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Tomorrow’s toon talent

10 animators poised to become household names

David O’Reilly
O’Reilly was 15 when Cartoon Saloon (“The Secret of Kells”) set up shop in his hometown of Kilkenny, Ireland, and for three years, he made a habit of dropping by after school. He’d never considered animation as a career, but was intoxicated by the pros’ enthusiasm, taking on odd jobs around the studio (including “some really embarrassing e-cards,” he remembers).

Upgrading to London at 19, O’Reilly talked his way into Shynola (where he did animation for Beck’s “E-Pro” musicvideo) while working as Marc Craste’s assistant at Studio AKA. “I peaked early,” O’Reilly recalls, “but I’d never made a short film or anything that was personal.” So he quit and started experimenting, stripping back 3D modeling to its bare low-polygon form. For hire, he made U2’s “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” video, while for fun, he cut loose with “RGB XYZ” and “Please Say Something,” which won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Meanwhile, he used the anonymity of the Web to assume alternate identities (as in “Octocat,” posted under the alias of 9-year-old Randy Peters). “If I say that I’m an 80-year-old working by myself in Russia, people are going to have a completely different perception,” he says. “Everyone’s very intent on finding a style and an identity, even before they’re good at technique. I was never really into that.”

Chris Butler
Hand-picked by Henry Selick as head of story on “Coraline,” Butler is set to steer one of his original ideas to the bigscreen at Portland-based Laika studio. The writer-artist will make his directing debut with the stop-motion “ParaNorman,” about a 13-year-old boy who has to keep his small town from being overrun by zombies. The Surrey Institute of Art and Design grad started in the ad world, where he says, “I became the go-to guy to design stuff according to any influence” — a quality that led to his first feature gig, a sequence tracing Tigger through art history in “The Tigger Movie.”

Arthur De Pins
Arts Decos grad de Pins didn’t have to leave his bedroom to make “La revolution des crabes,” a Flash-based black-and-white short that nabbed Annecy’s audience award (and more than 50 other prizes) in 2004, though he’s expanding the look and scope considerably for the forthcoming feature version. After three years of working on the screenplay, de Pins is seeking co-production partners and plans to publish a graphic novel featuring his revolutionary crab this November.

Headless Prods.
Rather than seeing the 3D revolution as the enemy of traditional techniques, the trio behind Barcelona-based Headless Prods. believes compositing and other computer tools will enable them to work faster and create new looks for their classical hand-drawn style. Adria Garcia and Victor Maldonado have been friends since high school, teaming with Alfredo Torres (whom they met on “El Cid”) to make 2007’s “Nocturna.” As partners in their own studio, the three amigos have “The Strange Case of Dad’s Missing Head” (with Paris’ Neomis) and several other projects in development.

Patrick Jean
In its first 24 hours online, Jean’s two-minute short “Pixels,” in which Gotham transforms into a giant videogame while retro characters such as Pacman and Donkey Kong invade Godzilla-style, was seen more than one million times. Adam Sandler’s production company Happy Madison is now in talks with the 32-year-old to direct a “Ghostbusters”-style feature based on his original idea (though Jean insists he’ll walk if he can’t maintain creative control). “The musicvideo world is my world,” says Jean, who cites Michel Gondry as a model and recently signed with U.K. talent agency Passion Pictures.

Michael Langan
“I did some hand-drawn stuff in the very beginning and quickly realized I’m not very good at it,” confesses Langan, whose creative approach favors pixelation (his upcoming “Butler, Woman, Man” treats actors like full-size stop-motion puppets), replacement animation (“Dahlia” portrays San Francisco through a series of visually matched snapshots) and other technical trickery. Langan’s Rhode Island School of Design thesis, “Doxology,” was selected as a Student Academy Award finalist, leading to steady commercial work. “I get all sorts of ideas from these little projects in advertising, and that fuels my desire to make more films,” he says.

Stephen Neary
Neary’s angular, minimalist and utterly absurd Western spoof “Cowboy Chicken” (in which the free-range fowl stumbles into the wrong saloon) earned the New York U. grad kudos on the fest circuit and an online following via Channel Frederator. Neary is now at Blue Sky working on the forthcoming “Ice Age 4” and “Rio,” while cooking up more shorts (such as kissing-loop series “Let’s Make Out”) in his free time. According to NYU prof John Canemaker, “Stephen was one of the Kanbar film department’s most gifted animation students. His off-the-wall witty stories and striking visuals are full of originality and fun.”

Teddy Newton
Since joining Pixar in 2000, Newton has contributed striking character designs for “The Incredibles” and the “Ratatouille” end titles. The studio gave him a chance to flex his own style with “Day and Night,” a hand-drawn stereo-scopic short set to precede “Toy Story 3” in theaters. According to “Incredibles” director Brad Bird, “Teddy always saw himself as gag man, totally neglecting the fact that he’s a design genius. It’s no surprise to me that he’s done such a terrific short: It’s got visual surprises like nothing out there, which is difficult to pull off, yet the film feels effortless when you watch it.”

Mamoru Hosoda
Already big in Japan for his work on the “Digimon” franchise, Madhouse director Hosoda stands to see his international profile grow with “Summer Wars.” Released in Japan last August by Warner, the story of a teen math whiz who does online battle with a rogue A.I. program made an impressive $18.3 million at the B.O. Though Hosoda’s work with Toei earned him a chance to helm “Howl’s Moving Castle” for Studio Ghibli, he was later replaced by Hayao Miyazaki. Ironically, between “Wars” and Hosoda’s previous feature, acclaimed anime “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time,” many are calling him Japan’s “next Miyazaki.”

Pendleton Ward
The creator of Cartoon Network’s hit “Adventure Time,” CalArts alum Ward brings the influence of Saturday morning cartoons and videogame logic to the fantasy world of Finn and Jake (a silly kid and his talking dog, who travel the mystical Land of Ooo). Ward says he achieves the show’s off-the-wall surrealism by storyboarding it all stream-of-consciousness. “I don’t know what the next panel is going to be. I play out the story as I write it, so things can come unexpectedly,” Ward explains. “I’m also the voice of the characters, so I react to unexpected things as I would in real life.”

Peter Debruge, Tobias Grey, Mark Schilling, Charles Solomon contributed to this report

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