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Gang of Seven Goes Employee-Owned Route

Marisa Materna talks with the artists behind Gang of Seven, a collective of animators who have pooled their talent to form their own privately owned studio.

Gang of Seven Animation wants to distinguish itself as a haven from the impersonal world of big studio animation.

Gang of Seven Animation wants to distinguish itself as a haven from the impersonal world of big studio animation.

With 20 Emmys, more than 1,000 hours of television and 50 feature films between them, the partners of Gang of Seven Animation have found a haven from the hustle and bustle and often impersonal world of big studio animation.

Originator Tom Tataranowicz decided to take a leap and brought in fellow animators and artisans Tom Sito, Rich Arons, Dennis Venizelos, Mark Zoeller, and business development manager David Armstrong (an anonymous associate makes seven) to form this unique collaborative production studio. Tataranowicz who was the studio head, creative executive producer and head of development and production at Marvel Films/New World Animation combined the feature skills of animator/director Sito (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Osmosis Jones) and art director/background supervisor Venizelos (Iron Giant, Osmosis Jones and Fern Gully) with television gurus, Arons (Animaniacs, Tiny Toon Adventures) and Zoeller, Emmy-winning storyboard artist for Warner Bros, DreamWorks, Film Roman and Disney. Armstrong brings his background in distribution, management, marketing and programming, most recently serving as svp of international television distribution for MGMs worldwide television group.

Not long ago, I sat down with five of the gang to discuss how the company got started and what makes this type of creative cooperation work in todays competitive animation industry.

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Tom Tataranowicz (left) took a leap and recruited an accomplished group of animators and artisans to form Gang of Seven Animation. Veteran Tom Sito (right) remembered the isolating experience as an animator with Disney and wanted to avoid that feeling with the Gang of Seven. Camaraderie and the joy of their art bond the group together.

I originally created Tom T. Animation five years ago, Tataranowicz said, but saw the unique opportunity to bring together some of the industrys top talents in order to provide the highest quality for the best price anywhere-hence the birth of G7 animation.

Clearly, that was the attraction for all of these artists to combine their forces the collaboration. Self-admittedly, they dont need more credits and its not just about the money. They simply wanted to find a place where they could do quality work, work with people they liked and have fun.

Their compact work space in North Hollywood, California, brought back a feeling of old school animation with nooks and crannies of cubicles, animation stands, drawing tables, sketches, maquettes from previous projects and there is even a retro-style bar with an assortment of candy, snacks and beverages.

The partners and their crew pitch in with their own equipment or hand-me-downs picked up here and there. The feeling is truly creative with no elegant lobbies, cheeky receptionist or high paid suit in a fancy, ergonomic chair with a view of the ocean. This is the type of overhead that G7 prefers to avoid in order to stick with the mission of concentrating on the work.

Regardless of this bohemian vibe, they admit in order to start a venture like this, you must have a clear business plan in mind and the ability to work within the system. Make no mistake, this is no renegade outfit. In fact, the reason for their consistent work is attributed directly to their connections from their many years in that very system. They claim that it is not their goal to knock the system, but simply to get back to the basics of what made it fun to be an animator in the first place.

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However, Sito says, Anyone wanting to start in this type of co-op studio, has to have someone in the group who speaks `suit. They recommend if you are interested in venturing into a collaborative effort, go in with your eyes open. Be careful of who is in your group. You all have to have like-minded goals and like-minded desires, says Tataranowicz.

How does it work? Well, all of the partners do have a contract of sorts, some partners have even made cash investments and they are set up with a profit sharing system. Everyone pitches in on every aspect of the production cycle from storyboards, character designs, directing and effects work. One of their major assets is their access to talented journeymen from their many years in the business. They also use interns, like most companies. There will be an ebb and a flow with the size of the employees from project to project, says Armstrong.

They have weekly creative meetings to discuss projects and pitch new ones. A current project in development featuring Internet icon, Cindy Margolis, resulted from one such meeting. There are always the personal projects waiting in the wings Arons, Sito and Tataranowicz have been percolating their own for years, but they dont move forward with anything unless the entire group is behind it. In other words, check your ego at the door. If the timing is right for your idea great, but if not, your allegiance is to the work at hand. And yes, they will also take outside pitches. Yea, hey, bring it on, lets see if we can make it work, says the group.

