Although “Puffins Impossible” is an independent series, it has its own history. Could you tell us about the origin of the heroes and their background?
Nikola Purić, Production Director
That’s right. The Puffins first appeared in “our world” in the animated movie Arctic Dogs, as somewhat clumsy helpers of the “misunderstood genius” the walrus Otto.
The movie inspired the series “Arctic Friends” and “Puffins.” While the “Arctic Friends” follows the main movie characters (Swifty the Arctic fox, PB the bear, and Jade the fox…), the series “Puffins” introduces new characters and their stories. Primarily, Johnny Depp arrived (or, more accurately, flew in) to our world, in the role of Johnny Puff. To explain, “Puffins” follows four puffin characters (Pie, Didi, Tic, and Tac) who have parted ways with Otto and aspire to help the citizens of Taigasville through their daily activities, thus disrupting Otto’s plans. They are helped by Johnny Puff, an eccentric puffin, who lives alone in his caravan, plays guitar in his free time, and practices yoga.
With the opening of the studios in Serbia, the puffins have arrived here as well but this time they have superpowers. Our heroes touched a meteor of unknown origin and became superheroes, and with their new abilities, a new series was born, packed with even more action and fun. And with the new series our story begins as well…
The Puffins don’t speak a language known to us; they have a language of their own. Why did you decide to give them their own language? What challenges did you face in inventing it? Did it make developing ideas easier or more difficult?
Animals – dogs, for example, don’t speak a language we understand either, but every dog owner would probably swear that they can communicate with their pet. 😊 Jokes aside, non-verbal communication often has deeper meaning, both in real life and in movies, animation included. There are many examples throughout the history of cinema where an actor’s gaze or gesture was more emotionally striking for the viewer than the entire dialogue of that movie. The series “Puffins Impossible” was created primarily for streaming platforms and an audience that hasn’t learned or is just learning to read, so from the producer’s perspective, the decision to not have the series’ characters speak any known language was a good one, because the finished episode can be launched to the global market without acquiring the additional resources for dubbing.
However, that approach has brought new challenges to creative teams. You need to make an episode that is understandable, dynamic, and amusing without the use of dialogue. So, it is easy to see how brave the decision to forego dialogue in the series was. Fortunately, film language is universal and if you know how to use it, you can communicate with the whole world regardless of the language barriers.
What was the role of Johnny Depp in creating the series?
The character of Johnny Puff was originally created for the animated series “Puffins”. Johnny Depp was actively engaged in creating this charismatic puffin which he lends his voice and persona to. Not only that, but Mr. Depp also created specific vocalizations for the role, adding another level to it and making Johnny Puff a character that kids will remember and love.
“Puffins Impossible” is a fun show with short episodes, but since there are five seasons, with 18 episodes each, that means there are hundreds of minutes of content in all. What challenges did you face first while creating this content, in terms of organizing the process?
Mileta Poštić, Storyboard Director and ITC Manager
The challenges we faced in organizing the process of content creation were many, but the expertise of our showrunner made them easier to overcome. Peter Nalli is an experienced animator, creative director, and art director from Toronto, who has a clear vision of how to organize and manage production. He implemented a modern production system with the right people, roles, software, and work procedures aimed at making modern and successful episodes and series. We found it exciting to learn about that system and the “pipeline”, which is very efficient and brings good results.
We learned everything as we went along, through practice. As nothing similar has been done here before, it was necessary to find a lot of organizers and artists with different skills who could fit in these roles. For example, we have formed a team of 20 storyboard artists, originally illustrators and 2D animators, who have learned to work quickly and efficiently on the complex process of making animatics, in which all film, artistic, dramatic, technical, and animation skills must be integrated into one ability to produce an engaging visual narrative. Distribution inside our two studios in Novi Sad and Belgrade, the relationship between ILBE Studios and Archangel Digital Studios, and the relationship between the production and the international vendors were honed in the first few months, and the results are encouraging. Viewership numbers were high and the critical reviews positive.
