Creating a 20-minute animation on a limited budget was just one of the challenges facing Firedog for a Childnet International project teaching kids about staying safe on the Internet.
Firedog Design has created a teaching resource for Childnet International, a non-profit organization that helps teach children about online safety.
The result – a lengthy 3D animation bringing a duo of pirate children to life – aims to help boost awareness of the dangers that lurk online for unsuspecting kids aged 7-11.
At the heart of the resource is Captain Kara and Winston’s SMART Adventure – a 20-minute-long 3D animation that can be watched online at tinyurl.com/c6jxsg as five episodes, or as a single sequence.
The animation illustrates Childnet’s online safety rules, and includes live footage of youngsters who guide the cartoon characters in their quest, helping them make intelligent online decisions along the way.
Firedog also created an interactive training film that combines real footage with animated illustrations, available on CD, to help primary school teachers present the safety message.
The Firedog team, led by creative director Clifford Boobyer, created the concept, illustration and script for both films, employing 2D design, 3D animation, greenscreen filming, post-production and subtitling, among other techniques.
“The client came to us with a Flash animation that had been done the preceding year. It was rather basic and the vector shapes were quite mechanical.
"The animation’s tone was too immature and not edgy enough to be an engaging medium to draw a young audience into the narrative,” says Boobyer.
The studio’s response was to take the same learning principles and add a much higher production quality, married with a more mature style. While the client was happy for Firedog to create another 2D Flash-based movie, the team opted for a cartoon-style 3D animated environment.
With only a small budget available, the team had to find a cost-effective way to create a highly polished product that lived up to the proposed animation. There was also the small issue of time.
“From the 3D side of things, the biggest challenge was the quick turnaround,” says lead 3D animator, rigger and project team leader Asa Movshovitz.
“We didn’t have time to make any mistakes, or test many different ideas in the 3D process. We had to produce the animation within a very limited amount of time, with four weeks on the animation. We also had to build a very stable 3D character pipeline from scratch, so organization was a big challenge as well.”
Movshovitz continues: “The project really benefitted from a great pre-production stage and very strong 2D design, so once we got into the 3D stage we hardly needed to change anything.”
Creating the script was the first challenge. Boobyer initially crafted four or five loose concepts for the story. With the seafaring pirate adventure selected, Firedog embarked on a voyage of background sketching and illustration to lock down the style and positioning.
The team opted for a steam-punk feel to the animation, with the main characters drawn up in variations of the style, and this was then given the green light by the client.
The character design and environments took inspiration from a whole range of sources. Taking a lead from the likes of Tim Burton, Aardman character expressions, and even cel-shaded games, the overall look needed to have a dash of swashbuckle, along with a blend of Victoriana and Art Deco styles to add flavour.
“I was really inspired by Studio aka’s production of Jim Broadbent’s Lost and Found, which I caught on the BBC around Christmas time,” says Boobyer.
“It’s such a lovely simple and beautiful story, so calmly rendered and delivered. I love the old-school style of kids storytelling – quiet, mysterious, noble and full of adventure. Also a strong influence for me was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – the original Rudolf Erich Raspe written version. Weird and wacky stories – I can see how Terry Gilliam was inspired.”
The script went through eight revisions, with the final character designs and story approved before work on the 3D animation proper began.
“When drawing up the final script with director’s notes, I was keen on taking advantage of the 3D medium from a director and DOP’s point of view, using many different framing and editing devices,” says Boobyer.
“With the Flash animation we had seen earlier, there would be one cut for a line of narrative; now, we could quite easily introduce a number of L-cuts, reactive shots, two-shots and all kinds of dynamic filming devices in order to create interest – all for less initial outlay than the 2D version. This, for me, is where the power lies with 3D animation.”
Next, the team sketched out the frames for the storyboard, as well as clocking up time in the sound recording studio with Nick Mercer, who did all the voiceover, narration and audio effects.
The sketches and voice work was dropped into an animatic, helping the team dictate shot style, duration, camera angle, and editing effects.
The 3D character work was created in 3DS Max 2009 using polygons, with the two main characters created from the same base body shape to save time in terms of modelling and rigging.
