Cyborn, Belgium’s largest animation studio, was set up 20 years ago by Ives Agemans. Together with Iris Delafortry, he heads the company that in the meantime counts 70 employees. Last year, their first animation film Ploey came out, which led to a rapid growth of the company. They are also known for their apps for Star Wars and they work for, among others, Marvel and Disney. Ives: “We are constantly fine-tuning our methods, as a result of which ideas come about that can lead to interesting innovation projects.”
Just some of Cyborn’s creations are the recently released animation film Ploey, the Buck the game game for Ketnet and several Star Wars apps. The company was chosen this month as Trends Gazelle Ambassador as the fastest-growing company for the province of Antwerp in the small enterprise category.
CEO Ives Agemans concentrates on concluding contracts and the whole financing aspect of the company. In addition to that, he takes care of the general creative direction of film and game productions. Iris Delafortry is part of the management team and is the producer of all commercial assignments. She is above all involved in the pre-production of films: ranging from making contacts with possible partners to concluding the co-production deals.
How has Cyborn grown in the last 20 years?
Ives: I started Cyborn as a one-man business in 1998. After a few years we had evolved to a team of 5 to 10 employees and we mainly worked on projects in the advertising and architecture sector. Commercial assignments for a number of larger, regular customers meant that we were able to expand our team slowly but surely. But the major step came with the production of the animation film Ploey, on which over 60 people worked. And now we employ 70 people.
The quest to achieve quality is the most important factor in our growth story.
And in addition to that, Cyborn also wants to advance. Our starting point is the principle that things can always be done better and more efficiently. For example, you are constantly fine-tuning your own methods and ideas come about that can lead to interesting innovation projects.
How much has the sector itself evolved in all these years?
Ives: Technologically speaking the techniques that are used for 3D animation have evolved greatly. There has also been a shift from pre-rendered?For films, every frame is calculated and rendered in advance by the computer. to real time?For games, frames are not rendered in advance, but are calculated in real time.. In addition, the rapid arrival of virtual reality has expanded the possibilities and the user market. We still co-produce successful pre-rendered animation films, but at the same time we are focusing on the evolution towards real time, games and VR. All the techniques we invested in in the past - like creating hyper-realistic 3D characters using body and facial motion capture - can now be used in the VR market.
VR is rapidly making inroads, but has survived the gadget phase.
For example, big players are investing in new VR hardware big time. Even though VR is still just making its first steps in the market and will not replace the classic gaming platforms or films, it is creating a new and unique experience. It’s above all the possibilities apart from entertainment that will make VR a new and not to be underestimated medium.
Financially the new version of the Tax Shelter and the economic support measure of Screen Flanders has given the production of animation film and series a serious boost in Belgium. In this way we have a better chance of co-producing foreign-initiated animation productions. We are really appreciated by foreign producers, because we can deliver a good price-quality ratio. I think that most of the Belgian studios don’t see each other as competitors, since a great deal of international projects need a co-producer and people like to work with Belgian studios.
You also develop your own tool and programmes, for which you get the support of VLAIO.
Iris: When as a company you want to take part on the international stage in the field of 3D animation and games, you soon run into the limitations of existing software. That’s why we are adding tools to existing 3D animation software or writing our own software for specific applications. Examples of this are the development of our own tool for realistic facial animation and a VR studio environment that is now almost complete. A studio such as this allows motion capture recordings to be made for films, games or VR applications to be made much more efficiently and in a targeted manner. In every innovation project, we put the emphasis on working more efficiently and also achieving better results. Only in this way can we continue to guarantee top quality. For these projects, we received an innovation subsidy from VLAIO. It is not unusual for an innovation project like this to take two years or so, while it will often only provide a yield in a subsequent phase. For that reason it would be much more difficult for us to make these investments without that support.
Time is the enemy, because the software industry evolves enormously quickly.
All large studios have an R&D team or an innovation team, so that they can develop the tools they need themselves. To be able to compete with these larger studios, you therefore actually have to keep looking for better methods continually.
How does the process take place exactly from first idea to finished product?