Izabela Mašić, 2D Storyboard Artist
Many artists from the storyboard team did not have any storyboarding experience or had only general experience because this field was hardly developed in Serbia at that time. To me personally, doing storyboard presented a great challenge, despite my visual arts background. I had little knowledge about it, and the storyboard animatics that are done in ILBE Studios are very complex and detailed. It was necessary for all of us to adapt to new conditions and advance our knowledge in a short amount of time to be able to produce quality animatics. Throughout the process, we tried out various work techniques and strategies until we found one that worked best for us. Of course, with each new storyboard, we became better, and we also learned from our more experienced colleagues, as well as from our own mistakes. I believe that our efforts and progress will be visible in each subsequent season of the series.
Anđela Živković, Designer Illustrator
From my work perspective, it is necessary to ensure that the modelers have adequate information during the content creation process. Besides the style and technique, it is important to make sure that the created content can be realized in 3D so that each part of the “pipeline” can function well, and each of the following departments can execute their tasks.
Jovan Dudić, Technical Director
The greatest challenge was establishing the pipeline across different departments, which meant engaging a lot of people with different levels of experience, while the project’s scope and scale were new to all of us.
What kept us motivated is that even when we were starting to get familiar with the pipeline, we were still discovering something new every day. Once the pipeline was established, we started looking for optimization opportunities and areas we can improve.
The fact that ILBE Studios created 90 five-minute episodes already sounds impressive. But we consider it to be just the beginning, and we are working hard to bring the whole process to an even higher level in the future. Of course, we couldn’t have done this without the series’ producers, Archangel Digital Studios-a (ADS) owned by Miloš Biković, which hires directors, composers, and sound designers.
As you already know, many local artists of various skills from ILBES, which creates the series, and ADS, which produces it, take part in the realization of the “Puffins Impossible”.
Of course, as usual, it all starts with the script. ILBES can take pride in having many scriptwriters among its employees. The scripts go through several phases of adjustments and approval before they reach the teams that will carry them out. At that moment, the directors, hired by ADS, join the process. They work with the storyboard artists and editors who are part of the ILBES team to start making the storyboard. Yes, the editors are engaged much earlier than is the case with feature movies, and they follow the making of the storyboard, take care of the rhythm and the tempo of the episode, and also significantly contribute to the creative process with their own ideas.
It takes 3-4 weeks to make a storyboard for a single episode. Practically, when the storyboard of an episode is finished, so is the episode. The shots will have the determined length and the mise-en-scene, the “acting” of the characters is also determined, as well as the episode’s tone.
The episode then goes into animation. The idea is to minimize corrections and alterations, for practical reasons – animation is expensive, and renders take a long time.
When the animation is finished, the episode goes back to the editing room for the so-called polish edit: the finished 3D episode passes through the hands of the editor again, where small editing alterations and trimmings are made and 2D effects are added. Our episode is almost done. As with feature movies, when the episode edit is “locked”, it continues its journey to the composers and the sound design studio, as well as VFX.
It is important to note that, unlike feature movies or documentaries, animated movies do not have sound recorded on set. All sounds and effects, from the opening of doors to the sound of objects crashing and falling, must be created in the sound design studio. We will soon have an opportunity to present the artists who perform these inspirational and challenging tasks for our series.
Simultaneously with the sound design process, the VFX process takes place. This is where the magic happens, and good shots become excellent. When everything is done, the episode goes back to the editing suite where the final picture and the final soundtrack are joined and master files are made, which we later send to broadcasters.
This whole complex process is supported by various departments, which we must not forget, such as production coordinators, project managers, IT team, and marketing team. If we do not properly promote what we have done, it may be questioned whether we have done it at all. 😊
“Puffins Impossible” is intended for children but created by grown-ups. What are the challenges from the artistic point of view, and how do you know the children will like the content?
Our scriptwriters receive detailed guidelines on the series’ parameters and premise, and they receive feedback in the synopsis phase. They also have the opportunity to collaborate with storyboard artists regarding episode content. The most important thing is that the episodes are fun and entertaining, educational, and humorous. We have interesting characters and relations. Otto, the walrus, is a misunderstood genius who has his minions who obey him. Episodes begin with him thinking of some wicked undertaking. We have our protagonists, the superhero puffins and their leader Johnny Puff. Besides them, there are several sidelines characters from Taigasville, located at the North Pole. Each episode has its main plot, the order of sequences, and humorous scenes. There are certain rules on how to make each episode entertaining and the characters attractive. The artists should be having fun themselves while creating content and be ready to change and perfect their work. The children react emotionally to the episodes and watch the five-minute content attentively.
