In 2002, we produced our original list of CG studios to keep an eye on. This year, we're updating that selection. From independent shorts to long-form animation, these are the ten up-and-coming studios most likely to shape the industry in 2005.
What marks a studio out as 'one to watch'? The quality of its clients? The number of A-list projects it works on? The speed at which it's expanding? Or something less definable, but perhaps more important: that elusive 'X factor'?
We first posed this question back in issue 34, with our inaugural list of companies to follow. To select studios of similar quality this year, we began by polling key players in the 3D industry, including both software developers and studios such as DreamWorks and The Mill. From our original long list of 43, we then spent weeks examining reels and client lists, viewing and reviewing work, debating and arguing.
The ten facilities we eventually selected form a fascinating snapshot of current trends in the 3D industry: in the case of France's Action Synthse and Canada's C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures, the increasing number of full-length CG animations being produced outside the major Hollywood studios. In the field of visual effects, our choices reflect the way in which a particular project can come to shape a particular geographical territory. It used to be said, only half jokingly, that everyone in the UK CG industry had worked on Lost in Space; the same thing could now be said of Australasia and Lord of the Rings, or North America and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Of the latter group, Pixel Liberation Front occupies an intriguing dual role: not only did the studio work on Sky Captain, but on a number of key projects in the burgeoning pre-viz and new 'post-viz' markets. Over in broadcast, the Emmy Award-winning Eden FX and Digital Dimension have used their TV work as a springboard into film, while Psyop and The Embassy Visual Effects have produced some of the most striking - and most talked about - new short-form work.
Our judging criteria were necessarily flexible. While we excluded established players like ILM and Framestore CFC, our choices - by and large, companies between two and four years old - include both smaller studios producing work of exceptional quality, and medium-sized facilities making a leap into the major league. Our criteria were also necessarily limited: while there were many game developers and architectural agencies whose work would certainly have merited inclusion, we felt that we simply couldn't cover all three markets in a meaningful way.
Sadly, space prevented us from including certain facilities. We omitted Production I.G, for example, on the grounds that we had featured its work extensively in issue 59. Vanguard Animation, responsible for the UK's own first full-length 3D movie, will be featured in an upcoming issue.
And, as ever, personal taste played its part. Our final choice, studio aka, made the shortlist not simply for its commercial work, but for its short films, including the BAFTA Awardwinning JoJo in the Stars. Together, these shorts form some of the most unusual, inventive and, above all, moving work we've seen all year: a taste of the X factor, if you will. To find out why we thought so, read on...
This French studio aims to establish France as a new base for CG animated feature production. First stop: The Magic Roundabout
Formed just over three years ago and working on its first feature production, Action Synthse is already making headlines. But then it's not every day that a new studio resurrects a TV programme as well loved as The Magic Roundabout. In fact the Marseilles-based studio is part of the Films Action group, itself a subsidiary of a long established French film-related company, Groupe Action.
Films Action's aim is to develop and produce new film projects, while also fostering new talent: "That's why we've worked in partnership with the Imagina festival for the last four years, organising Imagina's competitions, including the Action New Talents Award," explains Films Action founder Laurent Rodon. "Action Synthse was set up to help make these productions a reality, specifically by creating CG animated feature films."
Following the production of two Imagina award-winning shorts (Premier Domicile Connu and Antebios), Action Synthse has been focused on the production of The Magic Roundabout, a 17 million Euro, 75 minute all-CG movie due to hit cinemas early this year.
"The first thing we did when we started, was try to convince the financers of the movie's viability back when the company was formed in 2000," says Rodon who, in his role as producer, also worked hard to obtain the rights from Martine Danot - the widow of the original show's creator, Serge Danot: "Because the original programmes were created with 3D puppets we were able to explain to her that, by using 3D technology, we would be able to respect the original concept and enhance it."
The key challenge for the filmmakers was to build a studio able to produce work of international quality: "It was more or less impossible to find all the necessary skills locally, because there have been no major 3D animated movie projects in Europe to date. Axis was the only one, and that was disastrous in terms of production, and also a commercial flop. But I think with The Magic Roundabout we've finally proven that Europe can compete."
