CGSociety sat down with Bobby Beck to talk about Circus Jam the animated short he recently directed. Find out how 120 artists, from 23 countries, collaborated to breathe life into this joyously comical six minute gem.

Can you tell us about Circus Jam

The Circus Jam is the result of an experiment to see how far we could push distributed production. I wanted to get our students together from all over the world to create something fun and collaborative. To see if we could do something more ambitious than just a few shots and try to do an actual short where no one ever sat in the same room at the same time - yet make it feel cohesive. 

The piece itself is like a silly cirque du soleil show. There are 3 different sets. The first set is meant to be a traditional, old-style circus theme. The second is a medieval circus and the third set is our rendition of a futuristic circus. 

When all was said and done, 120 artists from 23 countries collaborated to bring this project together. Production lasted about 10 months. The models, rigs, surfacing and animation were all done by students and alumni from Animation Mentor. 

Where did the idea originate?

The idea originated from wanting to do the project as an anim jam. An anim jam is where people work on a project with specific parameters; e.g. a ball enters the frame and a character/s interacts with it and the ball exits frame. Then everyone animates whatever they want, so long as they follow the given parameters, and you stitch the shots together to make something that works. 

In the first set we followed this approach and it was proving to be fairly difficult to manage. It was hard to determine how the shots would fit together, what worked and what didn’t as, by design, there was no formal story at that point. As we went through we had to cut a lot of shots, but we’re happy that we found the story for this section of the piece. 

On the second set we followed the same approach, but quickly looked for shots that felt like they would work together and then paired those animators up to ensure the shots hooked up and, in some cases, they would share a shot if both of their characters needed to be together for the hookups. This worked better. 

On the final set we decided to go the traditional route of building out a concept with previs and this worked great. It’s tried and true for a reason and this last sequence went the smoothest of all from animation through to lighting. 

120 artists from all over the world were involved - tell us about the mind-numbing logistics in getting this baby together.

Overall it wasn't too bad. Of course we had the normal people challenges where they’d show a lot of enthusiasm up front and then get busy and have to bail out. Those things are going to happen and it’s just a matter of knowing how to manage your expectations and having backup plans. 

Regarding management of the data, that was a big part of the experiment of the project. In 2013 we rolled out a home grown cloud pipeline tool into Animation Mentor that allowed the students and mentors to manage and share their files. When we built the tool it was always our intention not to just use it for assignments, but to use it for actual productions, too. 

We've now spun this tool out into its own platform/service called Artella. It’s meant for distributed productions such as shot films and video games. We made Circus Jam to eat our own dog food, as the saying goes, and to see where things broke down so that we could tighten them up for future productions. 

Do you think this is the future of filmmaking?

Without a doubt. Not just for films, but games and VR content, too. It is freeing in a lot of ways and you get to work with talent from all over the world, not just locally. 

With Artella we are working hard to swing the pendulum in the favor of artists so that they have more opportunities to live wherever they want and work on great projects. We believe the next great studio to work for is in your home and, Yes, you still have great fun with people and build incredible friendships too. 

What tools were used to bring your story alive?

We used our internal cloud pipeline tool for the first half of the production, then we rolled over the last half onto Artella where much of the editorial was handled. This is how we managed all the files and versions. 

We used Google docs for shot casting and progress tracking. We fine tuned a simple spreadsheet that really worked GREAT and kept us on top of the status of everything. 

We used Maya for modeling, rigging and animation. Nuke for compositing and RenderMan as our renderer. 

What lessons were learned at completion?

I learned that the director is the ringleader. Their job, in a distributed production, is to keep things moving. You have to make decisions and make sure to keep the team inspired and engaged. If things aren't working you have to provide direction, and/or be open to hearing other people’s ideas and supporting them along the way.

I learned that editorial is the heartbeat of a production and keeping the cut current is something that has to happen to keep everyone on the same page.

I learned that music and sound design should not happen until animation and the cut is locked. We did the score and sound design before animation was fully finaled and it made for a world of pain in editorial when things got cut and shifted. It just made the editorial process ugly and it frustrated the sound designers too as they had to redo work several times. As a result, I would not recommend doing sound design until things were firmly locked down and finaled in animation. Temp audio is fine to set the mood, but, for me, I wouldn't do much more than that. 

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to make such an ambitious film like yours?

You have to be committed to finishing. I made a promise to myself that I would finish this project as I owed it to everyone on the team who had been working so incredibly hard and I just wanted them to see it done, with their name in the credits and to know they were a part of something very special. They were. 

Also, I would recommend getting to previs fast. That’s where you really see the film come together. Even if it’s crude and rough. You get the sense of what’s going on and what’s working and not very quickly. 

Were there ever any times that you thought “this project is just too darn big, what were we thinking!” If so, how did you and the team get back on track?

Luckily we never lost steam. I worked hard to stay on top of things and to stay motivated. People were posting new work every day and that just kept us all going. 

We were trying to finish the project for CTN 2015 and we got fairly close but didn't quite have it finished so we took a short break for the holidays and came back strong and finished it up. 

During that break I decided to cut the project down. It was 9 minutes and I wound up taking it down to 6 minutes of animation. That was one of the hardest, yet smartest things as it was dragging in parts and I didn't want to upset anyone by cutting their work. But then, with the help of Carlos Baena - one of my best buddies and co-founder of Animation Mentor - he sat down with me and we did a trimming pass where we just tried to be as objective as we possibly could as we knew the piece had to be entertaining first, over anything else. 

That trimming pass was hard to do, and I learned so much about editing and about keeping the pace engaging and moving forward. I owe a lot to Carlos for pushing me.   

More projects like this on the horizon?

Absolutely. With Artella deep in private beta now with over 10 projects in production, I'm directing another piece that just wrapped animation and we’re just starting look development. The new project is called, Thistle One. It’s very different in style from Circus Jam

With Thistle One I want to push the look to the level you’d see on the big screen. I want to prove that level is achievable in a distributed world. I already know it can be and I’m just so excited to help keep pushing the bar forward for remote teams and am excited to see what people do when they get Artella in their hands soon. We hope Artella will be the beginning of something very special for artists all over the world.