Karl Cohen chronicles the saga of San Francisco's (Colossal) Pictures.
News stories about Disney are often read around the world, but major news about lesser-known animation companies are generally ignored by the national press. One important story that was treated this way began to unfold in public on April 3, 1996, when a San Francisco Chronicle story headlined, "Colossal Pictures to Lay Off Third of Staff." This item was followed by rumors that the company, one of the mainstays of the local animation industry with a staff of about 130, had given pink slips to 40, 80, 100, and even 120 people. In June, the Chronicle ran a second story noting that they had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The rumor mill in the local film community seemed to go out of control, and there was even talk that Colossal was out of business. The company issued press releases explaining what had happened, but it appears the writers at several trade magazines didn't read them. Instead, they continued to run stories that suggested things at Colossal were bigger and better than ever.
Colossal Pictures, founded in 1976, became well known in the 1980s for its innovative design work. They pioneered the "Blendo" look that featured a mixture of different animation techniques in the same commercial. Often live-action footage or photo montage was included along with stop-motion, cel animation, drawn images and other techniques. They also developed the Liquid Television and Aeon Flux shows for MTV and are known for their music video productions for The Grateful Dead, Bobby McFerrin, Primus, The Kronos Quartet, Peter Gabriel, and other stars. Their feature work includes titles for such films as The Black Stallion, Peggy Sue Got Married, andBram Stoker's Dracula. They did special effects for The Right Stuff, Top Gun, Demolition Man and Running Man. In addition, they provided animated sequences for Natural Born Killers and Tank Girl.
Today, Colossal has undergone an extensive reorganization. They consolidated their operations in one building (there had been four). They now have around 40 people on staff, including a new CEO. And Drew Takahashi, co-founder and chairman of the board states that, "We can look forward to being out of Chapter 11 in 1997." What Happened The changes that occurred in 1996 were triggered by the rising costs of doing business and a drop in the company's profits. The animation division had become so large it was not only unwieldy to run, but it was also less profitable than it had been in years past. It was decided that it was wiser to restructure the company and concentrate on the development of well-written and designed projects, rather than maintain all the facilities and staff needed to execute animated, live-action, and special effects work. It was especially difficult to maintain its high-tech computer facilities, which require constant upgrades of equipment and software. It was decided that, in the future, they would send the production of their animated and special effects work out to other companies.
Colossal eventually consolidated their activities at their facility at 101 15th Street in San Francisco. Prior to doing so, they had their ink and paint service in one building, the animation department in another, the administrative office, a design department and other services in a third, and stages, a model shop, a camera room and other facilities at a forth location. Drew Takahashi says it was just too much to keep track of. Just as important to the survival of Colossal as the downsizing of space and staff were the changes made in the administration. Gary Gutierrez, who co-founded the company with Takahashi,left to pursue his desires to work as a filmmaker on feature productions, though he still remains a stockholder and believer in Colossal's future. Takahashi has stepped aside as president and CEO to become chief creative officer and chairman of the board of directors. In December, Brooks McChesney was appointed president and CEO.
McChesney, who was trained as a lawyer, has over 20 years management and production experience with hi-tech and interactive companies. Before coming to Colossal, he was chief operating officer of IVN Communications Inc., a leading producer and distributor of nonfiction programming. McChesney says he is refocusing the business end of Colossal to have a more aggressive account management strategy. He states that "We're now more proactive in communicating our menu of services to our client base, so that an advertising account will use us for their Web site design and an online company will discover we can help them with their advertising needs." "Drew Takahashi is Colossal," according to one staff member. His greatest strength is conceiving and designing projects. The company's international reputation for producing remarkable works, noted for their unique style and techniques, is based to a large extent on his visions. Unfortunately, in recent years he had little time to devote his energies to the company's creative side. With the addition of McChesney, Takahashi can once again concentrate on what he does best, design and direct projects. Colossal's Latest Work Proof that the company is alive and well can be seen in their latest demo reel. It isn't as long as past reels, but it is just as exceptional, with one outstanding work on it after another.
The company's latest commercials for Coca-Cola demonstrate Takahashi's brilliance as a creative director. The two spots are so dramatic that many people are unaware that one was done with CGI and the other all live-action without any added special effects. Both are journeys through unusual spaces. For viewers, it isn't how they were done that is important. What is important is that they are visually captivating and reinforce the sponsor's name.