Production began using 3ds max, before a decision was taken to move over to XSI. In fact the studio has now formed a close partnership with Softimage, even building an R&D department led by Lead Developer Dave Lajoie, Senior Developer Dominique Laflamme and R&D Director Marc Stevens. Hewlett Packard is another ally, chosen for its experience working with PDI/DreamWorks on Shrek. The studio is powered by 100 HP workstations, and a render farm of 400 processors.
Action Synthse has also established close ties with French animation schools like CFG Gobelines and Sup Infocom Arles for help sourcing talent, as well as bringing in a number of old hands for the production, including Co-Director Franck Passingham, Art Director Lilian Fuentefria, Technical Director Matt Dow, and Lead Layout Artist Sylvianne Rey.
With the film due for release in April 2005, development is already underway on a new all-CG TV series. Rodon reveals that they plan to produce 52 episodes of 13 minutes each. A sequel to the first movie will then launch in 2007.
In the meantime the studio is already gearing up to its next artistic and technological challenge, a new version of The Wizard Of Oz, to be directed by the legendary John Boorman. The method used to bring the lead character to life promises to be nothing less than an industry milestone. "We've acquired the rights from the Judy Garland estate to use her face and voice," reveals Rodon. "The character of Dorothy will be a fully CG incarnation of Garland aged 12."
C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures
Founded by a Star Trek veteran, C.O.R.E. is following its success in visual effects and cartoons with a move into full feature production
Now Canada's largest employer of CG animators, C.O.R.E. owes its very existence to a long forgotten sci-fi TV series created by the one and only William Shatner. At the time, Bob Munroe and several colleagues were using their experience in software development to secure work in the commercial market. When Munroe hooked up with Shatner to provide effects work for his new show, the actor was so impressed he chose to team up with Munroe, John Mariella and Kyle Menzies to form a new Toronto-based studio.
"The very first thing we did as C.O.R.E was the cyberspace upload sequence for Johnny Mnemonic," recalls Visual Effects Director Bret Culp. At the time, the studio consisted of just six people in a small room, expanding to a team of 30 within a couple of years. "We stayed around that size for a while, before moving into a new facility, figuring it would take five years to fill. We did it in six months."
Culp says the studio has benefited from the large talent pool created by the area's schools, along with proximity to software vendors such as Alias and Discreet. "Side Effects is actually just a couple of blocks away," he adds. "We've built up an amazing relationship with them, and are now even using Houdini for character animation."
"For the first few years, we focused strictly on visual effects for film and television, but then came the animated series Angela Anaconda," adds Doug Masters, VP of Operations at C.O.R.E. "That became really successful, showing we could create 3D cartoon animation very cost effectively. From there, the cartoon work has evolved into a bigger concern, with an established branded division, C.O.R.E. Toons."
While the movie effects work has also evolved, with everhigher profile projects and increasingly complex shots, Culp points out that the studio does try to resist the calls to help out with features late in their schedule. "We're good friends with Guillermo Del Toro, so we did it on Blade 2, turning it around in three months when other studios had been working on the movie for a year. But we had to say no with Hellboy. We just wouldn't have had enough time to do the work justice."
"90 per cent of companies fall into the same trap, with people sleeping on couches and not seeing their families until a project is complete," says Masters. "That sort of working situation can't last, and it's something we strive to avoid."
Now C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures and C.O.R.E. Toons have been augmented by C.O.R.E. Feature Animation. "Following the success with the Toons division, Bob Munroe, our president, wanted to take it to another level, to bring our cartoon talent and our visual effects expertise together to produce an animated feature," explains Culp. "We were able to bring in Steve 'Spaz' Williams, who directed the Carl And Ray commercials for Blockbuster. With his concept and our pipeline, we got the go-ahead." This move into full feature production has necessitated a rapid growth, from around 100 staff to 400. "Anybody can hire a few hundred artists, but you're not going to get the work done without solid production management," says Masters.
"We fully intend to continue with service work but, right now, anyone that handles film work is at the beck and call of the industry," says Culp. "We want to take more control of our destiny, and that means owning our own projects."
