The Wanderbirds!

This blog is dedicated to my Mentor and Friend, Kaj Pindal.

IMG_7947In the fall of 2004 I met Kaj Pindal professionally while working temporarily as the Program Coordinator for the BAA in Animation at Sheridan College.  Although I knew of Kaj and had had him as a guest speaker when I was at Sheridan as a student in the 90’s, I really didn’t get a chance to know him as a colleague in the animation industry.  Everybody in the Canadian industry knew Kaj as the father of the NFB short, Peep and the Big Wide World which started out as an animation test in 1962 called The Peep Show which would eventually become the Emmy Award Winning WGBH series Peep and the Big Wide World.  Although Kaj had had a distinguished career at the then fledgling National Film Board Animation Unit in Montreal and was even nominated for an Oscar in 1967 for the animated short film What on Earth with fellow animator Les Drew, it was his career after the NFB that caught most of the student’s attention.  He had a gift for animating and spent a good time going around the world talking, demonstrating, working and researching with the other great minds and leaders in the industry.

Kaj wandered into my office one day and sat down.  It was his way of introducing himself and getting to know the new faculty and staff.  I remember him distinctly asking what I did in the industry and explaining I was now Producing children’s shows, in which he replied….I might have a couple of ideas.…..in his trademark long Danish accented, Kaj Pindal drawl.  Sure enough, buy March of 2005, Kaj and I had started working on his next project called “The Immigrants”.

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Kaj envisioned a family of Penguins who lived on the South Pole called the “Guins”.  Their habitat was overcrowded and shrinking with the melting ice cap and an over friendly seagull suggested they make their way up to the North Pole, where food and ice was abundant!  The “Guins” would venture out into this big wide world as newcomers to strange and different lands as they journeyed North to the promised oasis called the North Pole.

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Essentially it was a “fish out of water story” with a nice cultural and environmental theme.  In 2005 it was timely due to the environmental concerns being discussed, but when I see the massive refugee crisis that has hit the world in 2015, I’m awed at Kaj’s innate ability to be forward thinking while discreetly pushing major themes within a global context.

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We got to work developing the pitch bible, checking with broadcasters on their needs as well as bringing in production partners for the inevitable animated test that most funders want to see before they put any money up for a full production. One of the major stumbling blocks was the title.  Although being old-school, I knew where Kaj was going with it.  In the 1940’s Kaj had spent his youth in Denmark drawing cartoons of Hitler for the Danish Underground, so he had seen his fair share of hardships and flight but the title had to change as the broadcasters just didn’t like it.

In true Kaj fashion, he went away for a bit to ruminate on the dilemma and came back with The Wanderbirds!  He based his title on a very popular European pre-WWI youth group that emphasized hiking, swimming, camping and travelling to other countries; called the Wandervogel, which had a bird for its emblem.

 

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With an excellent title in hand, a good working storyline, all we needed was an animation test.  I had gotten to know the industry leaders in flash animated series, Fatkat Studios in New Brunswick very well.  They were a great bunch of classically trained animators, the people Kaj thrived working with.  With a trip out to see them, Kaj and I had secured an agreement to produce a trailer in hopes they would get further work when/if the project was greenlit.

The trailer was short, but as you can see above, the style and timing was all Kaj.  I placed the trailer into MipCom Jr. in Cannes France during the 2005 MipCom broadcast sales and distribution market.  Along with The Wanderbirds Pitch in hand, we immediately received interest while at the market.  However now that I was an independent producer and not working for Calibre Digital Pictures/Alliance Atlantis anymore, broadcasters were a little risk averse and advised Kaj and I to partner with a larger Executive Producer in order to make the financing work.

Oddly enough we had three Canadian Exec Prod’s interested in representing the project; GalaKids, CCI Entertainment and Shaftesbury Entertainment.  In 2006 we came to a Development IP agreement with Shaftesbury, who then started working on the broadcasters to fund the series.  Over roughly a two year span, Shaftesbury worked hard to try and bring the Wanderbirds to life, but by then the broadcasters had too many other penguin shows.  The IP agreement ran out with Shaftesbury and the property was returned to Kaj and I to try and repitch.  It was 2008 and at the start of the American recession, so the decision was made to shelve the project indefinitely.

This was the first of many development project experiences I had.  I was grateful to Kaj for putting faith in me to at least represent his final series attempt in a professional manner.  Substantial money was spent, as it always is in our business, but in the end the market decides what is fresh and new.

Watching the events unfold around the world now, I think about how the “Guins” would face these struggles.   Hopefully with determination, love and a little ingenuousness as Kaj always envisioned!
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Vectors & 3D Animation!

