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The Future of Indie Animation Studios

Marisa Materna peers into a reporters crystal ball to see if the future of animation lies in independent studios.

After the blockbuster era in animation, what lies ahead for independent studios?

After the blockbuster era in animation, what lies ahead for independent studios?

Youve heard this story, right? The renegade, underground animation of the 60s, the light-hearted days of the 70s; the second renaissance with feature films like American Tail, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the music video boom of the 80s that segued into a major boost of creativity in the early 90s then Hollywood caught on.

Suddenly, it became a whole different ball game. Disney, Fox, Warner Bros. began staffing every nook and cranny with artists from all over the world. European artists swarmed into Los Angeles, studios were plucking kids out of college some even before graduation, and longtime journeymen were finding steady work again. The blockbuster era began Beauty and the Beast is nominated for awards, The Lion King grosses in the millions, networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were creating channels dedicated only to cartoons and a quirky yellow-skinned family found its way to primetime television. Then boom the money seemed to run out, the studios began laying off these large stables of artist, hand-drawn animations popularity was slipping away and the lower quality of some television animation series were reportedly blinding children in Japan.

Where in the story are we now? How did this era affect the wave of independent production companies and satellite studios that are popping up everywhere. Independent artists are setting up studios in their homes and familiar names on the credit roll are appearing as heads of production of their own studios. How did the end of the past decade create this next renaissance, if you will, of independent production in the animation industry? What is the new story to tell?

Certainly, in the 90s animation was never more accessible and popular. Creativity seemed to be at an all-time high. Raul Garcia, an independent filmmaker and director was an animator with Disney in those glory days. He remembers the time prior to this boom wistfully, We worked fairly independently out there in our little industrial park in Glendale [California], just doing our thing.

Indie John Kricfalusi became an animation superstar in the 90s when networks gave auteurs free rein to develop their shows.

Indie John Kricfalusi became an animation superstar in the 90s when networks gave auteurs free rein to develop their shows.

The saga continues as the studio system began to explode by increasing staff numbers, buying new buildings and paying high salaries. This was a wonderful time for artists who simply dreamed of getting paid to draw for a living and were they ever! Suddenly, we all needed lawyers to negotiate our contracts rather than sit in a room with Human Resources and toss a couple of figures back and forth, says Garcia. These artists became a hot commodity. Greg Tiernan, a former Bluth animator and longtime industry director, who now owns his production studio, remembers, feeling exhilarated during this time working and learning from the best in the business and really collaborating creatively. It really was a golden age of 2D animation particularly.

The networks similarly were seeking out new ideas and concepts such as The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy and Rugrats, giving auteurs and darlings of the independent animation world a shot at success in the commercial realm such as Danny Antonucci, Mike Judge, Craig Bartlett, Matt Groening, John Kricfalusi, Gabor Csupo and Arlene Klasky.

But the plot thickens as the salaries, expensive production models and once-in-a-lifetime box office magic like The Lion King set an unreasonably high standard for the industry. The money was being spent on lavish promotions and premieres, parades in New York City, jet-setting the executives across the globe for press junkets. The big studios got top heavy, which makes it more expensive, says James Baxter, who was an animator on many of these feature films during this era. Ultimately the profit margin, it seems, got lost in the shuffle.

We went from being worker bees, to contributors, to ultimately a cog in the wheel of the studio machine, surmises Garcia.

Things began to feel formulaic and studios fell into that trap. The bar had been raised. Tiernan says, I think the big studio system lost sight of the story element and concentrated too much on the slickness of the production. Baxter agrees, When you have big budgets, you tend to take less chances with the creative part of the process.

Similarly in television, the networks filled themselves to saturation with programming. Studios that were relying on long term development and production deals were suddenly pared down to sometimes only a few episodes of a series per year, says Chuck Swenson, an independent producer who worked as a creative producer with Klasky Csupo during the mid 1990s. Swenson offers, The economic model changed as the industry did. Studios and networks began to realize that there were cheaper ways to produce. They had enough product to fill the airwaves. He adds, A big company with big bureaucracy can ultimately lead to a corralling of creative directions.

By the turn of the millennium, the edges of the story really start to unravel. The Internet boomed then bombed, literally and computer-generated technology was seeping into the consciousness of society and 2D animation was on a precipice. Studios found much cheaper ways of producing their project and began looking overseas leaving many artists out of work as the staff needs decreased.

Greg Tiernan remembers the heady times in the 90s when animators needed lawyers to negotiate big figure contracts. It really was a golden age of 2D animation particularly, he recalls.

