Canuck studio gets H’wood break

C.O.R.E. hopes 'Wild' will be company's breakout project

TORONTO — Canada geese with Canadian accents, eh? Plus a cast that includes voicework from William Shatner, Kiefer Sutherland and hockey personality Don Cherry. Those are among the inside jokes found in Disney’s “The Wild,” going wide April 14, all of them pointing to the film’s pedigree.

The 3-D CGI pic, which also has voices by Jim Belushi, Janeane Garofalo, Richard Kind and Eddie Izzard, was produced in Canada by C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures, a 12-year-old digital visual effects and animation company co-founded by Bob Munroe and Shatner.

Toronto-based C.O.R.E., whose founding partners also include John Mariella, Kyle Menzies and Ron Estey, has done work on scores of projects for TV and the bigscreen, including the CG work for Columbia’s “Fly Away Home,” Fox’s “Dr. Dolittle” and Sony’s “Resident Evil: Apocalypse,” as well as animated TV work like “Angela Anaconda” and “Franny’s Feet.”

Most recently, C.O.R.E. did the CG work on “Lucky Number Slevin,” which opened April 7, and “Silent Hill,” bowing April 21.

But “The Wild” is C.O.R.E.’s first beginning-to-end CG feature, and Munroe hopes it proves to be the company’s breakout project.

“When this movie gets released, the world will take notice,” he predicts. “It’ll be, ‘Wow, this kind of stuff can be done in Canada.'”

The tale of a group of New York Zoo animals who band together to save a lion friend gone astray in Africa, “The Wild” came to C.O.R.E. via Steve “Spaz” Williams, a transplanted Canadian special effects expert (“Spawn,” “The Mask” “Jurassic Park”) who was approached by Disney in 2002 to make his directorial debut on the project. Williams, whose nickname came from his computer log-on, took the gig on the condition that he be free to export it to C.O.R.E. and the Great White North.

Munroe and Williams had worked together only briefly on “Spawn,” but they had known each other for some years, and Williams is nothing if not faithful to his roots.

“I can’t say I was surprised that he would bring the work to Toronto and to C.O.R.E., but I was surprised that Disney says you can take this movie to Canada,” says Munroe. “I was surprised that once the momentum got going, nobody tried to stop it. It was so far outside the box on every level: Not made by Disney, not made in California, not even in the States, by a director who had never done film animation and a company that did TV animation, not features.”

But the project had been kicking around for a decade and desperately needed a home, so Disney was willing to take the chance. The $80 million budget was relatively modest by animation standards (“Chicken Little” cost closer to $150 million), and the Canadian tax credits and exchange rate — much more favorable two years ago than today — made it attractive to the Mouse House. (Savvy Disney also locked in the exchange rate at the beginning and was therefore unscathed by the currency’s subsequent climb.)

Modest budget notwithstanding, “Wild” was the largest animated project ever to come to Canada, and it took C.O.R.E. from a middle-sized company to one of the world’s largest virtually overnight. C.O.R.E.’s employee base leaped from 150 to 450, making C.O.R.E. one of the four largest computer animation firms, after Blue Sky, Pixar and PDI DreamWorks.

C.O.R.E. has a lot riding on how the film is received. About 18 months ago Ted Field and his shingle Radar Pictures bought a stake in C.O.R.E. Out of that partnership they have a string of animated projects in development that, with Field’s help, C.O.R.E. plans to finance and produce itself.

“Through our infrastructure pipeline and the resources we can tap into from a tax credit standpoint, we want to bring our own financing and ownership in,” says Munroe, “but we’re certainly going to need a distribution deal, and that’s where the animation studios come into play.”

Although the exchange rate is less favorable today than when the deal was inked, Munroe notes the tax breaks and subsidies remain, and that even at its current rate, the Canadian dollar is still 15¢ cheaper than the greenback.

Canada has long had a reputation abroad for turning out world-class animators. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a studio with animators that doesn’t have an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of Canadians,” says Munroe. In addition to giving hundreds of Canadian animators a couple of years’ worth of work in their own back yard, Munroe notes a project of this caliber sends a message to new grads that they don’t have to leave home to ply their trade.

He hopes that with “The Wild” as C.O.R.E.’s calling card, that will continue to be the case.