Iris: In principle we always start with a story idea and the concept design of the main characters and a few environments, after which the script is written. With this material we then go in search of financing. In the case of Ploey, the first step was obtaining an Icelandic subsidy for the development of the film. During the development, a story board and a sales teaser in 3D animation are created. After that we must ensure that the production is financed, so that it can be started up. Each component of the production is worked on by artists, developers and hybrids, all of whom have their own specialisation within the whole project.
Already before the production, deals are made with distributors.
For example, Ploey had already been sold to a number of countries before the production started. Before the end of the production, the film had been sold to most countries worldwide except for a few large ones. Germany, the US and Japan only signed after the production was finished.
Which other creations do you count among your favorites?
Ives: The game Buck the game for Ketnet was a great production. Our team had to work super-efficiently in the construction of the game to stay on time and budget. But the expectations were high and we were very keen to exceed them too. I am super-proud of our team, because it’s a great game, but above all the style and the elaboration have turned out really beautifully.
For Star Wars, Marvel and Disney we made merchandising apps, integrating AR and VR techniques that what’s more work flawlessly on all mobile phones.
At the moment we are working on the production of the VR game for the film Hubris and that one will be truly ground-breaking. Apart from that there will soon also be Dragon Rider, a 3D animation film in co-production with Constantin Film.
You develop films, apps, games and commercials. Have you consciously decided to focus on product differentiation?
Iris: Product differentiation was never really a goal for us. Things evolved in a more natural way, because we have built up a lot of knowledge over the years. For example, we built our first (Star Wars!) app for a customer for which we had been making all its 3D content for a few years. That customer prioritised the visual quality of the 3D content above all. That app in the Star Wars theme had to be approved by Lucasfilm. It had to be right first time, because there was hardly any time for correction rounds. In the meantime we have already made tens of apps for this customer, with VR and AR content and mini-games, each one for great brands such as Marvel, the Smurfs or Disney.
It is actually our focus on efficiency and quality that has ensured that we now do different sorts of assignments for different sorts of customers. Not only tool development, such as our motion capture studio, but also our own innovation and a strong team mean that we can apply ourselves so widely.
Last month you were present at GDC, the largest gaming fair in the world. How important is a participation like this? What do you get out of it?
Iris: At GDC we first and foremost wanted to make good contacts and get feedback. Among other things we showed our teaser for the VR game Hubris. At an event like that you meet so many people, all working in the game industry in all sorts of different parts: distribution, publishing, marketing, hardware, software, production, etc.
The enthusiastic reactions to our teaser are extremely valuable: they give you a boost and perspective and provide new contacts.
For example we sat down at the table with among others Epic Games, Playstation and Oculus, met marketing agencies and consultants, not to mention large game studios that want to outsource parts. What struck us was that everyone likes to share experiences and contacts and to help each other move forward, which at the end of the day is a nice characteristic of game professionals!
Where are the needs for the Belgian animation sector located?
Ives: Most studios in Belgium usually have one or more projects on the go and therefore often go in search of specific artistic profiles. Unfortunately they can’t always be found in Belgium, as a result of which a call is made on artists from France, England or Germany. On the one hand our training courses are not completely tailored to the industry, because it evolves more quickly than the school system. On the other hand the realisation still needs to grow here and there that we ourselves in the industry have to invest in school leavers. That has never not been the case, but it is now more important than ever. The talent is there, but the experience is lacking.
We have students from Howest DAE every year for a traineeship of four months. The training is technical, but also creative and has a wide focus. During their traineeship they can work on all sorts of projects, within a variety of disciplines. In this way they learn to work for customers, with deadlines and within a larger team. In addition they also get the opportunity to carry out different tasks, as a result of which they often know better after this period what they want to major on in the future.
What are your future plans for Cyborn?
Iris: We have grown strongly in a few years. We have now achieved the goals that we had set ourselves prior to that. We have made our first feature film, we have finished our part of a second film and are soon embarking on a third co-production.
At the moment we are consciously trying to look at and improve our internal structure and organisation.
For example, this year we hired our first HR professional, every department has its own head and we have developed our own management tool for clear communication of our HR matters.
We are also going to expand our VR game production further. We are convinced that films and games will increasingly overlap in the future. Stories are already being told in games, and in films, experiments have long been done with different story lines than the classic chronological one. The viewing experience is also becoming ever more important. For example I find it striking that a lot of young people watch Youtube to see how others game.