What strategies should studios adopt at a time of planetary competition? Copenhagen Bombay has opted for diversifying projects in a cross-media approach to reduce financial risks. 2 Minutes has focused on R&D to develop proprietary software. Coproduction openings were also discussed, and for some leadership and team spirit are essential. All these strategies are revealed...
Co-organiser of editorial content for the 2011 Conferences, Consultant
Rainmaker Entertainment, Copenhagen Bombay, Crest Animation, Ankama, 2 Minutes, studio strategies, production company, animation studio, rationalising production costs, Annecy conferences, animated film
In a context of planetary competition, where aesthetic, technical, organisation, financial, economic and regulatory parameters meet, studio strategies can take extremely forms depending on their areas of expertise, their size, their market access, their geographic location, their culture. Five studios present their approaches to illustrate this diversity.
Copenhagen Bombay was created in Denmark in 2006 by director Anders Morgenthaler and producer Sarita Christensen, in association with Nordisk Film. The idea was to create a production company and an animation studio making works for children. Added to this strategy is a cross-media dimension which means that every project is thought out from a multi-screen point of view to rationalise costs and potentially get a better return on investment as revenue comes from various different sources. However, the studio became known with an adult feature, entitled Princess. The film was directed by Anders Morgenthaler and combines animation and live-action. It was presented at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, and was also in the running for the camera d’or for best first film. Princess is considered as being the first animated feature for adults, and had a budget of €1.2M! Five years after its creation, the studio now has five films to its name (three features and two TV dramas) and several series at various stages of production.
For Petter Lindblad, Copenhagen Bombay’s strategy is to focus on a broadly diversified range of projects, "to reduce financial risks. 'Low budget' projects, based on the example of Princess, is also a guarantee, as the studio has proved that low budget doesn’t have to mean low quality". The studio prefers bringing things inhouse to outsourcing, as this means that "it is possible to control not only the creative aspects, but also the financial aspects. This also means that all the profits come back de facto to Copenhagen Bombay."
He considered that working with several studios is often a source of problems because of the time differences between the various structures, along with cultural misunderstandings, without forgetting the difficulties involved in having teams spread around the world.
But he is not naïve, and admitted that the downside of a small budget – the latest example being The Great Bear, produced for €1.7M – is that you often have to cheat. "On the image front, we added backgrounds using Photoshop, without animation, to keep costs down. Similarly, we had to re-write the script at times because the creative urges exceeded the technical and financial feasibility of the project. Several operations presented themselves: cutting the number of people or of scenes, removing over-complicated effects or over-daring camera movements. But don’t believe that quality suffered because of this. Everything is thought through in a spirit of optimism, and never to the detriment of the story".
Founded in 2000 with the idea of making a web series, the studio 2 Minutes eventually turned towards producing animated series for television. Ten years on, founder Jean-Michel Spiner has 25 series to his credit, using various different techniques, and has also worked on several features films. 2 Minutes is located in Angoulême, Paris, Quebec and Hong Kong. One of the strengths of the structure is to focus on R&D to develop proprietary software and software based on market products. "We have created software and plugins for the re-use of assets, creating articulated puppets, or a programme for creating digital storyboards and animatics", said the former Pixibox developer who worked on the MediaPEGS programme. "We are also involved in the HD3D project, which has made it possible to find a production management and tracking solution, called ArtForge, in collaboration with other studios including Mac Guff, TeamTO, Duran Duboi, Mikros Image, Eclair and LTC." Today 2 Minutes employs around a hundred people spread over the four sites.
2 Minutes’ strategy is to be open to other areas. Although working as a service provider was the studio’s core business when it started, it began opening up to coproduction in 2004, before developing its own projects in 2007. 2010 saw the arrival, on the channel Gulli, of the first 100 % 2 Minutes series, Rosie, and 2011 was marked by the studio joining the distribution family.
