Hatchling Studio Grows Up with Animated Short

One of the big surprises at the Siggraph Animation Show came not from heavyweights like Disney, Pixar or even the commercial house Charlex, which ended up winning the show’s award for best animated short with One Rat Short, but rather with a little known, but rising animation house Hatchling Studio tucked away in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with its unique animated film The Toll.
The Toll borrows a documentary style for its animation with an interviewer asking questions to its subject, a troll who is in charge of collecting a toll at a bridge crossing. The troll starts out trying to dispel the stereotypes of trolls, explaining that he doesn’t eat a “large percentage” of the people he meets, lashes out at elves who he claims are just as dangerous but are viewed as cute, laments modernity as toll machines are replacing the jobs held by trolls and speaks of the struggles finding romance when not being “traditionally good-looking,” even behind the faà§ade of computer dating services.

While the Toll has opened many eyes in the industry to this 22-person animation house in the northeast, Hatchling is poised to take advantage of the spotlight with a number of new original content.

The Birth and Growing Pains of Hatchling
In the early ’90s Marc Dole didn’t want to leave the New Hampshire area like many of his friends and associates just to get graphics work so he started working out of his house doing graphics and animation for clients like the Discovery Channel and PBS Boston. By the mid-90s and thanks in part to the rise of the Internet, Dole’s workload, reputation, animation skills and knowledge of the industry had grown.

“”With the Internet, now I could preview my animations to anyone over the net and that helped a lot since I was up in new Hampshire,” recalls Dole. “It also got me to start understanding the connections growing between traditional video content and new media.”

Dole then moved to Connecticut to freelance with stop motion animation house Wreckless Abandon, now defunct. After two years he moved back to Portsmouth and opened Hatchling, setting up a business model with one division concentrating on an interactive Web site development and another dedicated to animation. The studio grew steadily creating interactive Web sites and high-end corporate work for such clients as Timberland and Reebok as well as the animation for the online Webisode CTRL+ ALT+ DEL (www.cad-animation.com). But while the Dole would bid on jobs and pitch original content to networks, he found he’d continually bump up against a ceiling for certain jobs.

“Some people flat-out told us, ‘Look, you don’t have a track record. You need to build something before we can take a chance at hiring you,'” explains Dole.

Constructing The Toll
In order to break through that ceiling Hatchling set out in 2003 to create an animated short to show off the creative, conceptual and technical chops. It initially came up with 25 concepts and narrowed them down to 14 and then wrote scripts for four. They finally settled on one and created storyboards for a 15-minute short before cutting it down to seven minutes.

Throughout this process, in between client work, Hatchling continued to develop and modify the characters and environments. After relying on NewTek LightWave for most all its animation work over the past decade including using it for the early versions of the main character in The Toll, Hatchling switched over to Softimage|XSI to model the her troll.

“The production pipeline that XSI allows is just more robust for character animation. We still use Lightwave a lot,” says Dole who served as executive producer, editor and compositor. “XSI just allowed us to get into a better development flow. The technical director could hand it off to the animator who could hand it off to the lighting person, texture person, etcetera. The workflow of XSI is built towards a larger team of people.”

While Dole prefers the workflow advantages in XSI over Lightwave for main character development, he also notes the speed of Lightwave for creating secondary character sna backgrounds. Except for the main character, all the other characters and backgrounds were created with Lightwave. Hatchling used 1 Beyond workstations to power this project.

Hatchling locked the main character animation and then proceeded on to the difficult task of animating the character’s clothing ‘ a tie and pants. “We use Syflex the plug-in for XSI. When we went back and made little changes to the character animation we had to then redo the cloth animation. That ended up being our biggest challenge, animating the cloth.”

The animated layers were rendered out of Mental Ray into Eyeon Digital Fusion with 16 different layers including a beauty pass, a shadow pass, dirt-map pass for all the backgrounds and the same passes for the main character. There as also a motion blur pass and a Z-buffer depth pass to allow Dole to manipulate the camera focal length within Digital Fusion.

“We also bought a plug-in called Reel Smart Motion Blur that was amazing and really helped added that film shutter blur. It works better than any of the motion blurs in any of the different packages,” Dole explains.

Another extremely useful workflow aid was implemented for rendering. As the studio has grown over the years it has compiled different sets of computers in its render farm and different licenses.

“We have about 40 computers in our render farm but only 10 licenses of each of the different renderers. So we use Royal Render to manage those systems. We can specify to send all the Mental Ray licenses to the really fast machines because we need to render 3D while sending the other with to other machines on the Fusion license. Royal Render was great for managing Lighwave, Fusion, XSI and After Effects.”

Hatchling’s J. Zachary Pike, Robert J. Boliver and Lou DeSantis wrote the script and Pike also served as the director on The Toll.

Poised and Ready
Since The Toll has made the rounds Hatchling has certainly been reaping the benefits of their hard work.

“We did this just as a proof’of-concept of what we could do but all the festival invitations and interest has been a nice little bonus,” says Dole. “And since then we’ve already had at least one client that told us they were going to take their project to Canada for the tax breaks but they saw the short and that kept them here.”

In addition to The Toll, Hatchling recently created another original property with The Endurance Challenge (www.endurancechallenge.com), a spoof on Survivor. Since launching the first episode online at Comic Con in July, several networks have expressed interest in bringing the series to the small screen. The second episode, depending on client work, is due out end of September.

Hatchling alos has its sites set on the big screen and is developing a feature film, in which the troll from The Toll is planned to make an appearance.
“That film will not center around the troll but it is nice to be able to show people the short so they know the look and feel of the feature we want to develop,” notes Dole. “And now when we do these pitches and bid on projects, people listen.”

And so with all the time, money and energy expended toward creating this short film over a span of three years the result of gaining attention, like the Visa commercials state, is priceless.