From producing titles for sports programmes, Digital Dimension has embraced movie effects and is set to move into content creation
Formed in 1996 by Ben Girard, Digital Dimension first made a name for itself as the creator of TV show stings and movie trailers, with the Fox Sports network one of its key customers. Girard was joined by Jerome Morin in 1999, and a move to pursue longform visual effects work began: "It was very difficult at first, although I'd been a music producer for many years, working with people like John Williams, James Horner and Danny Elfman, so knowing people in that business helped raise our profile," says Morin. "We got a couple of good breaks and then, in 2001, Director Renny Harlin and Visual Effects Supervisor Brian Jennings contacted us about working on Driven. We'd just delivered a sequence for NASCAR on Fox that featured close-to-photoreal race cars, and that helped them make the decision to award us over 60 shots on the movie."
Since then the studio has provided shots for movies as diverse as Elf, Final Destination 2 and The Last Samurai, and has grown to encompass two studios - one employing around 40 staff in Los Angeles, and another with 30 in Montreal. While the studio has continued to take on TV show intro jobs, it was only after it became better established as a movie effects facility that it began contributing visual effects shots for broadcast.
Morin and Girard's main aim, though, is to produce TV content of their own. Talks are currently in discussions with a TV network to produce an animated cartoon series, and - in an unusual move for a dedicated CG company - development is also underway for a live-action TV show that will rely heavily on CG visual effects. "We'll be partially funding these projects, so that we have ownership," says Morin. "We're now also in the beginnings of a move to create 3D attraction rides, working with Gary Goddard, who's very well known and experienced in that area."
In the meantime, there's a 90-second titles sequence for the 2005 Superbowl in the works - "800 million people will get to see it," says Morin, excited - plus another three major movies featuring extensive effects work from Digital Dimension soon to hit cinemas. First up is Blade: Trinity, for which the studio handled all the vampire 'ashing' sequences. Then comes a number of rather wacky, and very prominent, effects for the cartoonish live-action comedy sequel Son Of The Mask. And the Montreal division is currently wrapping work on Racing Stripes, adding CG facial and mouth animations to live animals on around 65 shots.
The desire for control over content is also set to take Digital Dimension into fully animated feature production: "We're in the early stages of talks with a renowned director right now, and have a number of people ready join our Montreal facility as soon as the deal is finalised," says Morin.
This studio has all but cornered the market in effects for spy and sci-fi TV shows, and it's now set its sights on the silver screen too
The story of how John Gross came to co-found Eden FX begins back in 1992, when he headed to Hollywood for a week to help set up the CG crew for the TV show seaQuest DSV at the behest of NewTek. He ended up staying on full time as the team evolved into Amblin Imaging, working on DSV and then Star Trek: Voyager. However, it was when studio co-owner Universal pulled the plug that things got really interesting.
"After a lot of thought, I asked another artist from Amblin to form Digital Muse with me," says Gross. "Because of my connection with the Star Trek people, we had an instant client. We were able to buy all Amblin's workstations, so we had the equipment we needed to continue working."
Digital Muse ran for four years, but a decision to raise funds by selling a portion of the company to an internet outfit in January 2000 proved disastrous. "I decided to leave and start again," says Gross. "I took three weeks off and then Digital Magic founder Mark Miller and I formed Eden FX. The clients agreed to come with me and within a few weeks all the artists still at Digital Muse quit to come and work for Eden. Digital Muse closed a week later."
"We were fortunate in that we were able to get Eden up and running in as little as two weeks during the summer break from television," says Gross. "Right out of the gate, we were working on Star Trek: Voyager and a show called Seven Days. The team of artists had already been working on complex 3D sequences at Digital Muse, so we were able to jump right in with no real interruption."
Today, Eden FX is a four-year-old studio with the experience and client relations of an eight-year-old one. "Obviously Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise have been beneficial," says Gross. "We also do a lot of work for JAG and NCIS. In fact, we've done so much for them that we've built up a library of vehicles that we can use over and over again for them in an effort to help keep costs down."
2004 saw the studio also take on its first major movie effects job, working on high-profile fantasy blockbuster Hellboy. "That came up to through the relationship between our producer, Steve Pugh, who had worked with the movie's VFX Supervisor at Foundation Imaging," explains Gross.
