India's Toonz spices up Cinnamon's fare

LONDON As the local children’s TV production industry shrinks due to British broadcasters trimming their budgets, domestic animation producers need to think laterally.

Enter ambitious U.K. shingle Cinnamon Entertainment, formed three years ago to specialize in children’s animation.

Its latest venture, CGI toon “Freefonix,” provides a template for how an imaginative outfit can take advantage of international finance, tax breaks and subsidies to get a show on air.

A large chunk of the coin for “Freefonix,” created by Magnus Fiennes, brother of actors Ralph and Joseph, was provided by the parent company of the Indian animation studio, Toonz, where the show was made.

“Almost half the $20 million budget came from Toonz parent company, Comcraft,” says Chris Rice, one of the producers of “Freefonix,” which bowed on the BBC in the U.K. earlier this month.

“Funding animation is never straightforward. In the U.K. the BBC is the champion of animation.”

The BBC, French shingle Method Films, the Isle of Man Film Finance board and Cinnamon put up the rest of the coin.

With 40 episodes “Freefonix,” launched to international buyers at the BBC’s annual Showcase market next month, is a potential multi-platform money spinner and one of the most ambitious children’s toons to come out of Blighty in recent times.

Aimed at the 7-11 age group and inspired in part by Damon Albarn’s virtual band Gorillaz, “Freefonix” revolves around the adventures of a pop group whose members strut their stuff 50 years in the future.

“It mixes a little bit of Gorillaz, S Club Seven and ‘High School Musical,’ ” says Fiennes, a cross-genre music producer who has worked with best-selling acts All Saints and the Spice Girls.

“Originally I developed the idea as a music project,” he adds. “But the more I thought about it I realized it was perfect for a children’s TV show. It’s classic Saturday morning kids’ TV, a mythic story of good versus evil fought through music.”

Guests who appear in cameos in the show include musicians Jamelia and guitarist Justin Hawkins, late of the Darkness.

But, arguably, the most significant aspect of “Freefonix” is the way it tapped into talent pools around the world and was produced by teams in different countries swapping files instantly thanks to online services like Skype.

The scripts were written in Los Angeles and New York while the voices were recorded in Galway, Ireland.

The animation was modeled in Cinnamon’s studios in the Isle of Man and Paris before being sent to India to be animated. Final post-production work took place in Paris and the Isle of Man.

“Three or four years ago it wouldn’t have been possible to do it like this,” says Rice. “We had servers in our London office allowing us to co-ordinate the whole project as the work was done swapping files instantly.

“A few years ago we’d have had to physically ship the hard drives from one production center to another. Now thanks to high-speed broadband it can all be done instantaneously.”

Film and TV studios have long realized the benefits of having their animation work done in Asia.

Toonz was set up nearly a decade a go by Bill Dennis, a seasoned former Disney animator, but it was not only financial considerations that led Cinnamon to the Kerala-based studio.

“Of course cost was an issue, but it wasn’t about getting cheap labor,” says Rice. “Toonz has a fantastic talent base and is one of the main centers of CGI in the world.”

If “Freefonix” turns out to be a hit and repays the investment, perhaps next time round British broadcasters, other than the publicly funded BBC, will be prepared to invest in this increasingly globalized and high-tech business.

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