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The Little Animation Company That COULD 

After struggling uphill in the difficult yet potentially profitable world of computer animation films, Wild Brain is on the cusp of success

Wednesday, Oct 12 2005
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One at a time, the technical directors trudged up the stairs to the top floor of a converted condo loft in the Mission and into Nina Rappaport's office.

"Nina," they said, "we're on schedule to finish by July."

July was unacceptable. Unacceptable! Rappaport couldn't just let the production drag on an extra three months. That would be like burning money.

Wild Brain, the animation company headquartered just around the block, had rented this space for Rappaport and the rest of the crew. She received simple instructions from her bosses: Take 20 employees, work like dogs for just over a year, and produce an award-worthy computer-animated film. On time.

July would be far, far too late. That would mean blowing the deadline for submission to all the big film festivals. To get into Annecy, the world-renowned animation festival in the French Alps, the movie had to be finished by March.

"March?!" the technical directors responded in frantic disbelief. "We can never get it done by March!"

Rappaport knew they were wrong. She knew they could do it.

She sat in her chair, between a high-powered desk fan and a 3-foot-tall replica of a dinosaur skeleton, listening to them gripe. She had to -- she was the producer. Phil Robinson, the director, was fantastic when he was around, but he was a co-founder of Wild Brain and sometimes had to spend time in the main building heading up contract projects to pay the bills.

As deadlines loomed, pressure mounted. There wasn't much breathing room for the technical directors, animators, and producers, squeezed into the 1,500-square-foot live-work space. The film editor and his Avid machine were stuck in a laundry closet. There were so many workstations and so much power used in the building that during the previous summer's rolling brownouts the temperature inside often reached 100 degrees. By the end of production, most animators were pulling 12-hour shifts. Some worked all night long. One was practically addicted to Red Bull.

Rappaport, a straight-talking New York transplant, became a harsh voice of reason for her more mellow Californian employees. "Guys, go back downstairs and try it again," she said, referring to their target date. "Then get up here with some real numbers. We need to figure out why you're coming up with July, and then we need to fix it."

That spring of 2001, through hard work and perseverance, Rappaport and Robinson's team finished on time (March) and on budget (under $3 million). The result was a 17-minute short film called Hubert's Brain -- a twisted tale of a science geek who befriends a talking brain-in-a-jar. It won a heap of international animation awards and landed among the 10 films on the Oscar shortlist.

"What we did was almost impossible," says Rappaport, who left Wild Brain this spring to pursue independent projects. "It was a room and it was like, 'OK, let's make a movie.' It was crazy. It was awesome."

At long last, after seven years, millions of dollars, thousands of hairs lost and even more gone gray, Wild Brain finally got its big break. The only question was whether a Hollywood studio would finance a full-length version of Hubert, or fund production of another Wild Brain feature film.

Robinson flew down to Los Angeles to screen Hubert before Harvey Weinstein, one of the most intimidating moguls in the business. The Miramax co-chairman was so impressed, he set contract discussions in motion immediately. Weinstein called his financial team into the room and said, "Get together with these guys and start talking."

Robinson remembers: "I came back on the plane thinking: 'Hey, we're on the fast track here.' Then it all kind of went into lawyer land."

That was almost four years ago.

The two companies didn't even strike a production deal until last year. Opus, the first project they were to collaborate on, is on hold indefinitely.

It's just one in a long line of almost-there sagas for Wild Brain, the company that has been touted as animation's next big thing for more than a decade. Robinson and his partners have spent years dancing with Paramount, Disney, Fox -- practically every significant studio in Hollywood -- in the hopes of making their first original feature film. Not one has entered production.

Yet Wild Brain has as much potential to break out now as ever. The company has a lucrative television-commercial arm and a highly rated show on the Disney Channel, and has scored $40 million in venture capital over the past several months to help finance its own films. Two weeks ago, Charles Rivkin, the man who rescued the Jim Henson Co. from near-bankruptcy after its namesake passed away, became Wild Brain's CEO. Although he's its fourth chief executive in three years, Rivkin is the first who brings a reputation of generating millions in profits without sacrificing respect among his creative employees. If there's anyone who can capitalize on Wild Brain's burgeoning success and erase its past failures, it's Rivkin.

Wild Brain is among a host of companies in the city that fit into a much-hyped, amorphous industry known as digital media, which comprises computer animation, special effects, and even video games. Because digital media could bring jobs, tax revenues, and a just-plain-cool industry to San Francisco, everyone from art students to Mayor Gavin Newsom is promoting it.

This isn't the first time Wild Brain has been poised to take off, nor is it the first time San Francisco has been anointed the Hollywood North of the future. The company has already weathered two similar boom-bust cycles that also spawned myriad flash-in-the-pan companies in the city: multimedia software and Internet animation dot-coms. This time, Wild Brain is leading the charge in an industry whose future remains promising yet hazy. If the outfit is to make its long-anticipated first film, Rivkin must do two things at once: rekindle relationships with the Hollywood studios that hold financing and distribution power, and prevent those same corporations from crushing Wild Brain's creative spirit. Only one independent company -- Emeryville's Pixar -- has successfully balanced those two priorities, but if Wild Brain and its cohorts follow a similar path, the payoff will be immense.


About The Author

Ryan Blitstein

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