Great Animation Challenge 2010

The UK’s Animation Forum West Midlands has a new animation competition. The Great Animation Challenge 2010 invites you to download sketches from top British comedians, and animate them — with software, stop-motion, or any other cinematic form you can think of. The audio tracks will be uploaded to the Animation Forum WM website around noon on 16th July 2010. The organisers are looking for between 30 seconds and 2 minutes of animation, but this is flexible. The competition is open worldwide. Deadline: 31st August 2010.

Tate Movie Project

A new national animation collaboration/contest for British kids…

“Children will create every aspect of a 20-minute animated film, from the hand-drawn characters to the plot twists, and even the costumes and sound effects! Animators and filmmakers will tour the country holding workshops and kids (defined as from 5 to 11) will also be able to send in their ideas through the Tate Movie Project website. The resulting film will be broadcast nationally on BBC TV.”

Muvizu tutorials

Muvizu has updated the Tutorial Four: Lighting video, to take account of the new capabilities in the latest beta…

And there’s a new “build a snow scene” tutorial, from last month, that I somehow missed when it was posted…

The myClone interview: Vince Ryan of Muvizu

The myClone Muvizu interview: with Vince Ryan of Muvizu.

July 2010.

myClone: Vince, hi! You’re the MD and TB with Muvizu, the fabulous new free real-time animation software from the UK. Firstly I’d like to say thanks to you and your team, for your extreme generosity to the indie animation community. For making the Muvizu software at all, and for giving away the most recent beta in the way you have. This latest free beta is obviously a real treasure, and it’s very refreshing that it hasn’t been tangled up in expiry dates and rights-management. Personally I’m still exploring the tutorials and playing with the software, but I hope to try to make a short film with it over the late summer. I’d encourage everyone to download it and try it.

Firstly, could you first fill the readers in on the background, aims, and timetable of the Muvizu project?

Vince Ryan: I can give you a bit of background: Once upon a time… er, sorry — couldn’t resist. Muvizu is a project of Digimania, a company spun out of DA Group in Glasgow which, way back when, created the first virtual newsreader called Ananova. Initial ideas for Muvizu were to create a sort of virtual world based on a film studio, where people (well, their avatars) would walk around just like you might on a visit to MGM, Warner or — for us Brits — Pinewoood or Elstree.

The idea then evolved into what we have now, a virtual sound stage with virtual characters, lighting and cameras. The user would direct performances, choose camera cuts and lighting and so on. We wanted to take the heartache out of producing animated films — i.e.: remove the having to learn to rig, model and animate — and make a tool that was as simple as possible for anyone to use to translate their idea into a video.

myClone: Who are the initial user-groups, the ones you’re assuming will be the early adopters? University students? Comedy scriptwriters? Schools?

Vince: Users we have at the moment seem to be a fairly disparate bunch. The types that stand out seem to be those already interested in animation, often users of iClone or Moviestorm or similar. Or even people who can use Maya, Lightwave, 3DS Max, Blender and so on — but who turn to Muvizu for quirky one-off videos. Perhaps it’s the near-instant gratification, which certainly helps for piss-takes on news items and so on.

As well as those, though, we have everything from school and college kids all the way to business types, who use Muvizu videos for their marketing or whatever blogs. It’s easier to watch than some talking head with a bad tie spouting jargon. The visuals distract viewers from how boring the spoken message is 😉

We’ve also had interest from schools. An example would be using Muvizu to complement the English syllabus which, for teenagers in Scotland, involves studying some of the war poets for instance. Bringing First World War trench warfare to life (possibly not the best choice of word there) with visuals as well as the words can be very affecting. We have some examples of this sort of thing.

Elsewhere, we’ve hooked up with a community group in our area. Kids who’ve been excluded from schools for whatever reason can rock up to a project to learn a bit about film, photography — and now Muvizu.

A little while ago one of our animators did a demo for a group of autistic kids, which went well. I was a little worried, though, because a week or so later we released a version of the software with the ability to make lights flicker.

myClone: Ah yes, a minority of autistic people can have sensitivity to that kind of flashing. Any interest in Muvizu from businesses?

