From creative to tech, business to music, these companies and artists represent the spirit of invention that pervades every aspect of animation and VFX.
The most admirable and fun part of being in the animation and VFX industries is the passionate people who contribute to its creative and commercial growth every single day.
No other art forms require such a combination of creativity, brains, talent and the ability to communicate and collaborate with like-minded individuals around the world.
That produces an industry full of not just artists and businessmen, but innovators. The proof is in the amazing quality and quantity of animation projects springing to life from every part of the globe. And to celebrate, Animation Magazine has compiled this spotlight of the people and companies whose innovations of today will become the standards of tomorrow.
Our list of innovators is a bit different. We’re not trying to be comprehensive — the world of animation and visual effects is simply too wide for any one list to cover it all. In fact, that’s what we think each and every issue of Animation Magazine is about!
So to make this interesting, we’ve gone off the beaten path. We went looking not for the biggest and most successful companies or people — we already know who they are and write about their accomplishments regularly. No, this time we’re looking for innovations in the places we don’t know about.
And, to no one’s surprise, there are innovations and innovators in just about every corner of this business we could find.
So consider this package a celebration — of the specific people and companies we are delighted to showcase in this issue, but also of the spirit of innovation that pervades the animation and VFX communities from top to bottom.
And we hope that you, our readers and advertisers, will help us continue to celebrate the spirit of innovation.
Location: Flying back and forth between Moscow and Los Angeles.
Years experience: 27
First professional project: A collection of animated shorts titled Lift 1, released in 1989 by Moscow studio Pilot.
Current projects: Masha and the Bear and its spin-off series, Masha’s Tales.
What We Say: Masha and the Bear is one of the most successful global animated series in recent years, tapping into a wide audience of both young and old viewers who are captivated by stories that resonate across the globe with minimal dialogue. To understand how wide its success is, the show has been translated into more than 25 languages and airs in more than 100 countries, while one episode of the series ranks among a handful of YouTube videos that has racked up more than 1 billion views.
What He Says: “I think my biggest accomplishment is that I managed to put together a team of extremely talented artists and technicians that was capable of propelling the local national project onto international level. In future I hope they will help me to bring my new ideas to life.”
Location: Los Angeles
Years experience: 30
First project: Animation on the music video for A-Ha’s “Take On Me”
Current projects: Rhythms + Visions / Expanded + Live 3, a large-scale, outdoor visual music event; Beyond Music, Composition and Performance in the Age of Augmented Reality, an immersive visual music concert; Measures and Frames, a live visual music concert.
What We Say: Patterson has broken animation out of the traditional bounds of the movie or TV screen and found new forms for the medium and new ways for it to interact with music that have set boundaries for creativity.
What He Says: “With encouragement from animator-designers Jules Engel and Saul Bass, I pursued a directing career in animation. At the time, it was very challenging to break in if you weren’t a character animator. Coming from a more experimental style, music videos turned out to be a fantastic place to begin a career. … Creating the animated, five-screen Pictures at an Exhibition in 2011 for the opening of Frank Gehry’s New World Center in Miami Beach was a turning point. This collaboration with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and an amazing team of our USC animation students and graduates showed what was possible in the live visual music medium. Since then, we’ve created multiscreen and immersive projections for contemporary composers. For me, it’s been essential that as an animator, I do not limit myself to just one medium, but freely combine animation with all forms of image-making. Animation is the hub that can connect and synthesize an unlimited number of ideas and concepts.”
Employer: Splendy Interactive Ltd.
Years experience: 23 years
First project: Little Robots, a preschool LEGO series for BBC
Current projects: The Bunker, Camera 6, The Baking Bears.
What We Say: The potential for combining animation, visual effects and gaming to create a new narrative experience is something that has been promised for years, but Plenderleith is actually delivering it.
