which want these shots done faster and cheaper. So, we have to make sure our artists are working faster, too.”

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Recently, Zoic has been working on a TV project involving a good deal of water simulations and other sims in general — which rapidly generate a tremendous amount of data. Then the data is transferred between the LA and Vancouver facilities. Having storage capable of handling that was unheard of three years ago, Klippsten says. However, Zoic has managed to do so using Isilon along with some off-the-shelf Supermicro storage with NVMe drives, enabling its dynamics department to tackle this and other projects. “When doing full simulation, you need to get that sim in front of the clients as soon as possible so they can comment on it. Simulations take a long time — we’re doing 26GB/sec, which is crazy. It’s close to something in the high-performance computing realm.”

With all that considered, it is hardly surprising to hear Klippsten say that Zoic could not function without a solid storage solution. “It’s funny. When people talk about storage, they are always saying they don’t have enough of it. Even when you have a lot of storage, it’s always running at 99 percent full, and they wonder why you can’t just go out to Best Buy and purchase another hard drive. It doesn’t work that way!”

Milk VFX
Founded just five years ago, Milk VFX is an independent visual effects facility in the UK with locations in London and Cardiff, Wales. While Milk VFX may be young, it was founded by experienced and award-winning VFX supervisors and producers. And the awards have continued, including an Oscar (Ex-Machina), an Emmy (Sherlock) and three BAFTAs, as the studio creates innovative and complex work for high-end television and feature films.

Benoit Leveau

With so much precious data, and a lot of it, the studio has to ensure that its work is secure and the storage system is keeping pace with the staff using it. When the studio was set up, it installed Pixit Media’s PixStor, a parallel file system with limitless storage, for its central storage solution. And, it has been growing with the company ever since. (Milk uses almost no local storage, except for media playback.)

“It was a carefully chosen solution due to its enterprise-level performance,” says Benoit Leveau, head of pipeline at Milk, about the decision to select PixStor. “It allowed us to expand when setting up our second studio in Cardiff and our rendering solutions in the cloud.”

When Milk was shopping for a storage offering while opening the studio, four things were forefront in their minds: speed, scalability, performance and reliability. Those were the functions the group wanted from its storage system — exactly the same four demands that the projects at the studios required.

“A final image requires gigabytes, sometimes terabytes, of data in the form of detailed models, high-resolution textures, animation files, particles and effects caches and so forth,” says Leveau. “We need to be able to review 4K image sequences in real time, so it’s really essential for daily operation.”

This year alone, Milk has completed a number of high-end visual effects sequences for feature films such as Adrift, serving as the principal vendor on this true story about a young couple lost at sea during one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. The Milk team created all the major water and storm sequences, including bespoke 100-foot waves, all of which were rendered entirely in the cloud.

As Leveau points out, one of the shots in the film was more than 60TB, as it required complex ocean simulations. “We computed the ocean simulations on our local renderfarm, but the rendering was done in the cloud, and with this setup, we were able to access the data from everywhere almost transparently for the artists,” he explains.

Adrift

The studio also recently completed work on the blockbuster Fantastic Beasts sequel, The Crimes of Grindelwald.

For television, the studio created visual effects for an episode of the Netflix Altered Carbon sci-fi series, where people can live forever, as they digitally store their consciousness (stacks) and then download themselves into new bodies (sleeves). For the episode, the Milk crew created forest fires and the aftermath, as well as an alien planet and escape ship. For Origin, an action-thriller, the team generated 926 VFX shots in 4K for the 10-part series, spanning a wide range of work. Milk is also serving as the VFX vendor for Good Omens, a six-part horror/fantasy/drama series.

“For Origin, all the data had to be online for the duration of the four-month project. At the same time, we commenced work as the sole VFX vendor on the BBC/Amazon Good Omens series, which is now rapidly filling up our PixStor, hence the importance of scalability!” says Leveau.

Main Image: Origin via Milk VFX


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran VFX and post writer.


Behind the Title: Lobo EP, Europe Loic Francois Marie Dubois

NAME: Loic Francois Marie Dubois

COMPANY: New York- and São Paulo, Brazil-based Lobo

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
We are a full-service creative studio offering design, live action, stop motion, 3D & 2D, mixed media, print, digital, AR and VR.

