Biz is booming at toon outfits around the world

FRANCE/SCOTLAND
Legend will go live-action route after “Illusionist”

It’s tough being a 2D artist in a 3D world. But Sylvain Chomet’s “The Illusionist” proves there’s still an appetite, among critics and buyers at least, for a hand-crafted alternative to computer-generated fare.

photos/_storypics/Illusionist100.jpg” vspace=”3″ hspace=”3″ align=”left”>”I decided to stay in 2D animation because I draw, and this is why I am an animator,” explains Chomet. “I really like to draw, even if that’s not the commercial craze. You don’t have to know how to draw in 3D, you just sit in front of a computer with a mouse and move virtually a puppet.”

Not that Chomet regards CGI animation as inferior, just different, and not what he wants to do. He’s a big fan of Pixar, though he argues Hollywood was too quick to abandon hand-drawn after the company’s breakthrough, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The problem is that people at Disney made some idiotic declaration 10 years ago that 2D animation is dead,” he argues. “That’s like saying, ‘TV is here so radio is dead.’ And now it’s more and more difficult to find good 2D animators, because they have all gone into 3D.”

Planning his follow-up to 2003’s Oscar-nominated “The Triplets of Belleville,” Chomet set up Django Films in Edinburgh with Scottish-based producer Bob Last. Pathe provided the $17 million budget for “The Illusionist,” based on an unproduced Jacques Tati script. Despite the unfashionable nature of his hand-drawn style, Chomet says the toon’s backers never interfered with his vision.

“Artistically and creatively, I never had to compromise,” he says. “The main concern of the producers was that the film shouldn’t be too long, and I always kept it around 80 minutes. There was absolutely no downsizing of my vision to feed the market.”

For example, Chomet successfully resisted the suggestion that his main characters shouldn’t smoke so much, which he argued was accurate to the period. He also got his wish to shoot the film without any closeups. “For me, it was a way to make it feel quite realistic, because you don’t have closeups in real life,” he explains.

Yet as much as Chomet loves to draw, he’s ready for a change. His next film, he says, will be live action. “Just because it is easier,” he admits. “You can shoot in three months.”
– Adam Dawtrey

CZECH REPUBLIC
Czech animators uphold lo-fi tradition

Directed by Oscar winner Jan Sverak (“Kolya”), the live-action/puppet hybrid “Kooky” typifies the future of Czech animation — a form that has worked hard to preserve its low-tech, old-school look, while slyly relying on computer-aided shooting to ease the labor-intensive process.

Martin Vandas, producer of “The Little Fishgirl,” a Czech-German co-production in which innovative talent Jan Balej (“One Night in One City”) renders an animated version of Hamburg, explains why even young artists in Prague commonly create work that looks almost anti-technical.

“We all live in the influence (of the Czech animation tradition),” Vandas says, citing such artists as Karel Zeman, Jiri Trnka, Bretislav Pojar, Jiri Barta and Jan Svankmajer, who worked with low budgets and available materials to create fantastical worlds.

While Czech audiences still love the old-fashioned animation they grew up with, they also turn out for CG work from Pixar and made “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” 2009’s highest-grossing pic, with more than 850,000 admissions in the country.

By contrast, “Kooky” earned just 2,700 admissions its opening weekend in May, although local film rollouts follow patterns wholly apart from international tentpoles and can build over much more time.

According to Barta, his most recent feature, “In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today?” (a dusty, lo-fi “Toy Story”-style epic featuring antique dolls), wouldn’t have been possible without the aid of digital cameras and technology, which expedited his shooting process and allowed a few visual effects, though audiences wouldn’t necessarily detect a difference.

Yet another sign of the times: Two puppet characters dear to the childhood memories of generations of Czechs, the quarreling father-son team Spejbl and Hurvinek, will get the 3D treatment this year in the animated adventure “Hurveenek the Movie.”
— Will Tizard

ARGENTINA
Ambitious group portrait to capture Buenos Aires

Mix tango and local toon talent, and you get the most ambitious animated feature in years out of Argentina. The omnibus project “Anima Buenos Aires” consists of four shorts by new and established toon helmers “about how a city like Buenos Aires defends its strong personality against globalization,” according to director-producer Maria Veronica Ramirez.

