CGI Brat Pack targets new niches and pilots edgy technology

In 1994, Mainframe Entertainment was the only game in town. For two years, the British/Canadian alliance that spawned ReBoot did not face much competition in the television marketplace. Its closest rival at that time was FantTMme Animation in France, the company...
May 1, 1999

In 1994, Mainframe Entertainment was the only game in town. For two years, the British/Canadian alliance that spawned ReBoot did not face much competition in the television marketplace. Its closest rival at that time was Fant™me Animation in France, the company that produced Insektors. The cost of development was so prohibitive, few broadcasters or producers in the mid-’90s would invest in CGI series. So, for two years, Mainframe had a decided advantage over its wannabe competition. But the gap has narrowed and more challengers have surfaced.

In order to stay a step ahead of its CGI

rivals, Mainframe, the company also responsible for Beast Wars and Shadowraiders, recently announced a new alliance with big-screen provider Imax Corporation. With Imax’s

Cdn$16-million (US$10.7-million) investment, Mainframe is developing three new CGI Imax films, including Gulliver’s Travels, The Pied Piper and Pandora’s Box.

Concerning Fant™me, its assets have been sold to Belgian producer and distributor Neurones, after Fant™me was put into receiver-ship. Neurones plans to work on Fant™me’s existing and future projects, including an Insektors feature film and TV series The Giraffes, consisting of 50 x one-minute episodes.

In Germany, the upstart company Stardust Entertainment Filmproduktion is hoping to follow in Mainframe’s footsteps. It wants to use TV series as a stepping stone to a bigger cinematic experience. ‘We are sharpening our nails with TV production,’ says Diana von Engels, manager of international affairs.

Stardust is currently in production on its Stevie Stardust series, which will air the beginning of year 2000 on Hallmark Entertain-ment networks and Super RTL in Germany. Stevie Stardust is aimed at a seven-plus demographic. The company also took aim at the teenage market when it began development on its Firewalls series. There are several offers on the table for this show.

Now, Stardust has set its sights on the preschool audience with its latest offering, Robots V Monsters. The series was developed by Thilo Rex of Stardust and Ian Ellery and Guy Hallifax in England. The premise for Robots V Monsters is an intergalactic collision that results in a fiery spaceship crash on a strange planet. Half of the planet is heaven for the robots, and the other half paradise for the monsters. Unfortunately, the disparate groups land on territory that is inhospitable to their kind. Rather than switching sides, the two species battle over land they don’t really want.

The budget for the series will depend upon the software, but will be in the neighborhood of US$300,000 per half-hour episode, with 13 episodes planned. Stardust is looking for partners, and is open to possibly producing the show outside of Germany.

The company is slowly making an impact in the marketplace. ‘We sold our first project [Stevie Stardust] because we did very detailed research prior to presenting it in the market,’ says von Engels.

The West Palm Beach, Florida-based company Blaze Entertainment is also eyeing a young six- to 12-year-old audience for its new CGI project TotaPet. The series is a ‘fish out of water story’ about a newly discovered animal species, and its amusing adventures adjusting to the world of humans. Abandoned at the airport, poor TotaPet derives his name from the pet carrier-Tote-a-pet-he was found in.

With the series bible well developed, Blaze is working on pre-production CGI imagery. The company is hoping to bring the series in at US$200,000 per half hour, with 13 episodes planned. Sally Outlaw, president of Blaze Entertainment, says: ‘[We're] getting a lot of bang for our buck through the fact that we are using a noncommercial animation house that functions primarily as a teaching facility.’ Outlaw will not reveal the name of the teaching unit for fear it will be inundated with requests, but says ‘it is a cutting-edge facility used as a beta testing site for almost all of the new computer animation software and hardware that hits the market.’ The creator of TotaPet does work at the facility.

Like most companies working with CGI technology, Blaze Entertainment must deal with the increasingly high expectations of clients. ‘One of the objectives in developing the characters for TotaPet has been to create systems that streamline the process of turning out large amounts of animation in a short time frame,’ says Outlaw. ‘Designing a virtual interface to the 3-D characters allows the animator to control a range of motion without having to perform meticulous and repetitive actions. Using a variety of these custom [graphic user interfaces] and expressions, and speech helps speed the production process and allows more time for the creative process of animating interesting characters and stories.’

