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Striking A Compromise: Studio Supported Independent Films

Maureen Furniss looks at the growing number of studio supported `independent' films and reveals what the corporate side of the equation is gleening.

Download a QuickTime movie from Igor Kovalyov's Hen His Wife. © Igor Kovalyov. 1.3 MB. Download a QuickTime movie from Igor Kovalyov's Bird in the Window. © Igor Kovalyov. 1.1 MB. It can be a real dilemma for an artist: working for a commercial studio pays the bills, but generally means you can't develop your own artistic vision. On the other hand, you can't afford to make your own films if you don't have a steady source of income. Some artists are able to strike a kind of compromise when the studios they work for help support personal projects. It's clear that artists benefit from such support, but what do the companies get out of it? I posed this question to artists and studio executives at Cyclotron, Klasky Csupo, Industrial Light & Magic and J.J. Sedelmaier Productions.

Irene Vodar's Little Fable. © Irene Vodar; courtesy of Irene Vodar.

Artist Friendly Cyclotron

Angela Bowen, Managing Director of the New York-based Cyclotron, actively supports the animated and fine art projects of the company's artists because she sees it as a good business strategy. She explains that personal projects created by artists are placed on demo reels to show clients "what we can do in this house. I have the luxury of being able to send out reels from five different artists reflecting different points of view. Most of the task of getting a happy client is putting together the right team. The artist is really the key to that; a rapport between the artist and the client in the session is absolutely crucial and, as they say, a picture can tell a thousand words. If you're not on the same page visually, you can waste a lot of time." Bowen says that Dean Winkler, president of Cyclotron's parent company, Post Perfect, likes to have artwork by company artists displayed on the walls. Bowen explains, "We spend a lot of time showcasing our artists' work. It makes good conversation pieces for clients walking through the halls. When we were redecorating Cyclotron earlier this year, one of our Digital Composite Artists, Davide Cantoni, produced two large pieces which now hang on the wall. This work makes a connection between the CGI we produce and fine art. Our clients are very visual, and they are sophisticated viewers who are frequent visitors to the museums and galleries in New York. Having art in their environment here at Cyclotron gives them relief from looking at the television screen." If clients are interested in a particular piece of artwork, Bowen tells them "who created the piece and how they can purchase it, or how they can work with the artist who did it. Hundreds of people pass through this studio every month. We feel that this helps to promote our artists' work, as well as create a well-rounded vision for the company." Cyclotron allows Cantoni a flexible schedule so he can pursue his fine art work on his own time. His part-time schedule is combined with that of another fine artist, Joanne Ungar, who also works as a Digital Composite Artist at the company. Between the two of them, they account for one full-time position. According to Bowen, giving these two artists a flexible schedule works for everyone: the job share "allows them both to have 2 or 3 days a week to pursue their fine art, yet still have a guaranteed income. The upside for us is that we get two aesthetics and personalities for the price of one -- a very helpful situation when you're trying to team a client and artist. Having the flexibility to call on them to cover vacations and overflow is really very helpful because we don't have to hire freelancers who don't know the facility as well."

Cyclotron is currently supporting a 3D CGI film by one of its 3D animators, Irene Vodar. The project is an adaptation of a short story by Franz Kafka, "Little Fable." Vodar explains that the project gave her "a chance to work on character animation where the expression and weight of the line is the most important thing, as opposed to visual attraction. Working on an independent project allows me to continue to hone my skills as a creative person, not only in animation but also in directing, which is something I am aspiring to do." Irene's previous film, Prog Partia, was screened at the World Animation Celebration in Los Angeles and Anima Mundi in Rio de Janiero. She feels "it is rewarding to be able to show at festivals. It's the payoff you get after all the hours you put in." She adds that there are benefits to companies like Cyclotron that support personal projects: "If a project is created in a certain studio, that studio gets credit for being supportive and showing the samples of the work is helpful to them. Whatever I do shows their interest in creative work and so it benefits the company in that respect."

