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Been There! Done That! Bought the Tee Shirt!

Bill Dennis talks about important steps in the process of putting together an indigenous feature film production, from story to distribution.

International Animation Consulting Group

I’ve always been a fan of stories that have their roots in the culture and history of a particular region.  Stories that tell of historical events and heroes.  Stories that are based on fables and folklore.  Almost always, these stories and characters are interesting, intriguing and unique.  Animation allows us to depict  these characters and tell these stories without any boundaries or restrictions.

We’re all looking for something that hasn’t been done before. So, why then aren’t more animation filmmakers producing films based on indigenous stories? I don’t think the answer has anything to do with creative issues.  There appears to be no end to the number of indigenous tales at our disposal. The answer is the misconception that these kinds of films cannot show profits.  Indeed, they can and do!

I’ve been fortunate to work in the Philippines, India, Singapore and several other Asian countries.  Many of my studios were involved with work-for-hire projects.  I would canvas the world, looking for projects where the creative elements and decisions had already been determined - the only thing remaining was the tedious animation.  We’d get paid for our work and the process would begin all over again.  It wasn’t until I decided to take a regional story and turn it into an animated short that I realized the potential of indigenous storytelling.  Over time, and with experience, I’ve improved the process and I want to share it with you.

Most of you know that broadly speaking, there are four basic steps involved with every film project…animated or live action:   1. Story 2. Financing  3. Production 4. Distribution. The most important element is story. If you have a bad story, it doesn’t make any difference how much money you have or how many bells and whistles you’ve added during production. If the story and characters aren’t interesting, you’re already in trouble.

As you look for the right property, keep in mind the popularity of the characters and stories in the native country.  Are they revered by the locals?  Are they popular?  Is there a hero or heroine?  A villain? Will the local audiences allow us to take any liberties with the stories?  Is it OK if we add characters or story elements in order to add dimension and depth? And, make certain everything is in the public domain so there will be no rights issues to contend with.

Once I’ve identified the right project, I’ve found it helpful to seek the advice of mentors from local historical groups.  Local experts can steer you around any potential minefields.  Have them read the scripts before going into production.  By doing this, you can boast the credibility of your project and stave off naysayers.

There seems to be no end of animation talent in most Asian countries. More and more studios and animation academies are opening every day.  Projects continue to flow through these studios. However, because of the nature of the work they’re involved with, there’s a shortage of creative talent….writers, character developers, story designers, set designers etc. 

At this point I would bring in a bright and talented creative team from the West to mentor the local talent and guide the direction of the project.  They need to be capable of wearing various creative hats and be interested in a cultural experience. The team’s job is to help assure the film is suited for an international audience. It must find audiences in the local country as well as global audiences.  That will be one of the greatest challenges.

Once you have your story bible ready, and your first episode written, you’re ready to put together a budget and look for financial backers.

The Creative Process Continues….

I think this step is one of the most exciting in the whole process for it’s here that you’ll discover just how much sense it makes to focus on indigenous projects. 

In future postings, I’ll want to talk more about the business considerations including, calculating costs, revenue forecasting, distribution and finding partners. But for now, let me leave you with a final tip:

Hold on to what you’ve created. Never, ever give any part of your shows away. This is true for any project you undertake.  You’ve created an important asset, an intellectual property.  This property will become a part of your library and it will give you the freedom to create merchandise and to expand your platforms to include the internet, telephones, DVD’s, CD’s and on and on. And don’t forget, there’s always that second and third season.

If you’re in a position where you can influence the direction and content of a new animation project, I hope you’ll consider indigenous characters and stories.  Aside from the very favorable financial picture, you’ll find it personally rewarding.  It’s great to see the faces of children light up when they see a character from their own culture on the screen instead of an old episode of Popeye or Tom and Jerry.  It’ll give both of you a sense of pride.

Bill Dennis


International Animation Consulting Group