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mardi 10 novembre 2020

Let's talk about innovation with...

 Olivier Pinol, from  

Interview of october 13, 2020, conducted by rOmain Thouy

38th article in a series of interviews conducted on the management of innovation in the field of creative industries (video games, animated films) of the Occitanie region.

Olivier Pinol
Olivier Pinol is founder, chairman and chief creative officer of Dwarf Animation studio. Established in Montpellier since 2010, Dwarf is an animation studio specializing in high quality 3D, combining artistic know-how and cutting-edge technology. Initially a service provider, Dwarf has also recently been developing its own content.

Education: communication Visuelle, AxeSud and Objectif 3D
  • His 1st film: Immortal, ad vitam (Enki Bilal, 2004)
  • His 1st big success: Schrek the third (Chris Miller, 2007)
  • His last big success: Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)

“How did I get into animation industry? I followed my instincts and my mentors. 

I had a rather atypical schooling and early career, complicated. I left the general course very early to orient myself towards studies in drawing and follow up on training in visual communication. It helped me get into the advertising business. Thanks to my parents, I was also able to follow a private school career, at Axe Sud. In 1998/99, I discovered 3D in one of the first Montpellier schools, Objectif 3D.

Instinctively, at that time, I was convinced that I would do something in this area.

The interview, as if you were there ©10ruption, 2020

“One of the first meetings that put me bumblebee in the head, was one of my first teacher, who was also the patron of a school in Marseille (equivalent of fine arts, but in private mode), and called Mr. Panzani. He was working as an illustrator for advertising campaigns while he was training us. He told us: "You know, what's great about this business is that there are no rules." This had marked me, because at 17, I was rather anti-school system! I think he meant by that that we were free to build ourselves as we saw fit.

During this period, I lived in a 9 m² in Marseille, next to the station. I remember it was very hard: I had just arrived in this great metropolis, barely out of my warm cocoon in Montpellier. I had to lug around the subway and on foot every day with my box and my wooden board (50 pounds!)… It forged my soul ... and arms! I finally chose to return to Montpellier to follow a training course in visual communication. Right after my studies, I found my first job in retail as a ready-to-wear illustrator.

“In addition to this job, I was doing my last year of 3D, with another mentor who was very important in my early career and who is François Belenguer, the founder of the Objectif 3D school.

With my little experience in visual communication and training in 3D, I had built up a small basic portfolio which allowed me to catch my first permanent job, in Paris, in an advertising agency. I had to make 3D DVD interfaces. I remember that we made the first 3D interfaces for the release of Final Fantasy, The spirits within (2001) and for Les rivières pourpres (2000).”

I remember when we went with school to see Toy Story 2 (1999), I told Francois that "one day I will have my name written in the credits of a movie like that". But I felt that this first job in Paris was not going to lead me to Toy Story!

“This was the time when I met my 3rd mentor, Matthieu Grospiron, who was Lighting Supervisor at Duran Duboi in Paris, and who recruited me to work on “Immortal - Ad Vitam” (2004). It was an opportunity for me to specialize in Lighting, with a dizzying learning curve for a year! Mathieu had just done The Phantom Menace, at Lucas, the first Shrek, at PDI (Pacific Data Images), and he was in France for a short period: his career made us dream! We became friends, and I stayed until the end of the project: working with Matthieu on this film was an extraordinary experience for me!

We have kept in touch with Matthieu. He asked me to send him my work; he gave me his feedback. In 2005, he called me from the US where he had returned. He said he liked my last demo and he would take it to the Dreamworks recruitment service. At that moment, in my head, I believed it without believing it. And I really got a phone call from Dreamworks, during the summer of 2005, when I was going back and forth between Paris / Montpellier.”

“I got the job! Between Christmas 2005 and New Years, we landed as a family in San Francisco. A new life has started! It was like a really big slap at the start, but I had a great career there.”

“Then I went to New Zealand to work on Avatar. I remember when I saw a preview of the 20 minute shoot, with James Cameron: at that point I thought to myself that I was sitting on something that was going to make history. I was very proud to think that at my small level I had contributed, not to Avatar 2, 3, 4 or 5, but to AVATAR! Probably the same feeling as having worked on Star Wars of 1977! Or on the first Toy Story! Being a part of this film gave me a sense of accomplishment. Even though there was still the unfulfilled desire for Pixar ...”

