Osher and Minghella Talk New Sony Digital Roadmap

VFXWorld talks exclusively with Bob Osher and Hannah Minghella, the new heads of Sony Pictures Digital Prods., about their artist-centric approach to vfx and animation.

Among SPDP's plans is to ramp up production at Sony Pictures Animation. Osher recognizes the legacy of character and creature animation that has distinguished its business, going back to Stuart Little. © Columbia Pictures.

Sony Pictures Digital Prods. (SPDP) was formed last March and comprises Sony Pictures Imageworks, the Oscar-winning vfx and character animation studio, its full service interactive creative group, Imageworks Interactive, and Sony Pictures Animation. Six months ago, Bob Osher was named president of the division, and provides both creative and business leadership, while he continues to serve as COO of Columbia Pictures. He was joined by Hannah Minghella, who was appointed president of production for Sony Pictures Animation after three years as creative director for Sony Pictures co-chair, Amy Pascal. Meanwhile, Tim Sarnoff remains president of Imageworks (including Imageworks Interactive). Marking the six-month juncture since the formation of the new digital production division and their arrival, VFXWorld spoke exclusively with both Osher and Minghella about their initial plans, goals and future roadmap.

Bill Desowitz: Let's begin with Imageworks. What is your perspective?

Bob Osher: Imageworks is first and foremost a creative endeavor, where we consistently push the boundaries to imaginatively deliver visual effects and animation in new and exciting ways.

When I first got here [in March], I encouraged a series of internal meetings with our producers, visual effects supervisors, animation supervisors, senior managers -- basically the team leaders. The meetings really fostered a situation where they could talk about what we should be doing, what they thought our focus should be, what our goals are and how we could reach them. It really gave the artists who are here working hard every single day a voice in our business. It was so remarkable to see how interested they were to be asked. They definitely had points of view and it was a great, vigorous discussion. To help achieve our creative goals, the need to make some structural changes became clear. We focused on three main things: enhancing client services, improving our internal efficiencies and simplifying management so that employees and senior managers are much closer.

As with any company you continuously look at the organization of your management and consider if it is the most efficient way to service your artistic goals, your client's needs and business realities. Also, with Sony Pictures Animation ramping up production, we talked about Imageworks' extensive experience and recognized the importance and the opportunity in emphasizing the character and creature animation that has distinguished its business, going all the way back to Stuart Little. We wanted to make sure that the way our management structure is organized reflects and supports what we expect our business to be in the coming years.

So we concentrated much of our effort in not only optimizing our organization but also empowering some of those folks who were in that room: not just senior managers, mind you, but our senior artists and technology supervisors, along with their co-workers and teams, to give them more responsibility and a real continued vested interest in the success of the facility.

Bob Osher and Hannah Minghella.

BD: As an example, Ken Ralston and Rob Bredow will now have more responsibilities.

BO: Ken has been here almost from the very beginning. He came to Imageworks with a vision to form a community of artists with a passion for great filmmaking. Now he will not only be able to lend his wisdom and insights on his projects [he's currently senior visual effects supervisor on Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, which will employ an array of techniques, including performance capture, 3D animation, virtual environments and live action] but also on other projects as he takes on the mantle of creative leadership for the company. As such, he will be a resource and an inspiration across all shows.

And Rob Bredow [senior visual effects supervisor on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs] will also serve as creative technology supervisor for the company, a role which came about as a direct suggestion from his peers. The idea is to provide the very best tools and technical resources to the artists and Rob's new position is really about working with our technology group and our artists in creative decision-making. It is important that our tools absolutely serve the talent to create the imagery and to be sure that these technical resources work effectively from show to show, project to project. Rob, as someone on the front line, has a unique understanding of how to evaluate technology in the light of production and insure that the knowledge is distributed and applied throughout our pipeline. Again, this is a perfect example of coming from within the group, and will enable better communication with the various supervisor groups.

BD: Let's move on to your vision for animation. Both of you have strong pedigrees. Bob, you were head of production at Miramax, and before that at Turner Animation and Disney. Hannah, you come from live action, and have a very strong experience in story. You've worked in both live action and animation.

SPDP has four areas of production: big CG, all-family films like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs; hybrid films; CG films for a more targeted audience; and direct-to-home entertainment.

