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COMPANY TOWN | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

More Than the Conversation Is Animated

August 20, 1996|CLAUDIA ELLER

Warner Bros. has a bad case of feature animation envy.

So much so that it's betting big that its Thanksgiving release "Space Jam"--one of the most expensive movies in the studio's history--will see the kind of success Disney has had for years selling its animated fare on the big screen and in retail stores.

There seems to be some confusion over the actual cost of the movie, which cinematically joins Bugs Bunny and the other classic Looney Tunes characters with basketball superstar Michael Jordan through a mix of live-action and animation.

Various sources say the comedy adventure movie is costing well more than $100 million--some say as high as $127 million--but Warner executives insist that people are confusing the film's direct expenses with the launching of the studio's feature animation division.

"Space Jam," produced by Ivan Reitman, whose comedy hits include "Dave," "Ghostbusters" and "Twins," and directed by Joe Pytka, is the first movie to be made at the new division. As Warner races to put the finishing touches on "Space Jam," due in theaters Nov. 15, the unit is well underway on its second animated feature, "Quest for Camelot," scheduled for release the following Thanksgiving, and other projects.

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Warner Co-Chairman Robert Daly said Monday: "We spent well over $100 million, but we're setting up a whole organization, so some of that is capital costs that will be amortized over both movies."

Daly said it's difficult to know exactly how much overhead will get charged to "Space Jam." He said the movie will come in at well under $100 million.

"Disney has been in business for 50 years," the Warner chief said. "We had to gear up and hire a lot of people really fast, and that always costs a lot of money."

Warner hired some former Disney animators and, at one point, even approached former Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and his cohorts at DreamWorks about borrowing some of that studio's animators to work on its production.

"I'm sure we begged, borrowed and stole every animator in town, we were under such a tough deadline," Daly acknowledged, noting that "it's not easy to find animators."

As part of its new venture, Warner built plants in Sherman Oaks, Glendale and London, as well as a few satellite operations in various other locations here in the States.

Reitman said that although "big money is being spent by Warner Bros.," there's "a misconception" that it all went into the production, and that in fact a lot of dollars were spent purchasing state-of-the-art digital and animation equipment. Reitman estimates that the final cost of the movie, which is in the later stages of post-production, will be in the "high 80s."

A lot of the expense was having to "keep putting more and more animators on so it would be ready in time," a source close to the production said.

Reitman, who estimated that about 500 animators worked on the movie, said: "We had a year less than normal for a first-class animated film like this."

Even if the movie winds up costing less than $100 million, as Reitman and Warner executives say, "Space Jam" will still rate as one of the studio's three most expensive movies ever--along with this summer's "Eraser," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and "Batman Forever."

Whereas those two films had special effects and extensive physical production demands too, "Space Jam" had the added technical challenge of having to marry live action and animated sequences in a seamless way.

As with Bob Hoskins in Disney's 1988 blockbuster "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," Jordan shares a lot of screen time with animated co-star Bugs Bunny and various other Looney Tunes characters, such as Daffy Duck and Tasmanian Devil.

"We had to create an entire digital arena filled with animated characters," Reitman said. "And unlike other animated films, when Jordan moves, all the characters and the background move."

Jordan plays an interplanetary superhero who helps save Bugs Bunny and the other Looney Tunes characters from alien creatures who come to kidnap them so as to make them a new attraction at their failing theme park in outer space. With the help of Jordan and other NBA greats, Bugs challenges the tiny aliens to a basketball tournament. If the Looney Tunes team wins, they all get to remain on Earth.

Several new animation and digital techniques were used on the movie, many of which Pytka said he has experimented with in his TV commercial work.

Pytka said he created the storyboards for the movie based on his Nike TV commercials "Hare-O-Space Jordan" and "Hare Jordan," which first united Jordan and Bugs Bunny in the same frame. Pytka directed all of the live-action sequences with Jordan, with Reitman supervising the movie from beginning to end.

Pytka takes issue with the suggestion from some sources that Reitman really ran the show. "I finished the movie and am still actively involved in the film," insisted Pytka, whose only other feature experience was directing 1989's racetrack comedy "Let It Ride."

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