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Keyframe Studios & “Dead Pixels”: Animating the Pixels

Asa Movshovitz

Keyframe Studios founder

Keyframe Studios founder Asa Movshovitz talks about their latest project, working on E4’s “Dead Pixels” creating the game animation assets for the show’s MMO, “Kingdom Scrolls”…

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Adam

Hello and thanks for speaking to 3dtotal! Could you introduce yourself to our readers with a bit of info about who you are and what you do?

Asa

I’m Asa Movshovitz, founder of Keyframe Studios. I am an animator with 25+ year’s experience. I moved from Israel to London in 2000 to study animation, with my professional career starting at Passion Pictures. Some of my Passion credits include working on music videos for Gorillaz as well as the animator on Coldplay’s MTV award-winning music video Trouble. I was lead animator on pre-school children’s series The Jellikins for ITV and the BAFTA nominated Where is Boo for the BBC, as well as working on Wibbly Pig and Jim Jam and Sunny. As a VFX animator I have also worked on a couple of features including Harry Potter 7 for Base Black and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. I also worked on a few commercial studios such as Picasso Pictures and Nexus productions.

Adam

How did your company start?

Asa

I’ve always loved animation and film. From Disney/Pixar films to Saturday morning cartoons. I started Keyframe Studios in 2009, with a view to creating new shows and providing CGI character animation services reflecting the values I have as an animation director, with a passion for design and animation. In 2012, Ben Purkis joined Keyframe Studios and later on became our CTO; and in 2014, Matthew Freeman joined as our in house producer. 10 years on we have a small studio in King’s Cross London with 20 seats. We cover the full creative offering from concept design through to modeling, rigging, 2D/3D animation and lighting all integrated with our bespoke real time render pipeline.

Adam

Dead Pixels sounds like a really exciting project – what did you think when you were approached to work on  it?

Asa

In 2015 we got a knock on the door from a producer Matthew Mulot (he got referred to us after we did some short animated comedy sketches for a BBC2 show). He had a one page treatment from writer Jon Brown for a TV show about hardcore gamers, and asked if we could have a look. The studio often gets approached with ideas, but with this one l could see great potential and I really liked the treatment. At this stage the game was Chibi-style based characters. We worked on the teaser for a few days and a week or two later created a rough animation test.

At that stage, to be honest, we never thought we would hear back. It’s worth mentioning that at the time we started working on our real time pipeline for a kid’s project with the aim to create YouTube animation. Eight months later we got a call from Matthew Mullot saying the idea – Avatards – was picked up by C4’s comedy blaps platform (an incubator for new ideas for comedy shows in the UK) check it out!

A year later Dead Pixels was commissioned by E4. This has been a great project to work on as we have worked alongside Jon Brown, the writer, every step of the way, with respect to the game world look and feel and character development. The Dead Pixels team gave us an enormous amount of creative freedom with Kingdom Scrolls, and this sense of freedom really allowed us to push the boat out.

Dead Pixels is on Thursdays at 9.30pm on E4, also available on All4.

Adam

The show is about gamers – are there any video games which served as major inspirations for the animated sequences?

Asa

I am not a much of a gamer myself, but always loved all of Blur’s game trailers.

The studio and the team we built were full of talented artists who are avid gamers, so Dead Pixels was the perfect project for us. Jon Brown is an avid gamer and pointed us at the time to look at MMOs such as World of Warcraft and Guild Wars. The intention has been to create the look of the game to be last gen, a bit neglected by its developers, but with a true die hard cult following.

The studio and the team we built were full of talented artists who are avid gamers, so Dead Pixels was the perfect project for us

Adam

What techniques or software did you use to create the game world of Kingdom Scrolls?

Asa

The initial 2D design stages of Dead Pixels followed the traditional path of using Photoshop and Affinity Designer to create the concepts by Rajan Zelalem, Krasimir Koev, and Ilian Velklov, for all the characters and environments. We then took those concepts into ZBrush, 3D Coat, and Substance Painter to flesh out the concepts into 3D models. This process was handled by Jose Canizares, Michael Hetherington, and Jamie Macleod. Anders Purkis used 3ds Max to create the character rigs.  The animation, from blocking to final, was led by animators Tomek Tragarz and Shu Yang.

While the characters were being worked on, environment assets were being modeled and transferred into Unity3D where they were used when building the environments for the series. Once placeholder environments had been created, they were then transferred back into 3ds Max for the animators to use as reference.

As animations were completed, they were transferred back into Unity where they were placed in the shots.

© Various Artists Ltd

Finally, NPCs, effects, and lighting were all added within Unity, and rendered directly from Unity to help keep the look of Kingdom Scrolls authentic to game visuals. We used Premiere to block the animation sequences and After Effects for color grading. The HUD animation was done by Rimante Navalinskaite. Ben Purkis designed the pipeline to help smooth the assets moving along the production. The slick pipeline really assisted the series when it was in the online stage, as we worked closely with the director Al Campbell to swiftly accommodate and deliver last minute content changes, to push the comedic narrative.

