|In a video game industry dominated by males, Akiko Ashley's creative talent shines brightly. She is a wearer of many hats; working in several industries: technology, video gaming, music, as well as publishing. Join with me, as I explore Akiko's world ...
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Akiko Ashley. I am a Partner and Executive Producer at Luminetik Animation Studios. I also wrote the story for our upcoming computer animated franchise known as Dis_Konnected.
I understand you come from an engineering background. How did you become involved with computer graphics?
My background in computer graphics began when I was 8 years old. My father took me to work with him and showed me how to make cool designs using computers out of zeros and ones. This was just the beginning. I would say that in the 80's, when I was a programmer working in video games, the ability to merge engineering and art to create games became an addiction that I have not let go of.
How was the idea of Luminetik born? What kind of projects do you usually work on?
Luminetik was created as a company of many artistic disciplines. It was a collaboration of Creative Executives from different parts of the Entertainment industry with a heavy geek gene that wanted to create Intellectual Property for teenagers. Our company has the feel of the hip; young, cool and wild risk takers. We grew up on MTV, X-Games, Computer Animation, Comic Books, Modern Architecture, Video Games and a multi-gadget lifestyle.
All of this is blended into the culture of Luminetik.
We started as a 'work for hire' studio doing CGI for commercials, films, architecture video games, and industrial videos. We had a meeting with a major Hollywood talent agency who asked us if we had any original IP. As we began doing the numbers on the future of a studio doing 'work for hire' work, we saw that the real future was in owning our own Intellectual Property.
Do you have a project that you've specially liked over the rest?
Funny, you should ask this question. Yes, working on our multifaceted, multi-artistic teen and 'tween Computer Animated Motion Picture-Video Game franchise Dis_Konnected. This is a blend of all the artistic disciplines in this company. We understand it is about strong storytelling, but we also wanted this to have the same feel as video games, strong music and the modern lifestyles we live today.
What are the future plans that you have for the company?
Luminetik will continue to develop their own Intellectual Properties and work on cool, hip fun projects that reflect our culture and lifestyles.
Tell us about Dis_Konnected. What's the concept behind the project? What's the basic idea of the movie?
Dis_Konnected is a motion picture, slash video game, developed project. This project is developed from the very beginning to work in both environments seamlessly. The video game is not an after thought with the focus being on the film. We had to find the right story to tell that worked in both worlds. Did you ever notice that some video games do not translate well in Live Action movies or vice versa?
We decided an animated film was the way to go since the assets for both are similar and easy to make a connection between the two worlds. We targeted the teenage market, as it is a $170 Billion Dollar spending market and growing. The basic idea of the movie and story are under NDA [Non Disclosure Agreement] so you will have to go to the Luminetik site and see the trailer. You will need Flash 8 to view it.
Let me get this straight. Does this mean Dis_Konnected is a movie and a game at the same time?
Yes, if you look at one of the images. You will see this translucent globe surrounding one of the characters. It is a shield. Players of video games have seen shields to protect their characters so an effort was made to introduce the elements of the game into the film and vice versa.
Ruby in the shield from Dis_Konnected courtesy Luminetik Animation Studios
What hardware and software programs are you using to develop that project?
Luminetik is using whatever works. We do our own testing of hardware and software. We don't wait for someone to certify it before using it. Our talent pushes the tools beyond their capabilities artistically and technically. We test the machines and software to see if it works for our needs specifically. We are currently using IBM Dual Opteron APRO IntelliStation's with NVIDIA Quadro Graphics cards, because this box delivered the best bang for the buck for 3D. It really is a very powerful solution. It may cost a bit more but it really enabled us to work on some technically tough scenes with over 10 million polygons and not choke. AMD and Opteron is our choice of processors for 3D. We love Hypertransport.
We are also using the top of the line Apple G5 solutions for compositing, editing and music production. Our favorite mouse is the 3D Connexion Space Pilot. We love the two handed approach. Saves us time and expands our technique.
On the software side, we are using Lightwave 3D, Messiah Studio Maya, Motion Builder, Renderman Server, Maxwell, Endorphin, Shake, Final Cut Pro, Motion, Live Type, and some proprietary tools. We are working with Motion Capture Studios Motion Analysis and House of Moves for mo cap since they understand we are pushing the bar on the motion capture. We know what we are looking for. We have learned a lot from watching other productions.
What techniques are you using to create your characters? Are you using SSS simulation for the skin? How about cloth simulation?
We are using very traditional fine arts techniques to create the characters. We used Lightwave 3D as our first tool for the design process. We are using Renderman for the skin and using Renderman's sub surface scattering for the skin. Cloth simulation will be used in many instances even when we deal with our character's hair. We want this film to be about the story. Whatever helps to move the story forward is where we will focus.