After this incredible experience, we returned to France.

I taught at Objectif 3D, the school where I started, I saw François again. I really enjoyed teaching, sharing my experience with young people. I still met quite a few people during this time. I wanted to create my studio. But before I did, to exorcise the Pixar ghost, I still wanted to apply to them. I did it. I went as far as the interview, on site, in the US. they made me a written proposal, to work on Toy Story 3. At that moment, I had just made my dream come true! And ... And in the end I declined their offer, because I had other priorities, such as the creation of the Dwarf studio: it was about time! It was 10 years ago.”

As you know Olivier, at 10ruption we like to discuss innovation. Can you tell us about the innovative projects that are driving you right now?

At Dwarf, there are several areas of innovation, but I will rather mention two in particular.

At the moment, we are working to redefine the uses in the studio. I am very interested in the Cloud and the virtual studio. We have been monitoring these subjects for 2 or 3 years. 

Olivier talks about the Cloud studio (8:14)

Today, the infrastructure of a studio is expensive with its workstations, its heavy workstations, blocked in place and quite rigid. The main question that concerns us is how to provide a degree of flexibility on premise like it is possible to have when we are in the cloud?

It's not just the urge to make everyone work from home, no.

I had the opportunity to visit the Riot Games studio [video game development studio, which is behind the famous League Of Legends (2009)], in US. I spent a whole day there and found that incredible: there was flexibility at 2000%! Everyone work as they want, when they want, where they want. And the studio works wonderfully. So, on our scale, proportionally, how can we bring flexibility to our collaborators and redefine life in the studio?

Getting there starts by bringing cloud technology into the studio. This means investing in a data center and adapting IT control as is done in cloud-based work. It is necessary to set up a light workstation system on the site and to be ultra agile in the definition of teams, work environments or even on the modularity of work. With this model, it is necessary to have an ultra sharp and robust production pipeline that allows dematerialized data management. In return, this opens up many perspectives.

This gives you, for example, a lot of flexibility to open a second site in Montpellier or in the north of France, or even abroad, while having the same production pipeline.

Currently, with our innovation and our financial directors, we are preparing our new business plan with a 5-year forecast to find the right business model that will allow us to achieve our goal. We have established a 3-year roadmap.

We are in full thinking and we are launching the first studies.

Among the subjects at the heart of our innovation, there is this platform, sometimes called Studio As A Service. It will be the backbone of this flexibility that we want to achieve. It goes even further than talking about a pipeline, because it is a modular backbone, which can be adapted according to the targeted media, which can bring video game technology, live action, animation, while being cloud native.

This is one of the answers to the question about the studio of tomorrow.

This reflection is already 2 or 3 years old. We spoke to Netflix at the time. To give you a parallel with what we're trying to do, Netflix has just released NetFX (July 2020), its collaborative special effects platform open to its providers.

To move this project forward, we will soon be looking for funds to help us build our own platform.

Olivier talks about the Virtual studio (3:20)

Another hot topic of innovation at Dwarf is the Virtual studio. We try to bring what is done in the live action [real shooting which uses a film camera or a digital camera to record in real time the moving image of a subject which is also really moving] into animation processes. It consists of integrating live action methods through virtual filming technologies using, among other things, Epic Game's Unreal Engine technology. We also have to adapt our animation processes.

We combine the technologies of live action and video games with those of animation. This will provide a complementary component to directors, filmmakers, modelers, to better visualize, for example, the sets they create in virtual reality.

This will also make it possible to anticipate the development of derivative products and to offer complementary experiences to the animation. We could, for example, offer alongside an animated film that we made, an immersive experience in virtual reality in the same universe by managing and reusing the same data. By capitalizing on the data, we can pool it to offer products on several different media.

We are setting up the virtual studio: I just ordered the Headset VIVE Pro kits. I've talked a lot with our Chef Layout, who shot Disney's Lion King and Jungle Book before joining Dwarf and has a lot of experience filming like this. We are currently looking for manufacturing models, economically, technologically and creatively adapted to a very specific future consumer demand.

How do you carry this innovation?

I'm trying to see where we want to go tomorrow. I bring my strategic, business and creative visions.

François Tarlier is our studio innovation director. As such, he is in charge of prospective studies. He works with others in R&D departmenet, such as Luke Titley, software engineer, Belisaire Earl, who oversees the production pipeline, and Laurent Doit, who oversees the infrastructure.

