• Act3Animation

    Act3animation is a studio that likes to move between the genres from time to time. Their processes, their pipeline, are similar to those studios that fill their downtime between the paying jobs, with short films, like Blur Studio’s ‘Gopher Broke’. “So it came as a surprise to some to find out that we were doing just that,” says Thomas Schober, the Executive Producer at Act3animation, “making a short film, with writers and storyboards, and they thought we were just a game film company.”

    Producing work based in very contrasting arenas of animation has brought with it praise from the many different client bases in the industry. Melbourne-based Act3animation seems to have rung praise from the game and short film areas, and they now want to generate interest from the feature playground.

    After thirteen years of doing TVCs, titles and series for broadcast, Act3animation began to find their foothold in gaming cinematics.  Their milestone was in 1999 when game developer Blue Tongue wanted a full CG cinematic done for E3 in the theme of ‘Starship Troopers’. “It was a job that fell in our laps,” adds Schober.  “A phone call, you know, ‘Can you do a one-minute trailer for E3 in full CG?’, when we’d never even thought about that side of the industry. So why not, it sounded like a lot of fun.”

    There were very few problems finding teams to work on these kinds of projects. “This work had a pretty high level of satisfaction attached to it,” Schober adds. “We weren’t animating bananas for a cereal brand with three creative directors above you. We were finally working with people called game publishers and game developers, doing some cool stuff. This was suddenly a very exciting shift in what Act3 did to bring in the cash-flow. Everybody suddenly enjoyed coming to work.”

    Within the local industry, the Act3animation team became the ‘game animation guys’. Thomas admits the company can sometimes be pigeon-holed within the industry as exclusively a game FMV studio, as “game animation can be seen by film people as a ghetto.”  After the ‘Troopers’ job won AEAF awards for best animation, more similar, larger and more ambitious projects came their way.

    Not many studios were able to produce the level of complexity in FMVs like what was done in ‘Neverwinter Nights 2’ (NWN2). To Act3animation’s credit, they won the contract and produced the NWN2 teaser for game publisher Atari over many US-based studios.

    Obsidian Entertainment (the game developer) and the Wizards of the Coast (the license owners of the Dungeons and Dragons universe) gave Act3animation fully detailed descriptions of the many elements of the game. Deciding what elements of the game’s story to place in the trailer, and what could be left out, was the most difficult part of generating the production. The pressure to optimise the ‘bang for the buck’ was motivated by budget constraints, the limits of what the characters can and cannot do, keeping to the story narrative, staying inside the ‘game universe’, and holding to what the crew could afford to do technically within the timeframe of the job.

    “Client communication became very important in this regard, and there was a certain trust that occurred as well, because Atari allowed us to be very creative,” adds Jordan Walsh, Technical Director. “One of the main characters has a fairly elaborate body particle system and crazy glowing armour. This guy is a Nightwalker, who was described down to the very, very last detail in the Dungeons and Dragons’ guide. All this had to be built into the design of the character so it could be immediately recognizable.”

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    “One of the primary concerns was to get a ‘turnaround’ of the characters, to distinguish how they looked,” adds Cameron Crichton, Director.  “It’s really about that sword and the two characters around it.  This included the effects on the sword, and the leather finish on their clothes.” The Act3animation team developed the storyboard very quickly, over something like two days. Then blocking and layout was brought forward to allow the animators to do the first pass. 

    “Anything we suggested for the characters was considered quite well”, explains Schober. “We had good concept art to start with, so it was really a matter of three to four deliveries before we nailed it and got Obsidian's, Atari's and Wizard of the Coast's approvals.”

    “One of the suggestions, they had back to us was to make one of the characters look more evil. They wanted the distinction between the good guy and the bad guy and the original concept for this guy was very much an ‘Obe Wan Kenobi’, with golden tattoos”, says Jordan Walsh. “To create a sense of mystery about him, we were all tossing ideas back and forward, even Atari came in with some ideas on the direction. The brief was to make it sexy, put as much of the essence of the game into the intro. I think we’ve done that. It was all collaborative, and very positive.”

     Act3animation came to the attention of the international animation community when they completed the four-minute signature film, ‘Piñata’ and then began touting it around the festivals. As a result, Piñata was chosen for the Annecy Festival in 2005. This short film was clearly a breakthrough for the team at Act3animation. It worked well as a publicity piece and a trophy spot, studying the funny life of a paper donkey, complete with a fart joke. “Piñata gave us a profile”, begins Thomas. “Piñata helped our profile in the USA. Piñata showed our client base that we have creative credibility, able to go out and commission writers, and do what we knew to do, and that’s animating.” 
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    This production was completed exclusively in the times between the paying jobs. After hours, weekends, and even some lunch times. One of the more interesting challenges were the gorgeous full sun lighting effects, combined with textures of the bark of an enormous tree. “That little Piñata donkey was made out of crêpe paper,” explains Jim Kalogiratos, Production Manager. “We had a team of three or four people working on that effect. We perfected the lollies and the crêpe paper with a combination of trial-and-error, lateral thinking and sheer group tenacity.”

    It was a big technical challenge and the whole project took over a year. “When you do an inhouse short film, it has to be treated like a commercial venture, with solid deadlines and milestone meetings, because otherwise, you may never finish it,” explains Schober  “It was proof the team could generate a fully slick short animation, to a tight script and schedule.”

    At the end of the physical project, the various film festivals were entered and the reactions came flooding in. “There was great satisfaction to be involved in making a short film that is screened at MIFF, on 35mm, in a full theatre!” Schober asserts. “I think the team felt a great amount of pride. It is rare to have your work get such exposure. And then there was the selection at SIGGRAPH, Annecy, etc. I guess we still hope that we can get some longer form animation projects happening. A piece like NWN2 is more likely to bring us more work from the game industry, whereas Piñata has more of a 'Pixar' film flavor. We knew we had to keep the cash coming in the door. We knew this short film idea was great and we all wanted to bring it to life. Like the story of the lighting director on ‘The Incredibles’, getting to do the ‘One Man Band’; the two animators at Dreamworks stepped up and did the ‘First Flight’ feature. “Good ideas are just that,” says Thomas, “and they lead to more great films being made.”

    Related links:
    Obsidian Entertainment
    Atari Neverwinter Nights 2


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