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Character Assistance

2/15/2012 2:34 AM Eastern

Anyone strolling through the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank will see metal street signs that direct visitors to the various departments that comprise an animation studio: animation here, layout there, etc. Those signs are a charming sight, a reminder of the time when cartoon operations were self-contained villages of artists, all working side-by-side to create wonders. But as directional guides, they are as obsolete as Route 66.

While one might think that the major animation studios, including those set up during the “toon boom” of the 90s-DreamWorks Animation, Warner Bros. Feature Animation, even the now-defunct Fox Animation Studio in Phoenix-produce their work within the confines of one studio plant, that is rarely the case. Indeed, one of animation's best-kept secrets is that even the biggest of the majors rely on help from small studios in places like Ireland, England, Australia, Canada, and Powell, Ohio.

Powell, Ohio?

Animation talent, of course, can grow anywhere, though it is usually transported and harvested to major production centers. That's what makes regional companies like Character Builders, a small classical animation studio located just outside Columbus, Ohio, all the more intriguing.

Employing a small staff of feature-quality animation artists, Character Builders has contracted for animation work on such past features as Space Jam, Anastasia, and more recently, the studio performed all pre-production work (storyboarding, character design, layout and animatic production) for Disney's direct-to-video sequel, The Little Mermaid II, and the upcoming animated sequel to 101 Dalmatians.

“We may not have Glen Keane (a longtime Disney artist who many consider the Olivier of animation), but we have the very next group,” says Leslie Hough, executive producer for Character Builders. “We have people who are that good, they're just not as visible.”

In addition to its core staff of about 20-roughly the norm for a small studio-Character Builders draws from a list of freelance talent from all over the country.

“We have a guy in Cleveland, a guy in Indiana, we have a couple guys in Utah, and a guy in Manhattan,” Hough says. “We usually bring them to the studio for a couple weeks to let them see what we're doing and then they can take the work home. For one reason or another, usually personal, they prefer not to live in Los Angeles, but they are good enough to get work.”

Whereas in the past, feature film sequences were farmed out to such service companies mainly as so-called “overflow” work, increasingly, these satellite studios are now being sought to aid specific functions within the animation process. Vancouver-based Bardel Animation Ltd., for instance, has been working with DreamWorks Animation since 1997, providing in-betweening and final line or “clean-up” animation, meaning that Bardel takes rough “acting” drawings from the studio and refines the lines, adding details, and making sure the character remains true to the studio's initial design. Bardel has performed such work for all of DreamWorks traditionally animated features, starting with The Prince of Egypt, and continuing through the upcoming Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

Such precision work obviously requires not only A-list talent, but also close cooperation and synergy with lead animators.

“We try to keep as much of the communication artist-to-artist,” says Bardel president Barry Ward. “We send our key people to L.A. to work with the studio's people, and they come back up here and lead our separate unit of artists underneath them. Those people are the ones who deal directly with lead animators or lead keys on any given character.”

While Ward says that “for feature work, it's still rare for (major studios) to actually send out animation,” things are different in the realm of direct-to-video films. For Joseph, King of Dreams, DreamWorks' video follow-up to Prince of Egypt, the studio entrusted Bardel with the entire production from layout to final effects. Ironically, that job caused the smaller studio itself to farm out some of the work-in this case, to Toronto's Canuck Creations, Inc. Canuck Creations, meanwhile, had previously worked on American features like Quest for Camelot, The King and I, and the German animated film, Abrefaxe.

While Canuck Creation's prime focus has always been on feature animation, industry shifts have forced the company to change direction, according to its president, Alan Kennedy.

“Our studio was predominantly a feature studio, but we've really pushed the (TV) series end of things because features are too sporadic,” Kennedy says. “Four or five years ago, we would get a feature and right after that, another feature. Now, though, it's definitely a changed market. If we don't have a feature, some of our top people can be directing or supervising on series work, and then jump back onto feature work when we get a feature job.”

That kind of versatility to jump back-and-forth between jobs is obviously a plus for such studios. Indeed, the artists at smaller studios are often forced to demonstrate greater versatility than their major studio counterparts.

“They have to be able to adapt to different styles, and in some cases, do more than animate,” says Jane Baer, owner of Baer Animation Company, an LA-based classical animation house that worked on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Disney's 1990 theatrical featurette, The Prince and the Pauper, among other projects.

Perhaps the most attractive selling point to a major studio for such shops is the freedom and experience to create a complete animation unit from the ground up, almost instantly.

“We can basically ramp up an entire studio within a week or so,” states Rocky Solotoff, executive producer with North Hills, California-based Toon Makers, Inc. “If I don't have the personnel at hand, and I've got to get on it first thing in the morning, I have no problem calling up somebody that I may have beaten out for the job and asking them to work on it, because we have to keep kith and kin together, too.”

For service shops like Toon Makers and Baer Animation that draw from the Los Angeles talent pool, the salary wars spawned by the '90s toon boom made hanging onto talent a nearly impossible challenge for a time.

“It almost put us out of business,” admits Solotoff. “They were offering animators more than we could pay to do nothing but sit there and wait for a project to start.” But given the current downcycling in the industry, keeping talent is no longer as complicated, though problems have not ended. “Right now, unemployment in animation is tremendous, so the talent pool is wonderful and we can get the best of the best,” says Baer. “But on the downside, there's not as much work.”

Because there are fewer major studio projects coming in for small shops these days (as opposed to an increase in CD-ROM, DVD, Web, and commercial work), many niche studios have taken the step into developing their own projects in order to survive.

“We're trying to break away from being so much of a service studio, so we've been doing a lot of development work specifically aimed at direct-to-video features,” explains Baer, who is currently developing a project called the Popsi Power Show, featuring a character based on a doll that is made entirely of recycled plastic bottles. Toon Makers, meanwhile, is working to develop a prospective theatrical feature called The Ornament.

Yet another means of survival for small toon shops is to attempt to become full-service operations in their own right. That's the path followed by Homewood, Illinois-based Star Toons International.

“People are always amazed by where we're located,” says Star Toons' executive producer Caroline Manalo. “We're in this little suburb outside of Chicago, and not in Chicago. But we're one of the only (regional) production companies producing television work for a national series.”

Because of Star Toons' recent merger with an overseas animation production house-India's Heart Entertainment-it has the ability to take on the workload of producing an entire animated TV series. But even prior to that merger, the company was an out-source shop for Warner Bros. Television Animation, churning out episodes of Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs and Steven Spielberg Presents Histeria.

While the norm for studio animation has always been to send the actual animation work to finishing shops overseas, usually in Asia, Star Toons often ended up with episodes for those two shows to make sure that the barrage of pop-culture jokes that characterized the two series survived intact.

“We would be given particular storylines that Warners felt were aimed strictly at American sensibilities,” says Manalo. “They were doing a lot of parody work on celebrities, so they felt that if we understood who Joe Pesci is, for example, we would animate the scene better.”

Such shops are managing to survive even as the animation market, like the rest of the entertainment industry, suffers through a few jitters these days. While the major animation studios do not exactly advertise their reliance on such regional service boutiques, it seems likely that they will continue to use them to one degree or another.

“We're guns for hire,” Toon Makers' Solotoff notes. Even the biggest names in animation can sometimes use a little extra fire power.

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