Pictogram, the computer-generated Coke ad, flies around some sort of carnival ride of the future. We go past fascinating statues, gadgets and other cool things. There is no hard sell on the soundtrack, instead we see some 40 or 50 Coke bottles in the landscape, often seen as tiny decorative details. The product's name is sometimes barely visible on a bottle or sign for a fraction of a second as we fly on by. The end result is our seeing the company's name 15 or 20 times in 30 seconds. It is a sophisticated, understated spot that just might win a few major awards. The live-action Coke spot takes us inside a Rube Goldberg-style vending machine, starting with a closeup of a finger pushing a button and ending with an inflated rubber glove deflating, allowing the bottle of Coke resting on it to tip over and pour its contents into a glass. In-between marbles, eggs and steel balls roll and bounce about, making levers move within this unique device. It should also be an award winner. Other recent work by the company includes a series of 20 IDs for the launch of Locomotion, a new South American satellite animation channel. Using a variety of styles, including stop-motion and computer graphics, they created a wonderful series of images. Most are full of primary colors and are done with really hot, contemporary-style graphics. Charlie Canfield, who joined the company in 1991 after working at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), directed them. Another remarkable work, directed by Canfield, is a show opening for the Nickelodeon channel, that again combines both traditional and digital animation. It shows a blue rhino galloping across a pink cloudscape at sunrise. He stumbles on a couple of clouds and they fall over to reveal they are painted billboards with scaffolding holding them up from behind.
My favorite work on the reel is a stunning work done for Turner Classic Movies, directed by Tom McClure, which brings the paintings of Edward Hopper to life. We watch sunlight and shadows move across his cityscapes as people sit or stand quietly, or slowly move about. The city seems to be a series of 3-D sets or models, but it still maintains the look of Hopper paintings. All this is set to a period song about the sunny side of life. The music and visuals works so well together that they must make a lot of viewers happy when they see this art that moves.
< Colossal's latest work to be released is Koala Lumpur, a CD-ROM created and directed by Jamie Baker, that provides an interactive journey in the form of an action-adventure movie with lots of outrageous humor. A review on Gamesite said that Colossal's collaboration with Brøderbund produced "mature themes, high-brow remarks, and twisted puzzles with the finesse of a seasoned Las Vegas lounge comedian. And their routine deserves a loud round of applause . . . a unique fun experience . . .they pull the trick off so well that it's hard to believe that Koala Lumpur is the company's first attempt at a comedy title." Future Plans Executive Producer Jana Canellos said that restructuring the company, so that its energies are directed toward design work, has resulted in a smaller company, where everybody can work together. She also feels that Colossal is a great working environment where people help each other, and what they do best is tell short stories--whether it be via a commercial, a station ID, a TV show or an interactive project.
Canellos expects the company will expand by creating work for new markets, including the Internet. She stresses that regardless of what the format is, the main thing Colossal is concerned about is a commitment to quality. A look at Colossal's current projects gives some idea where the company is headed. For instance, they are developing an online show with Microsoft, material for kids' programs on the MSN (Microsoft Network), an interactive TV project with a major entertainment company, and interstitials for a major TV network. They are also doing live-action TV commercials for GTE Mobilnet and animated IDs for the Discovery Channel. Colossal also has its own award-winning Web site at http://www.colossal.com, so check it out if you want to learn more about one of San Francisco's great companies. Colossal's Successful Children When a company gets into trouble, the press rarely mentions what happens to the people who join the ranks of the unemployed. Fortunately, the San Francisco Bay area's film and animation industries have been growing rapidly in recent years; so, when Colossal laid-off most of their production staff in 1996, there were lots of jobs available. Some former staffers joined well-established companies like ILM, Zoetrope and Pixar. Others joined studios that were formed in the 1990s by Colossal alumni, while others formed their own companies after the layoffs. The live-action, animation and special effects companies in the Bay area run by former Colossal employees include: Cartoonland, Complete Pandemonium, Curious Pictures, EyeHeart, Kirk'sWorks, Little Fluffy Clouds, M5, Maverick, MessyOptics, Protozoa, Six-Foot Two Productions, Story Animation Company, and Wild Brain. They may not be well known yet, but all are producing excellent work, suggesting working at Colossal was an important educational experience. Wild Brain, founded in 1994, has grown rapidly. In 1996, when Colossal laid off most of its staff, Wild Brain was busy doing commercials for Nike and Coke, animation for HBO, Warner Bros. and the Cartoon Network, plus CD-ROM projects, including Flying Saucers for AnyRiver Entertainment, an animated Carmen Sandiego sequence for Brøderbund, and the Green Eggs and Ham CD-ROM for Living Books. About half of their staff of 80 are former Colossal people, including 10 taken on within two weeks of their being laid-off last year.
