If you are a comic book artist, animator, illustrator or someone that just loves animation and has creative urges to make your own film, you are not alone. Over the years I can't recall how many conversations, meetings and bull sessions I've sat in on where the topic has been how to circumvent the Media Giants and for someone to be able to create and market their own product.
Several months ago I wrote about one friend (Soo Mi Kim) who, with her partners chose to produce a film for the mobile platform market using iTunes.
Now I want to take a look at someone that took a more conventional road and covered all the bases, for the most part, by himself. Let me start off by telling you that the artist, director, writer, and producer of this 90 minute film is Kent Butterworth and the film is titled "Attila the Ham: Attila and the Great Blue Bean".
I've thought that it would interesting to create a very casual interview format with Kent and pose some basic questions to him so here goes....
MV: Kent, let me start by asking for you to talk a little about your background in animation and how did you come to think about making the film?
KB: I got my first job in the animation biz in the late ‘70s as an “inbetweener” at Hanna-Barbera. The first thing I worked on was “The Robotic Stooges” – the 3 Stooges as robots! It was around this time that I first drew “Attila the Ham”. Soon thereafter I began animating & directing at Filmation. Then in the early 1980's I signed on as an Overseas Animation Supervisor in Korea & Japan for Marvel on “Incredible Hulk”, “Dungeons & Dragons” and “GI Joe”. After several years working overseas I returned and directed and/or produced animation for Ralph Bakshi, Warner Bros., Fred Wolf Films and others, working on The Simpsons, Ninja Turtles and many more shows too numerous to mention!
Around 1995 I began working for Haim Saban’s Fox Family Worldwide as a producer and heading up their in-house CGI department. When the company was “acquired” by the Walt Disney Company in 2001, and I found myself out of work with only a few month’s severance pay. This was the first time in many years that I was not under some form of “work for hire” agreement, whereby anything I create becomes the property of my employer. So I decided I should finally do something with “Attila” and started writing a treatment for a feature-length movie. It would be a parody of “Lord of the Rings”, telling of Attila’s quest for the Great Blue Bean.
MV: Did you try to sell "Attila" to anyone before deciding to try to make it yourself?
KB: No, not yet. I expanded the outline into a full screenplay, and I registered the script with the Writer’s Guild. Eventually I would find another job and got busy, and the project would go back on the shelf, then I’d come back a few months later and start working on it again.
MV: Once you decided to try to produce the film what were the first things you had to deal with?
KB: It was a gradual thing. Once the script was written – I started storyboarding sections of the script. This was a massive amount of work and I couldn’t do it by myself! I did about half of the finished board and also made deals with different artists I’d worked with before – paying a little bit of money, or “sweat equity”, or often bartering comic books or original cartoon art for layouts or a few script pages of storyboard. I USED TO have a pretty good collection of Golden Age comic books! At least they went for a worthy cause!
After storyboarding, we made an animatic, with temporary voices recorded in my garage by family & friends. Once I could see the project as a movie – I could see things that weren’t working as well as they should – and some scenes were not needed – and then I’d punch up another section that needed help --- this went on for several years – not full-time – but in between “real jobs”! The “revision” stage took about another year. Now I was doing this myself, because I wanted it “just so”. The script went through a complete re-write. The basic structure for the story was the same, but the dialogue, staging, jokes, etc were all hopefully getting better.
MV: How did you budget the film and how did you raise the production funds?
KB: Up until this stage I had been “funding” the project myself – I’d save up a couple hundred bucks and some “Plastic Man” comics, and then call someone & convince them to do a few script pages! Fortunately, I didn’t have a deadline, so this is work they were doing in their spare time. A lot of top cartoonists worked on Attila!
Next I made a “Promo”. I picked some exciting scenes from the story and cut them into a promo piece with some dialog and a narrator, and started looking for a studio to do the actual animation.
MV: How did you find an offshore studio to work with?
KB: I’ve worked with a number of different studios in Asia, so I contacted a lot of them, and pitched a “profit sharing” deal - finally making a deal with a studio in China. They did a nice job animating some very epic scenes! It was about 3 minutes altogether.
MV: How difficult was it to find distribution and how did you go about it?
KB: With the animation finished – I edited the Promo and added music & SFX in “Final Cut”. Now I made up about 50 DVDs – with the case and “Poster Art” – all made up like a DVD you’d find on the shelf at Wal-Mart! Then I took these to the VSDA (Video & Software Dealers Association) convention in Las Vegas, where all the Home Video distributors are selling to buyers. I went from suite to suite, introducing myself as an Independent Producer and I have a Screener for my movie, and is there someone I can talk to.
Several weeks later I followed up with emails. I heard back from several distributors, including Marvista. I checked them out & heard good things about them, so I signed with them to distribute.
MV: Did you commit to make the film before or after you found a distributor?
KB: Once that I had a signed deal with Marvista the project became real, so I was able to find a studio to complete the animation in China at a discounted, off-season rate. We recorded the voice tracks (some professionals and some talented amateurs) & I track-read & directed all the x-sheets myself. My sister-in-law came through as an investor to pay for the animation. I went to China to check the layouts & go over all the details with the animators. I did the offline edit in Final Cut Pro, outputting to 1080P Hi-Def tape. I also went for a 5.1 Dolby surround mix.
MV: What was the hardest part in making the film?
KB: I’d have to say it was the sheer volume of work involved!
MV: Have you recouped your investment as of yet?
KB: Not yet. “Attila” has been released in Russia, and Marvista tells me they’ve recently made a domestic Home Video deal, so hopefully will be getting some revenue next year.
MV: What would you do differently if you were just starting?
KB: Not much, I guess – a lot of things came together just right. I wish I could have done it sooner!
MV: In big broad strokes what did you take from the experience and would you do it again knowing what you know now?
KB: If I knew how much work it would take to finish the whole thing, I probably would have been overwhelmed in the beginning. But I spent just over 5 years, working off & on, and so it didn’t seem so massive!
As far as would I do it again? I’m working on “Attila 2” now - I’m about half-way through the “revision” stage!
I want to thank Ken for taking the time to do this with me. The film will shortly be available domestically as Marvista is close to completing a deal with some major retailers. If anyone has any questions for Kent, post them here and I will try to get a reply.