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Industry Report: Animation

From video games to animated features


- Carlos Astorqui, Vice President Marketing of Ilion Animation Studios, explained the way a video game developer like Pyro Studios created an animation company and developed a first animated film, Planet 51.

Carlos Astorqui is Executive Producer at the Ilion Animation Studios. Ilion Animation Studios is a theatrical animation company established in 2002 by the founders of Pyro Studios, one of the world’s leading video games developers. Their first CGI film Planet 51 to be released in Autumn 2009 is distributed by Sony Pictures in the US.

How did you obtain a global licence for Planet 51?
We set ourselves some quite ambitious targets. First to make the film the most important family event in 2009 with a quality equal to Pixar or DreamWorks and then to go all out to create a world around Planet 51: make a video game for consoles, games for mobiles, downloadable content, establish a very ambitious licensing plan, search for promotional partners worldwide, make a cool soundtrack, etc. And they all have some absolutely essential strategic aspects. The first one is a worldwide distribution, and for a Spanish film, this is a milestone. Launching a film like Planet 51 without global distribution made no sense at all. Today, half the team is trying to distribute the film in Japan, but it will be difficult. Sony is distributing the film in the US, to TF1 in France, to Entertainment rights in the UK. We keep part of Africa, Australia, Canada, Mexico, etc. We have the most powerful independent distribution that we could get throughout the world. The second aspect was to have a powerful partner, especially in the US, which is 40-50% of the market, and we have Sony. The film is being released in 3,500 cinemas, probably even more, it will be shown at Thanksgiving, a very important holiday.
We’ll leave Up and Monsters vs. Aliens behind and we will become the animated film this Christmas. With incredible marketing support with all kinds of promotions and a budget on a par with large productions, we will probably spend around 50M$ to promote the film in the US alone.
Another aspect was to find a very powerful partner in video games and we got Sega, which is now probably the best partner after Activision worldwide.
We have developed a video game that will be available two weeks before the release of the film with Pyro Studios, distributed by SEGA and it will be for PlayStation, Xbox 360, Wii, Nintendo DS and probably PC. It’s similar to Grand Theft Auto, but for children. You can play with your family, you have open missions, and more limited missions, you can use all kinds of vehicles, play with several characters in the film, and so on.
The next item was to get mobile digital content support, and we have a company onboard for that too, Zed. Zed has worldwide distribution. It is a giant of a business.
Some of the products we are developing are, for example, a JAVA car game. We have a platform game, we are developing an iPhone game that plays with the iPhone accelerometer, we have digital content, wallpapers, screensavers, ringtones, applications, widgets, icons, iCards, avatars… We are setting up a WAP portal for mobiles. And we’re working on Web storefronts for all our distribution partners. Each of the distributors with an official Planet 51 website will have a storefront where Zed will be selling their product.
At the same time we are developing an online multiplayer game with Zed where 35 or 40 children can play at the same time in each of the rooms with chat rooms, games, flash.. where they will be able to personalise their character, have a group of friends, create their own communities, etc. Obviously the game will be free, and the business model will be based on premium items.
Besides all this, Sony, Sega and Zed distribution, we have established a worldwide licensing programme for which we hired Radar, which consists of the former New Line team, who worked on the licensing of the Lord of the Rings and Golden Compass. We are working very very closely with them and the goal is to attain about 100 licences in all the different licence categories.

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Are you also developing the licensing?
Some of the models we are testing right now are tiny cars, and larger vehicles you can put the dolls into, such as a tank, a jeep or a truck. We are making a remote-controlled rover that can be programmed to walk around the house. We are working on dolls with an incredible quality and which represent the characters in the film very well, and we are even making urban vinyls, which are very popular at the moment and we are making the main characters.
The second largest category after Toy Master is publishing, and we have Harper Collins onboard. We will produce eight items with them, including sticker books, «I can read», which is one of their strongest lines to help children, a novel…
Country to country, we are doing everything. In the US, we have closed a deal for puzzles and T-shirts, in France we have several partners onboard, in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece we have worked with Planeta Junior on stickers, toys, fragrances, colouring books, etc.

