Blender Institute strikes again with cult comic Agent 327

A three-minute teaser is out for a forthcoming feature film based on the work of Dutch artist Martin Lodewijk’s classic comics.

By Amina Saeed

After producing many award-winning shorts and raising over a million dollars in crowdfunding for 3D application development, Blender Institute introduces its new project, based on the work of Dutch artist Martin Lodewijk and his classic Agent 327 comics.

The studio has just released  Agent 327: Operation Barbershop, a three-minute animation co-directed by former Pixar artist Colin Levy. Blender Institute says it is a proof of concept for what it hopes will become the first major international animated feature created entirely in open-source software. (A link to the video is at the bottom of the article.)

Agent 327 shows no fear in the barbershop. (Source: Blender Institute)

Since its foundation in 2007, eight acclaimed animated and visual effects shorts have been created by Blender Institute. Cosmos Laundromat won the 2016 Jury Prize at the Siggraph Computer Animation Festival.

Each “open movie” has been created entirely in open source tools, with Blender at the core. Assets from the films are released to the public under a Creative Commons license. The Institute’s crowdfunding platform raised a €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.

Animating a 1970s cult spy thriller

The concept of Agent 327 is similar to James Bond. 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, Agent 327 always pulls it off by relying on his own resourcefulness to get things done. Agent 327 might as well reflect 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 find 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.

A key artistic challenge on the project was translating the stylized look of the original 1970s comics into 3D. Agent 327 has a gigantic nose, gigantic ears, and bags under his eyes. The style varies drastically from Disney movies standards for animated characters.

For the work, the Institute’s modeling and design artists 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 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, significant work done on Blender’s physics-based rendering engine Cycles contributed to the project. Cycles now renders scenes with hair and motion blur 10 times faster than previous versions; it was rolled out in Blender 2.78b in February.

Various images from Attract, the production tracking system in Blender. (Source: Blender)

Work on Blender’s dependency graph, which controls the way a character rig acts upon the geometry of the model, will be released to all users in the next point release (Blender 2.8). Other development work focused on the Blender Institute’s open-source pipeline tools, including render manager Flamenco and production-tracking system Attract.

Seeking A-List contributors

For the Agent 327 movie, the Blender Institute is establishing Blender Animation Studio, a separate department devoted to feature animation, recruiting 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 produces feature animation with world-class visuals and storytelling, created entirely in free and open-source software. 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 one that the Blender Institute hopes will revolutionize feature animation.

Agent 327 investigates a barber shop.  (Source: Blender Institute)