I believe that anyone who creates this kind of content consults their “inner child” to a large extent. We must not become engrossed in the “life of an adult,” which usually means the rejection of everything “childish.” This includes animated movies, games, science fiction, etc. To create this kind of content you must be imaginative and open to new influences, enjoy watching movies, series, and animated movies, or other animated content, and enjoy creating your own world through drawing or some other form of art. The most important thing is to perceive creating as play. Since our content is intended for children, it is made up of educative and humorous elements. While working on a storyboard, I try to create a scene that is interesting and funny, even to me. If you are giggling while drawing a scene, that’s a good sign. If your colleagues giggle as well when looking at it, there is a good chance that you made a good scene. While drawing, I try to go back to my childhood state of mind, which isn’t always easy. But I make an effort to figure out the best way to present a particular theme to a child of 5 or 6. Of course, if you have children of that age in your surroundings, you analyze how they think, what they like, or what is close to them.
The content created for children must be both visually understandable and interesting in order to keep their attention, which is very challenging. As a prop designer and illustrator, I make sure that all objects have a dynamic form and color. Although props are of secondary importance, they can provide a lot of information about the character who uses them or the story, based on the details integrated in them. That is why it is important to take great care of the details.
Pre-production included the creation of a storyboard and previs. The previs background was made in 3D but the characters were made in 2D. Why did you decide to make the previs in this manner?
While developing our internal work system, we tried out different ways of creating a storyboard. In the beginning we even drew backgrounds and animated characters a lot less. We made changes as we went along. The current appearance of our storyboards is a result of the needs of some parts of production whose work follows ours. By using 3D backgrounds directly in the storyboard, we can precisely determine the location, the character’s position in the space, its proportions, and the camera lens for a particular shot. This information is very important for animators who continue their work based on the storyboard. The storyboard must be visually absolutely clear so that the animator would know exactly what to do, without additional comments or notes. If it is clear to the animator, it will be clear to the audience, visually and content-wise. We draw 2D characters because it enables us to better express body language, facial expressions as well as the character’s emotion. These are just some of the reasons that made us choose this way of working. Each studio has its own way of creating storyboards, and this one works the best for us.
How much freedom did you have in creating the storyboard, in terms of the director’s or producer’s idea?
We have more freedom than it is assumed. However, we have a few limitations. Since each episode transforms into 3D, the models, surroundings, and props are limited, as well as some relationships, genres, and premises. Within this framework there is enough space for creative solutions and unexpected twists. Supervisors are very talented and hardworking and the team leaders skillful and competent. The quality is rising, and the knowledge acquired in the process has great significance for this type of creative expression and the local production potential. Each artist often makes good comic scenes and unexpected practical solutions. The exchange of experiences, mutual inspiration and imaginative drawings, movements, and events, make the whole process very valuable.
I have a lot of freedom in creating a storyboard, but the storyboard is ultimately the result of teamwork. At the very beginning, the storyboarder, director, and writer meet to analyze the script. In this phase, if there is need for it, necessary changes are made to make an episode as clear as possible. We propose ideas, consider options in presenting a scene, remove potential problems and inconsistencies. When we agree on all the changes, the storyboarder draws the whole animatic as they see best. The director’s and supervisor’s comments follow, and we have introduced the so-called “sweat box” where all storyboarders, the lead storyboarder, and the supervisor gather and go through, and comment on the episode together, while it is still being done, aiming to make it the best possible. A lot of people take part in this work phase because it is very important that the storyboard is done well. It dictates what the final product will look like.
As mentioned before, “Puffins Impossible” originates from the feature animated movie “Arctic Dogs”. Did you use assets from the previous content or was everything made from scratch? How much freedom do you have in asset creation in relation to previous content?
We use many assets from the animated movie “Arctic Dogs,” and adapt or change some of it when possible.
However, at ILBES, we primarily work on creating new assets, which is my job: I create new designs for props that will further be modelled in 3D. When creating a new asset, it is important to consider the unique stylistic solutions, as well as to follow the prop’s interaction with the characters in order to additionally adapt and personalize the prop to them.