BO: Here's the main thing: animation is a technique, it's not a genre, and we want to be flexible. We basically have what we consider four areas of production: Big CG, all-family films like Cloudy or Surf's Up; hybrid films like The Smurfs, predominantly CG characters in a live-action world, or the flip side of live-action characters in a CG world; We also consider CG films for a more targeted audience, ones that don't necessarily have to appeal to audiences but absolutely satisfy a segment. For example, there are certain themes and characters that can go for girls or boys or that can reach into older audiences. You see that happening outside the United States, where animation is more adult-skewing or teen-driven or even that 12-24 male action demo. You've seen it work and it certainly can grow beyond its bounds. 300, to me, is a hybrid-type movie, but it's basically animated characters, although they use live-action reference, which expanded and that certainly wasn't for young kids and families. And Sin City is another one where they combine visually some animation and live-action techniques. And these are opportunities that allow us to do different types of storytelling. And the last category is direct-to-home entertainment like Open Season 2 [streeting Jan. 27, 2009], that has already had success theatrically in limited release overseas. That's a film we were able to produce at a much more modest budget, but, frankly, with the way that technology is growing, the techniques that are used and the talent of the artists, the films we make today for a very low budget still demonstrate a superior visual quality. So it allows us to continue the stories that are beloved but in a reasonable way.

Hannah Minghella: By expanding our production into these four areas we have broadened the range of stories we can tell, and we have the opportunity to let those stories dictate how they should be visually realized and on what scale. We don't want to reverse engineer a story into a particular bracket. And I think this openness is creatively exciting. Bob and I are both very intrigued by being the new kid on the block compared to the more established animation studios. And while it's obviously important to us that we continue to establish a brand and a brand identity within the industry, there is an advantage to not having one right now, because we get to play a little bit, we're not locked into already being defined by what we are. And in creating what that brand there will be huge opportunities for us to experiment and be innovative.

BO: For us, it's about creative integrity. I ran production at Miramax for seven-and-a-half years, where Hannah and I first met and worked together, and even in that context, we were stretching the boundaries of what independent film was and brought it into the mainstream. So, there's been great animation around the world for years -- Hayao Miyazaki is one of the geniuses of animation -- and though his work doesn't immediately translate to the broadest U.S. audience, a lot of the storytelling techniques and the type of subject matter that's been broached upon are intriguing to us. We're trying to find that place where you can take great storytelling and bring it to a broader audience.

The upcoming direct-to-DVD/Blu-ray Open Season 2 is a film produced at a modest budget, but with the state of technology it still demonstrates a superior visual quality. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Imageworks.

HM: I think Pixar has put a premium on story and that's something that Bob and I respect. We can't say it enough that animation is a technique and not a genre and we don't mean to suggest it clinically, but because it's a liberating thought and allows us to be playful in thinking about the kinds of stories and narratives that can be explored through animation. What the hybrid world allows us is to acknowledge that the line between animation and live action is dissolving, and this opens up more storytelling opportunities. Coming over from live action to animation, I realized that animation isn't really a spec market. So how you source great ideas is very different. One of the places we decided to look for those ideas is internally. We've opened up the dialogue between myself and Bob and all of the creative talent here at the studio and now hear regular pitches from our internal artists. Again, we have taken a very open approach to this, which is that anybody, anybody at Sony Pictures Animation or Imageworks, can come and pitch their idea. It has been an invigorating time to have these meetings and pitch sessions with the artists and it's really generated some interesting ideas.

BD: And there are a lot of people moving over from live action into animation.

HM: A lot of what Bob and I have been doing these last six months is meeting with people both within the animation industry and with people who have never worked in the animation industry to say, "Look, we have no preconceived notions. Don't apply what you think you know about the animation industry to what we're doing. Let us tell you about some of the things we're excited about and then let's see if there is a creative meeting of the minds."

Surf's Up is another example of the kind of all-family films SPDP will continue to make. © Sony Pictures Digital Inc.

BO: But there's no question that our focus is with the animation community because, frankly, they're the ones that love it, understand it and are willing to push the boundaries beyond what's been done in the past. Talent is attracted to us specifically because we are creatively open.

BD: Let's talk more specifically about Cloudy, which opens Sept. 18, 2009, and Hotel Transylvania, which opens fall 2011. I take it both projects, which were long in development, benefitted from a fresh set of eyes.