It is still up in the air whether the entire series will be done at the facility. Outlaw says she has been given similar quotes by several Canadian animation houses, and is interested in a co-production. ‘In general, Canadian companies have shown way more interest than U.S. companies in our projects,’ says Outlaw. ‘I can only assume that it’s either because they are more connected with European broadcasters or they have the support of the Canadian government, which makes it easier and more affordable for these companies to develop and produce programming.’ Blaze is already in a co-production arrangement with Catalyst Entertainment of Toronto on another non-animation project entitled Out of the Ocean.

Computer graphics imaging for television has moved beyond shows stylized or derived from computer games. Adams Wooding Television in the U.K. is breaking new ground in the documentary field. With partners Partridge Films (considered a blue-chip wild-life documentary producer), and 4:2:2 Videographics, both located in the U.K., the company is in production on a series that visualizes how creatures will evolve over time.

‘We’ve got some hard-core scientists helping us,’ says director John Adams of Adams Wooding Television. With the magic of CGI technology, Adams Wooding has asked a couple of evolutionary scientists to predict what the future holds if there are no humans, and other species are allowed to dominate within their new environment. A hairy beast with a back of scales is one prediction. There are 12 other journeys, millions of years into the future.

Adams and partner Brenda Wooding, along with their computer graphics partner 4:2:2, have already designed a couple of creatures in the promo-tests. ‘It’s like bringing a baby to life,’ says Wooding. We had to work out behavior patterns, how they breed, where they are in the food chain. And we had to be scientifically convincing.’

Adams Wooding faced two major hurdles in this project: technical expertise and money. ‘It was easy to get this idea into development, but it was difficult to get commitment,’ says Adams, despite the popularity of the BBC’s Dinosaur series. The series, which was originally developed for Discovery Channel in the U.S., has been picked up by Animal Planet for the American market. Discovery will have pay TV rights in certain territories, and Adams Wooding is in negotiations with Canadian and European channels. The final budget has not yet been determined, but Adams says it will range anywhere from US$3 million to US$5 million. Thirteen half-hour episodes are planned.

On the technical side, ‘it’s always been easier to create 3-D characters with smooth skin,’ says Adams. ‘But it’s extremely difficult to overcome hair or feathers,’ he says. The CGI firm 4:2:2 must be able to design fur that is realistic enough for the family natural history audience this series targets.

The Future is Wild is technically one step above Ozzie the Owl, a series Adams Wooding is distributing for 4:2:2 Bristol. Ozzie the Owl does intercut wildlife footage, like the company’s new series, but Ozzie the Owl is a 3-D animated host who wakes up every day with a new question that takes him around the world. There is no attempt at realism, and Ozzie looks like many other CGI characters on the market-toy-like. The preschool series was designed as a conscious mix of CGI and wildlife photography. The Future is Wild attempts to blur the CG fiction and reality line.

London, England-based Alive Productions is also carving a path for itself by creating real-time hosts for Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon in the U.S., and the BBC and ITV in the U.K. It all began with Tricky, an animated dragon co-produced with Granada for ITV. Tricky was launched in December 1997, and since then, Alive Productions has developed a new and improved multistandard cartoon images (MICI) system.

The MICI system is essentially a library of cel-animated expressions or postures shot to simulate long, medium and close-up shots. Once the voice track is recorded, operators using the Silicon Graphics 02 Workstations can quickly pull out the desired expression from the constructed demo library. Thus, quick-witted computer operators can instantaneously animate their character. ‘It’s a form of puppeteering,’ says Gail Screene, producer at Alive Productions.

According to Screene, it takes about three months to animate a library, and just one week to train an operator to use it. Since the launch of Tricky, the BBC has hired Alive to make the DynaMo character, Cartoon Network has created Bravo Bravo, which began airing daily on April 19 from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., and Alive has also started working with Nickelodeon to create a show using its multicharacter, multicamera real-time system.

Having cornered the market on real-time hosts, Alive now wants to take the system a stage further. It wants to move into programs. With a considerable track record behind it, Alive Productions is moving into program making. ‘Alive is in a situation to make weekly, topical animated programs within a turnaround of a couple of days,’ says Screene.

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