Last week in Bill’s 9832b class, we spent some time understanding how to visualize within a Vector environment.  I can’t believe that I’ve been working with Adobe Illustrator, a 2D Vector graphic design application, for almost 18 years!  Even with all of those years, I learn something new every time.  As you can see in my post Flag Widget! – Part I I used Illustrator to trace out an object into a vector file format that could be read by a 3D Printer or other physical printing device.  By no means am I an expert and readily rely on Romelle Espiritu, friend and colleague to do any of the heavy Illustrator “lifting” on major projects.  However, Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and Acrobat are the three mostly widely tools in my graphic arsenal.

This weeks post is really a little of a history lesson on 3D Animation in Canada.  Let me explain first by talking a little about the rich and deep history of 3D Animation in Canada.  I also want to say something about nomenclature.  Since the release of Avatar a few years ago, the use of the term “3D” in the general public means steroscopic movies, or in general terms, watching a movie with those funny glasses.  In the business we call this “S3D”.  When I talk about 3D Animation, I’m using the traditional industry term for Computer Graphic Images (CGI) or 3D Animation.

Most Canadians and generally most industry professionals outside of Canada don’t realize that it was two Canadian NRC physicists who invented the basis for computer animation, namely “Computerized Key Frame Animation”.  In the late 60’s Marceli Wein and Nestor Burtnyk while on loan to the NFB researched and created the first vector based computer animated film; La Faim.

In order for Wein and Burtnyk to create the technology to produce the film, they devised several very interesting tools for the time; real-time rendering to film, a wooden mouse to interface with the vector artwork and of course the ability to create computerized keyframes, as done in traditional animation at studios like Walt Disney and Warner Bros.

In 1997, the Academy of Motion Picture and Arts awarded Wein and Burtnyk with a Technical Oscar, recognizing  their contributions to the film industry.  Below is a NFB documentary on their technical process for computer animation.

After La Faim, an explosion of industry firsts propelled Canada front and centre on the world stage as the preeminent country to produce Animation of any kind.  Sheridan College became the first School in the world to offer Animation as a College Program.  Nelvana was founded and became the largest non-film animation studio outside of California but most importantly three Canadian technology companies; Softimage (first use of inverse kinematics for character animation), Alias (first use of nurbs modeling software) and Side Effects Software (inventor of procedural animation) exploded on the scene with computer animation tools which at the time allowed traditional artists to actually use the technology……although somewhat still dependent on an army of technical gurus, in a truly artistic way.

I graduated from Sheridan College in Computer Animation in 1996.  Immediately I went to work for Side Effects Software as a demo artist and was proudly employee number “34”.  In the following three years, Side Effects sent me around the world several times to meet studios, demonstrate the software to far superior professionals in the industry than I and to understand the nature of 3D animation production, pipelines and film making.  Along the way I’ve worked with Kim Davidson, Greg Hermanovic, Henry LaBounta, Sean Lewkiw, Katsuhiro Otomo, Ken Perlin, Nick Park, David Sproxton and a host of memorable mentors, friends and associates.  I’ve been interviewed on Japanese television debating the fine points of a CGI Godzilla versus a “guy in a rubber suit” and given live demonstrations to thousands of people at a time.  In May of 2000, I personally animated/modeled/rendered my last file.  Since that time, my role in the industry has been developing and implementing animation pipelines, building studios, Executive Producing series, films and various projects.  So, although I’m the “3D Guy”, I haven’t actually animated, modelled, light or rendered ever since.

It should be interesting what I can come up with for this weeks class assignment to work in Google Sketch, Blender or any other new 3D software : )

Johnny Thunder!

Johnny Thunder was an interesting development project at theskonkworks/Calibre Digital Pictures.  Originally conceived as a pitch to get Bob Thompson from Lego Media (Co-Creator of the Bionicle Brand and Executive Producer of the first three Bionicle movies) interested in further expanding Lego’s film & tv universe.   I had recently returned from Aardman Animations in the UK to become Director of Development and then Executive Producer at Calibre Digital Pictures when it was decided that we’d try and track down Bob to get an “audience” at the upcoming Kidscreen in New York (where all of the TV buyers go to sell and buy kids based entertainment).  After a couple of weeks of pulling strings and asking for favours, I got the elusive email and telephone number of Bob and gave him a ring in the UK to pitch the concept of “Johnny Thunder” as a TV series.  I remember it as being 2 weeks before Christmas.

Bob was receptive in that very reserved British way and he agreed to meet in February at Kidscreen to see a “test”, which of course we hadn’t started making yet.  After the phone call, I sat in my office thinking, “holy shit” we’re going to have to make a short in less than 6 weeks!  Mobilizing our amazing team, who were also producing Ace Lightning season 2, Shoebox Zoo, and Henry’s World, we put together a team of about 30 people who volunteered to work extra time to design, develop and finish the test.

With days to spare before the big meeting, everything was in place.  A custom “Johnny Thunder” leather pouch with pitch materials, DVD’s of the short and my flight tickets to New York for the big presentation.  Here’s the original pitch.