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Character Builders: Hollywood in Ohio

You work on animated feature films and you live where!?!" Ron Price explains how Character Builders is one of the busiest feature film studios in Hollywood...only they are in Ohio.

Whenever I tell somebody from Hollywood that I work for a studio that makes movies in Ohio, the most frequent response I get is, "Really... Why Ohio?"

I admit it seems strange. Character Builders' main interest is working on features, and everybody knows they make features in Hollywood. It's where the studios are, where the biggest talent pool is -- it's even where we buy a lot of our supplies and equipment . It doesn't seem to make sense to have a studio three thousand miles away. But with over a dozen pictures under our collective belt, including Space Jam, Anastasia and The Swan Princess, we've come to realize that you don't have to be in L.A. to work on feature films.

Character Builder's 13,000 square-foot building in the woods of Powell, Ohio. © 1999 Character Builders.

The idea of subcontracting is nothing new. Most of the large animation studios are pretty comfortable with it these days. Disney has been using multiple studios on its features since The Little Mermaid ten years ago. Recently, though, many studios have begun using subcontractors or satellite studios to do larger and more creatively significant portions of their pictures. This is because the sheer amount of animation production going on makes it difficult for any of the studios to keep enough talent on staff to meet all their needs. Using subcontractors allows studios to keep their overhead lower and prevents them from having to expand and contract when pictures begin and end, preventing difficult recruitment efforts and layoffs. Additionally, (and we hope most importantly), the quality of the work coming out of the studios "between the coasts" has improved to the point where it's as good as any you'll find in Hollywood. So, in fact, it's a great time to be a studio in Ohio (or Alaska, or Italy) -- if you know how to do it. Here, then, are Character Builders' Ten Laws of Animation at a Distance:

Animator Don Scanlon.© 1999 Character Builders.

1) Pound The Pavement Our first feature film job came about almost by accident. In 1991, Character Builders had been around for five years or so, and working entirely on advertising projects. "We were just happily making commercials. We wanted to make a movie someday, but we had no idea how that was going to come about," says director and co-founder Jim Kammerud. It came about when a producer on the feature Rover Dangerfield saw a magazine ad for Character Builders. Clean-up on the picture had fallen behind schedule, and they were calling any studio they could find looking for help. We showed them our work, got the job, and we were on our way. Things don't usually come as easily as Rover did, though. In order to keep working, we had to start pounding the pavement in L.A., meeting people, showing them our reel, and convincing them that yes, in fact, you can have a studio in Ohio. We hired a full-time producer who was largely responsible for getting us jobs. After a few pictures, we'd built up relationships with enough people and enough studios that we were able to be in the right places at the right times when people needed help. 2) Find Your Niche There's a reason the major studios hire smaller studios to work on their projects: they can't do it all themselves. Don't expect that you'll be able to, either. If your studio has one thing that they do really well -- say, animation assist -- then make up a terrific reel of that and show it to people. You may get passed up for the effects animation jobs, but if that's not your studio's strength, you don't want those jobs anyway.

The Indescribable Nth, a short film which was directed by Steve Moore (aka Oscar Moore;Redux Riding Hood) and should be making the festival circuit this winter. © 1999 Steve

3) Learn Everything (or, Ignore Rule #2)

As you get work and your studio grows, you'll gain experience, which will allow you to expand the range of services you can offer. From cleanup on Rover Dangerfield, Character Builders moved on to other pictures, gradually taking on greater responsibilities, like story and design work on Bebe's Kids, layout on some television projects, and animation direction and art direction for Space Jam. Now we're being placed in charge of entire projects and developing features of our own. 4) Get Good People It can be hard to find talent when you're not right in the middle of the action. It's important to do what you can with available resources. For Character Builders, this often means finding local talent and training them. As a small studio, we also keep our eyes peeled for multi-talented artists -- having a key assistant who can also paint backgrounds is a great asset and makes for a more flexible studio. One thing you've got going for you being away from the major markets is that your artists aren't as likely to be hired away by other studios. Character Builders' core group of artists has been working together for over ten years, and that's become our greatest strength -- the strength of the team makes the work we do better, and people always get good results when they hire us.

An animator working on The Indescribable Nth. © 1999 Character Builders.