What He Says: I enjoy telling stories in new and innovative ways, and today’s technology is now giving storytellers the opportunity to do just that. The Hunting was my first video game after spending years writing scripts for children’s series, and it was so interesting and challenging writing something which was nonlinear with multiple paths. Writers always have many ideas and options when writing a script, but in a game we can pursue all of our ideas, and let the players decide which path they would choose. The Bunker, our next game, out later this year, is taking that concept to the next level — a full length feature film which you experience in your own way, discovering the story on your own terms and becoming responsible for the fate of John, our main character, a man alone in a nuclear bunker, 30 years after the blast wiped out England. It was a real challenge writing the script — giving players the right amount of freedom while still dictating the arc of the story. I couldn’t write it in Final Draft – it was more of a 3D map, which changed over time — so it was a challenge to convey the story to the crew during filming. Thankfully I had storyboarded every shot, which helped me to pre-visualize the elements I had to direct during filming. It was a BIG storyboard – my hand still aches!”
Location: Redwood City, Calif.
No. of employees: About 15
First project: Invasion!
Current projects: Invasion!, a computer animated VR short interactive movie.
What We Say: A company whose founders have extensive animation roots at Pixar, DreamWorks and Zynga Games, Baobab is at the forefront of bringing that same magic of character-driven storytelling to the new VR space.
What They Say: “Invasion! is an interactive movie created for family audiences and is universally appealing. Unlike other VR content, it’s not arthouse niche, immersive journalism, a movie trailer, or a game. Right now, there are many tech demos (things being very small, very big, popping out at you) that are beautiful, but lacking story. We believe story comes first and VR is another toy box used to convey stories in a unique way. When the tech-experimentation phase passes, as it does for all new mediums, audiences will hunger for great stories the way that they have with books, movies, plays, etc. Baobab aims take VR past early adopters and to bring VR to the masses.”
— Maureen Fan, co-founder
Location: El Segundo, Calif.
No. of employees: 9
First project: Dragonflight
Current projects: Dragonflight, The Abbot’s Book
What We Say: This award-winning team of visual effects artists created one of VR’s most jaw-dropping experiences with Dragonflight, an experience rich and real enough to make real the potential of the new medium of VR.
What They Say: “Our best compass for VR is to build the things we most want to see ourselves. The studio’s projects have all been in development in one form or another for years prior to founding the studio, so we had a well-stocked library of things to work on – which should carry us far into the future. It’s been really exhilarating to be involved with the medium just as it’s taking off — many of the assumptions and practices in both games and movies are out the window, and everyone’s making up their own impressions of how to handle the new medium. This affects just about everything we put our hands on — from UI design, to user comfort, and perhaps most poignantly, how to handle narrative: We’re choosing to tell stories from a first person perspective, which raises great questions about who the viewer is and how do we make them comfortable in another person’s (virtual) body? But it also raises questions about pacing, editing, motion within a space, and so on. It’s all a great experiment right now, but we think we have some pretty good ideas about where the medium can go. Ask me this question again in a year’s time and see if we got it right.”
— Michael Conelly, President and Creative Director for Blackthorn Media
Location: Los Angeles
No. of Employees: 12
Founded: 2016 (Parent company Proof, Inc., founded 2002)
Projects: TBA theme park ride film attraction, with Mousetrappe.
What We Say: Previz has been a game changer for VFX, and now previs leader Proof is bringing the expertise it earned on more than 300 features to the world of VR with its new PRIME division. Set up to bring in directors, cinematographers, production designers, etc., to use VR as a next-level visualization and design tool for their narrative storytelling experiences, PRIME is poised to make a real impact on the new medium.
What They Say: “Proof has always been the first, best step for creatives to visualize their narrative storytelling projects for the mediums of film and television. I want PRIME to build on that legacy as the first, best step in the immersive visualization and design process for experiences that go beyond the screen. For VR experiences, we’ll rapidly iterate for review in an HMD to determine what will and won’t work in VR. We’ll plan out 360 capture in exacting detail, both for the sake of efficiency on set and to make sure that the director gets precisely what he needs to realize his vision for the project. For cultural installations, live events, location-based entertainment and themed attractions, we’ll collaborate with designers early on in the creative process using our latest CG animation techniques in conjunction with VR as an immersive visualization and rapid-prototyping toolset. The end result will be the ability to see an attraction or event (and their media content) from any angle, under any conditions and from any point of view, and all of this before a single shovel hits the ground or stage piece is constructed.”
