Shrinking production costs jump-start CGI’s stunted TV growth

Since its first blip on feature film radars in 1995 with Disney/Pixar's US$200-million big-screen gem Toy Story, CGI has become a booming box-office business, with 2001 hits like Shrek and Monsters, Inc. both breaking the US$250-million barrier. But while the box-office benchmark has been clearly set, CGI's intimidating price tag has made it a TV buyer's acronym for 'Can't Get It'--until recently.
March 1, 2002

Since its first blip on feature film radars in 1995 with Disney/Pixar’s US$200-million big-screen gem Toy Story, CGI has become a booming box-office business, with 2001 hits like Shrek and Monsters, Inc. both breaking the US$250-million barrier. But while the box-office benchmark has been clearly set, CGI’s intimidating price tag has made it a TV buyer’s acronym for ‘Can’t Get It’–until recently.

‘When we first started in CGI, the cost was very high-end,’ says Scott Dyer, senior VP of production for Toronto, Canada-based prodco Nelvana. Indeed, the price range for CGI hovered around the US$500,000-per-half-hour mark for quite a number of years. ‘We have since brought that figure down [to Nelvana's standard cost of US$200,000 per half hour],’ says Dyer. Michael Wahl, CEO of Valencia, California-based Foundation Imaging (the company that rendered Action Man), tells a similar story. He says that he can now produce a CGI series in-house for US$250,000 per half hour.

Costs may be coming down, but CGI’s TV reception is still somewhat static. As Wild Brain’s co-founder and executive producer Jeff Fino points out, most people can visualize a 2-D concept quite easily, but thinking in 3-D is more of a challenge. ‘It’s a leap of faith for a buyer to pick up CGI animation,’ admits Fino, and going into a pitch with a bible and a fervor for the property doesn’t overcome the visualization hurdle.

Challenges aside, producers are lining up in droves to deliver 3-D series, whether full-on CGI or hybrids. The driving force for producers, says Loonland/Sunbow’s senior VP of creative affairs Ken Olshansky, is a combination of the style’s commercial success in the feature film sector and the perception of glut in the 2-D animation market that’s causing buyers to seek out new animation styles that will lend their lineups an air of aesthetic uniqueness.

Yet cost wasn’t the only thing keeping buyers away from CGI in the past. Nick Wilson, controller of kids programs for Channel 5 in the U.K., admits that it’s taken time for the style to gel with buyers. ‘Like most program controllers, I’ve turned down more CGI than I’ve had hot dinners. It wasn’t necessarily the cost–it’s just that normally, CGI looks a little cold, plastic and false.’

As evidence that buyers are beginning to warm up to the genre, Channel 5 acquired Ellipsanime series Xcalibur in 2000 and picked up Sony’s Max Steel when ITV dropped it last fall; both shows are currently airing in the new Milkshake FM Saturday morning block for tweens. Wilson is currently looking for a companion series to run after Max Steel, and another CGI show might provide the block with some aesthetic continuity. On the preschool front, ‘we’ve also had a lot of success with Nelvana’s Rolie Polie Olie, [which we added to the lineup last fall],’ says Wilson. ‘Nelvana managed to put some fun into it, and the characters are very warm.’

However, TV-Loonland’s John Bullivant warns against producing CGI for CGI’s sake, claiming that some elements just don’t work well in that style. Treatments of human characters, for example, will always leave something to be desired. Thus, CGI works best for projects that feature non-human characters, he says. Style considerations aside, Bullivant claims he has yet to see a CGI concept that provides a TV benchmark for the genre.

Check out this sampling of new CGI projects hoping to make the grade…

Magic Max

(Foundation Imaging)

Three-year-old prince Max gains magical powers from a dying wizard after an evil queen and her son try to kidnap him and claim the throne. The 26 x half-hour series (with each episode budgeted at US$350,000) is in development, with verbal commitments from German licensing agent CTM, distribution company Egmont Imagination and Fox Kids Australia, as well as interest from the BBC and France’s TF1. The project is also currently being considered by Kids’ WB! and Nickelodeon for U.S. broadcast.

Vanilla Pudding

(Wild Brain/Egmont Imagination)

A psychological angst series for the six to 12 set, Vanilla Pudding (26 half hours, budgeted between US$300,000 and US$350,000 per ep) follows the adventures of a little girl who gets so frustrated with the struggles of adolescent rites of passage that she literally implodes into her own imagination, in which she’s an idealistic superhero dedicated to stopping bullies in their tracks. Developed with Fox Kids, Wild Brain is now among the many prodcos grappling with the net’s upheaval. No word yet on when the series will ultimately air, but Fox Kids still holds the rights.

Jerolemon Street Players

(Nelvana/France 3/Sparkling)

13-year-old math genius Harry Lawrence moves to the Big City to attend Albert Einstein Middle School, but a clerical error gets him sent to Jerolemon Street, an artsy junior high at which Harry doesn’t initially fit in. A concept developed by publishing team Betty and Michael Paraskevas, the 26 x half-hour animated series is budgeted at US$300,000 per ep.


(Decode Entertainment/The Dan Clark Company)

Save-Ums (26 half hours, budgeted between US$250,000 and US$275,000 each) stars little heroes who enjoy big adventures–from helping a baby dinosaur find his pacifier, to making sure the Moon Family gets its toast now!

Dragon’s Rock

(TV-Loonland/Super RTL/GUM Studios)

A comedic sitcom with prime-time aspirations, Dragon’s Rock (26 half hours, budgeted at US$5.5 million) stars a dragon named Stanley Hopper, his wife Atracta and their three kids–teenage Zoe and seven-year-old twins Julius and Julia. Atracta is of royal stock, but Stanley grew up in a human village, effectively ostracizing him from Dragon society and coloring his life with a dry, cynical humor.

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