Greg Tiernan remembers the heady times in the 90s when animators needed lawyers to negotiate big figure contracts. It really was a golden age of 2D animation particularly, he recalls.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the tale becomes tragic as the economy slowed and animation as well came to a virtual standstill it seemed. The giants pulled up their bootstraps and started re-structuring and laying off entire crews to accommodate a leaner budget. Box office numbers decreased and the traditional art of the past sure things were less and less interesting to the public. Some productions companies saw long-term partnerships with networks slipping away as the networks got a roving eye for newer, more inexpensive studios that could provide a new look or idea. Icon Hanna-Barbera actually closed its doors since the 60s, absorbed by Warner Bros. making the trek down Cahuenga Blvd., passing that infamously chartreuse building, a surreal experience.

During this time, a new character enters the legend as the CG industry was really taking form. Films like Toy Story became a box office bonanza and the bigger studios learned that partnering with some of these new shiny CG studios could be highly profitable. Studios tripped over themselves to keep up with the times. Some shelved their 2D projects and artists altogether. Not every one was so quick to give in. Every one spouted that 2D animation was dead, but the truth is that those films that were coming out of Pixar were excellent stories, Tiernan reminds us.

So what is the next chapter of this yarn?

A recent Los Angeles Times article (June 19, 2005) focused on the myriad of independent productions and their newfound partnerships that are cropping up like Vanguard Animation and Disney, Threshold Animation and IBM, Wild Brain Inc. and Miramax, and Nike owner Phil Knights purchase of Vinton Studios. Independent studios that are traditionally live action, such as Lions Gate Films are putting out their own films.

Many of these partnerships and companies clearly are hoping to become the next Pixar, Blue Sky or Pacific Data Images. (It doesnt go unnoticed that many of these partnerships seem to all focus on CG production. But lets save that for another story.) Clearly, this independent production company influx is a trend that has captured mainstream attention.

The Lion King set an unreasonably high standard for the industry. When studios saw how much money could be made from animation, the executive ranks swelled, making it top heavy which ultimately demoted animators to cogs in a big machine.

The Lion King set an unreasonably high standard for the industry. When studios saw how much money could be made from animation, the executive ranks swelled, making it top heavy which ultimately demoted animators to cogs in a big machine.

It cant be denied, independent production companies are emerging in great numbers, as there is a sense of a Why Cant I in the industry now. Animators such as Tiernan, Baxter and many others have either started their own companies or formed alliances and partnerships with other animators to produce projects. Dusting off their personal projects, utilizing their experience and connections in the business and pooling efforts from their talented peers. They are covering the bases of all types of needs in the industry from being both service and content driven.

Tiernan has been able to live a dream of setting up his own independent production company, Nitrogen, with producer wife Nicole Stinn, in Vancouver, Canada, working on sequences of feature films and other similar projects. Nitrogen has been successful and busy since opening only two years ago by doing sequences for other productions and they are currently working on 20 minutes of the latest Vanguard Animation feature, Happily Nver After.

Most recently a sequence director on Rugrats in Paris and The Wild Thornberrys Movie, Tiernan has never seemed to have the desire particularly to become the next John Lasseter. He claims, I have always just wanted to work in the animation industry whether it is my project or not. It is a dream to be paid to do what I love in any shape or format that may come. And being able to work independently now is a dream come true.

Similarly Baxter recently formed his own company, James Baxter Animation, and, although a European, remains in Los Angeles. He continues to pitch and develop new content, but the studio is able to stay afloat by working on commercials and smaller sequences and projects. A former supervising animator of such iconic characters such as Beauty and the Beasts Belle, The Lion King s Rafiki and, most recently, working on Shrek 2 and Madagascar, Baxter left the big studio system because his contract was up and simply put he wanted to return to his first love of hand-drawn animation.

DreamWorks wasnt planning to do any hand-drawn animation projects in the near future and I really wanted to get back to drawing, he says. Now he is able to focus on those personal projects and make a living at the same time.

Producer Nicole Stinn (above) and husband Greg Tiernan realized a dream with Nitrogen, their successful and busy independent production company in Vancouver, Canada.

Producer Nicole Stinn (above) and husband Greg Tiernan realized a dream with Nitrogen, their successful and busy independent production company in Vancouver, Canada.

Technology has created an entirely different infrastructure of an animation studio. It is certainly more efficient space-wise to set up a studio when all the aspects of production could feasibly be in one workstation. Technology has definitely made a difference, what would have been cost prohibitive only 10 years ago, is now within reach for independent filmmakers, says Baxter. Technology such as FTP sites and servers make it easier to work outside the Hollywood city limits as many artists, such as Tiernan, have longed to return home to Canada, Europe, Asia or other cities in the U.S. after their long relocation in Los Angeles. They are now able to be as productive from a distance as if they were located in Hollywood.

Although he has a strong studio animator background, working on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Land Before Time, Tarzan and Jimmy Neutron, Garcia considers himself an independent filmmaker. Because of more accessible technology, he has been able to put together a studio in his home in order to produce personal projects such as his latest short Tell Tale Heart, based on an Edgar Allan Poe story featuring a lost Bela Legosi recording that will hit the festival circuit this year. Garcia also takes commercial gigs here and there and is able to simultaneously work on an ongoing independent feature film project.

