Monday, 30 November 2015

Blue Zoo Explains the Challenges of Running an Animation Studio

Tom Box is one of the founders of Blue Zoo, one of the UK’s leading TV animation studios.  Blue Zoo does animation in a broad range of styles, both 2D and 3D, for many different clients.

All their work is done in CG, and almost all of it is made in Maya - they describe themselves as doing “CG character animation with a bold quirky style”. At last week's Blue GFX Expo at London’s South Bank (we highly recommend that our students attend events like this whenever possible), Tom talked about the eight biggest problems involved with running an animation studio, and how Blue Zoo goes about solving them.
Maya - Blue Zoo's main platform

Problem No 1 - Software.
The problem with computer software is that “so much, changes so often”. Blue Zoo tries to keep things as simple as possible, so “even their 2D animation is done in Maya”. This allows them to have “one pipeline, and one set of core animators”. It also makes them “much more efficient, with less wastage, since animation is resource heavy, and the market is very competitive”.

Blue Zoo also like to ask their staff “what software would they like to use?” Until recently they were “doing compositing in AfterEffects, but the artists asked for Nuke, so most of their compositing work has now transitioned to Nuke”.

Other simplifications have been made. Editing was done in Final Cut but is now done in Premiere. The Adobe Creative Cloud “has made everything easier – you have fixed costs, with no surprise upgrades needed. It makes business easier”.

Their computer hardware is “95% PCs, mostly running Windows 7”. That way, “everyone is using the same tools, and there is less conflict”. Only The Avid edit suites still run on Macs.

Problem No 2 – People
Today, Blue Zoo have “around 150” staff, which is “more than people might think”. The problem here is really about “finding people, keeping them happy, finding the right artists, and then hanging on to them”. Blue Zoo get a lot of job applications - they “employ just 2% of applicants”. As a result, “it’s hard to get a job”. But then, Blue Zoo find it “hard to find artists with the right skills – such as the right availability, skill, visas, and experience”.

They do hire graduates – partly because “they like to hire fresh blood”. They also try to make their studio a “nice place to work”, and “try to avoid crunch times”, keeping artists working normal hours “from 10am until 6pm” where possible. They also “try to make sure everyone knows each other”, keeping a “small family feel”. After all, “software doesn’t make nice animation – people do”. In the end, the “team is everything”.

As for getting a job with Blue Zoo, they “don’t care about the letters after your name”. Your qualifications don’t matter; instead “it’s all about what you can do.” And networking is important, because they “employ lots of people through word of mouth”. Recommendations are important. “Go to events, make friends and connections”.

London. World's most expensive city?

Problem No 3 – Location
The problem is that Blue Zoo is in London, and London is “the most expensive city in the world”. That said, on the plus side, it’s also “one of the most creative cities in the world”. There are “plenty of clients who need work done”, and it is “a very healthy ecosystem for 3D animation - one of the best in the world”.

Could Blue Zoo try a virtual studio instead? Yes, a virtual studio can work, but it’s all “much easier if you’re in the same room”. Doing a project “takes longer if you’re far away”. As a result, the studio “likes to get everyone working in house if possible”. Sometimes “we might work with a freelancer overseas, but it is never as speedy as if they were in-house.”

So, they don’t outsource work – because “it doesn’t save money, in the end”. The only reason for outsourcing would be “if we simply cannot fit another desk in the studio”. Another plus for London is that “you can pop down the pub and network”. In end, Blue Zoo likes to “maximize a project’s creativity and quality by having everyone in the same room”.

Problem No 4 – Clients!
The trouble with clients is “you can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them”. Most client problems “come from communication; either a mis-briefing, or a misunderstanding”. In the end, it is “best to over-communicate rather than under-communicate”. Often, you have to “filter all the way up to the top” lest you find big last-minute changes from the top dog at the very end of the project.

Blue Zoo have also “had to learn what jobs are best for the studio”. All jobs start out wonderful, then have a tendency to go sour. You have to “learn which clients cost you money”. You must “always monitor your projects – are they costing you money?” As a result, their staff have to do timesheets, so you know what projects are costing what. Sometimes “prestige projects are worth losing a bit of money… but most are not.”
Money. Wikimedia

Problem No 5 – Money!
With client work, the business tends to be “feast or famine”. One way or another, “the company is always swamped, or else there is no work”. The result is that there is “not a stable cash flow”. So they needed to find a solution for this.

