New players carry toons

A lot of new players have been getting into in-house production of animation over the past few years, some in an effort to control production costs and some to garner greater creative control....
May 1, 1998

A lot of new players have been getting into in-house production of animation over the past few years, some in an effort to control production costs and some to garner greater creative control.

Nickelodeon was one of the most recent to capitalize on the trend by opening its own animation studio in Burbank, California, this March. According to Nickelodeon senior vice president of production and development Albie Hecht, helped set up shop at the mod, loftlike studio featuring a half-sized basketball court and a nine-hole miniature golf course, Nick’s intent is to foster an environment of ‘creative chaos.’

‘In [Burbank], there’s such good work being done in such poor circumstances,’ says Hecht. ‘[Other studios] put the money into reception, because they want it to be seen from the outside. But when you go to where the artists work, you’re back in an office building,’ he notes. ‘Nick wanted to do what other people forgot-to create a space that would inspire people. Historically, nobody’s taken that kind of care of the artists.’

The local buzz about the new facility is already spreading. Populated with 250 animators creating five in-house series, Nickelodeon Animation’s nonunion status has reportedly been offset by the attractive deals Nickelodeon is cutting with animation talent and a working environment that features a separate hub for each show-each so comfortable and complete that artists will be tempted to ‘come early and stay longer,’ says Hecht. Add a high-tech recording facility, a foley stage for sound effects, three avid suites and an 80-seat viewing theater, plus an archival animation library and on-site gallery of the animators’ work, and you’ve got a working demonstration of ‘Nick’s long-term commitment to animation and artists,’ says Hecht. ‘We provide the artist with more tools and a better infrastructure.’

Not that Nick’s intent was solely altruistic. Growing animation talent within the studio will ultimately be more cost-effective than attempting to constantly recruit top animators for Nicktoons. ‘Disney is in the business of buying talent,’ says Hecht. ‘We’ve always grown talent versus buying talent, always looked for ways to encompass all aspects of development.’ Nickelodeon plans not only to cut costs on recruitment, but to control the costs of production and post-production moving forward.

In production at the studio are Hey Arnold! and Angry Beavers, along with debuting series Oh Yeah! Cartoons! and the much anticipated CatDog, created by renowned cartoonist Peter Hannan, now working at the studio in the capacity of executive producer. All series are primarily cel animated, but the studio is linked to Nick’s digital ink and paint virtual studio in New York City and post-production facilities in Florida.

In contrast with Nick’s ‘all in the family’ approach, U.K.-based PolyGram Television International recently hung out an animated programming shingle, christening the new entity PolyGram Visual Programming (PVP). Like its parent company, PVP pursues a ‘label’ approach rather than in-house production of its original animated series. ‘We don’t own animation facilities and wouldn’t do so,’ notes Lucinda Whiteley, senior vice president of production at PVP. ‘We’re working with different companies to suit different properties.’

PVP’s first property, a television program entitled Maisy, will be animated by King Rollo films in Devon, U.K., creator of the award-winning Spot series. Maisy is based on the Walker Books series of the same name, and is already slated to debut on Nickelodeon in the U.S. and on ITV in the U.K.

‘PolyGram creates label relationships where they work very closely with different companies, for instance, Jody Foster’s Egg Pictures, on the film side,’ says Whitely. By adhering to this philosophy, PVP hopes to foster closer working relationships, both in the development of new animated properties and in the production process. ‘We invest in certain labels in order to invest in talent,’ says Whitely. While there are no immediate cost advantages to this approach, PVP strives to work with efficient studios, such as Fun Bag in Ottawa, Canada, in which it has an equity position.

According to Whitely, the advantages of this cherry-picking approach are largely creative. ‘There isn’t a conflict of interest, because we’re not always trying to put work back with our own studio,’ she notes. ‘It’s interesting also to start looking at other studios, such as Klasky Csupo that has a very close relationship with Nickelodeon. [Nick's new studio] is a potential conflict.’ Conversely, PVP’s mandate to work with independents fosters the type of prestigious product the company hopes to be known for. ‘If you look at a company like King Rollo Films, it’s a small respected studio working on our new [series] Maisy. We were very keen that they should work with us on it. We chose the production company that would best realize the style].’

Another new player in TV animation is DreamWorks Television Animation, opened two years ago, but just beginning to turn out product. The studio provides animation to the major networks and cable channels, currently Steven Spielberg Presents Toonsylvania, which was just renewed for eight episodes by Fox Kids Network, and the new series Invasion America.