Eden FX was originally hired for 75 shots, taking great care to only accept work that could comfortably be accomplished to a high quality using its existing pipeline. In the end, Gross says the quality of the work and the turnaround times meant they were asked to triple their workload, delivering 208 shots by the time post-production wrapped. "We did need to expand our artist base a bit and bring in some additional equipment for rendering, but because the company was founded on the ability to ramp up and down as needed, it was a pretty simple task," he says.
Gross says the studio has been diligently building on its success with Hellboy, winning bids for two other features so far. "We also continue to push more into the broadcast realm with different projects and clients."
Ultimately, he explains, the studio is just as adept at handling film work as it is TV projects. "All the broadcast work we do at the moment is at HD resolution, so the line has really become blurred between film and television," he explains. "The main difference for us now is just the turnaround time."
The Embassy Visual Effects
Creating those famous disco dancing cars and footballing robotic crabs is all in a day's work for this fast-rising Canadian studio
There are many studios bringing movie quality photorealism to broadcast work, but The Embassy Visual Effects is one of the few 'boutique' sized effects facilities to enjoy success in this area. Formed just two years (ago and with only ten staff), it has already created stunning ad spots for clients such as Nike and Citroen, as well as providing extensive effects work for TV shows.
The core Embassy team first worked together at Rainmaker in Vancouver. "I left in 2000 and went to work at another studio for a while," says Embassy's president Winston Helgason. "Then Neill Blomkamp, Stephen Pepper, Jim Hebb, and I started Embassy Visual Effects in 2002, with Simon van de Lagemaat joining shortly after. Trevor Cawood, who'd left Rainmaker to work at ESC on the Matrix films, also came back up to Vancouver to work with us."
While the team's backgrounds lay in digital effects work, Helgason says that they'd always been very hands-on when dealing with clients, making it a relatively easy transition to running their own studio: "Although Neill comes from a visual effects background, he's also been directing for a few years now."
The team's first assignment was to produce a music video for the Canadian pop artist, Bif Naked. "It was basically a two minute long all-CG car race," explains Helgason. "Then we did a spot for Amstel, for the UEFA Cup, followed by some effects work on Stargate SG-1 and Kingdom Hospital."
About 150 effects shots were completed for Kingdom Hospital, all produced at high definition. Although the work managed to wangle an Emmy nomination, Helgason admits to preferring ad work: "You get to focus on something for a month and a half and then move on. It's just a more creative way to work."
Although the studio is based in Vancouver, the lack of budgets for Canada-specific ads means most of its clients are either European or American. For Helgason, location has never really been an issue. "It's just a two and a half hour flight to California: Wieden+Kennedy is just in Portland."
Despite the forays into broadcast effects and even the creation of a cartoonish ad spot, it's the in-your-face, photoreal creations that The Embassy's known for. "I guess that's our forte, and it gets noticed most," says Helgason.
So what does The Embassy's team do right that so many others striving for photorealism never quite manage? "I guess it's just that we have people with a really good eye for what looks right and what doesn't. A lot of it just comes down to the fact that we've been doing this a for long time."
The movie industry has, not surprisingly, shown an interest in utilising Embassy's talents. Helgason says that, although the team is keen, there's something of a conflict of interest. "We've spoken to various film people, but have never been able to come to an agreement. They always want to hand us a ton of shots, whereas we'd rather just work on a few cool ones. We'll continue to discuss the possibility, but for now we pretty much want to stay on the current path, maybe hiring a few more people, but not doing any major expansions. It's just nice doing the commercials work right now."
Once best known for its photoreal 3D mattes, Luma has evolved into a high-profile vendor for complex effects and creature work
There are many studio execs with colourful histories in our industry, but Luma Pictures Co-Founder Payam Shohadai must surely be the only one to have made the leap from audio to video. 12 years ago, he was running his own successful audio production facility, Moon Against Man, when an interest in the emerging CG scene inspired him to expand the company's remit. He invested in SGI equipment, and began teaching himself to use it, when an artist friend he'd hired to use the technology left soon after. Soon the studio was providing modelling and texturing services, and by 1996 this replaced the music side of the business altogether: "We were working on a lot of random stuff," Shohadai recalls. "[We were] doing modelling jobs for other facilities, and working on projects such as Burger King commercials and for Henson's Creature Shop, who were contemplating moving their Muppets into the digital world at the time."
