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Animation Business Moves Eastward

August 10, 1999

POWELL, Ohio (AP) _ Peeking into Hugo Giraud’s office cubicle, a visitor might think he’s getting ready to attend a movie, not help make one.

Perched on a shelf are ``Star Wars″ and ``Austin Powers″ action figures. Giraud, 26, wears a casual shirt, denim shorts, baseball cap and five o’clock shadow.

Giraud is one of the 25 employees of Character Builders, an independent animation studio that offers filmmakers and advertisers direction, production, character design and things much more technical.

Character Builders worked on the 1996 Warner Bros. movie ``Space Jam″ and Nickelodeon’s popular animated cable TV series ``Ren and Stimpy.″ But while most of its clients are in Hollywood, the company’s office sits on a wooded hillside in this small community just north of Columbus. The Ohio capital has become a training ground for film industry computer graphics innovators.

``It’s still amazing to us that we’re in the Midwestern U.S.,″ said co-founder and executive vice president Martin Fuller. ``But making a feature film has become so decentralized that we can play a significant role and still have the quality of life that having our families in Ohio gives us.″

Faxes, modems, teleconferencing and overnight delivery services are as important to the company as paper and pencils.

Character Builders was founded in 1986 by Jim Kammerud, a former editorial cartoonist in Virginia; Jeff Smith, who has since left the company to develop the comic book ``Bone″; and Fuller, an Ohio State University film school graduate.

The university has a unique program that combines computer science and graphics with engineering and the arts, said Wayne Carlson, director of Ohio State’s Advanced Center for Computing in the Arts and Design.

``When I watch a movie, I spend more time watching the credits than the movie to gloat over the names of former students,″ he said.

One of them is Doug Roble, who earned a doctorate in computer science from Ohio State in 1993 and is now a software engineer with Digital Domain of Los Angeles, a company partly owned by James Cameron, the Oscar-winning director of ``Titanic.″

Roble, 36, won a technical Academy Award this year for a program that allows filmmakers to easily integrate computer graphics with live action. It was used in ``Apollo 13,″ ``Titanic″ and ``Armageddon,″ he said.

``You have to come to L.A. to make movies, it’s just a fact. But you don’t have to start in L.A. to make movies,″ he said.

Jeff Light, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ohio State in fine arts and art in cinema, respectively, is a supervisor for George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, which did the computer effects for ``Star Wars: Episode I _ The Phantom Menace.″

Light specializes in motion capture, a process by which a computer records the movement of a performer in a special suit, enabling the creation of computer generated characters.

``It allows us to fill in the background of big battle scenes and make it believable,″ said Light, who taught and did research at Ohio State before joining ILM. Fuller was one of his students.

At Character Builders, animators and producers are always working, since a full-length animated feature film takes about two to three years to produce, and there are deadlines along the way, executive producer and general manager Leslie Hough said.

First, Character Builders is given a script, then animators draw each scene, all of which must be cut to proper length before animation can begin.

``In a live action film, you would go out and shoot each scene from a bunch of different angles and then when it’s done you go edit all the pieces together,″ Hough said. ``In animation, it’s so expensive and lengthy and tedious to process that before you really start animating you have to know exactly every shot in your film.″

``Space Jam″ was about two years of work for 13 minutes of movie, said production manager Samantha Tishkosf, who oversees the artists.

Character Builders is also looking to develop its own characters and working with Nickelodeon on turning ``Bone″ into an animated film, Hough said.

That leaves little time for joking around. The office may be casual, but animators often work alone in their cubicles _ headphones plugged into their favorite music their only way to break the silence.

Still, they say they enjoy working for a company that gives them a chance to develop their creativity, individuality and imagination.

``Everybody here all has the same opinion: `I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this,‴ said Andy Friz, 29, an artist who helps the animators. ``One of these days they’re going to find out and make me do real work.

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