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Clumsy Cat Tackles Global Animation Pipeline with Frankie

Production on Baby Cow Animation’s ‘Wussywat the Clumsy Cat’, a 2D animated television show for young children, was spread across four cities and two continents. The animation is created through a partnership between Baby Cow Animation in London and Smiley Guy Studios in Toronto, Canada. The full two-company team of 50 writers, storyboarders, animators, voice artists, producers and directors maintained a workflow divided geographically by the Atlantic Ocean and a five-hour time difference.
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In order to keep both teams in sync – and make sure that the Clumsy Cat message remained intact through each of 52 five-minute episodes – the production decided to use a proprietary review system, and chose the cloud and web-based application Frankie, developed by Cospective.

The series’ hero is curious and charming, like most cats, but also graceless. His curious nature often leads him to trouble as he explores the vast world of The Garden, but in the end he always emerges from the experience with a wider understanding of the world. The message ‘Wussywat the Clumsy Cat’ takes to kids is that you shouldn’t be afraid to try something new, even if it means risking failure. Here, failure isn’t negative – it’s part of the learning process.

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New Pipeline

Simon Quinn, producer at Baby Cow, has been working in stop motion animation for more than 25 years, having previously worked on Wes Anderson’s ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ and Tim Burton’s ‘Frankenweenie’. Wussywat was his first experience in children’s 2D animation, which meant an entirely different pipeline to grow accustomed to.

Wussywat is also the company’s first pre-school animation. Baby Cow studio, formed in 1999 by Steve Coogan and Henry Normal, both of whom are comedians and producers,  has previously created animation for an older audience on projects such as ‘Horrible Histories’ and ‘Have I Got News For You’.

“Baby Cow acted as the central hub for production on this show, but elements of it were being handled in places around the world,” said Simon. “Scripts were written all over the UK, designs were done in Wimbledon, and the director Tom Edgar of Barneyloon Films and the storyboard team were based in Cardiff, Wales. The voice recordings took place at Fitzrovia Sound Post in central London, and the voice and music dubbing onto the animation were done in Toronto.” 

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On Track, On Budget

As producer, Simon’s job is to schedule the various elements, advise the teams and heads of departments of the deadlines and milestones, and coordinate between all working parties. Meanwhile he keeps the whole show on track and on budget, and works with the investors and broadcaster, CBeebies network at the BBC.

He described their round-the-world production pipeline. “For each episode, design would start with pencil and paper in the traditional way,” said Simon. “Those drawings are then scanned into Photoshop and sent to Canada where the assets are converted to Flash for the animators. We also use After Effects, edit the Flash files in Final Cut Pro and the sound in Pro Tools. We output the data to BaseLight, in which The Farm in London finalise the picture before delivering to the BBC on tape.”

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Fifty different people are involved in the project at any one time, working on 52 five-minute episodes simultaneously at various stages of completion. “Distance has always been the primary concern. The geographical spread of the crew across the UK and Canada, and managing the different time zones results in very long hours,” said Simon. “It’s generally much easier to communicate when everyone is in the same building. However, because we kept in touch through Frankie combined with Skype, we could monitor each other’s decisions through an ordinary web browser.”

Directing at a Distance

It was the first time that the director Tom Edgar had encountered Frankie. Though based in Cardiff at his animation company Barneyloon Films, he had to stay in the loop with the global team to make sure his vision for the project was carried out as intended. He said, “We conducted virtual video reviews, during which frame-accurate decisions could be made as if the whole team were in the room. It was extremely useful and has become indispensable to me.”

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Without a tool like Frankie, Tom doubts he would have been able to work remotely the way he does now. “I would either have had to travel back and forth to wherever the project was, or relocate all together to the location - with or without the family. This would inevitably have cost a lot of time and money. Approving the material would have entailed a huge email trail and cross referenced phone calls discussing images and video stored on cloud share sites or – even worse - couriered across the country,” Tom said.

“Frankie, on the other hand, means multiple users across the globe can interact while referencing the same information at the same time. The fact that each individual can watch, step through, mark and annotate clips – and then collate all of the episode notes with Frankie’s self-generating PDF function – removes a large margin for error.”

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Simon, Tom and the rest of the team carried out Frankie sessions three to four times a week. These meetings would comprise different members of staff, wherever they were, depending on what needed to be discussed in that session.

Heart of the Action

Production of an episode would usually begin with turning the scripts into storyboards. Next came the animatic, taking the still images from the storyboard and setting them to dialogue on a timeline. The result gave the show creators a working length for the episode and a guide for the animators on both shot length and action.

“From here I would often send the animatic to the storyboarder via Frankie to see what changes were required and how the stills transformed with the timings,” said Tom. “This is the part of production where I tended to use Frankie the most. It is so much simpler to discuss moving images and synchronised sound when everyone involved is watching the same thing.

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“Decisions as complex as scene planning changes, re-boards or re-edits and continuity tracking can all be done in a single session – and all of these decisions can be noted on both the video presentation itself and the emailable PDF generated after the session.”

Screen Briefing

After a working animatic had been established, Tom briefed the animators. “Normally I would conduct a sit-down presentation with all the team in one room but with Frankie, as long as you have an internet connection you can sync the animatic to everyone’s screen. Then, while the animators are working, they can bring me any revisions, changes, queries or questions. Linking their work onto a Frankie session is as good as looking over somebody’s shoulder,” he said.

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For a dispersed project on the scale of ‘Wussywat the Clumsy Cat’, he feels the use of FTP and extensive email communication is unlikely to have matched the speed and efficiency of browser-based communication, which Frankie enables.

Once a project is loaded, it is easy to share, add drawings, text or direction live to the images. This work can also be done in advance of a future presentation. When a session is finished, the project remains online, available for as long as necessary, and a PDF version of all notes is saved for reference even when you are without an internet connection.  www.cospective.com/frankie