The hubbub over ‘ChubbChubbs’

Project's success has bred TV, feature plans

What’s in it for a big movie studio to get involved with an animated short subject? When you’re Sony Pictures Imageworks, producers of last year’s animated short film Oscar winner “The ChubbChubbs!” there’s nothing short about it.

The five-minute CG space comedy about Meeper, a karaoke-crooning mopslinger on the planet Gorf, a kind of Chicken Little meets the “Star Wars” bar scene, started out as a “pipeline experiment” by which Imageworks could test its chops in the field of character animation.

The Sony division made its reputation as a digital effects house with gun-for-hire credits on the likes, most recently, of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Haunted Mansion” and “Seabiscuit” for other studios; and “Hollow Man,” “Stuart Little” and “Spider-Man” for the parent company.

On the road to Oscar, “The ChubbChubbs!” won kudos at major animation festivals. It also received a boost when it was shown theatrically and on the DVD of “Men in Black II.”

One year later, the studio has big plans for Meeper and his pals. A second “ChubbChubbs” short is in the works, a TV show featuring the characters is in development at Sony TV (already working closely with Imageworks on the “Astro Boy” series for the WB) and Sony Pictures Animation has greenlighted a full-length CGI feature starring the cute little aliens, who also scored a licensing deal at the recent Toy Fair.

Coincidence? Beginners’ luck? Not according to Imageworks CEO Tim Sarnoff, who maintains that the project’s underlying goal was to shift the company’s emphasis from effects work to story-based animation.

“We started the ‘Chubb-Chubbs,’ literally as a ‘Gong Show’ to make us laugh,” he says. “A session where if we were able to be entertained by just the pitch itself, we would carry it to the next step.

“This just has a life that keeps on going up the steps until it basically reaches the highest level it possibly can.”

Sarnoff compares this process to origins of the Warner Bros. cartoon shorts of the ’30s and ’40s.

“The original ‘Looney Tunes’ were labors of love by the animation teams that created them, and they would spend about a half-year creating these six-minute shorts.”

The animator who took home the statuette for “The Chubb-Chubbs!” director Eric Armstrong, segued to that job from animation supervisor for Imageworks on “Stuart Little 2” (He has since transitioned to DreamWorks.)

Such multiple-hat wearing is common at Imageworks. “ChubbChubbs” producer Jacquie Barnbrook was pressed into service from another area.

“I had just finished working on Siggraph 2002, the electronic theater and the computer animation festival, so I had just produced this live sort of film show,” she says.

“Tim said, ‘Gosh, maybe you’d be the right person to produce this short for us.’ I also had people on my team who normally work in effects who wanted to take on a different role.”

For Sarnoff, the shorts program has allowed those in Imageworks to broaden their talents.

“It’s given my staff an opportunity to grow, by taking a storyboard artist and making them directors, by making junior animators senior animators. We use the shorts program to bring up the skill levels of all of our artists and to stretch our muscles on other avenues.”