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The Little Guy Gets a Piece of the Animated Action

Major studios open their arms -- and wallets -- to entrepreneurs who can offer that golden combination: creativity and cost-efficiency.

June 19, 2005|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

The upcoming computer-animated film "Valiant" tells the story of a plucky bird who overcomes his small size to become a heroic homing pigeon during World War II.

It's a theme that resonates for the movie's producer, John Williams. A former member of the creative team that made DreamWorks' "Shrek" and its sequel, Williams set out a few years ago to found his own small independent production house, Vanguard Animation. Flush with financing from European and Asian investors, he then made "Valiant" for $40 million -- less than half of what the major studios usually spend on animated fare.

But Williams' biggest accomplishment came three years ago, when he secured what in indie animation circles is considered the holy grail: a distribution deal with a major studio, Walt Disney Pictures. The movie is expected in theaters in August.

For more than half a century, big Hollywood studios dominated all facets of animation moviemaking. Not anymore. Buoyed by soaring consumer demand, and with plummeting technology costs lowering barriers to entry, animation entrepreneurs like Williams are quietly transforming the business.

Increasingly, major studios are relying on independent producers such as Vanguard in Los Angeles, Wild Brain Inc. in San Francisco and Threshold Animation Studios in Santa Monica to help feed their expanding pipelines while keeping production costs low.

"We clearly understand the value of discovering and partnering with new voices in the animation world and bringing them into the fold," said Fox Animation Studios President Chris Meledandri, citing Fox's acquisition of Blue Sky Studios, creator of the hit movie "Ice Age" and the recently released "Robots."

Call it the Pixar effect.

The success of Emeryville-based Pixar Animation Studios is helping to fuel a surge in animation companies all over the country. The studio's computer-generated, or CG, blockbusters "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" took in more than $430 million combined at the box office. "A Bug's Life," "Monsters Inc." and "Finding Nemo" together took in more than $750 million.

Those kinds of numbers can translate into big profits, particularly if production costs -- which have been known to exceed $100 million -- can be kept down. Given the rising expense of making live-action movies, the prospect of producing an animated film for less than $50 million is increasingly irresistible.

"We don't see ourselves competing against Pixar; we look at them as big brother," says Kelly Williamson, chief executive of CritterPix Studios, a San Rafael start-up developing a $30-million movie about the misadventures of an otter named Ollie.

Steve Ogden, editor of AnimWatch, an online magazine that tracks industry trends, notes that optimism is at a high. "People either think they are or want to be the next John Lasseter," he said, referring to the creative guru at Pixar. "There's a gold rush mentality."

It's more affordable than ever to become a prospector. A decade ago, a single computer workstation used in making a CG film cost roughly $80,000. Today, movies can be made on $3,000 home computers, and 3-D software that once cost $20,000 or more can be bought at Circuit City for about $2,000.

"Technology has liberated independent animators and given them an opportunity to break into the motion picture realm," said Ron Diamond, co-publisher of Animation World Network, which operates an online trade magazine. "It's a huge shift."

This new breed of animation entrepreneurs includes established digital-effects houses and TV-commercial shops eager for a piece of the animation business as well as veteran animators who have left the major studios and gone solo.

Consider James Baxter. For nine years, Baxter worked his way up the ranks at DreamWorks, eventually supervising animation on such high-profile films as "Shrek 2" and the just-released "Madagascar."

But in January, he gave up the security and prestige of his job to launch his own business. Bucking the industry march toward computer animation, he is specializing in the traditional hand-drawn form.

"For years I had this romantic idea of striking out on my own," said Baxter, 38. "I wanted to control my own destiny."

With the help of some freelancers, a scanner, three Dell computers and some hand-me-down desks from his former employer, Baxter and his wife, Kendra, set up shop in a 3,500-square-foot former mattress factory in Pasadena. Their start-up capital: $100,000 pooled from their savings.

To help pay the bills, Baxter has dabbled in small commercial jobs and animated sequences on the 2-D animated movie "Curious George."

Ultimately, though, Baxter aims to make his own full-length feature.

"We're doing this from the ground up," he said, as his two young children scurried about his office.

On the other end of the spectrum are several new players with very deep pockets.

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