CGSociety :: Studio Profile
21 January 2011, by Paul Hellard
PlanKtoon is a Paris based animation studio with five people employed to push the boundaries of their craft. Alban Lelievre, Sebastien Pribile, Fabrice Senia, Alexandre Henri and Sun Limet spend their days directing commercials, as well as creating short animation films and series pilots. "While we naturally tend toward the cartoon style of animation," explains animation director Sun Limet.
"We recently discovered that not everything in the real world was moving according to the 'stretch and squash' rules [except, maybe in random painful cases]. So now we adapt and explore other ways as well," he says.
The structure and value of the PlanKtoon studio lies in the diverse skills of its staff. A busy, creative studio, they take work on to either work on character designs, storyboard or art direction, or on the whole show. In some productions, game cinematics for instance, they work on every aspect of the job.
Prior to studying 3D, the PlanKtoon crew all had artistic backgrounds in different fields such as architecture, 2D animation and comics. "We all met at the Georges Melies (formerly EESA), a 3D school near Paris," explains Limet. "After a few years working on feature films and commercials in various French studios such as Mac Guff, Duran Dubois, Buf, Sparx or Mikros, we reunited for a short time around a common project, a two minute short called 'Do Penguins Fly?'."
"This rather humorous animation made its way onto the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival circuit in LA in 2008."
During another popular CanalSAT project called 'Reindeer', the art was a bit more tricky for the PlanKtoon guys. The Canalsat singing christmas reinders are well known in France, where their former puppet versions have become somehow iconic for their absurd songs and weird look. The idea of renewing them in CG, to refresh the concept, was understandably risky for the whole concept.
"Fortunately, we didn't run into technical troubles," says Sun. "Thanks to previous production experiences, our Renderman-based pipeline is now quite solid. Since we wanted the whole process to be as secure as possible, given the tight schedule, we hadn't tried anything fancy. However, we developed a few more tools to answer some specific requirements. Among those, a fur shader for the reindeers, or a script allowing Alfred (the Renderman dispatcher) to work render jobs in Nuke directly."
"There were different requirements," Sun explains. "We had to take some distance with what was previously done with the puppet reindeers. Just re-doing a 3D version of the original was out of the question, that would have been pointless."
"We began rebuilding their designs and behavior according to our own style, while keeping in mind the agency requests. To help them getting an idea soon enough, we used DreamWorks Animation's 'Madagascar' designs as a reference.
The short itself was meant to be a war-movie caricature. PlanKtoon took inspiration from classics such as
'The Dirty Dozen', or 'Band of Brothers'. Making a reindeer commando ready to jump over a snowy city to dispatch Christmas gifts, didn't mean they could look like regular soldiers. They needed to be something more like the A-team, with fur.
Starting with rough sketches in a brainstorming session, they kept what they thought fitted best for the concept. Then they cleaned up the designs. "We wanted sharp, clean lines. We found a generic reindeer design that we liked, and used it in the various characters present in the movie," says Limet.
The PlanKtoon team try to keep modeling as true as possible to the initial 2D designs. "Sometimes it's tough," says Sun Limet, "but once you have sold something to a client, you'd better stick to it. So no subsequent improvisations here, or very few."
"We use a simple home-made rigging system. Simple enough so any rigger could use it and add new stuff without running into too much trouble, but complex enough so the (never-satisfied) animators can make weird things with it."
Blend shapes are used to create the facial features and lip sync. Lots of them. "We know we could spare some by doing some clever management, but we enjoy making them. It's fun, and gives an immediate sense of comedy. When they are all linked to their controllers within the setup, some additional controls are added, to tweak some stuff when required."
We try to go fast for the animation part. It allows us to get quick feedback from either the client or other people. We first make a block animation, with all the important keyposes set correctly, and then we develop the animation.
As said earlier, that step can come pretty quickly in the preparation process, so we don't have to rush it within the last few days.
A lot of emphasis is put on characterisation in that step. Having a good original design is practically useless if it moves the same way as another.
Animators also work a lot with silhouettes, in a very 2D like manner, to help create dynamic and very readable keyposes.
Thanks to good use Maya references, geometry caches and home-made scripts, our animation pipe is built to ease 3D scenes for the renderers and animators, and to allow deep changes as well as dirty last-minute retakes with ease and clarity.
"Our main 3D package is Maya," explains Sun. "We've been using it since we were children, because it is so very flexible. Most people we hire know Maya best anyway. We use Renderman studio and its stand-alone version, Renderman Pro Server, to render all of our scenes. Renderman provides top quality images while requiring minimal (or at least not too strong) hardware specifications, which is nice for a small studio like ours.
Among many nice features, its point based technology allows us to generate global illumination without using raytracing (and thus avoid inherent problems such as flicking). Its shadows rendering quality is also great, and requires minimal RAM use during the process.
The shading and lighting had to be delivered in a clearly cartoonish way, while giving an overall feeling of comfort and warmth despite the situation.
'The Reindeer short is about Christmas, so the typical Christmas color scheme has been used throughout the short.
"For the reindeers, we specifically developed a fur shader with Renderman, for greater specialisation and effectiveness," says Sun. "We coupled it with Shave&Haircut to obtain our reindeer's fur and hair, because we think it is easier to use than Maya native fur, and also because of the result: Renderman does a great job of rendering S&H material."
"The different hairstyles worn by the reindeers and their wives were an absolute requirement, so we had to be able to propose many styles and researches to the agency. And, last but not least, we had to make the hair move, and Maya dynamic curves interacted nicely with S&H, allowing us to setup the hair with enough flexibility of use for the animators," Sun continued.
Depending on the project, Planktoon uses either mental ray for Maya or Renderman.
"The first is easy to use for almost any of us without much trouble, and is now well integrated into Maya," says Sun. "Renderman involves more development, but is a must when it comes to some features like fur, for instance."
Depending on the visual aspect of a project, the rendering approach will obviously be different. In general the PlanKtoon studio is fond of subtle lighting. They are into creating visually complicated materials, doesn't mean they can't be complex.
As with animation, making things easily readable while keeping a rich composition is what they aim for. They rely on matte painting made of 3D and 2D elements, as it allows them to arrange an image with more direct input and flexibility.
"We also use more radical techniques sometimes, if required," adds Sun Limet. "Outlines and cell-shading could also be used in many circumstances. We just try not to use them too much."
Roodoudou (Original cartoon animation)
Heroes of Might and Magic (game cinematic)
The compositing has been done with Nuke. Most of us are really 3D artists at heart, so a compositing software that is nodal based is a must. Nuke became a reference. It is very 3D friendly by nature, and the workflow between Maya and Nuke is seamless.
We use Renderman's dispatcher Alfred, and thanks to a homemade script within Nuke, Alfred is able to run a rendering job with Nuke.
Raving Rabbids selection.
Raving Rabbids Barca VS R.Madrid.
The rendering process is not something that the agency follows much, to avoid confusion. The compositing of the rendered layers is what shows the final image best, to anyone not used to those processes.
The final image is almost there, and the compositer will be able to enhance it according to various requests.
As far as Sun Limet is concerned, the PlanKtoon team would like to keep on developing in the commercials field, which is for them a choice media in terms of exposure, experimental work and quality.
"I'd also love to see how we could fit in an full-length animation film development, cartoon or not. We are all still very interested in producing an animation series, as this was in our heart, our initial goal when we started."