A look at the making of the first TV special based on an Olympic games mascot.
The record number of delegates at this year's International Animation Festival in Cardiff enjoyed what was undoubtedly the strongest show ever staged there. The event has matured under Festival Director Fran Barlow to become much more than just a screening of the best in animation. Now including an exhibition, an excellent stream of seminars, networking opportunities and, above all, some great parties, the screenings were no longer the only reason to be in town. Despite justified criticism of some sections of the programming, the overall standard remained high. The Festival is now an essential meeting point for all those involved in the international animation industry. And following on from its success this year, it has been confirmed that it will take place once again in Cardiff in 1998.
The Animation Expo was introduced for the first time at the Cardiff International Arena, combining exhibits of models and cels from recent productions with a trade exhibition. Although dominated by the recruitment efforts of Warner Bros and Disney, the trade show also attracted a lively mix of suppliers, producers and distributors.
In terms of cartoon technology, there were stands from Cambridge Animation Systems, Alias/Wavefront, Softimage, INA Toonbox, EOS Electronics and Avid. A lively area throughout the show, it was an innovation which is now guarantied to play a larger role in future years. Apple Computer also provided delegates with an Internet cafe.
Two popular sessions were the keynote speech by Scott Ross of Digital Domain and the inaugural academic lecture by Dr. Paul Wells of the De Montfort University in Leicester ("Tex Avery to Nick Park from an Educational Perspective"). Seminar highlights included a special session on scriptwriting for animation and a look at the difficult road to making it in the American market. A strong program of technology seminars included a first class guide to evolving opportunities for animators in the multimedia market, chaired by CUTS editor George Jarrett, and a comprehensive session on animating the net. But the one session which provided the central focus for the animation community was the first ever Animo Users Group.
With the days of real paint strictly limited in the industry, everyone knows they now need to address the new opportunities of digital production techniques. And with Animo proving to be far and away the most popular computer system for 2-D animation, it was a great opportunity to hear just how a range of existing users had been using it already.
More than 500 Animo systems have already been sold around the world--including 100 to DreamWorks, 120 to Warner Bros and further major sales to Nelvana and DIC. Contracts are currently under negotiation with Disney for what is likely to be the biggest deal so far.
The biggest user in Britain is Telemagination, where 9 machines are used on the studio's own productions and are also offered as a facility service to other producers. Current users include Honeycombe Animation, Snowden Fine and Bermuda Shorts--which is producing Channel 4's new 13 part series of Candy Guard's Pond Life on the studio's Animos.
DreamWorks' head of technology, Dylan Kohler, explained how Animo is being integrated into the company's new digital studio, alongside production of its first animated feature film, Prince of Egypt. He joined DreamWorks after working on the original CAPS project at Disney and then helping Warner Bros. set up its digital production facilities.
"DreamWorks was founded one-and-half years ago by Stephen Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. It is the first Hollywood studio to be founded in decades so it presented a unique opportunity to set up something different," says Kohler.
"Part of the freedom came from having no legacy, no resources that we had to draw on, being able to rethink everything. At my first meeting with Jeffrey and Stephen they were talking about making films in New York and cutting in L.A. That is still pretty cutting edge stuff. At DreamWorks we are trying to build what the hype tells you is the digital studio of the 21st century. In fact, that is pretty much true."
"Most of the initial effort is going into feature animation simply because this is one of the most analyzed and compartmentalized aspects of film making. For 50 years people have been working on how to make the whole system work better using traditional technology. That makes it all the easier to make the transition to the digital world.
"We dedicated ourselves to deciding what was necessary for the filmmakers rather than just developing the tools themselves. There is always a danger of getting carried away and building tools that do little things. You need to concentrate on creativity," he says.
"So we allied ourselves with partners we would need to develop the components. We partnered early on with Silicon Studio and set out to define what the studio would require. We also partnered with IBM and Cambridge for the elements. Also Avid and Alias/Wavefront.
"The network should be able to support all sorts of systems. We are starting with feature animation but some of the key components will have to be of use in the other divisions. One of the fundamentals is the asset management system. This is a huge database covering every digital piece that goes into your film-- a sound file, a cel, a palette. That means we will be able to go back to Prince of Egypt as a historical record. We could even go back and use the elements of it in things like an interactive game. "We are working with Animo in development. Animo shares the distributed workstation approach that we have. Each workstation can run the same software--both Intel machines and Silicon Graphics. What that means to us is that we can have workstations on their own but also drafted in to work together.
"For a larger studio like us, we want to have things on different platforms. Very often certain software is available on just one platform or another so it is nice to have a mix of systems. I think that the world is changing and that it is best to focus on software first and foremost and hardware as you choose.
