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British Film Group Hopes 'Valiant' Effort Has Big Payoff

The land's first major computer-aided animation project, about a wartime carrier pigeon, may help its fledgling industry take off.

January 30, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The venerable Ealing Studios in west London conjures up images of the popular British black-and-white comedies of the 1950s.

But in a new building here, artists from around the world have just completed a very different kind of project: Britain's -- and Europe's -- first major entry into full-length computer-generated animated movies.

"Valiant," the comic tale of a British passenger pigeon fighting Nazi falcons in World War II, is set to hit movie screens March 25 here and April 15 in the United States, where it will be distributed by Walt Disney Co. The film, a creation of the Vanguard Animation unit of Beverly Hills-based Vanguard Films, was produced by John H. Williams and has an all-star cast of voices, including those of Ewan McGregor, John Hurt and Tim Curry.

Williams, a producer on "Shrek" and "Shrek 2," said "Valiant" was wrapped for less than $40 million, far from the $100 million to $150 million that American animators typically spend on similar efforts. And the U.K. Film Council, a government-funded body that helped finance "Valiant" with an investment of more than $5 million, hopes it will be a commercial success and spur others to cross the Atlantic.

"We are showing that we can deliver computer-generated features as well as Hollywood," said Ian Thomson, a spokesman for the film council.

In the 70-minute movie, the hero Valiant (voiced by McGregor of the "Star Wars" prequels and "Moulin Rouge" fame) wangles a coveted place in the British Royal Air Force Homing Pigeon Service and goes to war for king and country.

The plucky squab could be a metaphor for the British film industry, which contributes abundant talent to Hollywood but is a midget compared with its U.S. counterpart when it comes to making any kind of motion picture, let alone one that is computer-generated.

That slice of the film business -- profitable since the huge success of "Toy Story" in 1995 -- is dominated by giants such as Pixar Animation Studios Inc. and DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. In fact, the promise of big profits has drawn many studios into animation, so the British are jumping into a crowded field.

Compared with live-action pictures, computer-generated animated films are notoriously time-consuming and costly. Williams didn't think "Valiant" had to be. He convinced Disney, lining it up as the U.S. distributor, and partnered with Barnaby Thompson, one of the owners of Ealing Studios.

"We had the benefit of being independent of the studio creative process," Williams said. "We did not go to them for approval for character design, production design, casting and otherwise. But we had the challenge of trying to make sure that we stayed ahead of the bond company."

Given the high costs of living and working in London and the weakness of the U.S. dollar compared with the British pound, Ealing Studios itself wasn't the draw, Williams said. In fact, he said, he figured before deciding on London that "it would be $3 million cheaper to do it in Los Angeles."

What did the trick were the incentives offered by the film council, adding up to about $12 million in tax breaks and direct investments. Then there was the bait of cosmopolitan London, and the project itself, to lure scarce animating talent.

"What we had going for us was that, being the first major computer-generated film to be made in England, we managed to get a tremendous level of interest and enthusiasm among the people we hired," said "Valiant" line producer Tom Jacomb.

The esteemed Ealing Studios did factor in.

"They certainly had a great tradition, and that was a great factor in wanting it to do it there," Williams said.

In operation since 1902, the studio bills itself as the world's oldest film production center. It is best known for postwar classics "The Lavender Hill Mob" and "The Ladykillers" and comedies including "Kind Hearts and Coronets," which made Alec Guinness a star outside his native country, and "Passport to Pimlico."

With 170 people from 17 countries working on it, and using more than 50,000 storyboards, "Valiant" was completed in two years, compared with the usual three to five years for similar features.

Co-producer Curtis Augspurger said the crew labored to capture the look of London, the English countryside and the European skies during World War II, when the British used homing pigeons to carry vital messages and the Germans deployed falcons to hunt and kill the messengers.

"The most important thing in our film is our characters, and we have tried to build a very rich world for them to live in," Augspurger said. "It is not photo reality, but you're still feeling you're in the real world. And everything you see is from a pigeon's point of view."

With no large merchandise tie-in to help promote the film, Williams said, he needed good reviews and word of mouth to draw moviegoers. The film council's Thomson said the peculiarity of British humor should help -- in the United States.

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