With industry veterans like Steven Spielberg and co-heads of TV animation Gary Krisel and David Simon, ‘it’s an awkward thing to be called new,’ notes Krisel. Yet, even with its top name billing, DreamWorks’ mandate to produce programs for leading networks and cable channels is an increasingly challenging task.

‘If you are not an owner-operator of a network, you are looking for opportunities that might arise from creative ideas,’ says Simon. ‘DreamWorks’ niche is to bring a strong property and reputation of production quality at a reasonable licensing fee.’ Why take on the challenge of selling to networks that are increasingly producing their own product? ‘Because that’s one of Steven’s [Spielberg] favorite things to do,’ notes Simon. ‘A difficult market period doesn’t mean you don’t do it.’

Krisel says that DreamWorks is going to ride out the current wave of limited outlets in hopes of a more positive outlook for independents in the future. ‘This is nothing new. Years ago, when newspapers were the king of media, radio took away from newspapers.’

Simon sees a window of opportunity for those providing independent animated product that doesn’t lend itself to ancillary licensing efforts. ‘Buying things from the outside rather than producing them yourself, you don’t have to incur the responsibility and costs of production,’ he notes. Additionally, networks and channels providing their own product have self-imposed limitations, like tailoring product to suit formidable brands such as Disney and Nickelodeon.

As for DreamWorks’ own identity in the area of TV animation, the studio is not interested in turning out material that trashes teachers and principals or contains unnecessary violence, says Simon.

Another new animation studio launched by players with a long tradition in animation is HOT Animation in Manchester, U.K. Created by U.K. distributor HIT Entertainment, the studio recruited three of the U.K.’s top model animation specialists. According to Jackie Cockle, HOT’s managing director, the future for model animation looks rosey.

‘It’s quite a boom time in British animation. There’s a lot more demand for animation.’ As one of the founders of the studio, Cockle seized what she saw as an opportunity to encourage new talent. ‘We like to look at it long term,’ she notes, adding that HOT hopes to be known in Manchester as Aardman Animation is in Bristol, U.K. ‘Aardman’s existence inspired others to give it a shot,’ says Cockle, adding that camaraderie at the new studio is strong.

‘We like to be in control of what we produce. It’s a great creative opportunity, rather than working for other people,’ she notes. And the studio is providing opportunities to emerging artists through the HOT scholarship, a 12-week course that trains college students to handle production and pays them a small wage.

The studio strives to incorporate different styles of work, according to Cockle. Currently in production are Brambly Hedge and a new series entitled Bob the Builder.

Los Angeles-based Ralph Edwards Productions launched a new animation production entity last November after experiencing stellar success with its first animated video sell-through title, Annabelle’s Wish, which also aired on network television. At the new company, Ralph Edwards Films, the choice is not whether to produce animation in-house or through outside providers-the company does both. ‘In our case, whether it’s in-house animation or not, we need the creative control to be able to step in any time to make necessary changes,’ says Barbara Dunn-Leonard, executive vice president at Ralph Edwards Films. Although the company has several key in-house animators, as well as outside providers, working on its titles, ‘essentially, we’re working for ourselves,’ she notes.

Ralph Edwards Productions’ tremendous success with the first title has allowed it to move forward on development of several Annabelle follow-up properties. At this company, much of that process involves assembling a comprehensive marketing campaign. Noting that this took three years on Annabelle’s Wish, Dunn-Leonard argues that the ultimate success of the property is due to its ‘truly great story.’

‘Here, it’s not just a production schedule, but a whole campaign,’ she notes. ‘We look at how it fits in the marketplace, putting all elements together before we launch it.’ As such, the studio is one place where the slow pace of animation is not a problem. ‘The marketing can be more time-consuming than the production itself,’ she says.

French animation producer Alphanim was launched last year by Christian Davin, formerly with France Animation, with the intention of researching and developing ambitious and diverse animation projects. Currently in production at the studio are four co-productions: Animal Crackers, Believe It or Not, Redwall and Mona the Vampire, with a number of others in development.

Davin opened the studio in response to what he saw as a market need: ‘In spite of increased competition in the field of animation production, I still think it is a challenge to produce quality programs because there are not so many.’

According to Davin, producing animated product gives companies the option to maintain ownership-an important source of revenue. ‘Animation remains a library item of great value. Animation is an evergreen [property],’ he notes.

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