Medieval fighters and evil sorcerers; this is the stuff of numerous series bibles making the rounds among broadcasters. The science-fiction/fantasy genre has long been the domain of video games, comic books and paperbacks. But as low-end producers master 3-D technology (or at least a 2-D/3-D mix), more producers are pitching special-effects Goth series concepts, and the genre is finding a new home on the television screen.
Using the hardcover comic books as a graphic guide, French producers are paving the way. ‘We have a colony of sci-fi addicts that [doesn't exist] in Germany or the U.S.,’ says Maia Tubiana, head of development at France Animation. ‘Producers are taking the sci-fi ingredients of the adult comics and adapting them for a younger audience.’ France Animation is developing Quantum 4, a 26 x half-hour series set within a dome-covered Gothic city in the 25th century. The hero, Marcus Moore, can morph into four separate beings, each possessing one power of the four basic elements: Rock (Earth), Zeph (Air), Spark (Fire) and Stream (Water). In each episode, he must battle the evil Conrad Brix and his mutant army.
While producers like France Animation are developing sci-fi shows full steam ahead, broadcasters still need some convincing. ‘Science-fiction comics are inscribed in [broadcasters'] logic as adult entertainment,’ says Tubiana. ‘It will take more time for them to link adult comics with shows skewed for a younger audience.’
European broadcasters at least will have a lot of Gothic material to read through and choose from. Ares Films, Cartoon Express and France 3 are fleshing out the 26 x half-hour Celtic fantasy tale Tristan & Isolde: The Lost Legend for delivery by the end of 1998. Another firm with a well-developed sci-fi lineup is Sav! The World Productions, a group that broke away from Gaumont Multimedia (producer of The Magician), and set up their own shop this year. Executive producer Savin Yeatman banded together with ex-Gaumont creative types Philippe Riche and Charles Barrez, as well as Loixm (an underground artist and creator of the fanzine Allo les pompiers) to develop the 13 x half-hour sci-fi, action-adventure series Oban Racers. The proposed show has all the ingredients necessary for a futuristic-Gothic show: a powerful wizard called Isis, and a group of daring spaceship pilots who are willing to risk everything in a dangerous race across the universe. According to Yeatman, the racing spaceships will be animated using 3-D technology, while the characters will be crafted using traditional 2-D animation.
Medialab of France is also prepared to enter the sci-fi fray with its project Pinok, a 26-episode, half-hour show that also mixes 2-D and 3-D techniques. Pinok features a little boy living among robots and holograms. The concept is literally an inversion of the classic tale of Pinocchio-the series deals with being human in a mechanical world. Also on Medialab’s drawing boards is the made-for-television feature Pinocchio 2020, which stars a robotic puppet. The film is in development with Canal+, Canada’s Ciné-Groupe and Image Factory in France.
Compositing 2-D and 3-D is more viable than going 100% CGI, according to Emmanuel Porché, head of creative development for Medialab. ‘There’s a real skepticism in Europe especially about CGI shows,’ he adds. ‘Aesthetically, I don’t think 3-D is so convincing, and it’s more expensive. If it’s not driving any more audience, why should [broadcasters] pay more money for the same result?’
Nevertheless, France’s Gribouille and its partners Ellipse in France and Cactus Animation in Canada are attempting the full CGI Monty with their show Xcalibur, which is an adaptation of the legend of King Arthur. The show will break new ground in the world of CGI TV series, as its characters are designed to look more human than its CGI predecessor ReBoot (from Alliance Communications and Mainframe Entertainment), and producers are hoping to control costs by animating about 85% of the show using motion-capture equipment.
‘Sci-fi is popular right now, and working in 3-D opens new possibilities,’ says Cactus Animation’s André Bélanger. Not only can art directors fill the screen with more characters than traditional cel-animated shows, they can construct elaborate sets. Bélanger says the co-producers are ‘well advanced’ in their discussions with broadcasters in Europe. He hopes that by straddling the kids-teen demographic, broadcasters will view Xcalibur as possible prime-time fare.
