The veteran French producer discusses Paris-based TeamTO Studio’s first CG animated feature film.
When audiences discuss animated films in the U.S., their focus usually jumps right to big domestic studio pics – Disney, DreamWorks, Pixar, Blue Sky, etc. Independent animated features are rarely mentioned because they almost never cross moviegoer radar. They get limited theatrical runs in art-house theatres at best, and with the continued collapse of DVD sales, dwindling chances for limited retail shelf space. New modes of streaming and VOD distribution aren’t much help – no promotion, no share of consumer mind, no one searching for the film. However, as international markets for both animated TV and features increase in territories outside the U.S., especially countries like China and Russia, the number of independently financed and produced animated movies is growing quite steadily.
One such new independent film is TeamTO Studio’s Yellowbird, a stereo 3-D CG comedy about a young bird who struggles but ultimately finds his path. At the helm of TeamTO is French animation veteran Guillaume Hellouin. In 1995, he co-founded Sparx Animation, the French studio best known for TV work, most notably Rolie Polie Olie. He left Sparx in 2004 to start TeamTO with co-founders Corinne Kouper, Caroline Souris and Patrick Dedieu.
I recently had a chance to sit with Guillaume and talk about the studio's move to feature film production, the accompanying technological challenges as well as the often difficult path a studio must take to finance an independent feature.
Dan Sarto: So how did Yellowbird come about?
Guillaume Hellouin: The project started six years ago when we commissioned the script from Antoine Barround. He had a simple idea. A father and son are fishing, and while they watch flocks of birds fly South toward Africa, the father explains the idea of migration to the boy. Just then, a flock of birds flies across the sky going the other direction. That’s how the idea for the movie started – a group of birds migrating in the wrong direction. We did many versions of the script, which took a long time to finish. We worked for many years until we finally arrived at a version we really loved.
Then we started looking for financing, which of course was also a long process. But eventually we had enough money to greenlight the film. We did an English translation first. The film was never planned just for French audiences. We produce animation for the whole world. Our team has been producing animation, mostly for TV, for over 25 years, and our audience has always been global. We did the English translation and it was quite good, but we felt we needed a comedy punch-up. We met Cory Edwards, the director of Hoodwinked, who agreed to do a script polish. We sent Antoine, who speaks perfect English, to LA for three weeks to work with Cory. They both worked together to polish the English version. Between the two, we ended up with something quite sharp.
Based on that script, we cast the film. Thanks to Linda Lamontagne [original casting director] we brought on a fantastic cast. Danny Glover, Dakota Fanning, Seth Green, Jim Rash and others; it’s a really great cast. At the time we did the voice recording, we had a script, we had some designs and storyboards. With that, we were able to pre-sell 20 countries including the U.S. Simon Crowe [co-executive producer] did a fantastic job pre-selling the film. We didn’t have a single frame yet!
DS: That must have been nice to see distributors committing to your vision after you worked so long to get the project going.
GH: It had been almost six years by that time. We felt that the market was finally right for us. It was very exciting. In 2009 we made a trailer and our main character designs, which were done by Benjamin Renner (Ernest & Celestine) [the film’s animation designer and art director]. We met Benjamin when he was still a student. Producer Corrine Kouper does a lecture every year at La Poudrière [the French animation school] about how to translate a book into animation. Corrine saw Benjamin’s student project [2008’s A Mouse’s Tale] and really admired his talent. So we gave him a few months to work on designs for the film.
We had done some early research to try and define the characters. We did some photo-casting and ended up with some reference material. But we didn’t want a realistic film. We wanted a stylized film. The idea behind the design was to do a puppet cut-out CGI movie. Benjamin’s student film was cut-out 2D animation. So we asked him to do the same type designs, but in CGI. In just a couple of months, he did some fantastic work. Those strong designs really helped get the first batch of pre-sales.
He did the designs around 2009. It took us around three years after that to complete our financing. By the time we got our money in place, Benjamin wasn’t available anymore because he had moved on to Ernest & Celestine. We found another designer, Romain Jouandeau, who did a fantastic job with the background designs as well as things like the film’s color palette and lighting design. That was also a great amount of work.
Then, we finally started producing the film, which was another great adventure. We have a great amount of experience producing animation, but mainly for TV…
DS: …There is a huge difference between TV and film animation production…
GH: It’s a completely different thing. A huge difference. The whole pipeline is different. We switched software. We moved fromo Mental Ray and V-Ray to RenderMan. Although you can directly export shaders from Maya to RenderMan, the way you have to setup your shaders is quite different. You have to rethink the entire pipeline. The result was amazing. But the energy we had to put into these technology changes was tremendous.
DS: Not a trivial change-over.
GH: No, no, not at all. It was much more than we initially expected.
DS: Isn’t it always?
GH: Always. And then, with the production, we had to learn along the way. We had to adjust. But when we got back our first fully rendered scenes, we knew we had made the right decision. We knew this was the right way to make the film.
We had built a little theatre in the studio, to be able to see full 2K stereoscopic screenings. We could see every day how the film was progressing. That was also a very helpful step. If you work on a small screen and only see your work in a theatre once a week or less, there is a high risk you will lose a lot of time fixing problems you should have seen earlier.
DS: That’s a long time to go without seeing the quality of the work.
DS: So how long did the film take to produce, from the time you received all your financing to the time you were completely finished?
GH: All together it took two years, but that included some surprises. We started the film with one director and finished with another one. That was far from optimal. Also, the size of the team changed radically between what we would use on a TV series to what we needed on the film. It was difficult to anticipate the number of people we needed.
DS: I imagine it was difficult anticipating your production needs seeing as this was your studio’s first feature film. What’s a typical TV series team size for you and how much bigger was the film team?
GH: A typical TV series team is 15-20 people for modeling, rigging, texturing, lighting and compositing along with roughly 20 animators. For the film, we had more than double for each department. We had almost 50 artists doing lighting and compositing, maybe 25-30 modelers and 50 animators. It’s a lot of people and they were working for a very long time. It was a great adventure.
DS: The feature film business is completely different obviously from the world of TV. This is a new experience for your studio, a new business completely. What are your plans for this film and for features in general?
GH: When we greenlit the film, we covered our gap with the pre-sales. Our big goal has always been to get the film “seen.” We want to demonstrate we have the expertise to produce feature films, to show the world the great work our artists did and are capable of doing. It’s as much about exposure for our capabilities as it is for the business of releasing a feature film.
As our first film, we know we may have a limited release in some territories but it’s important to show the quality of our work. We plan to stay in the feature film business, especially here in the U.S. I’ve been producing animation for almost 30 years and producing animated features was always my dream. With the evolution of technology, the experience we’ve gathered and the energy we’ve put in over the last 10 years to make this film, we finally made it happen. For us, it started as a dream before becoming a strategic move. Now it’s a big opportunity, both for our own projects and for other producers who have projects but don’t have their own studio and need a partner. Looking back now at our finished film, I’m very happy with the movie, with our capabilities, our pipeline and our team.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.