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Cinesite Animation Becomes a Feature Production Powerhouse with ‘Klaus’

CG-animated feature directed by ‘Despicable Me’ co-creator Sergio Pablos enters production at London-based VFX house’s animation division lodged in a new 54,000 square-foot studio located in downtown Montréal.

London-headquartered VFX house Cinesite officially launched its animation division on Monday with the announcement of a new 54,000 square-foot animation studio in downtown Montréal. With plans to come online over the next 18 months, the new facility -- able to scale up to a total of 750 staff and crew -- will allow the Cinesite visual effects team to effectively double in size, with the entire sixth floor to be made available in 2017 to meet the demand of the company’s steadily increasing feature animation work.

The new digs were made possible with a loan of $2.4 million from Investissement Quebec on behalf of the Government of Quebec to support the creation of infrastructure to allow feature animation production. An additional loan guarantee of $19.6 million towards an overall budget of at least $90 million is also being advanced to the production company to help with the financing of each of the first three animated films on the studio’s slate. Six more films are planned to follow the initial three features, which will see the facility at full capacity with more than 500 new permanent jobs by 2020.

All in all, Cinesite Animation is developing nine separate properties set for production by 2020 via its Comic Animations arm announced back in 2014. Both a service and production company, Cinesite Animation currently has a deal in place with 3QU to produce four animated features beginning with Charming. 3QU Media is a newly formed CG-animated feature film production company headed by John H. Williams, producer of Oscar-winning Shrek and CEO of Vanguard Films and Animation (Valiant, Space Chimps), and Henry F. Skelsey, managing partner of Fulton Capital Management LLC. The second as-yet untitled project is also in full swing, while the third one is just about to start.

“This deal is an important step in Cinesite’s overall strategy to create world class animated feature films and to develop our own creative intellectual property via Comic Animations, which we established to develop a slate of original animated films,” Cinesite managing director Antony Hunt commented at the time.

London-based Double Negative made a similar move in 2014 with the launch of its animation division led by former DreamWorks Animation associate producer Tom Jacomb, while Australia’s Animal Logic launched its animation arm that same year under the leadership of CEO & executive producer Zareh Nalbandian, head of animation Rob Coleman, and co-producers Amber Naismith and Ingrid Johnston. Earlier this year, The Asylum announced its animation division with Izzie’s Way Home, a CG-animated family film starring Tori Spelling and Joey Fatone set for a May 2016 release.

“The announcement of what we have put in place in Montréal is the next phase of our company strategy,” Hunt tells AWN today. “By integrating the sophisticated techniques that Cinesite has developed over the last 20 years in visual effects into state-of-the-art animation pipelines allows us to push our standards for creative excellence.

“By adopting a collaborative approach, we have made a real difference to what we have and will achieve in the future with our business,” Hunt adds. “We would welcome more input and ideas from like-minded facilities, producers and funders. Businesses like ours have huge potential and as technologies develop and as the habits of our consumers change we would like to be ready.”

Also in 2014, Cinesite and Comic released their first animated short, Beans, which quickly became a massive online success, accumulating more than 13 million views on YouTube, a gold award at the AEAF animation awards, and the opening slot in the prestigious 2014 SIGGRAPH Electronic Theatre.

Cinesite Animation’s first animated production -- co-produced with SPA Studios, Atresmedia Cine and Comic Animations -- will be Klaus, written and directed by Sergio Pablos and produced by Jinko Gotoh (The Little Prince, Finding Nemo). The 3D-animated feature is about the “true” story of Santa Claus told from the perspective of a young, Scandinavian postman named Jesper.

The co-creator of Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me franchise, Pablos’ career includes credits as supervising animator for Disney titles including Tarzan, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules and Treasure Planet, just to name a few. Pablos’ work has led him to be nominated twice to the Annie Awards for his character design work on Blue Sky’s Rio and for his character animation on Disney’s Treasure Planet.

“It’s very exciting to be working with Cinesite Animation. I began creating artwork and developing a script for Klaus in 2012, I always knew this was a story I wanted to tell. When Atresmedia joined the effort in 2014 the whole vision was clear and it was easy for them to come on board. This next phase is going to be fun, I can’t wait to see these amazing characters come to life, it will be a proud moment,” Pablos comments to AWN.

“At SPA Studios, we pride ourselves on putting creativity first, the partnership with Cinesite Animation integrates the expertise of our teams in Madrid and Montreal and allows us to push our industry’s standards,” Pablos adds. “Working with like-minded people who have a can-do attitude and respect creative talent and process, coupled with Cinesite’s amazing new facility, the decision to go to Montréal was made very easy.”

Pablos is keeping his proprietary process -- which blends traditional 2D animation techniques with CGI -- under wraps for now, but his enthusiasm for the project is infectious. “I’ve spent the last few years developing and participating in CGI feature films. I have no complaints there: it’s been a blast and I’m very grateful for everything I learned. Seeing Despicable Me grow into what it is today has been a true joy and one of my proudest achievements,” he says. “But like many of us, I miss the freedom and spontaneity of traditional animation. Don’t get me wrong, I love CGI when it’s well made. But there’s no denying that there’s a unique quality to hand-crafted animation when done by a great artist. So I asked myself, ‘What would a traditionally animated film have to be to be relevant today?’

“I resolved that it came down to two things,” Pablos explains. “Visually, we had to move the medium forward instead of taking refuge in nostalgia; and, from a narrative point of view, we had to open up to other kinds of stories: as a matter of fact, it was precisely about finding the kind of story that would benefit from the traditional medium. From this exercise, Klaus was born.”

Pablos set off to “overcome some of the technical limitations that traditional animation had,” as he says. “We focused on organic, volumetric lighting, and texturing,” he recounts. “The goal was to develop tools that eventually allowed us to put any visual development style on the screen. It seems like most films’ looks are very standardized, and we’re hoping to overcome that way of thinking. We’re just getting started, but the possibilities are very exciting. And, if your intention is to put something that feels hand-crafted on the screen, there’s no shorter path than starting from a hand-crafted medium.”

Also in the works at Cinesite is an animated featured based on the international stage phenomenon Riverdance. Comic Animations and Dublin-based River Productions are developing the animated movie, which will feature the Grammy-award winning music from the show composed by Bill Whelan.

“To see an animated feature film inspired by Riverdance will be an innovative and exhilarating milestone in a show which has had many great moments in the last twenty years,” comments Riverdance co-creator and producer of the stage show Moya Doherty. “We look forward enormously to see it take shape and fly!”

Cinesite head of animation Eamonn Butler is looking forward to the new opportunities the new Montréal facility will bring. “People are our business and making films is the business of our people,” Butler says. “Our task as management is to facilitate what is needed to get the best from every opportunity. We strive to emulate this culture across all our facilities from Vancouver to London. Montréal needs to become a destination to draw all talent to the city and allow us to bring great projects to life.

“Myself and the team have this ethos at the very heart of what we do and being able to work with Sergio Pablos on Klaus is only possible as a result of this mindset,” Butler adds. “Building out the creative team to develop the international stage phenomenon Riverdance into a feature animated film with our partners at River Productions will present many opportunities. I look forward to discussing this and our other projects with a range of talented and skilled people from interested parties.”

Cinesite Animation is also working on an initiative called Animez Montréal (Animate Montréal), which is a partnership between companies associated with the newly-emerging animated film industry in Montréal to help with skilling up and experience gaps to allow employers and employees to have the time to take jobs that they might need to grow into or require on-the-job training.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.