Igor's Niche

Igor Kovalyov provides another example of an artist whose personal work has been strongly supported by a studio, in this case Klasky Csupo. Gabor Csupo, co-owner of Klasky Csupo, saw Kovalyov's short film Hen His Wife (1990) [Download a QuickTime movie from Igor Kovalyov's Hen His Wife.] at a screening in Hollywood and offered him a job at the studio. But Kovalyov already had plans for the second film of the trilogy (Andrei Svislotsky) and felt he had to finish it before he could accept the offer. He completed the film back in his homeland, Russia, and then returned to Hollywood and began working for Klasky Csupo. He was involved with such projects as Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Duckman, and A Rugrats Movie, but was also granted the freedom to make the third film in his trilogy, Bird in the Window (1996). The five-year time span between the second and third film can be explained by Kovalyov's involvement with so many commercial projects; he worked on Bird in the Window in between studio jobs. However, he is now in the process of completing another personal project, Flying Nansen, which he has been able to work on without interruption. Csupo has supplied him with the time, money and personnel to complete the film; he began in January and must complete it by the beginning of October. At that time, he will return to commercial work for the studio.

Kovalyov explains that Csupo funds his personal projects in part because he really likes independent films, that is, art films. By placing Kovalyov's personal films on the company's reel, Csupo can demonstrate that the studio is able to do a broad range of work -- a strategy similar to that of Cyclotron. Kovalyov says the studio also strengthens its image when his films appear in festivals and win awards, which they have often done. There is an individual at Klasky Csupo who facilitates the entrance of Kovalyov's personal films into animation festivals, so they have been well-promoted in that manner. Kovalyov believes that Csupo also funds his projects because he knows that they mean a lot to him; the shorts help Kovalyov maintain his enthusiasm for commercial work because he has a chance to express himself through his own films.

Bird in the Window. © Igor Kovalyov; courtesy of Klasky Csupo.Download a QuickTime movie from Igor Kovalyov's Bird in the Window.

Less Structured Support

Similarly, David Andrews, an Animation Director at Industrial Light & Magic (currently completing work on the feature Rocky and Bullwinkle), says that his company supports personal projects because they help maintain the morale of company employees. However, he adds that ILM does not care much about the content of films or what happens to them after completion.

Tweet Tweet Sludge. © David Andrews; courtesy of David Andrews.

Due to a busy schedule, Andrews has had time to complete only one project, Tweet Tweet Sludge (1998), since he came to ILM in 1993 from Sheridan College. He explains that, "ILM gave me money to develop the film and to marry the print, but I spent my money to do the soundtrack. The project wasn't sanctioned during work hours, but they did support me with the funding and I was also able to shoot a pencil test using some equipment in my office. They could see that I was excited about the project and didn't even ask to see the story. ILM supports people in their artistic endeavors because they know it inspires them at the company, plus they get publicity if one of their artists gets publicity. Of course they want their employees to have inspiration, but they don't take time to provide it. If you inspire yourself, that's great -- they will support you with disc space and machines." He concludes that, in the big picture, the production of personal projects is not really important to ILM, except to the extent that it helps the artists. ILM is so well established and successful that a `small film' has little power to improve the reputation of the company or increase its financial income. J.J. Sedelmaier, the owner of a successful studio specializing in commercials, has supported two of his artists' personal projects, though he stresses that there is not a systematic program of support at his studio. One time, J.J. provided an opportunity for animator Tom Warburton to direct an opening for the ASIFA-East animation awards. Sedelmaier is a member of the organization and, when he heard that a new opening was being sought, he asked Warburton to undertake the project, with J.J. Sedelmaier Productions funding the film. Sedelmaier reasoned that it would help Warburton develop as an artist and director, since he would experience the many aspects of production: securing the rights to material, selecting a crew and developing the project on his own. Subsequently, Warburton sold a pilot to Hanna-Barbera Cartoons/The Cartoon Network, Kenny and the Chimp.