Vince: Yes. Muvizu is also used to make training materials for companies. The largest so far being the main UK postal service, the Royal Mail. Our real aim, though, as you have rightly guessed, is to get Muvizu to as many people as possible — people who’ll have fun with it. Drunk and stoned students, for instance. Get it to enough users and someone will come up with the next South Park, Beavis and Butthead or even Pingu or Magic Roundabout.

myClone: The public mind is so difficult to grab these days, even with good marketing. Creative people are even more insulated against marketing-speak. And then the digital creatives seem even more insulated, as well as being locked into their own particular software set. I see great products, especially software, struggle or sink without trace. Will a low-budget word-of-mouth / social media launch be enough to get Muvizu off the ground? Or will paid advertising be required at launch? Or other, more hand-targeted, methods?

Vince: I suppose that there are two answers to that. The first answer is “no”, word of mouth and social media will probably not be enough by themselves to get Muvizu on as many desktops as we want. We’ve noticed that whenever we appear in a magazine, say 3D World or NVISION, we recruit more users. We want to do more of that sort of thing and, now that the beta is fairly stable and has a good set of functions (not complete, though, not by a long way) we’ll be trying to get cover discs out in the wild.

Competitions tend to help as well. We’ve run only one so far and the interest shot up — it’s surprising what people will do for a custom-built laptop or high-end workstation. We’ll be running a few more competitions, including, we hope, one at the Machinima Expo 2010.

We’re also starting to exhibit at shows; we’ll be at the GDC in Germany next month, and aim to do MIPCOM Junior in France later in the year, plus a few others. It costs a bloody fortune, though. Would you believe that getting internet connectivity for your booth at a show can cost 300 Euros a day? That really is taking the piss.

myClone: Ouch. That’s about $380 for the Americans, and £250 for the Brits.

Vince: The second answer on marketing is “yes”. Word of mouth and social media may both be leapfrogged — if someone creates a cult work with Muvizu that turns into a mainstream media hit. Or say a bloke called Nick Park started playing with it, and told others to do likewise. That’d probably help things along.

myClone: Yep, that’d do the trick. Or a major comedy writer and net-head like Stephen Fry. You’re based in Glasgow, which is a notoriously tough Scottish city in the far north of the British Isles. What advantages and disadvantages does that bring to the Muvizu project? Can you take advantage of the “rock or die!” ethos that such gritty cities usually cultivate? Has it helped you build a stronger team than you might have done in London, say?

Vince: Glasgow may have an interesting reputation for its street culture, but it — and quite a lot of Scotland — seems for some reason to have a huge population of games developers, artists and animators. Also, if you’re trying to get a complicated project off the ground then you need people who’ll muck in and work the hours, maybe even take on roles outside what they signed up for.

We’ve got a fine couple of [3D character] rigs, for instance, but they were built by a chap here who’s actually a modeller. He expressed an interest in rigging, got hold of some training videos and six weeks later we had our base biped. Mind you, it nearly killed him. We don’t have prima donnas here, really. We have people who call a spade a spade. Not only that, they know how to hit you with one.

myClone: Yes, I think I know that type. I’m based on the city of Stoke-on-Trent, which has a similar reputation in the British Isles 🙂

Vince: Give me ability, honesty and hard work over airs and graces any day of the week. The day I fancy a manicurist, I’ll recruit in London.

myClone: I’m curious about the Muvizu business model. From what I read you’re obviously not going down the Moviestorm route — which is a quick free trial and then a lock-in with monthly subscriptions. You seem to be veering toward iClone’s more open route — sell a premium Pro version, premium model-import tools, and high-quality themed content packs?

Vince: The model you have us down for isn’t quite right. We intend to release only one version, as we’ve got now, and to try to keep on improving it. We don’t see any advantage in trying to make people pay to use it; as I said earlier and as you know, we want the world and his/her uncle/aunt to use it. The more the merrier.

myClone: Muvizu will always be free? You heard it here first, readers. That’s… quite radical. Why?

