Imagine a team of character modelers, animators, effects creators, and lighting artists ramping up on their pipeline for a new film.
They're really excited about the story, about all the challenges. They embrace new technology and innovation and love trying out new ideas. They experiment their way through pre-production until they get those ideas realized, and they get the director buying into the looks of the characters and the environments and the cool, new things they're trying.
Suddenly, they get into shot production – and their appetite for trying new things grinds to a halt.
That’s the familiar reality, according to Blue Sky Studios CTO, Hank Driskill. He even has a name for it: “I jokingly refer to it as ‘Don't touch it, you'll break it!' mode,” he says.
It’s the phase of film production where artists just have to get the movie made. They don't want anything new thrown into the mix, says Driskill. They want the exact same pipeline every week, bugs and all.
Wait – they want the bugs?
"Yes, because everyone can work around the bugs they know exist," Driskill says. "But they don't want any new ones to be introduced by doing an upgrade. Not when they're in the middle of clocking out 100 shots a week through a given department."
That's how the flow of a project works. And at Blue Sky Studios, they usually have three films going at the same time.
Re-defining the approach to technology
Blue Sky is a Greenwich, Connecticut, based studio owned by 20th Century Fox that has a strong track record in creating charming animated pictures. From last year’s Academy Nominated Ferdinand all the way back to the Ice Age series and the forthcoming Spies in Disguise, Blue Sky knows how to tell a good, fun story.
The studio has always strived to push the limits of its pipeline technologies, even with its endless, challenging production cycles. But for years, they focused their innovations in-house, and kept their reliance on most external vendors at the level they needed to stay updated.
Christopher Moore, Blue Sky’s technical program manager, says, “Back before we started our animation performance initiative, our idea of jumping on a new version of Maya was just for maintenance. We had our own in-house tools. We didn't really rely on it to get us more features.”
At that point, Moore says, Blue Sky wasn’t even on the beta program yet. “I wish, hindsight being 20/20, that we were on the beta back then,” he says, “because before we did this initiative, we were steps behind. And we wanted to figure out ways we could be steps ahead.”
So in 2017, Blue Sky’s participation in the Maya beta program was born – setting the stage for the studio to take a new approach to their technology and tools.
Iterating to a faster pipeline
For their own pipelines, says Moore, “We want to take advantage of the latest technology: if the next version of a DCC is available, why not try it a little bit more aggressively than we have before in current productions?”
Throughout 2018, this played into engaging with the Maya development team – even more collaboratively and interactively than the studio had at earlier points in their beta participation – and Moore credits that to a singular development in Maya 2019: Cached Playback.
“Every time a tool interrupts the artist’s flow of ideas, you have a lag,” says Moore. “When you have to stop to manipulate a key, you lose that train of thought. When you're waiting, suddenly you just lost a whole bunch of ideas.” With Cached Playback in Maya 2019, animation playback is faster, translating directly not only into time, but also into creativity.
Before, says Moore, they would be animating at one, two frames per second. “They would have to go for a cup of coffee to do a Playblast.”
With Viewport 2.0, artists often won’t need to produce Playblasts, which saves a lot of downtime. Instead, they can use animations directly in the Viewport to evaluate their animation and produce Playblasts for reviews with their supervisor.
“Sometimes they still do Playblasts because our artists turn on a lot of bells and whistles for a rig,” Moore says. “But the time it takes to iterate in a region of the timeline is far less to play back the shot now” – more so with their faster rigs and hardware – “and the improvements in Maya 2019 just make it that much faster.”
Cached Playback continuously evaluates a scene, calculating changes in the background while the artist animates and caching the scene to memory. When the artist makes changes, Maya intelligently only re-caches the affected frames. When the artist hits play, Maya can play the scene back at a much higher framerate, since it already has the frames cached.
“The more you can make the technology behave and get out of the artists’ way, the more they can keep that thought process fluid without technology inhibiting it,” says Moore. “And they totally love that.”
Innovation as a partnership
For years, Blue Sky Studios had operated more or less as a service-bureau-style arm of 20th Century Fox. The development of films had been done primarily at Fox in L.A., says Driskill, and then the projects would be handed over to Blue Sky to execute.
The new management team at Blue Sky determined that changing the working model would introduce more flexibility into the development process; and by evolving the creative process to take more of it on in-house, the studio could raise the bar even higher on the quality of its films.
So when Driskill came on board in January 2018, he decided to be bolder with the technology that Blue Sky created for its pipeline – and with the relationships they had with external vendors.
“We're going into relationships with each of our vendors under the assumption that they genuinely want to help us make great movies,” says Driskill of the studio’s new focus on innovation, “and we genuinely want to help them make great products.”
Advancing the industry
As for introducing Maya 2019 into the pipeline while it was still in pre-release, Moore says, “There's nothing like the current production for trying out new tech. Your development is kind of in a bubble for a while until you get it reasonably stable and in a pretty good place.”
You do have the surprises Driskill described earlier each time you get to the next steps, but, Moore says, “We have an appetite to take advantage of the new tech. We see the benefit and we want to keep going.”
What’s more, Driskill wants the studio to advance creative developments across the industry – something it couldn’t do while working in a vacuum. Now he pushes not only for deep beta software engagement with vendors, but also for the studio’s in-house tools to be shared with other studios, rather than locked behind a velvet rope for only Blue Sky’s artists to access.
Sharing with other studios is not a bad thing, Driskill believes. “The best/worst case is that another studio goes off and makes something great with our technology. They do something great, we go into movie theaters to see it, and we say ‘oh my gosh, that's amazing,’” he says.
That just makes the artists want to come back and work harder at Blue Sky, says Driskill. “I think the move towards collaboration with vendors and with other studios is a movement that the whole industry is recognizing, and Autodesk is in a great position to foster that.”