The switch to Luma Pictures came when Shohadai partnered with Jonathan Betuel, a veteran producer and director who also scripted The Last Starfighter. "Jonathan has many friends in the industry, so that's contributed to the direction we've taken, as has word-of-mouth between film studios. MGM was a client, which led to work for Lakeshore. Then Screen Gems and Miramax got to know about us."
Luma's first job involved 3D matte work on around 100 shots for The Human Stain. When the movie got pushed back a year, the filmmakers decided to add a new scene. "The house where they filmed was no longer available, so they came back to us to see whether the set could be built in 3D," says Shohadai. "The results showed we could produce something realistic enough to work in a dramatic film without pulling the viewer out of the story." This led to further 3D mattes and set extension work - the studio's expertise in this niche effectively painting it into a corner: "It did become a thorn in our side for a while. Our work was on a par in terms of photorealism with other studios, but it was totally invisible." Some werewolf transformation effects for Underworld helped the studio broaden its portfolio, and now with its contribution to Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow it's fully made the leap into no-holds-barred effects work: "We're now doing more character and creature animation, a luxury few facilities get to enjoy," says Shohadai.
Next year will see the studio move onto even larger projects, handling all the effects for high-concept blockbuster horror properties like The Cave, and Underworld 2: "We're working on The Cave right now, animating the monsters. They're really exciting creatures to work on - they fly, swim and have a very unusual way of moving. We're producing around 250 shots, although the studio likes our work so much, it's pushing for more CG in place of practical shots, using a creature suit."
Shohadai says Luma is now at a crossroads, where expanding workloads and overlapping projects will necessitate further growth - at the very least doubling in size over the next year: "We've no desire to become as large as the likes of Digital Domain, though. I want the company to feel like a family. And at the moment we hire staff for long-term positions, which gets harder to do as studios expand." The studio is already moving towards content creation, with the ultimate goal to have the visual effects team handle the work for Luma's own movies. "I don't want to be delusional, though, so we kind of live week-to-week. We're successful right now and will be for the foreseeable future, but don't want to get too cocky."
Pixel Liberation Front
The world's most famous pre-viz studio continues to push the boundaries, while also making its mark as a full-service CG facility
Pixel Liberation Front may not have invented CG previsualisation, but the Californian outfit has certainly been responsible for its popularisation. Founded nine years ago, and now regarded as the industry's leading pre-viz house, it's worked on projects as diverse as Fight Club, Godzilla and The Bourne Supremacy. But the decision to specialise in pre-viz was based largely on an instinct for survival: "Our initial goal was to be involved with high-end projects, but the costs were prohibitive, and we knew that a small studio wouldn't stand a chance as a full-service vendor," he says. "By offering pre-viz services, we were able to get involved with movies such as Starship Troopers. In the long term, it definitely paid off."
Because pre-viz was something of an unknown quantity, resistance was sometimes encountered by other studios involved on a project. It was also often necessary to sell the idea to the filmmakers: "We'd call up the person handling a project, and try to explain the benefits of pre-viz," says Green. "Now they call us." 'Post-viz' is another service offered by Pixel Liberation Front. "This is used after the shoot to figure out what's going to be done with each shot," explains Green. "There are often questions about how the sequence will be put together. Post-viz takes the shots and adds low-detail geometry to make a video-quality temp version, so the story can be cut together, the frames can be worked out, and the vendors can cost the job. We always push for its use, and have provided it for almost every movie we've worked on lately."
The very nature of pre-viz is also changing. At the outset, its role was as a tool to help calculate the logistics involved creating the final effects. "We'd do the absolute minimum of the look and feel, just to show the director what was happening," say Green. "Now people expect a highly detailed exercise in storytelling, with editing, sound effects, and eye candy." This gives the filmmakers a way of evaluating the effects in a more cinematic context. Rather than using pre-viz solely to determine how the effects work should be done, they can now use it to establish how the movie 'feels' and the tone of an effects-based sequence.
