Heating up the indie radar

From service work to self-sufficiency--original SAV! slate sells
July 1, 2002

From service work to self-sufficiency–original SAV! slate sells

With a close-knit creative team of just five key staffers, Paris-based SAV! The World Productions has adopted a strict one-series-at-a-time policy out of necessity–in order to prevent the kind of overload that can lead to slipshod development and weak end-products. It’s this same methodical approach to series creation that is giving birth to the kind of cutting-edge, high-quality animation capable of turning industry heads in a market desperate for the Next Big Thing.

The studio is about to go into production on its first original series, Thomas & Co., a US$3-million comedy that has been sold to France’s TF1. Targeted at eight- to 12-year-olds, the 26 x 13-minute toon follows the adventures of a group of suburban kids as they struggle through early adolescence.

SAV! is also moving ahead on Molly, Star-Racer, a neo-anime CGI entry that has garnered a development deal with France 3 and a lot of industry buzz since being unveiled at Cartoon Forum 2001.

SAV! CEO Savin Yeatman-Eiffel (yes, those Eiffels), who launched the studio in 1998, says it started off doing service work on short films such as Droite Park for Futurikon. But the creative team quickly developed such a strong artistic mandate and acute sense of the ingredients that go into making a quality animated concept, that it made sense to start focusing on in-house projects. ‘Service is not meant to be the core of our business,’ says Yeatman-Eiffel. ‘We consider all offers made by other companies, but we only go ahead now if the design or the animation we are asked to provide fits with our editorial and artistic line.’

With its first two original projects chugging along smoothly, SAV! has started some preliminary work on Wacky Rabbit, a 2-D series aimed at four- to seven-year-olds that will feature Wacky Rabbit and his neurotic friends–the cute but hot-tempered Moronica and the lonely Ornito Solo–in a spoof of a traditional kids show. It’s funny, but expect a little Aristotelian logic in this 26 x five-minute series that will be budgeted between US$200,000 and US$250,000 per half hour.

On SAV!’s feature film slate is Cosmo-Mission, a 2-D/3-D family flick about the adventures of a young man who finds a blueprint for a spaceship in his attic.

Peafur eyes co-pro partners to float in-house projects

Since hitting the animation scene as a writing team in 1995, U.S.-born David Freedman and Englishman Alan Gilbey have guided six shows (including Aardman’s Rex the Runt and Cosgrove Hall’s Foxbusters) to greenlight glory, as well as launching their own London-based studio, Peafur Productions, two years ago. The hotshop is already well into its second co-production with Bounty Hamster (a co-venture tying in Silver Fox Films and Winchester Television that’s destined for a fall launch on CiTV), and is looking forward to even greater involvement in production for 2003.

So what’s the key to Peafur’s success? A balanced comic sensibility that jibes with the nature of international projects. ‘A transatlantic partnership brings two very different kinds of humor to what we do, and we’re one of the few British teams that works regularly for North American companies,’ says Gilbey. For example, Peafur has provided development work on All About Andy for Fox Family Channel and Seven Little Monsters for Nelvana, as well as having contributed scripts for Casper–The Animated Series for Universal Pictures.

Although shepherding projects from commission to debut is appealing, the pair’s chief interest still lies in getting their own original properties off the ground–a venture that necessitates co-production, in Peafur’s case. ‘We are creators and originators of ideas, so partnerships make the best sense because we’re never going to become a huge animation company that buys in ideas.’

Preschool series Shrinkle Boy is one project that’s waiting for a key partner to sign up. The story line for the 26 x 11-minute 2-D/3-D combo centers around a boy who stays in the bath too long, shrinking down to the size of his bath toys, with which he embarks on high-sea adventures.

Also in early development is Dirk, Feathers & Chang, a Flash-animated short series for family audiences about a group of star-struck theater arts dropouts who lie, cheat and sabotage careers to get their shot at fame.

Another short series that’s part cautionary tale, part Twilight Zone, Don’t follows the misadventures of naughty children who think they know better. The 26 x five-minute 2-D/3-D project targets the four to eight crowd.

Xilam takes on new dimensions with a 3-D studio acquisition

Coming off a successful French IPO that reaped US$14.1 million in extra capital this February, Paris-based Xilam Animation is gearing up to branch out into genres and formats beyond the half-hour 2-D toon. In March, following the judicial liquidation of Chaman Production, the company acquired a CGI studio and the rights to a nearly completed feature film called Kaena that will launch sometime in Q4. Targeted at the 15-plus crowd, Kaena is an original science-fiction/heroic fantasy about the prophecy of a young woman who has been chosen by the gods to save her dying world. Budgeted at US$11.3 million, the film is co-financed by Studio Canal and will be distributed by Bac Film.

According to Xilam president Marc du Pontavice, who founded the company in 1999 after leaving Gaumont Multimedia, the IPO cash infusion will also help Xilam get closer to its goal of owning and managing its own shows.

Rapido, a 2-D/3-D series that’s slated for completion this September, illustrates this shift in strategy. With broadcasters France 3, Canada’s Teletoon and Mediaset in Italy putting up 75% of the budget, Xilam was able to go into production quickly and retain most of the ownership at the same time.

Next up on the studio’s original development slate is Tupu, a 2-D animated action series that should draw a good-sized girl audience. The 26 x half-hour show stars a Tarzan-like little girl who lives not in the jungle, but in Central Park. Targeted at the six to 11 set and carrying a per-episode price tag of between US$250,000 and US$300,000, Tupu will go into production this fall for a projected September 2003 delivery.

For boys, Xilam is working on Rahan, an action-adventure show for six- to 11-year-olds that’s based on a popular same-name French comic book about the adventures of a caveman. Xilam will use motion capture and 2-D rendering to depict the 26 x half-hour concept’s prehistoric setting, and production is expected to commence in spring 2003 for a 2004 delivery.

Studio B steps up original output and looks for licensing legs

Although Vancouver, Canada-based Studio B Productions has always been a prodigious animation company, this year’s anticipated output of more than 140 eps takes it to a whole new level. And above and beyond the sheer bulk of the annual yield, nearly 75% the toon episodes will be from indigenous series. These in-house originals include Yakkity Yak, a 52 x 11-minute show about an aspiring stand-up yak comedian (for Canada’s Teletoon in 2003, with Kapow Pictures in Australia); and 26 half hours of a spooky book spin-off called Into the Shadows (for Canada’s Family Channel, with Westport, Connecticut-based Smart Kids Publishing).

With a team of more than 100 professionals, 14-year-old Studio B is certainly capable of producing an entire show under its own roof, but as an independent company, it faces the usual challenges when it comes to financing its own projects–and creative partnerships are the solution. A good example of the right fit can be found in Studio B’s co-pro partnership with TV-Loonland on Something Else. ‘TV-L has an animation studio and distribution channels in Europe, while we bring North American creative sensibilities and can raise money out of Canada,’ says co-founder and partner Blair Peters.

In the same vein, Studio B is co-developing a sardonic 2-D series for nine- to 12-year-olds with Toronto, Canada’s Decode. Flakes centers around a gang of breakfast cereal spokescharacters that, unlike Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam, never really made it to the big time.

Although a lot of energy will be put into next year’s new shows, co-founding partner Chris Bartleman would also like to start maximizing the untapped potential of the shop’s older properties. ‘By the end of this year, we’d like to be on track for getting licensing and merchandising going,’ he says. Plans include launching D’Myna Leagues on video with Aston Entertainment. ‘We don’t really want to do more cartoons, but we want to get more out of them,’ says Bartleman. ‘That’s a big stream of income we’re not really capitalizing on at all.’

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