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Software to manage CGI animation helps Europe achieve feature film first


EUREKA project E! 3062 DAMAGE has developed a software tool to track and manage digital assets – the sound, illustrations, backgrounds, colour schemes and special effects – for production of a feature-length computer-generated imaging (CGI) animated film. While CGI animation provides popular and profitable entertainment, it has until recently been the multimillion dollar stronghold of the Hollywood giants.

The new software – and Valiant, the film on which it was tested and developed – is set to take the world by storm, and to open up a whole new global market for the European film industry. From the producer of Shrek I and Shrek II, John Williams, the new film features a pigeon named Valiant, voiced by Ewan McGregor, who becomes a hero of the Royal Air Force Pigeon Service in World War II. Other voices include Ricky Gervais, Jim Broadbent, John Cleese, Hugh Laurie, John Hurt, Tim Curry and Olivia Williams. Valiant is produced by Vanguard Animation and Ealing Studios and is released in the UK on 25 March 2005, in mainland Europe in July, and on 19 August in the USA.

Building on European heritage

Europe has a long heritage of producing animated films but lacked the critical mass of US studios such as Pixar and DreamWorks. Yet, the artistic skills of European animators and European technological know-how are acknowledged worldwide. “Producing a feature-length CGI animation has long been the Holy Grail of many a European studio but, until recently, it has seemed impossible,” says Sean Hinton, managing director of Ealing Studios in west London, where Valiant was produced.

“We had a purpose-built facility constructed at Ealing to house the 175 animators necessary to produce Valiant. But we needed to get the workflow technology right, especially as we were working with less than half the budget and in half the time of our US studio counterparts. The DAMAGE project gave us exactly what we were looking for.”
DAMAGE project leader Innovative Animation Services (IAS) is a young company based at Ealing Studios, led by the Hollywood production experience of Buckley Collum. IAS sought a partner that could develop the asset-management technology to be tried out during the production of Valiant. The answer came from the Limburg University Centre for Digital Media, just outside the Belgian city of Hasselt.

A requirements’ specification – agreed by all user partners of the project – was drawn up after a major exercise to research, understand and model the production process and workflow in producing an animated film. The specification and development of a secure, robust database, capable of handling several million items of multimedia content, was created. The software includes an approvals process, enabling a film’s director to approve assets, sequences and ultimately the whole film.

Developing a world first

DAMAGE’s achievements are significant as the systems previously created by US studios are custom-made solutions that are not marketed externally. Another European animation studio has already expressed interest in acquiring a licence for the DAMAGE software. Licensing to other studios will in turn allow European animation facilities to collaborate efficiently in projects that would previously have been too big for them to undertake on their own. And opportunities have now been created for European animation facilities to participate in US-originated films.

“The feedback we have had from those who are familiar with the in-house software used by the US production houses was amazing – what we’d produced with the Belgians through EUREKA was better and smarter than anything they’d seen elsewhere,” says Hinton. “Their systems have evolved over a number of years, whereas we worked from scratch, with a blank piece of paper, a smaller budget and the benefit of fresh and original ideas from the amazing pool of animation expertise that exists across Europe.”

Paul McCallum | alfa
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