— Christopher Bellaci, Head of Business Development & Sales
Director, Jaunt Cinematic VR Lab
Location: Los Angeles
Years experience: 30
First projects: Directed two-award winning MTV music videos: “Luka” for Suzanne Vega; and “Be Still My Beating Heart” for Sting.
Current projects: Developing a cinematic VR story that will be a “magic realism” road trip mixing myth, archaeology, landscape and time, told through a female narrator; director on And So the Wind Blew, a multi-screen audiovisual piece that immerses the audience in a magical landscape activated by the wind; producing and directing Rhythms & Visions III, the third in a series of immersive interactive audiovisual events staged on the grounds of the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
What We Say: As the director of the new Jaunt Cinematic VR Lab at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Reckinger adds to her artistic credentials a key role of helping to establish VR studies in an academic setting. This not only will help establish best practices for the medium, but also help a new generation push its boundaries in unexpected directions.
What She Says: “The Jaunt Cinematic VR Lab is an incubator and production facility dedicated to exploring storytelling and creative content making with emerging VR technology. The USC lab supports student and faculty creative projects that utilize the innovative Jaunt VR camera and software technology for production and post-production. Our SCA makers come from the fields of live action, animation, writing, and interactive media, and we encourage them to be VR pioneers, to collaborate, mix techniques, and freely explore storytelling and experimentation with the new tools of virtual reality.”
Deluxe’s Encore VFX
Locations: Hollywood, Burbank, Vancouver, Toronto
No. of employees: 350 artists worldwide
Year founded: 1995
First VFX Project: Charmed
Current VFX projects: The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl.
What We Say: Visual effects talk often focuses too much on feature films at the expense of TV, which is rapidly catching up with the big-screen in terms of needing a high number and complexity of effects shots. Deluxe Encore has been at for the forefront of bringing feature-quality effects to weekly series, on weekly budgets and on weekly schedules. Shows like The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and NCIS stand out becourse of Encore’s efforts.
What They Say: “Studios, networks, and the massive fan bases for characters like The Flash have new expectations for visual sophistication and effects in their shows. We just commit to doing the impossible – with the right team in place we dive in and do things we’ve never attempted before. With that mantra and a workflow that eliminates unproductive tasks, we took on Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow and expanded our team with like-minded people. This year we completed 59 total episodes and 6,500 shots, and we look forward to whatever challenges come our way.”
– Armen Kevorkian, VFX Supervisor, Deluxe’s Encore VFX
No. of employees: About 15, plus 30 to 50 freelancers.
First project: Stretch
Current projects: The Purge: Election Year, Hardcore Henry, Scandal
What We Say: Staying ahead of the rapidly changing VFX and post landscape is a difficult job, and one that VFX Legion has been ahead on. It’s created a fully remote large-scale post-production and VFX studio that works with worldwide talent pool of innovators, creative thinkers, and problem solvers to meet the shifting needs and budgets of contemporary content creation.
What They Say: “Artists have been displaced all over the world, or senior artists are wanting to return home and stop having to travel the world to keep working in VFX. Legion is that chance. We developed a system that very experienced artists can contribute meaningful work on visual effects from all over the globe. We can keep the quality high because of the level of ownership that the artists take over their work. They truly are the most important part of the process.”
— James David Hattin, creative director/vfx supervisor
Locations: Boston, Los Angeles
No. of employees: 75
First project: ZooKeeper
Current projects: Ghostbusters, The Magnificent Seven, Patriots Day
What We Say: If you saw Hardcore Henry, you saw ZERO at work — and probably didn’t notice. Not only was the mass destruction and mayhem the studio added to action sequences indistinguishable, it was all done for a feature conceived in 360 degrees and executed like a first-person shooter video game. Pretty cool.
