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3D in the making
On behalf of the Ukgamer, Leon Poortvliet got to ask the young animation studio called Wizard Workshop some questions. Their work has been seen all over the Internet on many weblogs. After stumbling across their animation Inflate Escape, we thought it was time for a chat.

Could you please introduce yourselves to our readers?
We are Jesper, Daniel and Dave, and we are basically three students who made a 3D animation short called ĎInflate Escapeí to graduate from our school, the Grafisch Lyceum Rotterdam. Jesper is the director and animator of the short film, Daniel is modeler and animator and Dave is our effects, 2d art and music-man! Of course we did all the production ourselves, so we did various other things besides our main tasks, like sound effects etc. Because of the popularity of this short, called Inflate Escape, we decided to make ourselves a company. This would be Wizards Workshop, or WizWorkz. The thing we did with Inflate Escape is what WizWorkz does best, creating (fantasy) stories in 3D animation. We are still a very young company with little experience that is getting a lot of attention on the ĎNet because of Inflate Escape.

Can you tell us where we might know you from; might we have seen some of your work already?

Well, Inflate Escape is our first Ďcommercialí attempt. We did some work before that wandered the net, but not as much as Inflate Escape is doing now. Before Inflate Escape we did a little short called ĎCan Fight!í and a much older one called ĎA Bug In The Systemí. These animations are downloadable on our site, but they were our first 3D animation attempts. Some of us worked for professional studios and worked on 3D television series (like ĎColiní, see our show reel for reference) and other audiovisual projects. Again, Inflate Escape is our first real work to compete with the Ďbig shotsí and our best work to date.

What kind of equipment do you use to render your animations?

Well, we were students at the time of Inflate Escape, and still are. So we were bound to our own personal computers. Just think of a high-end system from 2003.

On average how long does it take to create 30 seconds of animation? Do you have to keep in mind PAL and NTSC differences?

That depends. 30 seconds of animation from our perspective can take a few hours but also can take days. Itís all depending on the complexity of the shots. This counts for rendering or animating the shots. Animating can be a hell of a job; some movements are more complex than others. So it varies how long it takes. Same thing with rendering, which we do in stages. We render separate layers of models and animations and composite them together. So your rendering is a lot quicker and you have more control of the process. For instance: for Inflate Escape, we rendered the balloon separate from the backgrounds and environments. So basically we fit three layers together in post-production. So we spread our render time also, this way also makes it shorter and you get more control. However, this technique doesnít always work in the more complex scenes.

Can you tell us how an animation comes to life? (from start to finish)

This is going to take a few pages - just kidding. This is how we did it for Inflate Escape. Basically it starts with an idea (as usual), a character or story, which lends itself perfectly for animation. You write the basic story and adjust it were needed. When that is finished you write a script, which visually describes everything we are going to see in the movie. Text, locations etc. are mentioned here.

After little rewrites you visualize the script in a storyboard. You basically draw every shot in the movie, containing the right camera positions and directions etc. To get an impression of the length of the movie or the shots, you create a moving storyboard, which are basically all the shots you've drawn, edited together. You time the shots and it moves like a slideshow. This moving storyboard gives you an impression of how the shots work on follow up and how long the shots and the movie are going to run. Parallel to this you visualize the characters and environments, which we call concept art. The art gives you an impression of the look of the character, the look of the environment, the mood of the story, the facial expressions of the character etc.

Basically you translate you movie to paper. Itís already finished on paper. Everything exists, the idea, the visual style, the look of the characters and surroundings, the story, the shots, the timing. This is very important because you can show your producer, which youíll certainly have, in what he is investing. You also set guidelines with it, so the production will go as smooth as possible. Getting everything on paper is half the job, and most important. In case of scenes where the characters speak, voices are recorded parallel to pre-production. When animating starts, rough voices have to be already done.

