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The making of Lighthouse

As part of Liberty Mutual’s “Responsibility Project” for short films, ProMotion Studios produced short animation called “Lighthouse”. We have met James Neale, director of Promotion Studios and ask him a few questions about the making of this project and his studio

IT’S ART: First can you give us a little history of Promotion Studios?

James Neale : In late 1999 I met my wife at a local 3D college where I was teaching character animation and she was studying digital illustration, she was already an established commercial illustrator. We started working together in 2000 to build a portfolio of still images using 3D tools. By 2002 we had secured an agent in London and New York began producing work for the advertising and games industries full time; we’re getting busier with animation as well. Now days our workload is split between creating animated work and static art, but we feel that each skill allows us to develop new ideas in the other realm.

IA: How did the "Lighthouse" adventure start?

JN : A long time colleague of mine at Rising Sun Pictures (an Australian VFX house) was approached by the project's creative studio, Exopolis, to create the film. Their pipeline was full with their regular feature film work, so he recommended me. Mike from Exopolis then contacted us, and the rest is history.

IA: What was the initial brief?

JN : The first brief was basically, "Here's a budget and here's a script, can you do it?"  I called my buddy at RSP to verify they were OK and then began building an asset register for us to break down our likely costs. This spreadsheet was vital at that stage to make sure we all knew exactly what was expected from us. The guys from Exopolis added and edited it, finally locked it off and we got started! The asset register helped us budget things out internally and helped them start the storyboard.

IA: How long did it take to complete the project? And how many people worked on it? 

JN : The first brief was in mid February and we delivered mid May, so it was about 3 months of solid work. Overall our team numbered 9 people, but some people were only required part time since their role wasn't needed throughout production.

IA: Can you tell us about the tools you used for this production, the pipeline?

JN : I'm a big fan of the Open Source software movement. For the last 18 months our studio has been working to develop a pipeline using Blender, a solid 3D package developed by the Open Source community. For years we had been using 3D Max, which is a fantastic toolset, but I felt the move towards Open Source tools would be more beneficial for us in the long term. The permanent team we have here has wholeheartedly embraced Blender and has created some great work, both for commercial and R&D sake. I chose to create the “Lighthouse” film using Blender because of several advantages it has over other packages. Firstly, Blender has a very strong community behind it. This meant the response to technical queries and fixing bugs was incredibly fast. Blender experts worldwide embrace the spirit of Open Source and seem almost in competition over as to who can solve a problem or fix a bug first. That is very valuable in production. We had bugs and problems in production that we literally solved overnight. Also, it means that the technology moves along faster, as we experienced with a new character skinning technique

Secondly, Blender has a complete internal pipeline with tools that we can actually use daily. For example, it has a fluid simulator, video editor and a node-based compositor, all needed in most productions, and are usually separate and expensive toolsets.

And finally Blender has a fantastic system of linked libraries, stronger than we've seen in any other package.  It means you can have a character that is fully rigged and the character artist can be fixing and remodeling the character while the library animator can be animating generic moves like walk cycles etc, the scene animator can be setting up cameras and doing acting animation,  the light/shade artist can be lighting the scene, and all the while each file is kept up to date with the most recent information using this system of linking.  This alone saved us an incredible amount of work.