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CGIFeature Film

‘Agent 327: Operation Barbershop’ Trailer: How Blender Was Used To Pull Off Hollywood-Level Animation

The Blender Institute has unveiled its newest project showing off the capabilities of its open source Blender 3D and animation toolset. The project is a character study based on Martin Lodewijk’s beloved Dutch comic series Agent 327 and is intended to become a feature film project.

Called Operation Barbershop, the animation test sees Agent 327’s adversary ambush him while he is searching for clues, which turns into a comical fight scene. The work was done almost completely inside Blender, taking advantage of the software’s continual community development, and followed a typical Hollywood production process.

Cartoon Brew spoke to Ton Roosendaal, chairman of the Blender Foundation and director of the Blender Institute, about achieving the high quality of Operation Barbershop and about the road ahead for the planned feature.

The role of Blender

Blender is of course an extremely popular tool, but it’s not always considered a go-to tool for Hollywood-level productions. This Operation Barbershop short is aimed at proving the software is capable of handling feature-quality work.

“Blender has been ready for Hollywood-quality for years,” Roosendaal told Cartoon Brew. “As we all know, it mostly depends on the creative powers you can unleash on it. Put really good people together and you are ready to go. The recent news about Barnstorm VFX using Blender for The Man in the High Castle is a good example for that. It’s a carefully crafted marketing delusion to think that proprietary tools like Maya will turn you into a great artist.”

Blender's Grease Pencil interface.
Blender’s Grease Pencil interface.

“On the other hand,” added Roosendaal, “our work on Blender is never done. We know its strengths and its weaknesses. The massive Blender 2.8 ‘Workflow’ project is meant to solve quite some of these, especially by upgrading the viewport to render realtime PBR (physically based rendering), and allowing you to configure Blender to match individual workflows better – including better integration of Blender in a mixed production pipeline.”

In a post on the Blender Cloud site in April 2016 announcing the project, Roosendaal also set out the intentions of the animation test. “From a (technical) Blender point of view, this work will give us nice new challenges. We’ll have to bring cartoony but convincing characters alive, made in a style somewhere inside the triangle Big Hero 6, How to Train Your Dragon and Despicable Me. We will use Blenrig extensively, the new dependency graph, OpenSubdiv, the new widgets, (a bit of) cloth sim, and we will align with the recode of mesh display and modifiers, to make it ready for the first generation of ‘everything’ nodes.”

Agent 327 model.
Agent 327 model.
Road to a feature

Before any production took place in Blender, Roosendaal first looked for a suitable theme or story to adapt to a feature film. He figured the Agent 327 series, already hugely popular in Holland, would appeal to international audiences. But he was also aware that launching into a feature project would require significant story development and funding. So, to begin with, the Agent 327 project was imagined simply as a test. This would be funded directly via the Institute’s income from its Blender Cloud service.

“That’s what we know how to do best,” said Roosendaal of the decision to do a test. “We also want to research and explore how to handle this comic and how to bring it to the screen as an animation movie.”

Face shapes.
Face shapes.

Animation director Hjalti Hjalmarsson pitched an idea for the comical fight scene in Operation Barbershop. Initial storyboards were supplemented with others from storyboard artist Matias Mendiola who used Blender’s Grease Pencil 2d animation. Pixar alumnus Colin Levy also came on board as co-director with Hjalmarsson. Most of the production was handled out of Blender’s studio in Amsterdam, with remote contributions in the areas of storyboarding, rigging, sound, and grading.

Animating Agent 327

Artists completed Operation Barbershop inside Blender, with some work done in digital painting software Krita and other tools. To help speed up production, Blender’s software team worked to optimize rendering of motion blur in Cycles (Blender’s rendering engine) and to deliver efficient cloth simulation times.

Work in progress animation frame.
Work in progress animation frame.

