Insight from Eamonn from Cinesite

This month Eamonn Butler, who recently hosted our quarterly Escape Labs event, discusses the future of London studios in motion. With VFX and Animation becoming a truly global operation and talent moving to new markets demanding industry change, world-renowned studio Cinesite are sharing their own insights on the success of their less traditional approach to adapt to the future of London Studios.

The transition from VFX to feature animation can't be easy, what would you say has been the hardest obstacle and how have you over come it?

With regards to Feature Animation, we have had to build the studio in a specific way in order to overcome any potential obstacles. We have used our experience in building a mature VFX pipeline, which has been road-tested to create this animation facility. We really want all projects to feel like the artists are closer to the creative leads and get them invested with ownership in the creative process.

By creating a slate for animation and simplifying the production cycle we have been able to create a format that works for producing feature animation. By having a slate of 4 movies means we can stack the production schedules such that each crew, at each phase can roll onto the next movie and then the next movie and so on. This is the holy grail of planning for an animation studio. It’s something even the big studios in Hollywood find difficult to do. Importantly, it means we can offer longevity to our crew through consistent work especially for junior artists as they can grow across multiple movies, trying different animation styles each time and working with different directors. This type of planning means we can make long-term decisions and create strong plans for pipeline and tools and we can cast in advance for upcoming shows.

Why do you think it was necessary for you and Cinesite to make this transition?

Competition in the VFX field is ferocious, so it was important for Cinesite’s artists to take some creative control and explore new avenues such as advertising and viral marketing, as well as creature animation. Our transition into feature animation began with a short film called ‘Beans’, which was produced to showcase our creature animation capabilities. It quickly became a massive online success, accumulating more than 14 million views on YouTube, a gold award at the AEAF animation awards, and the opening slot in the prestigious 2014 SIGGRAPH Electronic Theatre. Beans allowed us to show the industry we could do something on our own terms and resulted in a deal with 3QU Media to create a slate of family-targeted animation features. Including Charming, an upcoming 3D computer-animated musical comedy film directed and written by Ross Venokur and Gnome Alone, an animated comedy starring singer/actor Becky G (Power Rangers, 2017) and Josh Peck (Grandfathered). We are also working on Klaus, a co-production with SPA Studios, which will be written and directed by the acclaimed animator Sergio Pablos (creator of Despicable Me).
This transition marked an important step in Cinesite’s overall strategy to create world-class feature animation films for clients whilst also developing our own slate of original animated films.

What would you recommend to artists starting off in the field, especially in order to meet the new requirements of an evolving Cinesite?

Years ago there was too much separation between the teaching institution and the studios. The tutors had not worked within the industry and so were not giving appropriate advice. This meant that when students started working they knew little about how the industry really worked. Its completely changed, places like Escape Studios now work very closely with the industry. Not only do they have industry-experienced tutors to teach both the culture and the technical side but they also work closely with industry studios in order to keep everything relevant. They are completely on top of what studios need form artists and apply that to their courses.

What is the difference in work style of a VFX studio and Animation Studio?

There is definitely a hard transition if all you know is visual effects, to transition to animation. There is a separation from the director in VFX, you work with the supervisor, so what tends to happen is information slightly changes down the line. In animation films you talk to the director constantly, and take your ideas directly to them. You can quickly draft up and show a rough copy to represent your idea and the director can say ‘I love that’ or ‘I hate that’ and you know exactly what to change. Whereas with VFX your idea needs to be perfect when you take it to the director, you can’t go to them with a grey shade, they want to see the finished product. I would say the biggest leap between VFX and animation is that you are very exposed in animation because you’re working so close with the director and you’re encouraged to share your ideas. So it needs to be a friendly environment where you feel like you can take risks.

What was most challenging film you’ve worked on in your career?

They’re all challenging, and every one was a little different. One of the most challenging films I have worked on was Hellboy II:The Golden Army, because I had such creative freedom, which was great but at the same time I didn’t have a lot of time. That kind of creative freedom is a great challenge. Visual effects are very much a process, you get your feedback and you try again. Another challenging film was Hercules, again due to timings. We took some risks with this one as well, using new software for a scene where we placed 1,000 people in battle, but the end result was great. 

Taking this into consideration where do you see your expertise taking you in future and is any of your current work reflecting your predictions?

We took the decision to start exploring AR because we believe that, as the technology progresses, it has the potential to provide an incredibly magical experience. One product that we’re about to launch after a successful crowdfunding campaign is the Virtuali-Tee, an AR/VR T-Shirt that lets you peer inside a friend’s anatomy by pointing your device at their t-shirt. This for us, is the opportunity: transform the everyday into something magical.

We’re really excited about the democratization of this tech and how the experience you can currently get on an HTC Vive will filter down to mobile. On the mobile AR side, Google have some interesting projects and investments. In the immediate future, the 3D environment scanner, Tango will be really interesting and will elevate the level of consumer AR. In the distant future, we (along with all the industry) are eagerly waiting to see what will come out of $1bn+ funded stealth start-up, Magic Leap. If they’re creating the tech that I believe they are, I expect to see them radically transform computing.