This article is available in: French
Nowadays, Blender is used in many animation studios. Cube Creative is one of them. They adopted the free and open source software a few years back. More recently, the team switched to Blender 3.x: a huge leap forward that has many advantages for the artists. This upgrade was also quite challenging.
This is due to the fact that Cube Creative is working on ambitious animated shows, featuring challenges such as vegetation-heavy shots or sequences with lots of characters. In other words, a lot of work is needed to allow artists to work efficiently. All of this, without compromising on the quality of the end result.
We wanted to know more: which is why we interviewed Axel Tillement, Head of CG at Cube Creative. He told us about the technical challenges overcome by the team, as well as what they are planning to tackle in the near future.
3DVF: Some of our reader might not know Cube Creative: can you tell us about the studio?
Axel Tillement, Head of CG – Cube Creative: Cube Creative is a 2D and 3D animation production company based in Paris. It was created in 2002 by Lionel Fages, Majid Loukil, and Bruno Le Levier. For a few years, we’ve been specializing in animated series and shorts. And Cube is now a part of Xilam.
3DVF: At the beginning of 2020, it was announced that Cube Creative had been acquired by Xilam, a company known for their animated content for TV as well as streaming platforms. They are behind brands such as Oggy and the Cockroaches, Zig & Sharko, Mr Magoo, the Academy Award nominated feature film I Lost My Body. Two years after this acquisition, what has changed for Xilam and Cube?
We got closer together, step by step. This first took place within the administrative and financial departments, then the distribution department. This had a very positive impact on the creative teams. Xilam is a strong company, the way they can distribute and highlight the work of the teams is a real asset.
The IT departments, R&D departments from Xilam and Cube Creative were also merged. We now have a dozen engineers working on both the Cube and Xilam pipelines.
I said “pipelines”, plural, because each studio still has a specific pipeline. The main tools used at Xilam are Maya and Toon Boom Harmony, whereas Cube is almost entirely relying on Blender. This doesn’t stop us from working, together though. For example, when working on Pfffirates we had deploy our pipeline at Xilam Lyon (Editor’s Note: Lyon is a big city located in Southeastern France). We were involved from the Layout stage to the rendering. Our two pipelines can also work together but only at the modeling stage, since this is the step where exchanging data between DCCs is the easiest.
We do, however, share the same Kitsu instances. This production tracker developped by CGWire has been adopted by everyone.
3DVF: A few years ago, Cube began using Blender 2.79. You used this release on several animated series: Pfffirates, Tangranimals, Mush-Mush, Chicky…
At the beginning of 2022, you switched to Blender 3: what were your expectations, what where you hoping for before you switched to this new release?
Which improvements were you eager to use at Cube?
Indeed, we began using Blender back in 2017. At that time, the LTS (Long-Term Support) release available was Blender 2.79 LTS. Blender 2.8 was still in beta at that time, and it was very different from Blender 2.7. It was therefore too risky for us to adopt it.
I should highlight that we were working on TV shows of 52 episodes of 11 minutes produced over 3 years. We therefore had to use the same release until the last episodes were produced. Switching to a different release during the production was out of the question, that would have been way too risky and would have required too much work and energy.
This situation, however, was quite frustrating at times, since we couldn’t use new features from Blender 2.8x that would have been very helpful.
However, in parallel, we began working with new releases of Blender (such as Blender 2.9) for teasers or tests, on a smaller scale.
For example, for our upcoming projects we wanted to explore the new Collections feature that replaced the older Layer system, the new EEVEE rederer with real-time rendering, and the Geometry Node. And we are now exploring them on our current productions.
3DVF: Can you walk us through the process of rolling out this new version of Blender? And did you have to tweak other parts of your pipeline in order to upgrade the software? In other words: how did you approach this, and what challenges did you face?
We began our tests with Blender 2.8 and 2.9. At first, without our whole pipeline. We then brought back out in-house tools one by one and tested if everything was working. But since the API evolved a lot since Blender 2.79, we had to do a full refactor of our tools, in partnership with our R&D teams. This was also a good opoportunity for us to rethink the pipeline and to use the knowledge we had acquired while creating our first projects using Blender.
This is why the first big step was done on paper and during meetings. We laid down on paper what worked well on our 2.79 pipeline, what we wanted to improve, while trying to benefit from the new features of Blender. This is when we decided to drop our in-house production tracker, named “Tube”, and to switch to Kitsu entirely. At that time we still had a hybrid system, we were only using the client interface of Kitsu, or we were using it with contractors.
