VANCOUVER — Animation studio Rainmaker Entertainment has an unmatched talent for creating memorable animated creatures. In addition to a long list of ongoing film and television projects, Rainmaker has recently been using Autodesk Maya to create a series of short animated films designed to transition the studio into high end feature film work including the story of Luna, which is screening at festivals around the world.
By presenting the company’s new animated mascots — Ting, a small, but extremely smart extraterrestrial, and Juma, an enormous, yet loveable caveman – in a series of three very funny Ting & Juma short films, Rainmaker is garnering a great deal of attention for its animation work through its website, YouTube, and other sites.
Accustomed to taking risks and stretching the capabilities of computer animation, Rainmaker Entertainment was formerly known as Mainframe Entertainment prior to 2007. The company produced the first completely computer animated television show, ReBoot, in 1994. Back then, there was no show quite like it. The series, which ran until 2001, influenced a slew of animated TV series and films and still enjoys cult status among an enthusiastic fan base. In fact, a Reboot feature film is in active development at Rainmaker Entertainment.
For a production company as busy as Rainmaker, it goes without saying that pipeline efficiency is the key to delivering projects on time and on budget. Never was that more true than in 2008, when Rainmaker took on its first animated feature project, Escape from Planet Earth, an animated family comedy about a group of alien creatures trying to escape from Area 51, the famed U.S. military base deep in the Nevada desert. To help with the high-profile project, Rainmaker brought in veteran feature animator and creature expert Fred Fowles, whose resume includes work with companies such as Industrial Light & Magic, Electronic Arts, and Core Feature Animation, and on animated features including The Wild (2006) and Rango (2011).
“Design changes are always a big challenge on large feature animation projects,” says Fowles. “It’s not uncommon to have completed character and facial rigs and systems built, only to have animation and design changes force everything back to square one. Our main focus for our creature pipeline on the feature was to build a flexible system that would enable us to fluidly and easily modify our assets as changes come through during the development process. We wanted a universal creature mesh that we could then apply to our subsequent skeleton and creature builds.”
For the work on Escape from Planet Earth, Fowles and his team used Maya software to develop a sophisticated rigging and simulation pipeline to accommodate the frequent changes that were occurring on the production. Almost immediately, the team’s work was integrated into most of Rainmaker’s ongoing projects. “We develop all of our creature pipelines in Autodesk Maya now, including facial and body rigging,” says Fowles. “Our proprietary facial system, Twitch, gives us the ability to do very subtle gestures, which is critical to the acting and also sets our creatures apart while also enhancing the quality of the feature film. Twitch has also benefited heavily from the Maya toolset in creating a well-engineered workflow. Having the flexibility to create our own systems is essential to our work, and Maya gives us the building blocks to create the solutions we require. Other software packages try to deliver what we want, but never really hit the mark as to what we need. The flexibility of the Maya toolset is something we couldn’t do without.”
As a fortunate coincidence, it was during the work on the production company’s first feature that Rainmaker decided to create and develop its own story team, whose first task was the creation of new company mascots Ting and Juma, the stars of a series of very funny animated shorts developed to showcase the animation talents of the studio.
“What’s great about creating these internal shorts is that we can really push the envelope and try new things,” says Fowles. “It’s obviously different when you are servicing the needs of a particular client. Using the pipeline that we’ve set up in Maya on Ting & Juma, we learned that we can make design changes much more quickly than before. It’s easy to adapt and take changes into account as we go along. Using the Ting & Juma shorts as experiments, we’re able to test out new ideas for future external projects.”
Working on the shorts has already resulted in several pleasant discoveries. “The simulation engine in Maya is a huge, huge success,” Fowles says. “We actually used the simulation engine to do cloth on the first Ting & Juma short, but we’ve since discovered Maya nCloth. Maya nCloth is a huge win over other systems. If you’ve got an artistic eye, you can achieve anything you want. It’s certain that we’ll be using nCloth on all our characters in the future. Simply put, Maya has been an enormous benefit to us in every way.”