For Jean-Michel Spiner, "a studio should be made up of:
When asked about where to locate production, he put forward several parameters. "The first is obviously labour costs. Coproduction conditions play as much a role as do regional and/or national subsidies. Planning and coordination costs connected to a possible location outside of France are also determining factors". Jean-Michel Spiner remains "convinced of the crucial importance of grouping the work together as much as possible, because working remotely is not a miracle solution". The final parameter he gave was very human: pleasure and involvement in the project. "Seeing a bit of background, or of a character without appreciating the whole can be a hindrance". It is up to each manager to shape these criteria and use them as appropriate.
He concluded on this subject saying "that sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice a subsidy, of any kind, rather than localise at all costs". An idea that everyone agreed with.
Several examples supported his arguments. Rosie is a case in point for a "concentrated" production, insofar as, with the exception of the script, voices and lab work (in Paris), everything was conceived in Angoulême. It is true that the fact that the director was on site helped, "but we really thought this through, going as far as bringing in the storyboarders, who usually work where they happen to be. But by doing this we had real consistency".
The production of Chico Chica Boumba Pepper School, coproduced with Dandeloo for M6, was shared between France and China. "The reason was that the animation was very time consuming and that locating 100 % in France would not have provided any added value. It was the best compromise in relation to pure outsourcing".
The feature film Approved for Adoption, which mixes live-action and animation required the use of Damas, the production management programme, as it was split between Paris, Seoul, Angoulême, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Arles, Charleroi and Nancy, with a director who was constantly moving between the various sites. "This localisation can work on a feature film", accepted Jean-Michel Spiner, "but I still have doubts as to its usefulness for a series. And I would insist on saying that it can be frustrating not to see the continuity of the shots that, for instance, the layout artists have worked on". To the question from the audience on problems potentially arising from time differences between several foreign studios working together, Jean-Michel Spiner replied that if it was "well managed, it could even be an asset because production would never be interrupted. I would say that it is more cultural differences which could negatively impact the idea of producing that way. The positive effect is that you have to be extremely precise when delivering a better quality image".
Over time 2 Minutes has been able to attack its initial raison d’être: the web. "To succeed, the authors, all the authors, have to work upstream so that the cross-media dimension is present and settled right at the outset". For Jean-Michel Spiner having a broadcaster as a partner in creating a video game, for instance, is a good thing in itself, but is not the driving force. It just means that the series can be sold better. On Chico Chica Boumba, the producers created an augmented reality application with synchronised dance steps. Rosie is a series which has led to the conception of three video games, hosted on the site of the TV channel (Gulli). "This part was brought in-house and we capitalised on software bricks". Jean-Michel Spiner went on to say that games are not part of international sales: "they only make the series more attractive, but are not at all part of it".
With almost 300 employees, Vancouver-based Rainmaker Entertainment is one of the biggest animation studios in North America. Under the direction since 2005 of Warren Franklin, an influential member of Lucas Film’s creative team and former director of ILM, the studio has founded its strategy on "a highly creative core team" to create game kinematics, shorts and features. "As far as we can, we try to keep as much of our productions on site to keep consistency and maintain communication at all times", said Warren Franklin. "We also work on the principle that anyone in the company can become an author. That is why we encourage employees, whoever they are and not just graphic artists, to put forward ideas, based on our flagship characters Ting and Juma, an alien and a caveman. We have already produced four shorts on the Olympic Games, or on the creation of our logo, using this double act".
Rainmaker Entertainment is also currently preparing several feature projects, including Escape from Planet Earth, in which aliens, captured by humans, try to escape using all means possible – a sort of Great Escape with an alien in place of Steve McQueen. Another project in progress is the adaptation of a feature version of the adventures of Ting and Juma. Rainmaker brought in the Canadian comic Harland Williams to collaborate on writing the film.
Although features remain attractive for studios, Warren Franklin does not look down on the value of shorts: "the reputations of all the major studios in the world came from shorts: Disney, Pixar, Ghibli, etc. Short film is an extraordinary laboratory and area for expressing the most unbridled creativity. With their distribution on social networks, such as Facebook, short films are an incredible showcase for studios, and we must make the most of them".
