Technicolor shows its creative side
The whimsical children’s book “Pete & Pickles” tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two mismatched characters: a free-spirited circus elephant and a strait-laced pig.
The theme also applies to the odd pairing of the book’s author, the irreverent cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, with the buttoned-down French company that has bought the rights to his book.
Technicolor, the longtime film processing company and world’s largest producer of DVDs, is venturing into an improbable new business of producing animated TV series, starting with an adaptation of “Pete & Pickles” and, eventually, feature films.
It marks the latest move by Technicolor, whose parent company was formerly known as Thomson, to adapt to the digital revolution that is reshaping Hollywood and evolve from a provider of back-office services to the studios into a creator of content.
“Technicolor has a 95-year history of helping creative talent realize their vision,” said Tim Sarnoff, president of the company’s newly formed digital production division. “We believe that taking the next step of putting some of our skin in the game is a logical extension.”
The venture is risky: Children’s animation is a notoriously unpredictable business, subject to the whims of young viewers, and dominated by Disney and Nickelodeon.
But Technicolor isn’t starting from scratch and already has partnerships with major producers in the field. The company’s India studio has built up an animation-for-hire facility where most of the work on “Pete & Pickles” will be done.
“It makes perfect sense for them because they are so heavily steeped in media already and they have the resources to start investing and creating intellectual properties that they can both produce and exploit,” said Ron Diamond, president of Animation World Network, an online publishing group.
Leading the effort is Sarnoff, the former head of the visual effects house Sony Pictures Imageworks, who was recruited by Technicolor last year. Since then, he has been assembling a team of high-profile animation executives, hiring industry veterans Jean MacCurdy, a former president of Warner Bros. Animation who helped launch the Kids WB network, and Fonda Snyder, a former Disney Channel executive and co-founder of Storyopolis Productions, the family entertainment company backed by billionaire Paul Allen.
Snyder had introduced him to Breathed, best known for his comic strips “Bloom County,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and “Opus.” He has also written several children’s books, including “Mars Needs Moms!” which is being adapted into a Disney feature film produced by Robert Zemeckis.
Sarnoff said he was taken with Breathed’s work and distinctive style. “He has an incredible way of looking at the world,” he said.
Breathed admits he was skeptical when Sarnoff approached him about developing a TV series from his most recent book, “Pete & Pickles,” which was inspired by a drawing by his 7-year-old daughter. “I never associated [Technicolor’s] name with production. I said, what the hell are they doing?” Breathed said.
But he found Sarnoff’s boyish enthusiasm refreshing and was impressed by the quality of the animation Technicolor was producing in India. “My 20 years’ experience in Hollywood has shown that there is nothing better than working for a company that is hungry and anxious to prove themselves,” Breathed said.
Breathed is preparing a short treatment for the project, which does not yet have a distributor, to present to networks this summer. “I have a feeling my longtime fans are going to see a lot of Bloom County’s echo in this,” he said.
A team of about 25 storyboard artists and others based in Los Angeles, and possibly in Vancouver, Canada, will oversee the project, but the bulk of the work will be done in India, which has become a hub for animation and visual effects because of its skilled workforce and low labor costs.
Capitalizing on the trend, Technicolor partnered with DreamWorks Animation in 2007 to build and staff a computer animation studio in Bangalore called Paprikaas. Technicolor recently gained full control of the studio and renamed it Technicolor India.
“It’s a market where you have 100,000 IT engineers who work for outsourcing companies,” said Frederic Rose, chief executive of Technicolor.
The studio employs 900 and will add 300 or more workers by the end of the year to work on “Pete & Pickles” and projects for other clients, including Electronic Arts, Nickelodeon and DreamWorks Animation.
DreamWorks helped train some of the animators at the studio, which does the animation for “Penguins of Madagascar,” a spinoff of the DreamWorks film that has become a top-rated show on Nickelodeon, and also is working on the new “Kung Fu Panda” TV series and a direct-to-DVD feature called “Scared Shrekless.”
“We’ve invested a lot of time and effort building up a team of first-rate animators,” Rose said.
Rose said his goal is to produce a small number of low-budget original projects each year, mainly as a way to stimulate and retain talent, and he doesn’t intend to compete against established players such as DreamWorks, Disney and Pixar.
“I’m not spending $150 million doing the next ‘Toy Story,’ ” he said. “That’s not my business.”