How do you go about innovating?

We have launched a lot of work at R&D level, but we fell behind in this step because we were caught up by production obligations. 

We had to manage the studio's growth, digest projects that came in, while continuing our R&D studies. We also had to put aside the training part. Innovation and training are the 2 founding pillars of Dwarf, I strongly believe in this for the future, both.

Today 20% of the permanent studio staff are technical. Engineers, technical director, R&D: each of them participate in the innovation of the studio.

My own contribution to R&D varies a lot over time, of course. It can be 50% or 70% of my time. In general, I will spend more time at the beginning to share the vision and the direction to follow. Because behind all this, there is a desire to position ourselves in a market, it should not be forgotten!

Today, if we are very well positioned in the Premium series market, it is thanks to our previous choices. To get there, my role at the time was to say: "ok, we work for advertising, but it's short term, we lack visibility in the medium and longer terms". So we did animated series, and then I thought to myself that we had to do quality. It was just before the Netflix explosion: we never imagined, at the time, a platform that could finance, in animation, 6 feature films per year, 90 series in development. I told my teams that we absolutely had to go for the Premium series, because there was going to be demand. Today, we are in the top ten world in premium content for broadcast platform series.

We have just completed Trash Trucks (scheduled for release on Netflix November 10, 2020), a very pretty and well written ultra premium preschool series.

To facilitate collaborative exchanges within the studio, we have set up sharing systems based on the Sharepoint 365 suite. It is made up of great tools. We share and capitalize on all our ideas on it and everything is accessible all the time by all internal teams. There are many themes like production, pipeline, innovation and R&D, etc.

We have a lot of topics that we are prioritizing. With my directors, I participate in this prioritization, in particular for the business vision.

To innovate, you have to try and test. We're right in there with the virtual studio POC I told you about earlier. We are going to do hardware POCs. For example, when lockdown fell on us last March, we had been testing workstation virtualization solutions for 2 years: luckily we had done these tests, because in 2 months, from March to the end of April, we managed to get everyone to work remotely with the solutions of our partners at Dell and Wise boxes. Laurent had done some work upstream on safety and how to connect employees from the outside to the inside. We tripled the bandwidth of the studio and we were able to connect 150 people in 2 months and make the studio operational.

How do you stimulate innovation at Dwarf Animation?

Because it's not just a technological innovation, we launched the short film challenge internally. Anyone could propose and pitch an idea or concept for a short film, and after a selection, the studio proposed to produce one or two of the proposed projects.

In order to better adapt the studio to the challenges, we have restructured Dwarf.

Dwarf Entertainment is the parent company: it has the role of executive producer and responsibility for creative development. Dwarf Animation is its executive production subsidiary (it's the manufacturing tool). Dwarf technology is the second subsidiary dedicated to innovation and R&D aspects. To encourage the teams, I am thinking about employee incentive models in different aspects of studio development.

To stimulate innovation, there is nothing better than attending trade shows. Last year I went with my team to SIGGRAPH in Los Angeles; we've met everyone in our field, like people at Unreal or Pixar’s RenderMan. 

Every year, thanks to SIGGRAPH, among other things, you can keep abreast of the latest innovations in this industry around the world.

For creative innovation, another festival that matters to us is the Annecy Animation Film Festival. 

When you are concerned with innovation, it is important to stay in touch with the academic world, and for that, we are quite close to LIRMM (Laboratoire d'Informatique, de Robotique et de Microélectronique de Montpellier). We bring the world of animation to the Laboratory, which historically has been more oriented towards video games. We recruited 2 or 3 people from LIRMM or IRIT (Institut de Recherche en Informatique de Toulouse), who were in master's degree. We also work with universities on specific subjects or modules. We regularly welcome interns within the studio.

We do not yet have an established research partnership, but this is something we would like to do with current or upcoming innovation projects.

What about your near future?

Right now, we are working on a future series for Netflix: a great intergalactic bounty hunter adventure for the whole family!

To learn more about the creation of the studio, I recommend you listen to CGWhy's very interesting Podcast dedicated to the history of Dwarf Animation Studio and presented by Le Doc, Pez and Neo:

Thank you Olivier, for sharing your vision on innovation in animation studio. We wish you the best for future !


Credits: music for the podcast (intro and outro) comes from Bensound and is taken from the track "Acoustic breeze".

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