Ironically, during the 90s the big studio system ultimately trained who would become their future partners. Satellite companies like Nitrogen are on an upswing because of the quality of work and the highly trained artists, directors and producers that are in the independent community now and were basically bred by the big studio system, states Tiernan.

Clearly now there is a newer production model arising that includes a level of trust and confidence in quality when working with an independent production house. It is a win-win situation for any studio that is willing to let go and take advantage of the highly trained artists available in the independent production community, says Tiernan.

Swenson agrees and adds, Creativity is at an all-time high because of the healthy competition and influx of so many independent entities out there. The studios have found it more cost effective to work with independent studios and great creative things are developing from these collaborations.

James Baxter left the big studios to return to his first love of hand-drawn animation. Now he focuses on personal projects and makes a living with commercials and smaller sequences and projects.

James Baxter left the big studios to return to his first love of hand-drawn animation. Now he focuses on personal projects and makes a living with commercials and smaller sequences and projects.

Indeed it seems the crop of independent production companies has grown with studios continuing to have leaner budgets. They are finding ways to have these smaller companies participate in the process without having large staffs themselves. Many live action companies are even using animation in their projects and seek out these independents to do the work. The expansion of cable and satellite television offers more avenues. More networks are looking at original animation as viable content, opening doors and opportunities for these independent companies that are filled to the rim with new ideas and talent.

Diversification contributes to this process as well. Independent companies like Renegade Animation and Curious Pictures, who have had great success in the commercial and advertising world and Creative Capers, who has worked on more than 30 interactive titles over the years, have been able to sustain themselves throughout the turbulent 90s and continue into this decade because they are willing to diversify their services.

This is still the key to success for anyone seeking to strike out on their own. Consider the current options: videogames, home video and DVD, commercials, Internet, wireless, IMAX to name just a few; and the new, emerging consumer arenas such as Christian, Latino and other ethnic entertainment marketplaces.

Phil Roman, former head of Film Roman studios, that produces The Simpsons and King of the Hill, has maintained his place in the industry by adding to his credits at his current production company, Phil Roman Entertainment, with new partnerships and development projects aimed toward the Christian and Latino marketplace. Garcia has also found a niche within the Hispanic market and is developing projects with Foxs Hispanic programming division.

The emergence of all of these independent production companies has created a new era of creativity and competition between those striving for big time success and others simply looking for longevity. Strong leadership, open communication, trust, and certainly technology all can contribute to the success of an independent production company whether it be service oriented or content driven, offers Tiernan.

Baxter agrees, Do your thing and do it well.

Phil Roman, who produced the animation on The King of the Hill (above), has projects aimed at the Christian and Latino marketplaces with his current production company, Phil Roman Ent.  © 2001 FOX Broadcasting.

Phil Roman, who produced the animation on The King of the Hill (above), has projects aimed at the Christian and Latino marketplaces with his current production company, Phil Roman Ent. © 2001 FOX Broadcasting.

Swenson, has considered himself always to be an independent producer even while working at Klasky Csupo. I never actually worked in the big Hollywood studio system. And kept moving forward by working on things that I believed in and moving with the ebb and flow of the industry. Currently, he has development and pilot projects in the works with Fox.

There are still challenges for the independent filmmaker like Garcia trying to make a living in this industry. There are more opportunities as the studios and networks still continue to look for the next big thing and technology has made it easier to create working environments without huge overhead. Even so, I struggle to maintain a creative focus, while wearing the different hats of producer, director and animator. Now I have to hustle a bit more and seek out distribution, and I still suffer the disappointments when a deal falls through, says Garcia. These are things, he admits, he is not used to having to deal with.

Baxter agrees, But the freedom has been good, even though there are still clients and things to answer to, I get to set my own pace.

Certainly the independent production world is gaining speed and momentum. The production model has changed and many agree that the factors contributing to todays trends can be linked to the late 90s experience and lessons learned. Although the industry is cyclical and even Baxter wonders, If these things wouldnt have happened anyway.

Nevertheless, the emergence of CGI has created more efficient and cost effective technology. The studios are being more open minded and adventurous about production models, and seeking out more diverse arenas, markets and talents as well as a embracing a more creative focus as a whole. All of these factors have led to what some call a natural progression of the industry.

Where it will lead, no one is certain. Perhaps this new renaissance of independent production will breed its own laundry list of lessons to be learned and challenges to be faced. But one thing is for certain; it is not be the end of this animation story.

Marisa Materna has worked in the animation industry for more than seven years. Most recently the director of communications and studio relations at Klasky Csupo, she also recruited artists for the studio after two seasons as festival coordinator for the World Animation Celebration. She now consults on animation film festivals and projects across America. Marisa is a life-long world traveler and, as a self-professed festival queen, she is an independent animation film festival fan and advocate.

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