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The Blender Institute has just released the three-minute teaser of the Agent 327 project. Watch it online now!

Award-winning open-source studio Blender Institute releases ambitious three-minute teaser for full-length animated feature based on Dutch artist Martin Lodewijk's classic comics.

Amsterdam, Netherlands (May 15, 2017) – It has created a string of award-winning shorts, raised over a million dollars in crowdfunding, and helped to shape development of the world's most popular 3D application. But now Blender Institute has embarked on its most ambitious project to date. The studio has just released Agent 327: Operation Barbershop: a three-minute animation based on Martin Lodewijk's cult comics, and co-directed by former Pixar artist Colin Levy – and the proof of concept for what it hopes will become the first major international animated feature created entirely in open-source software.

A history of award-winning open movies

Since its foundation in 2007, Blender Institute has created eight acclaimed animated and visual effects shorts, culminating in 2015's Cosmos Laundromat, winner of the Jury Prize at the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival. Each 'open movie' has been created entirely in open-source tools – including Blender, the world's most widely used 3D software, whose development is overseen by the Institute's sister organization, the Blender Foundation.

Assets from the films are released to the public under a Creative Commons license, most recently via Blender Cloud, the Institute's crowdfunding platform, also used to raise the €300,000 budget for Agent 327: Operation Barbershop. Based on Martin Lodewijk's cult series of comics, the three-minute movie teaser brings the Dutch artist's underdog secret agent vividly to life.

Creating a cult spy thriller

“Agent 327 is the Netherlands' answer to James Bond,” said producer Ton Roosendaal, original creator of the Blender 3D software. “He's fighting international supervillains, but the underfunded Dutch secret service agency doesn't have the resources of MI6. Rather than multi-million-dollar gadgets, he has to rely on his own resourcefulness to get things done – and in the end, he always pulls it off. To me, that also reflects the spirit of Blender itself.”

Created by a core team of 10 artists and developers over the course of a year, Operation Barbershop sees Agent 327 going undercover in an attempt to uncover a secret criminal lair. Confronted first by the barbershop's strangely sinister owner, then his old adversary Boris Kloris, Agent 327 becomes embroiled in a life-or-death struggle – only to confront an even more deadly peril in the shop's hidden basement.

Translating a 1970s comic icon into 3D

A key artistic challenge on the project was translating the stylized look of the original 1970s comics into 3D. “Agent 327 doesn't fit the American design template for animated characters,” says Blender Institute pipeline TD Francesco Siddi. “He has a gigantic nose, gigantic ears, and bags under his eyes. How many Disney movies do you see with characters like that?”

For the work, the Institute's modeling and design artists, led by Blender veteran Andy Goralczyk, carried out a series of look development tests. Concept designs were created in open-source 2D painting software Krita, while test models were created in Blender itself, and textured in GIMP.

Another issue was balancing action and storytelling. Although a richly detailed piece, Operation Barbershop isn't a conventional animated short, but a proof of concept for a movie. It's designed to introduce Agent 327's universe, and to leave the viewer wanting more. To achieve the right mix of narrative and exposition, Colin Levy and co-director and lead animator Hjalti Hjálmarsson ping-ponged ideas off one another, mixing animated storyboards, live action, and 3D previs.

Building an open-source feature animation pipeline

As with all of the Institute's open movies, technical development on the project feeds back into public builds of Blender. In the case of Operation Barbershop, the work done on Cycles, the software's physically based render engine – which now renders scenes with hair and motion blur 10 times faster – was rolled out in Blender 2.78b in February. Work on Blender's dependency graph, which controls the way a character rig acts upon the geometry of the model, will follow in the upcoming Blender 2.8. “For users, it's going to mean much better performance, enabling much more complex animation set-ups than are possible now,” says Siddi.

Other development work focused on the Blender Institute's open-source pipeline tools: render manager Flamenco and production-tracking system Attract. “The pipeline for making shorts in Blender is already super-solid, but we wanted to build a workflow that could be used on a feature film,” says Siddi. “Operation Barbershop was great for identifying areas for improvement, like the way we manage asset libraries.”

Joining Hollywood's A-list

For the Agent 327 movie itself, the Blender Institute is establishing Blender Animation Studio, a separate department devoted to feature animation, for which it aims to recruit a team of 80 artists and developers from its international network. To help raise the film's proposed budget of €14 million, the Institute has signed with leading talent agency WME, which also represents A-list Hollywood directors like Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and Michael Bay.

“Blender Animation Studio is devoted to producing feature animation with world-class visuals and storytelling, created entirely in free and open-source software,” says founder and producer Ton Roosendaal, “We've proved that Blender can create stunning short films. Now we aim to create stunning features, while building and sharing a free software production pipeline.”

Although the Agent 327 movie isn't the first film to be created in Blender – a distinction that belongs to 2010 Argentinean animated comedy Plumíferos – it will be by far the largest and most ambitious, and one that the Blender Institute hopes will revolutionize feature animation.

“As an independent studio, we're in the unique position of being in complete control of the tools we use in production,” says Roosendaal. “That's a luxury enjoyed only by the world's largest animation facilities. We intend to create movies that redefine the concept of independent animated feature production.”

Watch Agent 327: Operation Barbershop now on agent327.com.

