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New Education Group

Young New Zealand film-makers connecting with World film-makers through Yoobee School Of Design

14 Aug 2018

Industry connections are important. So, when the opportunity to work on a popular web-series such as Automata comes to light, it’s worth its weight in gold. Yoobee School of Design tutor, Eli Tucker has worked around the world, and through those experiences came to know the director of the Penny Arcade web-comic series, who was planning to bring it life.

And what a story it is! Automata is a sciencefiction series, set in the 1930s, based on characters from the popular Penny Arcade web-comic. It’s prohibition time in the United States, but alcohol isn’t the focus. Rather, the production of highly sentient robots known as automatons. They live amongst the human population as an underclass of social outcasts, victims of human prejudice and strict laws that govern their existence.

The production of the series has been a labour of love.  Pre-production of Automata began in 2014 with a proof of concept which Eli worked on from New Zealand alongside idea originator / director Van Alan Blumreich, who is based in Seattle, United States. From there, the project was proven to be viable, and a very successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign raised nearly half a million US dollars allowing work to begin on the five episodes.

One of the benefits of being a tutor at Yoobee School of Design meant Eli had access to tutors, graduates and students with a range of skills and experience.  He was able to recruit not only high level roles, but vital ones where Yoobee students and graduates could also gain valuable experience in producing an iconic series. Eli was the VFX supervisor, and other Yoobee team members included:

  • Kieran Smith – VFX Generalist
  • Ava Fairhall – 3D Animation Lead
  • Phil Kurzmann – Animator
  • Fergus Jack-Hinton – Compositing Lead
  • Matthew Harris – Compositor

Yoobee graduates involved included:

  • Justin Broom – Rigging TD
  • Matthew Jukes – Lighting Lead
  • Kaan Demir – Lighting Assistant
  • Samantha Coombes – Concept Art Assistant
  • Noel Wellington – Compositing Assistant

Eli has extensive experience, and his highlights have been working on Avatar at Weta Digital in 2009 and also in Sydney on Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole at Animal Logic in 2010, so he was prepared for a large scale production such as Automata.  However, the fast production turn-around required for Automata brought its own challenges and meant efficiency was king.

Eli said, “Unlike larger companies where people commonly specialise in a specific skill area, everyone involved with Automata had to be Generalists – capable of covering a broad range of skills within the 3D production pipeline. This is why, Yoobee graduates and tutors were perfect for this reason. For example, all of the methods used to replace the actor’s heads with CGI robot versions are the very same we teach in our 3D Graphics programmes here at Yoobee”.

Eli added, “Through 3D modelling, texturing and rigging we created photo-realistic robot head assets based off the concept art from the web-comics. These were then match-moved to replicate the actor’s motion within the filmed footage, and also keyframe animated to add performance value and additional character cues. Lighting information was extracted from Chrome Ball HDRI (High Dynamic Range Imagery) photography taken during filming and this was used in our 3D scenes to match the exact on-set lighting conditions through IBLs (Image Based Lights)”.

In addition, Eli said, “On the post-production end, my team were responsible for rendering the CGI assets and compositing these to match the footage. Certain shots also required green-screen keying, rotoscoping, tracking-marker removal and effects work. The actor’s heads were cleaned from the live-action plate and the shirt-collars composited back over the top – in effect, becoming a Live-action/VFX Sandwich”.

Many of the graduates that helped with Automata have gone on to work within the industry. Yoobee is a school that trains and channels its students into sustainable work.  Some of these students and tutors include:

  • Justin Broom is now at Weta Digital, training their newly hired Lighting ATDs and has also worked on feature films including War for the Planet of the Apes, and highly anticipated Mortal Engines.
  • Matthew Jukes worked for Park Road Post Production and has now joined the team of excellent tutors here at Yoobee.
  • Noel Wellington also worked at Park Road Post and now he’s doing some amazing Visual Effects work at Zoic Studios in Vancouver.

As the key connector to the project, Eli feels really pleased that his team’s efforts have been recognised.  He said, “From my position as a tutor first and foremost, it’s amazing to see the team’s hard work pay off, and I couldn’t be more proud to see them out there following their dreams”.

In 2017, the Automata series was ready to be distributed through indie film festivals including Seriesfest 2017, PAX West 2017 and the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival. The series received glowing reviews before finally being released publicly over Dust’s Youtube Channel.

Link to the Automata webseries