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Robot army: 3D Computer Graphics grads contribute to new animated Netflix feature

September 27, 2018

A flashy new Netflix feature released by partners in North America and China has a rather prominent link to Red River College — namely, the small army of grads working for the local animation company that carried out the bulk of the production work.

The recently released Next Gen — a frenetic blend of kids-flick, buddy movie and sci-fi satire — features almost two and a half years’ worth of work by Tangent Animation, a firm with studios in both Winnipeg and Toronto.

While Tangent’s Toronto team handled most of the actual animation for Next Gen — and the concept, script and directors came from L.A. — the Winnipeg crew collaborated on many of the other elements, from asset builds to surfacing, visual effects and lighting.

They also doubled and even tripled up on some of their efforts, creating 2D and 3D versions in both English and Mandarin.

“They wanted to make a movie that was going to work in China and in North America,” says Tangent CEO Ken Zorniak of the project’s backers.

“So not only was it a neat project to work on aesthetically and content-wise, it was also a real sociological experiment in how to create a property that’s going to work in China and the rest of the world — when you have very different cultures and values that you’re trying to bridge.”

The film’s plot concerns a lonely girl (voiced by Steven Universe’s Charlyne Yi) whose unlikely friendship with a top-secret robot (A Quiet Place’s John Krasinski) leads to an action-packed adventure and battles with bullies, evil bots and a scheming madman.

Clocking in at nearly 100 minutes (at least 10 longer than most animated features), the movie posed some considerable challenges for its designers, as did the array of supplemental material that had to be developed at the same time.

“There are some pretty complicated shots for an animated movie,” says Zorniak. “There’s a three-minute action shot that’s followed by a slo-mo water shot — which was a really challenging piece. In fact, it has all the elements that are challenging for visual effects — you have lots of smoke, explosions, and a ton of action towards the end of the movie. It was such an ambitious story and it covered a lot of ground.”

Fortunately, the Tangent team was more than up for the challenge, says Zorniak, who estimates a third of the company’s Winnipeg contingent is comprised of graduates of the College’s 3D Computer Graphics program.

“It’s always great to be able to bring Manitobans onto these projects, and to have people who are skilled and committed to delivering the final product,” he says. “It’s certainly not easy, and you need to have that perseverance to get through it at the end of the day. And ultimately you need the right training, so you have the tools to bring to the table.”

The scope of the project also enabled Tangent to more than double the size of its Winnipeg team — a development that should pay off handsomely in the near future, especially if and when plans are confirmed for a Next Gen sequel.

“I’ve worked for years in visual effects, and normally we hire one or two — maybe three to four — people each year,” says Zorniak.

“But with this project, we grew from 25-ish people in the Winnipeg facility to almost 60. And the number of people who are [working] in this field has been relatively high over the last few years. Many of the grads we interviewed were very strong.”

Learn more about RRC’s 3D Computer Graphics program.

(Image credit: Netflix Canada)