In “The Ups and Downs of Life,” a short directed by Florencia and Pablo Faivre, a neighborhood butcher defends his business against a big supermarket. Other installments hail from the renowned artists Carlos “Caloi” Loiseau and Carlos Nine, as well as such newer voices as Pablo Rodriguez Jauregui, Mario Rulloni and Juan Pablo Zaramella.

The collaborative result, set for release later this year, is heavy on humor and irony, and scored with tango by such musicians as Rodolfo Mederos and Gustavo Mozzi.

CT Producciones (the shingle behind venerable toon industry TV series “Caloi en su tinta”) is producing “Anima” as its first venture in a steady output of features, Ramirez says.

“Anima” comes as Argentina’s toon industry gains attention on the international scene, including a spotlight dedicated to the country at the Annecy fest, which will host screenings of Gustavo Cova’s hard-boiled hoodlum satire “Boogie, el aceitoso” and Juan Antin’s sci-fi tale “Mercano, el marciano.”

Also developing on the Argentine animation scene, Juan Jose Campanella is following up his Oscar-winning “The Secret in Their Eyes” with soccer-tinged toon “Metegol” (Foosball), based on a short story by the late Argentine cartoonist-writer Roberto Fontanarrosa (whose work inspired “Boogie”).

The local industry got a boost after a 2001-02 economic crisis and currency slump cut production costs and attracted foreign coin. Young artists got gigs in advertising and video clips, helping hone talents for bigger projects.

“There is a lot of interest” in Argentina because of the animation talent as well as the “creativity and new ideas,” says Antin, who is at work on “Los dioses de lata” (Tin Gods), a feature set during the American conquest. “The lower production cost in relation to other countries makes this even more attractive,” he says.
– Charles Newberry

LATIN AMERICA
Mexico and neighbors see opportunity to deepen audience through 3D pics

Spurred by a global appetite for 3D pics, Latin American toon makers are venturing headlong into 3D animation.

Leading the pack is Mexican helmer Carlos Carrera, best known for his Oscar-nominated priest scandal drama “The Crime of Father Amaro.” One of Carrera’s nine animated shorts, “The Hero,” won a Palme d’Or for short film in Cannes 1994.

Carrera has been tooling his first feature-length toon “Ana” and sent a trailer to Cannes to raise more coin. With a budget of $10 million, it will be the most expensive full-length toon to be made in Mexico. In stereoscopic 3D, “Ana” is a tale set in the 1950s when a young girl tries to rescue her mother from a mental clinic, meeting some imaginary creatures along the way.

“It won’t be as dark as ‘Coraline,’ but it’s definitely aimed at kids,” Carrera says.

Mexico’s Anima Studios might board Carrera’s project, but meanwhile it has been one of the most prolific animation studios in the region, having churned out six full-length 2D toons so far. It has partnered with Argentina’s Illusion Studios for the $6 million 3D “Gaturro,” which bows in September, making it the first Latino 3D toon out of the gate. Santo Domingo Films in Mexico will release its $3.5 million 3D fantasy toon “Brijes” in October.

Elsewhere, Sergio Bambaren, the Peruvian producer-creator of the Fox-distributed “The Dolphin: Story of a Dreamer,” is lining up international co-producers for a sequel in stereoscopic 3D. In Colombia, the year-old Contento Animation Studios is prepping short “Bolagato” and its first full-length toon “HughHero,” both in 3D.

“We’re keen to take part in a global animation market that is projected to reach $80 billion this year,” says Contento’s David Medina.

Canada-trained Andres Zuluaga founded Estudios Arimaka in Colombia and is developing several 3D animation projects. “People here now see animation as a viable business,” he says.

Animation and visual fx schools are popping up across the region. U.S.-trained Guatemalan Carlos Arguello has plans to set up a 3D/fx animation training facility in Guatemala. In Mexico, the new Chapala Media Park offers courses in 3D animation as well as videogames, special effects and mobile content.
— Anna Marie de la Fuente

SOUTH AFRICA
Biz sees growth in screens compatible with new tech

The South African animation industry is heating up, with its first three stereoscopic 3D animated features due for completion in 2010: Character Matters’ “The Lion of Judah”; Jock Animation’s “Jock of the Bushveld”; and “Zambezia,” from Triggerfish (which are also prepping “Khumba” in the format).

