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Studio Aiko: from Tel Aviv
 
 
Posted: Dec 01, 2010
Published by: the area
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Software: Autodesk 3ds Max
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The Area:
Greets Meny and Yair! We have here, the co-founders of Studio Aiko, a VFX and animation studio based out of Tel Aviv, Israel. A little bit of background about yourselves, please :)
How did the two of you meet each other and decide to form Studio Aiko?
Meny:
We met in our previous workplace, an animation studio, where we worked together in the lighting and rendering department. We worked there for 2 years and became good friends. Over time, we discussed about the idea of establishing our own animation studio which we believed would be unique and could contribute to the local industry with high-end CG productions. This decision was hard to do, and it took quite some time until we eventually made our first step from talking to doing.
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The Area:
How were the early years, juggling a young company and meeting client deadlines?
Yair:
The start was very challenging and exciting. We started almost from nothing – we brought our own 2 personal computers and rented a small and humble office, and jumped into the water.
Our client circle was quite narrow at that point and included mostly those who knew us from our previous days as freelancers prior our partnership. There was a lot of work ahead of us and the first thing was to build the studio's portfolio, which continued for a long time, and also to promote ourselves amongst potential clients.
Over time, we slowly expanded our client circle, gathered more experience in various fields of CG and after a year, employed our first employee which we saw as an important and meaningful step in the studio's development and its future.
After two years, we moved to a bigger and more comfortable place with more serious machines. The number of employees grew, the studio expertise expanded to include more in the areas of commercial production, architecture, product simulations, music videos, and lately – we’ve tread into the games industry. The studio gathered additional experience as the projects became more complex, scale of projects increased…which resulted in bigger, more serious clients.
Keeping within deadlines is a very important component for us, no less than the quality of the production we provide to our clients. The nature of our work in this industry is in such a way that almost each project has its defined and often very tight schedule. Hence, it is a requirement to be efficient in the time frame given and still maintain the best quality of production. This is a practical experience that gathers over time.
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The Area:
Fast-forward to the present day, with the release of your latest project "Classroom Scene". It is an animation with realistic textures and distinct lighting environments, set in a dated classroom of an earlier time. What was the purpose for this project?
Meny:
This project started out as an experiment, which we were working towards as a possible project… a music video, actually. The original plan was to create a classroom environment with a general camera angle that overlooked the entire classroom, but very quickly, turned out to be a very challenging project that went into much more complex work than I had originally planned. The “Classroom Scene” was done between the studio's projects, with a lot of love and dedication put into it.
I really hope the clip will take place eventually and that the classroom scene will be part of it. I’ve actually begun planning the next scene for this project and hopefully, when things will settle down a bit, I can start working on it.
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The Area:
The objects and their placement in the room are so well thought-out, nothing distracts the eyes. Were these objects created from your imagination, or was this a recreation of an existing classroom…perhaps from your school?
Meny:
It's actually a combination of two things. First of all, the inspiration and concept for this work didn't come from a specific classroom I knew, but from a completely different context that I’m familiar with. The entire desk area with the electronic devices layered on top, was influenced by my father's workplace, as I recall from my childhood. I spent a lot of time there when I came to visit him at work and was fascinated with all the electronic devices and wires, and all the technical books and magazines that were scattered all around. This had been my primary influence during the entire work process.
Another component which helped me a lot, was the extended research I did. Almost every object was created after lengthy observations of the photos I found on the web or shot myself.
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The Area:
What software+hardware did you use for this? And overall for Studio Aiko?
Meny:
The scene was created with 3ds Max, rendered with V-Ray, Photoshop for the textures and post work was done with After Effects.
The machine I worked with was a quad-core with 4GB RAM, but as I progressed, problems started to occur because the enormous amount of details, the polygon weight, the use of displacement maps, and some complex shaders. Hence, I started using additional computers mainly for test renderings.
In line with this project, our pipeline includes the same software which I’ve mentioned previously. We have 2 computers per person and we have a humble render farm. Our computers consist of quad-cores and Intel core i7's.