The R&D team then worked on transferring the pipeline and creating new in-house tools. The main challenge at this stage, beyond the amount of tools we had to re-develop, was to find the right balance between supporting shows currently in production and the creation of this new pipeline.
Getting rid of Tube and adopting Kitsu generated a lot of work related to the editing, generation, finishing of the episodes. We’re still working on this.
3DVF: How did the artists at Cube Creative react when they were finally able to use Blender 3.x? And what are the overall results when it comes to day-to-day work, productivity, creativity?
This new pipeline received a warm welcome. Of course, an adjustment period was needed, but once everyone was used to the new interface, our teams saw a huge improvement in viewport performance. Everything ran more smoothly and the shader preview was way better than what they were used to with the previous releases.
Since there is more GPU rendering, layout artists and animators work with more responsive tools, which makes their work more comfortable.
3DVF: Level of Detail/LOD was a major focus point for the studio. Basically, there are several versions of the same asset, and the idea is, at each stage of the production, to avoid loading heavy versions if they are not needed. How do you handle this process? Are you using USD? Something else? And why?
Indeed, one of the takeways from our experience working with Blender 2.79 was the idea that we needed to have more freedom when it came to choosing and using our assets, so that everything would run smoothly at each stage of the production process. We used a simple approach.
For each asset, LODs are stored in .blend files, Blender files that we can load/replace at every stage of the production process.
Below: an overview of the LOD system. Depending on the current task, the level of control and quality are adjusted in order to maintain good performance.
(These slides were used during the Cube Creative presentation during Blender Conference 2022 – you can watch the full video at the end of this interview)
This new pipeline is entirely centered around Blender, because we hardly ever exchange any data with other DCC software. We will sometimes have to send assets between Blender and Substance, or to export shots as alembic files to Houdini then to import them back using the OpenVDB library, but we didn’t have to dig deeper until now and to use more complex solutions such as USD files. We try postpone this as long as we can. Our current techniques based on .blend and .json are quite basic, but they are also very efficient and they will allow us to update Blender more often.
3DVF: procedural tools are also a key part of the way you use Blender for set dressing and shading. You discussed this at Blender Conference 2018. What was the impact of Blender 3 on the way you use procedural workflows? And are there any issues, for example when using procedural shaders with EEVEE?
We currently use procedural tools in two different manners: to create shaders and to create geometry (thanks to Geometry Nodes).
The way we use procedural shading varies greatly depending on which show we’re working on. We’ve been using it more and more in the last few years, not necessarily because Blender evolved, but rather because we learned a lot and because we had different needs for the show we were working on. The way we approach shading with Blender 3.3 could also have been achieved with Blender 2.79. The introduction of EEVEE was a major change. It it more comfortable to work with, and you can get a more accurate idea of what the final render will look like. It should be highlighted, however, that compiling complex shaders with EEVEE is very time-consuming. This is why we created simplified versions of our shaders: we use them when working on the layout and animation.
When it comes to geometry construction and manipulation, however, the new Geometry Nodes changed everything! When we were using Blender 2.79, we were relying on an old particle system, which was also quite unstable. We can now go faster and further, and it gives artists more control. Using Geometry Nodes also allows us to improve performance when we use scattering and duplicated objects in our scenes.
3DVF: Geometry Nodes are one of the main features of Blender 3, and the Blender community has been quite enthusiastic about them. How do you use this feature?
Geometry Nodes were very well received by our team. Actually, we were quite frustrated when they were released in newer Blender releases while we were still using Blender 2.79 in production. Geometry Nodes replaced the way we used the old Blender particle system, which was very restrictive and not flexible at all. We used it to create scenes with lots of vegetation.
Geometry Nodes also replaced Houdini in our workflow when it comes to creating small procedural FX that animators can add themselves in their shots. We used to create these FX in Houdini before importing and retiming them in Blender. Now, we can create and rig them directly without leaving Blender.
3DVF: Which release are you currently using, and what are you working on to improve your pipeline even further?
At that time, the LTS (Long-Term Support) release available was Blender 2.79 LTS. Using Blender LTS allows us to get improvements and bug fixes from the Blender Foundation, while keeping the same API: we know that there won’t be any issue with our in-house tools. At the moment, our R&D team is focused on finishing our new tools and making them as stable as possible. API changes and the new pipeline are still very time-consuming.
