Sony's fledgling animation studio a brainpower boutique

Pete Upson grabs a camera to follow a surfing penguin as it makes a mad dash for the waves. The only trouble is, it’s not a real camera — the device doesn’t even have a lens — and there are no penguins anywhere in sight.

Upson, a layout artist at Sony Pictures Animation, is standing indoors beneath a 5-foot-by-5-foot grid of small LEDs attached to the ceiling. As Upson manipulates the imitation camera, a computer system senses his movement, translating it into virtual motion onscreen.

The result is a first for computer-animated movies: jerky, handheld lens work for “Surf’s Up,” SPA’s second homegrown toon (the first, “Open Season,” is a contender for an animated feature Oscar nom this year).

“We want the artistic style and look of the film to be unique to the story that’s being told,” says Sony Pictures Digital prexy Yair Landau.

When “Surf’s Up” producer Chris Jenkins suggested a “Spinal Tap”-style mockumentary approach, in which a flock of penguins are uncomfortably aware that they are being watched, the studio responded. “We hadn’t seen that before,” notes senior VP of development Nate Hopper. “That hit the criteria.”

Supporting filmmakers with a different vision by providing the brainpower and technology of Sony Pictures Imageworks has created what SPA exec VPs Penney Finkelman-Cox and Sandy Rabins call a “boutique” studio. “We have no house style,” Rabins says. “We allow the filmmakers to create the look and vision of the movie from scratch.”

After taking over Imageworks seven years ago, Landau realized that the company’s assets and skills — then being applied to the visions of other filmmakers on pics such as “Spider-Man” and “Stuart Little” — could be used to create original all-CG animated films inhouse. He brought in Finkelman-Cox and Rabins from DreamWorks in May 2002 to help build his new studio.

With the production pipeline of skilled animators already in place, Rabins explains, “We didn’t have to hire 400 people, we just needed to hire a really strong creative team.”

Adds Finkelman-Cox: “We had no stories sitting around getting dusty. We could start from scratch.”

Inside the three-block-long Imageworks building, approximately 200 animators are working on a mixture of SPA pics and Imageworks vfx assignments.

After “Surf’s Up,” SPA has “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “Hotel Transylvania” in the pipeline. Each pic poses new technical challenges for the team, and innovations created for one film don’t necessarily carry over to the next.

According to special projects CG supervisor Dave Stephens, “Open Season’s” river water effects took more than a year to develop, but wouldn’t cover the ocean waves and surfing curls needed on “Surf’s Up”: “They ended up taking a lot of concepts and research that we had, but then had to go in their own direction.”

“At the beginning of shows, I always worry this is going to be the one that’s really going to stump us,” says animation director Dave Schaub.

But they always figure it out, says “Open Season” producer Michelle Murdocca, “and it’s always better than what you thought it was going to be.”

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