Film: Feature Frenzy
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 6 (June 2003)

Film: Feature Frenzy

Last month, while I was gathering information about ILM's OpenEXR image-file format, I interviewed Gregor vom Scheidt, founder of NXN, who said something in passing that stunned me. Apparently, soon after NXN announced that Pixar Animation Studios had purchased its alienbrain software, he estimated that 40 studios working on CG feature films called NXN to ask about asset management for their projects. "Obviously the features are at different stages of maturity," vom Scheidt pointed out. It seemed like a lot, but to my surprise, once I began looking for examples and watching for announcements, I began to see a constant flow of 3D feature-film news items.
Barbara Robertson is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and a freelance journalist specializing in computer graphics, visual effects, and animation. She can be reached at

Why so many? Cer-tainly, the major studios have noticed the driving success of the first CG films—Disney/Pixar's Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, and Monsters, Inc.; then Dreamworks/PDI's Shrek; and most recently Fox/Blue Sky Studio's Ice Age, all among the top 100 revenue-generating films of all time, each earning hundreds of millions of dollars. Indeed, the only CG movie to fail at the box office has been Final Fantasy, a technically sophisticated but expensive-to-produce, photo-surrealistic action/adventure story populated with digital humans.

"I think 3D allows us to tell a slightly different kind of story than 2D does, to create new, fully rounded worlds with extraordinary amounts of magic, fantasy, and great humor," says Penney Finkelman Cox, executive producer of Shrek, producer of Dreamworks' Prince of Egypt, and now executive vice president of Sony Pictures Animation. "Unlike 2D, there are no formulaic rules."

The first 3D feature animations were created by people who helped invent the medium, who relied on proprietary software honed for more than a decade, and who had partners with deep pockets. Until recently, the question in many peoples' minds was whether studios without those advantages could produce successful 3D features, even if they had a good story.

With such stars as Louis Gossett Jr., Val Kilmer, and Eric Idle in the voice cast, Fathom Studios has high hopes for Delgo, its independently produced 3D feature animation.
© 2003 Electric Eye Entertainment Corp.

The answer appeared in the form of two features, Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, both produced by smallish studios—albeit ones with long histories in 3D computer graphics—using off-the-shelf software.

Chicago-based Big Idea modeled, animated, and rendered its Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie entirely with Alias|Wavefront's Maya software. Moreover, the feature film was largely self-financed with sales of half-hour Veggie Tales videos—more than 30 million in the past 10 years.

Austin-based DNA's Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, which was modeled and rendered in NewTek's LightWave and animated with pmG Group's project:messiah, received a nomination for the first Best Animated Feature Oscar alongside Monsters, Inc. and Shrek (which won). By the time Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies put the O Entertainment and Nickelodeon Production into movie studios, Jimmy was already a television star, thanks to Nickelodeon.

I decided to check in with Big Idea, DNA, and others newly entering the field.

Before Jonah, Big Idea had a staff of approximately 30 people with a garage-band mentality who produced Veggie Tales videos. To create Jonah, the staff more than tripled in size. Now, it's back to a small creative group.

"We couldn't fund our second theatrical release fast enough to keep our team together," says founder Phil Vischer. "Everyone wanted to wait until they knew how Jonah would do. We realized the week we'd scheduled the wrap party that we'd have to lay off half the studio. It broke my heart." Rather than building back up for a second in-house feature, Big Idea will have the core creative team do pre- and postproduction in-house and hire an outside firm for animation—probably in a country where salaries are lower and/or tax incentives are higher. "We have people interested in funding a second film, and they are almost mandating that the film not be produced in the US," he says.

"It's very tricky to be independent," Vischer cautions. "If you release a family film widely, everybody needs to know about it. So you must have something people already want to see, or someone has to spend upwards of $30 million to get an audience to care about your idea. You almost have to give your film to a major studio to have a chance."

For Jimmy Neutron, DNA worked with Nickelodeon, which created Jimmy awareness on national television and on a Web site long before the movie's release. Now, DNA pays the bills with work on the Jimmy Neutron television series. Even so, after Jimmy, the company had to cut about half the crew, shrinking it from some 150 to around 70, although that is starting to grow as it staffs up for the second feature.

"Our next film will have a bigger budget, but will still be small compared to projects from Pixar and PDI," says DNA founder John Davis, noting that Jimmy Neutron's budget was $28 million. (The new film, The Ant Bully, is being produced with Tom Hanks' Playtone through Warner Bros; Hanks, a Jimmy Neutron fan, brought the idea to Davis.)

Davis believes that by using off-the-shelf software, DNA gives power to artists rather than programmers, which creates quicker turnaround and lower production costs. "You can get lost in the tools and not know when to stop," he says. "Imposing limitations causes you to become creative." He cites Jimmy Neutron's Yolkians as an example. The studio worried about the rendering implications for the thousands of aliens. "We thought, 'what if they were just little spheres,'" Davis says. "And that led to the egg thing, which gave us a theme. We had egg creatures [the Yolkians] and a chicken ship."

Like Big Idea, Atlanta-based Fathom Studios is trying to build an independent studio while creating its feature animation Delgo: A Hero's Journey. "Independent doesn't mean inexpensive," says Marc C. Adler, producer and co-director. "It means without Hollywood relationships. We understand the production elements, but the business side is the complication. It is a huge learning curve."

© 2002 Sony Pictures Imageworks, Inc.

Oscar-winning short "The ChubbChubbs" (top) proved to Sony Pictures Imageworks that its pipeline could handle a feature animation. Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (above) was Big Idea's first feature. © 2003 Big Idea Productions, Inc.

Although privately financed, Fathom recognizes it'll soon need a "Hollywood" distribution partner. "People are taking note," Adler says optimistically. "We have a timely story about world unity and bankable stars in our voice cast. Groups are coming to us. They're finding us because of the press coverage and our Web site." The Delgo crew posts production notes on its Web site (, providing an ongoing and rare inside look at the making of a feature animation.

Another way to create a 3D feature animation is exemplified by the newly formed Sony Feature Animation division, which will leverage the animation and visual effects expertise in Sony Pictures Imageworks for its debut into 3D filmmaking. Imageworks' Oscar-winning short film, "The ChubbChubbs," proved that feature animation and visual effects work could happen at the same time on the same pipeline. "We don't have to worry about having one feature right behind the last one because we have a viable and successful visual effects business," says Tim Sarnoff, Imageworks' president. "But we also want to deliver our own animated projects because we believe we can tell good stories and we believe it's a good business to be in." In anticipation, Imageworks, now at around 600 people, expects to grow to 700 by the end of the year.

Similarly, the venerable, privately owned effects studio Rhythm & Hues recognizes that its pipeline could easily be used for a feature animation. One of the projects in R&H's film division is Armour Star, a CG film being developed by senior animation director Bill Kroyer, who directed Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest. Kroyer, however, believes the drive to make a 3D animated feature doesn't seem as important as it once did. "We're doing more character animation in our visual effects projects now than we would if we were doing an animated feature," Kroyer says. And that causes him to wonder how long the words "3D animated film" will have meaning. "We're entering a new period in which we can make any image, and the audience won't know where reality stopped and fantasy began," Kroyer says. "It's a new era in imagination."

This new kind of 3D film is exciting to creative people, and their energy will help drive the films' success.