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Netflix Unveils ‘Willoughbys,’ ‘City of Ghosts,’ ‘Gauko,’ ‘Mama K’s Team 4’

ANNECY  —  Netflix Animation: A Studio Without Borders” ran the title of the hugely anticipated Netflix lineup presentation at Annecy this year, only the second in the U.S. streaming giant’s history at the French festival, the largest animation gathering in the world.

Melissa Cobb, vice president of Kids & Family, who hosted the session, did drill down briefly on the panel’s title. Netflix’s aim is to break down any border, be it geographic, or of animation formats, gender, ethnicity or representation.Netflix has a studio and production hub in Hollywood today, she said, but its ambition is to create “a support structure” for best-in-class creators from all over the world.

But what is Netflix looking for? Variety asked her in a Q & A after the panel presentation.

“Great creators, who can execute their vision, but we don’t have any guidelines,” Cobb replied. Netflix will produce animated shows in CG, 2D, or which are hybrids, hand-drawn or stop motion, and so on. So, logically enough, most of Netflix’s presentation was given over to a panel of creators with shows set up at Netflix, whose origins, styles, and ambitions spoke loud of Netflix’s push into diversity.

Kris Pearn, who talked the Annecy audience through “The Willoughbys,” is from Canada, has a background in stop-motion at the U.K.’s Aardman Animations and in Hollywood studio movie direction, co-directing Sony Pictures Animation’s “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.” “The Willoughbys,” Netflix’s second original animated feature, weighed in at Annecy as a good-humored. crowd-pleasing family coming of age tale.

Malenga Mulendema, another panelist, is Zambian, and still based out of Zambia, a former journalist who had no experience of animation when she answered a call for projects from South African animation producer-studio Triggerfish Animation. Her “Mama K’s Team 4,” Neflix’s first animated African series, is set in a near future Lusaka where four disparate teenage girls are recruited to save the world.

Elizabeth Ito is fourth-generation Japanese, but an “Adventure Time” alum, her Netlix production firmly located in L.A. and a fiction-doc series mixing ectoplasmic-looking ghosts, animated characters, and real photos of Los Angeles.

Producer Hitoshi Moji, who introduced “Dino Girl Gauko,” is Japanese, was involved in hit series “Crayon Shin-chan.” The title’s a tween/teen targeting 2D series of large dark humor turning on an ordinary girl, apart from the fact she can turn into a fire-belching green-skinned dragon.

Two fairly common factors are shared by many of the Netflix animators at Annecy, however: A focus on women’s stories; a wish to make animation which is different from standard realist CG.

“I was interested in female characters who have their own ambitions,” Mulendema said at Annecy, introducing the series protagonists , Chia, Mila, Wanga and Zee. She added that those ambitions often come through more clearly when a group of girls are involved.

“Dino Girl Gauko” key art was received with a exclamation of approval by the Annecy audience.The series turns on Naoko, “a regular girl who just happens to turn into a dragon when she gets angry,” Mogi commented to laughter from the Annecy audience.

Otherwise, she’s worried about her Instagram pictures which make her seem puffy cheeked. Beneath the comedy, the series skewers the trials of a girl who doesn’t fit in the classical cannons of beauty – unless dragons are held ti be beautiful – and can’t hide her frustration  at that.

“I might turn into a dinosaur, but I’m still a girl!” Naoko bellows at  a man, breathing fire which turns him into charcoal, it seemed, in a clip Moji showed at Annecy, to an uproarious reception from the audience.

Regarding style “The Willoughbys” portrays what Pearn called “an old fashioned family, all stuck together in an old fashioned home.” Their isolation is shattered by the arrival of a baby, caught in a clip shown by Pearn voiced as the family’s cat and movie’s narrator by Rocky Gervais. Further never-seen before excerpts unveiled by Pearn picture the Willoughby children, who desperately want to be orphans, creating a travel brochure to tempt their parents to holiday in the most dangerous places in the world such as the unscalable Alps in Switzerland.

The Willoughbys all have pencil-point-thin noses and spindly figures. Pearn also introduced new characters such as Commander Melanoff  voiced by Terry Crews, a hulking man in a white suit emblazoned by medals, who takes in the baby found at the Willoughbys – ”Willy Wonka meets Daddy Warbucks  meets Citizen Kane” in Pearn’s description –  and the colorful nanny the parents hire to look after their children while they’re away. As the Willoughby children, under her influence, discover more of their city and then the world, “The Willoughbys” begins to fill with color, to the point of the kids using the power of a rainbow to go off in pursuit of their parents, having decided they really need a family.

Ito talked the audience through a proof of concept and process video showing how she mixed 3D characters and 2D backgrounds, and achieved a singular effect of animated kids and ectoplasmic phantoms inhabited real locations in L.A.

She called “City of Ghosts” “a combo of documentary and fiction, taking real stories and turning them into fabricated composite stories.”

“I guess there’s never been a show made like this before,” Ito told Variety at Annecy .“It’s creating a new process, both story-wise and visually,” she added. “Either one of those things would be challenging. Studios have established more of a system of doing stuff. But in Netflix you can do it in a different way.”

Doing it a different way looks indeed as if it could become a mantra at this year’s Annecy. there a sense of a certain fatigue with now classic CG. Everybody wants t stand out in a crowd. So One of the main things many titles given industry sneak peeks have in common at Annecy is a desire to be different.

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