Who are your promotional partners?
We already had licensing partners and we’re working with them. As far as product placement is concerned, we have NASA and Burger King worldwide, and Volkswagen.
NASA hasn’t appeared in a film since Space Cowboys. We managed to get the NASA logo on Chuck’s spacesuit, they approved it, and they will collaborate with us in all educational activities and public relations.
With Burger King we have 63 countries onboard, between 14 and 20 million toys.
And the film is being released in the November and December slot with a very strong global campaign.
We have also Volkswagen. One of the characters in the film, the hippie Glar, has a van which we have personalised, and Volkswagen has let us use their logo. They are very pleased, and they want to use this image to promote their Transporter 1, which is also known as Caravelle, aimed at the family segment in the Christmas campaign.
Twigg also appears in the film as product placement.
Other partners are Nickelodeon, a fantastic partner in the US, we have Dippin’ Dots ice cream, Scholastic from an educational programme, Kid Cuisine, which is the most important children’s food in the US, sold in 40,000 stores. In Germany we have Kuchen Meister, which are very tasty croissants, we have Heinz Tomato Ketchup, and we are making progress. In Spain we are talking to many partners as well and we will close deals.

Are there synergies between the film and video games?
Yes, Ilion is a spin off of Pyro Studios, due to the talent (the people come from Pyro Studio) and mainly because they are used to work in a way in which no other animation studio works, which is with the 3D Max tool. We have used it too. Out of everything used in Ilion, we have been able to export 80% to the consoles made by Pyro and also to MMO, developed by Zed on PC.
As for the technology we are developing in Ilion, we have developed 100 tools, tools that generate automations, which are what we call e-tracker and e-manager, which are basically databases of tools or assets that help us to control the production plan and know where each file is at every production stage.
Then there are other automations: the asset loader, which identifies which state a sequence is in and loads all the elements artists need for their work, the layer manager, which is the same, but with all the layers of each sequence, and the entire lighting management (how to manage the lights to reflect on each object). We also have Mask Creator, which is a facial animation tool designed in Ilion, probably the most powerful in animation at the moment in the world, and which has taken us a lot of years to produce. It consists of having an image with which you can animate the face of each character really easily.
Then we have Cyclops, which is our own rendering tool, our rendering engine, which manages to globalize the lighting quite well.
As for designs and rights, there are some synergies. We have exported 440 characters to both Zed and Pyro Studios, as well as all the localisations or environments, all the vehicles, the film icons, the soundtrack (for which we are designing rights so that it can be used), it will be possible to use some film sequences in both mobile programmes and in console video games.
In marketing, there are synergies and cross promotions in the group, but above all it is the issue of approval, of the streamlining we have in the entire process of approvals because obviously everything is relatively straightforward, we are all aligned and we all approve things easily. A common strategy: everyone knows where Planet 51 is going, what the goal is, what the story and communication lines are, and then what the marketing services are: creating a common database…
We are also planning to give away a trip to visit Cape Kennedy, Cape Canaveral, for the whole family, and all via SMS and communication via Zed.

When signing up the talent, Dwayne «The Rock» Johnson, what crossed your mind?
At the moment, The Rock is probably one of the best actors for family films, and even children’s films. In fact he has presented the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. In Nickelodeon, which has currently the most important website in the US, he has been named every child’s favourite actor and we did not know that. We considered quite a few, including Ted Danson, to mention one, because he’s like Chuck, but obviously the target age is not that old. And we think we hit the nail on the head. And, to tell you the truth, we didn’t even really think about the African-American issue, I think he was a perfect choice. Well, he’s not a great actor. He comes from wrestling, and he has been widely criticized, even though children like him a lot, but he has made action movies, sort of family films, and he is known above all for The Scorpion King.

How do you plan to manage all potential fans of the film through various channels and especially through social networks?
There are two ways of controlling the issue through social networks. One is through the distributors as part of their online plan, because at the end of the day the marketing is up to each of our partners, we formalize the strategy, but each one is responsible for their own marketing. And it is quite complicated. In the US, Sony is actively working on social networks and we are working with them. In the case of Spain and the rest of the world we have Zed, which is going to assist in creating the database and working with Facebook, Tuenti and others, in trying to bring coherence to the social network, but it is something that we still haven’t started to work on because we have other priorities. But it is a complex and very necessary issue.

The release dates are either Thanksgiving or the Summer. How did you manage to get this slot for the film?
In the end everything was changed around. The first date we had was actually spring 2009. We had also reached an agreement with New Line Cinema, but Warner liquidated New Line and we didn’t have any distribution. It was a series of coincidences. First, Sony did not have a powerful film. Second, Up and Monster vs. Aliens were not being released at Christmas and then there was another film that had fallen through for the following year, Toy Story 4, and others had already disappeared and then there was a perfect gap for us. In fact, Sony was the first to say «I want Thanksgiving, I’ll sacrifice my films, for example Cloudy with a chance of meatballs» which it had earmarked for that slot and in the end it is being launched in September and they have plumped for our film Planet 51 and they are quite aware that the box office target is most likely 10 times more than Cloudy. It has been a combination of luck and planning.

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