Then, when everything is ready, production time it is! This is basically the process of modeling the characters and environments, animating, settings lights and cameraís, texturing and shading, pre-visualizations, rendering. You can make an edit of the test animations (view port renderings) that you make while animating. So you can easily spot when something isnít working well in the overall movie so you can adjust it (mostly it will involve timing). In the post-production you composite you renders together to get the final shots (colour correction, masking is all part of the process). Then you edit them together. When your final edit is finished music and sound effects can be added to the movie. When those are finished also you render everything for your editing program and you got yourself a cool little movie.

That was it in a nutshell, but there is a lot more to it. Itís not as easy as it sounds, really.

Do you go out and study subject that pertains to your animation subject?

Of courseÖitís the only way to understand your subject. The characteristics of the subject make it recognizable and believable for the audience but you have to give it something more to bring it to life. Getting the right characteristics into the subject and then bring it to life is extremely difficult.

What is one of the hardest things to animate and why is it so hard to animate? It's my understanding that things based on particles are hard to animate.

The hardest things to animate are simple movements and little details. For instance: to let a character walk is very difficult. Itís because we all know and recognize that movement (we see it every day), we all see it when itís not well executed. Those simple movements we all recognize from our daily life are the most difficult to animate. Also the little details and movements to enhance the scene or the Ďthingí a character is doing, is very hard to animate. Itís all about timing; itís all about making it recognizable. Humour is timing. So letting your character do something funny is also very hard to do right!

Particles are hard to animate because of the same reasons we explained above. Itís been always, and still is a bit of a problem to simulate water or fire etc. You are also dealing with a lot of small parts and a lot of physics, which can be really difficult to get right. Itís a profession of itís own for that matter.

What is on average the complexity/polygon count of your scenes?

Well, we donít know the exact rate of polygons, but considering our computers and the complexity of the character and environments, it isnít much. Itís very important you can still animate your scenes, not that the complexity of the character doesnít allow it because you pc isnít up to par.

What was the best animation job this studio ever had? Why do you think it was the best?

Like we said, we are a young studio/company. We didnít have so many jobs yet, so we like the use the opportunity to get one. Just kidding!

The best project we did was no doubt Inflate Escape. Individually we did a few projects for other companies. Jesper, director of Inflate Escape did additional animation on ĎColiní, a Dutch television series, which was fun to do. Daniel and Dave, the other team members of WizWorkz, did a commercial for MyTravel, which was cool to do.

What was the worst animation job you ever had? Why do you think it was the worst?

The worst experience is yet to come Iím afraid.

What kind of person does it take to become an animator?

An animator is someone who is focused on bringing something (character, object) to life, and is fully dedicated to do so. It involves hard work. You have a good sense of timing and motion. You are observing and you study movements. Dedication is the key.

Do you guys have to write code/programs to animate certain aspects in your scenes? For example, code/programs for liquids, clothing etc.

No, not yet. There are a lot of codes or programs you can use to get your results. For Inflate Escape, we used a build-in program of Newtek Lightwave to simulate physics on the balloonsí string. It worked well so weíll stick to it for now. Most of the programs out there will do just fine or excellent for that matter. If you think you can do it better, or youíll need something that is never been done before, you have to create the code yourself. For now, we usually avoid that.

Would you like to work together with sort of big movie studio or some company like Disney, like some other animation studios have done?

It would be crazy to say No to such a question. Of course we would. It would be an honor. But we have to work on our own company first, there is a lot more to learn and do to reach that level of quality and entertainment Disney delivers.

If a gaming studio asked you to create and animate characters and worlds for them, would you accept?

Yes we would. Good animations for games are very important for the experience. It would be very cool to deliver those animations for games. Creating cinematics would also be a logical step. We are huge game fans ourselves!

Do you see any parallels in gaming animation and movie animation (in techniques, level of detail criteria, etc.)? Is there?

Well, we think there is. What we said, animation is part of the experience. If it lacks quality, the movie or game will lack that quality too. Animation makes a movie comes to life, but also brings a game to life. Itís a very important aspect for both mediums.

