Thursday, August 2, 2007

Clay Characters are re-invented

After eight years of providing traditional clay animation for the global preschool programme, the Cape Town-based studio - Triggerfish Animation - have finally succumbed to the advances of computer technology. Their contract for this year's Sesame Street animation was generated entirely by computer, and the popular boy and dog duo were reborn as pixels representing their former plasticine selves. 

Red and Zed in the garden from Triggerfish Animation on Vimeo.

The decision to change from the beloved medium of clay animation was made reluctantly, but with good creative reasoning. Triggerfish Director Anthony Silverston says, "We love clay animation and the very specific look it has, but this year's scripts called for so many different elements that we decided to recreate the plasticine universe in computer."

Elements like Red riding a bicycle, a bubble bath fiasco, a family of ducks on pogo sticks, and a clip that takes place completely underwater were key in influencing the decision, which was embraced by New York-based Sesame Workshop, the worldwide headquarters of the Sesame franchise.

"We wanted to keep that rough look that plasticine has, so we modeled and textured the environment to look like plasticine," says Silverston. "This technique was used very successfully in Aardman's feature film Flushed Away, where even the fingerprints of the artist were generated by computer and included in the surface of the characters.
Recreating the plasticine world had its challenges. Head modeler Sam King adds, "We had to generate random bump maps that would try to mimic the properties of clay, which changes subtly with each frame. We also had to mimic the way that clay squashes when the characters blink or bend their joints." The result is a pleasingly tactile finish that maintains the charm of the handmade original.

Another key factor influencing the decision was the studio's vastly grown CG department. Earlier this year Triggerfish were commissioned to produce 30-minutes of animation for a children's DVD for Ambient Animation Studios on behalf of a client based in the United States. This is the longest internationally commissioned animation ever done in South Africa, and the company tripled in size during its execution. Recognizing the potential for the success of this project as a catalyst to grow the rest of the local animation industry, the Cape Film Commission generously donated computer resources to the project to ensure training could continue to happen throughout the production. The project entitled "The Pond: The rise and fall of Tony the Frog", has been very favourably received by the US producer, and is due for release in late August 2007.

This is a significant milestone in the history of South African animation. With this USA client, they have proved that South African companies can service international clients with world class long-form animation that is economically very competitive. Triggerfish has always been on the forefront of developing the local animation industry and it is projects like these that will help build the industry into a world player. In 2003 Triggerfish co-founded the national animation organisation and also started the first animationXchange - the first national forum which encourages and supports animation enthusiasts.

The South African animation industry is growing rapidly and there are a number of animated feature films in various stages of production in South Africa. Triggerfish's own feature film, Zambezia, is going into pre-production towards the end of the year - a massive R40 million project which will take nearly 2 years to complete. The huge demand for skilled technicians has led to an unprecedented boom amongst modelers, animators and visual effects artists - with animation studios often recruiting directly from the animation colleges.

"Computer generated animation has never been easier," says Triggerfish producer Stuart Forrest, "But animators need to constantly return to their traditional acting and cinematography skills to tell compelling and engaging stories. Whether the characters are made with clay or simulated to look like clay, it is still the up to the animator to bring them to life. And that is the magic of animation"

Learning to listen from Triggerfish Animation on Vimeo.

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