All content is done in 3D, but some elements, like smoke, for example, have a 2D look. Why did you adopt this approach?
We wanted to efficiently add effects to numerous shots while preserving the series’ aesthetics. The stylistic simplicity of 2D elements went well with the established look of the series and was quick to implement, which is very important when you work on projects of this scale with tight deadlines.
A lot of content has been made in a short period of time. How did the production of CG content go and what were the challenges?
Besides the usual pressure of deadlines, we had creative challenges as well. The most important one was creating the visual language of the series and the main characters’ visual identity.Part of the challenge came from working in a recently opened studio that was growing and developing, both in terms of number of employees and the scope of work.
What are your impressions about being a part of such a large project?
Working on a large project forces us to learn about how other departments operate so that we can do our part of the job well and allow for continued production. The positive aspect is that cooperation and communication with people drives us to step outside of our “goblin creator bubble” and embrace new experiences and approaches to problem solving.
It means a lot to me that I am a part of such a big project, and I hope that I will have the opportunity to participate in more similar projects. It is interesting to follow the process from the very beginning and observe how everything develops from one idea and grows into such a big and important project. It’s nice to be part of a team. I’ve met some wonderful and creative people that constantly inspire me and from whom I have learned a lot. These projects truly provide an opportunity to learn and carve your own path in the creative industry.
I started working at the studio as a 3D generalist. Since I was always interested in working on a broader level, especially in technical aspects of production, I was glad when I got the opportunity to start working as a Technical Director here at ILBES. Having this kind of responsibility for the first time in my career, on a project of this scale was an exciting opportunity for me to learn new things. Seeing how everything comes together on this scale, seeing how everything fits together, and how seemingly small decisions may have a large effect on the final project output was an unvaluable experience for me. Aside from work, my strongest personal impression is of the local creative people in ILBES and ADS who are responsible for the series’ appearance.
This is undoubtedly building another level of this industry here. Young people are arriving, getting educated, and finding their position in the pipeline.
To me, as someone whose first job was as a film editor, and who spent most of his career in advertising and feature films, working on the animated series “Puffins Impossible” sounded like a genuine challenge, but a challenge I wanted to take on.
Great things and great projects, in my opinion, are yet to come.
What are the plans for further development of the studio?
Anđelka Janković, Head of Marketing and Communications
The first three years of the studio’s were really exciting, challenging and intensive. We opened the studio in two locations, in the center of Belgrade and Novi Sad, uniquely designed our offices and equipped them with the latest technology modeled on international studios. We have almost 150 employees and collaborators working according to a state-of-the-art pipeline.
Last year, we released the “Puffins Impossible” series on the biggest streaming platforms, which include Google Play, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, as well as Chilli TV and Tatatu. We completed 90 episodes of the “Puffins Impossible” series. They were produced by Miloš Biković’s Archangel Digital Studios, which hires directors, composers, and sound designers.
We continue to work on the next seasons and we plan to start the new projects in the field of 2D and 3D animation. We also expect to expand our portfolio and capacities, bolster our collaboration with the academic community, and continue to contribute to the development of animation industry, placing Serbia on the map of international animation scene. We strive to invest in our employees’ education on a daily basis, and we will continue to do so through internal education and our training center. We continue to work on international projects from our parent company ILBE, such as live-action movies with animation and VFX. We also continue to provide full animation service for clients, producers, and other partners – from concept development, scriptwriting, and first conceptual designs to the final rendered images.
What lies ahead for the “Puffins Impossible” series? Can we expect to see more animated content from your studio?
The “Puffins Impossible” series has been released on streaming platforms and there is no turning back now :). We continue working on new seasons and our progress curve is steadily rising, so the upcoming seasons are increasingly more amusing, and I must say, I can’t wait to see them in their final form. As for the new series, it is still too early to reveal anything, but we are preparing several new projects, completely different, so do stay tuned, we have only just begun…:)
We continue to work full steam ahead. A minimum of five seasons a year are ahead of us, and we expect our superheroes to be a great success. In the meantime, we are “cooking up” some new projects, which we can’t talk about just yet, but some of them will surely have local themes and present our rich culture, through universal values understandable in all cultures, continents, and languages. We hope we will be able to reveal more details in the near future.