Indie shops produce sharp looks for less

Any doubts that a new digital toon boom has started will be dispelled within a year as a flood of new computer-generated, or at least computer-enabled, films race to the bigscreen.

But don’t look for big studio names on all of them. Advancements and price breaks on such off-the-shelf software as Maya, Lightwave and Flash — plus a lot of creativity — are allowing smaller studios to achieve big-studio looks on indie schedules and budgets.

Recent reductions in software prices have greatly helped. “(Five years ago) the machine cost $8,000 and the software cost ($10,000-$15,000), and now I can actually have an animator working for between ($3,000-$4,000),” says George Maestri, owner of newly opened L.A. digital shop Rubber Bug, which is set up for Maya.

Still, that does not mean that “computer” should be automatically equated with low budget.

“It’s a very dangerous thing to look at animation and say it should be cheap now that it’s digital,” says George Johnsen, chief tech officer and head of animation for the Santa Monica-based f/x shop Threshold Digital Research Labs. “We think it can be more cost-effective and we think we can do a lot for the dollars that (other) people are spending on films.”

To prove it, Threshold Entertainment is pumping $50 million into its first CGI feature film, “Foodfight,” a comedy adventure set inside a macrocosmic grocery store, which features 138 speaking parts, more than 7,000 extras and 174 individual sets — all created and animated by Lightwave, Digital Fusion and Maya.

“On the business side, it’s crazy what we’re doing,” opines Larry Kasanoff, the film’s producer-director and chairman-CEO of Threshold, which he describes as the next Pixar. “But sometimes technical innovations are better off from an independent.”

Atlanta-based indie Fathom Studios also is launching into the CG feature realm with “Delgo: A Hero’s Journey,” the first of a potential trilogy that co-writer-director Jason F. Maurer calls “Shrek” meets “The Lord of the Rings.”

It was an upgrade of Maya that spurred the project into action, according to “Delgo” visual effects supervisor Warren Grubb. “Maya being released was almost a catalyst because it was so far ahead of what we had before. We moved when we saw the opportunity.”

Public preview

In an unusual move, Fathom is posting finished scenes on the Net so that the public can literally watch the film being created. An outgrowth of the studio’s inhouse review system, the digital dailies have proved popular on college campuses.

“Once we released (the scenes) we started getting emails from places like Princeton saying, ‘Hey, we use this in our computer animation classes, this is wonderful,'” Maurer says.

Big Idea, the Chicago-based company that created the popular CG video franchise “Veggie Tales,” will hit theaters this October with “Jonah — A Veggie Tales Movie,” distributed by Artisan Entertainment. The comical take on the biblical story features the familiar cast of values-based vaudevillian vegetables, but was produced for less than a whale of a budget, according to Dan Philips, Big Idea’s veep of production.

Philips says the secret of streamlining production is sticking with one software package. “When I was at Disney we had a smorgasbord of software that we put together for the various phases of production, and at DreamWorks, that … working method continued. We decided not to do that.”

Working exclusively with Maya 4.0 for all facets of production — previsualization, modeling, animation and rendering — enables the studio to maintain a small but faster crew, Philips says, because they share the same basic skills.

Not all upcoming indie features are 3-D. Mark Brooks and Peter Gilstrap’s “Li’l Pimp,” backed by Revolution Studios, will be the first animated feature done in Flash, a tooning system developed for the Internet.

“When we first embarked on this project, we were told it couldn’t be done,” says Gilstrap, who along with Brooks is the co-writer-director. “Everyone said it was a technical impossibility.”

But without the low cost, roughly $10 million, it wouldn’t have been done. “No studio is going to say: ‘Here’s a hundred million dollars to make a movie about a 9-year-old kid who wants to be a pimp,'” he laughs.

“You can do anything you want in Flash,” says Brooks, stressing its versatility. “You can do something that looks like a Disney feature or you can do something that looks like ‘South Park,’ it just depends on how much drawing you want to do.”

What will be the ultimate effect of indie studios joining the race? Philips believes the challenge has been thrown to the majors: streamline or else. “When a bunch of us little upstarts get out there and start making money, the big studios are going to look for ways to either get that small, or set up something that small to compete, in order to hold onto their part of the market.”

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