Independent - Minded
Interviewed by Chief Editor Karen Moltenbrey
A look at the highlights and hurdles of indie studios trying to make thier mark in the CG film industry
The October 2006 editorial, "A Taste of Independence" (pg. 1), pointed to a growing trend in the field of CG animation: a substantial increase in the number of 3D animated feature films, by independent studios, making their debut in theaters nationwide. Most recently, these have included the nostalgic baseball-themed Everyone’s Hero, from IDT Entertainment (now part of Starz), and The Ant Bully, from DNA Productions, Legendary Pictures, and Playtone, which offers an ant’s-eye view of the world.
These independent movies did not reap the same box-office success as those from the large studios. But due to their streamlined production, independent movies do not require the same huge revenue to turn a healthy profit. Moreover, indie films often bring something new and fresh to the big screen. It’s the freshness of story ideas, the character designs, and the worlds they exist within that enables independents to compete in this market, says Mark Thielen, crowd animation supervisor on The Ant Bully. Frank Gladstone, vice president of artistic development on Everyone’s Hero, concurs, noting that as an independent, you get to make up your own rules. "And you have to use your imagination because, generally, your budgets are smaller and you have to figure out more effective ways to do things," he adds. "Necessity is the mother of invention, and that is really true."
Producing an independent CG animated film not only requires imagination, but also skill, tenacity, a bit of luck, and more, as Gladstone (now VP of artistic development at Starz) and The Ant Bully director John Davis discuss below. To see the full interviews, along with comments from Thielen, visit the Computer Graphics World Web site at www.cgw.com
Was this your first indie film?
Gladstone: I did my first CG project, a commercial, in the early ’80s. I was an independent animator and had a small studio in Miami, where I did indie films—lots of short films—before moving to the large-studio world. Within the Hollywood system, I have worked on several CG films, including Shrek 2 and Shark Tale. So, I have seen it from both sides, from the independent ‘seat of your pants’ way of making animated pictures and from the very institutionalized ‘division of labor’ way that most studios do it today.
Davis: This is my second CG feature. I wrote, directed, and produced the Jimmy Neutron feature, and DNA Productions did all the production work on that and the TV series that followed.
Is it easier to do an independent film now?
Davis: There have been many changes within the industry, and the landscape is a lot different now than when we did Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius back in 2001. There are a lot of animated features coming out; this year there were a ton of them. More studios are getting involved and doing them. Five years ago there wasn’t a lot being done overseas theatrically, and now there are a lot more places for studios to go and get the work done. So, there is a different business landscape.
When did you know it was the right time to produce a CG independent film?
Gladstone: I always thought that anyone should be able to tell a story on film. So, there was no tipping point for me. I always thought it was possible. The big test is whether the audience, the people we are making these films for, is willing to see six, seven, eight animated pictures a year. To that end, I think we will not only see a shakeout in our industry, but also see some of the older technologies coming back, so that films won’t look like they have all come out of the same machine—some better, some worse. And that diversification is what we have been seeing in some quarters. Look at last year’s Oscar nominees in the animated feature category; none were CG.
Davis: There were a number of industry factors that enabled this to happen. First, you no longer have to be located in LA to make a CG feature. We had to prove that we could do it for Jimmy Neutron, and we struggled with Paramount to let us do the film here in Dallas. But once we delivered the film and it was on time and on budget, we never had to fight that fight again. And, we showed the industry that you could go with a smaller, independent company and get the work done and have a successful project.
What factors are making it possible for an independent studio to tackle a CG feature film?
Gladstone: There are three issues that are allowing this kind of independence: the technology itself, the availability of that technology, and the fact that CG has spread to all ends of the Earth. First, CG has, in some ways, made it easier for people to get involved in animation who may not have been able to do so when the animation had to be traditionally hand-drawn. Second, the technology is cheaper and easier to come by. I remember when Robert Able did "Sexy Robot," a commercial for American Can that was shown during the Super Bowl broadcast in 1984 and required the use of supercomputers up and down the East Coast just to get the power that today you can probably get on your Mac. The third thing—which relates to the first two—is that you now see people doing animated films and providing sourcing for animated films all over the world. So there are wide-ranging and widely divergent skill sets all across the planet.
Davis: The technology gets more and more powerful and less and less expensive, for both software and hardware, and this allows more facilities to get into the act.
What advantages are there to working as an independent?
Gladstone: Both sides have advantages. As an independent, you get to make up your own rules. But you have to use your imagination because, generally, your budgets are smaller and you have to figure out more effective ways to get things done. So, you approach problems from every imaginable perspective. When there is less money riding on [a project], you tend to be edgier and freer with your creative processes because there is not as much risk involved. On the other hand, when you work for a big studio, you have an infrastructure you can depend on; if you want to do something, there is usually money available to do it. When you want to change something, there is usually the ability to do so. But all of that often comes at a price. That price is usually some measure of creative freedom.
