Farming it out

With appetites for 3-D toons at an all-time high, studios are tapping independents for fresh product

In a light industrial park in San Clemente, writer/actor/producer Steve Oedekerk (“Bruce Almighty,” “The Nutty Professor”) has built his own animation kingdom. Assembled to produce Paramount/Nickelodeon’s “Barnyard,” Oedekerk’s O Entertainment houses facilities for up to 40 computer animators, research and development staff, a motion-capture stage, character-design department, a screening room, and everything else needed to fill a barnyard party with 130 dancing critters.

Just 10 years ago, such spaces would have been alien in the tightly knit feature animation business. For decades, there was just one player in town — Walt Disney Feature Animation — which slowly created its 2-D pics out of its Glendale headquarters. Other studios, including Fox and Warner Bros., started getting into the game in the mid-’90s, but feature toons were still created at a handful of locations owned and operated by major studios.

The notable exception was a then-small company called Pixar.

Today, it no longer takes a studio to make feature-length animation. Five of this year’s feature toons – Disney’s “The Wild,” “Everyone’s Hero” from Fox, WB’s “Ant Bully,” and “Happy Feet” and “Barnyard” – were created by independent studios located around the world.

Their emergence is a sign of how the animation biz has transformed. Computer generated imagery has not only changed what audiences expect, but it also has dramatically lowered the barriers to entry in animation. F/x shops, commercial houses and start-ups can now buy the computers and software necessary to render a 3-D film at a relatively low cost. The biggest challenge is finding the talent to create a successful film.

Many of these companies also are flush with cash, as investors are eager to get into the CG toon business, which has a long line of hits and very few misses.

“I can’t tell you how many people have come in and said, ‘We have the money and we’re going to build the next Pixar,’ ” observes Julia Pistor, EVP of Nickelodeon Movies. “But I think there is a glut of activity when what we are looking for is the talent and the story.”

The growth of these independent houses is allowing a variety of studios that don’t have their own animation facilities — or don’t have the capability to put out as many pics as they would like — to get into the business. Nickelodeon and Warner Bros., for instance, are creating their animation strategies around outside shops.

“What we’re banking on is the idea that animation companies are becoming virtual enterprises,” says Chris DeFaria, senior VP for digital effects and animation at WB. “Our business model makes us a natural first stop for any of the big players out there.”

With studios counting on outsiders to do their animation, however, the process ends up being much less hands-on than most pics done by the majors. Once a script is given a green light, toon houses find themselves working much more independently than those on a typical live-action set, who regularly show dailies to execs.

“Nobody from Warners ever came out, and I think one person from (production shingle) Playtone came at one point,” notes John Davis, the writer/director of “Ant Bully,” which he made at his Dallas-based DNA Productions.

“Warners was great to work with, but they don’t really know animation that well. If we had shown them our work regularly along the way, we would have had to educate them about what they were seeing,” Davis says.

While pics like “Ant Bully” and “Barnyard” are being financed by studios, some are being made largely or entirely with independent money and then distributed by or sold to studios, including an increasing number of indies. Venice-based Exodus Film Group made a deal with The Weinstein Co., which has been very active of late in animation, for its “Igor,” while Phil Knight-owned Laika in Portland recently sold its “Coraline” to Focus.

Some operations scale up and down for individual films. The equipment on “Barnyard,” for instance, was leased by Nickelodeon for the pic.

But others are taking advantage of an individual feature project to try and turn themselves into fully functioning animation shops.

“We have drawn a huge talent pool and created a very complex and robust creatively capable pipeline, and we have no intention of letting that dissipate,” says Zareh Nalbandian, managing director of Australia-based f/x shop Animal Logic, which is making the jump into animation with “Happy Feet.”

“We won’t just be a vendor sitting here waiting for someone to ask us to do the next project. We’re ready to take the risk of investing in new material.”

That model, of course, is a familiar one. It’s the one that turned Pixar from a tiny spin-off of LucasFilm into such a powerful player that it was bought 20 years later by Disney for $7.4 billion. While none will admit to a dream that lofty, it’s undoubtedly on the mind of every indie animation shop that is knocking on the door of Hollywood.

(Matt Hurwitz contributed to this report.)

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