The Japanese have long embraced science fiction as cartoon. The prohibitive cost of producing live-action sci-fi continues to force Japanese producers to work in the animation medium, according to Brad Warner, director of public relations for Tsuburaya Productions in Japan, the company known for the popular 1960s series Ultraman and its 1996 animated remake Ultraman Super Fighter.
Traditionally, Japanese-based companies produce for their own market and then look to export worldwide, but that is rapidly changing. Because the science-fiction genre now appeals to both Occidental and Oriental tastes, Asian companies are looking for strategic partnerships with the West. Samsung Entertainment Group of South Korea capitalized on character designs by Peter Chung (Aeon Flux fame) for its 13 x 30-minute 2-D series Alexander.
TMS-Kyokuichi has entered into a full-scale co-production with Network of Animation (NOA) in Vancouver, Canada, for the 3-D computer-animated series Cybersix. ‘Although the Japanese market is still our bread and butter, we are designing characters that are more suitable for the worldwide marketplace,’ says Andrew Berman, U.S. director of international sales and general manager of Tokyo-based TMS-Kyokuichi.
NOA approached TMS-Kyokuichi to finance Cybersix, a 13 x half-hour series based on a comic book of the same name by Argentinean artists Carlos Trillo and Carlos Meglia. Cybersix is a mutated female character who must disguise herself as a man in order to stay out of the clutches of her mad creator, Von Reichter.
‘NOA came to us because we are known as one of the companies with the highest quality and a very stylized look,’ says Berman. The series is being produced out of TMS’s digital animation studio, Telecom. To date, the company has pumped US$5 million into production. If the series takes off, Satoji Yoshida, executive director of international sales at TMS, says his company will unleash a worldwide merchandising scheme that will include a spin-off video game and a music soundtrack.
Although producers are optimistic about sales in the European and Asian territories, the sci-fi animation market in the U.S. is still emerging.
Producers have filed the edge off shows heading for American television. Brats of the Lost Nebula, a 13 x 22-minute series for eight- to 12-year-olds produced by the Jim Henson Company and Decode Entertainment in association with Wandering Monkey Entertainment, is scheduled to air on Kids’ WB! this month. The show is a cuddly version of the science-fiction genre, featuring a group of five young orphans stuck on a planetoid and forced to ward off their enemy, Hextar Vigar, and giant machines known as The Shock. They are muppets in orbit.
‘The Europeans tend to allow for more literary work. They have heavier stories, more intricate layers and levels,’ says Margaret Loesch, president of Jim Henson Television Group Worldwide. ‘Historically, science fiction in the U.S. is more action-oriented. It’s inspired more by the Ray Bradbury’s and Gene Rodenberry’s than [by] the darker, mystic work [of the Europeans].’ But, she adds, ‘I think we will begin to see some of that programming in our country soon.’
A handful of North American producers are versioning popular adult comics for television. Ciné-Groupe in Montreal, Canada, is in early production on a new adult-targeted feature film version of Heavy Metal. Randy Lofficier, producer and president of Perfect World Entertainment, is also forging ahead with her project Virtual Meltdown, a series based on the works of four comic-strip artists: Mobius (Heavy Metal fame), Michael Cherkas, Mark Bode and Kevin O’Neil. Morgan, the sexy heroine of Virtual Meltdown, must fly a spaceship filled with colonists into hyperspace. Computer navigation systems are even outdated in this proposed series-the pilot must use her mental powers to steer her human cargo through the galaxy.
Like many other producers of CGI shows, Lofficier turned to the Pacific Rim to find a suitable partner for her concept. After sinking US$500,000 into the series, she hit a glitch. The collapse of the Asian market decimated Lofficier’s partner Pioneer Electronics, and left her scrambling to find a new collaborator. For now, she is looking for a European replacement, but she is optimistic that the American appetite for this kind of programming will change and that she will be able to find a U.S. partner or a U.S. broadcaster might be willing to give her a license fee, pointing to Disney’s deal with Tokuma Shoten Publishing to distribute Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki’s nine-title library. Not only will the films be dubbed into English for the home video market, but Miramax intends to test-release Miyazaki’s hit feature Princess Mononoke in the U.S. next year. ‘If that film does well, my hope is that it will open the sci-fi/fantasy marketplace in the U.S.,’ says Lofficier.