The Sky’s the Limit
PCyber Group Studios fires all cylinders this fall with several new properties at the markets.
aris based animation powerhouse Cyber Group Studios is making major strides on several different fronts as it embarks on a very busy fall season. With 19 major animated projects in various stages of development and production, the toon house is forging ahead as it builds on the global success of recent hits such as Zorro the Chronicles, Mirette Investigates and Zou.
“I look at this year as one of the busiest our studio has ever had both in terms of production and development,” says Pierre Sissmann, chairman and CEO of the 12-year-old company. “We have reorganized our resources, have three shows signed with major networks, and have six productions that we haven’t shown to anyone yet. We are also looking at developing feature films in the next five years. When I was at Disney, I produced features such as DuckTales, Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tarzan. But when I started Cyber Group Studios, I knew that it was too risky to jump into the feature film arena right away, so we put our focus on TV series.”
One of the recent highlights for the studio has been the upcoming preschool series Gigantosaurus, which will premiere on Disney Junior worldwide (excluding India and Taiwan) in 2019. The show, which has already been picked up by France Televisions and Super RTL in Germany, is based on the bestselling book by Jonny Duddle about the adventures of four young dino pals, who go in search of the biggest dinosaur anyone has ever seen. “Another big project for us is The Pirates Next Door, which was commissioned by France TV,” adds Sissmann. “It’s also based on another Jonny Duddle book, which has sold millions worldwide, and next year, we’ll begin production on Duddle’s Jack and the Thesaurus. These are all ambitious series for us, and they have big toy properties as well.”
The team at Cyber Group also has high hopes for Taffy, a 78 x 7-minute comedy project with Turner International for its Boomerang channel, across international markets. “I created this show with Mike de Seve of Baboon Animation,” says Sissmann. “It follows the adventures of a loyal dog named Bentley whose elderly billionaire owner takes in an imposter, posing as a wide-eyed fluffy cat. It has a great Looney Tunes, slap-sticky feel to it.”
Another hot item on the Cyber slate is Droners, a co-pro with Supamonks Studio, La Chouette Compagnie and TFI. This 26 x 26-minute show is aimed at children aged six to 10, and is based on an original concept by Supamonks’ director of production Pierre de Cabissole and La Chouette producer Sylvain Dos Santos. The innovative toon follows four members of a drone racing team known as the Tikis, who are trying to save their archipelago home, Terraqua, from marine submersion. They will have to compete in one of the most difficult drone racing competitions in the world.
“We are very proud of this project because it has a very distinctive look, offering a rich mixture of CGI and 2D,” notes Sissmann. “We are always looking at solving the next technological challenges with our shows. For Tales of Tatonka, we had to develop an effective way of depicting animals in motion, with realistic muscle and textures. For Zorro, we were tasked with creating hundreds of animated characters per episode. Now, with Droners, we have full CG, 3D drones racing in a 2D environment, and we are going to create different perspectives, just like a videogame. We want the viewer to feel as if they’re in the driver seat. It will be spectacular.”
At this month’s Cartoon Forum, Cyber Group will also present King of Space, a whimsical CG series about a young boy named Ralph and his dog Rex who live on a tiny planet called Oopaluna. After discovering that the dog has royal origins, the young boy enrolls him in a training program for future kings of space.
Overall, Sissmann says he is pleased that Cyber Group has expanded its reach in France, the U.K, Ireland and the U.S. “We are also setting up a digital division before the end of the year. In the next five years, we hope to create more TV series, both with old and new clients, as well as moving forward with our movie and digital divisions. I think in general, the market has been better for us than it has ever been. The growth of new digital platforms has been a very positive trend for everyone. Of course, there have been hiccups here and there, but overall, it’s a great period. There is demand for comedy, action and fantasy shows, and both boys’ and girls’ series. Seven years ago, preschool or bridge shows were all about animals. Now it’s all about boys and girls! It’s a very balanced field now.”
To find out more about this thriving French outfit, visit www.cybergroupstudios.com.
