The provision of visual effects animation on TV is constantly evolving and even post houses are beginning to offer CGI services as part of the package. But is it good for the client and the industry as a whole?

Computer-generated imaging (CGI) technology has revolutionised television, both in terms of traditional animation and the worlds of visual effects and motion graphics.

Another revolution is quietly occurring in post-production, where editing facilities are beginning to offer increasingly complex CGI services and animated sequences. While this could be seen as a logical evolution for editing facilities, it means animation studios, which already have to compete in an increasingly global market, are now finding competition closer to home.

One of these evolving facilities is Unit, which as part of its new 3D services offers full character and effects animation through to photo-real footage augmentation and motion graphics. According to Unit co-founder and head of Unit Effects Roland Woolner, the demand for 3D came from two directions. “Firstly, edit work in the building required effects and clean-up, which developed into effects shots and sequences, then from another angle we had motion-graphics sequences that grew to rely on 3D techniques and animation,” he says. “The demand took us slightly by surprise, but having the flexible infrastructure at Unit allowed us to adapt and expand the VFX and CGI department to suit our clients.”

As the demand grows, Woolner says, Unit Effects will be looking to add further sophistication to its 3D pipeline. “This will allow us to tackle even more ambitious projects requiring larger teams of specialists. Our pipeline is based around Maya, but understandably 2D effects and compositing are tied into the workflow. Obviously we are currently taking in a variety of new talent within the CGI field.”

This is evident from its latest hiring. Melody Woodford, who has worked on many visual effects films and adverts for the likes of the Moving Picture Company and Double Negative, joins Unit as VFX producer and head of CG production.

Other companies involved in this trend include The Sanctuary, which is developing its Funktion design and branding arm to offer CGI and motion graphics as part of an in-house, one-stop solution. Meanwhile, another expanding facility is Lip Sync Post. “VFX has been our largest growth area,” says Kevin Phelan, Lip Sync's head of post-production. “It's expanded from five people two years ago to about 28 workstations, with 16 full-timers and a great bunch of freelancers at the ready.”

Green Lit Media managing director Pete Levy feels that one driver for the trend is the continual advances in technology. “New animation and compositing software is being developed at a phenomenal rate which allows more ‘crossover' of applications,” he says. “Animators and compositors now have a more diverse range of applications at their disposal to create stunning results. This has led to an increase in the number of practitioners who are realising that they can create the same results quicker and at less cost.”

Animation moves
Adam Shaw, managing director and head of production at studio Blue Zoo, has noticed a shift in who provides animation for title sequences, small effects work and promos. “This is especially true of anything that involves live action,” he says. “If post houses are providing other facilities for a production it is often simpler for the clients to give them the animation. They already have a relationship with them and it's perceived to save costs.”

Joint chief executive of Framestore CFC William Sargent agrees, but sees this as merely an expansion of the market rather than a direct threat. “No one's going to come to us to do just two shots when they're spending a month in some other company,” he says. “It makes no sense to them or to us.”

Sargent feels the general increase in animation providers has come about because of an increase in both processing power and the demands of VFX-aware producers. “Having a CG character in a weekly TV drama is now financially feasible,” he says. “Equally, it adds to the impact of that programme. As a result the bar is raised across the genres.”

However, Shaw feels post houses lack the specialisation and experienced team that an animation studio can provide. It's a common view among his peers. “It is an obvious move to try and keep as much as possible in-house whether to retain good margins or to more comfortably facilitate directors in a creative, campus-like environment,” says Gilbert James, senior 3D producer at VFX-led Golden Square. He adds: “Clients still like to go to facilities that specialise in these areas, not just for experienced talent but the technical back-up and established pipelines they have in place.”

There are pitfalls for the unwary too. “CG/animation is a very different workflow to general post,” says Rushes director of 3D Jonathan Privett. “It doesn't fit into easy packages in the way the straight edit, grade and sound mix work does. Post houses can underestimate the complexities of CG and the need for continual upgrades in kit and software and investment in people to meet the client's expectations. Rushes has been building its film and TV department over five years and has been very successful because of the management commitment and talent employed to steer it in the right direction.”
As starting from scratch may be a risky move, some post companies are taking on the experience and infrastructure of established animation companies through acquisition. One such is the Prime Focus group, which recently secured the business interests of boutique broadcast VFX company Clarke Associates to work closely alongside the group's editing facility, Blue.

“Visual effects projects still need to be driven creatively and led by individuals that have experience in this field,” says Simon Clarke, creative director of Clarke Associates. “It's all about providing the full range of specialists under one roof and making sure that the right people are picked to work as a team. Editors will never replace graphic designers or compositors, but perhaps with more unification of the separate disciplines individuals can work together more efficiently.”

Flexibility counts
Clarke also sees the integration move as providing a good starting point for negotiation on price. “If done properly, it provides continuity across projects and workflow visibility to the whole team, and allows for a smoother workflow as all facilities can be combined,” he says. “Projects develop more organically as edit and VFX work more as a unit, and this also provides more flexibility for the client.”

