This article is available in: French
Bigfoot Family, The Queen’s Corgi, Robinson Crusoe… for about 15 years, nWave Studios has been releasing animated features aimed at a wide audience. Their latest project, The Inseparables, will premiere during the Annecy Festival, at the beginning of June.
Even better: nWave plans to grow and to release new animated feature more often. During a recent event organized by the Haute École Louvain en Hainaut, we had the opportunity to chat with Vincent “Kmeron” Philbert, Head of Production at nWave Studios. He gave us some insight about what the company has in store for the near future.
Upcoming animated feature, strategy, how to stay within budget, recruitment, internships, AI, real-time, USD: this interview will give you a better understanding of this independant Belgian studio and their vision of animation.
3DVF: Hello Vincent, and thank you for this interview! First of all, let’s talk about your upcoming film, The Inseparables. We have already shared the trailer as well as a few details on 3DVF, but could you tell us about it?
Vincent “Kmeron” Philbert”: This is our tenth animated feature!
It is an original story, initially written by Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, two of the writers behind Toy Story. This is a buddy movie with two characters who will progress throughout the adventure.
An animated buddy movie following the misadventures of two unlikely friends – a puppet and an abandoned stuffed animal toy – as they cross paths in Central Park and pair up for an epic adventure in New York City.
3DVF: This idea of characters who are complete opposites is also reflected visually, with very different appearances for the two heroes: a teddy bear, a character reminiscent of Don Quixote… They seem to come from different wolrds. A bold choice… And maybe a risky one?
We indeed took a risk, both in the contrast between the two characters and in the visual style breaks. When we enter the hero’s imagination, the visual treatment is different, more stylized. This is still CG, but with flat shading.
We are interested in stylized rendering, which is a prevailing trend in the industry, as seen in animated features like Spider-Verse, TMNT, for example. However, we only use it when it is relevant and adds value.
3DVF: what is the budget of The Inseparables?
25 millions. The mean budget for our animated features.
3DVF: In other words, you have the means to create beautiful movies, but you also have to stay within budget. We discussed this topic recently with TAT studio in an interview about their latest animated feature, Epic Tails. How does nWave handle this kind of challenge?
Very early on, we tear the dive into the script it to determine where we should allocate time. At the end of the day, time is money, but what interests me is the allocated time, how much time we have and we can spend to accomplish things. As we create more and more animated features, I ask the teams to explain me how much time was spent on each character, each set, each sequence. This allows me to have a good understanding of the time taken for specific elements.
For example, I know that a hero character, whether it’s Adam in Bigfoot Family or Rex in The Queen’s Corgi, takes 60 weeks to create, from the first drawing to the finished character (modeled, rigged, shaded). Which means I can expect that in a new film, a here character will require between 50 and 70 weeks of work.
We then assess where we have to narrative needs. Do we need more time in animation generate more empathy towards the main character? Are there technical challenges that will require more time? I will then allocate more or less time and resources accordingly.
We allocate time department by department, then we approach technical and narrative challenges. For example, if I’m told that we need an additional 5 days of animation for the main character to better convey emotions in a sequence, as Head of Production, I will respond, “Sure, but you’ll need to spend 5 less days somewhere else!” to ensure that we stay within the overall allocated time, and therefore budget.
3DVF : Let’s talk about the studio itself. Back in 2018, Matthieu Zeller’s MZM group acquired a majority stake in nWave. What were the consequences of this acquisition?
The acquisition by the consortium of new shareholders brought a new dynamic and a desire to increase the production capacity, to work on scripts earlier and for a longer period, to keep our strategy of being a fully integrated studio by now also selling our films to distributors, and to source projects to further advance our studio.
3DVF: And as a consequence of this expansion, you will produce more movies!
Yes! To provide some context, the studio has been around for 30 years, with the first 15 years dedicated to rides for amusement parks, the beginnings of 4Dx, and institutional Imax projects focused on wildlife and flora.
About fifteen years ago, starting with Fly Me To The Moon, we exclusively focused on 3D animated feature films. Initially, we made one film after another. However, for the last 5 or 6 productions, we have been intensifying things with a continuous workflow. For example, as we were finishing The Inseparables, we had already begun working on the following film for about ten months.
The goal is to always have some work for our teams, so that they will remain with us. On average, people stay at nWave for 4 years, which is not really the norm in the industry.
