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Friday, July 28, 2006

SIGGRAPH 2006 story from The Hollywood Reporter (plus bonus material from DNA Productions, Blur Studio, Alligator Planet, and Hatchling Studios)

This piece of mine ran today, I think, in The Hollywood Reporter: `SIGGRAPH 2006: Thanks to inexpensive technology, computer animation is booming. But which companies have what it takes to become the next Pixar?' (SIGGRAPH, for the non-wonks among you, is the massive annual computer graphics and animation conference.)

Here's the opening:

    The field of computer animation is having a "Sorcerer's Apprentice" moment. Like bucket-toting brooms from the 1940 Walt Disney Co. classic "Fantasia," animation firms are replicating at a frenzied rate nationwide, each angling to challenge the dominance of the Big Three producers of child-friendly digital features: Disney's Pixar division, DreamWorks Animation and Fox's Blue Sky Studios.

    When they convene Sunday-Thursday in Boston for the annual Siggraph computer graphics trade show, the crop of fledgling animation studios is likely to discuss the intensifying competition in their business -- for everything from financing to talent to distributors to the best foreign collaborators. Based in such places as Portsmouth, N.H., Dallas and Portland, Ore., these upstarts share two beliefs: that a good story is essential, and that they can make features for a fraction of what the Big Three spend, often by leveraging offshore resources.

Here's some bonus material that didn't make it into the piece...

- Somehow, John Davis, co-founder of Texas-based DNA Productions and writer/director of `The Ant Bully,' got snipped from the story. He told me, “If all the animated films are good movies, then there couldn’t be a better glut. I don’t think there can be a glut of action movies. I think we only have too many if they’re not good.”

“I do think having lower-budget animated films will open the door to having some different stories told," Davis said. "I’d like to see some smaller-budget, independent types of films. The budgets are so huge with Pixar and DreamWorks that they really need to be able to hit the broadest audience possible, and because of that, they’re always going to need to tell a particular type of story.”

I asked Davis about the IMAX 3-D version of `The Ant Bully.' (I happened to interview him while he was doing his approval session for the IMAX version, which he said “looks incredible.”)

“The IMAX guys came out, and we met with them," he said. "We had an IMAX team on site at DNA that did all the IMAX conversion, rendering out the left eye and right eye.”

“Once it was set up, it was fairly painless. The costs were something that Warners and IMAX cover. It is an added expense. It also means that our production couldn’t make use of certain 2-D cheats we’re ordinarily use, with special effects. [With many productions,] there’s smoke and flame and different effects where you can use 2-D. But with the IMAX version, all your effects stuff has to be in the 3-D space, otherwise it’ll look flat. So the IMAX 3-D stuff kept us honest about how we executed all the graphics.”

Davis said that, with a budget of less than $50 million, `The Ant Bully’ is one of the least expensive CG films that’ll be released this summer. They had about 250 people work on it. (Their last CG feature, `Jimmy Neutron,’ was made for $28 million.)

- Ralph Guggenheim of Alligator Planet: “The Weinsteins and Lions Gate have been really active in acquiring animated features for distribution. But there are several others who are now in the emerging new media area. They may not want to distribute features, but shorts and medium-length projects that can be shown on iPods, cell phones, and the Web. We think that’s a really exciting new area” – though it’s still unclear what level of production values the Web can support, he said.

- Tim Miller of Blur Studio told me he “wasn’t bowled over with `Ice Age 2’ or `Cars.’” He said, “We want to do warm and fuzzy, and edgy sci-fi, because I think that’s the next thing. I’d like to do horror CG films, R-rated stuff. Anything is fair game for CG. People just don’t know it yet.” He predicted that CG buddy movies “may burn out” as a genre.

- Marc Dole of Hatchling Studios says, “The average animated film since `Toy Story’ brought in $200 million at the U.S. box office. That doesn’t include `Final Fantasy.’ This year, the number already looks to be down to $111 million.”