India has long been considered a place for outsourcing animation to, but today it is leaving behind this image of the "helping hand". Crest Animation Studios Limited was founded in 2000 and blazed the trail for Indian animation in the worldwide CGI market, with, notably, the feature Alpha & Omega, coproduced with Lionsgate and directed Anthony Bell and Ben Gluck (2010). This stereoscopic 3D film was also the first from India to run for the Oscars, in 2011, in the Animation category, even if it did not reach the final short list…
A.K. Madhavan, CEO of Crest Animation, battled for several years before being considered a producer in his own right. "I listened a lot, no-one listened much to me, I had lots of problems to overcome, but I always learned my lessons from them, and this helped me progress".
In his opinion "there are four basic elements which are the pillars of the studio". First of all "you must think about creating something international. Thinking about a project which is only for a domestic audience, even if it is for a country which is as big as India, is a massive error of judgement".
The other pillar a studio needs is "an efficient pipeline. To achieve this we brought in a number of team leaders from the US, which meant that we could set up a fairly solid studio to work firstly on providing services, and then on productions. We have also developed several tools – including a production tracking tool and a rendering tool – which correspond to our needs, without us having to depend on software".
The third pillar is a strong distribution network. Crest Animation has signed an agreement with Lions Gate Family Entertainment for the coproduction of three features, the first being Alpha & Omega. This film follows the adventures of two young wolves who are carried away by hunters and who try to get back to their territory. It was fully produced in India in under 8 months! It has been distributed in several countries, including France in 2010.
The final pillar is financing: "On Alpha & Omega we had a budget of €22M, which is very comfortable to produce a rich, high quality animated film".
Anthony Roux is one of the three co-founders of the studio Ankama which, over the past decade, has developed a very singular universe, the Krosmoz, from which have emerged, among others, the MMORPG Dofus and the TV series Wakfu. Like A.K. Madhavan, Anthony Roux started by overcoming problems. "There were three of us, each with €3 000, and no-one wanted to bet on our projects". Ten years on, Ankama has diversified into video games, animation, the media (web TV), publishing, music, events organisation, merchandising and the press. Ankama has 450 employees spread between the original home of the company in Roubaix, Paris, Lyon and Tokyo. In 2010 the company generated a turnover €40M and 40 million players in the world connected to Dofus.
Ankama’s strength lies in its focus on the idea of transmedia. "It’s very heart-warming to see each team’s creations in all the departments. There is a lot of emulation and this is an integral part of our strategy up to and including human resources: it is possible to see a video games person writing a script for an episode of the series and vice versa", confirmed Anthony Roux. "Our philosophy is never to tell the same story, which could have happened in over ten years. But we have a department, the Historians Department, which is dedicated to the consistency of the universe and its many ramifications to avoid redundancies, mistakes or dead-ends in the scripts".
Ankama is currently preparing three features, two of which will be based on the Krosmoz universe. The first, Dofus, will be produced abroad: "we would like to localise it in France, but this would force us to triple our headcount, which is just not possible", regretted Anthony Roux. Wakfu, from the name of the series aired on France Télévisions, will be produced in France by the teams who work on the series. Finally Mutafukaz, created by Run, could be released in theatres in 2013.
Ankama is a pragmatic studio, its co-founder explained: "video games bring in enough to finance other projects. But we must not forget that the first series of Wakfu cost us €9M to make for a selling price of 6, whereas the second series sold at the same price, but cost us €6.5M. It was on international sales that we had a good return on investment".
On the question of whether it was a good idea to set up an R&D department, Anthony Roux admitted that he was following this at a distance, whereas Petter Lindblad admitted that he didn’t have one, being loyal to the idea of optimising investments. A.K. Madhavan, on the other hand, thought it was essential to be able to respond to specific needs during a production. Jean-Michel Spiner said that there were "five people in 2 Minutes who were dedicated to this". Finally, Warren Franklin preferred to look to the colleges and universities in Vancouver to "experiment with their innovations and discuss with them".<