Studio Spotlight: Animaj Studios

Produces First Stereo 3D Animated Feature Film in Turkey using LightWave 3D

Posted: Tue 03 Sep 2013

 Animaj Studios based in Istanbul, Turkey is breaking new ground in the world of Turkish cinema, and using LightWave 3D to make it happen. The studio, created by longtime LightWave Artist and Director Sahin Michael Derun, is set to premiere its first feature filmUK-2911 (short for Uzay Kuvvetleri 2911)—in early 2014. Not only is UK-2911 the studio’s first full-length stereo 3D animated feature film, it’s also a first for the country of Turkey, which created  a groundswell of coverage from leading broadcast and newspaper outlets in Turkey.

Set in the year 2911, UK-2911 is a sci-fi adventure that takes space explorer Captain Murat Eser and his crew into uncharted alien territory where they find themselves in the middle of a 20,000-year-old conflict that threatens to bring our solar system to the point of annihilation. With its futuristic yet realistic animation style and stereo 3D techniques Derun perfected on his own, UK-2911 promises to create a captivating, novel cinematic experience for viewers.

 

“When I began working on the film two and a half years ago, I knew it would be a tremendous challenge to have it ready by the premiere date,” said Derun. “The $2 million budget had to cover everything—including the computer hardware, software, motion capture, and labor—everything. LightWave 3D is the only 3D animation software that could’ve handled a project like this.”

In the summer months prior to the cinematic release, the artists at Animaj were pushing out three full minutes of 3D animation per day. This is especially impressive considering that many of the freelance modelers and animators on the team were new to CG prior to working on UK-2911.

Rallying Artists and Tight Timeframes

When he arrived in Turkey, there was no big pool of experienced 3D animators ready to work on his film, let alone many skilled in LightWave. Derun recruited talented local artists, such as painters and sculptors, from universities, colleges, and art schools and offered them three to six months of hardcore training on LightWave to gain the necessary skills to work on the movie.

Derun told them, “If you learn a few specific keystrokes for Move, Bevel, Scale, Rotate, and Stretch, right there you can do most of your work.” LightWave’s user interface is uniquely capable of being translated into Turkish and customized any way the artists need. Those artists who learned LightWave from scratch said they found a new career, while artists who came from other 3D animation packages were left wondering why they hadn’t used LightWave before.

The storyboard consisted of 137,000 frames that could be readily viewed on an iPad app. The finished film consists of 270,000 visually rich 1080p HD frames—or 135,000 frames times two for the left and right eye signals required for stereoscopic 3D—all of which had to be modeled, animated, and rendered on the studio’s render farm.

“Since our resources were limited, each shot had to be spot-on,” Derun said. “You’d do a shot and then it had to stand. We had to bear in mind how long the scene would take to render because even one extra minute here or there could jeopardize making the deadline. The general rule was that no one scene could take more than an hour to do from start to finish. We couldn’t afford to go back and redo any scene, except for small tweaks or modifications.”

This time-conscious approach dictated the movie’s overall production strategy, which can be described as a mix of hand animation and automation. Hand animation was used for faces, hands, fingers, and other fine motor skills, while automation, such as motion capture, animated major body muscles like biceps, arms, and legs of the characters for actions such as running, lifting, or fighting.

 

Working the Workflow

With many massive 3D sets, like futuristic cityscapes and the bridge of the ship, having an efficient workflow was critical to the project. The Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR), a tool unique to LightWave, let the animators preview their scenes and make creative modifications to them prior to committing them to the time-consuming rendering process.

The VPR allows animators to check the scene that the viewers will ultimately see in the cinema, including the lighting, camera movement, colors, textures, and even the stereo 3D effect itself. Derun then took the rendered product over to FonoFilm, a post house in Istanbul, for a color-grading pass and other finishing touches like adjusting specular highlights, blurs, and tints. FonoFilm will handle the final 35mm print mastering for the film as well.

Sahin Michael Derun (second to the left) directs the mocap actors using Xsens technology.

By design, LightWave lets animators work in stereo 3D from concept to completion. When they put on their 3D glasses, the animators can see the stereo effect at every stage of the game. There’s no need for special equipment to produce the left eye/right eye convergence, or to take the footage over to a post house to check if the stereo 3D effect is working. It’s inherent to every stage of the workflow including the camera settings, OpenGL, wireframes, Layout, and it can be affected interactively.

The production started with LightWave 10 and evolved to LightWave 11.5 and in that time Derun’s animators used every LightWave tool, often in combination, to execute the rich, complex 3D animated scenes.

“The key thing is that you have to be creative and use LightWave to control the outcome,” said Derun. “In time, LightWave just becomes second nature to you. Then you can control it to bring your creative vision to life.”

UK-2911 is set to premiere in early 2014 to roughly 2,000 3D-capable cinemas across Turkey. After that, the movie will be dubbed to English for a broader worldwide release.