The Prime Focus group includes Prime Focus London, an established post house offering VFX services to the broadcast, commercials and feature film industries. Head of 3D VFX John Harvey warns that post house CGI requires years of subtle tweaking and care. “The back-up offered by the rest of the facility and the relationship between operators, 2D and 3D, is essential to a quality delivery,” he says. “You can set up a CGI department easily, and with little overhead expenditure, but it will take a long time before it can take on a larger facility for capability. It's not just the software and hardware, it's the attitude, knowledge base and infrastructure that make post houses like us, and established VFX companies like Clarke Associates, able to deliver the high levels of quality and reliability clients demand.”

Working together?
Amalgamation looks set to become more common in post-production, a trend animators Once Were Farmers have had first-hand experience of. “We've had a couple of propositions from post houses to team up so they can offer an all-in-one package but nothing that really made sense to us,” says creative director Will Adams. “We're negotiating a partnership with a design studio that specialises in print and typo-graphy for the same reason that clients are looking to get everything done under one roof or have the design co-ordinated by one team across several media.”

Adams feels that his company looks set to lose a few of its smaller jobs to the trend. “Where budgets are pinched and nothing too flash is required it makes sense to have titles put together in the edit,” he says. “I don't think it will affect our bigger projects, where title sequences are required to make a big impression or specialised in-show graphics are needed.”

Seemingly untroubled by such currents in the broadcast world are the major film animation and effects providers, all of whom also spread work across TV and commercials. One of these is Framestore CFC, whose joint chief executive William Sargent says: “There's nothing stopping people adding what we do to their business, but to do so they have to decide that they want 50 to 100 more people in their business, new infrastructure, networks and so on. If you need animation like our creatures in Primeval, you can't walk down the street and find 10 companies who can do it.”

However there may be uncertainty ahead for the big players too. “The commercials sector is steady, but there is concern that a global recession may affect advertising spend,” says Aardman head of broadcast Miles Bullough. “It's an important part of our business.”

“Feature and high-end production of CGI and effects continues to provide work for the larger or longer established specialist companies within the UK,” says Green Lit's Levy. “However, such companies are also having to diversify in some form or other and find ways to fill the gaps in between the larger more profitable productions.”

One such is Lola, which has traditionally focused on film and commercials. “We can apply our film knowledge of handling large amounts of shots with our commercials knowledge to enable us to do top quality TV work,” says Lola managing director Grahame Andrew. “The main advantage with TV work is that it involves quite long time periods. This brings some stability to our company. Commercials are rather harder to predict and it's more a question of reacting to them when they arrive.”

Another challenge comes from outside the UK entirely. “The market for VFX is global,” says Rushes senior 3D/VFX producer Louise Hussey. “There are high-profile series for major UK broadcasters that are being done in eastern Europe and Canada. Other countries can be cheaper, and in some cases as good, but not all. Some clients may not be comparing skills and talent and factoring that into the rates - some only look at the bottom line.”

“There are some restrictions within the market on where VFX work can be placed,” says Simon Clarke, who recently lost a pitch on a broadcast job for a UK client when it was stipulated by the co-producer that the VFX had to be done in Canada. “It was unclear whether this was for financial reasons or tax advantages.”

This is not always the case, as was shown recently when Bristol-based studio 422 South provided 50 CGI dinosaurs and other visual effects for two documentaries on the National Geographic channel. In fact, Bullough is confident there is considerable scope for UK companies providing services to foreign broadcasters. “UK companies have a very good reputation internationally,” he says. “However the weakness of the dollar is an issue for companies selling their services to the US.”

As ever the decision to go to a one-stop post house, a specialist boutique or the nearest
or cheapest animation provider all comes down to the client. “The increased competition is always good for a healthy market,” says Adam Shaw. “However, it means clients have to be more careful when selecting the right solution for them - not just going for the cheapest, but with a company that will deliver on time, in budget and to the quality that they are expecting to achieve for their budget.”

Big screen effects

Cinematic effects drive CGI, but the lines between what's possible on big screen and small are increasingly being blurred

“The whole range of animation work is now available for TV,” says Lola managing director Grahame Andrew, whose company has provided work for Earth: The Power of the Planet and Fearless Planet. “With computers getting cheaper, it's realistic to do top quality work for TV budgets. Audiences also expect good quality - they're used to seeing it at the cinema, and can spot cheap effects work on TV.”

“For the most part clients are becoming much more post-production literate,” agrees Prime Focus London head of 3D VFX John Harvey. “There is an underlying need for subtlety in VFX work - clients don't want the creative work to show. These ‘seamless' VFX shots are techniques we have become extremely proficient in.”

The most high-profile animation on TV so far this year has been for ITV1's Primeval 2. Created by Framestore CFC for Impossible Pictures, the series features a family of raptors going wild in a shopping centre, a sabre-toothed cat in a theme park and a mammoth on the M25. As well as the prehistoric monsters from series one, Framestore CFC supplied the production with seven new CG creatures seen in some 350 shots, as well as a further 350 digital VFX and CG enhancements.

“Five years ago, putting two or three characters in a shot was just feasible with the processing power on offer,” says Framestore CFC joint chief exec William Sargent. “Now you can cascade the techniques as processing becomes cheaper, for more dramatic effects.”