Nelvana finds Animo a good fit

'This is a good time to get our feet wet'...

‘This is a good time to get our feet wet’

When Toronto-based Nelvana signed a computer software licence deal with the u.k.’s Cambridge Animation Systems earlier this year, it aligned itself as one of North America’s largest 2D computer animation centers for television series production.

As traditional means of animation production give way to computerized systems, Nelvana’s Animo acquisition comes at an opportune time.

‘This is a good time to get our feet wet,’ says Mac Holyoke, system director of the Nelvana digital paint and camera department. ‘When it’s impossible to compete with traditional methods in three or four years, we’ll already have that experience under our belt.’

The best fit

Altogether, Nelvana looked at five different systems, including Cambridge’s. ‘We went with the Animo,’ says Holyoke, ‘because it was the system that best fit into our production techniques, flexibility of software, potential for growth, and its ability to handle volume. The software combined present capabilities and future possibilities, and the hardware was chosen for its price performance.’

Established in 1991, Cambridge launched the Animo software at nab last year and currently has over 150 licences around the world. The system, which computerizes the ink, painting and camera stages of traditional animation production, employs the 586 Pentium pc and the Nextstep operating system for which Animo software modules have been specifically designed.

Located adjacent to its Toronto headquarters, Nelvana’s new $1.5 million investment will eventually accommodate two television series – the fourth season of Rupert and a new half-hour animated series for Nickelodeon and cbc, Little Bear. Hardware for the system began arriving in late January and went into action late this month. Rupert will be the first series produced on the system, with Little Bear being added sometime in April or May when the department – headed by Holyoke and technical director George Roy – is operating at full capacity: two shifts each creating one episode of each series every two weeks.

Line drawings remain

With the Animo software system, animation production up to the line drawing stage remains the same. ‘All the original animator’s line drawings are maintained. Animation still happens with a human hand, a pencil and a bunch of sheets of paper,’ says Holyoke. It is from this point on that traditional animation techniques are left behind.

The original line drawings and in-betweens are scanned into the computer where they are electronically cleaned (still maintaining a natural ‘human look’ to the lines). A computer-style vectorgraphic is placed underneath the animator’s line and painted by painters based on original series color design models.

From here, the character level drawings are placed on top of hand-painted background scenes which have been scanned into files and go to the compositing level. At this stage, which replaces the traditional cel animation stand camera stage, camera moves and special effects are added.

The scene is then previewed and changes can be easily made, if needed. Completed frames are rendered onto a digital disc recorder and transferred to digital Betacam videotape for the online edit.

‘Acquiring the system was more a control issue than one of saving production time,’ says Holyoke. ‘The Animo allows us more flexibility to do revisions. It’ll give higher resolution with less artifacts, such as cel popping and flaring and negative dirt. As well, it’s possible to do things you couldn’t do with traditional ways, such as preview how it’s going to look.’

Training of new department staff began early this month. By full production time, a total of 40 artistic, creative and technical personnel will be on board. Holyoke, Roy and Cambridge animation trainer Chris Gavin head up the three-week training sessions.

Because the field of computer animation production is new, hiring new employees proved a challenging task. Says Holyoke: ‘We had to adapt other professions into this new one because there were no real guidelines to follow. Fifty percent of the new staff have come from existing Nelvana staff who wanted to retrain in a different area, the remaining 50% is new personnel.’

Nelvana’s new team consists of a mix of experienced computer and production people, creating an environment where people learn various parts of the job from each other. ‘With everyone coming in with a different range of strengths, we won’t have to do the same training for everybody. The interplay of different people with different backgrounds will get us further than if we had hired all computer people or production people and create a balance that will elevate the training process faster,’ says Holyoke.

Nelvana plans to iron out any production details over the next couple of months, sharing what it learns about the system with Cambridge. ‘The system has been proven on a smaller scale and we’re going to help to take it to another level,’ says Holyoke.

For the time being, however, the Animo will be used strictly for television series, with no immediate plans to use the system for Nelvana’s commercial subsidiary Bear Spots or expand into games, he says.