Animation on a shoestring

Monday, July 18, 2005
By Brendan Kelly
The Gazette

To say Daniel Robichaud faced a big challenge making P3K:Pinocchio 3000 is a major-league understatement.

The former Montrealer, who now lives and works in the special-effects biz in Los Angeles, was given what many directors might consider a pretty close to impossible mission. His producers asked him to direct an ambitious digital-animation flick for $15 million, a paltry sum considering the average DreamWorks or Pixar animated production costs in the neighbourhood of $100 million U.S.Tougher still, Robichaud had only a year to produce Pinocchio 3000. By way of comparison, the major U.S. studio animation films like The Incredibles and Madagascar can take three or four years to create.

"It was difficult," Robichaud said last week in an interview in the basement production facilities of producer CineGroupe, just 'round the corner from the Radio-Canada tower. "It was a huge challenge and it wasn't even just because of the money. It was also the time. So we had to manage our resources very carefully. We identified certain key scenes where we invested a lot of time because we knew we had to have some eye-candy. But we couldn't go crazy in terms of complex effects. Still, we wanted to create beautiful quality and we wanted it to have a style of its own."

Given the time and budgetary constraints, Pinocchio 3000 - which opens here in French and English on Friday, July 29 - looks astonishing. Audiences used to the high-tech gloss of films like Shrek and Finding Nemo will not be disappointed by the visuals in this CineGroupe production.

A Canadian/Spanish/French co-production, the film is a futuristic re-telling of the classic children's fable featuring the voices of Malcolm McDowell, Howie Mandel and Whoopi Goldberg. The French version features the voices of a slew of local vedettes, including Raymond Bouchard, Mario Jean and Sonia Vachon.

In this sci-fi version, inventor Gepetto has created the son he's dreamed for years of having, with the space-age twist that Pinocchio is a robotic child. The requisite 'toon bad-guy is Mayor Scamboli, a thuggish type who hates kids and green spaces, and dreams up an amusement park, Scamboland, to trap all of the town's youngsters. Pinocchio initially hooks up with the mayor, but the android kid with the nose that grows whenever he tells a lie soon sees the errors of his ways, and begins to battle Scamboli.

Pinocchio 3000 is an example of 3-D digital animation, a state-of-the-art technique that involves the use of 3-D animated characters in the production process. (But it is not a 3-D film like, say, Spy Kids 3, where audience members have to wear special glasses to watch it.)

Robichaud is particularly proud of the human characters, given that even the big Hollywood animation studios usually avoid using humans as their main characters because it's much easier for digital animators to create toys and animals than it is to craft realistic people on the big-screen. "One thing we pay special attention to is the faces, because that's where you'll see all the emotions, and that's how the audience identifies with the characters," said Robichaud, whose day job is running the animation department at post-production studio Riot Pictures in Santa Monica, Calif.

Since moving to L.A. 10 years ago, Robichaud has worked on special effects for a number of Hollywood blockbusters, notably Titanic, The Fifth Element, and Apollo 13.

The visual and script development for Pinocchio 3000 was done in France and the post-production was in Spain. But almost all of the digital animation was done here at CineGroupe's studios with a team of 150 local artists.

Pinocchio 3000 has already been sold all over the world and has won a number of prizes internationally, including a Goya (the Spanish equivalent of an Academy Award) for Best Animated Feature.

Robichaud hopes the success of Pinocchio 3000 will make producers realize it is possible to make quality animated flicks without gigantic Pixar/DreamWorks-like budgets.