Updates from the world of animation

Updates from the world of animation, ranging from a vfx school’s plan to give pupils an edge to an Indian take on a Hollywood legend.

CHINA | FRANCE | INDIA | JAPAN | UNITED KINGDOM

China
Investment pays off in China toon biz
China has struggled with its homegrown toon biz, but years of pumping money into the genre appear to be paying off. Japanese anime and “SpongeBob SquarePants” remain the toons of choice among Chinese rugrats, but local artists are making inroads with auds, while the government does its part to support the local biz.

In 2010, total B.O. revenue from animated films was nearly $31 million. About $20 million of that came from a local toon, “Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf,” while Hong Kong creations such as the cartoon pig franchise, “McDull,” also did boffo B.O.

Last year, China produced 385 animated skeins totaling 220,530 minutes of programming, up from 21,800 minutes produced in 2004.

“The industry is developing by leaps and bounds from infancy to prosperity and maturity,” Jin Delong, deputy editor in chief of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), told local media.

The next step is to start moving these toons to other markets in the region.

At the Cannes film festival in May, Chinese shingle Tianjin North Film Studio signed up with Cartoon Network to screen its stereoscopic 3D chopsocky toon “Legend of a Rabbit” in Australia, New Zealand, India and Taiwan.

The $12 million “Rabbit” is scheduled to have a day-and-date release in all major Asian markets in late July, and Tianjin has already signed a series of distrib deals with nearly 20 countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Russia/CIS, Turkey and France.

Despite the success of local product, “Kung Fu Panda” remains the yardstick for toon success in the region.

In June 2008, “Kung Fu Panda” made $25.6 million in China, and sparked critiques about foreigners messing with China’s cultural heritage. The look of “Rabbit” owes a debt to the DreamWorks’ feature, and a panda even features in the movie (although, pointedly, the animal plays the villain, threatening the village until a rabbit cook learns martial arts secrets from a dying master).
– Clifford Coonan

France
University project twins students with established artists
Le Laboratoire d’Images is founded on a simple idea: Give students a chance to translate each artist’s style into an animated short. This high-concept transmedia package pairs 10 established comicbook illustrators and designers with nearly 80 students at French computer-graphics university Supinfocom.

Created by Christian Janicot, a French editor, artistic director and author, the resulting shorts are published as a unique DVD/book combo and shown on Canal Plus’ Mensomadaire. In addition to Canal Plus, the project also draws support from French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix’s production company, Cargo Films, which produces the shorts.

Now in its second year, the Laboratoire’s 2011 lineup matched students with the likes of children’s book illustrator Laurent Durieux (“Helville”), comicbook creator Thierry Guitard and woodcut artist Sophie Dutertre.

“We boast an eclectic cast of artists who have very different graphic styles and draw from a wide array of traditions so the result looks almost like a collage,” Janicot says. “I think CGI technology has reached a level of maturity that allows every work of art to exist in 3D.”

The idea behind this initiative was to build bridges between illustrators and animators, and possibly open the door for them to create TV series or animated features.”

In future installments, Janicot hopes to expand the project beyond France’s borders by reaching out to other European illustrators.
– Elsa Keslassy

India
DQ, Method put their own stamp while being faithful to classic Little Tramp
Animating a universal cultural icon like Charlie Chaplin was always going to be a challenge, but Indian animation house DQ Entertainment and French co-producer Method Animation are betting the world is ready to see the silent film star resurrected in CG form.

After raising the project’s $11.4 million production budget in pre-sales, Method tested every stage of the 3D character design against specific movement and behavioral references from Chaplin’s films.

“His costumes have the same old texture and feel, including his iconic shoes, walking stick and his funny hat. Even his hair has been designed and modeled to match the original,” says DQ chairman and CEO Tapaas Chakravarti, who admits that “keeping in mind that skeptics might be very critical of this production” became one of their greatest challenges.

“That means reaching a balance between living up to global expectations and (delivering) a fresh visual approach without diluting the sensibilities of Chaplin,” he says. “We will preserve the sense of humor and the emotional values present in all of Chaplin’s films and recreate the quirky, burlesque and comic tone of the character he created.”