Davis: I always considered us a little lighter on our feet and not really locked into a specific style. If you are a big company that invests a lot of money into a certain technology, you feel as if you have to use it on everything, and the movies all have a certain look and feel to them. If you are a smaller company, you can swap out your technology quicker and come up with looks that are more varied. CG enables you to create dramatically different imagery.
What are the disadvantages to working as an independent?
Gladstone: Often your first shot is your only shot. Of course, that is often not such a bad thing.
Davis: In a perfect world, you would have a year to do your R&D, but we had to collapse that in production. Yet the crew still did an amazing job solving a lot of difficult problems quickly.
Rather than experiment with new CG techniques, the crew focused on artistic development, giving Everyone’s Hero an old-fashioned, painterly look.
Can you tell right away if a film is done by an independent vs. a large studio?
Gladstone: Sometimes you can, though it depends on how rough the animation is. Sometimes the elements don’t match the design. The high polish of a Pixar film is still something everyone aspires to as far as the look goes. But the look of a picture is really secondary; it’s the story that matters most. You can polish up a bad story all you want with a beautiful look—and it happens in Hollywood often—but if the narrative is a stinker, no amount of visual gloss will make the story any better. On the other hand, you may have a wonderful story and may not have all the resources, but if it has solid characters and they are doing things people can identify with, the movie becomes a big hit.
Can indie films afford to invent new technologies?
Gladstone: Most of the time an indie studio is less focused on re-inventing the wheel, which allows it to put all its resources into the creative aspects of the process. You have less time and money to forge ahead technologically, so you focus on your strengths, and for an independent, that strength is most often creative freedom.
What appears to be the biggest obstacle for an indie studio?
Gladstone: With the continuing user friendliness of the technologies, the large, remaining obstacle will be distribution, not technology or the amount of people needed to make a film. The question will be whether we can get our particular movie seen. And, I wish I knew what the solution might be. I suspect big studios won’t want whippersnappers doing their own distribution—just look at the record industry. Most big studios now have an independent arm, or a group within the studio that buys, produces, does negative pickup on smaller indie films, and runs limited releases.
Davis: One of the advantages of the big studios is that they are branded. So if people hear there is a new Pixar film coming out, there is an expectation and marketability to it, and it automatically draws a lot of attention to itself. With indie films, you have to rely on the studios to do a good job of marketing and thinking differently about it to drive audiences to the theater. The budget can also be challenging. Pixar, DreamWorks, and other big names are wielding much higher budgets than indie films get. Because of that, indie studios do not have a lot of time to spend at every level of production. We have to cut a lot of corners and cannot spend much time laboring over certain things. Sometimes, though, you can fuss and labor over something too much and you lose track of what the overall goal is. Also, indie studios don’t have a lot of time and money to develop many proprietary tools, although we did develop some on The Ant Bully. We tend to work project to project, while the big studios have deep pockets and can afford ongoing development.
Will we see more CG features from independent studios?
Gladstone: I hope so. Plus, there are so many more venues that exist today for showing your film—theater, online, direct-to-video, cell phones.
Davis: Though I love what Pixar does and am a huge fan of Pixar, I am always interested in indie studios because you never really know what to expect. With Pixar, you kind of know what to expect in terms of their sensibilities; but with indie studios, there can be a lot more variation. They use different types of tools and approach the project differently. As budgets start to come down—and this will have to happen as more films are released and the profits are spread a little thinner—studios can make films that are targeted at smaller audiences. This will let them tell more varied stories, and with this, I hope we will expand the definition of what animated films are in this country.
What can we expect in the future?
Davis: Indie studios have the best chance of coming in and changing the type of animation we see in theaters because they can do things more inexpensively than big studios and can spawn some of the unique, different types of niche storytelling. Off-the-norm movies don’t have to cast a big, wide net to be profitable. So, I am expecting to see some interesting animated films going down that path and pushing what is possible visually, with different styles and unique stories.
How will the face of CG films change as indie offerings increase?
Davis: We all grew up with the Disney model of what animated entertainment is, which is strictly kid- and family-based. There has been some slow change with some successes like Shrek that play for a little older and broader audience. But most CG features are ensemble-, gag-driven comedies for family audiences. In other countries, you see more of a stratification of animated films: those for kids and dramas for older audiences. My hope is some of that will start to happen more in the US to allow for different stories to be told. My frustration is you will come across these really great stories, but they don’t fit into the studio’s idea of what animation is. I think that is slowly going to change.