This week Tim Sarnoff is at FMX providing an overview of his animation and VFX roadmap for Technicolor Digital. We had a chance to discuss these topics with him prior to his trip, including the company's first ever foray into original content with the animated series, Pete & Pickles, and the formation of a new team headed by animation vets Jean MacCurdy and Fonda Snyder.
Bill Desowitz: So, it's been a year since you've been at Technicolor. You've got some great animation news about Pete & Pickles. What's the strategic roadmap?
Tim Sarnoff: It's an obvious next step, which is to take our facilities -- most specifically our facility in Bangalore -- and utilize the resources that are there to help creative talent fulfill their visions. No different from we've got a barn -- let's put on a show. It's that basic philosophy that Mickey Rooney espoused many years ago.
BD: Only it's Pete & Pickles, not Mickey & Judy.
But they're similar in terms of the story line: two unlikely characters [a pig and elephant] becoming fast friends.
BD: And I see you've got a little help now with Jean and Fonda.
TS: Technicolor has afforded me the opportunity of putting all the pieces of my past together into one gigantically terrific opportunity. There's our animation business in India; there's a very strong visual effects presence in London and Vancouver [MPC]; and our commercial business in both London and LA… and to bring Jean back to the business after being away for a few years, and having Fonda take all of her writers that she's represented for many years, it really is an opportunity to do something that's different from just offering a fee for services.
BD: What can you tell us about Pete & Pickles and your overall plans for producing children's animation?
TS: What we are doing is putting things together that are about universal truths: the basis of friendships vs. the struggles of success in a relationship, things that are funny vs. things that are just amusing. And when we're looking at different projects that we're going to be working on, we are surrounding the talent that brings the projects to us with whatever resources we have to help them at Technicolor. So some of the talent have incredibly good story sense but not necessarily the artistic group behind them, so we can support them with that. Others, who have great artistic expression but who have not been engaged in trying to put a story together, we can surround them with those people. So, we're there as an enhancer to the creative talent looking to finish their vision. That is essentially what Technicolor has been doing for 100 years.
It seems so simple, but there are 800 people working in our facility in Bangalore doing projects for Nickelodeon and for DreamWorks [Penguins of Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda] and for a number of other clients. We have a large visual effects presence there, working on some projects with MPC in London and in Vancouver and our commercials in LA and putting that expertise on projects that we are willing to invest in seems like a natural next step. And it's the time in the industry to do it.
BD: Where are you presently with Pete & Pickles?
We are in the beginning stages of discussing the bible. This comes from Berkeley Breathed's book, Pete & Pickles, which is relatively recent in its release, and Berkeley is off right now with some of our creatives, developing the world around Pete & Pickles and the other characters that live with them. So, we'll ultimately make an animated short that will connect Pete & Pickles to the TV episodic animated world. So I don't have a sale date today on when this will actually hit the air until we are fully behind the storyline that exists for the characters. We are also in initial conversations with other artists and creatives for other projects that Technicolor will put some of its skin in the game. At the same time we're in the business of supporting the rest of the industry to get their visions on screen.
BD: Any changes for Technicolor India that you foresee?
The company is growing on its own; it is expanding on all fronts of work that we have there, whether it is our visual effects work or animation work, and we're not looking to use this just as a mitigator of under utilization. If it is a project ready to greenlight, then will bring it in as full-fledged partner on it, so that we will expand, if necessary, or use unused space that we would otherwise use for work for hire. To us, it is an available facility that we have spent an enormous amount of time and substantive money developing the talent there and we want to bring that talent to the global market.
BD: Speaking of global, you've been hard at work developing the visual effects business. What can you tell us about that side of the business?
We have grown substantially on our visual effects side. MPC in London is sort of our base -- there are about 580 people there right now and they are the prime house for both Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows movies and Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. They've just finished Robin Hood and Clash of the Titans. We have set up a facility in Vancouver that worked on Prince of Persia and that is growing. It was small when I got here a year ago and that will grow to over 100 people pretty soon and, probably at some point, not much smaller than the facility in London. We have a commercial group in Los Angeles of about 50 people that do visual effects for commercials along with the 200 or so people in London that do it. We have a facility in Beijing that does visual effects for China, and we have about 100 people in India (and still growing), who are supporting much of the work that is coming from London, Vancouver or Los Angeles.
And then we are ultimately going to grow our commercial business in one or two other cities in the future, but our intent is not just to get bigger, but also to better connect the operational efficiencies between the facilities. So a lot of the work that is in London can just as easily be done in Vancouver or India or Los Angeles. And that pipeline -- that infrastructure -- to allow work to go between the facilities has become almost seamless, completely discreet from the rest of the businesses so that we can determine if there is extra need for animators, you don't have to actually stay in that same market to [fulfill that need]. That has been what a lot of our time has been spent on. We're working on a commercial right now that starts in LA and, quite literally, some of the assets are being built in Vancouver and China and India and the primary part of the compositing is done in London and the animation is done in LA. And it's happening all in realtime or close to realtime, depending on the time zone.
I know that it sounds silly because everyone says they're doing it, but this is the first facility that I've worked at that is actually doing it. And, unlike my prior engagement [at Sony Pictures Imageworks], there really isn't a battleship from which we are sending little groups out from. These are substantive facilities that are operating on their own. In this company, it is part of the DNA. This was sort of my awakening when I got here a year ago. I really thought I was playing in a global market when I was sitting in Culver City, but it's a whole different system when you wake up in the morning and talk to London and the last people you talk to are in India before you go to bed. And that's essentially what my day is every day of the week.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.