Each September, European animation producers, investors and broadcasters head over to the beautiful French city of Toulouse, located on the banks of the Garonne river, to attend the prestigious Cartoon Forum event (Sept. 11-14). Since its launch in 1990, over 700 animated projects have found financing at the Forum, so it’s easy to understand why each year more and more toon professionals are drawn to this special gathering.
In addition to the usual pitching sessions and screenings, the Forum will focus on one specific country, and this year it’s Poland and its 30 studios. “Since last year, we decided to put the animated projects of one special country in the spotlight,” explains general director Marc Vandeweyer. “[Poland]’s professional association is fighting to pass a 25 percent tax credit law, which would strengthen its will to become a co-production partner, including partnerships in ambitious projects. The knowhow of the Polish studios is widely recognized and their creativity has become increasingly contemporary and well in tune with our times.”
Vandeweyer says, as in years past, the projects and the creativity behind them are the stars of the Forum. “European producers dare to innovate in terms of modern and unusual graphic styles, and deliver intelligent content for kids and new target groups such as young adults,” he notes. “These shows not only aim to entertain, but also push the envelope with their clever scripts.”
Commenting on the overall state of the European scene, Vandeweyer says he sees the animation industry as quite booming in many different regions of the continent. “The studios are working a lot,” he says. “They even have a shortage of animators. This sector has a great potential as the producers co-produce easily with other countries: They can adapt quickly to new technological developments, they sell their series and feature films all over the world. The European Commission in Brussels has consulted extensively to the animation professionals to create an ‘Animation Plan for Europe,’ which is quite ambitious and meets the needs of the sector. The animation professionals in the region are expecting a new impetus and focus to improve their success commercially and to make their industry stronger than it is today.” Dragons, Dinosaurs and Space
Kings Among the many projects that will be showcased at the Forum this year are:
Anima Pictures’ Balloon Marco, Animoon’s I Love This, Fabrique d’Images and WunderWerk’s Millie, Millimages’ Louie Builds, Kavaleer’s Neenawsaurs!, Media Valley’s Dragon Slayer’s Academy, Studio 100’s Galactic Agency, Cyber Group Studios’ King of Space, Gruppo Alcuni and Warsaw Movie Home’s Leo Da Vinci, Xilam’s Moka, A. Film’s The Knomes, TeamTO and Nexus Factory’s The School of Magic and Collingwood’s Thorgar.
Andrew Kavanagh, CEO and founder of Dublin-based Kavaleer Productions, is bringing Neenawsaurs!, a new preschool show featuring a group of dinosaurs with sirens. He says, “I think we’ve got a fresh approach to story that kids will really love—all the stuff we’re not meant to do in preschool storytelling—tantrums, meltdowns and hissy-fits—they’re the triggers for a Neenawsaur emergency,” he says.
“This will be our eighth at-
tendance at Cartoon Forum, so I think the fact we keep going back year on year speaks volumes about its efficacy for launching a show,” Kavanagh points out. “It’s also a great opportunity to check in with ourselves and figure out how we should be developing new properties for a content-landscape that’s shifting more rapidly than at any time in the 16 years that Kavaleer’s been in business. There’s no better way for an IP-focused producer to connect with the industry, and seeing so many great European shows launched is a great way for us to tap into the creative mainspring of content development on this continent.”
As Nima Yousefi, producer and director of Sweden’s Hobab studio, whose show Moonwolves debuted at Cartoon Forum last year, points out, “Having your content at Cartoon Forum will put it on the animation map to attract buyers and distributors to come on board the project. You also receive great feedback from the experts on how to continue to develop the program.”
Marie-Claude Beauchamp, president of Montreal-based CarpeDiem Film & TV, is bringing her new animated series Snowsnaps (a TV spin-off of the studio’s Snowtime feature) to the Forum this year, after presenting it last fall for financing. “We are very pleased to offer the finished project to the Forum participants this September,” says Beauchamp. “Our presentation confirmed to us that buyers were appreciative of the boldness of our approach and that they would be there when the series will be ready.”