“Meanwhile,” said Roosendaal, “two people in the studio worked on our shot and task management software [named Attract], and on a very sophisticated render manager. These work entirely in Blender Cloud, which is perfect for remote work and collaboration. These features will become available for Cloud subscribers in the coming months. And of course, the software is on blender.org’s Git server for everyone.”

Roosendaal says the animation test is just the beginning. The team has signed with an unnamed Hollywood agent for representation and is talking right now to investors, sales agencies, and possible co-production partners. “We expect that the Operation Barbershop release will help us get connected even better, and we look forward to discuss agreements to further develop and produce the movie,” Roosendaal said.

You can follow the progress of the Agent 327 project at www.agent327.com.

Agent 327: Operation Barbershop poster.
Agent 327: Operation Barbershop poster.
  • Very cool. Inspiring.

  • Santosh OOmmen

    pretty amazing. Well done work! The animation, lighting, modeling and texture are tops!

  • Jack Rabbit

    As good as Get Smart!

  • Richard

    I would totally see the movie version of this. Not only because of the animation, but because of how funny and clever it is.

  • UsaMiKo

    I have one thing to say about this.

    FINALLY !

    Being a content creator right now is so exciting! There’s so many options out there for creators who can’t afford incredibly expensive software; Krita, Rough Animator, Natron, HitFilm, Filmstro, Animation Paper 5.0 ( eventually, hopefully) not to mention all the alternatives to Wacom products. Not seeing enough people taking advantage of all this stuff is just frustrating! Maybe Ton’s right about the creative power and the right people just aren’t finding these, or maybe these products don’t work in practice as good as they do in theory. Whatever the reason, I’m just glad to see people coming together to put such powerful tools to good use. I really hope this goes somewhere great.

  • Truly impressed with the work done for this short – both in the storytelling and animation. Didn’t even feel it was like 3 minutes. Great work!

  • Elsi Pote

    Damn it Hajlti and Colin good job!

    We should be supporting more projects like this.

  • Mike Robertson

    This is not hollywood quality animation. It’s very good but not at that level yet. Being an animator myself, the animation felt very pose to posey and didn’t have good polish. Overall it’s a very good work but lets not get carried away.

    • Alex Curtis

      I think the term “Animation” is being applied more broadly here. Yes, the character animation itself is pretty pose-to-posey, but there is a lot of incredible work on display. The title and article are mainly saying “Hey, Blender can do more than you think it can. It could power a feature film.”

      I think that’s accurate.

    • Cameron Ward

      Yeah I agree, the movements feel stiff and while i think it’s overall pretty solid, they need to do something to make the body movements smoother.

    • Jk

      It is also possible that you’re referencing an animation style (like Pixar or Disney’s) and establishing it as “the right way to do it”. I find this animation more believable and engaging than floaty Disney style.

    • foxyshadis

      Tweening is one of the most time-consuming drudgeries of animation. It’s not particularly important that they didn’t spend an extra year (or hire a dozen more people) to polish it up to the level of a top-three studio, they got it out the door as a serious proof of concept that it can be done.

  • Cameron Ward

    while I think the movements could be better, i think this is pretty impressive. I liked the overall video. It has good action, good jokes, and it’s very impressive. I could definitely see this being a fun movie if handled properly.

  • Adnan

    This looks like a lot of fun, irrespective of the tools used. On top of that, I think it is fantastic to see how capable open source tools are in the hands of talented artists.

  • Steph Whittaker

    This is so inspiring!

  • Gresthol

    ¡Blender es amor!
    For those who don’t understand Spanish:
    Blender is love!

  • Michel Van

    I love the original Comic by Martin Lodewijk. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_327
    i saw current Operation Barbershop trailer and i’m delighted
    The really capture the Comic style and Humor and this for a Blender Team !
    I hope they can produce the Movie “Operation Barbershop”

    • Mesterius

      Well, I think “Operation Barbershop” is just the title for this short… the full movie would likely have a much bigger scope and many more settings. But I too would love to see a full feature film of this. :)