What They Say: “The funny thing about visual effects is that the better you do your job, the less noticeable you actually are. At ZERO we strive to create effects that blend seamlessly into the world, enhancing the narrative rather than distracting from it. That might mean changing summer to winter in Black Mass, or making 40 shots across Hardcore Henry’s highway chase feel like one continuous sequence. Achieving these effects with no telltale signs that a computer was ever involved is our Holy Grail. We’re continually looking for ways to make visual effects feel real, whether working on an exploding truck or a otherworldly creature. We don’t want it to distract from the story – we want it to be the story.”
— Brian Drewes, co-founder
Location: Los Angeles
No. of employees: 5, plus 10 contractors
Year founded: 2015
Current projects: The Beatrix Girls, Isle of Adventure, Taylor Teaches.
What We Say: POPMedia is poised to extend the envious brand-development record of double Emmy-winning producer and executive Sherry Gunther Shugerman. The company’s focus on brands with strong extensions beyond the animated image is bolstered with a team of talented execs well versed in all aspects of building kids brands.
What They Say: “We have found that by focusing on ideas that are not only strong TV series with great characters and fun story lines, but also have extensions in digital and toys, allows us to leverage each of the mediums to support the others, and not only helps bring our product to market, but also to grow it into successful brands more quickly, by reaching and engaging kids everywhere they play, and monetizing in various ways right off the bat.”
— Sherry Gunther Shugerman, CEO
Shout! Factory and Shout! Factory Kids
Location: Los Angeles
No. of employees: 75
Year founded: 2003
Current projects: Long Way North, Blinky Bill: The Movie, Miraculous – Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir
What We Say: With so many high-quality animated films now being produced all over the world, North American audiences have had few chances to see what all the fuss is about. So seeing Shout! Factory step in and successfully bring a raft of acclaimed and beautiful titles to screens large and small is an accomplishment well worth celebrating.
What They Say: “With a marketplace that is changing rapidly, we take pride in remaining creative and open to new ideas so that we can continue to support and market great animated properties in the most effective way possible. And we also have great partners (Hasbro Studios on several lines including My Little Pony Friendship is Magic, classic animated series Transformers and Transformers Prime, ZAG Animation on Miraculous – Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir, Saban Brands on the Power Rangers and Studio 100 on Maya the Bee movies) that collaborate with us to forge new directions. We are also looking forward to releasing a slate of amazing movies in the upcoming months such as the very entertaining Quackerz, the adventurous tale of Blinky Bill: The Movie and the gorgeous Long Way North, directed by Remi Chaye. Moreover, we are passionate in bringing captivating indie animated features and family-friendly content to the big screen for movie-goers and across all major distribution platforms.”
— Melissa Boag, SVP of Kids & Family Entertainment
Location: Portland, Ore.
Years experience: 10 at LAIKA
First project: Coraline
Current project: Kubo and the Two Strings
What We Say: Nothing has changed the way stop-motion animation is made more than the rise of rapid prototyping (a.k.a. 3D printing), and no studio has made more advanced use of it than LAIKA under the direction of Brian McLean, whose efforts recently earned him a Sci-Tech Achievement Award from the Academy.
What He says: “LAIKA’s Rapid Prototyping system takes a century old technique of replacement animation and fuses it with 21st century 3D printing technology. By harnessing the power and control of computer animation software and combining it with state of the art 3D printers, we are able to achieve levels of emotion and subtle facial performances that the medium of stop-motion has never seen before. It is amazing what happens when you combine two powerful technologies, and put them in the hands of an extremely talented crew. It never ceases to amaze me how far the RP team pushes this technique and in the process redefines what is considered possible. I am honored to get to work at studio that rewards creativity and risk-taking, and along side such a hardworking and talented group of people. I cannot wait to show the world what we have been able to do with RP and facial animation on Kubo and the Two Strings.”
Locations: Corvallis, Ore.
No. of employees: 60
First product: TrackIR, the original head tracker for gaming.
