The glut of feature length VFX extravaganzas that hit the silver screen every year tend to steal the CG spotlight – after all, their strengths are so obviously explicit. However, it’s easy to forget that even deceptively ‘simple’ animations can command a high level of VFX artistry and skill.
For example, consider Blue Zoo’s recent work on 52 episodes of a new series based on iconic children’s book character Miffy, Watching the series in action, it’s clear there’s often more to VFX mastery than the pursuit of realism.
Miffy, created by Dick Bruna some 60 years ago, is a masterpiece of minimalism. Her fame, in part at least, comes from the fact she can charm, delight and beguile without needing more than a few strokes of the pen.
And that, for the best animators in the business, presents a challenge when working to bring the iconic rabbit’s cherished IP into a digital era. Just how does a team deliver contemporary, cutting edge content that also captures the spirit and charisma of Miffy’s universe without betraying the understated, beloved style that made Bruna’s creation an icon?
The answer to that question, in part, is the biased, GPU-driven Redshift renderer. But before we consider how such a tool can really impact the kingdom of a delightful illustrated bunny, it’s worth taking a few steps back.
The big blue
Blue Zoo is no stranger to acclaim. The London-based creative powerhouse – renowned for an impressively diverse portfolio spanning children’s TV, advertising, apps and short films – has several BAFTA awards to its name.
Recognising the studio’s talent and quality of output, Mercis BV, worldwide rights owner of Miffy, commissioned Blue Zoo to create a new, modernised 52-episode series based on Bruna’s creation.
This was no insignificant commission, especially as Miffy’s Adventures Big and Small marked the titular rabbit’s CG debut. Blue Zoo needed to capture a world previously defined by simplistic hand drawings as a computer animated series that would stand alongside their best contemporary work. And they had a bounty of content to produce; several dozen entire episode’s worth, in fact.
“Miffy has a distinct minimal design style, so we needed to translate this into CG whilst retaining the charm of the brand,” explains Blue Zoo co-founder and director Tom Box of the challenge presented by the commission. “Minimal design in CG can easily become a bit too slick and sterile, so we gave Miffy a tactile aesthetic, making it feel more realistic by mimicking stop motion.”
The team quickly set about creating striking assets that capture Miffy in style and character, but thrust the cast of the long-standing IP into the modern era. Yet for all Blue Zoo’s efforts with the artwork, they found themselves faced with a problem when it came to rendering.
“While the renderer we were initially using was generating absolutely beautiful images, the render times soon became too slow for our in-house render farm to cope with,” Box reveals. “We tested out rendering in the cloud but the costs were out of budget. So we looked to GPU rendering for an alternative solution – Redshift looked to be the ideal fit.”
Having adopted Redshift, Box and his colleagues set about familiarising themselves with its offerings. With so many episodes to make and strict deadlines to meet, this stage was vital. Introducing new technology to your production pipeline can be pivotal in keeping a project on track and to the required standard.
“When we first tried Redshift we were able to match our previous renders within a few hours, without having ever used or been trained in Redshift – that was thanks to the quick feedback loop you get with lightning fast rendering,” offers Box. “We also performed a blind test to see if people could tell which final image was rendered by which renderer – Redshift or our previous, slower solution. Nobody could tell! That convinced us we were onto something game changing.”
Ultimately, though, Redshift did more than just deliver quality visuals in a short time period; it helped the Blue Zoo team to cement Miffy as a thoroughly modern creation. Of course, Redshift’s famously fast working speed provided Blue Zoo with a powerful boost to their progress. But where Miffy was concerned, rendering speed was about more than meeting the deadline.
“Redshift’s blazingly fast render speed doesn’t just help reduce time at final render stage – fast render times when lighting and lookdev’ing mean design iterations are much quicker; especially when using progressive rendering,” confirms Box. “That enables a higher quality result much sooner, and you can really push the render quality further in less time.”
Cuteness without bias
Speed aside, Redshift’s strength comes from its biased approach, which further enabled the Blue Zoo team to capture Miffy’s essence, while also achieving a standard that saw the outfit’s recent short film become a star of the festive period
“Our work is about creatively exploring the look and feel of rendered images, and making beautiful renders that feel real, so we don’t require scientifically accurate simulations of the way light behaves,” says Box on why Redshift’s biased approach mattered to the Miffy project. “It just needs to look amazing.”
Equally, Redshift’s GPU-accelerated architecture – as an alternative to traditional CPU-accelerated rendering systems – empowered Blue Zoo to deftly juggle economy and high quality.
“Having quicker renders means less renderfarm is needed,” Box asserts. “Our GPU render farm is a fraction of the size of our CPU render farm, but churns through a lot more work in less time, saving oodles of cash in not just in hardware, but also physical space for the servers and electricity bills.”
The end result is a modernized Miffy that has delighted fans and critics, dazzled with its artistry and technical clout, and confirmed Blue Zoo as a studio that can ably balance technology and creativity, all without seeing budgets or timelines strained.
Frankly, Box and his team feel exceedingly well served by Redshift. “They say you can’t have quality, speed and budget efficiency at the same time,” muses the Blue Zoo director in conclusion. “I think Redshift has well and truly broken that rule.”
With that, Box must return to his work keeping Blue Zoo at the competitive, commercial, and creative cutting edge.