House that Gak built

Nick animation studios has user-friendly feel

The first tipoff that the new Nickelodeon Animation Studios in Burbank, Calif., isn’t exactly your typical production facility is the nine-hole, animator-designed miniature golf course on the premises that affords duffers the opportunity to score a “Hole in Walt” (don’t ask). The second indicator is the NBA-regulation size half-court basketball floor complete with quasi-parquet floor, three-point line, plexiglass backboard and breakaway rim.

But since man cannot live by hoops alone, the basketball area doubles as a screening theater. There is, in fact, little wasted space in the $10 million, state-of-the-art studio that officially opens its doors March 4 (though staff actually began populating the place three weeks ago).

It’s difficult to fully describe this House That Gak Built and do it adequate justice. Both inside and out, it looks something like a high-tech rainbow of deep greens, reds, blues, greens and purples. Designed by the L.A.-based architectural firm called AREA and constructed in less than a year, it is 72,000 square feet of cartoon imagery and cooperative technology.

But the goofy trappings shouldn’t fool you. The guys who run Nickelodeon, folks like prexy Herb Scannell, senior VP of production and development Albie Hecht and Nicktoons Animation VP and G.M. Mark Taylor, insist that the decision to consolidate Nickelodeon’s West Coast, inhouse animation interests under a single roof is serious business — the kind driven by Nick’s $350 million investment in original toons, not to mention its lucrative tie-ins from such wonderfully destructive stuff as the Play-Doh-meets-Slime-like Gak.

This building is, the executives stress, the first animation studio in 35 years designed strictly to make TV shows, or since the now-shuttered Hanna-Barbera came into being.

“This allows us to have all of our productions in one place, which makes a great creative statement,” Scannell said. “We’re now able to hang a shingle in Hollywood for the first time. It has to help with the creative community.”Nick had run its animation business out of what amounted to office rentals in three separate locations, all around the L.A. area.

The architectural design of the new studio can only boost morale, allowing the staffers on the four Nicktoons projects currently in production there — “Hey Arnold!,” “The Angry Beavers” and the forthcoming “CatDog” and “Oh Yeah! Cartoons!” — the daily feeling of working in a theme park.

The interior is a mosaic of fun furniture and such eye candy as a staircase designed after Nickelodeon’s famed “green slime,” a Gak-spewing fountain, a Nickelodeon merchandise store for employees and their families, Nick cartoon character statues and multi-colored directional ribbons snaking through the workspace. The building can house five productions and upwards of 200 employees, and each show area is identified by its own unique color scheme and geometric pattern.

Each series also features its own living room, writers’ lounge and storyboard conference room. Offices are outfitted with couches, perhaps the better to persuade animators never to go home. The uniquely-shaped desks were also designed by the artists who sit at them.

Yet what matters most, of course, is the technological versatility that having such a self-contained operation affords the network. It houses a recording facility, a Foley stage for recording live sound effects, 175 work stations, screening rooms, a post-production area sound editing and mixing rooms and a new-technology suite for software and equipment testing of such new formats as stop-motion and claymation.

“The whole place, every cubicle, every office, is wired for networking, is wired for fiberoptics,” Taylor said. “We can do it all right here.”

Well, maybe not quite all. The material will still need to be shipped to South Korea, as is standard, for the actual animation processing. But Fred Seibert, the former Hanna-Barbera prexy now executive producing the ambitious “Oh Yeah! Cartoons!” as part of an exclusive development and production pact for Nick, said that they could even do the hands-on animation at Nickelodeon Animation Studios if they were so inspired.

“From the standpoint of efficiency and creativity, this place makes a huge amount of sense,” Seibert said. “Having everybody and everything in the same space in an animation hub like Burbank is simply a godsend.”

The hope is to make 100 half-hours of animated programming each year via the studio. Nickelodeon further plans to produce 12 new series out of the facility over the next five years.

“The bottom line is that this is the first TV studio ever built from scratch strictly for the animators,” stressed Hecht. “I think the animation community will look at this and say, ‘Nick Studios is the place to be.’ ”

Staffers are evidently already inclined to believe it. Hecht notes that during the first week the studio was open for work, the parking lot was full by 8:30 every morning.

“It’s a place where people really want to come to work,” added Hecht. “When you get right down to it, that matters more than anything.”

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