GigaPix President John Savage

GigaPix Studios president John Savage is responsible for spearheading content creation and licensing acquisition for the company, which recently opened a 32,000 square-foot animation facility in Chatsworth, Calif. He previously worked for production and publishing company Prolific Publishing as art director on a number of successful titles, including Return Fire 1 & 2. As a technical director for Netter Digital Entertainment, he specialized in CG-animation for TV series such as Max Steel and SCI-FI Channel’s Dune, which won an Emmy for visual effects. Savage was also technical director for Foundation Imaging, known for its work on Babylon 5, Star Trek: Voyager and Starship Troopers: Roughnecks. There he acted as technical director for the Sony video game Twisted Metal Black and the BBC’s Dan Dare. At Savage Frog, he played an instrumental role in CG work for Power Puff Girls–The Movie.

Animation Magazine Online: What did it take to make GigaPix a reality? Is it a privately funded venture or do you have investors? Tell us how the pieces all came together.

John Savage: For the past decade, it has been a desire of mine to build an animation company. I wanted to build a studio based on my years of experience in video games, television and feature animation. I met Chris Blauvelt, our CEO, in 2002 when he was looking to build an animation studio as well. He had become interested in animation when he was asked to fund a cartoon series. While he did not think that the concept presented to him was a very strong one, the idea of starting an animation studio was very intriguing to Chris. So, we sat down together to build a plan. Deciding that we wanted to create an animation studio was easy, but actually setting up shop and turning the idea into reality has been exceptionally difficult. We are very fortunate to have a small group of private investors that believe in what we are trying to build here at GigaPix.

AMO: One of the goals of the company is to create animated features. Will you target the direct-to-video market or are you hoping to challenge Pixar, DreamWorks and Disney?

J.S.: It would be easy to stand here and say that we see ourselves as a competitor to Pixar, but truthfully, that would be a foolish comment. Pixar is an amazing company. They tell fantastic stories through the medium of animation. However, their dominance of the animation world does not exclude others from participating. There is more than enough room for strong storytelling in this day and age. We feel that we are fortunate to find ourselves in the position we are in at a time when animation is in such high demand. While our primary focus is to create quality animated feature films, we will not discount the opportunity that there is in the direct to DVD market, but our goal will always be theatrical release. Even when Pixar and DreamWorks have their production pipelines at full speed, they will only be able to create one feature film each year. And if every major studio were to jump into the game and create one animated feature each year, it would not even come close to the over 2,000 feature films that are released each year.

AMO: DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg recently said he doesn’t think independent animation companies have the resources to compete in the theatrical feature film arena. How would you respond to this?

J.S.: To some degree, he is correct. But it is my opinion that he was primarily referring to the ability of independent studios to acquire funding and distribution on a scale that would be required to compete with studios like Pixar and DreamWorks. Funding a [studio] feature animation film is very different from funding an independent feature film. Being an independent, we will more than likely need to partner on our first few projects. But being an independent gives you several crucial benefits over the major studios. The primary benefit is that we do not have overhead on the scale of DreamWorks, Disney and Pixar. The "fringe" cost associated with dealing with a studio of that size can be as high as 40% of your overall budget. That is massive! We know we can effectively compete by our ability to produce an animated feature in the $30 million range. Wrap that up in a bright red bow, head over to one of the mid-range distributors and all of a sudden the independents are not so dismissible.

AMO: You have four features in development. Explain the strategy of starting with a full slate rather than focusing on one film to test the waters and get the ball rolling. What can you tell us about those four features?

J.S.: We have worked hard to develop a studio that can produce a variety of projects. Building it for a single property would be the equivalent of putting all of our eggs in one basket. Our focus is to continually create new, exciting projects to choose from. We have a development staff whose job it is to create properties. We have several projects that are in development because we are not sure which one will break first and with which partner. But this is the beauty of GigaPix; it has been grown to be a creative content developer and it will continue to do so with fantasy, sci-fi, comic books, unlikely heroes and comedy. The projects that we have in development at this time are designed to attack a different market and story, and each has been created with a potential partner in mind.

AMO: How do you plan to balance using local talent and outsourcing overseas?

J.S.: Considering that we are entering a new era of technology where overseas companies are becoming a powerful force in the world of animation, it would be negligent to ignore what these companies have to offer. We are currently discussing pipelines with two offshore companies. Our goal is to make sure that we leverage what these companies have to offer while we keep an anchor firmly placed in our domestic studio. This is why we have recently expanded to a 32,000 square-foot studio. This is our primary studio, and it will continue to grow to 120-180 artists. One of the projects that we are looking at will require that 75% of the animation will be done offshore, but all of the modeling, texturing, layout, cameras, lighting, vfx and post will be done domestically.

