Vanguard makes ‘Valiant’ effort

Can you make a CGI movie to compare with “Shrek” for a third of the money?

That’s the challenge “Shrek” producer John Williams set himself two years ago when he launched indie studio, Vanguard Animation, under a U.S. distribution deal with Disney, and greenlit its debut feature “Valiant.”

This pioneering $40 million British pic about a plucky pigeon during WWII, directed by first-timer Gary Chapman with a voice cast led by Ewan McGregor, finished shooting Dec. 9 at London’s Ealing Studios after a mere 106 weeks in production.

To anyone in the live action game, that sounds like a long time. But in the CGI universe dominated by Pixar and Pacific Data Images, where movies can take six years and anything up to $200 million to complete, “Valiant” virtually qualifies as a piece of guerrilla filmmaking on maxed-out credit cards.

Crucially, though, it doesn’t look cheap judging from a few minutes of footage. Chapman has drawn on his background as a painter and sculptor to deliver a sumptuous palette of colors and tactile 3-D detailing.

Whether the script and characterization are rich enough to carry a full-length feature will be revealed only when the movie is released next March in Blighty. (Disney hasn’t yet set a U.S. release date.) But for the film to stand or fall by its storytelling, rather than by its technical quality, already represents triumph for its producers.

“John’s idea was to have a price point for digital animation that was affordable for independent studios,” says Curtis Augspurger, who co-produced “Valiant” with fellow f/x expert Buckley Collum. “He came by our office in February 2001 and said, ‘Can you do an animated movie for $25 million?’ We said yes — with ten pages of caveats.”

To start with, the film would have to be short. “Valiant” weighs in at a skinny 70 minutes, a full 20 minutes less than “Shrek.” Man-hours were slashed — the production used just 179 people vs. 500 or so for “Shrek”, hiring them only for as long as strictly necessary.

Even so, it rapidly became clear that $25 million was just too constricting, and producers ended up settling on a cash budget for “Valiant” of $32.5 million, with $7.5 million in deferrals.

Going outside Hollywood and training inexperienced animators from Europe and the British Commonwealth also helped cut costs. By making “Valiant” as a British movie, in partnership with Ealing, Williams could access tax breaks and $4 million of lottery coin from the U.K. Film Council.

“When we were hiring, only 12 CG features had ever been made, and none in Europe, so the idea of being part of this new form of filmmaking was hugely attractive,” explains British line producer Tom Jacomb. “Even though I was stealing staff from other companies, there was a tremendous urge from the European animation industry for this project to succeed. If it’s successful, it will enable many other movies to happen.”

Jacomb claims that the abbreviated schedule kept the animators on their creative toes. “There’s only so long they can sustain their interest in the project, and one-and-a-half years is about right. We had one guy who had worked on ‘Dinosaur,’ which took six years, and they just get really bored.”

Ralph Kamp’s Odyssey Entertainment pre-sold the foreign rights aggressively, with Entertainment taking the cornerstone U.K. rights, but three major territories — Germany, Italy and Japan — are still waiting for the finished movie.

“This whole project was a leap of faith,” Augspurger says. “John’s faith in us, our faith that we could deliver, the banks, the bond company, Disney, the foreign distributors. So much faith,” he adds wryly, “that the executives on this project haven’t been paid yet.”

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