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Customer Success Story :: Akama Studio, France
17 October 2011
Interview with Stéphane Montel and Mhamed Elmezoued
"Working with V-Ray has changed our way of conceiving images. In an industry where clients demand ever more beautiful images faster, it is an indispensable partner."
About Akama Studio
Akama Studio is a post production service company. Its domain of expertise extends from 3D to Visual Effects and digital animation. Akama Studio is happy to work with all directors that require its expertise. Akama Studio is also a complete creative studio, and our in-house artists can help in any aspect of a client's project, whether it’s video packaging, digital animation, concept design or even art direction.
We are curious to find out a bit more about your company. How did it all start and what did make Akama the successful company it is today?
Based in Paris, Akama Studio was born in 2004 from the encounter between two directors, Cédric Jeanne and Alexandre Ada, who decided to found a studio to better control the production of their film. Beginning mainly with 3D animation, the studio has diversified over the years and today we are well recognized in the field of 3D animation, 2D and visual effects. We work with major advertising agencies such as Publicis, BETC and DDB, and for large clients such as Nestle, Lacoste, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Ubi Soft and many more.
What is the typical profile of the people working for Akama? How would you describe your team as a whole?
All profiles are welcome, we have many young team members from prestigious schools as well as those who entered into this business completely by accident. Everyone has strong skills in their field as well as a good knowledge of all stages of production. The core team is about twenty people. We try wherever possible to keep the same artists over the years – in this way people know each other better and share ideas, resources, problems and solutions more easily.
Your portfolio has a remarkable list of projects for various worldwide brands. Would you tell us more about the most challenging ones in terms of CG?
The most exciting project we worked on is probably the film Miam because after a long time of full CG commercials we finally had the opportunity to work on a very challenging VFX project. Filmed in HDRI one night in harsh conditions (deep in a forest near Paris at -10°C), we had to integrate seven photo-realistic creatures into a forest, with an extension set, matte paintings, vfx, and more. It was completed in two and a half months by a team of 19 people. We invite everyone to watch the making of the film, since it really emphasizes the shading and lighting... which, of course, was made with V-Ray!
Tell us a bit about your creative process. How does the client brief turn into the ingenious animations that you release in the end?
When a script arrives to the studio, our first goal is to get a clear idea of what the director wants and to transcribe it in pictures. Its always good to have a first draft of the film: an animated storyboard, a 3D preview or even a film made with a mobile phone! This draft allows us to show the clients and the directors the problems with the script and suggest possible solutions. That's how an advertisement of 45 seconds with 45 imagined shots becomes an ad of 45 seconds with 19 shots.
Once this is complete, we begin to look for references that will be used at all stages of production and we study the technical side of the film: what needs to be modeled, the technique that will be used to make a certain shot and so on. Making films for advertising always pushes you to seek solutions with the best compromise between time, labor, computing power and result, while having flexibility for last minute changes. To reach this compromise, Akama Studio had to develop it's own way of making movies.
The core of our working tools is 3ds Max with V-Ray and After Effects for compositing. We do not have a complicated pipeline that would chain us to a specific software. We use the latest software available, usually the one that our artists find the most effective and intuitive.
We encourage our artists to develop their talents and we do not push people towards specialization. There are roughly four design steps at Akama Studio:
- Pre-production which includes storyboard and design
- Animation which also includes the setup
- Photography that includes texturing / shading / lighting / compositing
We have also developed a simple and intuitive project management software: the artists can view the tasks they are assigned, leave notes and read the comments and retakes from supervisors and directors. They have access to the production schedule and see the evolution of the project. Simple, flexible, effective and humane. It is this spirit that we try to keep, even more when it comes to big projects that generate a lot of data. This is our secret to success! For the rest, we rely on our team’s talent!
Going back to other successful projects of yours, let’s talk about SFR MTV, Pièce Jaune and Chocos. They are quite different in terms of creative concept. Can you tell us in more detail about them?
These projects have different objectives. SFR MTV is a commercial that targets teenagers. For it, we created a rich cartoon universe with references to video games. Pièce Jaune is a much more "sober" project for a charity, we must have both an animation and rendering that mimics stop-motion. Finally Chocos focuses on animation; rendering was not a major constraint. These films are not so different and yet meet very specific demands and have their own identity. This is one of the good things when working on short formats - each movie creates a new world, with its own possibilities and limitations.
THE BACKSTAGE EXPERIENCE
Let’s focus now specifically on the creation of Joker Autopresse uses & Punchy Juice and Raving Rabbits Travel In Time . The CG parts of the commercials have this cartoonish feel to them but at the same time the materials and lighting are quite realistic. Did you find V-Ray capable of mixing these effects with ease?