Day One spot Sunshine

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Creative executive producer for Europe and formerly head of production. I’m based in Brazil, but work out of the New York office as well.

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Managing, hiring creative teams, designers, producers and directors for international productions (USA, Europe, Asia). Also, I have served as the creative executive director for TBWA Paris on the McDonald’s Happy Meal global campaign for the last five years. Now as creative EP for Europe, I am also responsible for streamlining information from pre-production to post production between all production parties for a more efficient and prosperous sales outcome.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
The patience and the fun psychological side you need to have to handle all the production peeps, agencies, and clients.

WHAT TOOLS DO YOU USE?
Excel, Word, Showbiz, Keynote, Pages, Adobe Package (Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, Premiere, InDesign), Maya, Flame, Nuke and AR/VR technology.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Working with talented creative people on extraordinary projects with a stunning design and working on great narratives, such as the work we have done for clients including Interface, Autism Speaks, Imaginary Friends, Unicef and Travelers, to name a few.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Monday morning.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
Early afternoon between Europe closing down and the West Coast waking up.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Meditating in Tibet…

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
Since I was 13 years old. After shooting and editing a student short film (an Oliver Twist adaptation) with a Bolex 16mm on location in London and Paris, I was hooked.

Promoting Lacta 5Star chocolate bars

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
An animated campaign for the candy company Mondelez’s Lacta 5Star chocolate bars; an animated short film for the Imaginary Friends Society; a powerful animated short on the dangers of dating abuse and domestic violence for nonprofit Day One; a mixed media campaign for Chobani called FlipLand; and a broadcast spot for McDonald’s and Spider-Man.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
My three kids 🙂

It’s really hard to choose one project, as they are all equally different and amazing in their own way, but maybe D&AD Wish You Were Here. It stands out for the number of awards it won and the collective creative production process.

NAME PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
The Internet.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Meditation and yoga.


Chaos Group to support Cinema 4D with two rendering products

At the Maxon Supermeet 2018 event, Chaos Group announced its plans to support the Maxon Cinema 4D community with two rendering products: V-Ray for Cinema 4D and Corona for Cinema 4D. Based on V-Ray’s Academy Award-winning raytracing technology, the development of V-Ray for Cinema 4D will be focused on production rendering for high-end visual effects and motion graphics. Corona for Cinema 4D will focus on artist-friendly design visualization.

Chaos Group, which acquired the V-Ray for Cinema 4D product from LAUBlab and will lead development on the product for the first time, will offer current customers free migration to a new update, V-Ray 3.7 for Cinema 4D. All users who move to the new version will receive a free V-Ray for Cinema 4D license, including all product updates, through January 15, 2020. Moving forward, Chaos Group will be providing all support, sales and product development in-house.

In addition to ongoing improvements to V-Ray for Cinema 4D, Chaos Group is also released the Corona for Cinema 4D beta 2 at Supermeet, with the final product to follow in January 2019.

Main Image: Daniel Sian created Robots using V-ray for Cinema 4D.


Promoting a Mickey Mouse watch without Mickey

Imagine creating a spot for a watch that celebrates the 90th anniversary of Mickey Mouse — but you can’t show Mickey Mouse. Already Been Chewed (ABC), a design and motion graphics studio, developed a POV concept that met this challenge and also tied in the design of the actual watch.

Nixon, a California-based premium watch company that is releasing a series of watches around the Mickey Mouse anniversary, called on Already Been Chewed to create the 20-second spot.

“The challenge was that the licensing arrangement that Disney made with Nixon doesn’t allow Mickey’s image to be in the spot,” explains Barton Damer, creative director at Already Been Chewed. “We had to come up with a campaign that promotes the watch and has some sort of call to action that inspires people to want this watch. But, at the same time, what were we going to do for 20 seconds if we couldn’t show Mickey?”

After much consideration, Damer and his team developed a concept to determine if they could push the limits on this restriction. “We came up with a treatment for the video that would be completely point-of-view, and the POV would do a variety of things for us that were working in our favor.”

The solution was to show Mickey’s hands and feet without actually showing the whole character. In another instance, a silhouette of Mickey is seen in the shadows on a wall, sending a clear message to viewers that the spot is an official Disney and Mickey Mouse release and not just something that was inspired by Mickey Mouse.