Shot creation, from blocking to final, were tracked using Google docs and managed by Matthew Freeman. In total, 70+ minutes of animation was created for the show with 350+ shots ending in the final cut. The team created 70 different characters and around 30 different environments and locations. The production lasted 8 months and the team grew to 19 in peak production.

Adam

What’s your average working day like at Keyframe Studios?

Asa

Most days start at 9ish and we lock the door and kick everyone out at 6pm. I have worked as a freelancer in many large London studios and post houses and it's an industry known for its long and hard hours. I really value creativity and in my experience long hours don’t always deliver the best creative output. I like the studio to work hard and work smart. We do our best to get beer o’clock starting on Fridays at 5.30pm, not always successfully, but only a handful of the team have ever experienced working beyond 6pm, and that’s on the very odd occasion.

Most of my days start by reading email and social feeds and looking on a few websites to see what the rest of the industry is up to, followed by a quick catch-up with each member of the studio. The rest of my day is usually followed by different hands on tasks; more editing and comping these days, than animation and rigging, which I used to do.

Adam

What advice would you give to young or new artists who may want to go into animation or CGI for TV?

Asa

I think it’s a great time to enter the industry, with animation content production being pushed out by the likes of Netflix and Amazon and so many feature films are being made. A good showreel puts your best foot forward. I generally don’t mind where or what people have studied, or their level of (or lack of) experience, but we generally spot talent/potential talent in a showreel. I always watch showreels, and if it appeals then I’ll look at the CVs.

If you are starting out, work out where your strengths are. Don’t try and be a jack of all trades and end up being a master of none. Generalists are born out of years of experience and it’s much better to start off concentrating your efforts on where your strengths are.

Concept art, modeling, rigging, texturing, animating and lighting are all specialties that can take years to master. Set yourself attainable goals and your potential will shine through in your work. Social media: there are many fabulous creative communities like Facebook, Artstation, and Pinterest. Use these to get frank feedback and use this feedback to develop your skills.

Keyframe Studios, Dead Pixels, animation, dragon, castle
Keyframe Studios, Dead Pixels, animation
Keyframe Studios, Dead Pixels, animation, cow
Keyframe Studios, Dead Pixels, animation, ship
Keyframe Studios, Dead Pixels, animation

Adam

Who are your biggest inspirations?

Asa

So many! Growing up I always loved the Smurfs by Peyo, Jim Davis’ Garfield and Gary Larson’s The Far Side. For CGI inspiration there is Tim Miller (he’s a God) and the work from Blur. I have been a 3ds Max user from version 1 and will always have a soft spot for the amazing work they have done over the years, way before Deadpool. Paul Neale on the rigging side and Zap Andersson for the work he has done on mental ray.

Anything from Sony Pictures Animation and how they managed to push CGI cartooney animation from Open Season to Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania, and the mind-blowing Spiderman: Into The Spider Verse. I also love the work from Dean DeBlois and Guillermo del Toro’s animated films and shows.

Adam

Your portfolio is diverse – what are your favorite projects you’ve worked on, and why?

Asa

We love every show we make, and we are very lucky to work with some great clients. Recently Dead Pixels was a lot of fun to make and everyone in the studio had a great time. Dead Pixels allowed the team to put a lot of their passion for gaming (and Easter eggs) into the project, and required a lot of time to “research” various games. The wheelchair interactive we delivered for Nissan was another unique project allowing visitors to the Nissan Innovation Station at London’s O2 the opportunity to virtually compete against a wheelchair athlete using a real racing wheelchair. This was an exhilarating interactive installation which required some thinking outside the box to utilize a racing wheelchair as the controller for a computer game. The other project that we always like coming back to whenever we find a little free time in the studio is our very own project, Zeze Zebra, a pre-school kid’s show distributed by Keshet International.

monster, Keyframe Studios, Dead Pixels, animation
Mammoth, Keyframe Studios, Dead Pixels, animation
weapon, God, Keyframe Studios, Dead Pixels, animation
Keyframe Studios, Dead Pixels, animation
Keyframe Studios, Dead Pixels, animation

Adam

Do you have any cool projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about? Anything to look out for in the near future?

Asa

We have 4-5 projects in development that are simmering, some with the flame turned up more on than some others, but sadly none are public knowledge YET. We are excited to have started working on our first long-form animated feature, executively produced by Iain Cooper and Talib AlGhurair from Monotreme Media. This is right up our street and has lots of great animal characters we are in the process of developing. In the not-too-distant future, we should, hopefully, fingers crossed, get news about series 2 of Dead Pixels... now that would be really cool… you’ll be the first to hear!

Dead Pixels is on Thursdays at 9.30pm on E4, also available on All4.

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