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Dennis Venizelos (left), art director/background supervisor, is one of the groups founding members. Rich Arons (right) and Mark Zoeller bring their deep TV background to the group. Arons feels that their experience in 2D helps their 3D artists to go further.

A continuous theme throughout our conversation was the emphasis on the company having an artist-vibe and the attitude of the group is artist first. Giving the artists that work for them health benefits, for example, is clearly a high priority. Tataranowicz says this gives them an advantage to attracting talent that know they will be taken care of and treated fairly. Certainly, this is a team of animators that are pretty connected to the cartoonists guild TAG 839 (in fact, they are located directly upstairs) and Sito was its long-time outspoken president, so you might feel you are being given the party line. But their belief is that after so many years of working for others, and making millions of dollars for others, the time has come to make that money work for themselves. And along with that then do what is fair and take care of an artists basic rights.

They reflect on their mentors and teachers and want to get back to that feeling of camaraderie. Tataranowicz recalls his heroes Ralph Bakshi and Lou Scheimer as two men who truly loved artists by continuing to work and hire animators when the industry was sluggish.

The Gang all started in the industry in the `70s when it was thought as a crazy notion to even consider a career in animation. So they are realistic about the industry. And honestly they all agreed that it wasnt job desperation that motivated them to join together. They all simply wanted to have fun again.

Sito recalls that even at Disney during its heyday, eventually the artists and animators all became a bit isolated in their offices. And nobody knew what the other was up to. It was almost a monastic life, he says. Looking around the conference room table with the Gang of Seven and as they toured me around the studio seeing the glee in their faces, it is clear that these men are enjoying that connection again.

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You would think looking at the primarily 2D résumés of these artists, the predictable question is how are they adapting to the current 3D world of animation? It does seem to be the common tale that 2D traditional artists arent adept at working in CGI; and that the aforementioned journeymen of the Hanna-Barbera, Looney Tunes era are left unemployed due to this factor.

Tataranowicz is nonplused and says not so. We all have a variety of 3D experience, he explained. Rich worked on the 3D Casper: the Movie at ILM; Tom Sito worked on Shrek and Garfield. If anything, the partners at G7 feel they have an extra advantage in that they are fundamentally traditional artists and can bring that extra element to 3D work. Arons says, Coming from a 2D world, our experience enables us to push 3D artists to go further. Sito adds, We are of the last generation of artists that lived in an all-paper world; but to us its all the same. Its film, its motion, its art.

The reality is that they are a full service facility, from soup to nuts, including traditional, Flash and CGI animation as well as bi-lingual series work, pre- and post-production. Because of their experience and connections, they feel they can bring in a high-quality crew and keep costs down for the client. They say along with working with the current slate of networks and studios, they find that there are also many entrepreneurial types of business that are able to collaborate with them or perhaps dont have the animation background but have always been interested in delving into it. They are attracted by G7s experience and knowledge.

After only two years of existence, Gang of Seven has already worked on some very high profile projects including, animated segments of the current film, Son of the Mask, Bohbot Kids Network series, Legend of the Dragon, and the animated title sequence of a major live-action feature film in coordination with Edgeworx NY coming up this summer.

Where do they see themselves in the future? A big studio lot with a cafeteria, gym and assigned parking spaces? Not likely. I dont envision this company becoming an empire. But we do want to be successful and continue to do work that we are proud of and still have fun while we are doing it, states Tataranowicz.

Gang of Sevens goals seem to be simply to keep the creative element alive, but at the same time continue to survive in the business element of the industry. Theyve even turned projects down because the quality just wasnt there or the results did not outweigh the sweat. We came into this intending to create an environment that would allow us to work with people we like and respect; do good work and make a living out of it. It works and were happy, proclaims Tataranowicz.

One of Sitos mentors, Shamus Culhane, said in 1991, that the future of animation was to be employee-owned studios. And judging by the success of the Gang of Seven, it seems his prophecy may be coming true.

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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