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Triggerfish: From Cape Town to the World
 
 
Posted: Dec 06, 2012
Published by: the area
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Software: Autodesk Softimage
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The Area:
Hello Triggerfish team! Wow, where to begin... perhaps to say that you guys and gals produce some very beautiful artwork? Okay first thing first -- Triggerfish is a studio based in South Africa, in the heart of Cape Town. While the majority of people are familiar with CG studios to be in North America, Europe and Asia, we hear little about such activities in Africa -- that is, until now! :) We are pretty excited here on AREA to have the chance to speak with you, on doing CG in Africa and on your previous, as well as on-going projects.
The first big hit you made on the world scene is with the animated feature film "Adventures in Zambezia" back in July of this year. But prior to doing CG, Triggerfish began as a traditional stop-motion animation house. How did you make the transition from working in strictly analogue, to building characters and sets virtually?
Mike:
Triggerfish does indeed have a long history in stop motion animation and has produced some of the most notable stop-motion commercials in South Africa. However with the rise of CG animation, the company found that it was becoming less and less cost effective to work in stop-motion.
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In late 2006, I joined to help reboot the company as an all-CG animation studio with the ambitious goal of developing the script for Zambezia into a full length animated feature film. With 9 years of prior experience in CG, I was able to help set up the initial pipeline and methodologies that were then continuously refined as the studio took on larger and more challenging long form projects.

We found that while the medium was different, most of the film-making techniques are universal, and so we built on our experience project by project.

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The Area:
What kind of projects helped to transition you to working entirely in CG and when did you actually start working in 3D?
Mike:
From the end of 2006, we took on a lot of service work for our already established US clients such as Sesame Street, and produced nearly an hour of content primarily for children's TV programming, educational material and DVD entertainment. Each of these projects enabled us to learn more about how to manage larger teams, complex projects and how to develop a more efficient production pipeline.
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The Area:
As I understand, you are a fully Softimage house... out of all the 3D packages available, what made you decide to work exclusively in SI?
Sandy:
We started using Softimage for two main reasons, the first being that the most successful and biggest animation companies in South Africa all use Softimage so to find experienced people to make up a core team was easier this way and with ICE, Softimage is the best all round package for a company starting out that has no development team to write plug-ins and tools. We use ICE to do everything from set dressing, creation of bushes, fur and feathers, to fixing problems – it is absolutely like having a 'Swiss army knife' in your back pocket!
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The Area:
Going back to Adventures in Zambezia -- the process begins with beautiful line sketches and then painted colour/texture concepts, which then gets translated into 3D. Based on the concept drawings, the scenes are fairly complex with many small assets. About how many of such scenes and environments were made for Zambezia?
Mike:
Zambezia takes place in many different environments – I think that there are about 30 in total from the wild outpost where our hero begins his journey, to the busy bird city in the mighty baobab tree, and the massive waterfall that protects the city.
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We found that because the primary characters are birds, we had to build massive sets to accommodate the flying sequences, many of which also required highly detailed sub-sets for specific action sequences.

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The Area:
What was the size of the team who worked on just building assets and characters?
Mike:
It was a comparatively small team. We had about 30 people initially working on modelling, texturing and rigging the assets and characters.
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As the production progressed we brought on more crew to help out. Ultimately the entire team on Zambezia grew to around 85 people. Although it was tough to get so much done with such a small crew, we definitely found that our size helped us to develop a strong studio culture that carried us further than we expected and we were able to mould ourselves into a more flexible and efficient unit than a larger team might have been able to do.

The Area:
With the large number of assets, what kind of system did you use to keep track of everything?
Sandy:
For Zambezia, we pretty much took care of any asset tracking and manipulation by hand, as we had no development team at all initially. We learnt big lessons this way, and before the end of Zambezia had started planning and initiating an asset tool we would use on Khumba, which as we are located on a farm, became known as Squirrel.
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Squirrel was started in earnest in the early days of Khumba, and the coding at that time was all done by one TD, Simon Anderson who was initially rigging and VFX on Zambezia. We have learned even more lessons now that Squirrel has been used on production, and plan to change a lot of the methods that were used while keeping the good stuff, in a new tool-set that our Software Development team has started planning.

The Area:
How long was Triggerfish in production for Adventures in Zambezia?
Mike:
We started full production on Zambezia in September 2009, and completed the film in time for the American Film Market in November 2011, so it was just over two years in total.
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The Area:
And Khumba - this is the second animated feature film, to be released next year. That must mean that you guys were working on both films at the same time! How crazy must that have been to take on? ;-)
Sandy:
Khumba started in production as Zambezia was winding down. Most of the work on Zambezia had been completed and only some rendering and compositing remained when R&D on modelling, rigging and texturing started for Khumba. We had some problems where a particular key crew member was required by both projects at the same time, but in general the two projects dovetailed reasonably comfortably.
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The biggest problem the Technical team had to deal with is that there was a lot of VFX work to finish on Zambezia before we started Khumba. We had planned for them to spend two months of work on Squirrel before Khumba started, but with the team was still tied up on Zambezia, this time was lost. This meant that Squirrel was developed while we were already in production on Khumba and we did not have a lot of time to test procedures. Some potentially viable ideas were quickly dropped if they did not immediately work, as we had no time to work around the methods to get them working.