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The Area:
What technique did you use for generating the textures?
Meny:
Many of the textures have been created from scratch in Photoshop, but I also used photos I found on the web (mostly for the books and magazines covers, papers, and sticky notes). They were also treated in Photoshop.
Texturing the electronic devices and the objects on the desk area was quite hard work. There wasn't any shortcut here and I had to do comprehensive work, so again, I used many reference photos of old electronic appliances, observed them and created the textures mostly from scratch.
Regarding the shaders work, my first thought when approaching this work was, that because of the complexity of the scene and the amount of details that were in it, I would have to keep the work on the shaders as simple as possible -- otherwise the work and the test renders would be endless. With a few exceptions, I mostly stuck with the basic shaders parameters, played with the Fresnel reflections and with the amount of glossy reflection. I let the textures do the work and only on specific objects, like the blackboard, chairs, desks and similar objects, did I use more complex shaders with various maps like specularity, glossiness and so on.
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The Area:
A look at the wireframes lets us appreciate how dense the scene is. What can you tell us about managing and organizing the volume of objects, if any, were used here?
Meny:
I almost didn't use any proxies in the scene, just here and there when things started to falter and RAM error messages started to appear. I used a lot of reference copies to help reduce the render process, for chairs, papers, books, and some duplicated electric devices. Naturally I experience some problems while working in the viewport because of the amount of objects I had, so I worked a lot with Max's layers feature which honestly made it possible to keep working on the scene.
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The Area:
Did you render out the scene as a whole or they were broken down into layers to be edited later in comp?
Meny:
The scene was rendered as a whole. This workflow suited me well in this specific situation. From the beginning, when I started doing my first test renders, I simultaneously worked on basic color corrections and kept doing this during the entire work process – making changes in the 3D scene and checking them back and forth in After Effects. But I did render Z-Depth pass for the depth-of-field post effect, and also rendered a pass of particles for the out-of-focus post effect I did for the floating dust look.
The Area:
What are those diagrams on the chalkboard? ;-)
Meny:
These are just scribbles with no meaning at all, but the work on this texture was interesting. First, I used all kinds of photos of doodles I found on the web. I merged and composed them together until I got a dense composition. But the thing was that I had to make this texture in high resolution, because the chalkboard took up a big part in the scene and in some camera POV's, it can be seen in closer detail. So - I used the texture I already did and divided them into several sections, which I printed out. I then put each print on a tracing paper and used black chalk to trace the doodles underneath. After doing this for each print, I scanned and merged them together in Photoshop and achieved the high resolution texture.
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The Area:
There are numerous rendering solutions available on the market. What made you decide to use V-Ray?
Meny:
V-Ray gives us great solution for our needs. It is easy to use, the results are excellent and it is very fast. The materials are advanced and have remarkable features, the use with physical camera and V-Ray sun are very useful. The displacement is easy to use and gives great results with sane render time. The use of proxies gives us the ability to work with great amounts of detail and handle heavy scenes, as we often have in our field of work.
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The Area:
As one is well aware, that even with great models and textures, lighting and rendering contribute largely to the success of an image or video. The bold statement to make -- not one, but FOUR -- different lighting versions, screams "bring it on!".
Can you shed some light ;-) on the lighting and rendering setup for daylight, sunny day, nighttime, and camera flash?
Meny:
At first, when I was planning this scene, I did not think of doing four different light setups as I eventually came to do. But as I progressed with the work, I saw the potential in it and wanted to make the most out of it.
So I started with the first and original light setup I had intended to do, this was the "daylight" setup. I used two V-Ray lights and located them in the windows opening. I used this method instead of using sun light because I wanted to get a soft kind of look without hard contrasts.
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The second light setup was the "sunny day", something between morning and early noon kind of mood. For this effect, I used V-Ray Sun and adjusted it together with V-Ray physical camera parameters until I got it right. If you compare this light setup to the previous one, the difference is obvious, although both happen during the daytime. With this mood, the contrasts are higher, the light and shadows are much more noticeable and the sun's rays give the feel and character of a sunny day.