Vince: Because the more people who use it, the more likely it is that someone will create something that goes stellar. It’s at that point where a Muvizu creation makes money — when we come knocking on the door to get our cut. We also have a licensing model, such as for internal use by corporates or by people who use Muvizu for advertising, promotions etc. But whatever the scenario we negotiate on a case-by-case basis. There has to be a sense of proportion; some little outfits can benefit from churning out the odd, quirky Muvizu clip — but it has to be at a price that makes sense to them.

The other good thing about this approach is that when some complete tosser asks for terms to license Muvizu for a project that we hate, we can just quote them something ridiculous and snigger as they go away in a huff.

myClone: Sounds like you’re speaking from experience?

Vince: Yes, that has happened a couple of times already.

myClone: Talking of weeding out time-wasters… are there any plans for a collaboration / team-building social network, dedicated to hooking up strong comedy writers – with animators – with set-builders and lighters – with sound designers? Because with your open and flexible licensing terms I think people will want to make commercial viral web content with Muvizu — and they’ll want some robust way of filtering out the time-wasters and wannabees from potential collaborators. Would that, as a commercial service, be a better and cheaper way of sanctioning future commercial content made with Muvizu? It’d be, like…. “As long as you’re paid your annual subscription to use our professional creative network, with all the benefits that brings, you can make as much commercial content as you want”?

Vince: That’s something that we’re thinking about, and we are trying to encourage people to hook up and collaborate with each other. I don’t know whether you’re familiar with Wreckamovie

myClone: /shakes head/

Vince: … but I love its model and would be happy to create something similar for Muvizu. We started down this road with the website early on, but that all went to pot for many reasons and we’re going to scrap the site as it is and start again. Building in collaborative tools is on the cards, but informed by what users want.

As far as subscriptions, though, you may be right — but I still think that people should pay for something only when it has proved that it will benefit them or their business. This means, to me, taking a cut of user success, not users forking out to bet on the chance of success. I suppose that your model comes into its own when user numbers get unmanageable, but that’ll be a nice problem to solve when it happens.

myClone: Was that path set from the start, or was there a period of exploration of possible revenue? Which ones were rejected?

Vince: We think that the best way to open the revenue taps/floodgates — in trickles, streams or rivers — is to allow people to make content first. When something proves its worth, you’ll pay to use it or your creations will earn money for you and we’ll take our slice as agreed between us. It’s less likely that someone will shell out their cash to use a program that may be completely unsuited for their purpose.

myClone: Similar to the way that Unreal have approached their free SDK. In what concrete ways did the Unreal people support you during the early development? And now, as the product is becoming much more polished?

Vince: Ha! The Unreal people are actually unreal. Even their lawyer was really chilled, when we were going through licensing negotiations [for the Unreal engine]. It’s quite a hefty fee, incidentally — plenty of noughts on it. He sounded like a surfer. I don’t know whether you’ve waded through the terms and conditions for Unreal Tournament, for instance, but they’ve slipped a bit of humour into it.

myClone: I’m a huge fan of Unreal Tournament 2004, but not quite that dedicated 🙂

Vince: Their support was fantastic. Contract-wise they were flexible and helpful. Epic were also far more open than some others in the field, with respect to welcoming diverse uses for their technology. During development of Muvizu up until the alpha stage, we were bugging them all the time and they never gave up on helping us. Now, we are less of a pain for them, but sooner or later we’re going to need to upgrade to their latest version so we’ll need more hand-holding.

myClone: You mentioned plenty of noughts on the Unreal engine contract. I believe you have a weighty and experienced private investor behind the re-formed company – did he steer the economics of the project in a particular direction?

Vince: We have a seriously wealthy gaffer bankrolling us. But he doesn’t interfere. Well, not very much, anyway. And we also get very useful support from Scottish Enterprise — not just money, but advice and contacts and so on.

Occasionally he’ll bang on about “why aren’t we doing X, Y or Z”, and often he’s right — so we go and do it. Occasionally he’ll come up with something completely insane, so we tell him to back off — which he does. It’s surprising, though, how insightful he can be. Bloody billionaires.

