Guru Studio on animated content, growth spurts and adaptability

Toronto’s Guru Studio creates characters and tells stories through animation. Its first original production, the Emmy-nominated Justin Time, has become a Netflix Original and a favorite among young children around the world. Another preschooler favorite is Paw Patrol, which is a creative production with Spin Master Entertainment.

Guru has several original programs in various stages of production, as well as other creative partnerships with the likes of Mattel and Nickelodeon. Guru’s programming airs around the world on Netflix, Disney Junior, Nickelodeon and other distribution channels

Over the past few years, Guru has gone through a major growth spurt. While growth is welcome, it comes with its own set of challenges. To find out more about the studio, its content and recent growth, postPerspective reached out to the Guru team — EVP of content & strategy Mary Bredin, director of IT Jason Burnard and post production manager Chris Sandy — to learn about what led up to the growth, how they handled it and how they remain successful.

Paw Patrol

You create your own content — or collaborate with others — and provide your post services. Which came first? Post services or content?
Bredin: We’re an entertainment company specializing in animation. We do post production on our shows and others, so content has always come first, but we don’t offer post as a service. Until recently, post was left to the producers to handle, but the bigger we got the more we really needed someone to focus solely on post. So last year we brought in Chris Sandy to do just that. With companies like Netflix needing 20 different language versions, it was critical to have someone in-house to do as much of the post as possible.

Are there parts of post that you don’t handle in-house?
Sandy: We take post as far as we possibly can under our own roof, further than a live-action studio could because it’s animation. We do the color correction in-house so that we have full control over the final look. Essentially, we finalize the picture and then go outside of Guru for sound design and packaging.

Tell us more about the production and post services you offer and the tools you use.
Bredin: Our services are all about creating stories and characters for our clients. The most important thing is understanding the creative vision. We view the technology as the means to that end, the tools that help us do our best work. Having said that, we use some amazing tools and we have amazingly creative technical directors.

Burnard: We use a whole gamut of software, including Maya, Harmony, Photoshop and Premiere. Houdini is a new one for us and it’s working out well. We also use Shotgun for 3D productions to help track our assets in the database. We use all types of software in different combinations at various stages of a project.

Bredin: I often tell people who don’t understand how animation works that we’re a high-tech company because of what we do with software. We bend it, twist it, push it — because for the team to develop different and unique looks in a very saturated market, we have to be really innovative with the software and hardware. Besides that, our workload and staff quadrupled in just three years. Right now Guru has about 300 people in the studio, and we’re running four shows. So we have to be efficient in order to stay on track.Hon Michael Coteau, MPP + Guru Studio | Photo by //

That’s tremendous growth in a short time. Presumably you had some growing pains. What sort of changes did you have to make?
Burnard: One example would be our storage infrastructure. We had a NAS environment before, which was suitable for our size at that time, but as we grew, NAS really started to slow us down. It couldn’t serve the files to the artists quickly enough. Then, in addition to that, we had the renderfarm also bidding for time on storage. As the production process moves along, the assets get larger and require more resources. The NAS solution would slow everything to a crawl — to the point where we had to schedule time for the artists versus time for the render during work hours.

We looked at a variety of storage solutions. After extensive research we decided to build our system using Quantum’s StorNext Pro 4K. Now, we have about 300 artists accessing the Quantum solution consistently during the day, along with another 70 render nodes. In the evenings, a large portion of the artist workstations become part of the renderfarm, totaling 200-plus render nodes. To do this, we split the storage into two parts. One is dedicated to the artists so they can quickly access the files, make changes, and put them back into storage. The other part maintains the farm and makes sure that content can be created quickly without impacting the artists’ work.

Was there any part of the storage change that was especially helpful for post?
Burnard: There’s a feature Quantum offers called DLC (Distributed LAN Client) that really comes in handy during post production, when the files are at their largest. Editors can access content very quickly and make changes on the shared storage across an IP connection without having to download files onto their local machines.

Sandy: It really streamlines our day because we can just work off the server.

Justin Time

What about the rest of the ecosystem? Can you give an example of your workflow on a recent show?
Burnard: I’ll talk about Justin Time. It was actually the first project we ran on the Quantum solution from start to finish. For each episode, artists start by creating 3D models and assets in Maya based on storyboards and Leica reels. Then the animation and background artists take the models and create the backgrounds and scenes, then basically start animation using Maya. Once done, the animated and rendered scenes are moved to the compositing teams.

Sandy: Up to this point, the picture is flat. When it moves to the comp stage, artists use Nuke to light it, give it texture and add effects.

Burnard: Incidentally, this is the point where NAS would have hit a wall, because the comp files are pretty large. We’re probably saving the production team about 20 hours every week by just that one improvement.

Sandy: Once the comp is done, they hand it off to me for post. I work with composers and a sound design company on sound effects, music and sweetening of the dialog. We bring it all together for a premix, then mix. After that, I screen it with the creative team one last time to make sure nothing was lost in rendering, and then it’s ready for the post house to do the final output for the broadcaster. They add the opening and end credits, master the tapes or files for broadcast, and perform technical QC to make sure it’s up to spec. Then we send it off to the broadcaster.

What’s next for Guru?
Bredin: We’re gearing up to start our next show, True and the Rainbow Kingdom, which is another Netflix Original. Meanwhile, we continue to work with our creative partners and develop our own new shows to sell to broadcasters. It’s the cycle of production, but we’re well equipped for the challenge.

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