Perhaps the most significant change at the studio has been a move into effects work. In the past, the studio provided CG services for ads and music videos, but it's only with the contribution of 90 shots to Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow that it's turned into a full-blown movie effects facility: "Having a full CG pipeline in place puts us on a level playing field, but the perception of the studio isn't drastically different," says Green. "It'll take a few more projects of that size, although we're already getting started on that."
On a mission to 'persuade, change and influence', Psyop creates ads that blend 3D with hand art, live action and motion capture
There can't be many design studios with their own theme song on their website, never mind one accompanied by a music video dedicated to the power of advertising. But then New York's Psyop team are more attuned to the age of post-modern branding than most: "Eban Mears, Todd Meuller and I had all been working at MTV," explains Founding Partner, Marco Spier. "We had access to all these great 3D tools, but didn't think the company was using them in the way they ought to. We left and formed our own studio, hooking up with Marie Hyon (who'd been Artistic Director at Nickelodeon) and Kylie Matulick (who was working at Lee Hunt Associates)."
Opening in September 2000, they initially rented an empty bar in New York's East Village: "The five of us would sit at the bar itself with our laptops," says Spier. "We worked like that for a couple of months, then as the projects got bigger, two other partners - Justin Booth-Clibborn and Sandy Sellinger - joined and it got more structured. We moved out of the bar, and expanded to ten staff, but we've retained that kind of collective environment."
Psyop isn't an animation studio in the traditional sense, as Spier is keen to point out. Rather than working with strict briefs from an agency, the team favours handling the process right from initial designs to final composites. A common thread is the studio's preference for organic visuals. Designs are roughed out before the team decide how they'll be achieved. "It often means inventing new techniques, and enables us to try something different," says Spier. "We've done a few spots now with live practical elements for particles and smoke effects. It adds a different quality to our work."
For the CG, a toon shader is often employed to produce warmer, less obviously rendered results. Spier explains that the studio has close ties with Softimage, collaborating with Michael Arias, who develops most of the toon shaders for XSI: "XSI is our preferred tool, used with mental ray. It's just better for the sort of work we do, and the support we get from Softimage is great. We also use Maya, but that's generally because it's easier to find the talent."
Having found their niche in the industry, the Psyop team have no plans for any radical expansion in the near future. "The partners are all able to be very hands-on with their projects right now, and I personally believe around 30 staff should be the maximum in our facility," says Spier. "We're happy with our location on New York's lower East Side, and that puts a physical limit on how many people we're actually able to employ anyway. We'd like to explore some longer- term animation, but we're most interested in continuing to focus mainly on those projects we feel really strongly about and developing new techniques and new designs. The main goal for us, as a company, is simply to avoid ever becoming bored with what we do."
Rising Sun Pictures
This Australian studio is fast becoming a star of the international stage, as its recent work on the next Harry Potter epic upholds
Founded eight years ago by Wayne Lewis, Gail Fuller and Tony Clark, Rising Sun Pictures has grown from a tiny one-room outfit taking on anything from film work and the web, to a high-profile vendor working exclusively on effects for movies such as The Return Of The King, Sky Captain And The World of Tomorrow and The Core. Where once the studio comprised a handful of people working on one SGI machine and a 486MHz PC, it now employs 50 people across two studios in Adelaide and Sydney.
"Gail is a qualified architect and financial savant, while Tony is a Director of Photography with the most annoying ability to understand extremely sophisticated technology like it's a third-year maths lesson," says CEO and Co-Founder Wayne Lewis. "I got 141 out of 144 for my Visual Arts degree, but my main asset was the ability to work 52 hours without sleeping - which is useful when starting a company!"
When they founded the studio, the remote location did pose something of a problem: "It was a challenge we've had to solve to survive," says Lewis. "We had to overcome practical barriers such as remote colour conformance, and viewing materials with remote synchronisation solutions." A sister company, Rising Sun Research was also created, to develop and market in-house solutions CineSpace and CineSync. "These are often used by the productions we work for to help them collaborate with other vendors too," says Lewis.
Having contributed effects to a number of Australian movie productions, Rising Sun's first major US work came with a series of helmet replacement shots for 2000's Red Planet: "We practically stalked VFX Supervisor Jeff Okun to work on that film," Says Lewis.