AMO: What hardware and software have you built your production pipeline around?

J.S.: We are working closely with Verarri systems to continue to build our infrastructure. I love their blade rack systems that allow us to fit a maximum amount of rendering CPUs in a small amount of space. Every time we purchase a rack from them we fit 88 to 132 CPU’s into a small 2.5’ x 4’ footprint. We are currently working with them on the building out of our post and editing facility with drive arrays that will slip effortlessly into the editing suites and control room that we have already constructed.

We have centered our 3D tools around Modo and Zbrush for modeling, Alias Maya for animation and vfx, and Lightwave for rendering, working with Point Oven as the glue that does all of the translation in between. It is an amazing time in the animation industry when studios like GigaPix can use any off-the-shelf animation tools it wants. We are just integrating Zbrush into our pipeline, and we really expected that it would be more difficult than it was.

We are also hard at work designing several custom tools that will be the centerpiece of our production pipeline. At this time, there is not a software suite that exists to take production and tracking from script through storyboards, design, modeling and animation to final render and post. We are looking to change this. We will be putting significant resources toward continuing the development of this tool suite.

AMO: What are your personal philosophies regarding animation and how will they govern GigaPix productions?

J.S.: It is all about the story. Animation is just a medium for storytelling. While it is a highly specialized medium, you cannot forget traditional cinematography. We do not believe in doing something just because another person (or company) is doing it. We do believe that the look and feel of a movie needs to be created in a fluid, artistic environment, and that if you are truly going to give the property its due, you need to start from scratch every time or you will end up becoming complacent and stale.

We also have an open development door with all of the GigaPix employees. If you work for GigaPix and you have a project that you think is a viable, strong compelling story, then you have just as much right to have the opportunity to get it made as anyone else. Our staff is incredibly creative, and for us to ignore that would be folly.

We also believe here at GigaPix, that ownership is key. Every employee owns a small piece of the studio. If we do well, everyone does well. Many of our staff could go elsewhere and make more money on contract, but they believe in what we have created and they see that there is more to be gained in the long run by helping the studio succeed rather than just working at other studios where you are just a hired gun.

AMO: What are your influences, animated or otherwise?

J.S.: I could rattle off a series of directors, producers and movies that they have worked on, but to be honest, I love movies. All of them. Even the bad ones. There is something to learn from all of them. I have seen horrible movies that have small moments of brilliance. I love watching movies and dissecting them with my friends–what worked and what did not.

As for animated films, Shrek was beautifully directed, but even that does not compare to The Incredibles. It is the best animated movie that has been made to date. If we were to go back to 2D films, then I would have to mention Hayao Miyazaki. But then again, who wouldn’t.

I believe that, for live action films, The Lord of the Rings trilogy has proven to everyone that there is no limit to imagination, and that if you can dream it, it can be made. And much of that credit has to go to Peter Jackson for his unwavering vision of the film. In my opinion, The Incredibles and LOTR have changed the film industry like no other films of late. You have to respect that.

If I were to step away from films, I would have to mention Joss Whedon of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly fame. From him, I have learned patience, timing and the value of fantastic, humorous dialogue. He is an undeniably brilliant individual.

AMO: Where do you expect to see GigaPix ten years from now?

J.S.: We expect to have several theatrical features under our belt and to be a much larger company that houses several divisions of GigaPix, including a full post-production facility, a pre-production and prototyping division, a recording/mixing audio studio, a tools and programming group and a video game division, all built around the animation studio to facilitate its growth. Each division will be its own profit center and give us an unparalleled ability to produce stories of any type for a variety of mediums. In the end, I do see GigaPix being one of the top competitors in the 3D animation market.

AMO: We hear you_re going to be staffing up. How should someone go about getting a job with GigaPix?

J.S.: It’s all about talent. We receive hundreds of emails each day, and more demo reels than we can count at times. But we carefully look through them all. All of the department heads review the reels separately, and then we meet jointly and talk about those with the most promise. The talented reels always rise to the top. So, if you don’t have a good reel, go back and make one.

We are still a medium-sized company, and every position that we fill drastically alters the teams and how they work together. So, we take our hiring very seriously. And, considering that we log every applicant and we track reel changes as they reapply, it is important to put your best foot forward and make your best effort to stick to the application requirements. Only submit your best stuff. You need to find some way to make your reel stand out among the 100 other applicants that are applying for the same position. It is incredibly easy to produce a quality reel these days with the advent of the DVD. Spend time. Polish it. If you want your reel to have impact, it is time well spent.