Wild Brain is run by a consortium of directors (John Hays, Phil Robinson, Gordon Clark, David Marshall and Robin Steele, plus producer Jeff Fino) who use a combination of traditional and computer animation, other new technologies, and overseas animation service. Their work stresses storytelling and entertainment. At present Phil Robinson is directing Ferngully II, a direct-to-video sequel to the Bill Kroyer film. They are also developing an Internet situation comedy for the Microsoft Network, a pilot for Nickelodeon, and several commercials (Coke, Mainstay, etc.). EyeHeart is Siri Margerine's new animation art production service, doing ink and paint, backgrounds, illustrations, and whatever else your art needs might be. For many years, Siri headed the art production services department at Colossal. Clients include Colossal, Story Animation, Wild Brain, Curious Pictures, Maverick, and other local studios. MessyOptics is an animation camera service founded in 1996 by Carter Tomassi. The company uses Colossal's late model Oxberry animation stand, with a 16mm and 35mm cameras, featuring all the bells and whistles needed to do complex productions, including a motion control system. Tomassi also has a 35mm high contrast film processor for doing pencil tests and a 35mm Steenbeck flatbed. His clients include Colossal Pictures, Curious Pictures, Lucas Arts, Pacific Data Images, Spellbound Productions, Story Animation Co., and Wild Brain. (find out more at http://www.messyoptics.com/) Maverick is an animation studio formed in 1996 by Robert Valley and Jeanne Reynolds. Valley, who animated for Colossal; he was in Korea working on a Aeon Flux with Peter Chung when he got word that Colossal had filed for Chapter 11. Maverick was formed when he returned to the States. They have been kept busy doing work for Wild Brain and Curious Pictures.
Little Fluffy Clouds is a computer animation firm run by Betsy de Fries and Jerry van de Beek. Since opening up in June 1996, they did the character animation for Colossal's recent Pictogram Coca-Cola spot, created the destruction of the universe in 60 seconds for Rocket Science, and animated a 30 second Mainstay commercial for Wild Brain. The company is now working on another Coke commercial for Colossal. Media Concrete is a multimedia design company run by Stuart Cudlitz, George Consagra and Anne Ashbey-Pierotti. They had formed Colossal's New Media Division in 1990 and opened Media Concrete in March 1995. Working with Colossal, they produced the Koala Lumpur CD-ROM for Brøderbund. Other interactive projects they have worked on are Play-Doh Creations for Hasbro Interactive and Ruff's Bone for Living Books. They have also worked on projects for IBM, Hewlett-Packard and others using new technology for communications. Story Animation Company
is run by Robert Story, who worked at Colossal as a producer. He recently produced a commercial for GTE Mobilnet and is presently producing the animated segments of a Sears commercial.
Protozoa, a motion capture company, was founded in 1994 by Brad de Graf with seed money from Motorola. They are a spin-off of Colossal's performance animation, which had developed the Moxie character in 1993 for the Cartoon Network. The company's focus is on character-based, real-time 3-D entertainment. Their projects also includes Squeezils, a cartoon game for Inscape. Dev, the real-time animation character seen daily on MSNBC's The Site is also theirs. They have also been developing other unusual characters for a variety of media, including TV and the World Wide Web. Clients include Microsoft, Silicon Graphics Images, and MSNBC. Six-Foot Two Productions
is Robin Atherly's company in Larkspur. Atherly has provided computer ink and paint services for several CD-ROM producers. Curious Pictures, a New York-based company founded in 1993, opened a branch office in San Francisco on September 4, 1996. It is headed by Colossal alumna Anne Smith, who worked her way up through the ranks from production manager to senior managing producer of animation. Curious Pictures' first projects here were a Nike commercial directed by Robert Valley and three stop-motion ads for a superstore in the Midwest that were directed by Denis Morellia. Both directors had also worked at Colossal.
Kevin Coffey's Cartoonland, founded in the 1980s, does several interesting projects each year. They've produced the animation for the Star Wars Chess Game for Software Tool Works and the animation for Doonesbury Flashbacks: 25 Years of Serious Fun for Mindscape. Coffey has also worked on several TV commercials for such national clients as Coca-Cola, Nabisco, Van de Kamp, General Mills and others.
Kirk Henderson, who was one of Colossal's top directors in the 1980s, works as an art director/designer/animator under the name Kirk'sWorks. Last year, he completed Orly's Draw-A-Story for Brøderbund. Prior to that, he helped develop the Toe Jam and Earl CD-ROM.
The influence of (Colossal) Pictures on the local animation and effects industry is immense. For the over 20 years since the company was founded in 1976, Colossal has pushed animation forward as an exciting art form and medium for communication. They helped develop the skills of hundreds of production people and have helped make the Bay area one of the most exciting production centers in the country.
Karl Cohen is President of ASIFA-San Francisco whose first book, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, will be published later this year. He also teaches animation history at San Francisco State University.