 

About Author

Bart Veldhuizen

I have a LONG history with Blender – I wrote some of the earliest Blender tutorials, worked for Not a Number and helped run the crowdfunding campaign that open sourced Blender (the first one on the internet!). I founded BlenderNation in 2006 and have been editing it every single day since then ;-)

40 Comments

  1. Astro1derboy on

    This is utterly fantastic! I want to see more! Love it! Love it! Love it! (For those who've doubted the true capabilities of B3D over the years, I really hope this latest proof-of-concept settles their doubt.) Congratulations to the team. Quality work! I cannot wait to see the feature-length version!! (THUMBS UP!)

  2. best damn blender institute project so far.......really hated the "artsy" stuff they would put out previously...kinda liked sintel though

    • Children are the true test, as they're not looking out for render quality, clever physics, improvements to hair quality, etc. For my kids the verdict was:

      Big Buck Bunny: Good. Laughed a lot - but they were small then.
      Tears of Steel: So so... can we go now?
      Sintel: Good. Got very involved, great art, moving story.
      Cosmos suicidal sheep: Total fail. Blank faces start to finish, wondered what was going on.
      Agent 327: I expect they'll think it's a cartoon version of Rowan Atkinson playing Mr Bean...

      • Isn't there already enough aimed at family's and children? I understand where you are coming from but there is a great opportunity for film like this with more sophisticated humour.

      • You wrote: "Children are the true test,[ ] -but they were small then."
        So how old must they be in order for their opinion to count?
        Furthermore: "Agent 327: I expect they'll think [ ]..."
        That's not their opinion, that's what you think their opinion will be...

      • Animation is a medium not a genre. A horror movie is a genre it's supposed to be scary, an action movie is supposed to be full of action, a comedy is supposed to be funny.

        An animated movie can be a kids movie, a sci-fi flick, a space opera,a horror, a comedy, an action adventure, a fantasy movie. Where ever a directors vision takes them.

        I love Disney but I think their reach and influence in western animation means that people only ever see animated movies as something for kids.

        The Japanese, god bless them, seem to understand this better than most but in the West this seems like a real struggle and so things like Heavy Metal are ever rarely made and things like "The Goon" rot in development hell.

      • Whenever the topic of animation style comes up here, I always say how I wish the Blender Institute would create something that does not *look* like a children's animation. So here we are again, with more child-friendly bug-eyed characters/villains, and another dark theme that simply doesn't fit the comedy appearance and slapstick action (like that miserable sheep). I just want the Blender Institute to engage a wider range of artists and burst out with something truly innovative. Strangely, my kids' main reaction was that Agent 327's voice was wrong.

  3. This was FANTASTIC! Congratulations to the whole team! Everything, from the writing and concept to the virtually flawless execution, this can compete at every level in the "Big Leagues".

  4. This is awesome.
    Great animation and lighting. Lots of details in the all the props. Good introduction to the story (I want to know more...). Even all the fun touches here and there works very well (which is not always easy to achieve).

    Amazing job guys!
    Easily one of my preferred Blender Institute projects so far.

  5. Brian Lockett on

    ...Now, this is what I love in animated form.

    Comedy, action, and a noticeable hint of Pixar spirit. *thumbs up*

  6. This is absolutely fabulous! I used to read Agent 327 all the time when I was young and I loved it! Usually, this means, not liking the movie, but in this case, the feel and look and athmosphere are exactly right, I think!!! No other words for it: just GREAT!

  7. Really good looking. After seeing some pics from the original comic, I'm happy they made that woman agent more decent and not naughty.

  8. Top notch work! -- but I can't help but notice the cycles noise popping up in backgrounds especially during fast camera movements. I can't wait for a good denoising solution in Blender.

  9. I thought it was of a really high standard. I wonder what Martin Lodewijk thinks of it? I presume a movie can only go ahead if he agrees to use of his characters.
    It worries me a little to think of the time/cost of so much action and detail if it was sustained through 90 minutes but this is definitely the most marketable movie yet. Has this met with Dutch Film funding criteria or is the full movie to be funded by other means I wonder?
    The animation was miles ahead of the first Blender movie for sure. I felt the lip synch/voicing was a little off here and there but nothing too bad.
    Well done Blender Studio team!

  10. PickleJones on

    I actually saw this article first on FXguide.com I was pleased to find anything about Blender written up there. Less pleased to find that article mostly plagiarized this one word for word but whatevs. Great job blender team!

    • I compared both articles and couldn't find any "plagiarizing" at all! Please watch what you're saying before accusing someone of criminal activity!!!!

      • PickleJones on

        Really? You compared them and couldn't find any plagiarizing at all? Really? You compared them? Like how? How did you do that? Because I used my eyes. Also Ctrl+F is good for finding identical phrases. The paragraphs starting with the following phrases are exact copies (not an exhaustive list):
        "For the agent 327 movie itself"
        "For the work"
        "Another issue was balancing"

        Also plagiarism isn't criminal activity for blogs, just shitty. Sorry for the bristley demeanor... But don't say you checked it out for yourself when you didn't.

      • PickleJones on

        So glad I have the anonymity of the internet right now and can just sheepishly hide behind my handle. Thanks for setting me straight and @spikey please forgive the smarm.

  11. Well sure, because at the time of "Geri's Game" Pixar was no subsidiary of Disney, they only had a contract for three full feature length animation movies (which were "Toy Story", "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story 2"). But when "Up" was released, Pixar was already a division of Disney and movies now branded as Disney Pixar movies.

  12. Okay I am just going to say it even though everyone else is thinking it.... Where is Olga Lawina? I think the next thing you guys need to be showing us is your work on her and see the different steps you are taking to design, model, and animate her.

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