Virtualmedia Studios began research and development on the production of BookReel™ in June of 2000. There were 4 primary objectives:
- Finding a production strategy to produce BookReel™ that would be affordable to the publishing industry.
- Analyze and test the process needed to produce a BookReel™ that used life-like characters. Among other things this included: how BookReel™ scripts would be developed and written; mastering the fine art of creating trailers; how music scores could be created at a low cost; what tools would work best; creating a seamless self-maintaining production line that would insure repeatable and predictable quality and development time.
- Acquiring talent and/or training in the areas needed to produce BookReel™.
- The development of the Actors Factory™ which would turn out realistic virtual actors in the least amount of time while insuring quality.
The outcome of Virtualmedia Studio’s three year R and D effort gives Virtualmedia Studios an unquestionable advantage over other companies in the production quality, production time and cost.
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The Cost of 3-D Animation
The single most critical challenge for Virtualmedia Studios was making BookReels™ affordable for the publishing industry at large. According to the 2001 edition of the "Graphic Arts Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines", the cost for 3-D animation runs from $500 - $1,000 per second. At the low end, this would mean that a 2.5 minute BookReel™ would cost $75,000. We felt this cost had to come down for BookReel™ to succeed and the majority of our 3 year startup effort addressed this issue.
3-D animation is an enormously complex and time consuming process that requires highly talented and skilled people as well as expensive hardware and software. To reduce these costs we had to break out of the standard 3D animation studio mold. Below you will find our approach and, apropos, the collective advantage Virtualmedia Studios has in producing 3D Animated BookReel™.
* BookReel™ can be any length of time but 2.5 minutes was the model we worked with. It is the average duration of movie trailers and, we feel, the maximum length of a BookReel™.
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Luckily one of the most significant ways to maintain quality and reduce production costs was already in our pocket: the only thing that Virtualmedia Studios intended to produce was BookReel™. This specialization meant we did not have to support hardware, software and personnel that other animation studios, which produce all manner of animation need. Our requirements were only those needed for the production of BookReel™. Specifically it meant less overhead. Specialization also means that all of our efforts and resources are focused on a single product.
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Lean, Lean and Leaner
A typical 3D production involves a very large staff with many layers of specialists for each technical and artistic element. This in turn requires more layers of managers, directors, and supervisors. In short, a small company exists for each production element: story development, storyboarding, pre-visualization and animatics, casting, wardrobe, visual effects, character animation, sets, sound, music and the list goes on. Then you have all the administrative staff to support this weight. Most, if not all, of these employees are full time. Even if a project does not need this army of directors and specialists they are applied anyway because this is the way animation has always been done, the staff is there and this is a tried and true process for large and small projects that the studio knows and has always used. As much as 50% of production time is spent in meetings to keep everyone on the same page and the paper work generated can take up to another 20%!
BookReel™ does not require all the things mentioned above and, since creating BookReel™ is all we ever intended to do, all this overhead was never required or built-in. Indeed Virtualmedia Studios' full time staff is comprised of only a half dozen highly skilled animators – period! When needed, we bring in additional animators and specialists on a contract/per project basis. Virtualmedia Studios also has partnerships with other studios that provide resources as needed. In short, we apply and support only what resources that the task of producing each BookReel™ requires.
At Virtualmedia Studios we keep it simple -- we keep it small. Our staff is constantly working and communicating together in a virtually paperless environment where more hours are spent “hands on” and not in meetings.
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Advances in Technology
The opportunity for BookReel™ -- especially ultra-realistic or life-like trailers -- has only become technically possible within the last few years. And it has only become financially feasible for the publishing industry in the last year or so (as our 3 year research cycle ended). The factors that have come together to make this so include:
- The falling costs of hardware: processing power, disk space, memory and the host of peripherals needed to produce animation
- Recent technical advancements and falling costs of the software required
- The falling costs of digital cameras and related equipment
- The falling costs of stock audio and video
- Advancements in animation re-use and simulation
- Advancements in non-linear animation
- Advancements in video and audio compression
- Advancements in music and sound creation software
- The growth of the World Wide Web
- Advancements in retailing on the WWW
Only a few years ago you needed a $10,000 alpha work station, tens of thousands in software, a professional sound studio, an orchestra to create a sound track. Now all these things can be done on a PC using far less expensive software – in all, this low cost path is a fourth of the cost of the traditional production path. However, existing studios must maintain the higher cost path for many reasons: the diversity of the types of animation they produce; their staff is trained on this software; they already have it and the markets they service can afford to pay enough to cover the costs.
