Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 11 (Nov. 2008)

Backdrop


In the recently released CG feature Igor, a hunchbacked lab assistant from Malaria has big dreams of becoming a mad scientist and winning the first-place prize at the annual Evil Science Fair. He finally gets his chance when his cruel master kicks the bucket a week before the big event. Igor, with the help of his two experimental creations—Brain, a not-so-bright organ confined to a jar, and Scamper, a cynical rabbit that was once roadkill—embarks on building the most evil invention of all time: a huge, ferocious monster. Rather than evil, the monster turns out to be Eva, a gentle giant who aspires to be an actress. Soon these misfits uncover a truly evil plot that threatens their world, and they spring into action to save it.

Similarly, with the feature Igor, Sparx Animation got a chance to prove itself in the CG world with its “huge” animated creation. Unlike with Igor, in this instance mostly everything went according to plan, and it was Sparx that succeeded in world dominance. Well, nearly so, if you consider how difficult it is for a European-created CG feature to break into US theaters!

Here, Sparx general manager Jean-Philippe Agati provides details about this engaging film.
 
Q: How long was Igor in production?
A: Igor was in production for 22 months, starting in November 2006, with CG being done in less than 18 months. Postproduction finished mid-August 2008.
 
Q: Is this Sparx’s first feature animation?
A: Yes, this is our first one. Igor, which is 86 minutes in length, is Sparx’s first feature. Prior to this, Sparx did some TV series and direct-to-videos, such as Rolie Polie Olie and Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas.
 
Q: Why did you undertake such an ambitious project?
A: Sparx has been doing animation for 10 years, and we felt that it was the right time and a natural evolution after our work on Twice Upon a Christmas.
 
Q: How was the work divvied up among the groups?
A: Visual development was carried out in Paris for the first six months. At the same time, we started to enhance our Maya pipeline and create all the tools that would be necessary for our Vietnam studio to do the animation. Character modeling and rigging were done in Paris, while set and prop modeling was done in Vietnam. We went straight to a 3D animatic with a team of six animators and two cameramen. The 3D animatic was done in Paris in four months, with all box modeling made in Vietnam. We spent two and a half months revising the animatic prior to layout and animation. In Vietnam, 50 animators had six months to create the animation. We went for a three-step process: blocking, inter, and final (being mostly facial animation). At the end of animation, the movie was brought back to Paris for the lighting and final compositing.
 
Q: What challenges surfaced as a result?
A: We have extensive experience sharing work between Vietnam and Paris. Nevertheless, given the ambition of the movie, communication and data synchronization were the keys to make things happen in such a short period. That said, we would have loved to have had the director in both locations at the same time.
 
Work on Sparx’s CG feature Igor was split between the studio’s Paris and Vietnam facilities.
 
Q: Compared to US-made CG features, what makes Igor different?
A: Everything, and nothing, I guess. Igor has its own look and story, but like any other animated movie, it aims to give the audience a good time. Technically, I don’t think it differs. The tools and the software are the same. However, the size of the budget and the schedule were those of an independent movie.
 
Q: What were your biggest challenges?
A: Animation is and will always be the biggest challenge. How do you make CG puppets lovable? How will they bring emotion to the audience?  In this regard, I am proud of our work. We did a lot of training, looking at Pixar’s and DreamWorks’ best animation moments. We had the director repeatedly act out the 1450 scenes that are in the movie, and we have some talented people that just love acting.
 
Q: Did you encounter any modeling issues?
A: The movie has 120 characters, 65 locations, and 250 props. In Malaria, everything is asymmetrical, which created quite a modeling challenge. Animation was the main focus of our attention. Everything we did from the beginning was done with the final animation in mind. At the end, we averaged 0.6 second of animation per animator per day, which is not a lot, but it’s what it takes to get to feature quality.
 
Q: What tools did you use?
A: We used Maya for modeling, rigging, texturing, and animation, and Digital Fusion for compositing. We used some other software for specific needs, including our own tools for rigging and data management. For hardware, we have a partnership with HP, so everything at Sparx is HP, from workstations to the renderfarm, and I never heard an artist complaining about [the hardware]. First time in my life….
 
Q: Did you have any particular character-modeling concerns?
A: The high complexity of the models and the unique look in 2D were the biggest challenges. It turned out that the 3D models came out nicely with unique personalities, and all in record time.
 
Q: How did you bring out the emotions?
A: This all comes from having the right acting on great voice recordings. We got lucky because Exodus (the production company) picked a great cast. Who would not want to animate on Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, or Eddie Izzard’s voices? And then, it is all about the skills of the animators. As for the facial expressions, Sparx has a long history of developing its own tools for body and facial animation. We had to go the extra mile on Igor and bring these tools to the next level. They’re top secret but allow you to do great things in a highly customizable way.
 
Q: Which characters were the most difficult to model/animate?
A: Probably Igor. It seems that the hero of a movie is always the most difficult to animate. Maybe because he is at the center of all the attention.
 
As its main content-creation tool, Sparx used Autodesk’s Maya running on HP workstations.
 
Q: Were there rendering issues?
A: For rendering, we used Mental Ray for Maya. It was an obvious choice for both technical and financial reasons. In the first half of the production, we got support from the Maya team at Autodesk in using all the Mental Ray efficiencies and improving the render time. This was profitable for both companies, as we each learned a lot of what was needed to optimize rendering. I am proud to say we provided some informative data to Autodesk as well.
 
Q: What about the environments?
A: Director Tony Leondis went asymmetrical on everything, and with irregular shapes on top of that. That is what Malaria is all about. 
 
Q: There was a big battle scene?
A: Yes, and both the crowd and the choreography of the fight itself were tricky. How do you make a big fight and a big crowd without spending half your budget? It’s all in the magic. I love the phrase: ‘Magic is not perfection.’ Magic we can afford, perfection is out of reach.
 
Q: So, what’s next?
A: When do we do the sequel? The team had such a good time working on this movie that this pretty much sums up our feelings right now.
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