Working with V-Ray has changed our way of conceiving images. Very nice pictures are rendered in a few clicks and this raw material allows you to create the image you want in compositing. Technically, V-Ray has never been a problem to find a style to our images, shaders like the different lighting options are very flexible and can range from simple to complicated. The end result really depends more on the artistic skills of the user than on any software limitations. To be more specific, for the film Miam the lighting is mainly generated by the HDRI that we took on the shooting. For the Joker’s commercials, we mixed an outdoor HDRI with V-Ray lights. For Rabbits Go Home we mixed a Sun & Sky environment with V-Ray lights.
What was your main challenge when creating the shaders? Are you satisfied with the control that the V-Ray materials give you?
Most of the scenes in our projects contain only V-Ray Materials and V-Ray FastSSS2. Both shaders are very versatile. The blurred reflection of the V-Ray Material provides very realistic results. As for SS2, it is quick and easy to use, we can afford to use it for everything and anything!
What did you like about all the V-Ray’s physically accurate tools such as the V-Ray physical camera and the sun and sky system? Did it help for creating realistic looking images?
The V-Ray physical camera really took its full dimension for us when we started doing VFX. If the HDRI and camera’s information has been properly taken during shooting, you can recreate the same lighting universe in 3D and the image you will calculate will be the same as the image you have shot on set. This would be more complicated and time consuming to achieve without the realistic settings of the V-Ray physical camera.
Have you used the 3D Motion blur and depth of field effects and what is your opinion on the speed in which they were rendered?
Until recently, we were creating motion blur with only the 2D compositing tools. We started using the V-Ray 3D motion blur for the film Miam because we needed a realistic motion blur that is the same as the one shooted by the camera on set. Since then, it is difficult to do anything without it! Unless we use plug-ins that are not supported by V-Ray, we use the V-Ray 3d motion blur all the time because it does not extend exponentially our calculating time. However, we rarely use the 3D depth of field, for the simple reason that the amount of blur in the film is often questioned by clients throughout production. It would be risky to calculate it in our images. That said, for Joker, where the 3D previz was validated with the depth of field, we have used it in most of our plans. The DOF is still long to calculate but it undeniably creates successful results.
Did you take advantage of the distributed rendering or the network rendering abilities of V-Ray? What was the average render time per frame in the animations?
Rendering time is often very different depending on the project and the complexity of the scenes. In Joker’s commercials, with DOF, 3D motion blur and with all the objects in the scene, an image took between 45 minutes and 2 hours to calculate. In a project such as Rabbits Go Home, where characters and sets are separated and where there is no 3D DOF and motion blur each image took between 15 and 30 minutes.
Do you normally use many render passes for compositing during the post-production stage of a project?
Naturally, this brings more opportunities in compositing. As a rule of thumb, we calculate a single pass (named the beauty pass) with a maximum of elements in it (like sets and characters). This beauty pass - combined with the various render elements and a bunch of multimatte - is enough for us to complete most of our shots.
You have trusted V-Ray for the visualization of your creative projects for a long time. Why V-Ray?
In its early years, Akama Studio made its movies with Maya, Mental Ray and Renderman. Although effective, this pipeline has shown weaknesses in the context in which we make our films. We needed to be fast without compromising the quality of our images and have more flexibility throughout the production. Meanwhile, V-Ray has attracted our attention because it showed interesting features in terms of Global Illumination lighting, complexity of materials and optimization of computation time. A team of artists working with 3ds Max and V-Ray joined Akama Studio in 2008 and released the commercial Kit-Kat Break. We’ve used V-Ray ever since! It has been five years since we started using V-Ray. In an industry where clients demand ever more beautiful images ever faster, it is an indispensable partner. We must not forget that V-Ray is also a large community of users who bring their experience, resources and assistance. This is a significant advantage, Chaos Group understands and draws in the community to improve its software. Each new version of V-Ray brings lots of innovation that is a response to user requests. This keeps the V-Ray technology the best (vector displacement, GPU interactive renderer, etc.).
What would you recommend adding in future versions of V-Ray?
Because there are always small things that can facilitate our everyday life:
- A target in the V-Ray light.
- The ability to use the MultimatteElement as the Render Element "Matte" in Scanline: I mean being able to directly include objects with a selection.
- Being able to keep in memory all the information of render initialisation (updating object, transforming vertices, turbosmooth, etc.), this will save a lot of time during lighting test.
- Better compatibility of V-Ray RT (SSS VRayDisplacementMod, etc.).
Finally, we recently used the plug-in HairFarm for our last film. Working with Cem Yuksel (HairFarm’s developer) to improve V-Ray/Hair Farm compatibility would create the perfect couple for all hair problems!