Crossing Over - 3/03
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 3 (March 2003)

Crossing Over - 3/03

By Doug King

The list of animated television series that have made the leap to the big screen is long and getting longer. There's Nickelodeon's Rugrats, Hey Arnold!, and The Wild Thornberrys. The Cartoon Network's Powerpuff Girls have already starred in a movie, and films based on the network's Samurai Jack and Sponge Bob programs are on the way. And some film properties, such as Jimmy Neutron, have actually reversed the process, going from film to TV.

This crossover trend exists for several reasons. Naturally, taking a property to a new platform means a chance to make more money. But, in the case of moving from TV to film, TV producers also like to make movies because they can tell bigger stories on the big screen. "Anybody who works on TV aspires to make movies," says Terry Thoren, CEO and president of film and TV production studio Klasky Csupo. "The audience sits in the dark and is totally focused on the story, immersed in our world without the phone ringing or the dog needing to be let out."
Jimmy Neutron began life in the movie theater, but has since moved onto the small screen. Image courtesy DNA Productions.

But going from TV to film is not easy. Because of film's higher budget, it needs a larger audience to recoup expenses. More thrills and spills must be added to big-screen versions to keep the audience's attention. While the format for shorter, animated television programs can be more gag-oriented, film requires a story that maintains audience interest for more than an hour.

Going from film to TV is no walk in the park either. Even though 3D technology enables assets to be shared across platforms, there are technical difficulties associated with going from one medium to another.

A basic difference between film and television productions is the size of the animation crew and the time it takes to produce a finished product. "We make 26 television episodes, each 22 minutes long, over 18 months with 150 people," says Thoren. "With a film we produce 75 minutes over two years with 350 people."

Among the specific technical challenges facing producers who take their work from TV to film is that film requires more detail, because the screen is larger and enables a greater depth of field. "The larger screen size allows for some very interesting compositions," says Jerry Mills, director of technology for Klasky Csupo, "but we need to plan with aspect ratio, screen size, pan speed, and a dozen other details in mind as well as the aesthetics of the scene. Things such as strobing, density shifts in lines, and minute artifacts that would be hidden in normal broadcast become major issues in film."

To accomplish these tasks at Klasky Csupo, the majority of artwork for both film and TV production is still generated with pencil and paper, but once the drawings are scanned into a computer, all the steps that follow are digital. "We scene plan, time, paint, and composite digitally," says Mills. "We create in USAnimation's Ink and Paint software for 2D and Alias|Wavefront's Maya for 3D, and we use the Avid editing systems to assemble and review all material. We make, assemble, and review at low-res and upon approval, re-render and transfer to 35mm negatives."

Despite the technical challenges of moving from TV to film, there are benefits as well. Film allows producers enough time and money to use 3D animation for vehicles and environments as well as characters. "We plan for much more time to be spent polishing camera moves and mechanics, adjusting color scales, adding textures, and generally increasing the detail to add interest to scenes," comments Mills. "Having the time to experiment adds greatly to the finished film."

As an example, one scene from The Wild Thornberrys film involves poachers stealing a cheetah cub. A 3D helicopter swoops down, and the lead bad guy climbs down a rope and grabs the cub. The heroine jumps onto the rope as the helicopter begins to pull away, then climbs the rope while the helicopter rises into the air. When she reaches the helicopter, she tries to snatch the cub back from the villain. "There is no way we could touch the scope and pace of this scene on TV," says Thoren.

The producers of the 3D animated film Jimmy Neutron were faced with a task opposite that of Klasky Csupo's with The Wild Thornberrys: reducing a film for the small screen. They did have the advantage going into the project of knowing that the property was going to be moving from film to TV(see "Neu Kid on the Block," pg. 34, January 2002). So they were able to pre-plan the production pipeline to better facilitate the upcoming TV show.

After the film was made, the producers of the series had most of the models of characters and sets already built, rigged, and textured. However, many of the challenges director and founder of DNA Productions John Davis faced were the flip side of those encountered by the producers of The Wild Thornberrys.

Going to a different-size production staff was one of those challenges: Says Davis. "On the feature, we had just over a year to create 85 minutes of animation. On the series, we have a year to create about seven hours of animation, but with less money and people." Another challenge was having to use less complex scenes and geometry because the files were too cumbersome to work with and render on a tight TV schedule.

"Any time you introduce lots of sweeping cameras, action, and complex locations [like the theme park and alien civilization in the film], the sets and assets become so large, they can really bring a computer to its knees," says Davis.

After the film was finished, DNA Productions implemented a new workflow for the series, utilizing Maya for quick character animation and organizational tools, and writing Mel scripted tools to shuffle data to and from NewTek's LightWave, which DNA uses for all modeling, lighting, effects, and rendering. Eyeon Software's Digital Fusion was used for compositing and Adobe Systems' Photoshop for texture painting.
Bringing The Wild Thornberrys to film format allowed its creators to develop scenes of more complexity and depth than was possible in a television series.Image courtesy Klasky Csupo and Nickelodeon. Image courtesy of Klasky Csupo and Nickelodeon.

Davis notes that working within the limitations of producing for television can force some interesting solutions, both in animation performance and technique. A good example is the creation of crowds. On a feature film, says Davis, to create a crowd you "simply haul off and make a lot of custom stuff." But this approach doesn't work for a tight TV schedule and budget, where the cost vs. benefits of asset creation must always be considered.

The solution? "The folks in our modeling/rigging department developed 'Pod People,'" says Davis. "This is a system that enables animators to dramatically alter the appearance of [already existing] characters via slider controls. We can provide a larger variety of unique characters without modeling and rigging endlessly."

In the end, for Davis the true challenge was to deliver a show that rivaled the feature. "Working on a feature is like sculpting," he says. "You can spend time in the minutiae. In series work," he contends, you have to move more quickly. "I think we are still discovering new efficiencies and ways of capitalizing on the whole "re-use" thing." For example, "I wish we could have created a more robust 'asset library' system up front."

As animated motion pictures continue to dominate the box office, the current TV to film movement will likely continue. And, as the tools and many of the procedures used to create animation for both film and television are the same, we'll also be seeing more examples of assets flowing the way of Jimmy Neutron, with films serving as spawning grounds for a multitude of television spinoffs.

Douglas King is a writer and animator based in Dallas, Texas. He is currently developing animated projects for his company Day III Productions.

Adobe Systems
eyeon Software