Cartooning on a shoestring

Indie animation operations adjust ambitions

Lightwave, Maya and Flash were supposed to liberate animators from the horrific expense of traditional computer animation, and while intrepid souls have ventured into the animated feature film world powered by their over-the-counter tools before, this is the first year so many have entered the Oscar race. There’s even a non-Aardman stop-motion entry, further evidence of the global democratization of high-tech, low-cost tools and a DIY attitude not seen since the heyday of punk.

But how does one budget for such a project, and what does a filmmaker need if he or she isn’t equipped with a huge render farm and Pixar-like proprietary technology?

For Tatia Rosenthal, who directed the “insanely small-budgeted” (according to her) stop-motion puppet feature “$9.99,” it started out with a very disciplined schedule and crew.

“At the first art department meeting, Adam Grace (the set and props topper) told us we will need 374 days of pre-production to do the film, but we were only budgeted for 120 days,” Rosenthal says. “After that I went into the toilet and cried, thinking how will we get this made?”

But Rosenthal and the crew hammered out a strict working plan. “We threw out a couple of sets, compromised on designs and took a different approach to the script,” she says. “I spent my entire pre-production time on eBay shopping for miniatures.”

The project was also shot in Australia, which allowed them to take advantage of tax breaks and experienced crews.

For Exodus Film Group president Max Howard, who exec produced “Igor,” discipline was also key, as its $20 million budget, while substantial for a live-action indie, is a pittance for animation.

“We had one creative voice, the director, and we locked down the script,” says Howard.

“Igor” relied on the popular program Maya and was also animated overseas. “All the design work and rigging was done in Paris (at Sparx Animation) by incredibly experienced people,” says Howard. Although hiring Sparx was expensive and “the exchange rate hurt us,” the costs were mitigated by doing things the right way the first time in the laborious six-month pre-production process.

While the Paris animators were creating the characters and rigging, Exodus’ Vietnam-based subsid was training animators there. “It’s about how to rethink the pipeline,” says Howard, who decided to base Exodus’ next project, “The Hero of Color City,” in Beijing.

Another way Howard stayed on-budget was by not being seduced into doing something that might have been detrimental to the film. “(Director Anthony Leondis) wanted to have lots of costume changes for one character,” says Howard, and that would have involved lots of extra animation the budget could ill afford, so a compromise was struck. The character’s clothes do change a lot, “but it’s just changing the textures on the same shapes. It’s a clever way to get the costume changes and keep in the budget,” Howard explains.

Ari Folman made his animated documentary “Waltz With Bashir” with even less, $1.7 million, though even that modest sum only came in increments.

“I had nothing — I had $80,000 and made a three-minute scene with the animators — and went to Hot Docs in Toronto and pitched it there,” says Folman, who secured some more money, made another 20 minutes, took that to investors, got more money, made another 20 minutes and on the process went till he had the completed film.

“Bashir” had a tiny crew: eight animators and four illustrators. Israel-based Folman and his team also had to create a new way of working in animation for the film. He built his own studio, the Bridgit Folman Film Gang, and invented animation techniques, which turned out to be a combination of Flash, 3-D and classic cel animation. (His next project is an animated, English-language adaptation of “The Futurological Congress,” a sci-fi novel by Stanislaw Lem.)

“There’s no manual for animated films,” says Folman. “If I had $1 million more, it would have been better — I would have been able to do more classic animation, because the technique I used is slow-moving.”

Hitting a delivery date determines cost and quality for most indie animation houses, but not so Atlanta-based Fathom, which developed sci-fi toon “Delgo” over a span of more than seven years.

Director Mark Adler was a toon enthusiast with business-school degrees who committed to making “Delgo” around 2000 with two friends. Along the way, the animation novice learned a lot about efficiency and creating bigscreen effects on a shoestring budget.

“We cut corners wherever you can’t see ’em,” says Adler, whose team constantly tested render times, jettisoned hair (which is difficult and expensive to do) on all but some of the characters and developed their own A.I. to handle crowd scenes (cheaper than using Massive) for the Maya-based project.

Fathom turned to the Internet to recruit animators from around the world, developing software called Storyline to swap work and scenes on the web. That led to Internet postings of the project in progress, sparking an unplanned viral marketing campaign for the film.

“‘Delgo’ is largely a result of the right people coming together in the right time with the right technology,” says Adler, who credits much of “Delgo’s” success to finding a skilled technical director and animation director, Warren Grubb, whom he hired right out of Savannah College of Art and Design.

Because CG features are in some ways limited by the state of technology when rendering begins, Fathom also prepared a short, “Chromachameleon,” to debut in front of “Delgo.” “It shows what we can do today. Hopefully it will lead to more projects for us,” Adler says.

For toon indies, the key isn’t how much the budget might be, but how much of the budget the animators can get onscreen.

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