Indie wave hits toon biz

Low-cost, user-friendly tools open animation to new voices

A piece of chalk, a blackboard and a camera — that’s all it took to create the 1906 animated short “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces.” In the century that followed, the cost of animation exploded, limiting independent work to the most rudimentary projects. But in the last few years, powerful desktop computers and off-the-shelf software have democratized animation once again.

“It used to be that you could only run animation software on a Silicon Graphics machine,” says Bobby Beck, a former Pixar animator who now runs the Animation Mentor program online. “Their low-end machines were more than $10,000, so I could only work on projects while I was in the lab. Now you can walk into a Best Buy and walk out with a machine and software that will let you be that creative in your own home, so you can make your own projects and learn a lot more in less time if you’re motivated.”

David K. Lovegren, a producer with Kanbar Entertainment believes these changes will bring more players into the field. “We couldn’t have done what we did with ‘Hoodwinked’ even six years ago,” he says. “But now you can get yourself some offices in the Valley and a team of hardworking, self-taught people and make a movie — and that means there will be more voices in this area.

“Pixar isn’t going to lose any sleep over us,” Lovegren jokes, “but we did make our movie for less than $15 million in about three years.”

“Inexpensive and accessible technology lowers the barrier of entry,” says Evan Spiridellis, who runs animation company JibJab with brother Gregg. “It’s not just the workstations and the software, it’s also that you can use the Internet as a means of distribution.”

JibJab’s Internet short “This Land” led to appearances on “The Tonight Show,” where the brothers premiered six more shorts. “The great thing about the web is it’s a new medium, and people want new formats of storytelling,” Gregg explains. It also allows the JibJab team to connect directly with their audience by maintaining a closely-guarded email list of core fans.

“There are limitations to distributing on the Internet at this point,” says Bob Sabiston, who wrote the rotoscoping software used in a series of Charles Schwab spots, as well as Richard Linklater’s upcoming theatrical feature “A Scanner Darkly.” The Internet provides a venue for independent work, allowing basement animators to distribute their own low-end projects, but “you can’t put something up there that’s high quality right now,” he says.

IDT Entertainment chief technology officer Nick Foster believes edgier animated pieces like “A Scanner Darkly” will become more common as animation production costs continue to fall. “When you can make a film for $20 million or less, you’re much more willing to take a risk because the poor performance of one film won’t destroy the stock price of your entire company,” he says. With that mantra in mind, IDT is planning an animated pic with Rob Zombie.

Still, despite less costly software and desktop machines, some things have not changed. The majority of animators represented by the Gotham Group still come out of art schools with programs in the field, says the company’s founder and CEO Ellen Goldsmith-Vein. “Even though computers are less expensive, you’re still talking about very specific skills,” she says.

Beck agrees. “You might think you’re an animator just because you have the tools but, all it means at first is that you have a high-tech pencil,” he says. “It takes a long time to develop the ability to convey character and story, and in the end it’s still story that matters more than any tool you might be using.”

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