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The Virtual Company
Another huge factor in keeping the costs down is that Virtualmedia Studios is a true virtual company. Virtualmedia Studios does not have an office: there is no lobby, no receptionist, no personnel department, no IS staff! Each person works from their home studio and we collaborate over the Internet! The artists that make up Virtualmedia Studios live across the continental USA and Canada. Location is not a factor when in bringing in artists to work on a project – our production team can span the globe and use the latest technologies to stay in constant communication. And instead of sitting in traffic for 2 hours each day we can work on animation.
Studies have proven that telecommuters are more productive, produce better quality work, are more creative and almost never ‘call in sick’. The virtual company is a very efficient entity. Communication and collaboration is more succinct, focused, efficient and productive.
The virtual company is certainly not for every enterprise but for what we do it is next to essential. Because we are not confined by a physical office location, our clients benefit from lower costs and added value.
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Another huge factor in keeping costs down is Virtualmedia Studio’s pool of photo-realistic virtual actors or “Ultras” as we call them. It can take many man-months to create a functional photo-realistic character model. Virtualmedia Studio’s Actors Factory™ reduces this time and insures repeatable quality. Still, if we tried to create new life-like character models for each BookReel™, the added cost would be enormous. By offering ready made virtual actors we drastically reduce the cost of a BookReel™.
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Yet another factor in maintaining costs is reuse. If we need a 3D set – say an office or the bridge of a spaceship -- that required totally new elements that we did not already have in our central resource pool, each new element we build (3D models, textures, materials, etc) is automatically incorporated and indexed into our central resource pool for reuse. This system of reuse is built into our production process. This system of reuse works because 3D models and environments can easily be altered to make them unique. In short, reusable resources are organized for quick lookup and retrieval and, therefore, rarely do we need to start a 3D model or environ from scratch.
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The Unified Process
Borrowing the Unified Process (UP) from the world of computer programming standardizes our end to end process and insures repeatability in both quality and project duration. Beyond this it also promotes reusability so that the 3-D models, sets, lighting arrangements and scenes we construct are reused from project to project. Because it is a documented process it can and does evolve and improve. In theory, mistakes are made only once and each project and project element, from project to project, looks the same. A person can step from one project to another and know exactly where the project stands and what needs to be done next.
3D animation is extremely complex involving thousands of steps, hundreds of files, scores of disciplines and dozens of tools. UP imposes strict organization to this mass of elements so all we have to do is create animation – the complex details and administration is taken care of by the process itself.
Finally, a ‘process’ to manage such a complex undertaking must itself be highly complex. What makes it all work is a ‘structure’ that supports the process. Indeed without this structure the process would collapse under its own weight – that is, we would quickly lose sight of the process and go astray or, we’d spend so much time trying to adhere to the process that no work would get done! The structure guides our efforts so we do not have to think about the process and can focus on the creative elements of the project. The structure provides feedback to the process for improvement. The structure puts everything at our finger tips and maximizes our efficiency.
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The above elements make up ‘Our Advantage’.
We have not evolved from past, outdated and expensive technologies whose weight must be dragged along as we move forward and whose cost must be passed on to the customer. We have wiped the slate clean and started fresh with the latest technologies, and we have taken the time to choose wisely and test.
We do not have to support technologies to cover a broad spectrum of project types; technologies that much of the time sit on the shelf but whose cost must ultimately be passed on to the customer.
We have not come from processes forged in the heat of development but have taken the time and forethought to implement a proven process that has taken 20 years to develop and is rapidly becoming the de facto ‘process’ not only for programming but for a diverse array of complex disciplines.
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