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Aardman Animation RV Integration Case Study

Posted by tweak at Oct 20, 2009 04:55 PM |

Aardman Animations has earned a unique place in the history of animation through their work over the last three decades. They have proven that the traditional arts of model and stop-motion animation can be continually renewed and integrated with new techniques and technology to make great animation. Recently Aardman Studios adopted RV into a new CG pipeline as the core of the studio's desktop playback infrastructure. At Tweak, we are particularly pleased by this--we have taken a lot of care to make RV a tool for artists and so we are glad to have RV adopted by a studio with such a well known commitment to craftsmanship and artistry.


Aardman Animation RV Integration Case Study

Overview

Aardman Animations has earned a unique place in the history of animation through their work over the last three decades.  They have proven that the traditional arts of model and stop-motion animation can be continually renewed and integrated with new techniques and technology to make great animation. Recently Aardman Studios adopted RV into a new CG pipeline as the core of the studio's desktop playback infrastructure. At Tweak, we are particularly pleased by this--we have taken a lot of care to make RV a tool for artists and so we are glad to have RV adopted by a studio with such a well known commitment to craftsmanship and artistry.

RV at Aardman

Aardman's Commercials division first adopted a pre-release beta of RV more than a year ago, and the current release has just been integrated into a new features pipeline. Aardman’s reasons for choosing RV range from fundamental performance issues such as reliable audio sync and frame accurate stepping, which is obviously critical for animators doing lip sync, to the open architecture that allows RV to be integrated transparently into artists workflows and studio pipelines.

Tom Downes, Pipeline Lead at Aardman explained, “We are developing our CG pipeline on Linux and we are fitting RV in pretty much everywhere we can. To start with we are using it for lip sync tests and playblasting because it is frame accurate and syncs the sound nicely, it’s pretty much the only player we’ve tried that does that. On Linux, as far as I am aware, there is no good alternative”.

In particular, ease-of-use is important in the new pipeline, as some of the first RV users are stop-motion animators who are doing tests in Maya. Downes explained that some of these artists “are not really keen on using computers so playback has to be a really transparent process – they will have 8 or 10 RV sessions up at the same time to compare playblasts. We’ve wrapped RV up a little bit to make it transparent, but we don’t need to do much, it’s a simple program to use.”

The overall goal of this project is to make it easy for artists to always review the right imagery in context based on the right editorial information. In order to accomplish this, RV was integrated with the Aardman pipeline at a number of levels. The main components are:

•    Maya integration for playblast review in RV with synchronized audio
•    Python wrapper around RV session file to create sessions from scripts
•    Database integration to build RV sessions from queries
•    Command line tools to launch RV with current shot in context of the cut
•    Publishing tools using RVIO to make slates and burn-ins on movies and image sequences (also integrated with the production database)

Maya Playblasts with Audio on Linux

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The simplest and most important role of Maya integration is to make it easy for animators to review playblasts with synchronized audio. Downes explains, “On Linux, Maya will only playblast image sequences, not movies with audio, so we had to take over the playblast command to generate an RV session and put the audio in ourselves. This also gives us the opportunity to offset the audio if we are doing a shot with handles. So when, an artist adjusts the frame range in Maya, we can automatically account for that in the RV session.”

Database Integration, Python Wrapper, and Command Line Launching

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Aardman stores production data in a Postgres database. All shots are described in the database, and input footage, new renders, and outputs are all published by adding entries into the database. In order to take advantage of this data, Downes and his team have developed python tools for building RV sessions on the fly based on database queries and then launching RV with those sessions. There are two main parts of this system, a python wrapper around the RV session file format, and a command line tool that artists use to specify what they want to see.

“We’ve written our own Python wrapper around the RV session,” Downes explained. “We generate RV sessions by querying our production database and adding footage, frame ranges and audio to the Python object, then we write out the RV session file. This is driven by a really simple command-line tool. For example, if you want to see the shots on either side of your current shot you enter a command like “play +2” and that will launch RV with the current shot and its neighbors. Artists can prioritize the kind of material they want to see, for example they can specify the latest renders, or the latest outputs or the backplate footage.  So even if the first choice is not there it will find something else to play from the shot.”

This ability to quickly and accurately review shots in context has been particularly useful for the previz team. Downes said, “Because they really rapidly turn around shots and they want to see what shots look like in the cut all the time. They can just do another render and then go back and see how it looks in the cut.”

RVIO for Publishing, Slates, and Burn-Ins

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Aardman has developed a publishing process that gives artists a GUI for publishing image sequences. This tool is used to ingest footage from Editorial into VFX and to deliver output back to Editorial. RVIO is used transparently in the background to add slates and burn-ins onto the sequences, to convert image formats and to output Quicktime movies. As the pipeline is further extended RVIO may eventually be called into service for applying color corrections.

Future Work

Downes explained that RV integration is a work in progress with some important projects on the drawing board. “We're developing desktop review to be a little more sophisticated. We are half-way there already with our asset management system, but we have many things that we need to do that we haven't done yet, like building more sophisticated dailies sessions around RV. With our current tools we can say 'play me this sequence' and that will play all the latest playbasts from a sequence.  This works just by generating a playlist—we don’t have a fancier browser yet, but that is to come. We are fully intending on using RV to do the playback.