The result, produced in association with MK2 (which holds exploitation rights for the character under authority of the Chaplin estate), will be 104 six-minute episodes in stereoscopic 3D. Though the shorts will be in color, the Little Tramp himself will remain silent, rolling out across television, mobile, homevid and online platforms next summer.
– Naman Ramachandran

Japan
As auds resist, producers move from 2D to 3D
Despite their growing use of digital technology, most of the top earners in Japanese animation still adhere to the 2D, hand-drawn look that Hollywood theatrical toons long ago abandoned.

Local attempts to challenge this status quo with CG toons have had only spotty success to date: Production I.G.’s “Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror” won many fest invites and honors, but did only meager business.

Now, Warner Japan has upped the ante by embracing stereoscopic 3D for kid-targeted CG toon “The Little Ghostly Adventures of Tofu Boy,” which opened April 29. The story of a mild-mannered boy goblin wasn’t a hit, however, earning only $4.4 million. (By contrast, the latest installment in the “Detective Conan” franchise has made $34 million since April 16.)

Based on an original property in a market where hits typically depend on preexisting comicbook or TV characters, “Tofu Boy” is still managing to attract strong interest abroad, with deals inked for China and Taiwan — and more than 30 others in the works, including Malaysia, South Korea and the entire Middle East.

“Why is it popular? First, it’s 3D animation, second, it’s for children and their parents,” says Ko Mori, prexy of L.A.-based sales company Eleven Arts, explaining that both 3D and family films appeal to an existing market. “Finally, the Tofu Boy character is cute — buyers seem to like him!”

Despite this soft start, Japanese toon producers are moving forward full-steam into the 3D CG future. Game developer Bandai Namco is making a feature toon in the format based on its “Tekken” fighting game for summer release, with Digital Frontier (“Appleseed”) handling production chores and Yoichi Mori helming.

Even bigger is “Friends: Naki on the Monster Island,” a 3D CG toon that has been described as Japan’s answer to “Shrek.” Takashi Yamazaki, whose credits include the 2010 smash “Space Battleship Yamato,” will write and direct the story, based on a Japanese folktale, of two ogres on an island who become friends with a human boy. Starring Shingo Katori of the mega pop band SMAP, “Friends” is penciled in for a December bow via Toho.
– By Mark Sc
hilling

United Kingdom
Commercials, musicvid shops moonlight in animation
Passion Pictures and Studio AKA specialize in creating some of the U.K.’s coolest commercials and musicvideos. So what are they doing winning Oscars and other top short-film prizes?

Last year at Annecy, Passion earned not only the toon fest’s advertising/promo award — for its Beatles Rock Band intro, directed by Pete Candeland — but also top short honors for another less-conventional project, “The Lost Thing,” co-directed by company founder Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan. That short went on to win an Oscar.

Studio AKA similarly keeps its top talent interested by supporting its employees’ personal projects, collecting kudos for such shorts as “Lost and Found,” directed by Philip Hunt, “Varmints” and “Jo Jo in the Stars,” both by Marc Craste.

Finding time for labors of love amid a busy commercial schedule is a challenge, but it’s one that both companies regard as essential for their creative health.

“The reason most of us began working in animation was to make films,” says Hunt, who doubles as creative director of Studio AKA. “Commercials are an excellent form of creative flexing and are rarely ever boring to do, but they can be frustrating from the point of view of the strict time limitations imposed on each project. Sometimes it’s important to have a larger canvas.”

According to Ruhemann, the change of pace can take some adjustment, however: “We’re so used to making commercials that rattle by with 20 shots in 30 seconds. But ‘The Lost Thing’ is very languid, and I really found it a struggle to hold steady with that pacing.”

Passion and Studio AKA bankroll their shorts themselves, although winning cash prizes at fests helps.”We have mostly self-funded our shorts as a way of retaining complete editorial and creative control — perhaps a reaction to the disciplines necessary on commercials where you are dealing with scores of opinions from clients,” Hunt says.

“It’s not hard cash being pulled out of my wallet,” Ruhemann says. “It’s people on downtime sitting around who are already being paid anyway. They love to do it.”

The downside is that work on shorts must take a backseat when commercial jobs come in. That can make the whole process lengthy and frustrating for the director — even when, in the case of Ruhemann, he owns the company.

“Ironically I found my own studio in London was too expensive, and we kept getting distracted,” he recounts, “so in the end we sent ‘The Lost Thing’ over to our Australian office.”
– Adam Dawtrey

Annecy Intl. Animation Festival:
Foreign toonmakers eye U.S. market | Web model clicks with next gen | Regional spotlights | Up and coming toon talents

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