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The third light setup was the "night time". I wanted to try a different approach and show the room in a completely different mood, a dark room lit mostly by artificial lights, together with a subtle bluish light entering the room from the outside. Once again, V-Ray lights were placed in the windows and their job was to bring the subtle bluish light to the room, imitating the light that comes from the atmosphere at this hour. Given that the scene was lit only by the soft bluish light, it was a good time to place a few artificial lights in the scene: the fluorescent light, the desk lamp and the appliance lights which provide a good yellowish contrast to the bluish feel.

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The forth and final light setup was the "camera flash". The idea for this came up when I did some render tests to the "night time" light setup. The trick was to use only 1 omni light that aligned to each camera with a slight offset to the top. This was done to imitate the way a flash works on a camera. An important task was to adjust the attenuation of each omni in each camera POV, in order to make the scene be lit mostly in the foreground and then drastically fading into darkness. This required lots of render tests to make it look right.

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The Area:
How did you achieve the effect of floating dust particles in the camera flash?
Meny:
The out-of-focus dust particles were created as post effect. I used particles system with simple spheres which would fill the entire 3D scene, I then rendered and used it in AE with "out-of-focus" filter to achieve the effect of various-sized dust that get very close to the camera. I also added some dust and noise texture and composited it on top of everything to blend it better.
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The Area:
When did this project start and how long did it take to finish?
Meny:
The overall time it took to finish this scene was about 5-6 month, but it wasn't a fulltime job, as I worked on it between the studio's projects. One of the approaches in this project was to give the time it needed without any pressure or deadline and make it the best it can be without any compromises. The original plan was to make only the general camera angle which shows the entire classroom, but as I proceeded with the scene, I started doing more and more tests for different camera angles where I saw bigger potential. That's how I started working on the desks and the electric equipments area and what eventually would became my main concern in the project and took the most time to do.
The Area:
In similar flavor, we have the "Trailer" project that features what looks to be an old abandoned trailer sitting amidst an urban wasteland. What can you tell us about this undertaking?
Meny:
The Trailer scene was also an in house project which was done between projects. I had this scene in my head for a long time and I waited for the right moment to work on it. It was an opportunity for me to explore some new features in V-Ray which until then, we didn't use at the studio – V-Ray Sun and Physical Camera. The different light and mood versions came after exploring these new V-Ray features and understanding them deeper. The animation purpose was to show these various moods in a dynamic way.
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The Area:
Let's talk about some of your other commercial work - "Hot Movies Promo". This was a quick 1 minute spot, with 8 different "sets" that revolved to reveal a brand new set each turn. How were you approached to do this advert?
Yair:
Together with the client, we came up to the initial concept and then decided exactly which sets were going to be included in the spot: the children set, the cinema set and so on.

I started working on the design of each set and consolidated each one by using photos and references. After finishing the designs and getting client approval, we then started work on the 3D sets. Each set was modeled separately without any relation to the other. After the modeling phase, we worked on the textures, shaders and lighting and during this time, we also worked separately on the "one shot" camera animation.

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We then merged the camera into the set's scenes and rendered each set separately and composited them together in After Effects. The props animation (balloons, particles etc), the hangar in the background, and the light bridge at the top were done separately and composited also in post work.

