Oz goes digital for ‘Happy Feet’

Animal Logic ready to move into production

SYDNEY — As “Happy Feet” continues its joyful tap-dance atop the B.O. Stateside, and bows in some key Euro and Asian territories this week, the cloak of secrecy that’s enveloped the Animal Logic digital effects house, where the pic was painstakingly assembled, has finally been shed.

For four years, gossip from Fox Studios Australia, where the privately owned shingle is located, has been that Animal Logic was bursting at the seams with hundreds of artists laboring to realize director George Miller’s vision.

Animal Logic topper and “Happy Feet” exec producer Zareh Nalbandian confirms that indeed, the studio peaked at a whopping 550 employees this year.

About half of those are core staff; nearly all others were engaged to make “Happy Feet.”

With live action production tapering off on both Aussie and foreign pics, locals hope the burst of activity leads to more employment and revenue from the digital sector.

Pic, which passed $100 million in the U.S. last week, is the biggest job ever undertaken by Animal Logic, a 15-year-old company that was the lead effects house on “Moulin Rouge” and worked on all three “Matrix” movies, “Stealth” and numerous others.

“This is not only the first digital feature out of Australia,” Nalbandian says, “it is the most complex animated feature, in terms of performance and landscapes, ever made.”

But “Happy Feet” didn’t start out as an ambitious project.

“I didn’t think the technology was available, but as it went on, we saw what we were able to do,” director Miller says.

A planned 2005 release was pushed back, and Warner Bros. agreed to re-budgeted “Happy Feet” as the studio’s Thanksgiving 2006 tentpole, with a budget in the $100 million range. “It’s very (unusual) to have something that raises the (stakes) in Hollywood come from Australia,” Nalbandian says.

Nalbandian credits Miller’s innovation and Animal Logic’s own willingness to do what it takes to get a project done with the success of “Happy Feet.”

“We don’t work with the restrictions Hollywood is used to,” Nalbandian says. “We’re prepared to break rules.”

Now that Nalbandian has made the leap to exec producer, (“Happy Feet” is his first credit), he intends to grow Animal Logic into a bona fide studio in the image of Pixar or DreamWorks.

A burgeoning story department develops and assesses scripts, produces short films and encourages employees to try their hand at storytelling.

The other pillar in the transition to a studio will be the company’s ongoing relationships with directors such as Miller, Baz Luhrmann and Phillip Noyce.

“We’re also committing hard cash and management time — I don’t believe that happens nearly as often as it should in Australia,” Nalbandian says.