Targeting the appropriate consumer demographic segment was another key issue. “Mickey Mouse has long been one of the most iconic brands in the history of branding, so we wanted to make sure that it also appealed to the Nixon target audience and not just a Disney consumer,” Damer says. “When you think of Disney, you could brand Mickey for children or you could brand it for adults who still love Mickey Mouse. So, we needed to find a style and vibe that would speak to the Nixon target audience.”

The Already Been Chewed team chose surfing and skateboarding as dominant themes, since 16-to 30-year-olds are the target demographic and also because Disney is a West Coast brand.
Damer comments, “We wanted to make sure we were creating Mickey in a kind of 3D, tangible way, with more of a feature film and 3D feel. We felt that it should have a little bit more of a modern approach. But at the same time, we wanted to mesh it with a touch of the old-school vibe, like 1950s cartoons.”

In that spirit, the team wanted the action to start with Mickey walking from his car and then culminate at the famous Venice Beach basketball courts and skate park. Here’s the end result.

“The challenge, of course, is how to do all this in 15 seconds so that we can show the logos at the front and back and a hero image of the watch. And that’s where it was fun thinking it through and coming up with the flow of the spot and seamless transitions with no camera cuts or anything like that. It was a lot to pull off in such a short time, but I think we really succeeded.”

Already Been Chewed achieved these goals with an assist from Maxon’s Cinema 4D and Adobe After Effects. With Damer as creative lead, here’s the complete cast of characters: head of production Aaron Smock; 3D design was via Thomas King, Barton Damer, Bryan Talkish, Lance Eckert; animation was provided by Bryan Talkish and Lance Eckert; character animation was via Chris Watson; soundtrack was DJ Sean P.


How to use animation in reality TV

By Aline Maalouf

The world of animation is changing and evolving at a rapid pace — bringing photorealistic imagery to the small screen and the big screen — animation that is rendered with such detail, you can imagine the exact sensation of the water, feel the heat of the sunshine and experience the wilderness. Just look at the difference between the first Toy Story film, released in 1995, up to Toy Story 3’s release in 2010.

Over 15 years, there is a complete world of difference — we progressed from 2D to 3D, the colors are poignant, we visualize changes from shadows and lightness and the sequences move much more quickly. The third film was a major feat for a studio, and now either years later, the technology there is already on the cusp of being old news.

Technology is advancing faster than it can be implemented — and it isn’t just the Pixar’s and Disney’s of the world who have to stay ahead of the curve with each sequence released. Boutique companies are under just as much pressure to continually push the envelope on what’s possible in the animation space, while still delivering top results to clients within the sometimes demanding time constraints of film and television.

Aline Maalouf

Working in reality TV presents its own set of challenges in comparison to a fully animated program. To start, you need to seamlessly combine real-life interaction with animation — often showcasing what is there against what could be there. As animation continues to evolve, integrating with emerging technology, such as virtual reality, augmented reality and immersive platforms, understanding how users interact with the platform and how to best engage the audience will be crucial.

Here are four ways using animation can enhance a reality TV program:

Showcasing a World of Possibilities
With the introduction of 3D animation, we are able to create imagery so realistic that it is often hard to define what is “real” and what is virtually designed. The real anchor of hyper-realistic animation is the ability to add and play with light and shadows. Layers of light allow us to see reflection, to experience a room from a new angle and to challenge viewers to experience the room in both the daylight and at nighttime.

For example, within our work on Gusto TV’s Where To I Do, couples must select their perfect wedding venue — often viewing a blank space and trying to envision their theme inside it. Using animation, those spaces are brought to life in full, rich color, from dawn to the glaring midday sun to dusk and midnight — no additional film crew time required.

Speeds up Production Process
Gone are the days where studios are spending large budgets resetting room after room to showcase before-and-after options, particularly when it comes to renovation shows. It’s time-consuming and laborious. Working with an animation studio allows producers to showcase a renovated room three different ways, and the audience develops an early feel for the space without the need to see it physically set up.

It’s faster (with the right tools and technology to match TV timelines), allows more flexibility and eliminates the need to build costly sets for one-time use. Even outside of reality TV, the use of greenroom space, green stages and GCI technology allows a flexibility to filming that didn’t necessarily exist two decades ago.