Of course, one of the best things about Cartoon Forum is that when all is said and done, it is the quality of the pitched projects that make the difference. “It’s important to dare,” Vandeweyer notes. “The Cartoon Forum is a boutique event and is much more accessible to new producers than MIPCOM, for instance. At the Forum, only the quality of the project is important—not the size of the presenting company. Our event is perfectly designed for newcomers. If their projects are really good, they will be immediately in the spotlight.” For more info, visit www.cartoon-media. eu/cartoon-forum.
ing of one movie, the pre-production for the second movie started. Many artists from the first movie also worked on the second one. One of the biggest challenges these days is attracting and keeping good talent, so I think it’s very efficient to work on two projects almost simultaneously. The work overlapped in many instances at our studio, but we were able to make it happen smoothly.” Different Styles for Different
Projects Yuasa has used both Flash technology and traditional animation techniques in his work before, but he says what is most important is the talent that works on each film. “We rely on the talent of many artists, so the quality of the film is safe regardless of the method we use,” he says. “Flash allows you to complete
a project with fewer staff members. Also, because the vector lines can be applied in various ways, they allow more flexibility. We can change the style or patterns of the animated film depending on the demands of the project. I think I use a certain style to take advantage of my strengths and cover up my shortcomings.”
When asked about his influences, Yuasa mentions a wide range of artists. “I have been influenced by both animated and live-action films,” he explained. “I have been inspired by the works of Hayao Miyazaki, of course. Spirited Away is a favorite, but I’ve also admired many of his TV work, including Future Boy Conan.” He also includes the films of Tsutomu Shibayama, Shun Izaki, Steven Spielberg, Yasujiro Ozu, Brian De Palma, Tex Avery, Akira Kurosawa and Alfred Hitchcock, as well as George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine among his all-time favorites.
In Night Is Short, Yuasa also pays homage to the great American musicals. “I love classic American musicals, films like Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story. I think it’s exciting to see music synchronized with images on the big screen: Audiences always respond to spectacular productions like that. We have a musical parody scene in the movie, but it’s not done in a full-scale cinematic scale. Some day, I hope to make an authentic animated musical.”
Yuasa says it’s equally challenging to adapt a work based on an existing property as it is to direct an original project. “You always try to come up with the best version of a story that is suitable to the medium, whether it’s a short, TV series, or a movie,” he notes. “You need to consider your abilities, your reason for making the project and what is the best way to approach a project technically. I believed that styles should change to match the material, and I was taught that the mark of a skilled animator is the ability to change their style easily.”
The self-reinventing director’s next project is an adaptation of the manga Devilman Crybaby, which will be produced by Science SARU for Netflix. The series will be written by Ichiro Okouchi and Eunyoung Choi is the animation director. Yuasa says he is conscious of the international audience of his movies and TV shows when he’s working on a project, but he also doesn’t think that you have to make drastic changes for overseas viewers. “When I worked on my Kickstarter project Kick-Heart a few years ago, I was aware of the overseas potential, but I felt that it really didn’t impact my creative decisions that much,” he says.
When asked about attending the Ottawa festival, Yuasa says he loves the loose format and convivial vibes of the event. “Although it is a major animation festival, I feel that is very easy to enjoy and feels quite intimate,” he says. “In addition, everyone in the city seems to be a fan of animation. Even my taxi driver loved to talk about animation with me. I am very pleased and honored that both movies were selected to be part of the festival this year.”
TThe 2017 Edition of the Ottawa International Animation Festival promises to deliver a fresh slate of inspiring, highly original and irreverent toons.
he fall season officially begins this month when the much-loved Ottawa International Animation Festival opens its doors for a week of cutting-edge shorts, features, mind-expanding panels and dynamic parties. The event, which runs September 20-24 at various venues in Ottawa, Ontario, promises to be another memorable experience.
