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Starlight Brigade: Digital tools enable small studio’s stellar work
As the animation industry embraces worldwide collaborations, studios may transition from physical to digital spaces entirely — particularly given the effort and expense of moving artists to different cities or countries. Knights of the Light Table (KOTLT) is one such pioneering production company, with a team spread across North America, Europe and Asia. Based on their recent work on TWRP’s Starlight Brigade, they are proof the model can rival traditional animation studios.
Knights of the Light Table was founded in August 2018 by Patrick Stannard, a supervising animator at Powerhouse Animation in Austin, Texas. Through his participation with the Game Grumps Animated YouTube series, he met singer-songwriter and Internet personality Dan Avidan. Loving his toons, Avidan invited Stannard to do the animated portions of the hybrid music video for his band Ninja Sex Party’s single, Heart Boner.
After fans fell in love with Heart Boner, Avidan enlisted Stannard to animate the music video for his next track with Canadian band TWRP, Starlight Brigade. Given his full-time schedule at Powerhouse, Stannard decided to create a company and collaborate on the project with trusted friends and animators around the world — and thus the Knights of the Light Table were assembled.
Source: Knights of the Light Table
“Knights of the Light Table only works because of the age we live in,” says Stannard. “Our process is not that different from a normal boutique animation studio, it’s just that everything is done though Discord, Google Spreadsheets and Dropbox. Everything needs a spreadsheet.”
Stannard had worked with Dublin-based British animator India Swift previously and invited her to be Starlight Brigade’s director. This is positive break from industry trends. A recent study found that only three percent of animated film directors from the last 12 years were women.
Her partner, Scottish colourist Michael Doig, joined her as Starlight Brigade’s art director and the rest of the eight-person team formed from there. With artists across three continents, logistics and time differences were challenging, but Stannard had the system down to a science — relying on organization, communication and digital animation suites like Toon Boom software.
KOTLT created out-of-this-world animation with Harmony
TWRP and Avidan came to the table with strong visual references, including 80s and 90s anime and the work of Studio Ghibli. Additionally, given the narrative nature of the song’s lyrics, they drew inspiration from Star Wars: A New Hope. Beyond that, KOTLT was given creative freedom.
Starlight Brigade was created in a Toon Boom Harmony pipeline, with planning and storyboarding beginning in Toon Boom Storyboard Pro. This streamlined process benefited KOTLT’s tight time budget. Fortunately, throughout animation, Harmony’s features allowed team members to work from their own space at their own pace.
They were able to create files with individual collections of write nodes — including for each character, ship and set of effects. Animators could have two instances of Toon Boom Harmony open and copy and paste from one node graph to another. This saved galaxies of time when it came to writing paths and exporting scenes, especially given there were 132 shots in total.
Saving brushes also helped the team share their inking brushes with each other instead of explaining their look and how they work.
“Saving brushes was really important because we wanted Starlight Brigade to look traditional; we created a set of custom brushes based on the way anime line art looks — it’s very traditional and has a slight dithering. Being able to share the brush sets really helped keep the inking uniform,” Swift explains.
Source: Knights of the Light Table
She continues, “The library was also really useful because we could have local and global versions, which meant we could transfer chunks of scenes between people without needing to dip into five or six different files to find them.”
Stannard follows this up with, “The simple fact that Harmony is a digital program is invaluable — if this were paper, we would be in a different situation. Having files, especially vector files, that are smaller than something that’s rasterized makes sending them to people a lot easier.”
The Knights could rely on the software’s stability, even working with Dropbox. Doig recalls he had seven instances of Harmony running at the same time with no issues. As the producer and chief organizer of the project, Stannard found the ‘save as new version’ option was also essential in helping him keep track of modifications.
Heading into post-production and compositing, Doig says, "The colouring system in Toon Boom allowed the flexibility to change palates on the fly and meant that I could really test each scene with their base local colours. Because I could slightly tweak them after each frame had been coloured, I had a lot of flexibility to hone what I wanted for each character per scene.”
Source: Knights of the Light Table
He continues, “I also really like that you could vectorize the line art down to the colour art layer; Toon Boom allows you to have these different modes per layer so we could keep the line art and colour separately. When it came to using Harmony’s write nodes, I had essentially looked at the network graph and created write notes for each particular layer, which meant I could export them all with one button. I specified the path for each write note to export to our Dropbox folder and used relative paths so anyone from any location could export a scene to the Dropbox and it would be centralized to that location.”
Having streamlined the borderless pipeline, process and production on Starlight Brigade, the results speak for themselves — largely through a constellation of rave reviews and over 2 million views on YouTube in less than a month. One Comicbook.com critic enthuses, “The song features Dan Avidan of Game Grumps fame, and the song is good, but arguably its real power lies in the stunningly animated music video itself.”
In her glowing Starlight Brigade reaction video, YouTuber IAmZamber Reacts exclaims, “The animation has been top-notch, they went all out on this.”
She compares the animation to Studio Ghibli and continues, “There are certain images and ideas that can not be translated to live-action, and this is one of them.”
Following the success of Starlight Brigade, the sky’s the limit for Knights of the Light Table. The team is already working on their next production using Toon Boom software, though they can’t speak about it just yet.
Swift says, “It’s really important to show people what a small team can do, especially with software like Toon Boom. I think a lot of people feel there’s a wall between them and being able to make something that feels professional, and I really want to show what you can do if you put in the work and you’ve got a good team together.”
She continues, “The software that’s out there nowadays can allow small teams to create things that rival productions by massive 100-people companies. It’s really motivating and I hope Starlight Brigade inspires a new wave of creatives to try their hand at making something polished and professional.”
Given what Swift and the Knights achieved, they have doubtlessly inspired other animators to shoot for the stars.
Starlight Brigade credits:
Patrick Stannard - Producer
India Swift - Director
Michael Doig - Art Director
Elle Power - Lead Animator
Noitibmar - Lead FX Animator
Thomas Poole - FX Animator
David Liu - Lighting and Clean Up Artist
Renee Violet - Background Artist
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Banner image source: TWRP YouTube channel