Makes Viewers Part of the Program
If animation is done well, it should make the viewers feel more invested in the program — as if they are part of this experience. Animation should not break what is happening in reality. In order to make this happen, it is essential to have up-to-date software and hardware that bridges the gap between the vision and what is actually accomplished within each scene.

Software and hardware go hand-in-hand in creating high-quality animations. If the software is up to date and not the hardware, the work will be compromised as the rendering process will not be able to support the full project scope. One ripple in the wave of animation and the viewer is reminded that what they’re seeing doesn’t really exist.

Opens Doors to Immersive Experiences
Although we have scratched the surface of what’s possible when it comes to virtual reality, augmented reality and generating immersive experiences for viewers from the comfort of their living rooms, I anticipate there will be a wave of growth in this space over the next five years. Our studio is already building some of these capabilities into our current projects. Overall, studios and production companies are looking for new ways to engage an audience that is exposed to hours of content a day.

Rather than just simply viewing the animation of a wedding venue, viewers will be able to click through the space — guiding their own passage from point A to point B. They become the host of their own journey.

Programs of all genres are dazzling their audiences with the future of animation and reality TV is right there with it.


Aline Maalouf is co-founder/EVP of Neezo Studios, which has produced the animation and renderings for all six seasons of the Property Brothers and all live episodes of Brother vs Brother, in addition to other network shows.


Sony Imageworks provides big effects, animation for Warner’s Smallfoot

By Randi Altman

The legend of Bigfoot: a giant, hairy two-legged creature roaming the forests and giving humans just enough of a glimpse to freak them out. Sightings have been happening for centuries with no sign of slowing down — seriously, Google it.

But what if that story was turned around, and it was Bigfoot who was freaked out by a Smallfoot (human)? Well, that is exactly the premise of the new Warner Bros. film Smallfoot, directed by Karey Kirkpatrick. It’s based on the book “Yeti Tracks” by Sergio Pablos.

Karl Herbst

Instead of a human catching a glimpse of the mysterious giant, a yeti named Migo (Channing Tatum) sees a human (James Corden) and tells his entire snow-filled village about the existence of Smallfoot. Of course, no one believes him so he goes on a trek to find this mythical creature and bring him home as proof.

Sony Pictures Imageworks was tasked with all of the animation and visual effects work on the film, while Warner Animation film did all of the front end work — such as adapting the script, creating the production design, editing, directing, producing and more. We reached out to Imageworks VFX supervisor Karl Herbst (Hotel Transylvania 2) to find out more about creating the animation and effects for Smallfoot.

The film has a Looney Tunes-type feel with squash and stretch. Did this provide more freedom or less?
In general, it provided more freedom since it allowed the animation team to really have fun with gags. It also gave them a ton of reference material to pull from and come up with new twists on older ideas. Once out of animation, depending on how far the performance was pushed, other departments — like the character effects team — would have additional work due to all of the exaggerated movements. But all of the extra work was worth it because everyone really loved seeing the characters pushed.

We also found that as the story evolved, Migo’s journey became more emotionally driven; We needed to find a style that also let the audience truly connect with what he was going through. We brought in a lot more subtlety, and a more truthful physicality to the animation when needed. As a result, we have these incredibly heartfelt performances and moments that would feel right at home in an old Road Runner short. Yet it all still feels like part of the same world with these truly believable characters at the center of it.

Was scale between such large and small characters a challenge?
It was one of the first areas we wanted to tackle since the look of the yeti’s fur next to a human was really important to filmmakers. In the end, we found that the thickness and fidelity of the yeti hair had to be very high so you could see each hair next to the hairs of the humans.

It also meant allowing the rigs for the human and yetis to be flexible enough to scale them as needed to have moments where they are very close together and they did not feel so disproportionate to each other. Everything in our character pipeline from animation down to lighting had to be flexible in dealing with these scale changes. Even things like subsurface scattering in the skin had dials in it to deal with when Percy, or any human character, was scaled up or down in a shot.

How did you tackle the hair?
We updated a couple of key areas in our hair pipeline starting with how we would build our hair. In the past, we would make curves that look more like small groups of hairs in a clump. In this case, we made each curve its own strand of a single hair. To shade this hair in a way that allowed artists to have better control over the look, our development team created a new hair shader that used true multiple-scattering within the hair.