I should say as a rider to all of my answers to question five that if our backer decides that he no longer wants an anarchist/libertarian at the helm then the situation may change. However, he’s been OK so far and is way too shrewd to kill a goose before it lays a golden egg.

myClone: In my experience, anarchists have always been the best and most interesting entrepreneurs. Even if they’re not doing it for profit. But talking of big business, I’m wondering if future content packs might be sponsored? I’m thinking of Dr. Pepper recently sponsoring the free Mech parts expansion pack for Spore Creature Creator, which was tied to a major national competition and product coupons. I could envisage a company giving away a special “customised for teens” Muvizu DVD, for instance, accompanied by unique exclusive content packs.

Vince: Absolutely. It’s an idea I’ve harboured in various forms since working in TV. Ironically, I was told when working at an independent TV network in the UK that brands were “too sensitive” to allow UGC [user-generated content] advertising ideas. A couple of months later, Apple ran with a UGC ad. I’ve wanted for ages for a tie-up with the likes of Red Bull, Tango or any advertiser with a sense of fun. I suppose that I should start knocking on some doors, really.

myClone: Just to talk a little about the technical details of the capabilities of Muvizu, which are going to make all this possible. I read that future versions will allow user content to be imported? Can you give us any of the nerdy details on the way that process is likely to work? Will users have access to the models on Google 3D Warehouse, as iClone users do?

Vince: I’m not really the person to answer this, and the chap who is has just gone away on holiday (I really must stop letting people take holidays). However, the first step is to allow the import of .ase files [Unreal’s equivalent to .zip files, in which models and textures are stored – Ed], just static meshes to start with. We went for that format because it covers assets created in quite a few programs — or at least there are plug-ins that achieve the desired result.

Funnily enough, we took a developer version to the Royal Mail last week, and their guys had a few Blender models that they wanted to import into Muvizu. It worked like a charm, which is pretty rare for a live demo with untried content produced totally outside our control. Slaughtering that goat at full moon the night before may have helped… The plan is for more file formats and more asset types to follow, but please don’t hold your breath — it’s quite tricky. Or at least that’s what my dev team tells me.

myClone: This is just me — but personally I like to have a boxed version with a printed manual. Will a boxed version happen? There might be certain advantages to that, for the many people who still live in areas were there’s no broadband, or where their broadband has a tight monthly cap. Or will you go download-only, plus a print-on-demand manual?

Vince: Actually we’re just having boxes made, and with a little leaflet/booklet, to give out at shows and so on. I’ll send you one when they arrive. As for a manual, we have the problem of keeping anything in print up to date. We’ve not even had time to update our video tutorials yet, to explain the latest features. Because at the moment we’re trying to release new versions every six to eight weeks. I suppose that eventually we’ll create something definitive, but only when we know exactly what we’re doing. At the moment, a lot of our development is informed by user feedback so things are pretty fluid. After all, we’re trying to create something that people want, we’re not trying to tell people what they should want. This takes time to lock down. Oh yeah, and writing manuals is pretty boring, too.

myClone: We’ve seen some great quality content appear, made with the beta. Somehow you’ve so far managed to steer clear of a rash of 13 year olds littering YouTube with awful music videos and crude “test-renders”, the sort of thing which must be so off-putting to talented creatives who’re considering buying a user-friendly animation package like iClone. We’ve seen quality songwriters using it, animated poems, literary short stories, quality fan-spoofs, and watchable original comedy scripts, all made with the Muvizu beta. What would you like to see adapted in Muvizu in the future, in that respect? Do you have a favourite work that you’d like to see realised with Muvizu?

Vince: Hmmmmnn. I love the spoofs, especially contemporaneous political stuff.

myClone: Yes, I’d love to see Muvizu users help revive the great but moribund British tradition of satirical caricature.

Vince: And I like music videos and poems. So far, though, my favourite stuff has been non-derivative. Our Customer Feedback video makes me laugh (probably because we really do take that approach where it’s deserved). I liked the short Father Cox sketch, plus all the creepy Geraldo stuff. I think, then, that I want a Muvizu favourite — which is to say, something created in Muvizu that hasn’t existed previously. I want a Muvizu original with the power to make me laugh, cry, choke or wet myself.

myClone: I’m off to get me a pack of Pampers, just in case. Vince, thank you.


What’s New in the new Muvizu beta: