Hollywood won’t unveil another 3-D, computer-animated feature until at least the end of 1998, when Disney is slated to release Pixar’s “Bugs,” the second in a multipicture deal between the two companies that began with “Toy Story” and was expanded earlier this year. But the future of high-tech toon features hardly ends with Pixar, although it certainly began there. Behind closed doors at several other CG animation houses, there is more serious feature development going on than ever before.
The success of “Toy Story” helped make this development possible on an industrywide basis. Obviously, the film was a boon for Pixar, which recently upped its Disney deal to five pictures with 50-50 participation, but more generally, it helped create a welcome climate in the film industry for CGI as a storytelling medium. As a result, computer animation studios, after years of mainly servicing commercials and special effects for live-action films, finally are developing movies of their own.
At Pacific Data Images, for instance, work has begun on “Ants,” in conjunction with equity partner DreamWorks, capping PDI’s 16 years of experience with the CGI medium. DreamWorks co-founder and animation steward Jeffrey Katzenberg believes “the brilliant work (PDI) has done on commercials and short films showed they were ready to make the leap. And it wasn’t a very large distance that they needed to leap. Having been in business with PDI for close to a year, I would say the phrase ‘duck taking to water’ was invented for this situation.”
Partnering with DreamWorks gave PDI both an entree into the world of feature films and the long-form storytelling expertise that is new to many CGI practitioners. “Ants” producer Patty Wooton explains, “There is a bit of a learning curve for companies that come from a service background, where you rely on your client for creative input. Now, we are the client, and we’re definitely benefiting from the creative guidance of DreamWorks.”
PDI’s path to feature films is not typical, however, because as Katzenberg notes, “DreamWorks is not simply their financier or distributor; we’re their partner. This does not parallel any existing situation. It was one of those great convergences of interest that at the moment when they wanted to make the leap into moviemaking, we were looking for somebody to do a CG movie with. I don’t think we would have taken on the challenge if it weren’t for the fact that they have really talented people already working in a functioning enterprise with great tools.”
Talent and technology are twin issues for anyone hoping to break into the world of CGI filmmaking, since competition for staff is steep and R&D spending is essential. PDI president Carl Rosendahl says that, in such a climate, the chance to work on a particular feature project may be the deciding factor for talented animators as they shop their services around town. “There are so many opportunities out there for people that they can afford to be choosy,” Rosendahl says. “You have to have a great project to attract top talent.”
Building a “pipeline” to produce overlapping projects is emerging as the preferred model in the industry, in order to leverage the time and expenses involved in CG moviemaking. Rosendahl explains, “We’ll be starting development of a second feature pretty soon, and plan to go into production on that as we come out of ‘Ants.’ ”
This is the same strategy Pixar followed with the development of “Bugs,” and director John Lasseter notes that even as “Bugs” enters the animation stage, “We have a group already off in development land thinking about our third picture.” Lasseter, who is slated to direct three of Pixar’s next five films, believes a “leapfrog” approach is necessary in a business “where it takes two years to get a movie developed and another two years of production.”
Commitment to multiple projects is also a way to retain talent, since it expands opportunities. Lasseter thinks one of the best things about Pixar’s new deal with Disney is that it signals “we want to build a studio that is not just a place where John Lasseter makes movies. It makes Pixar a much stronger company if people know that there’s a wealth of talent here.”
Those resources definitely include the technical talent who develop the tools required for the still-evolving medium. Rosendahl cautions, “Off-the-shelf software systems weren’t designed to handle these huge, organizationally complex projects. They’re a great foundation, but you end up very quickly writing lots of new tools.”
At Pixar, Lasseter says, “We’ve got a whole tools group that’s been working to improve our systems based on what we learned from ‘Toy Story.’ ‘Bugs’ will definitely push the limits of the medium.”
It’s notable that both companies are tackling naturalistic motion by animating insects — creatures that aren’t too complex and that computers can easily replicate to produce the hordes required. Lasseter says a key to success in this emerging medium is “choosing the subject matter that lends itself to the medium well. ‘Toys’ did that, and now insects are a natural for it.”
Proof of that came with last year’s MTV/Paramount pic “Joe’s Apartment,” which featured believable-looking CG cockroaches animated at Blue Sky Studios in a mixed animation/live-action film. The growing ability of computer animators to handle naturalistic human motion, however, is part of a necessary evolution, in the opinion of Blue Sky’s creative director, Chris Wedge.
“There will come a point when we can’t avoid that,” Wedge says. “There are so many great stories to tell that have human characters. The films that will be onscreen in 10 years will be amazingly lifelike and complex.”
Wedge, who is central to Blue Sky’s feature film plans, thinks most CG studios still are somewhat constrained in the scripts they’re developing. “Everyone who makes a splash is going to have to make something new enough so that it stands out, but familiar enough to get someone interested in making it,” he says.
Like Blue Sky, Rhythm & Hues has been perfecting its CG skills for a decade and is preparing to take the plunge into features. R&H veepee Charlie Gibson, who shared an Oscar for creating the talking animals of “Babe,” hopes “to be in pre-production or production by the end of this year. We’re taking our time to make sure that we don’t chain ourselves to the wrong project.”
Citing the early backlash against CGI films after one of the medium’s earliest efforts, Disney’s “Tron,” bombed 15 years ago, Gibson feels “any failure will be blamed on the medium. People have been quick to say computer animation was soulless and couldn’t be used to tell stories. So we all have to be on our best behavior.”
Wedge agrees. “Thank God for ‘Toy Story,’ ” he says. “If it had bombed, we’d all be out of luck.”
What the coming crop of CG features will demonstrate over the next few years is how stylistically versatile the medium can be when utilized correctly. Katzenberg believes it would be a mistake to expect “that all CG movies are going to look alike. There’s no more chance of that happening than with live-action movies. ‘Dances With Wolves’ doesn’t look anything like ‘Home Alone,’ and there’s no reason to think that CG movies will look alike. They won’t. They will be as varied as their stories and as unique as the artists who tell them.”