We won't spend a ton of time and money on making the hair realistic because this is about the story and not a hair commercial. We are creating a fictional world so it does not have to be realistic. This is the best part about CG and cartoon, is having the ability to go beyond the physics of the real world.
Ruby at the Podium from Dis_Konnected courtesy Luminetik Animation Studios
Do you have idea when this project will be finished?
Dis_Konnected is evolving in stages. We started in print with our characters being licensed for full-page back cover ads in magazines like HDRI 3D by companies like IBM and AMD. Two full computer animated shorts, involving the talent of 55 people, is in production now, and by end of year we should see them being finished. When you see the quality of the work that has been created on a whole, you can see the time and effort being put into doing this right. The story will unfold gradually as the franchise grows.
When you say franchise you mean the characters could make their way as "3D celebrities?"
A franchise is a license that is granted to other companies to license a well-known or established brand and create other businesses that produce products or services for expanded markets. We call our creative a franchise, because you can see the film, game, television shows, t-shirts, toys, mobile content, education spin offs and more. It is very difficult as a company to produce everything. We expect over time, we will grant licenses to other companies to reproduce and create products and services for other markets including in the list I have given above. We have already begun licensing many of our characters and images for use by Fortune 500 companies. This franchise has a life of it's own. We did something right. [laughter]
"3D Celebrities" is a PR idea. One of our characters has had a bit of this notoriety, as she has appeared in full-page ads, magazines covers, and more. She has over 50 pieces of press and was featured on a giant billboard in front of SIGGRAPH this year on the NVIDIA and IBM RV parked out front.
I've seen a lot of movies that are more like 90-minute show-reels. They focus a lot on the visuals but they don't concern much about the story. Do you think studios are focusing on the eye-candy rather than the story?
A few studios make the mistake of producing just eye-candy. Today's audience grew up on MTV, XGames and video games; they are very visual oriented. Every year they get more sophisticated, so studios put a lot of focus on this area. Stories are what help make the film and franchises work. Sometimes studios and producers forget that film was originally developed as a storytelling medium.
Speaking about the liberties you can take with computer characters, what's your favorite animation style? Do you prefer realistic animation (produced for characters like Lord of the Ring's Gollum or characters in The Mummy, which have very little exaggeration), cartoon-type animation (overdone squash-stretch, very lose limbs), or something in between (like the Advent Children or Dead or Alive game series - where the characters perform impossible moves, but are still not in the cartoon realm).
We like a variety of styles. I can't pick just one. We chose 3D on this project because it works for both film and video game. We plan to introduce other animation styles to other parts of the franchise over time to expand the artistic interpretation of the characters and their worlds.
I was previewing demos of Endorphin [dynamic motion synthesis software], and they stated that this is the future of animation. Do you think character and creature animation will be produced this way in the future? What are your thoughts about this technology?
I think Natural Motion has a powerful tool in Endorphin. Endorphin is one of the tools that will be part of a lot of pipelines. We will use it. But'it is not a tool I would use for animating faces. The technology is similar to motion capture in delivery. Traditional techniques will never die; they are the very foundation of animation. I think there will be a huge variety of techniques used for animation in the future, but I don't think that all pipelines will stick a type of technology, or one style of animation.
The important thing to remember is the storytelling. Can this technology add to the ability of storytelling? I think the future is going introduce a lot of technology. Have you ever gone to a SIGGRAPH show and seen the same thing? New technologies are being introduced every year. Art evolves and so will the technologies.
IBM Magazine Ads featuring Luminetik's capture animation character Alex
courtesy Luminetik Animation Studios
With so many students in animation schools, do you think we will reach a point where a lot of them will not ever find jobs because the market will be too saturated?
I think in every industry you reach a point where there is a limit to how many jobs you can offer. We are living in a world economy now where talent is coming from all over the world. The market is more competitive and will continue to be so in the future. The good news for people looking for jobs is that there are very few artists that do this as life long careers so there is a good amount of turnover to keep job openings available.
Do you have any kind of advice you would give to anyone interested on animation?
A famous line in the Dreamworks movie Galaxy Quest, 'Never Give Up, Never Surrender.'
Technical knowledge is important, but personality is important as well. How could you describe the 'perfect employee?'
We don't have criteria for a perfect employee. I would suggest that they keep developing their skills even once they have a job. We prefer they have a background in fine arts to help expand their knowledge. It makes a big difference in their technique and style.
Do you have any final words for our readers?
When you are creating art, remember that you must consider your audience carefully. An audience of one is a difficult sale to companies if you are looking to be a storyteller. If you are creative, remember there is a lot of competition in the field today. Stay on top of your art and technology. Keep an open mind. You should know what you want. Younger startup studios will give you opportunities, like profit sharing and long-term employment, that is harder in established companies. Don't be afraid to take risks. Remember, most of all this is a business. It is creative, but it is a business - bottom line!
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