Current products: Prime cameras, Flex cameras and Motive software
What We Say: With the line between live action and animation increasing blurred, tools like OptiTrack’s 3D tracking hardware and software are making it simpler and easier than ever to stitch the two together. Its precise tracking helps animators iterate more quickly and focus their efforts on detail work, rather than clean up. And that’s no small thing.
What They Say: “We like engineering solutions for hard problems and then giving customers tools that require less and less of their attention as time goes on. Regardless of the size of the system, from the largest performance capture stage in the world to a conference room system, every customer benefits from this focus. And with massive growth in indoor drone tracking for research, and of course the explosion of VR, we’re seeing universities, high schools and even junior high schools installing systems for multidisciplinary use. That gives us a sense that we’re doing the right things in product development.”
— Brian Nilles, Chief Strategy Officer, OptiTrack
Location: Metz, France
No. of employees: 15
First product: TVPaint Animation
Current product: TVPaint Animation 11 Professional Edition
What We Say: Though the company is small, its reach is large because TVPaint is the best choice for efficiently creating work that looks good enough to have been done on paper. TVPaint has earned accolades and been used to make such diverse films as Song of the Sea, The Red Turtle and The Dam Keeper.
What They Say: “The versatility and flexibility of TVPaint Animation combines traditional techniques (light table, animation disk, shift and trace, flip, etc.) with digital capacities (auto save, fast coloring process, special effects…). … TVPaint Animation emulates paper animation to make the digital animation experience as comfortable as possible.”
Cloth Cat Animation
Location: GloWorks, Cardiff, U.K.
No. of Employees: 60 plus
First Project: Ha Ha Hairies
Current Projects: Grandpa in My Pocket, Toot the Tiny Tugboat, Ethel & Ernest
What We Say:
What They Say: “With work on the animated feature Ethel & Ernest due to wrap soon and a number of series in pre-production, Cloth Cat’s innovative use of software and hardware as well as their impressive production pipeline mean they are really pushing the boundaries creatively and technically. The Cardiff-based studio is now one of the largest animation production companies in the U.K. and they have brought together a multi-skilled and highly experienced team of directors, producers, artists and technicians to share their passion for great design and engaging storytelling. From pre-production to broadcaster deliveries in multiple territories, Cloth Cat is able to handle every aspect of production in-house. As experienced co-production partners on a number of series, they have developed a highly successful and efficient production pipeline and workflow that is translatable to most software and techniques. Their technical backbone is bolstered by an integrated 100 node render farm, 100TB of storage and cloud based project management and shot tracking system with shared edit collaboration tools. With a number of fantastic new projects to be announced soon, it’s an exciting time for this innovative award winning studio at the heart of Cardiff Bay.”
— Jon Rennie, Managing Director
Location: Gdańsk, Poland
No. of employees: 30
First project: Harry and Toto
Current projects: Mami Fatale, Basia, Grand Banda
What We Say: This rapidly growing studios is one of the breakout success of the region, finding audiences and acclaim for its online content, TV series and short films. Keeping abreast of technology allows it to execute its creative vision to great effect, with its short Lost Senses having won awards at SIGGRAPH and the World Animation Celebration and its TV series Basia nominated for an award at this year’s Annecy festival.
What They Say: “We’re in development with two TV series. … We’re also finishing the script of our first feature movie – Mice On Strike, and a new artistic short film, Bernard. … In the near future we would like to explore the possibilities connected with online distribution and we would like to continue growing our YouTube channel. We also want to develop our own IPs from TV series onto bigger cross-media brands, which would get more international recognition. We would love our brands to conquer not only Europe but also the USA. Finally, we would love to continue strengthening our position on the international animation market by getting into more co-production projects.
— Robert Jaszczurowski, Co-founder, Producer
Original Force Ltd. and Original Force Animation
Location: Los Angeles and Nanjing
No. of employees: 1,200
Founded: 1999 (Original Force Ltd.), 2015 (Original Force Animation)
First project: Duck Duck Goose
Current projects: Duck Duck Goose, Oldzilla, QQ Speed
What We Say: This well-established animation company is getting serious about bridging the gap between China and the West, having tapped former DreamWorks executives Sandra Rabins and Penney Finkelman Cox to run its movie studio. It’s got three features in the works, including the 2017-scheduled family comedy Duck Duck Goose, which is loaded with voice talent and veteran animation talent such as writer-director Christopher Jenkins and co-writer Rob Muir.