3DVF: During Blender Conference 2022, Cube Creative highlighted that the first three seasons of the animated series Athleticus were created without Blender (probably with 3ds Max?) but that the upcoming season 4 would rely on Blender. The fact that new characters and locations are introduced in every season probably made it easier to switch pipelines. What challenges did you face? For example, was it difficult to achieve the same visual style?
Yes, we did create Athleticus season 1 to 3 with 3ds Max, using our old pipeline. The fact that we only reused a dozen characters/animals from the previous season allowed us to switch to Blender. On the other hand, for a show such as Kaeloo (the series is currently in its fifth season), we would have had to transfer and tweak about a thousand assets to switch a to Blender-centric pipeline.
While working on Athleticus, we were faced with two challenges: hair/fur and getting the realistic rendering we were aiming for.
We therefore decided to run tests to check if switching to Blender was doable. Hair guides are handled using particles in Blender, which is quite uncommon and different from what we were used to (HairFarm, Ornatrix). A lot of time and research was needed to get used to this approach and to end up with the same result. Cycles-X, which is an evolution of Cycles, the renderer shipped with Blender, also allowed us to achieve the level of quality we were hoping to reach.
3DVF: Cube Creative also creates 2D animation for shows such as De Gaulle à la plage. Can we expect Cube Creative to use Blender for this kind of TV series as well? Grease Pencil, which allows artists to draw in the 3D space, could be the perfect tool for this kind of show. Have you experimented with it?
Yes, Grease Pencil is a tool we would like to use. At Blender Conference 2022, by the way, we saw several conferences about this tool and how it can be used on 2D productions.
The whole technical team would love to work on a new season of De Gaulle à la plage with Blender and Grease Pencil. This would also be a good opportunity for us to bring 2D and 3D pipelines closer together.
This is still a distant project, but we have already tried to use Grease Pencil at the storyboarding stage. The idea was to get the storyboard in a 3D space as soon as possible, to make things easier for the layout artists and to anticipate all the issues we might stumble into when switching from 2D to 3D.
Unfortunately this never went beyond the testing stage, because 3D tools aren’t always easy to apprehend for 2D artists. But we still hope we can achieve this at some point in the future.
3DVF: What would you like to see in upcoming Blender releases?
Most improvements so far have been focused on Geometry Nodes & rendering. The Blender Foundation explained that an overhaul of the animation system is on the way. This should bring lots of new features for the users.
We are eager to see other improvements as well, such as a muscle system or something similar to the Sticky Culsters in Maya, or even a Light Linking feature, which is still missing unfortunately.
3DVF: Any advice for studios willing to switch to Blender and to follow your footsteps?
Don’t hesitate to do it. 🙂
On a more serious note, switching to a new DCC is a really complicated task and it requires a lot of energy. You have to re-learn almost everything, this is quite frustrating at first because you’re not as efficient as you used to be, even on very simple tasks. But more and more professionals joined the Blender Community in the last few years, and it’s very easy to find some help online or by asking studios that are already using Blender. Especially since this community is usually aware of the benefits of open source and knowledge exchange.
Animation schools also begin to teach Blender to their students, which makes it easier for studios to find artists to hire.
At Cube Creative, we still train artists who join the studio on our in-house tools and on Blender. This training takes a week at most, and this allows artists to be fully operational when they begin working on a show.
3DVF: Many studios adopt real-time tools such as Unreal and Unity in their pipeline. They use them at the layout, lighting and rendering stage. We recently discussed the animated series Edmond & Lucy, for example. What’s your take on game engines? Can you also give us your thoughts about emerging technologies such as AI tools, NVIDIA Omniverse?
Cube is of course keeping a close eye on these new technologies, and we even did some tests with Unreal Engine 5 as a rendering engine on a project that requires hair/fur and photorealistic rendering. I can’t say too much on these tests at this stage due to confidentiality reasons, but we stumbled upon several issues: the way screen space occlusions are handled, reflexion/refraction issues. This prevented us from really adopting Unreal Engine on this specific project. That being said, we are confident these tools can be used for other projects, such as shows with a cartoon visual style like Tangranimals, Pfffirates,or Kaeloo.
When it comes to AI, we are indeed testing Stable Diffusion and Midjourney internally. We try to understand how these tools could fit into our pipeline, this is a technology that is evolving very, very quickly. Cube is keeping a close eye on this. Of course, there is a lot of room for improvement, for example the ability to create persistant pictures that would allow artists to generate animations without any flickering effect. On the other hand, these tools are already quite interesting when it comes to creating generic seamless textures.