World-class animated pic prod'n booming

BERLIN — The German film biz is getting wildly animated.

Senator Film’s tooner “The Little Bastard” (Das kleine Arschloch) marked the strongest opening for a German pic since last summer’s “Werner — That’s Hot.” It may be no coincidence that both films are animated.

Trickcompany, the Hamburg-based animation studio of “Bastard” director Michael Schaack, is one of a growing number of German animation studios trying to break into the international animation market.

More animated movies will be coming out of this country soon:

* Munich producer Eberhard Junkersdorf’s “Fearless Four,” the most ambitious so far, is the story of a group of farm animals who become pop stars. Made on a budget of around $13 million, the pic will be distributed by Warner Bros. in October.

To ensure the film’s international appeal, DreamWorks designer Carlos Grangel was brought in as a consultant, and the singing voices of the animals are being supplied by blues great B.B. King and Oleta Adams.

* Another high-profile animation project is the futuristic “Altair & Blip,” which Berlin producer Gerhard Hahn is developing in cooperation with Colin Rose and the BBC. Unlike his former partner Schaack, Hahn, who helped direct the first Werner movie and “Asterix in America,” thinks it is possible to establish new animated characters with an audience.

“With ‘Altair & Blip,’ we have developed an original concept,” said Hahn. “It is boring to always make animated films about the same characters everyone already knows.” Hahn’s next feature film project will, however, stick closer to familiar territory: “Feminax & Valkyrax” will be a feminist parody of the popular European comic hero Asterix.

* Trickcompany, in cooperation with the Swedish Svensk Filmindustri and Canada’s Nelvana, is working on an animated feature based on the Astrid Lindgren character Pippi Longstocking.

Schaack expects that the $10 million project will be completed by the end of the summer. With a French partner, he hopes to start work soon on an animated film based on the children’s book “Babar.”

While the animation business in Germany is starting to take off, pioneers like Schaack and Hahn have had difficulties finding and staffing state-of-the-art talent. When the first “Werner” film came out in 1991, says Schaack, “Germany was the Third World in terms of animation.” But now German animation artists are perfecting their craft, and foreign animators are also making their way to Germany on a regular basis.

Schaack’s Trickcompany has 30 full-time animators and employs 70 to 90 artists on a freelance basis. About half of the animators are German, and the rest come from other parts of Europe, Asia and the U.S.

Schaack does what he can to attract the best people, but he admits he cannot afford to pay Hollywood-style wages. “We try to lure the animators by offering them more interesting projects and giving them more artistic freedom,” said Schaack.

One solution is to cultivate native talent. Schaack offers animation apprenticeships at Trickcompany, and Hahn teaches animation at the School for Film & Television in Babelsberg. But with offers coming in from across the Atlantic, it is hard to keep German animators in their home country. “Our budgets simply aren’t high enough,” Hahn said. “We often train people and then lose them.”

Another alternative is to transfer animation activities to Eastern Europe. Peter Voelkle’s Munich-based TMO Film has opened up a studio in Budapest. TMO’s Budapest studio is working on a number of series for German TV and feature films that will be given international video distribution.

Despite having budgets lower than American animated product, Voelkle thinks German production companies can make it in the international market. “There is no need to copy Disney,” Voelkle said. “There are many forms of animation, and we can go in new directions. With variations in style, we can attract new audience groups.”

Just ask the thousands lining up to buy tickets for “The Little Bastard.”

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