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The Area:
I understand that both films Zambezia and Khumba are done in stereo. While most of us understand that in principle, you are working with output from 2 cameras, in reality -- what kind of difficulty did you run into when outputting renders in stereo... or did it go entirely without issue?
Sandy:
The biggest problem with working with Stereo on Zambezia, was the obvious one - we had to render the movie twice! To leverage the best possible picture out of Mental Ray, we needed to render quite a few passes to give the Compositors the maximum opportunity to tweak and polish the shots. We were very tight on render power, so pushing out multiple passes for dual frames was both a resource and management challenge.
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When we started Zambezia, there were no stereo tools yet in Softimage, so we had to develop our own stereo camera rig. We also discovered the world of disparities, which can cause serious discomfort to the viewer as a result of slight differences between the left and right rendered frames. These all had to be either re-rendered or painted out by the Compositors and was a serious drain on our rendering resources until we developed better methods to trap potential issues before final render.

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Otherwise Stereo was not too bad. Our Stereo lead, Chris Cunnington, learned a huge amount in a short space of time, and then produced some stunning stereo work on Zambezia which we were able to build on as we moved into Khumba.

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Stereo has been so much easier on Khumba. We rebuilt our Stereo Camera rig, and as we are rendering with Arnold, we have used the Obq_Stereo shader to render both cameras into one frame. The way this works is the shader gets applied as a lens shader that then takes both camera views and renders them into a double height over/under frame in our case. You could do a side by side if you wished. This shader has been a life saver for us, as it means that for both eyes the render farm only loads the scene once, instead of twice. Given the scale of our sets and characters with fur and feathers, it has resulted in huge savings on both render time and network traffic.

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The Area:
The image of the trio at a fireside...you can see multiple elements upfront in the shot: fur, feathers, smoke particles. Can you tell us what you used to generate the fur and feathers, and the technique used to animate and control the movement of them?
Sandy:
ICE was used to create the Fur and Feathers, this is done using Softimage fur to do a basic grooming. The fur is then converted to a curve set, which allows us to setup an ICE tree to do fur and feathers. We have developed a system in house to do this.
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Once the ICE Trees are set up on the characters, we pass off the scenes to our render farm to cache out the fur or feathers, we found this gave us in some cases about a 400% gain on render time and RAM usage for any shots with characters. We initially used the Melena plugin to do the fur to curves conversion, but have now developed our own tool to do this. The accompanying tutorial that our FUR TD Sue prepared will show simply how this works.

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The Area:
What did you use for generating smoke and fire?
Sandy:
The Fire, Sparks and Smoke were created using particle systems in ICE, using a plugin called Slipstream from Excortex to create the swirls and wind-type vortices effects, which were then rendered using their GPU based particle renderer Fury.
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The Area:
Actually -- what did you use for making the trees? There are a number of options these days... standalone apps, plugins, store-bought, good-old-fashioned modeling from scratch or ICE :) How did you guys deal with the volume of vegetation that needed to be created for the natural environments?
Sandy:
We did investigate a couple of options for making trees, but in the end our lead modeller used Blender to create some of the branch structures and all other geometry was modelled in Softimage. All other vegetation work was done in ICE, including setting up bush structures with setups in place to allow easy modification of the shapes, geometry used, size and other options, mainly to allow maximum creative input. ICE was used extensively in the finalling and set-dressing department to setup the amazing scenes with grasses, bushes rocks and other bits and pieces to create the incredible diversity that is the Karoo.
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The Area:
You guys mentioned the use of Arnold earlier -- does that mean you are switching from mental ray default renderer?
Sandy:
Yes -- we used Mental Ray pretty much exclusively on Zambezia, apart from the VFX work such as dust, mist and clouds, but have now moved to Arnold which we are using for Khumba.
The Area:
So what is Triggerfish working on these days?
Sandy:
We are still very busy on Khumba, trying to get final VFX done, and the final shots cached for rendering and then obviously the final renders and compositing.
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The Area:
Being the biggest animation studio in South Africa - does that mean contracts easily flow your way, or do you still have to compete for projects against smaller studios and independent artists?
Mike:
In the past four years we have been primarily focused on developing and creating our own IP, so we have not been in the space where we need to compete with other studios for work.
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With the successful release of Zambezia as an independent film and the second film in final stages of completion, many people are beginning to ask us how we can produce such high quality work in South Africa with a comparatively smaller team and at such a good price point. We're opening ourselves up now to potential relationships where we can leverage our expertise and efficiency to help develop new projects.

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The Area:
I noticed that Triggerfish also offers an animation course -- do your students get automatic placement and get the chance to work on commercial projects too? It's never too early to get your foot in the door...
Mike:
We are starting an animation school in the third quarter of 2013, which we think will benefit students immensely by the nature of its association with a working animation studio, where they will have the benefit of exposure to the very best CG artists in the country and to learn valuable practical techniques and skills from observing and interacting with the industry leaders.
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We're not only aiming to teach character animation, but also storytelling, cinematography, production management and the business of animation to help ensure that the next generation of the best CG artists can gain an accelerated education, built on the experience and knowledge we have already accumulated in the studio. We don’t guarantee a placement to graduates but we certainly intend to recruit the very best students and be able to offer them an opportunity to join the Triggerfish team!

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The Area:
Well, I know it was pretty hard to get a hold of you guys for this interview when you have a commercial deadline to meet...so big thanks for going out of your way for us! We loved the video tutorial that Sue prepared as well :) Thank you!!
Mike:
It’s been a real pleasure! I hope we'll be able to showcase some more exciting work soon.

Triggerfish – Studio Photos

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Posted by Caveman on Jan 04, 2013 at 03:34 AM
Love your works with Softimage
Posted by Amin on Dec 10, 2012 at 10:05 PM
wow very cool :)
Posted by reallyimmaturenick on Dec 08, 2012 at 07:52 PM
@Tekano sshhh, Maya people might hear you
Posted by Tekano on Dec 06, 2012 at 10:18 PM
no need for suites when you are using Softimage for your pipeline eh! ;)
Posted by Ramon on Dec 06, 2012 at 07:53 PM
Great!