It’s important to emphasize that we are an independent and integrated studio. We have the freedom to choose scripts and work on their development, among other things. As Head of Production, I specifically manage the transition from one film to another and ensure that we maintain the same level of narrative and visual quality.
With two films being created at the same time, we deliver a feature film every 16 months. Our aim is to be able to deliver one animated feature every 12 months, which requires working on three films simultaneously, at different stages of production. For example, one film may be in pre-production while two are in production.
3DVF: This obviously means that the team is going to grow, doesn’t it?
Yes! There are currently about 150 people from 12 or 13 different nationalities at nWave. We seek talented people wherever they come from, regardless of the school they attended. Our growth will require expanding the team and ensuring that these new recruits can fit withing the company and get familiar with the studio culture.
I don’t have a precise number in mind yet, but we will know more very soon: the film following The Inseparables will be completed by the end of 2024, and the next one will be released in 2025 (so we’ll need to start working on it in a few months).
We will also need to manage this growth in a sensible manner to maintain a human-scale studio.
3DVF: In France, studios often struggle to find recruits for certain positions. What is the situation like in Belgium?
So far, we haven’t really had difficulties with recruitment, but it’s an ongoing part of our work: to make ourselves known to attract new recruits.
In fact, many people are familiar with our films like Bigfoot Family, but they may not always know that they were created by nWave as an independent, integrated studio located in Brussels.
And as mentioned earlier, we are a very international studio, so we don’t hesitate to hire people wherever they come from. For example, I was recently in Germany, in Cologne, at PIXL VISN to present the studio, and also at Rubika… The goal really is to promote the company, so that the idea of a career with us makes sense for junior artists as well as mid/senior artists. At the moment, most of the people at the studio are mid/senior, since they tend to stay with us for a while, which allows the whole studio to get better and better.
There are also many opportunities for advancement internally, and most supervisors at nWave have been promoted internally to their current positions.
It’s also important to note that our teams are smaller than those of some big French studios, we have fewer people to find. While those studios may be looking for 60 animators, we may only be searching for 15 animators.
3DVF: You mentioned the desire to make the studio known to artists: what about the general public? Are you actively trying on promoting nWave as a brand?
Yes, that’s the goal.
We embrace creating mainstream, international films, and we want people to say, “I enjoyed Bigfoot, so the next film from the same studio should be good as well.”
For example, on the Inseparables movie posters, the name of the company is written just above the title.
But it’s far from easy, regardless of the size of the company: when I tell some of my friends that a movie film was created by Pixar Animation Studios, they answer, “No, it’s a Disney movie.” It’s not entirely incorrect, but it’s not quite accurate either.
So if the biggest animation studios struggle to get some recognition, it’s obviously even harder for us. Hence, the importance of attending events, of showcasing ourselves. For example, we are now trying to have our films featured in as many animation festivals as we can.
There is no magic formula, and it’s far from easy, but we hope to achieve it.
3DVF: Earlier, we were discussing the budget of your films. In the medium to long term, does the studio plan to increase budgets, perhaps following the example of a studio like Illumination?
For now, that’s not our intention. We like to put it this way: we prefer to be the world champion in our category rather than diving into a shark tank where the studio wouldn’t be sustainable.
Our budgets allow us to be in a niche that meets the demand for family films, to maintain our independence (whereas Illumination is a division of Universal Pictures), and therefore to seduce distributors from different countries who need new content.
Which is why we want to remain in this budget range and make the best possible films under these conditions.
3DVF: You are transitionning to USD (Universal Scene Description), originally developed by Pixar. This format is slowly being adopted by the animation industry as a whole. What benefits are you hoping to get from USD?
In fact, this is part of the refactoring of our pipeline. We focus on two areas of interest:
- Data tracking/exchange. We had an in-house solution, a homemade tool similar to Shotgrid, and we are transitioning to ftrack for reviewing, production tracking, and as a pipeline backbone.
Our needs are twofold. First of all, tracking. For films like Hopper and the Hamster of Darkness, for example, we had 40,000 elements to track and approve. We also need to be able to annotate frames/pictures and to keep the teams informed of what has been said.