Today, Blue Zoo is fifteen years old. Ten years ago they began to create their own TV shows so they could “stabilize their cash flow, by making their own intellectual property [IP]. The lesson is: “create your own IP”.

Blue Zoo initially created “You Scurvy Rascals”, about some pirates who stole underpants, starring Sissy Le Poop, Smelly Pete and Shark Bait (plus Polly the Parrot) living on a ship called "The Soiled Pair".

This was the TV project that “really got them going”.  Nickelodeon paid for it, but in the end “Blue Zoo didn’t manage to hold on to the rights”. So this was a lesson learned. Since then, they have been making their own TV series “which brings in a constant royalty stream”.

The other lesson is “don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Blue Zoo have diversified – not just by making childrens’ TV, but also by doing ads and corporate video work”. For example, they make “training videos for DHL”. They also do “Apps, games for kids - and adults – and, recently, some VR projects”.
UK Govt - backing animation

Problem No 6 - The World

The problem is one of globalization: “overseas competition from cheaper studios”. This is a “massive problem” in the industry.

A few years ago, “corporate tax breaks in certain foreign countries” were “creating a uneven playing field”, making it hard for UK companies to compete. What should Blue Zoo do? They “chose to fight”, and co-founder Olly Hyatt “went to the Coalition Government in 2007 and set up Animation UK” in order to “try to level the playing field”. What they wanted was a tax break, “just like the VFX work in London, where ¾ of the work in the UK comes from tax breaks”.

Vince Cable. Wikimedia
So Olly “spoke to the MPs and asked them what he could do”. Vince Cable, Tom’s local MP, suggested that to make this happen they must “prove to the Treasury that they won’t lose any money in tax revenues”. To do this, they had to get “a massive report from a big accountancy company”, proving their case.

Reports like this don’t come cheap, so Blue Zoo raised £50,000, crunched the numbers, and got a report which “showed that the proposed tax breaks could generate massive amounts of jobs in the UK”.

They were helped by the fact that here in the UK, 10% of overall economy is now in the creative industries. So, after five years of lobbying, the Government brought in tax relief for animation production.

Since then, production has rocketed, with a 300% increase in the last year or two. Yes, it’s "unfair on foreigners", but “at least we’re in the game”. And the lesson Tom drew from this is: “if someone says something is impossible, prove them wrong”.

Miffy. Now on TV!

Problem No 7 – Rendering
People always brag about their render times – how long it takes to render a single frame. But a good artist is working constantly to optimize their render times, to make things more efficient. Rendering is time consuming and expensive, and Blue Zoo have a “massive electricity bill” – mainly from the render farm.

Problems arose when Blue Zoo started work on the Miffy TV Series, based on the famous Danish rabbit (although it was animated in Maya it was made to “feel like stop motion”. To get the stop-motion style, the animators worked on 2s and 3s to make it feel less smooth).

To get the render quality right, they started rendering with Mental Ray, but this took “far too long” – they would never get the job done.

So they switched to Solid Angle's Arnold, and got a great result, but the renders were still “taking 15 minutes per frame, which was too long”. They tried rendering offsite – but it cost too much – “much more than doing it in-house”.

Frustrated, they tried rendering in Red Shift instead (a GPU renderer). Tom managed to “learn Red Shift in just three hours”, much quicker than Arnold. Red Shift “is super fast, really quick - much faster than Arnold”, and (crucially) the client couldn’t tell the difference. So Blue Zoo Switched renderers half way through the production – and the client never noticed.

Problem No 8 - Creativity

Creativity “works well in small studio, but works much less well as you grow bigger”. It’s important to “make sure everyone is having fun”. Blue Zoo have “Beer O’clock on Fridays!”, and “Daily Doodles – where staff do a doodle to a theme”. They also do “Speed sculpts”, and the studio provides “weekly free life drawing classes”.

Commuter Glitch from Blue Zoo on Vimeo.

Blue Zoo also do “a few in-house shorts every year, and people can get involved”. Staff have “a few weeks to come up with a pitch”. Then, the animation directors get together, choose the strongest four pitches, and then the studio votes to pick a winner.  

Commuter Glitch (above) is a recent short film from Blue Zoo. The shorts don’t make money themselves but get the studio noticed and “they do lead to fun commissions”.


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