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The Area:
What was the turnaround on "Hot Movies Promo" like?
Yair:
The schedule for this project was very tight. We had only 3 weeks to finish everything, including the renders. Therefore it was very important to plan the pipeline prior to the project’s starting point and to make it as efficient as possible. In order to make this, we divided the project between three people, so that each person got their specific exact task.
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The Area:
Along with video, Studio Aiko also specializes in print ads. One of said print campaigns was for Soda Club, maker of the portable seltzer water/soda machine for home use. For the Soda Club ads, what did they need Studio Aiko to do?
Yair:
This project spread out over a long period in which during this time, we had to do several ads for the Soda Stream campaign. The main theme was to create realistic, juicy and delicious-looking fruits. Each fruit was treated with great attention to detail, with respects to both the modeling and materials.
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The Area:
What is the secret to the materials looking so juicy and textural?
Meny:
It’s a combination of several factors. First, the detailed fruit models, which provided a good base for the textures and materials that were added at the next stage. The textures were done in Photoshop, some were created based on photographs and some were painted from scratch.
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The pineapple texture for example, was based on a photo that matched to the 3D pineapple model. The papaya and dragon fruit on the other hand, were made from scratch in Photoshop. The shaders consisted of a texture, a reflection map and a glossiness map which helped to give the fruit its realistic look. Another factor that helped achieve the realistic look was the use of displacement map, which gave the fruits a slight roughness at just the right dosage. This can be observed in the coconut and pineapple shell, for example.

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The Area:
What did you use for generating the water swirl and mid-air fruit salad toss image?
Meny:
Actually the water swirl splash was modeled without the use of any simulation. We found a tutorial showing a certain modeling technique that helped us a lot in creating the splash, easier than doing it as simulation, which subsequently decreased the creation time significantly. It also gave us full control and freedom for shaping the model as we desired, compared to the use of a simulation which might have been harder to control.
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We first modeled a flat spiral shape, according to the concept art we had. The next step was designing the spiral model in more detail, by giving the model thickness and creating some holes. Next was to cover the entire model with various-sized spheres and then importing it to Z-Brush and using the ‘unified skin‘ feature that created a smooth model, based on the original imported one.

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The Area:
Pelephone Visual ads and Nescafe are both print ads that blend 3D elements with live models to create compelling narratives. Compared with video spots, what's the turnaround like on print ads on average?
Meny:
Working on still visual ads compared to animation production is quite different in the manner of the work, both in front of the client and in the process itself. Every little detail in these ads are noticeable and therefore, requires putting the utmost attention to each and every element that exists. With animation, on the other hand, everything is dynamic and changes, so the approach is different and the work on the details depend on several factors like the camera movement, length of shot, etc.
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In both projects, for Pelephone and Nescafe, each frame was treated with great attention -- from 3D modeling, post work and the compositing of all elements together. The photographed figures were treated in order to fix and smooth corrections and to blend them with the backgrounds.

