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Hollywood in Ohio

by Ron Price

Whenever I tell somebody from Hollywood that I work for a studio that makes movies in Ohio, the most frequent response I get is, "Really... Why Ohio?"

I admit it seems strange. Character Builders' main interest is working on features, and everybody knows they make features in Hollywood. It's where the studios are, where the biggest talent pool is -- it's even where we buy a lot of our supplies and equipment . It doesn't seem to make sense to have a studio three thousand miles away. But with over a dozen pictures under our collective belt, including Space Jam, Anastasia and The Swan Princess, we've come to realize that you don't have to be in L.A. to work on feature films.

Character Builder's 13,000 square-foot building in the woods of Powell, Ohio.
© 1999 Character Builders.

The idea of subcontracting is nothing new. Most of the large animation studios are pretty comfortable with it these days. Disney has been using multiple studios on its features since The Little Mermaid ten years ago. Recently, though, many studios have begun using subcontractors or satellite studios to do larger and more creatively significant portions of their pictures.

This is because the sheer amount of animation production going on makes it difficult for any of the studios to keep enough talent on staff to meet all their needs. Using subcontractors allows studios to keep their overhead lower and prevents them from having to expand and contract when pictures begin and end, preventing difficult recruitment efforts and layoffs. Additionally, (and we hope most importantly), the quality of the work coming out of the studios "between the coasts" has improved to the point where it's as good as any you'll find in Hollywood.

So, in fact, it's a great time to be a studio in Ohio (or Alaska, or Italy) -- if you know how to do it. Here, then, are Character Builders' Ten Laws of Animation at a Distance:

Animator Don Scanlon. © 1999 Character Builders.

1) Pound The Pavement
Our first feature film job came about almost by accident. In 1991, Character Builders had been around for five years or so, and working entirely on advertising projects. "We were just happily making commercials. We wanted to make a movie someday, but we had no idea how that was going to come about," says director and co-founder Jim Kammerud. It came about when a producer on the feature Rover Dangerfield saw a magazine ad for Character Builders. Clean-up on the picture had fallen behind schedule, and they were calling any studio they could find looking for help. We showed them our work, got the job, and we were on our way.

Things don't usually come as easily as Rover did, though. In order to keep working, we had to start pounding the pavement in L.A., meeting people, showing them our reel, and convincing them that yes, in fact, you can have a studio in Ohio. We hired a full-time producer who was largely responsible for getting us jobs. After a few pictures, we'd built up relationships with enough people and enough studios that we were able to be in the right places at the right times when people needed help.

2) Find Your Niche
There's a reason the major studios hire smaller studios to work on their projects: they can't do it all themselves. Don't expect that you'll be able to, either. If your studio has one thing that they do really well -- say, animation assist -- then make up a terrific reel of that and show it to people. You may get passed up for the effects animation jobs, but if that's not your studio's strength, you don't want those jobs anyway.

The Indescribable Nth, a short film which was directed by Steve Moore (aka Oscar Moore; Redux Riding Hood) and should be making the festival circuit this winter. 1999 Steve Moore and Character Builders.

3) Learn Everything (or, Ignore Rule #2)
As you get work and your studio grows, you'll gain experience, which will allow you to expand the range of services you can offer. From cleanup on Rover Dangerfield, Character Builders moved on to other pictures, gradually taking on greater responsibilities, like story and design work on Bebe's Kids, layout on some television projects, and animation direction and art direction for Space Jam. Now we're being placed in charge of entire projects and developing features of our own.

4) Get Good People
It can be hard to find talent when you're not right in the middle of the action. It's important to do what you can with available resources. For Character Builders, this often means finding local talent and training them. As a small studio, we also keep our eyes peeled for multi-talented artists -- having a key assistant who can also paint backgrounds is a great asset and makes for a more flexible studio.

One thing you've got going for you being away from the major markets is that your artists aren't as likely to be hired away by other studios. Character Builders' core group of artists has been working together for over ten years, and that's become our greatest strength -- the strength of the team makes the work we do better, and people always get good results when they hire us.

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Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.