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Saturday, October 15, 2005

CG Animation in San Francisco

The SF Weekly, a free alternative paper in San Francisco, has a great cover story this week about Wild Brain, the fledgling computer animation studio that produced a well-regarded short film called "Hubert's Brain," does a lot of TV commercial work, and also produces a show on the Disney Channel called "Higglytown Heroes."

The company has long wanted to make a full-length feature, to earn a place on the stage next to Pixar and DreamWorks, and to do that, they recently raised about $40 million in venture capital. They've also just hired a new CEO, Charles Rivkin, who executed a turnaround at the Jim Henson Company.

Still, many venture capitalists look at animation studios as a risky bet:

    "The dirty little secret is that most investments in these indie production companies are absolute losers. People do them as vanity investments," says Randy Komisar, a former Lucasfilm president and partner at Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, and one of many potential investors who liked Wild Brain's pitch but ultimately passed. "The Pixars of the world are unusual. What Steve Jobs has done there defies gravity."

Writer Ryan Blitstein also points out that the SF Bay Area has become a real center of gravity for the animation world, as the business has shifted from hand-drawn 2D animation to computer-generated 3D animation:

    The companies drew their talent base and infrastructure from two sources -- Silicon Valley, which matured from a niche business in the 1970s to a major center of commerce by century's end, and the imaginative cartoon and animation studios that have existed here for decades. Through his Industrial Light + Magic (ILM) special effects shop and LucasArts video game division, now housed in the Presidio, [George] Lucas fostered both.

    Emeryville-based Pixar, the king of computer-generated (CG) feature films, used talent and technology cast off by Lucas to make movies that grossed billions at the box office. Although Pixar makes the process seem easy, it's a gargantuan challenge to produce these films, and even harder to remain independent while doing so. Redwood City's PDI helped create Shrek, one of the most successful animated movies of all time, but couldn't survive on its own. The company was bought by DreamWorks, then was spun off last year as part of DreamWorks Animation.

    No digital filmmakers or production houses in San Francisco have even come close to Pixar's achievements, but Wild Brain is one of many in pursuit. In the Presidio, another crop of Lucas expats called the Orphanage is using money earned doing effects for films such as Sin City to help bankroll original productions. South of Market, Giant Killer Robots, which worked on Fantastic Four, has hired several animators, and rumors abound that it'll soon take a stab at a film.


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