We then extended that hair shading model to add control over the distribution around the hair fiber to model the effect of animal hair, which tends to scatter differently than human hair. This gave artists the ability to create lots of different hair looks, which were not based on human hair, as was the case with our older models.

Was rendering so many fury characters on screen at a time an issue?
Yes. In the past this would have been hard to shade all at once, mostly due to our reliance on opacity to create the soft shadows needed for fur. With the new shading model, we were no longer using opacity at all so the number of rays needed to resolve the hair was lower than in the past. But we now needed to resolve the aliasing due to the number of fine hairs (9 million for LeBron James’ Gwangi).

We developed a few other new tools within our version of the Arnold renderer to help with aliasing and render time in general. The first was adaptive sampling, which would allow us to up the anti-aliasing samples drastically. This meant some pixels would only use a few samples while others would use very high sampling. Whereas in the past, all pixels would get the same number. This focused our render times to where we needed it, helping to reduce overall rendering. Our development team also added the ability for us to pick a render up from its previous point. This meant that at a lower quality level we could do all of our lighting work, get creative approval from the filmmakers and pick up the renders to bring them to full quality not losing the time already spent.

What tools were used for the hair simulations specifically, and what tools did you call on in general?
We used Maya and the Nucleus solvers for all of the hair simulations, but developed tools over them to deal with so much hair per character and so many characters on screen at once. The simulation for each character was driven by their design and motion requirements.

The Looney Tunes-inspired design and motion created a challenge around how to keep hair simulations from breaking with all of the quick and stretched motion while being able to have light wind for the emotional subtle moments. We solved all of those requirements by using a high number of control hairs and constraints. Meechee (Zendaya) used 6,000 simulation curves with over 200 constraints, while Migo needed 3,200 curves with around 30 constraints.

Stonekeeper (Common) was the most complex of the characters, with long braided hair on his head, a beard, shaggy arms and a cloak made of stones. He required a cloth simulation pass, a rigid body simulation was performed for the stones and the hair was simulated on top of the stones. Our in-house tool called Kami builds all of the hair at render time and also allows us to add procedurals to the hair at that point. We relied on those procedurals to create many varied hair looks for all of the generics needed to fill the village full of yetis.

How many different types of snow did you have?
We created three different snow systems for environmental effects. The first was a particle simulation of flakes for near-ground detail. The second was volumetric effects to create lots of atmosphere in the backgrounds that had texture and movement. We used this on each of the large sets and then stored those so lighters could pick which parts they wanted in each shot. To also help with artistically driving the look of each shot, our third system was a library of 2D elements that the effects team rendered and could be added during compositing to add details late in shot production.

For ground snow, we had different systems based on the needs in each shot. For shallow footsteps, we used displacement of the ground surface with additional little pieces of geometry to add crumble detail around the prints. This could be used in foreground or background.

For heavy interactions, like tunneling or sliding in the snow, we developed a new tool we called Katyusha. This new system combined rigid body destruction with fluid simulations to achieve all of the different states snow can take in any given interaction. We then rendered these simulations as volumetrics to give the complex lighting look the filmmakers were looking for. The snow, being in essence a cloud, allowed light transport through all of the different layers of geometry and volume that could be present at any given point in a scene. This made it easier for the lighters to give the snow its light look in any given lighting situation.

Was there a particular scene or effect that was extra challenging? If so, what was it and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge to the film as a whole was the environments. The story was very fluid, so design and build of the environments came very late in the process. Coupling that with a creative team that liked to find their shots — versus design and build them — meant we needed to be very flexible on how to create sets and do them quickly.

To achieve this, we begin by breaking the environments into a subset of source shapes that could be combined in any fashion to build Yeti Mountain, Yeti Village and the surrounding environments. Surfacing artists then created materials that could be applied to any set piece, allowing for quick creative decisions about what was rock, snow and ice, and creating many different looks. All of these materials were created using PatternCreate networks as part of our OSL shaders. With them we could heavily leverage the portable procedural texturing between assets making location construction quicker, more flexible and easier to dial.

