Toon Producers Talk Shop

The Producers’ Guild of America’s New Media Council assembled an impressive roster of producers and production execs from leading studios for Thursday night’s panel discussion titled ‘Animation Producers: New Skill to Draw From.’ Held at the Sony Imageworks Theater in Culver City, Calif., this latest in a series of informative and entertaining PGA events tackled a number of hot-button issues while addressing the finer points of producing 2D and 3D animation for television and film.

Moderated by Sony Pictures Animation producer Michelle Murdocca (Open Season), the discussion included Walt Disney Feature Animation VP of production Carolyn Soper, DreamWorks Animation producer Mark Swift (Shark Tale), Mike Young Prods. co-founder and partner Mike Young (Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks, Pet Alien), The Jim Henson Co. new media producer Bret Nelson and XLT CEO David Koenig (producer of Bratz, Lil’ Bratz, Build A Bear Workshop DVDs).

A main focus of the evening was why producers decide to use 3D over 2D, or vice versa. Swift, who was part of DreamWorks’ shift from 2D to 3D, mentioned that one of the major benefits of 3D animation is the lack of what’s called ‘line mileage.’ He explained that in the world of hand-drawn 2D, the more lines a character has, the longer it takes to animate and the more money it costs. ‘We realized that with 3D, we could make the characters as detailed as we wanted,’ he remarked. However, Henson’s Nelson was quick to point out that ‘render is the killer on the CG side.’

To work around the slowdowns and equipment woes related to rendering, Nelson and his team are taking a fairly novel approach to 3D animation production. A new animated series they’re producing is being shot like a three-camera live-action sitcom. Using the patented Henson Digital Performance Studio, puppeteers animated characters in real-time. The footage is then edited and only the parts that are going to make the final cut are rendered.

The general consensus held that there are very little cost differences between producing 3D and 2D on the film side, while Nelson noted that 3D is more expensive for television. In regards to CG animation budgets, Disney’s Soper said the most frustrating thing is the ‘lack of exactness in determining what something is going to cost,’ indicating that whatever’s on paper before the production starts is merely a guess because they’re developing the films as they’re in production. She adds, ‘There’s a constant balance and trade-off in dealing with the [production] as a whole and managing the complexity of the individual parts.’

Mike Young said a major difference between TV and film is that TV producers are more like directors and often have an artistic background because they deal heavily with storyboards. He revealed that his studio is even developing a secret system to augment the storyboards in order to better communicate ideas to off-shore animators. ‘How does an animator India know how a spoiled California girl is supposed to act?’ he asked, adding that their proprietary solution will help keep things from being lost in translation. Young also commented that creator-driven shows, such as Steve Hillenbrand’s SpongeBob SquarePants, are always better and that studio features need to have more of a central creative voice.

When asked for his advice on pitching TV properties, Young cautioned, ‘Don’t rely on U.S. Networks because they have basically become cartels. Studios like Warner Bros., Sony and Paramount own just about everything and they’re primarily interested in their own brands.’ He added that, for Mike Young Prods., overseas has become just important as the domestic outlets.

On the subject of pitching, Koenig said it’s very difficult to get people to gamble on an original concept. ‘We’ve been licensing a bunch of properties because its easier to go to investors with pre-owned IPs,’ he stated, advising independents to start animating rather than trying to sell ideas. Swift agreed, indicating that the traditional creative pitch is getting harder to do. ‘They’ll ask, ‘Can I see that character animated?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, in about a year.”

Even if a show gets picked up, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to be profitable. Young made a point to debunk the myth at every cartoon property is a licensing gold mine, noting ‘In reality, on about one in 200 makes anything at all.’ Nelson agreed, lamenting, ‘That’s painfully true.’

On the issue of internet distribution, Nelson predicted that it’s going to happen because the end users want it to the point that they’re going to jail for it, and the producers want it because they can bypass the costs of traditional distribution channels. The snag, he says, lies in business and legal affairs because of issues involving unions such as the Screen Actors’ Guild and the Writers’ Guild of America.

One new distribution model that is currently happening is digital deployment, and it’s one that can potentially affect the creative process dramatically. With films being beamed digitally to theaters via satellite, distributors can, and most likely will, alter the content even after the release date. For instance, audiences in different cities might see different versions of a film because it has been altered along the way. And while this may have producers like George Lucas drooling at the possibilities, it has our panelists a bit worried, to say the least.

Soper told of a ‘scary’ moment she experienced during the final days of production on Chicken Little, which was sent digitally to select theaters. She said the decision to do a stereoscopic 3-D version of the movie came relatively late in the game and called for some last minute tweaking. ‘We had 12 days to go back and redo 20 to 25 shots and ended up turning around 60 shots, delivering the last scene on the Tuesday before the Sunday premiere,’ she recalled, adding that a Disney board member then floated the idea of adding new scenes to Chicken Little for the holidays.

‘Animation Producers: New Skill to Draw From’ was produced by New Media Council Events Committee chairs James Fino and Duncan Wain. To keep breast of upcoming Producers’ Guild events, go to www.pganewmedia.org.