Though all four films are budgeted to travel internationally, the local audience for 3D is growing rapidly. Ster Kinekor has nine 3D screens, while competitor Nu Metro has 14 and is building 11 more to keep up with booming demand.

Clockwork Zoo is pioneering animation co-production and service in South Africa, working on “Happy Valley,” “Wibbly Pig,” “Florrie’s Dragons,” “Caillou” and “Mr. Bebe” for such clients as Cookie Jar Co. (Canada), Wish Films for Disney U.K., Xilam (France) and Dinamo (Wales).

Bristol-based Aardman Animation recently helped to launch the Animation Academy at False Bay College in the Khayelitsha township, part of a plan by the Cape Film Commission, AnimationSA and Services SETA to create 10,000 jobs in the animation sector by 2030.
– Kevin Kriedemann

LATVIA
Young helmers give “Birth,” “Wings and Oars” to auds

Though the words “Latvian animation” may not do much to excite international toon fans now, a handful of local animators are carving out a reputation for the country among prestigious fests.

Last year at Annecy, Signe Baumane, working in both New York and Riga, and Vladimir Leschiov screened their short films “Birth” and “Wings and Oars” to appreciative auds, while Jurgis Krasons saw his 10-minute hand-drawn “To Swallow a Toad” compete at Cannes this year.

Additional up-and-comers include 30-year-old Karlis Vitols (whose “Eclipse” screens at Annecy this week) and 23-year-old Reinis Kalnaellis, whose directorial debut “When Apples Roll” was invited to the Berlin film fest last year.

Latvian animation aimed at children has a long tradition within the country, often earning a spot in the Berlin’s Generation section, where Nils Skapans and films from Animacijas Brigade and Rija Films are frequently screened.

Because the competition for state funding is tight, Latvian producers often end up seeking international partners for their films or opportunities to service foreign projects. The craft of Latvian animators and low production costs have attracted more than 40 foreign projects since 2001, the most famous being “The Triplets of Belleville,” made in cooperation with approximately 50 Latvian animators from Rija Films.
–Liga Miezite Jensen

CHINA
Regulatory org sets limits on foreign productions

With 6,000 companies and more than 200,000 citizens working in the field of animation, China boasts a massive toon industry, and yet the country has a lot to contend with if it wants to become a global player.

Over the years, rugrats have abandoned local product in favor of foreign fare such as “SpongeBob SquarePants” (which tops Chinese ratings) and Japanese anime. Still, locally produced product is gradually undergoing a popularity boost.

Last year yielded eight domestically produced toon features, with the industry collectively generating more than 140,000 minutes of animation, according to Yin Hong, film professor at Tsinghua U., who cites government efforts to sponsor the industry for the surge.

In 2000, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Sarft) set quotas and required local pubcasters to get approval to air imported toons.

Annual state investment of $30 million has also helped. Last July, the finance ministry introduced tax breaks for anyone encouraging industry growth.

There are outlets throughout China for toons — five satellite TV channels in China dedicated to animation and another 34 children’s channels nationwide, with hundreds of broadcasters screening toon programs everyday.

In theaters, recent releases “Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf” and the mainland-Hong Kong co-production “McDull” won hearts and minds among Chinese auds (“Pleasant Goat” took $11.7 million in B.O., a record figure for an animated movie).
– Clifford Coonan

JAPAN
Innovation Network Corp. will provide coin for pics, toons, music

Long rather contemptuous of the local toon biz, the Japanese government has since awakened to its enormous export potential — as well as the growing challenge it is now facing from not only Hollywood, but new Asian rivals.

The Innovation Network Corp. of Japan, a new public-private entity for supporting next-generation businesses, plans to underwrite a $111 million fund for expanding the export of Japanese content, including toons, pics and music. The goal is to boost overseas content sales from $11 billion in 2008 to $28 billion by 2020. Launched last July, the org gets 90% of its coin from the government.

Taking a more targeted approach is the Agency for Cultural Affairs, which has announced a $2.4 million initiative to train new animators. The trainees will produce four toon shorts under the supervision of the Japan Animation Creators Assn. (Janica).

The main purpose of the initiative is to supply on-the-job training that is becoming increasingly scarce in the Japanese toon biz, which has been outsourcing more work (particularly the less-skilled tasks newbies customarily perform) to low-wage Asian countries. The result: a slow draining of the local talent pool the Agency is trying to reverse.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more