There are differences in techniques and level of detail. For games, you make segments of you animations, like a walk-cycle, a sword slash, reloading, running, jumping etc. You donít develop scenes, you make little animations that are activated by a button by the user of a scripted event etc. In a movie or cinematic of a game you do not make segments, but you create situations or scenes. So this brings different techniques in animating. You can put as much detail in the animations for a movie, but for gaming you still have a limited amount of space to put your animations in, and they have to be pulled of in the game by a user or event, which requires short Ďcut to the chaseí animation. It has to be good, it has to be entertaining of functional, but you can not have a reload (of a weapon) animation to last a few minutes just because you had a terrific idea with it. So you are constrained, something youíll have a little less when animating for a short film of feature film. Of course you have animated cut-scenes in games, which is basically generating a scene.

In gaming we have seen the birth of pixel and vertex shading (in games) to make games even more realistic, have those technologies also influenced your animation processes? (speed-up, support etc) Have there been such developments in movie animations as well?

Technologies do not influence our animation process, not just yet. We want technique in favor of the story, not a story build around a certain new technique, which happens a lot.

So we first develop the story and then look at the technical aspects. We do research to master those techniques so we can realize the story.

There are a lot of developments in movie animations as well. Things like hair, cloth and physics became much more important for the experience of the movie. We see a lot technical achievements on those levels. Particle systems (fire, water), texture techniques and shaders are getting more and more developed and more accessible for amateurs, semi-proís etc.

Do you guys play games yourselves; if so which ones are your favorites?

We are game fans, no doubt about that. An old time favourite game is definitely The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. More recent games like Resident Evil 4 and Guild Wars can be added to the list. We are anxious to play Shadow Of The Collossus. We really like the technical innovation and the games the Nintendo DS is spawning right now, like Meteos, Mario Kart and Kirby for example. Of course we rampage in shooters once in a while, like Unreal Tournament, FarCry or Quake.

Do you have any favourite hardware? For instance ATI or Nvidia? Intel or AMD?

Not really, all brands have good or lesser qualities. For Inflate Escape we used Nvidia and Intel mostly for our hardware. Intel has raw processing power for editing and rendering; Nvidia delivers great graphics and works fine with 3D programs. But no doubt ATI and AMD will do the same. No bad experiences with those companies also.

What can we expect to see from you guys in the future?

We can only hope for the following: more animations, more short films, commercial animations, game animations, cinematics and a feature film. These are the dreams and we hope to realize them someday. Itís a long road, but we are going to work really hard to achieve it.

We are currently working on new concepts for a new short film involving snow and one with shiny things in the sky. Pretty vague, eh? We almost certainly know they are going to be better than Inflate Escape, because we learned so much, and we got an enormous amount of feedback on it. We are also in talks with companies and school about future projects and festivities. But that maybe is a little too far ahead right now.

We hope youíll hear more of us in the future. That would be nice to start with.

What direction do they think animation will take in the future? As compared to how much animation has changed in the last 50 years, we've come from cartoons to anime in the last 50 years. Where is it heading to in the future?

People will continue to achieve more realism into the animations, short films etc. Better and more realistic effects; better shading techniques, realistic modeling, you name it. But we hope that people still will see (3D) animation as a medium in which you can achieve things, fantasies etc. that we can not achieve in real life, bringing a balloon to life for example. It doesnít have to be realistic, it has to work, it has to entertain as a whole and it has to offer an experience a normal camera canít capture. Thatís more important then a realistic shader or something. We are not saying technique isnít important, it is. Itís a technical profession. But there is more to it then just techniques and techniques only do not make the successful product. Of course, itís a different story for special effects, which require more realism every time. 3D animated feature films now are the 2D animated feature films Disney made a century ago. We donít really know where itís heading. 3D animation will last for while, but maybe 2D animation will come back again. Special effects will get more realistic for sure. More styles and gimmicks will emerge. Time will tell.

As for the Netherlands, we hope animation will get a boost here that it deserves. There are talented people here in Holland, and they must have a chance too! We hope the market will grow these years. In the countries surrounding us the animation market is much bigger, but we think the people in Holland can compete. Itís possible.

Visit us at our website: www.wizworkz.com

We would like to thank the guys over at Wizards Workshop for sparing time to answer our questions and hope to see the fruits of their labour in the near future.