This article is part of an editorial series of Expert Talks by Virtuos, aimed at sharing the learnings and best practices in global game development and art production. In this instalment, Patrice Compagnon, Head of Animation at Sparx* – A Virtuos Studio, goes in-depth on how success comes from great learning, both planned and unplanned.
The Sparx* studio has worked on some amazing, high profile projects in its 23-year existence, with a focus on top grossing movies, including a few Star Wars blockbusters; TV series such as Star Wars Rebels and games including Fallout & Battlefield. Success does not come easy, but hard work, finding a unique talent base, and intense training have been the keys to recent successes.
So what is Sparx*’s secret? Starting with the fundamentals – whether it is 2D or 3D, good animation relies on a combination of skills.
First, and maybe most important, is to have a comprehensive knowledge of human anatomy, movement, limits of joints, how muscles work, weight, body mechanics, rhythm, spacing, staging, composition, emotions and even acting skills! It is also important to understand all types of locomotion, such as how two and four-legged animals move, or even how birds fly – it is an art.
The beauty of true animation is that nothing is frozen solid. There are 12 principles of animation, and it is important that animators keep on learning until they are confident enough to decide specifically when to apply them and when not to.
Being an animator means being able to constantly evolve, while keeping true to animation grass roots. In order to do that, animators need to feed themselves with a constant thirst for curiosity and observation. At the coffee shop, at the mall, etc. An animator might stare at some random stranger for minutes just to learn an interesting pose for his next project. They might leave the cinema room full of children and parents with questions like: Why this specific acting style for this movie? Why did that action look so impressive? Was that a good facial expression in that scene?
Sparx* is widely considered as the best learning & development environment for animators in Vietnam
“Quality, quality, quality” was the mission statement that so many animators grew up hearing, and if we’re honest, in the West, Asian animators suffered for a long time from a low reputation of quality, without any real justification. Part of the reason was the high quotas & low budgets, and that cliché used to be a huge barrier. The mission at Sparx* was to make supreme efforts to bring the animation quality to new heights with a couple of key objectives, to invest in localized training and to instill a certain attitude amongst animation teams, almost like an “infinity-and-beyond” learning culture. It worked, and quality, enthusiasm and success quickly followed – the bar was set high, though.
THE HIGHEST POSSIBLE BENCHMARKS
It was agreed, as a company that just ‘reasonable’ quality was not enough. It is important that people, customers, clients, are in awe when they realize that a project has been completed by talented, passionate Vietnamese animators. From day one, benchmarks were set very high, with powerhouses like Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Blue Sky and Sony Pictures Animation the target.
A library of high quality benchmark images and movies range from 2D traditional, 2D digital, cut-out, stop-motion to 3D Animation work was added to, every week. It helped Sparx* tailor classic animation books, documents & tutorials and localize them into in-house training materials, from which animators study and analyze the work, styles – learning every day.
Classically the philosophy of ‘learning by doing’ was adopted, as each project always taught so many points – from an animation style, composition, staging direction, storytelling, character design & performance, to production process & team management. As each project was completed, case studies, key learning & points to improve on were documented – valuable knowledge that should not be wasted.
Customizing training methods so as to fit the local culture is one of the studio’s keys of success
In addition, numerous internal activities including masterclasses delivered by international experts, competitions and workshops about different topics from design analysis, pose analysis, staging, 3D tips and tricks, etc. were arranged. Also collaborations with universities & training centers in Vietnam delivered workshops that triggered curiosity and interest in young talent and have been hugely successful.
Understanding the collective mindset found in most Asian cultures, one of the keys was to create a natural group bond, having trainees helping each other the same way animators do. By always pushing and insisting on common objectives it is easier to build a strong cohesive spirit that will last for years. Animation is a team effort, and the success of a project defines the success for the whole team. Equally, the success of a training is the success of all trainees.
That belief creates such an amazing sense of belonging and common destiny, helping overcome challenges & turmoil, especially during production. There are always difficult projects, but success at the end comes from the unity, cohesion and the camaraderie that bond the animators together.
TRAINING PAYS DIVIDENDS
Sparx* has started to reap the rewards of the super training – as the very first group of trainees brought in 12 years ago are now Animation Directors, Lead Animators, Senior animators and Technical Lead animators. They are now in charge of training the next generations of animation trainees and junior animators; a virtuous circle is in place!
Teaching had huge benefits for the trainers too: clarifying thoughts and needs of the organization, and being put in the shoes of a trainee helps answer 100s of questions:
- Where to start (software, tips and tricks or animation techniques, etc.)?
- How to train people about process and its importance?
- Which methodology to apply?
- And, last but not least, how to inspire people and grow the passion for animation in them?
The crazy pace of this industry, on the other hand, puts pressure on the need to keep updating and improving training techniques and materials. It is fair to say that, trainers, learn at the same time as trainees and junior animators do.
It is fair to say that, trainers, learn at the same time as trainees and junior animators do
All the daily efforts in developing people and keeping them passionate, have helped maintain high quality animation, with success from shows like the award-winning TV Series: Star Wars Rebels. Animation TV making it so worthwhile. And really it is the guidance and support of partners, like the Lucasfilm Animation team, that pushes the team’s limits, ensuring adaptation to the latest style, push quality even higher – season after season.
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Founded in 2004, Virtuos Holdings Pte. Ltd. is a leading videogame content production company with operations in Singapore, China, Vietnam, Canada, France, Japan, Ireland, and the United States. With 1,600 full-time professionals, Virtuos specializes in game development and 3D art production for AAA consoles, PC, and mobile titles, enabling its customers to generate additional revenue and achieve operational efficiency. For over a decade, Virtuos has successfully delivered high quality content for over 1,300 projects and its customers include 18 of the top 20 digital entertainment companies worldwide. For more information, please visit: www.virtuosgames.com.
A VIRTUOS COMPANY.
Founded in 1995, Sparx* became known for high quality visual effects, quickly building a portfolio of over 1,000 TV commercials, Hollywood 3D feature film & TV series. The studio has been acquired by Virtuos in 2011 as its movie division. For more information, please visit: www.sparx.com.
About Patrice Compagnon
Serving as Senior Animation Director at Sparx* – A Virtuos Studio.
Passionate with Animation, Graphic Arts and Comics, Patrice Compagnon has over 21 years’ experience in Animation with a strong artistic background. For 16 years, he has supervised animation and layout crews overseas at Sparx* and trained lead animators, animators, technical animators and layout professionals. He strongly believes and works on in-house tailored training sessions for knowledge transmission.