Getting To Know The Computer Pipeline

Mar 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Computer-generated animation made a big splash when it first appeared more than a decade ago. But pitfalls abound for producers brave enough to adapt new technology and with it an entirely new production pipeline.
One of the bravest has been Mike Young, a transplanted Welshman who pioneered new CGI ground on television with “The Prince of Atlantis,” a BBC series that ran in 1996. Mr. Young followed “Prince” with “Voltron,” “Butt-Ugly Martians” and now, for PBS, “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks.”
“We’ve probably produced more CGI series than any other studio,” Mr. Young said. “We’ve evolved an in-house production methodology that really works well for CGI, by dispensing with the X-sheets, which are directorial notes, frame by frame, to time the characters’ action.”
Innovative production isn’t the only trick. Mr. Young embraced the creative deal-making required to make a show fly in today’s fragmented animation marketplace.
“Jakers!” came to Mr. Young’s studio from London-based Entara Ltd., a relatively new company devoted to developing evergreen children’s programming. Denise Fitzpatrick, an Irish mother of four, developed the original concept for the show’s main character, Piggley Winks, during storytelling sessions with her kids. Ms. Fitzpatrick sold her idea to Entara, which brought the property to Mike Young Productions, and together the two companies created a story line and a show bible.
“I’m from the British Isles, so they thought I’d have an understanding of the culture,” Mr. Young said. “And I’m reasonably famous in Britain by having created a number of characters over the years. They also liked `Butt-Ugly Martians.”’
Entara controls the show’s ancillary rights, including merchandising. “We get a percentage of those rights and we own distribution rights,” Mr. Young said. “We sell the show and remit the proceeds to Entara after our commission. And the commission is fabulous because it’s sold everywhere in the world.” Overseas broadcasters include BBC, TF-1 (France), ABC (Australia) and SVT (Sweden), Mr. Young said.
Entara will share sponsorship dollars with PBS Kids for the U.S. broadcast. Senior VP of Programming John Wilson said those sponsorships are still under negotiation. “Mike was able to bring this to us fully funded, and that made it easy for us to say yes,” Mr. Wilson said.
Forty half-hour episodes of “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks” debuted starting Sept. 7, 2003, on the PBS Kids weekend lineup. The series features the title character, a spunky 8-year-old pig, along with his friends Dannan the Duck and Ferny the Bull. Wiley the Sheep is voiced by Mel Brooks, and soccer star Cobi Jones hosts a three-minute live-action epilogue. The all-CGI series is produced out of Mike Young Productions’ Woodland Hills, Calif., offices, which are connected by T-1 lines to two Indian animation studios-Crest in Mumbai and Jadooworks in Bangalore. All of the studios use the same 3D software, Alias Maya and Softimage XSI, on PCs, which makes for a seamless flow of material between them.
Mr. Young also instituted an interesting technique by which young actors are videotaped performing the characters’ actions to serve as a visual reference for the animators. The animators use this live-action footage and the original hand-drawn storyboards for reference. “The animators don’t have to use it,” Mr. Young said. “But it’s a piece of inspiration, a piece of acting to help them come up with the way the animated character is going to act.”