The 2017 edition will showcase 92 films selected from 1,992 entries from 20 different countries. Among the highlights are Mark Romanek and JAYZ’s The Story of O.J. (designed and animated by The Mill and Titmouse), Clyde Petersen’s Torrey Pines, Abhishek Verma’s Fish Curry, Frank Ternier’s Riot, Emilio Ramos’ Nos Faltan, Eva Cvijanovi ’s Hedgehog’s Home and Ross Hogg’s Life Cycles. The Official Competition also serves up five features, including two from Japanese filmmaker Masaaki Yuasa: Lu Over the Wall and Night Is Short, Walk on Girl.
“There is a definite air of defiance, not just in terms of content, but also through stylistic choices and a rejection of conventional narrative storytelling,” notes the festival’s artistic director Chris Robinson. “After I programmed the competition films, I just sort of looked back and saw that every screening had a few films that were somehow defiant. By that I mean films with unharnessed expressions about race, politics, economic systems, sexual
FHow a UCSB computer science student helped Pixar develop a new noise-eliminating solution. By Ellen Wolff
or many people, the words “Monte Carlo” conjure images of high-stakes casinos serving cocktails that are shaken, not stirred. But for those who render computer-generated images, Monte Carlo is anything but glamorous. It refers to the noise that’s a typical by-product of ray-traced images…like film grain artifacts, but on steroids. So it’s not surprising that CG production studios have long sought de-noising solutions. But cost-prohibitive and labor-intensive strategies have been impractical for feature film production thus far. As Mark Meyer of Pixar Research Group explains, “The computational requirements are so large for the complexity levels of our images. It’s only recently that computers are finally catching up to the math that they’re being asked to do.”
This is where computer scientists from the University of California at Santa Barbara enter the scene. Steve Bako, a UCSB doctoral student, was collaborating with fellow researchers Nima Kalantari and Pradeep Sen on a machine learning approach to filter out Monte Carlo noise. They trained their lab’s computer network to make “noisy” images look more like images that had been computed with greater numbers of light rays. While their process can be considered a subset of artificial intelligence, Bako notes that machine learning has been around for decades. “But now that hardware is so powerful, we can do millions of calculations in parallel. That’s why there’s been an explosion of complicated machine learning algorithms for various applications.”
Bako and his colleagues published their research in 2015, and Pixar took note. As Bako remarks, “Pixar had moved to a ray-tracedbased rendering system, and they were paying attention to de-noising methods out of necessity.” When Bako joined Pixar as a 2016 sum- mer intern, he quickly found himself in hyperdrive. He had “trained” UCSB’s computers on about 20 garden-variety images—a typical academic assortment of lamps and desks. “On my first day at Pixar, they gave me Finding Dory,” he recalls. “The images were diverse, and ideal for setting up a machine learning framework. Machine learning is good for a studio because they can train on one movie, and it’s ready to go for another. They’ll be able to take their Dory- trained network and throw more data at it for another movie.”
The viability of this approach soon became evident, notes Tony DeRose, who heads Pixar Research Group. “We experimented with noisy images from Cars 3 to see what the algorithm would do. It did very well on that, and also with images from Coco and Piper.” While this project proceeded at Pixar, researchers at Disney Research Zurich were also testing de-noising on Big Hero 6.
As Pixar’s Meyer explains, “Projects that use machine learning used to take months and months, but now we’re training within a few days to a week.” While this strategy has clear potential, DeRose cautions that it could take a year or two to be production-ready. “It’s still speculative enough that a producer couldn’t budget it for a particular film,” he notes.
In the meantime, Pixar’s collaboration with UCSB scientists continues. Back in his lab in Santa Barbara, Bako is able to access studio assets, and he’s pushing forward using the Tungsten open source renderer. The results have been striking enough that Bako presented them at SIGGRAPH 2017. He couldn’t release any information that’s proprietary to Pixar, but Bako has posted enough open source information online so that others can test and build upon this research. As Meyer observes, “We’ve found that we reap benefits from letting other people continue to come up with ideas that move the whole field forward.” It is proof, as Bako notes, “that academic institutions really can make a difference.” Disney-Pixar’s latest feature film Coco will be released in theaters on November 22.