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The Area:
How do you decide on themes, styles and shooting of live models - are these provided by the client initially?
Yair:
The photographed models are most of the time supplied by the client, as in the case of the two aforementioned projects. The first step before starting the work, we set a meeting with the client and together, we develop the initial concept. After a rough sketch is done, it's easy to move to the next stage where we decide exactly how the live models would be photographed, in the manner of clothing, makeup, body position, props, etc.
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The Area:
The portfolio of work by Studio Aiko spans across varying styles and are made for different needs. You guys did a music video for Eatliz, an alternative rock band also from Tel Aviv. What was the reason to do a cartoon animation, vs. live video?
Meny:
This decision wasn't made by us. Guy Ben Shetrit, the director of the clip and the leader of the band, came to us with consolidated concept which he had worked on for a long time. Being an animator himself, it was clear for him that he wanted to use 3D techniques in this music video.
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The Area:
The characters and the overall design and rhythm of the music video are a delight to watch. Who did the designs and storyboarding?
Meny:
The designs and storyboard were done by Guy Ben Shetrit and two of his talented friends: Sherban Darie and Eithan Weinshtock.
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The Area:
How did you get to make this music video ...friends with the band?
Meny:
As a matter of fact yes we are :) Guy, whom I’ve mentioned as being animator himself, met us several years back in our previous workplace where we worked together. Both Yair and I were very glad that we finally got the opportunity to join forces with Guy and work together.
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The Area:
What was the timeline for producing the vid?
Meny:
Our work spread out approximately over four months, not including the animation and modeling, which wasn't done in our studio, but by Guy and his crew. The work process was very complex because of the large number of shots the clip consisted of (about 110 shots). Each shot was treated with primary attention on the texturing, lighting, rendering and post work.
The Area:
Looking at all the different work done for clients, your pipeline must be optimized to move efficiently between all these projects. "Caesarea" and "Terra Porra" are a few examples of the work you do for architectural visualization, with detailed interiors/exteriors and surrounding foliage. How does your pipeline manage working on multiple and vastly different styles of projects?
Yair:
It's true; we are working in various professions, which require different approaches and styles. The ability to move between variations of styles comes first from a good working plan we do, prior to a project’s starting point. We then do some brainstorming which helps us to understand the desirable style and after that, match our suitable person or persons according to the expertise and skillset. This is of course a good case scenario, but often we have to deal with a lot less ideal situations where we need to divide the work amongst everyone in the studio in order to aggressively work and meet project deadline and schedules.
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The Area:
What did you use to generate the plants and trees?
Yair:
It changes. We usually build our models according to the project's specific need and we often use prepared models from our models stock library, which consists of models we gather over time from previous projects. Occasionally we use models from purchased models libraries.
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The Area:
Overall, why did you guys choose 3ds Max as your 3D tool from the start?
Meny:
Both Yair and I came from a background of 3D Studio Max so it was natural to stay with it and use it in the studio pipeline. Our experience with Max for so many years and the deep understanding in it allows us to take the most out of it and use it in our projects. Its workflow, the frequent updates and the advanced solutions, especially in our field, are great advantages and make the pipeline very efficient and capable to deliver the best results. No less important, the great integration between Max and V-Ray makes it even better for us. They are both very stable and work in the most reliable way, giving us the best solutions compared to other software in the market and for these reasons, we chose Max to be our unique software in the studio.
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The Area:
Can you offer a few words of advice for artists who are thinking to make their own company?
Yair:
Establishing your own company might look tempting but before approaching this, it is important to make some plans and background work. When founding a business, there is the economic risk which one needs to consider. You should figure out what is the initial investment needed to put in at the beginning, and for how long is it possible to endure it.
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In addition, it is important to start the business where you already have good clients who know and have worked with you. A business that starts from nothing and without any previous client relations, will put most of its efforts into finding these clients -- and might because of that -- in trying to survive, will struggle.

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As we see it, it is smart to begin as a small business and to progress with it in a controlled and gradual way. In this form, you have the ability to maintain loyalty to your clients while keeping the quality of your product and managing the business to be in a stable position.

It is also important to set goals for your business – where you see the business in a year from now, and in 10 years from now. A business plan is important for the development of the company.

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It is also important to define the product you provide. We chose not to compromise on our product and to maintain its high quality, even if it meant profiting less in the early years.

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The Area:
Thanks for your time Meny and Yair, and for this interview. Best wishes from us for the coming New Year!
Meny and Yair:
Thank you so much for giving us this opportunity to showcase our work in AREA. This is a great honor for us.

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Newest users comments View All 24 Comments
Posted by TwH on Jan 10, 2013 at 10:50 PM
Thank you for sharing this, awesome work. Especially liked the video for the song "Hey".. inspiring stuff.

TwH
Posted by Olamidun on Dec 10, 2012 at 05:03 AM
Really amazing... Your workflow, quality of work you churn out and how you go all out on each project is worth emulating
Posted by washington silva on Sep 03, 2012 at 01:43 PM
Parabéns muito bons trabalhos. eu estou querendo iniciar no mundo 3D e voçês me inspirou !!!!!!
Posted by gcmax on Jun 10, 2012 at 09:40 AM
so much great work, it's overwhelming to take it all in
Posted by sandeep007 on Apr 27, 2012 at 05:32 AM
awesome and highly realistic nice