HM: Absolutely. It was a priority for us when we joined the studio six months ago to sit down and do really intensive story work with the directors, with our story team and with our producers. We were committed to resolving outstanding story questions and I think doing that due diligence at that point has paid off dividends.

We have wonderful writers, The Hageman brothers, Dan & Kevin, writing on Hotel Transylvania [directed by Open Season's Jill Culton] and they've formed a very collaborative, creative relationship with the story team and the vis dev team as well and it's been reaping real reward. It's the perfect example of how that process should work.

BO: Again, that was a film where we came in six months ago and took a real hard look where we were going creatively. There's been tremendous studio support with Jill's and producer Michelle Murdocca's vision. We all wanted to move in the same direction and hired the Hagemans and now the film's on a fast track.

BD: Also in 3-D, like Cloudy?

HM: We really believe in animated movies in 3-D and support that initiative, but we also want to judge each movie case by case to see if it enhances the creative content of the film, and not just for the sake of it.

BD: Speaking of stereoscopic, what will be the studio policy moving forward?

BO: If 3-D adds to the experience, we're ready and capable to make it so. We have advantages of being sister companies with Imageworks, so it's an easy thing. But what you have to determine, and Hannah is right, is it helpful to the film or does it detract from the film? Again, it's a little early in the process to make a decision about Hotel T, but we'll most likely go stereoscopic. In the case of Cloudy, frankly, with food falling from the sky, the possibilities for stereoscopic were phenomenal. And the look developed by the team is something you've never seen before. It's going to look spectacular in 3-D.

BD: And what about The Smurfs?

HM: It's very infectious -- they've brought this blue cheer to the studio. David Stem & David Weiss, who were among the writers on Shrek, came on to the project a few months ago and are writing a first draft, and our vis dev team here in Animation, in conjunction with Imageworks, have begun modeling what our little blue guys will look like in CG. It's the beginning of a process, and we're feeling very excited about our first glimpse of a CG Smurf against a live-action plate.

BD: The Smurfs opens when?

BO: Christmas season 2010.

BD: That's your first hybrid along the lines of Stuart Little?

HM: Yes. Imageworks was a pioneer in CG character animation with Stuart Little, and we will be applying what they learned on that movie, and since then, to really deliver Smurfs in an entertaining and life-like way.

BD: And will you be combining the human world with the Smurf world?

HM: Yes [hesitatingly, followed by laughter]. Ask the tough questions, Bill: go on. It's a live-action world with CG Smurfs.

BD: And what about the Aardman distribution deal?

Columbia wants to let Aardman to be Aardman. © 2007 Aardman Animations. All rights reserved.

HM: The entire studio is excited about our partnership with Aardman. Their deal is with Columbia Pictures and so Bob and I were working with them before we came over here. Our work with them now is as representatives of Columbia Pictures.

BO: Aardman is a good example of what Hannah was talking about earlier. Columbia Pictures wants Aardman to be Aardman. We don't want them to expand to something that's not comfortable for them. We want them to focus on what they do best and what you realize with the history of Aardman is that two-thirds of the box office performance of their films is outside of the United States. Sony's philosophy is let's embrace who they are. Let's support them, let's give them whatever insight we have in terms of worldwide marketing and distribution.

BD: And I noticed two particularly interesting projects on the Aardman website: Arthur Christmas, a CG feature set on Christmas night about Santa and his army of combat elves, and the comedy adventure based on Gideon Defoe's first two Pirates! books.

HM: As Bob says, they are their own studio and they have many projects in development. I think it's best left for them to speak about those projects, but I will say that we are very excited about the two projects they are currently working on. One is a big holiday CG movie written by Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith (who will also direct ) and the other is a traditional stop-motion Aardman movie that will be directed by the incomparable Pete Lord.

BD: Looking ahead three to five years, how do you think Sony Pictures Animation will be regarded?

HM: Looking at our internal talent and the projects we're currently developing, I'm confident that five years from now Sony Pictures Animation will have cemented its place in the industry as a premier family entertainment company that is innovative, dynamic and a great place to work.

BO: Our grand scheme is to be a reliable and consistent supplier of animated fare, be it hybrid, all-CG, or otherwise -- movies with a distinctive voice, original characters and wonderful stories.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.

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