Since then, the studio has worked on an ever-larger scale and higher profile projects, but Lewis admits remote delivery is always a big issue before the studio wins a bid. "Historically it's always been perceived as a big challenge, and with good reason. But remote delivery concerns can be overcome. What's important is our ability to deliver what VFX supervisors and directors want. Without that, it doesn't matter where you are. With every project, the issue of remoteness diminishes. If you're that far away, and people still use you, then there must be a reason."
The studio's approach is one of high-quality generalism, with a preference for focusing energies on smaller batches of more complex shots: "This 'Swiss Army Knife' approach is necessary for a small company like us, but relies on a very strong technical and artistic mix," he explains. "Our projects vary from 3D intensive to compositing heavy. It means that we'll never be a sausage factory for effects."
The Australian industry has traditionally been fragmented due to the scarcity of work. "Australia must work hard to attract big productions. Large shows have more work than any one place can handle, so the industry needs to show it can 'competitively collaborate', to coin an oxymoron."
Beyond pushing the concept of remote collaboration to other studios as well as clients, the plan is for Rising Sun to continue down the current road, the aim being to handle ever greater shots on more complex sequences, and on higher profile films: "I still don't think we've 'arrived'. But I would say the wheels are down and we are on approach."
With a team of talented directors, this award-winning studio has established itself as a creative powerhouse for high-profile ad work
Other companies have tried to present a united front, but studio aka takes pride in the talent and individuality of its team of directors and artists, so much so that a few have become as well-known as the facility itself. An approach that embraces 3D without forgetting the value of 2D techniques has forged a unique position within the UK graphics industry. Owned by Pam Dennis, Sue Goffe and Philip Hunt, studio aka has been running since 2000, although Dennis had been running Pizzazz Pictures at the site since 1984: "It was originally a traditional 2D animation facility, with 3D added in a pretty low-key way almost ten years ago," says Hunt. "Now, studio aka's work is split evenly between 2D and 3D."
Commercials work is studio aka's main area of business, using illustrative, 'problem solving' animation to help sell products and services to more mature consumers. In just four years, the studio has built up a prestigious client list, including Orange, NatWest, Compaq, Dyson, Sky, BUPA and Vodafone. As Hunt says, "We tend not to work on the 'breakfast cereal' genre of commercials. Instead, we get swamped with creative oddities, and this enables us to produce an incredible variety of work."
Beyond ad work, the studio is now looking to make more of an impact in the music video market, an area it's never made much of an effort with, having found the creative challenges offered by commercials more interesting. Interactive projects are occasionally taken on, although this is often used more as a device for promoting the studio than earning money: "We always prefer to see our stuff on television rather than just on a PC," admits Hunt.
The studio currently has around 35 staff, including five directors: Marc Craste, Mic Graves, Grant Orchard, Steve Small, and Hunt himself. Representation is also provided for Studio Soi, the German collective responsible for the award-winning Annie & Boo. Many assume studio aka operates as a loose collective, but Hunt is keen to stress that the studio setup is actually very traditional. It's just the approach to internal teams that's out of the ordinary: "In the early days a person's showreel would tend to pigeonhole them, so we introduced a policy whereby the project is passed to the entire studio for our people to come up with ideas," he explains. "It's only once a pitch is won that the chosen director will be introduced to the client. All the directors have built very varied portfolios because of that, cutting their cloth according to each job. Some directors have become individually successful, so some clients will ask for a specific person."
studio aka is now entering a new phase following the success of JoJo in the Stars. Directed by Marc Craste, the short has won rave reviews, multiple awards, and is now available on DVD. Surprisingly, the studio chose to fund the project itself, believing that obtaining money from an external backer would be too difficult to secure: "It's not a short for a regular family audience, but neither is it an art house piece," says Hunt. "So, in the end, we did it ourselves. We want to work on personal projects that we can be really proud of. The success of JoJo in the Stars will hopefully put us in a better position to obtain funding for more animated shorts in the future," he says. "We've had a taste of success with the film and we want more. And in order for that to happen, we need to work with people who'll help us develop our material and help us reach much larger audiences."