A Tool for ’Toons

Nickelodeon Animation Studio artists create prize animation with LightWave

Posted: Thu 07 Jun 2012

In 1998, as Viacom opened the Nickelodeon Animation Studio in Burbank, Calif., college student Ernest Chan was adopting NewTek’s LightWave 3D software for the first time. No one could predict at the time that these innovators and innovations would partner and, in doing so, deliver some of history’s most celebrated animations, which are beloved by millions, young and old, the world over.

“I was introduced to LightWave in college,” recalls Chan, who received a degree in Computer and Video Imaging with a concentration in Character Animation. “I found it very easy to generate content quickly with LightWave--this was very instrumental to my learning process. One of the greatest strengths of LightWave is that it’s not an intimidating piece of software. It’s very easy for an artist to get comfortable with the toolset, so they can go from idea to creation in a short amount of time. As a creative person, the faster I could see what was in my head on screen, the more fun the process became.”

Fast Forward

Thirteen years later, Chan is the CG supervisor of Nickelodeon Animation Studios’ Post Production Department, where he continues to employ LightWave 3D in the daily production of Nickelodeon’s popular animated television series, called Nicktoons.

Nickelodeon Animation Studio’s 72,000-square-foot facility houses not only hundreds of imaginative digital artists, but also an arsenal of innovative computer graphics (CG), 3D, and motion-capture hardware and software tools with which to create and perfect cutting-edge, digital animation. Studio artists, such as Chan, are responsible for many high-quality, attention-grabbing, and prized animated series, including SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer.

Chan, as post production CG supervisor, oversees a team of four artists who handle the CG portion of the studio’s post-production process. “We address any fixes that a show requests as it goes through the post process,” Chan affirms. “The type of work can range from replacing or enhancing existing effects, to set replacement, to complete character animation.”

Chan and his team primarily, but not exclusively, become involved with each episode during the post stage of production. “We might be brought in during the preproduction and production stages of an episode, such as when it has been predetermined that my group will be responsible for something in an episode,” Chan explains.

Artists at Nickelodeon Animation Studio have used LightWave since 2000. “LightWave is my group’s primary 3D package,” Chan enthuses. “Everything from modeling, texturing, and animation to rendering is done in LightWave.”

Even on those occasions that the artists need to use another 3D software package, “we still use LightWave as the modeler and renderer,” Chan adds. In an episode of The X’s in which the house was given a body, artists modeled the robot in Modeler, and then rigged and animated it in [Autodesk’s] XSI. “With LightWave’s native .mdd file format, we then exported the animation out for final render in LightWave. LightWave’s native .mdd file format is an incredibly reliable way of transferring data between different packages.”

Jack (and Jill) of All Trades

Nickelodeon currently produces a wealth of animated TV series, each unique and with its own needs, elements, challenges, and styles. “The type of work that we do is varied,” Chan says, “so it’s very important that an artist be a generalist. LightWave is excellent at supporting that.

“Each artist is responsible for generating the content that they need, ranging from visual effects (VFX) work to character animation,” Chan continues. “LightWave’s broad range of tools lets a single person handle all of it.” From a supervisory perspective, this LightWave characteristic enables Chan to lead a very small team that is capable of producing a high quantity of quality work.

It’s not uncommon for one artist in the post production department to be working on several different shows in a single day. “LightWave’s texturing tools are so powerful and flexible that they adapt very easily to all our show styles,” Chan describes.

“The speed at which we can generate content in LightWave is incredibly important to us,” Chan adds. “Not only are we dealing with tight deadlines, but we are interacting with different directors and creators with their own unique way of describing something, which can be a challenge. Being able to take their idea from a description to something visual in a short amount of time in LightWave is important in keeping us on schedule. LightWave 10’s new Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR) tool has made this process even faster. I can use VPR during a review to show everyone what the final image will look like even as I address their notes right then and there.”

Chan and his post production team particularly value the speed and quality of LightWave’s renderer, which the supervisor rates as one of the best available. “We have very tight deadlines and, with LightWave’s renderer, we know we don’t have to worry about the final quality or excessive render times,” Chan continues. “Not having to worry about it means we can put our time and energy into the creative process.”

Movie Magic

Nickelodeon Animation Studio artists work not only on individual episodes, but also lengthy and ambitious animated TV movies. LightWave proved to be instrumental in the production of Nickelodeon’s three-hour “Wishology” movie special, part of the popular The Fairly OddParents animated series.

In the special, Timmy Turner is being pursued by an entity known as “The Darkness,” which is a large, nebulous cloud-like planet killer. “My group was brought in after the first hour had finished preproduction, so we were already behind schedule,” recalls Chan. “With the use of LightWave, one artist in my team began work on several different versions of The Darkness for review. The speed at which she could generate content and implement the creator and art director’s notes made it possible for us to catch up to the production schedule.”

The feature-length special also boasted robots with several different costume variations and other 3D assets that had to be designed and created in LightWave. “All this work had to be done while we still supported the other shows that were coming through post,” says Chan of his team’s accomplishment, with help from LightWave 3D.

Will Chan continue to use LightWave personally and professionally? “Absolutely,” Chan affirms. “LightWave has always provided incredible value; you get a very complete set of tools all in one box. LightWave gives me a complete package that fits within my budget.”

Visit the Nickelodeon Animation website at nickanimationcareers.com

Impressive Legacy

Ernest Chan, post production CG supervisor at Nickelodeon Animation Studios in Burbank, Calif., makes use of LightWave 3D’s full feature set in his work on a wealth of Nickelodeon’s popular animated TV series, including:

  • Dora the Explorer
  • The Fairly OddParents
  • Fanboy & Chum Chum
  • Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness
  • The Penguins of Madagascar
  • SpongeBob SquarePants
  • T.U.F.F. Puppy