Animation co. undergoes 'Mega' upgrade

NEW YORK — Up to now, animation shop Curious Pictures has operated largely as a background player. The Gotham studio, which started mostly as a commercials producer, provides animation for shows like Disney’s “Little Einsteins” and Cartoon Network’s “Codename: Kids Next Door” and for videogames like Rock Band.

Now the shop is poised to take on a bigger role as a sort of alt-Pixar with several feature projects in the pipeline.

The quirky shop takes casual Friday to new levels: On Friday afternoons, staff hop up onstage and karaoke to Rock Band, and even director Michel Gondry and Wyclef Jean have stepped up. The common denominator among many of these external creative types milling about Curious is partner Leopoldo Gout.

The vivacious Gout, 35, is shepherding Curious into the animated feature arena as well as working on his own diverse projects — directing videos for Jean, seeing his novel “Ghost Radio” published by Harper Collins next September, co-directing animated feature “Godiva” with brother Everardo for Lakeshore Entertainment, and writing graphic novel “Daniel X” with bestselling juggernaut James Patterson.

Embarking on its 16th year, Curious is poised to bring animation to new and bizarre levels with its upcoming film projects. Edgy creators like Gondry, Dan Clowes and Darren Aronofsky have signed on for feature toons that move beyond the kid aud.

“Megalomania” will be co-helmed by Gondry and his 16-year-old son Paul and scripted by Clowes (“Ghost World”). Project is based on drawings and characters created by Paul, who often comes by the studio after school to brainstorm ideas or slip into the motion capture suit to flesh out characters.

Pic, set in the future in an unspecified city, involves friends who have become enemies. Gondry says it mirrors his relationship with his son.

“We’re starting from the universe of my son, who’s very rebellious, extravagant and sometimes violent,” Gondry explains. “These two characters represent the two of us; my son is the dictator, and I am the rebel.” The agreement’s not yet final, but Gondry says Steve Buscemi has agreed to voice the dictator. Gout and Curious are co-producing with Georges Bermann from Partizan.

“South for the Winter,” co-helmed by Dan Schrecker and Jeremy Dawson and exec produced by Aronofsky, is still in the early stages of animation. The musical is about migrating birds flying south and the one little guy who decides to break from the pack and make it as a musician. “It’s kind of a ‘Jazz Singer’ but for birds,” says Aronofsky.

Kiddie chart-topper Dan Zanes — the Bruce Springsteen of the diaper set — is onboard as music supervisor for what Schrecker says will be traditional 3-D animation, but in a style not yet seen. They’re also working with an Indian studio, Itina, on the animation. “South” creators have yet to seek a distributor; they’ll first assemble pic’s package.

“We come from independent stock, so we’re open to that, but we’ve also worked at the studios,” says Aronofsky. “We want whoever gives creative freedom to let Dan and Jeremy do what they need to do.”

“We’re really bending the rules of what a feature animated film could look like,” says Gout.

Gout is also in the final stages of pre-production on a holiday special for late 2008 called “Little Spirit.” The 44-minute film is a co-production between Curious, Mediaedge Entertainment, Macy’s and NBC, featuring narration by Danny DeVito as a quintessential Gotham cabbie.

Gout also manages the company’s partnership to develop properties with author Patterson, and is in development on “Beer Belly and Fat Boy,” an animated/live-action feature. “I couldn’t be happier in this country,” enthuses Mexican-born Gout, who studied sculpture and painting in London before coming to Gotham to show his art. With his brother, Gout started a production company in Mexico called Casa Bunuel.

The shop’s work can also be seen in Brett Morgen’s docu “Chicago 10″ and in the animated segs in Morgan Spurlock’s newest, “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?”

It’s a long way from ’80s TV sensation “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” where Curious partners Steve Oakes, Susan Holden and Richard Winkler met up. But the Playhouse hasn’t completely faded away — original lights and props from the wacky series are housed in the two floors Curious has in a building on Lafayette Street in Gotham’s East Village.

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