We also have some pipeline-related needs. More specifically, the getter/committer tools: being able to send data into the pipeline and retrieving it elsewhere. In this context, USD will allow us to avoid using bridges between various software. For example, between Houdini and Maya (currently, we use Maya/Houdini/Arnold, alongside tools like ZBrush, SpeedTree, Substance). Not having multiple internal tools allows artists to be productive more quickly when they join the team.
- Another major are of interest is that having a pipeline built around USD will make it easier to hire pipeline-related positions. People who already master the technology won’t have to learn an entirely unfamiliar internal architecture. And we will need to hire more people, since there is a lot do be done in terms of data transmission between departments, for example.
But this is a medium-term plan. We have been working on adopting USD for a year. We move forward step by step.
3DVF: The feedback we’ve received from studios is that this technology is still maturing…
Yes, we share the same feeling. With each new version of USD, we realize that certain elements are now working and that things are moving in the right direction.
It’s also important that the software used in the animation industry supports USD. Autdesk Maya, for example, was lagging behind Houdini. Maya 2024 is a significant step forward in terms of USD support.
3DVF: Another challenge for an animation studio such as nWave: reducing the overall carbon footprint when producing movies, and reducing energy consumption/costs.
Exactly, we face the same issues as any studio in this regard. With the energy crisis, we realize that we are not consuming less energy (even though we try to). To improve the situation, we recently added solar panels wherever possible in our 3,000 square meters building. However, an animation studio remains energy-intensive, so this doesn’t solve the issue.
In this context, we are considering solutions like cloud computing, which would potentially allow us to rely on companies actively involved in reducing energy consumption as well as their carbon footprint, and eliminate the issue of having 150 to 200 workstations at nWave that need to be powered and cooled down.
In summary, ecological transition and energy management are logical and normal steps nowadays, and we are making progress in these areas.
As for the carbon footprint: in Belgium, I don’t think that we have the same carbon footprint requirements as in France for example (the requirement to provide a carbon footprint report to get funding/tax rebates), but just because it’s not mandatory doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider it! By the way, the fact that the studio was established in Brussels, close to the train station, was not a coincidence either. It obviously helps with transportation without necessarily relying on cars.
3DVF: What about real-time? Are you considering adopting Unreal Engine, Unity?
Absolutely not at the moment because you have to choose which battle to fight! Between finishing the films, increasing our production capacity, and rethinking the pipeline, we already have a lot on our plate.
However, we keep an eye on it. I think it could be especially useful to have a more advanced cinematography at the layout/previs stage. The issue, though, is that the shaders used would not be the same as those used during final render, so it would require doing the same work twice.
I should also state that at this point, we have no intention of switching to a real-time engine to produce the final images of our films.
3DVF: AI is a hot topic in the animation industry. Where do you stand between rejection, adoption, caution, and enthusiasm?
We observe AI from a distance, but we don’t currently use AI/machine learning. We follow the latest advancements to sunderstand how AI could help us, but it requires specific skills and technical profiles to properly define the scope and possibilities.
At this stage, we don’t have a dedicated, formalized AI team.
3DVF: We are conducting this interview in Mons, Belgium, during an event organized by Haute École Louvain en Hainaut Mons (HELHa). What do you think of this school?
There aren’t former students of the school at nWave yet. The teaching staff visited us a few weeks ago to get back in touch. The core idea is to welcome their students as interns. And today in Mons, we introduced ourselves to the students and let them know that they can come to nWave Studios!
Everyone can benefit from it, as it will allow us to recruit young talents from this Belgian school.
To get back to the point, I’m impressed by the level of education at HELHa. They are a Houdini/Unreal certified school, which is no small feat. The staff really helps students getting better and making sure this is the job they want to do.
3DVF: During the Annecy Festival (June 11-17), The Inseparables will get its world premiere. Will there also be a nWave booth at the MIFA (the Annecy International Animation Film Market)?
We will attend the Festival, but nWave won’t have a dedicated booth at MIFA. However, we will be represented at the Pictanovo booth. If you would like to meet us, feel free to email us at email@example.com!
3DVF: Thank you, Vincent/nWave. And for our readers, don’t hesitate to watch The Inseparables at Annecy and to get in touch with the studio to meet them!
For more information
- nWave Studios on 3DVF, and their official website.
- For more feedback about USD: our interview of RISE, feedback from French animation studio Superprod (in French only), Marc Petit from Epic Games.
- Don’t forget to subscribe/follow us on Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. Don’t miss our upcoming articles and interviews!