Once regarded as a surefire bet at the box office, 3D CG animation has become a riskier business, as more studios enter the fray and the novelty of the genre declines with a flood of releases.
But long-time media and entertainment executive Douglas Glen had enough confidence in the business model created by Hong Kong and Los Angeles-based Imagi International Holdings to move across the Pacific and take up the post of co-CEO of the company. Glen, who joined Imagi in September 2006, oversees the business development and investor relations side of the company, while co-CEO Francis Kao, who founded the company's animation business, focuses on creative product development.
'We're breaking the mould as we're the first Hong Kong studio with the same level of professionalism as Pixar or DreamWorks that also owns and exploits the copyright of the films we produce,' says Glen, who has held high-ranking positions at LucasArts Entertainment, Sega and toymaker Mattel.
Not only has the company moved into building a library of copyrights, rather than working for hire, it has also focused on properties that have an Asian element but proven global appeal. After cutting its teeth on 3D TV series including Zentrix and Father Of The Pride, the latter under a sub-contracting arrangement with DreamWorks, the studio is close to completing its first 3D CG-animated feature - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - after buying into a property that has already spawned three live-action movies, several 2D-animated TV series and a Turtles merchandising industry.
Due for US release on March 23 and international rollout soon after, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is directed by Kevin Munroe and produced by Thomas K Gray, who worked on the live-action Turtles movies, and Galen Walker. Warner Bros has acquired rights for the US, Italy, Spain, France, UK, Japan and Benelux while The Weinstein Company holds all other territories.
Also central to the company's strategy is the combination of US and Asian film-making techniques. While development and pre-production take place at Imagi's Los Angeles facility, the CG animation is created by a team of around 400 animators in Hong Kong. This allows for cost savings - Turtles has a budget of around $30m, a fifth of what it would have cost in the US - while avoiding some of the pitfalls experienced by other animated features produced in Asia.
While Japan continues to focus on 2D animation with masters such as Hayao Miyazaki, other Asian nations have experimented with 3D-animated features, such as Thru The Moebius Strip, produced in China by a Hong Kong-based company, and Korean-made Wonderful Days, that have tended to focus on technical aspects at the expense of story and dialogue.
'What differentiates us is the quality of storytelling,' says Glen. 'The principal skill you need in this production process is acting - or at least the ability to bring characters to life. This can be much more challenging than becoming an expert in the latest version of (animation software) Maya.'
IN THE PIPELINE
Following Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Imagi has two other features planned, both based on long-running anime franchises:
[LB] - Astro Boy, for which it acquired rights from Japan's Tezuka Productions, follows the adventures of a powerful robot boy.
- Sci-fi Gatchaman, licensed from Tatsunoko Production Co, tells the story of five young superhero ninja doing battle with villains.
The company's eventual aim is to keep the production pipeline running and deliver one feature every 18 months.