Joe Strike talks with Larry Schwarz about the success of his New York-based animation studio Animation Collective, which produces the international hit Kappa Mikey and the upcoming Speed Racer: The Next Generation.
Some folks worry that between its economic might and Hollywood's intoxicating pop-culture confections, America is obliterating other countries' home-grown entertainments and replacing them with one-size-fits-all, "Made in the U.S.A" substitutes. According to Animation Collective's Larry Schwarz, that couldn't be further from the truth.
"I don't think it flattens out world culture. I think it enriches it. They're not only getting content from us, they're getting local programming and their own cultures. A whole generation of American filmmakers like the Wachowskis has been influenced by Speed Racer, which is a Japanese show. And anime in the beginning was influenced by American and French movies and by Disney, so you see it all working together."
The Wachowskis -- whose next project is a live-action version of Speed Racer -- are not the only filmmakers influenced by that seminal anime series. Nor are they the only ones bringing Speed into the 21st century: the Animation Collective is putting the finishing touches on a new Speed Racer series that will air on Nickelodeon beginning next year.
The cross-cultural synthesis Schwarz describes drives the studio's biggest success to date, Nickelodeon's Kappa Mikey. Mikey mimics anime's look, with characters who could've stepped out of any imported series -- except for Mikey himself, an American actor who winds up the star of LilyMu, Japan's most popular anime series. Unlike his co-stars, however, Mikey's drawn as a flat, simply detailed character with thick black outlines, symbolizing his difficulty blending in with Japanese culture. "Anime creators in Japan are fans of the show," says Schwarz. "They tell me they were influenced by American movies and cartoons, and they love how we're influenced by their art form."
While Mikey'sproduction staff includes animators from Japan and Korea, it might be a stretch to describe the show as "the first anime series to be made in the U.S.," as in Starz Home Ent.'s press release for the show's upcoming DVD release; Mikey's heart and soul may reside in Tokyo, but the show is created in its entirety on the island of Manhattan in one of the Collective's three midtown studios. The show is also owned in its entirety by Schwarz's company, in keeping with both his business plan and goals for Animation Collective.
Mikey is Nickelodeon's very first global acquisition. (The series premiered on Nicktoons in February 2006 and on Nickelodeon itself later that year.) Even though Schwarz describes the company as "our partners in the show," Nick has no ownership interest in the series. Instead, the network has the rights to run it on their satellite networks around the world, with MTV Networks serving as the Animation Collective's sales agent for its terrestrial sales. "We've been fortunate to have the best of both worlds with our partners," Schwarz beams. "To have them be passionate about the properties and contribute to them in such a meaningful way creatively, but at the same time giving us the ultimate ability to own our own shows. We do work-for-hire for other people, but it's our business model to own the shows we create and produce and have them be part of our library."
On the other hand, Speed Racer: The Next Generation is a work-for-hire project re-conceptualized, produced and animated top-to-bottom by the Collective. "It's basically the same model as if we created it ourselves," Schwarz explains. "We wrote the scripts, designed the characters, did the animatics, the animation, everything -- but we're working for Lions Gate [Productions], Nickelodeon and Speed Racer Enterprises. They hired us and together we went to Nickelodeon -- we were part of their package in selling it. We're employed by Lions Gate, not Nick."
Not all of the Collective's work-for-hire projects are as all-encompassing. Clients may come to the studio strictly for character design, "or they'll treat us like an overseas studio and send us animatics and boards, and we'll just animate their show."
Animation Collective's U.S.-only streak of production is about to end, with Speed Racer's CGI animation being produced at India's Tata Studios. Early next year Nicktoons will premiere Three Delivery, a co-production between the Collective and Canada's FatKat Studios, where the series will be animated. In keeping with today's "multi-platform" world, 11 two-minute-long "mobisodes" are being produced for cellular phone viewing, along with the latest online wrinkle, a "massive multi-player game" based on the show.
The Collective's past creations include shows like Princess Natasha for AOL's kid and teen channels, Nicktoons shows like Thumb Wrestling Federation, Leader Dog and Tortellini Western, and on Cartoon Network, Ellen's Acres and HTDT (an anime-style revamp of Humpty Dumpty). Dancing Sushi, a Kappa Mikey spin-off will soon appear. "Knock on wood, we've got a very good track record in getting shows made," says Schwarz. "One reason broadcasters like to work with us is that we throw a lot of stuff on the board internally before deciding what to pitch to them. By the time we get to the stage of investing our own money in scripts, trailers and presentation reels, we've already dealt with a lot of the development issues that [a network] would handle over the same time. And because our resources are limited, we know how to streamline the process and not waste time or money.
"That's something people know when they come to us for work-for-hire. They're in a bind, their other studios didn't deliver -- [they ask] 'Can you fix this and do it in time?' That's a real opportunity for us. We're proud of that reputation and take it very seriously."
Even by cartoon standards, Schwarz's career path is unusually zig-zaggy. It began with his unfinished childhood Super-8 remake of Star Wars, but "by fourth grade I had a filmmaking club -- we made live-action movies which my father would edit for us." Graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992, Schwarz used his political science degree to launch the Vietnam Business Journal, a resource for investors looking for opportunities in that once war-torn nation. "One of the slogans from the war," recalls Schwarz, "was 'winning their hearts and minds.' When we went there the hottest thing on the black market was Calvin Klein-Marky Mark posters. Everyone wanted American cars and electronics. There's a real appeal around the world of what it represents, which is freedom."
Schwarz bailed on the Vietnam connection to jump on the Internet bubble and launch Rumpus, a company selling character-based plush toys online, backed up by Flash-animated segments featuring his characters. "Flash changed my life," Schwarz says flat-out. "We never could've done what we did a couple of years before that. Flash opened it up for doing it ourselves and as a means of creative expression."
By the time the bubble burst and Rumpus fell by the wayside, Schwarz had built up a reputation as a Flashmaster, attracting outfits like AOL and 4Kids in need of online animation, projects that served as the foundation for Animation Collective as it stands today.
At the moment, Schwarz and company are knee-deep in developing a slate of new projects, including several live-action and combo live-action/animated shows. "Another thing that's different about us is we're paying for the shows we make ourselves, but it's not like we skim corners because we can't afford it. We put as much as we can into the story and onscreen... I created and own them and I want them to be great."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.