“Each character also had full facial rig, which we created using some custom scripts for facial bone systems and creating a custom simple facial GUI for each character,” explains Movshovitz.
“The system could store the faces and it was able to copy-and-paste them for one character to the other. The system was very efficient, and we managed to create 28-30 different morph targets for each character within half a day to a day, including set-up and GUI.
“The animation process was very straightforward – we had a 2D animatic edits that gave us the right timings for each shot, and a very detailed shots script,” says Movshovitz.
“For this project it was important, since once this stage was signed off we made very few changes.”
The 3D animation process had two stages – first, layout, where the team set up the camera movement, timing and a very rough character blocking stage. Then they had to create character animation and lip-sync.
“The 3D animation was handled by two people and was turned around in about 1,000 frames per day,” says Moshovitz. With the characters in progress, the seascape environments were box-modelled using a stylized geographical topology.
With very little of each island needing to be functional, the team could place more importance on the silhouette of the islands and their geometry. The sea was created using two separate layers with animated procedural textures – one of which had a more cartoonish feel, the other having a more natural movement.
Lighting and rendering presented unique challenges – the goal was to keep hundreds of shots with multiple layers consistent. With only two animators on the project, the team created a few primary custom rendering scripts to help streamline the process.
“Since the original 2D designs were cartoon-based, we decided not to use any 2D textures in the production,” says Movshovitz.
“This saved us heaps of time by not having to move huge amounts of texture data at the rendering stage. All the elements on the colour pass were based on poly ID, so we didn’t have to spend time on unwrapping any objects. He continues:
“Each character was then rendered out in four different passes: colour, shadow, line and levels (ambient occlusion). The same process was applied again to create the backgrounds. We used mental ray to handle most of the rendering, with a basic shader to speed the rendering times.”
As well as 3DS Max, the team used After Effects to composite the shot passes, using layer and blending options, which were then output as individual composited shots.
The shots were then dropped into Premiere for editing, combining the voiceover and soundtrack.
“We chose Premiere for the editing because while it’s basic, it is nice and fast,” says Boobyer. “Finally, we outputted all the edits uncompressed and put them back into After Effects to do the final grading and postproduction effects.
"Due to the nature of how many passes, shots and output files we were dealing with we had to be very disciplined with keeping things tidy. Finally, the files were converted to Flash video for the online edition and sent out for a glass-mastering process to create the DVDs.”
With production time clocking up at eight weeks, and total project time extending to three months, the project required around 12 people working on it at any one time. But the result shows how far Firedog was able to push an animation with a limited budget.
“I love the fact that we took such a smallish budget for this kind of project and ran with it,” says Boobyer. “It was great to get everything so clearly nailed down and perfected.
"I’m quite a stickler for a well-managed studio – and enjoy when we can spend all our time on creating something, rather than changing it.
“Obviously with more time and resources, we could have polished the product that little more. I would have liked to have sat down with the final product for a few more days and just watched it. It just felt sometimes that as soon as we had something rendered out, we were burning it to DVD. There are a few little glitches that I’m sure no one will spot – but I know they are there.”
The two main characters were created in 3DS Max using polygons; all the other characters – including Cookie the mechanical monkey, were created with simple geometric shapes.
Detailed wireframe models of the sets were created before rendering.
“For the animation, we used Character Studio toolset within 3DS Max for the main character and did custom-rigging for the mechanical robot,” explains Asa Movshovitz.
With time and budget constraints a pressing concern on the project, the team opted for an environment made up predominantly of ships and seascapes. This simple measure effectively limited the amount of scenery they’d need to build, boosting their efficiency.
The Firedog team faced the problem of explaining a complex subject to kids in a way they would both understand and remember. By opting for a swashbucking pirate-themed storyline they could incorporate a message of danger in an easy-to-remember narrative.
Project: Captain Kara and Winston’s SMART Adventure
Client: Childnet International
Studio: Firedog Design, firedog-design.co.uk
Software: Adobe After Effects, Apple Premiere Pro, Autodesk 3DS Max 2009 mental ray