To get the right snow look for all levels of detail needed, we used a combination of textured snow, modeled snow and a simulation of geometric snowfall, which all needed to shade the same. For the simulated snowfall we created a padding system that could be run at any time on an environment giving it a fresh coating of snow. We did this so that filmmakers could modify sets freely in layout and not have to worry about broken snow lines. Doing all of that with modeled snow would have been too time-consuming and costly. This padding system worked not only in organic environments, like Yeti Village, but also in the Human City at the end of the film. The snow you see in the Human City is a combination of this padding system in the foreground and textures in the background.

Creating super sounds for Disney XD’s Marvel Rising: Initiation

By Jennifer Walden

Marvel revealed “the next generation of Marvel heroes for the next generation of Marvel fans” in a behind-the-scenes video back in December. Those characters stayed tightly under wraps until August 13, when a compilation of animated shorts called Marvel Rising: Initiation aired on Disney XD. Those shorts dive into the back story of the new heroes and give audiences a taste of what they can expect in the feature-length animated film Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors that aired for the first time on September 30 on both the Disney Channel and Disney XD simultaneously.

L-R: Pat Rodman and Eric P. Sherman

Handling audio post on both the animated shorts and the full-length feature is the Bang Zoom team led by sound supervisor Eric P. Sherman and chief sound engineer Pat Rodman. They worked on the project at the Bang Zoom Atomic Olive location in Burbank. The sounds they created for this new generation of Marvel heroes fit right in with the established Marvel universe but aren’t strictly limited to what already exists. “We love to keep it kind of close, unless Marvel tells us that we should match a specific sound. It really comes down to whether it’s a sound for a new tech or an old tech,” says Rodman.

Sherman adds, “When they are talking about this being for the next generation of fans, they’re creating a whole new collection of heroes, but they definitely want to use what works. The fans will not be disappointed.”

The shorts begin with a helicopter flyover of New York City at night. Blaring sirens mix with police radio chatter as searchlights sweep over a crime scene on the street below. A SWAT team moves in as a voice blasts over a bullhorn, “To the individual known as Ghost Spider, we’ve got you surrounded. Come out peacefully with your hands up and you will not be harmed.” Marvel Rising: Initiation wastes no time in painting a grim picture of New York City. “There is tension and chaos. You feel the oppressiveness of the city. It’s definitely the darker side of New York,” says Sherman.

The sound of the city throughout the series was created using a combination of sourced recordings of authentic New York City street ambience and custom recordings of bustling crowds that Rodman captured at street markets in Los Angeles. Mix-wise, Rodman says they chose to play the backgrounds of the city hotter than normal just to give the track a more immersive feel.

Ghost Spider
Not even 30 seconds into the shorts, the first new Marvel character makes her dramatic debut. Ghost Spider (Dove Cameron), who is also known as Spider Gwen, bursts from a third-story window, slinging webs at the waiting officers. Since she’s a new character, Rodman notes that she’s still finding her way and there’s a bit of awkwardness to her character. “We didn’t want her to sound too refined. Her tech is good, but it’s new. It’s kind of like Spider-Man first starting out as a kid and his tech was a little off,” he says.

Sound designer Gordon Hookailo spent a lot of time crafting the sound of Spider Gwen’s webs, which according to Sherman have more of a nylon, silky kind of sound than Spider-Man’s webs. There’s a subliminal ghostly wisp sound to her webs also. “It’s not very overt. There’s just a little hint of a wisp, so it’s not exactly like regular Spider-Man’s,” explains Rodman.

Initially, Spider Gwen seems to be a villain. She’s confronted by the young-yet-authoritative hero Patriot (Kamil McFadden), a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. who was trained by Captain America. Patriot carries a versatile, high-tech shield that can do lots of things, like become a hovercraft. It shoots lasers and rockets too. The hoverboard makes a subtle whooshy, humming sound that’s high-tech in a way that’s akin to the Goblin’s hovercraft. “It had to sound like Captain America too. We had to make it match with that,” notes Rodman.

Later on in the shorts, Spider Gwen’s story reveals that she’s actually one of the good guys. She joins forces with a crew of new heroes, starting with Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl.

