$300 Million ‘Avatar’ is an Animation Game Changer
According to Endemic Animation Studios, a small U. S. animation firm, smaller companies are being forced to compete with outsourcing and new tech tools.
Phoenix, AZ (Vocus) January 5, 2010
James Cameron’s new computer graphics film, ‘Avatar’, is single-handedly raising the industry’s playing field of expertise. Avatar’s $300 million plus production costs, startling new computer graphics (CG) processes and universal acclaim has raised the bar for the entire animation industry, making other recently-released, big-budget CG-animated films pale by comparison. According to Sean Avery with Endemic Animation Studios, “Avatar adds new technology to existing technology, catapulting the industry to a whole new level.”
As for the smaller animation firms, they’re scrambling to play catch up. “Faster PC’s and better technology have allowed animators to do so much more with CG than even from just a year or two ago,” says Avery, co-founder of Endemic Animation Studios in Scottsdale, Arizona. “The quality of industry development in just the past two years has jumped exponentially. Currently, today’s computer graphics industry (CGI) work is being done at the rate of a trillion computations per second.”
Critics and industry insiders who have seen Avatar all agree that the standard of CG animation has been knocked out of the park. Much of this is due to Cameron’s innovative development and use of new CG processes used in the film, which will, more than likely, revolutionize modern animation. His Fusion Camera System (a single camera that shoots live action in stereoscopic 3D) is changing the way animation and CG is created for film.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times wrote: “Avatar is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It's a technical breakthrough.” Cameron has said, “Avatar is the single most complex piece of filmmaking ever made. We have 1,600 shots for a 2.5 hour movie. It’s not with a single CGI character, like King Kong or Gollum. We have hundreds of photo-realistic CG characters.”
Estimates on the production costs of Avatar range upwards of $300 million, with an additional $100 million earmarked for marketing. Much of that was applied to Cameron’s groundbreaking digital technology and New Zealand’s renowned digital animation company, Weta, responsible for such earlier CG highpoints as 2005’s King Kong remake, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
As technology has gotten better and faster, actual CG animation work has gotten smaller and cheaper, inviting small studios onto the playing field. Out of the estimated 109 U. S. animation studios, over 90% are small studios.
Endemic Studios in Scottsdale, Arizona is an example of a young U. S. animation team striving to tackle local and regional animation projects, while pursuing a ‘home run’ via one of the major animation studios. Its initial project was Dorsai, a sci-fi television show based on popular military science fiction, which the team shopped to Warner Brothers, the Sci-Fi Channel and the Cartoon Network. The studio is also involved in talks with Dreamworks over its Pelli character, seen at its website, www. endemicstudios. com. Endemic’s co-founder, Avery, is pragmatic about his firm’s chances to succeed in the multi-million dollar animation big leagues. “Our business plan is to do animation projects in our local market to cover our overhead, while shooting for bigger projects with larger studios that would land us bigger roles,” Avery said. “The success level of this business is 10-15%, but in this industry, all it takes is one ‘home run’.” But there are larger, global challenges ahead for small studios like Endemic hoping for a big animation deal. Hollywood film studios are looking to cut costs by outsourcing work to studios in India, New Zealand and elsewhere in the Pacific Rim.
The continued availability of low cost, powerful computer animation platforms and much lower labor rates than North America and Europe, are among the factors influencing the shift in production of computer animation to outlying countries. For instance, the total cost for making a full-length animated film in America is estimated to be $100 million to $175 million U. S. dollars, whereas the same movie in India can be made for $15 million to $25 million U. S. In addition, India boasts a healthy supply of English-speaking workers, a huge advantage when working with English-speaking animated characters. India’s ‘Bollywood’ is the second largest entertainment industry in the world, after Hollywood.
India’s animation industry grew 20% between 2006 and 2008, accounting for about $375 million in 2008 of the $50 billion global animation industry. According to India’s National Association of Software and Services Companies, more work is heading India’s way, with animation projects estimated to exceed $800 million by 2013.
"Work is pouring in from places like the United States, Europe and Asia in the form of outsourced projects and co-production deals," points out P. Jayakumar, Chief Executive Officer of Toonz Animation, one of India's largest animation players.
According to the Times of India, other Indian animation houses are also busy. Mumbai is the center for some of this activity. Mumbai-based Maya Entertainment did the special effects for The Mummy and Stuart Little; and the LA-based Rhythm & Hues Studios’ facility in Mumbai worked on such films as Charlotte’s Web for Paramount; Garfield: A Tale Of Two Kitties for Fox; and A Night At The Museum, Evan Almighty and Happy Feet.
In this environment, young American animators are being forced to readjust and adapt to a new work reality. They are mustering their creative smarts to approach business opportunities with new innovation and to craft their own opportunities for success. Ironically, the recession is giving rise to an entrepreneurial spirit that is driving a new generation of CG animators.
“Recession or not, we decided to take measures into our own hands, using our own contacts and levels of talent,” Avery said with a smile. “We knew we could make something out of it. We know we have something to offer.”