5) Communicate

If you were spending millions of dollars on a movie, you'd be nervous about giving it to somebody across the country, wouldn't you? The only way to get around this is to talk to everybody you're working with as much as you can. Offer comments whenever you think of them. Make long lists of questions and ask them. Take nothing for granted. Your clients won't mind the phone calls, and chances are good that eventually, you'll ask a question or point out something that will save time and money. Always find out the basics -- what kind of paper to use, what field charts, how to write exposure sheets. This prevents the, "Oh my God, didn't anybody tell you?" reaction when they get your first shipment which includes sixteen-field animation and they needed to scan it all as twelve-field.

A storyboard meeting.© 1999 Character Builders.

6) Get Used to Airplane Food

Put your studio in Ohio, Alaska, or on a cruise ship on the Caribbean if you want to (we do) -- if you're going to keep busy, you're going to be in Los Angeles a lot. Our producers travel back and forth sometimes as much as three weeks a month, meeting with clients, supervising people who subcontract for us, and drumming up new business. It's usually not too big a deal to add a few trips to see the client (and at least one for the client to visit Ohio) to a budget, and it makes everybody more comfortable. 7) Use Technology Sure, it can be scary and expensive, but hey, we're starting a new century here. It's important to find the new and better ways to share your work with others. We've found that laying out the money for a video conference when our director is handing out animation makes a huge difference in how close the final product is to what was expected. The call might cost a ridiculous amount of money -- but that's only compared to a regular phone call. When you consider that it might save your animator a week of work redoing a scene, it becomes pretty cheap by comparison. We also swear by sending animation tests and other artwork digitally, either by direct modem or over the Internet. It might mean buying a freelancer a computer, but the director can see rough tests in a half-hour instead of a day later. 8) Deadlines Anybody who makes movies knows how important deadlines are; when every change or error involves a lag because you're across the country, you've got to be even more careful to do what you have to do to complete your assignments on time. You've got to play "worst-case" a lot more: expect that your computer will crash ten minutes before FedEx leaves; assume that half of your key assistants will catch that flu that's going around; and plan on having to redraw those drawings that were destroyed when the roof leaks. It's important not to be hysterical about things, but let's face it, if somebody's paying you to do their animation and you keep putting them off because you're not finished, you're not going to be the ones they call next time. So don't make promises you can't keep, and let whoever you're working for know what you're doing.

At the same time, if you've got freelancers or another studio working for you, keep on top of them. Make sure you know exactly what they're doing and how fast they're going -- and that you can believe what they tell you. Nothing's more frustrating than finding out at the last minute that a piece of animation is going to be late and that it was something you could have had under control if you'd known about it earlier. Encourage everyone you work with to be honest and realistic about what's going to be done.

Bone, a comic book created by Jeff Smith, one of the original founders of Character Builders, is being developed by Character Builders as a feature for Nickelodeon. © 1999 Jeff Smith and Character Builders.

9) Stay Nimble

Large studios often have difficulties moving their resources around -- an animator hired for one project might have little to do while somebody down the hall is in the middle of a deadline crunch from hell. It's one of the reasons they need to subcontract work out in the first place. If you as a subcontractor can respond to sudden needs or changes, you'll be that much more valuable. For example, if you're animating a sequence for a client who suddenly tells you that they need somebody to clean it up, and you can shift around some artists and call in a few freelancers, you may win a few more months of work for your studio. 10) Xerox Everything Thankfully, it doesn't happen often, but no matter how careful you are in shipping things, packages can be lost or destroyed. Keep copies (if they're animation drawings, preferably ones you can re-register later) of everything you send out, along with lists of the items in every package. Trust me, you'll be thankful for it someday.

Ron Price. © 1999 Character Builders.

The Real Reason

Of course none of this actually answers the question why. It's only an explanation of how. The why question is harder, because people who ask it seriously will probably never understand anyway. The answer, though, is simple: This is where we are. We started here, most of us are from here, and it's a place we're all happy to work. We're working on movies, which is what we want to do, and we're doing it where we want to do it -- a place where we have trees and seasons and a big new building. And since nobody's making us move to Hollywood, we don't plan to. We'll stay here where we like it. Anyway, not everybody thinks it's that odd -- the second most frequent question we get when people find out we're in Ohio is, "Really? Got any openings?" Ron Price is a film editor at Character Builders.