The German animation studio has built a reputation on skilled craft across multiple disciplines, as Julia Sagar discovers
Studio Soi’s films were once described as the “wooden toys” of the animation industry, says founding animation director Klaus Morschheuser – and it isn’t hard to see why. BAFTA-award-winning cartoon The Amazing World of Gumball and stunning Academy award-nominated short The Gruffalo are just two examples from the Ludwigsburg-based animation studio’s exceptional portfolio of globally acclaimed films. So how did seven animation graduates with no clients build a 60-strong team and worldwide reputation for visual innovation? And is it as fun to work there as it looks?
“From the start, an essential concept behind the studio was that all founders had different roots: 2D, puppet and 3D-animation, design, compositing and someone who can handle all the production work,” says Klaus, who launched Studio Soi in 2003 with six fellow students from internationally renowned film school Filmakademie Baden Württemberg.
“This was a great ground-base when starting new projects, because we were able to discuss things freely, and everyone could bring in their ideas and concerns. Also, we could decide which technique made the most sense for each project and who could handle it best.”
This ethos continues to run through the studio today. “We take all feedback into consideration while working on the films – everybody from interns to broadcasters can contribute to the creative process,” says Klaus. “If somebody has a good idea, it’s always worth listening.”
“Everyone’s opinion is valued. No one is confined to their own work or expelled
Working this way is a harmonious process, and the directors usually find themselves understanding their characters more
from the entirety of the production pipeline, just because they’re hired for one project,” agrees art director Domareen Fox.
Domareen’s currently working on the studio’s firstever in-house children’s TV series, Petzi, which is based on the Danish comic strip Rasmus Klump, by Carla and Vilhelm Hansen. The budget and deadline are tight, she says, but her team are incredibly inspiring – and having production entirely in-house makes communication both easy and efficient. Her team uses a Shotgun pipeline to take care of asset management, but the open working space means staff can simply walk over to each other’s desks and chat. “We’re all very well informed on production status,” she says.
Like all processes at Studio Soi, aspects like character development are a collaborative affair. “It’s super important that the directors know who their character is, or who the character wants to be,” Domareen explains.
She begins by researching “archetypes, personality and costumes”, before tying her research in with inspiration taken from her own life experiences. Rough sketches are then created in Photoshop, with Domareen discussing the designs with Studio Soi’s directors every step of the way. “I can’t always envision a character just from one briefing,” she adds. “Working this way is a harmonious process, and the directors usually find themselves understanding their characters more through the exploration process.”
For animation supervisor Massimiliano Truzzi, Petzi is the most rewarding project he’s worked on since joining Studio Soi in 2012. “Being
part of the production from the beginning, I had the chance to develop the animation style – it was great fun,” says Massimiliano, who’s responsible for ensuring the animation is produced on time and to the highest possible quality.
“Usually every episode has new technical difficulties that sometimes appear impossible to overcome,” he says. “Solving all of these problems in such a limited timeframe can be very challenging.” But it’s also very rewarding: “In one of the recent episodes we had to animate a very high number of cloth materials and ropes. The final result is very satisfying,” he says. “I often get the chance to learn new things.”
Assistant animation supervisor Michael Brady appreciates the fact that every week working at Studio Soi presents a new opportunity to tackle a different approach to animation. “One week we might have a character that moves in the style of eight-bit computer graphics. The next week, it’ll be a character who moves like a traditional animated feature film,” he says.
At the moment Michael works on Gumball, Cartoon Network’s multi-award winning children’s animated TV series. Marked by its lack of stylistic unity – characters are created using everything from stylised traditional animation and puppetry to CGI, stop motion and live action – it’s a fantastic representation of the studio’s wideranging expertise.
A typical day at work for Michael might involve handing out scenes to the team, briefing them on the director’s instructions and then putting together edits of the episodes. He’ll also work on scenes at the 2D clean-up stage of production. This is when Studio Soi receives rough animations from its production partner based in London and uses this to create final drawings for each episode.
“I’ve learned a great deal about composing characters clearly within the frame, and keeping continuity between scenes,” he says. “These experiences in sequential storytelling have continued to feed into my personal work.”
Self-development is actively promoted at Studio Soi. Creatives are encouraged to pursue their hobbies and interests, while senior artists are always on hand to help junior members of staff.
“Some people come into the studio at weekends just to learn new software or work on their personal projects,” says Domareen. “And the awards just help to keep us all pumped.”
“For us as a studio, it’s essential to bring great talents together to create something fresh and new,” adds Klaus. “We’re always looking for new talent who want to achieve something with us, and who will bring in new ideas to enable great projects.”
The final result is very satisfying. I often get the chance to learn new things
The 27-minute Gruffalo film mixes computer animation and miniature sets. It was built, shot and animated entirely at Studio Soi. Pre-production drawing, Ants by the Platanus Tree, shows Mouse from The Gruffalo walking through the forest. Location: Ludwigsburg, Germany projects: The Gruffalo, Petzi, The Amazing World of Gumball, Trudes Tier Web: www.studiosoi.de
Petzi’s Turtle Island episode was awarded the silver gong for Best Animated Series at the 2016 Xiamen International Animation Festival in China. Before working up a detailed model sheet, Studio Soi made sure all Petzi characters matched the director’s vision. “People flock to Soi to work on Gumball, and then happily merge into the other projects we have,” says Domareen.
Petzi colours keys: low-resolution playblast animation stills are painted over by Domareen Fox to give the rendering/ compositing team ideas for lighting and colours. A design sheet with shading references for a ship required in a recent episode of Petzi. Compositing artist Vincent Meunier working on The Amazing World of Gumball.