"Cambridge has also done a grand job in respect to the studio's desire for openness. We are also interested in using its vector package but we think this will have a lot more use in effects animation. At the moment we are concentrating a lot more on the front end of the process." One of the most significant developments for this year's Festival was the presence of such a large number of visitors from American studios. Warner Bros and Disney were both there in force in order to feed their new studios in London and Paris respectively.
Arthur Sheriff (Aardman Animations Publicist) and unidentified at the "iced" Vodka shot ice sculpture. Those who participated received a 20th Anniversary Aardman T-shirt. Courtesy of Ron Diamond.
The Changing Landscape"Feature animation is in high demand and there are a very limited number of artists who can produce the quality of work. Opening in Europe is one way of working with great animation talent," says Roy Conli, head of Disney's Paris studio and coproducer of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Although they are both bringing major production work to Europe and providing fresh employment prospects for European animators, many independent producers fear the process could damage the industry by creating a talent shortage and forcing up the rate for the job. "We are all having problems either losing staff or having to pay more," says Jerry Hibbert of Hibbert Ralph Animation and chair of the Guild of British Animation.
"There is an upside in that British animators are getting lots of money and experience. But if you are a producer trying to raise a crew for a smaller budget, it makes life very difficult."
But the smaller American independents also made the trip to Cardiff, many of them hoping to develop relationships with partner companies in Europe. With the changing US market making life increasingly difficult for independents, they are now keenly eyeing Europe for their expansion plans. Few European animation studios have so far made any kind of real impact in the American market. But at the same time many producers in Europe are now looking to see if they can carve out a slice of that very tough American pie. The Festival featured a session devoted to cracking the American market but the Europeans soon discovered that transatlantic cooperation was the recipe of the day."The landscape in the US has changed so much in the past few years with vertical integration, forcing all of us to think of new ways to find a way in," says Nina Hahn from Sunbow Entertainment in New York. "It is all about thinking globally, which really is a first for the creative industry. It is like making a quilt, with all kinds of people playing their part. No market should operate to the detriment of any other."
Joint developments are the way forward, according to Phil Roman of leading American independent Film Roman. "If a European producer works with an established US producer, it is a lot easier because there is a level of comfort for the Network to work with a producer who has already delivered for them," he says.
One European producer who has been working for the past three years at getting European coproductions off the ground in the US is Jorge Iglesias of Spanish company AKA. He has been developing Mondo Logo with a team of American writers.
"The key in the US market is credibility. You have to have a longterm perspective and you have to have your eyes wide open to reach the talent," he says.
East European Developments
"It is still a very difficult path for European producers. I think that the idea of partnerships with US producers is the most obvious perspective. But it is also important to consider a global perspective. It could be more important to develop European coproductions and to develop credibility within Europe and then in the longterm to look for a US deal. There is a lot to be learned by going there but it takes a long time." The Festival managed to face East as well as West, with a focus on several Russian and Eastern European studios within its international programming. Coproduction with the West is of growing importance to them, with Britain's S4C in particular continuing to make heavy use of their talents. Its latest series, The Bible, is due to go on air soon, Faiths of the World is now in production and a series of Epic Tales is in development.
Varga Studios from Hungary and Pilot, Second Frog and Sverdlovsk from Russia were all had special programs featured in the Festival screenings. Pilot Moscow Animation Studio was the first private animation company to be set up in Russia. It has produced many original shorts since it began in 1988, with an animation school set up at the studio in 1990 and a New Screen Technologies School in 1994.
The Second Frog Animation Group was established within Pilot in 1991 to distribute and market material being produced by animators in Russia outside of Moscow--including the Sverdlovsk Film Studio in Yekaterinburg. Two of mthese films have since been nominated for Academy Awards--Korova in 1990 and Gagarin earlier this year.
In Hungary, Varga was the first studio to be set up outside the state system. Since 1989 it has grown to a permanent staff of 50 animators from Hungary, Russia and Eastern Europe.
"We started out as a service company. We learned a lot from other directors and tried to understand what the market wanted internationally and tried to develop projects. Now we are looking for coproductions. Our main aim is to get out into the international market with our own projects," says director Entrees Erkel.
The first original project, with publisher Dorling Kindersley, began last year and The Tales of Brer Rabbit, a coproduction with Clear Idea, starts this summer. In the meantime, the studio has also been working on four programs for S4C, and on The Willows In Winter and Wolves, Witches and Giants for TVC and Honeycomb Animation.
Bob Swain, who lives in Brighton, England, is a scriptwriter and journalist, who specializes in animation, computer graphics and special effects. This article first appeared in July issue of the British magazine, Cuts.