What They Say: “When Harley Zhao (president and founder of Original Force) approached us with this unique opportunity, he told us he wanted to build a new creative home for the world’s best storytellers, writers, directors, animators, digital artists and designers. Original Force Animation is a true global operation with a world perspective and whether you are an established filmmaker or an emerging artist with a distinctive and fresh new voice, our company is a new destination where your best work can be nurtured and flourish.”
— Penney Finkelman Cox, co-president, Original Force Animation
Education: University of Akron, Recording Workshop.
Years experience: 24
First project: Recording and post-production on an ad agency job at Beachwood Studios.
Current projects: Audio post and music for Adult Swim shows, commercial work for various ad agencies and clients, and network branding.
What We Say: Just as Adult Swim has helped define an entire brand and genre for animated comedy aimed at young (and not-so-young) adults, Kohler’s music has brought an audio identity to the network’s shows that defines the sound of its brand as much as the animation defines the visuals.
What He Says: “Since I began my career, I’ve had the opportunity to mix at Skywalker Ranch, to collaborate with great artists, and to have made music that has played continuously on networks for years, on every continent. It really makes it well worth the long hours invested. I think I will always be modifying, customizing, adding to, and, at the same time, streamlining my studio and process. It’s what influences new ideas for me. I plan to continue working in sound design, but I’m also moving toward more music composition, and hopefully into new avenues of music collaboration as we all embrace sharing and cloud options in our work process.”
Location: Los Angeles
Education: Villa Lobos Conservatory in Rio de Janeiro.
Years of experience: Almost 40.
First project: Playing my music with a jazz band at a library in Rio de Janeiro at 16 years old.
Current projects: The Nut Job 2, Despicable Me 3, The Last Animals
What We Say: An accomplished musician in multiple forms and genres, Pereira has helped bring the sound of music for animation into the mainstream. His lengthy list of animation credits both past and present prove he’s given shape to the interaction of animation and music in today’s industry.
What He Says: “I hope I have a long life ahead of me, so my list of accomplishments is nothing compared to what is still to come. In one way or another, I write music everyday and I want to continue like that forever. I’m thankful to everyone and everything for how far I’ve gotten as of now and also, I hope I can connect more my love for nature and environmental issues with my life as a musician who is willing to be part of projects that are geared towards the protection of all nature’s gifts to us.”
Location: San Francisco
Education: University of Chicago
Years of experience: 13 years
First project: Cisco Systems sponsored a massive industrial event in which four regional VP’s rapped, both as a video and onstage, about their teams and “makin’ dealz.” I arranged and produced the music track, and coached their performances.
Current projects: Creative Director of Music and Sound, Google ATAP. Music and sound supervisor, for Pearl, a Google Spotlight Story directed by Patrick Osborne; and Rain or Shine, a Google Spotlight Story directed by Felix Masse and produced by Nexus Productions.
What We Say: VR is new territory for music, as well as for storytelling, art and visuals, and Stafford is in the trenches directly solving those problems and bringing audio flare to some of the most successful VR projects to date.
What He Says: “Ultimately, music’s role in VR is the same as it is in film, theater and games: to enhance narrative and emotional impact. If I’m doing my job, the audience never has to re-think music’s role in order to enjoy a story. But in VR, music has to function differently. It has to answer new questions. Traditionally, composers and audio professionals never worry about a single audience member tilting or rotating their head. They don’t need to account for that in their music or mix. But in Glen Keane’s duet, the musical score knows if you’re looking at the girl, the boy, the dog, or just looking up at the stars. And in Patrick Osborne’s Pearl, the mix knows when the music is sung by onscreen actors over there; when it’s played through the speakers of an aging car stereo; or when music acts as the narrative underscore. When it’s just … music.”