Today’s audiences are a demanding lot. No longer is the traditional TV platform considered acceptable – audiences want content 24/7 and they want it on all platforms. They can watch their TV program, interact with fans via social network sites, browse alternative content on a mobile device, while diving into the characters’ world through an interactive website.
The latter is an increasing area for animation companies, according to the local industry.
“It’s almost becoming a fundamental of any program for it to be Transmedia,” starts animation specialist Luke Jurevicius.
“You have to think that way – people want to be able to continue their experience on other platforms.”
Animation producer-turned-Griffith University associate professor, Andi Spark, says creating interactive websites are, however, considered to be small by the clients but take just as much planning, time and effort as making a short film or series episode (and that’s without tackling the gameplay or programming).
“They don’t pay fantastically but certainly help small companies keep afloat. We call them the ‘mie goreng jobs’ – just enough money to buy you an instant-noodles dinner.”
Jurevicius warns that when creating animated-interactive websites, file sizes need to be kept to a minimum to avoid user frustration with download times. They also need to be designed and implemented in such a way to gain people’s attention immediately – much like the original screen production. As such, close work is done with production companies – in many cases, such as on ABC3 program My Place, a couple of years before the program even premieres.
A former children’s book illustrator, Jurevicius and his team are currently creating the nuts and bolts for CGI-program The Adventures of Figaro Pho. Production is coming along quickly on the 13×30-minute (39×7-minute) show which is expected to be completed by October. Jurevicius – an AFI-winner for the show’s previous inception – is already working on a console and iPhone game for the ABC3 children’s series and an interactive website featuring more animation will also be made available closer to the premiere.
To create an interactive website, the process is quite simple. First comes the story – incorporating the series’ characters – and then a script is written if it’s a dialogue-driven project.
The storyboards are then created, which are basically rough sketches that outline the storybeats. Paper is fast becoming the thing of the past – today tablets such as Wacom are popular with animation artists. After storyboards, an animatic is created to dictate the timing. Essentially the storyboards are compiled and put into such software as Adobe’s Premiere, Final Cut Pro or Flash.
However, as Blue Rocket Productions’ executive producer and creative director David Gurney notes, Flash could be on the way out because Microsoft and Apple have stated that they will no longer support the program because it uses too much power for tablet devices. Late last year, the company announced it would end Flash development for mobile platforms and TV, and would develop tools utilising HTML5.
“I think that Flash provides a incredible level of interactivity and allows you to do things that are extremely difficult to achieve in any other way, but we don’t see it as a long-term solution anymore. So we’re now at a crossroads, where we’re looking at other possible technologies,” he says.
Gurney and the team at his Hobart animation studio have been busy creating sites for My Place and Nine-animated show Pixel Pinkie. Both projects were time-consuming and involved a deep user-experience with lots of animation and games. “I think the trick to creating games is like creating kids’ TV – you’ve got to be able to think like a kid,” Gurney says.
He says the idea for any interactive website based on a show is to extend the program’s world, re-use certain components and create entirely new areas and characters.
“So if the script is about a particular thing, we’d look at if there were opportunities to develop a game based on that. It might even just be a small component of a story or the world in which the series is set, and then we just extend that out into an interactive experience.”
With Pixel Pinkie – currently seen on Nine and also produced by Blue Rocket – software developers worked with the lead animators to subtract the “boring, repetitive tasks” that animators did so time could be spent on being the most creative.
“Animating is about acting – so the animators needed to understand acting. So we wanted to sort of free them up as much as possible and to create an environment in which ideas were shared across the animation floor,” Gurney says.
“Having animation and technical skills under the one roof has been very successful for us and also not separating into departments – it’s a much more shared and much more open environment. We have written about 120 in-house character animation tools and that has really transformed the workflow and the work environment. That’s been our biggest single change.”
On My Place, the team created some deep games and “literally used tens of thousands of photographs to put that site together, chopping them up and bringing elements to life”, Gurney says.
“When we start working on the website itself, we have a quite a deep process. So long before any drawings or any sort of visual material is produced, we start working on finding the user experience and we have a well-defined ‘user-design centric methodology’ I guess you’d call it.
“And that’s really about working out the different types of users that are likely to be spending time on the site and trying to anticipate their journeys through the content – what sorts of things they’d want to experience and then working out what content needs to go on there.
“When it’s working with a TV series, then it’s often referencing back to the script or the world in which the series is set. Part of it is also not about giving people more of the same that they get on TV, but giving them something that compliments it but is different. You want to extend their experience with the content but you don’t want to just give them the same thing online.”
Another big area in this space is creating animation for interactive learning tools via the web. Jurevicius is one who has for the past 4-5 years worked with primary/secondary school publisher Blake Publishing to create interactive program, Reading Eggs. Jurevicius, under his Vishus Productions banner, designed, modelled and animated 12 CG-animated characters for the program which assists children to read.
A possible animated preschool TV series based on the game, with his other company Boombada, is also in the works with artists Arthur Moody and Andrew Kunzel. A new program by Blake, Maths Seeds, is currently being worked on and could be released this year.
“We’re really upping the quality on that brand which is hugely interactive,” Jurevicius says. “It’s filled with awesome animation, great voices, music. And that’s going to be a really special project – really high-end. There’s 80 lessons that we’re working on at the moment, but I think it will have the same sort of success that Reading Eggs had.”
Interactive websites, either based on screen productions or for educational purposes, is another outlet for animators to help refine their skills. It provides experience for the animators while in between screen productions. It’s a growing area and this can only be a good thing for the future of the Australian animation industry.