Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.4, July 1997
Virtually Melting Down: The Quest to Produce an Animated Independent Feature
by Randy Lofficier
Editor's Note: President of Perfect World Entertainment, Randy Lofficier, has recently embarked upon the ambitious undertaking of producing an independent animated feature film Virtual Meltdown . The film follows star cruiser pilot Morgan and her holographic navigator, Cobalt-60, as they carry 4,000 emigrating humans through hyperspace to the new colony of Alpha Centauri. Endangering the trip are a mysterious being known only as K, and the Sheol, evil entities who attempt to keep Morgan in "fugue" -- a disruptive state of mind that overcomes hyperspace travelers -- thereby threatening the lives of all aboard. Scripted by science fiction writers Emma Bull & Will Shetterly (War for the Oaks, Bone Dance, Finder, Elsewhere, and Never Never), Virtual Meltdown draws from several previously known, yet unrelated comic book properties, including Cobalt-60 created by Vaughn and Mark Bode (Wizards), The Silent Invasion created by Michael Cherkas & Larry Hancock, Approaching Centauri by Moebius & Philippe Druillet (Heavy Metal) and Oxyjean, an unpublished story by Kevin O'Neill (Judge Dredd, Marshal Law). What is exciting about this project is that the visuals will change while the characters and story continue on. Therefore, the film's story will be told through four or five different comic book styles depending on what is happening. How is Perfect World trying to get this unique project flying? Randy is here to explain!
Morgan, a star cruiser pilot, is Virtual Meltdown's protagonist.
Starting The Deal
I've always found animation to be a frustrating field. For the mainstream of the population, it has always been seen as mostly stuff for children. Even the big, Disney extravaganzas have always been aimed at a relatively young audience, with any enjoyment by adults coming as a bit of a side issue. Certainly, over recent years Japanese anime has become more popular with slightly older audiences, but it is still perceived as being a somewhat specialized item. In Hollywood, it has always been easier to sell a product that is not so new that people haven't seen it before, and not so different that it would stand out too brightly in a crowd. Besides, no studio executive has ever been fired for saying no to a project. Therefore, selling an animated feature that didn't fit into a neatly preconceived box seemed to be a long shot.
It was with the above baggage that I set out to produce my first film project, Virtual Meltdown.. In late 1995 Tak Abe of Kurosawa Enterprises USA, Inc. contacted me. We had tried to launch an animated project before, but the timing had not been right. This time, Tak wanted to introduce me to Taro Maki of Pioneer LDC, Inc., the animation wing of Pioneer Electronics. Taro wanted to see Japanese animation reach a wider audience in the U.S. market, and believed that the best way to achieve this was with an American co-producing partner.
As it happened, at precisely the same time, I had begun developing an adult animation project for a group of independent investors. When I told Tak and Taro about the film I wanted to make, Virtual Meltdown, they both liked the idea and we all agreed that we should work together to make this our co-production. The idea behind our collaboration was to make it a true creative partnership. We felt that if we could make this production work it would be because each partner brought something to the relationship that would make the end result stronger. We all believed that by marrying western art style with an American script and Japanese animation techniques, we could create a hybrid with a unique flavor and appeal that was different from anything either country had so far produced. Neither partner would be subservient to the other; neither was subcontracting. We were all to be equally important to the creative process.
One of the other givens that we were trying to achieve was a decent budget. The U.S. feature animation output has become almost exclusively very expensive, mostly musical extravaganzas. For a company without the deep pockets of a Disney, DreamWorks or Warners, it would be impossible to compete at this level. Our plan was to keep our budget in the $10 million range. We knew that we needed to approach the process of making this film in the same way an independent live-action feature producer would. We did have one advantage over many independent projects. Pioneer LDC, Inc. believed in Virtual Meltdown strongly enough to invest a comfortable sum in the film's development. In light of this, we were able to option the four comic book properties that we wanted as the feature's artistic foundation. We were also able to finance the writing of a script and a fair amount of development art to bring the comic book characters into a more animatable style.
The Artistic Elements
Although we plan to use four, possibly five, distinct art styles, we never wanted to make Virtual Meltdown an anthology. That has been done before, and is usually not very successful from either a business or creative point of view. We came up with a story that carries the three main characters through an entire arc; even if they look slightly different depending on which visual universe they happen to be in.
"K," the villain in Virtual Meltdown, chases the
heroine Morgan, in a battle to control hyperspace.
To make sure that there was a strong emotional hook for the audience, we decided to choose writers who had shown their ability to create characters with which an audience could identify. I was impressed by the work of Emma Bull and Will Shetterly, two well-regarded science fiction and fantasy novelists. Although they write their books separately, they had written several screenplays together and understood the kind of film we wanted to make. We were able to work together to solve the problems inherent in taking four vastly different properties and linking them into a single, coherent story. By ingeniously combining these characters and concepts, Emma and Will have explored established worlds known to comic and science fiction readers and have connected them in ways that not only re-map the elements, but create a whole new atlas. The effect is rather like being introduced for the first time to friends and places that you already know and love.
The final element necessary to enable us to sell the project was to begin the casting process. We wanted to find actors who wouldn't necessarily be the obvious choice, but who would bring a unique flavor to an already slightly different kind of project. So far, we have been lucky enough to get our first choice for the role of the villainous "K": noted horror and fantasy writer/director Clive Barker. Clive does a terrific job reading his books on tape and doing live readings at various conventions, and, since his name is synonymous with evil, we think he'll be a great villain.
Will all of these elements come together in a cohesive fashion to enable us to find the rest of the financing we need? In the end, will the film be successful? While I can only hope that the answer to both questions is yes, I do know that getting this far, has certainly been an interesting and enlightening experience.
Randy Lofficier is President of Perfect World Entertainment, LLC, an animation production and development company dedicated to the principle of "No Singing Mice." She has worked as a writer in animation and comic books for fifteen years, and is also a partner in Starwatcher Graphics.
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