With the mischievous, comical and somewhat excitable character, Axel, Axelent has created an animated figure that, with a good portion of humour, presents the company’s products in a variety of settings for a global customer base. Anders Martinsson, the animator behind Axel, talks about how Axel came to life and what it is that gives him, and other animated characters, their personalities.
When Anders Martinsson first became interested in computer-animated graphics some 20 years ago, internet was not as widespread as it is today and not many people had heard of 3D graphics. Software was not readily available and there would hardly have been any courses on the subject.
How did you get started with 3D graphics in the first place?
I began with 3D as a hobby when I was fifteen and felt it was something I’d really like to have as a job. But when the time was ripe for me to step up to higher education roughly five years later, there weren’t that many software programs to choose from.
One of the few courses in Sweden that I did find was at the School of Future Entertainment in the small town of Karlshamn on the Swedish east coast. It was a long way from the large cities where one would expect to find advanced courses on the subject, and even further from Sjömarken where I grew up 51 kilometres east of Gothenburg as the crow flies. But it was a school focused entirely on 3D graphics with the onus on computer games and commercials.
I studied day and night for two years and during my internship at production company Fido Film in Stockholm. They, in their turn, hired me out to Visual Art, my first real graphics job. After just a couple of weeks there, a fellow internee recommended me to computer game developer Massive Entertainment in Malmö. I spent four years there and was part of the team that developed the strategy game World of Conflict, which sold nearly a million copies. Today the company is owned by Ubisoft, part of the team that develops games like Assassin’s Creed and Tom Clancy's The Division.
After a few years in Malmö, my girlfriend and I moved back to Gothenburg to be closer to our families again. I worked with the visualisation of architecture and animations in commercials and other types of marketing material. But the job was more about leadership than creativity. So in 2010 I started my own business, Pixel Valley, and hired myself out to a company that also worked with 3D graphics. A few years later we moved to Varberg, 70 kilometres south of Gothenburg along the west coast. Today I work on commercials and animations for companies, and my company is part of a freelance collective where we help each other with larger projects.
For you as an animator, what is the biggest difference in working with films compared to computer games?
Working with animated films is a lot freer than developing computer games because there is no performance budget to consider like there always is with computer game development. Otherwise the processes are not that different. Just like with computer games, you create a storyboard and script that captures the action in a number of picture frames. And the same software is often used in both. The biggest difference is in the end product and how it’s delivered.
When did you begin doing assignments for Axelent?
In 2016. The task was to create stills of their products using 3D graphics. They were then placed in photos of genuine settings that a production company had photographed. After a while everybody realised that it would be a lot simpler for me to create the background settings myself on a computer.
I now have several background settings that can be used for Axelent’s products, and animated films with Axel in the main role. Settings like a sawmill, an airport and a car factory. It makes it easier and gives me greater freedom to create good animations compared to using photos from actual settings.
How was Axel brought to life?
To make a character you need a reference point. I got ideas from Disney, commercials and other places that the people at Axelent thought were good. From there I began to sketch a new character together with an employee of mine, Simon Algehov. Axelent weren’t happy with any of the first seven or eight suggestions we came up with. Following a brainstorming meeting here at Pixel Valley with two of Axelent’s representatives, a new suggestion was put forward that Axelent accepted. Throughout the process we have had a good dialogue and good cooperation, which is just as it should be, in my opinion. We began work in 2017 and had plenty of time. We looked at as many as 15 character suggestions, which I’m very pleased about. A tight timeframe can make a project very stressful. It is difficult to achieve an equally good result as we’ve done with Axel.
When the character was ready in 2D we began creating it in the 3D programme. There’s a big difference compared to the two dimensional sketch. We had to fix a few details and send a couple of new versions to Axelent for approval. The last step in the creation, before you begin animating the character, is to enable it to move. You do this by recreating a skeleton and muscle system inside the three dimensional figure.
What are the most important expressions for an animated character?
The eyes are always the most important. If you fail with the eyes the character will never feel good or lifelike. That’s why animated characters nearly always have big eyes. They communicate so much more.
In addition to good and expressive eyes, the character must also have an attractive silhouette and shape. So the eyes and the silhouette are what I work most on. If a character has a good silhouette it will be recognised even when not perfectly visible. Figures like Super Mario, Batman and Jack Sparrow are instantly recognisable from their silhouettes alone. I know because I’ve tested it on university students I teach.
What is Axel like as a person?
He’s rather mischievous and a bit clumsy. He’s also quite nervous. Not strange really considering he has to make his way past a large circular saw in a sawmill in one of the animations. But he gets calmer, the more of Axelent's products that are placed around the machines. He’s funny as well. Humour is a vital element in these films.
How does the creation of animated films differ from traditional filming?
They’re similar to a certain extent. In both you create a storyboard with sketches on frames that show the action. But rendering the frames to animated film can be extremely time-consuming. In this case up to four hours. But then you have to remember it takes 25 frames to make one second of film. So to avoid taking two years to make a two-minute film I have powerful computers that do the job for me.
What are the advantages of communicating through animated characters?
First and foremost the recognition factor. Creating something that will always be directly associated with the company and the products. In time people begin to associate the character with the company without seeing the company logotype.
The character becomes unique and the customer can tailor everything to suit. It’s common for similar companies to mimic each other in their marketing. But mimicking characters is difficult and time-consuming. Having an own character that’s associated with your company helps you stand out in your industry.
It’s fun as well! People get impatient quickly on the internet. A fun character in a film will keep them interested longer. You can also create products around the character; soft animals, plastic figures, costumes etc.
Also, an animated figure can present complex and technical processes in an easy way. For example, the character and product can be placed in a completely white room with nothing to distract the presentation.
You’re not dependent on actors having the time to take part and there are no limitations to what an animated character can do. You can send it to outer space if necessary.
In your opinion, what has Axelent achieved by creating Axel as part of their marketing strategy?
Axel has given them more eye-catching marketing material than what they used before and which stands out from their competitors. He’s a unique character who will always be associated with the company and the products, and who greatly improves the recognition factor.
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