Ms. Marvel (Kathreen Khavari) has the ability to stretch and grow. When she reaches out to grab Spider Gwen’s leg, there’s a rubbery, creaking sound. When she grows 50 feet tall she sounds 50 feet tall, complete with massive, ground shaking footsteps and a lower ranged voice that’s sweetened with big delays and reverbs. “When she’s large, she almost has a totally different voice. She’s sound like a large, forceful woman,” says Sherman.

Squirrel Girl
One of the favorites on the series so far is Squirrel Girl (Milana Vayntrub) and her squirrel sidekick Tippy Toe. Squirrel Girl has  the power to call a stampede of squirrels. Sound-wise, the team had fun with that, capturing recordings of animals small and large with their Zoom H6 field recorder. “We recorded horses and dogs mainly because we couldn’t find any squirrels in Burbank; none that would cooperate, anyway,” jokes Rodman. “We settled on a larger animal sound that we manipulated to sound like it had little feet. And we made it sound like there are huge numbers of them.”

Squirrel Girl is a fan of anime, and so she incorporates an anime style into her attacks, like calling out her moves before she makes them. Sherman shares, “Bang Zoom cut its teeth on anime; it’s still very much a part of our lifeblood. Pat and I worked on thousands of episodes of anime together, and we came up with all of these techniques for making powerful power moves.” For example, they add reverb to the power moves and choose “shings” that have an anime style sound.

What is an anime-style sound, you ask? “Diehard fans of anime will debate this to the death,” says Sherman. “It’s an intuitive thing, I think. I’ll tell Pat to do that thing on that line, and he does. We’re very much ‘go with the gut’ kind of people.

“As far as anime style sound effects, Gordon [Hookailo] specifically wanted to create new anime sound effects so we didn’t just take them from an existing library. He created these new, homegrown anime effects.”

Quake
The other hero briefly introduced in the shorts is Quake (Chloe Bennet), who is the same actress who plays Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Sherman says, “Gordon is a big fan of that show and has watched every episode. He used that as a reference for the sound of Quake in the shorts.”

The villain in the shorts has so far remained nameless, but when she first battles Spider Gwen the audience sees her pair of super-daggers that pulse with a green glow. The daggers are somewhat “alive,” and when they cut someone they take some of that person’s life force. “We definitely had them sound as if the power was coming from the daggers and not from the person wielding them,” explains Rodman. “The sounds that Gordon used were specifically designed — not pulled from a library — and there is a subliminal vocal effect when the daggers make a cut. It’s like the blade is sentient. It’s pretty creepy.”

Voices
The character voices were recorded at Bang Zoom, either in the studio or via ISDN. The challenge was getting all the different voices to sound as though they were in the same space together on-screen. Also, some sessions were recorded with single mics on each actor while other sessions were recorded as an ensemble.

Sherman notes it was an interesting exercise in casting. Some of the actors were YouTube stars (who don’t have much formal voice acting experience) and some were experienced voice actors. When an actor without voiceover experience comes in to record, the Bang Zoom team likes to start with mic technique 101. “Mic technique was a big aspect and we worked on that. We are picky about mic technique,” says Sherman. “But, on the other side of that, we got interesting performances. There’s a realism, a naturalness, that makes the characters very relatable.”

To get the voices to match, Rodman spent a lot of time using Waves EQ, Pro Tools Legacy Pitch, and occasionally Waves UltraPitch for when an actor slipped out of character. “They did lots of takes on some of these lines, so an actor might lose focus on where they were, performance-wise. You either have to pull them back in with EQ, pitching or leveling,” Rodman explains.

One highlight of the voice recording process was working with voice actor Dee Bradley Baker, who did the squirrel voice for Tippy Toe. Most of Tippy Toe’s final track was Dee Bradley Baker’s natural voice. Rodman rarely had to tweak the pitch, and it needed no other processing or sound design enhancement. “He’s almost like a Frank Welker (who did the voice of Fred Jones on Scooby-Doo, the voice of Megatron starting with the ‘80s Transformers franchise and Nibbler on Futurama).

Marvel Rising: Initiation was like a training ground for the sound of the feature-length film. The ideas that Bang Zoom worked out there were expanded upon for the soon-to-be released Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors. Sherman concludes, “The shorts gave us the opportunity to get our arms around the property before we really dove into the meat of the film. They gave us a chance to explore these new characters.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.