Shoot­ing for the Sky

France’s TeamTO cel­e­brates its 10th an­niver­sary by re­leas­ing its first fea­ture an­i­mated com­pletely in-house. By Tom McLean. which it

Animation Magazine - - Features -

Telling sto­ries al­ways in­volves cre­at­ing par­al­lels, but the real-life par­al­lels be­tween France-based TeamTO Pro­duc­tions and its first an­i­mated fea­ture film are un­usu­ally con­ver­gent.

Yel­lowbird is the tale of a young bird who has been sep­a­rated from his kind since birth and un­ex­pect­edly has to step into a lead­er­ship role for a group of birds mi­grat­ing to Africa.

The fi­nal stereo­scopic 3D com­puter-an­i­mated film has a vi­brant look pro­duced en­tirely in France and a seem­ingly bright fu­ture in global mar­kets that is an ap­pro­pri­ate achieve­ment for TeamTO as it cel­e­brates its 10th an­niver­sary in 2015.

“We hope we have suc­cess in the the­aters, where it’s show­ing with enough pro­mo­tion, and with a fair num­ber of the­aters,” says Guil­laume Hel­louin, co-founder of TeamTO and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on the movie. “Our sec­ond goal is we want to get he in­dus­try aware of our abil­ity to make a fea­ture film. We know that there’s an ap­petite in the mar­ket for films pro­duced for $15 mil­lion. That’s a very mod­est bud­get, but we know that for this amount of money we can put some­thing that looks great on screen.”

The film has had a limited the­atri­cal re­lease in the United States, to be fol­lowed by a more ro­bust home-video re­lease. Mean­while, it ar­rives Feb. 4 in the­aters in France, and has al­ready played in Rus­sia where it played on about 1,000 screens. It also has been sold to Ger­many, where it will open in April, as well as to China, Korea and Canada.

TeamTO’s suc­cess in the fea­ture realm builds on its suc­cess as a pro­ducer of an­i­ma­tion for tele­vi­sion. TeamTO got its start in May 2005, founded by Hel­louin, Corinne Kouper and Caro­line Souris. Hel­louin had pre­vi­ously founded Sparx An­i­ma­tion in France in 1994 and spent a decade run­ning it and pro­duc­ing such hits as Rol­lie Pol­lie Ol­lie be­fore leav­ing to cre­ate a new company that could give key peo­ple more of a stake in its suc­cess.

The first project for the Paris-based stu­dio was work­ing on the sec­ond sea­son of the French an­i­mated se­ries Zoé Kézako, as well as some ser­vice work. In 2008, the company de­cided it wanted to lo­cate the pipe­line it had de­vel­oped com­pletely in France, and opened an an­i­ma­tion stu­dio in Bourg-les-Va­lences in the south of France to han­dle the work that pre­vi­ously been out­sourced to other coun­tries.

The Va­lences stu­dio started with An­gelo Rules, the first sea­son of which aired in 2012 and has been a suc­cess sold to 150 coun­tries, says Hel­louin. Other suc­cesses in­clude co-pro­duc­ing with Nel­vana three sea­sons of Babar and the Ad­ven­tures of Badou; a sea­son of Os­car’s Oa­sis, for which a sec­ond sea­son re­mains pos­si­ble; and work-for-hire work with videogame gi­ant Ubisoft on Rab­bids In­va­sion, which is cur­rently in its sec­ond sea­son; and episodes of Pac-Man and the Ghostly Ad-

ven­tures First.

The Fea­ture Ad­ven­ture

Ob­vi­ously, the next step was to make a fea­ture film, lead­ing even­tu­ally to Yel­lowbird, for which Hel­louin says TeamTO sought to main­tain the high bar it had set for it­self in tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion.

“We wanted to do ev­ery­thing in house,” Hel­louin says. “We wanted to be to­tally im­mersed in this ad­ven­ture and we wanted to be able to con­trol the whole process.”

TeamTO co-founder Cor­rine Kouper says Yel­lowbird be­gan with ideas that con­verged on her from two di­rec­tions. One was from writer An­toine Bar­raud — who was as­sisted by Cory Ed­wards on the fi­nal script — who had an idea about a small bird that went the wrong way dur­ing its mi­gra­tion. The sec­ond came from a ra­dio in­ter­view with fa­mous French or­nithol­o­gist Guil­hem Le­saf­fre, who was dis­cussing new re­search that showed birds use visual cues such as hu­man con­structs and con­stel­la­tions to nav­i­gate as they mi­grated.

That be­gan a long process of de­vel­op­ment, writ­ing and fi­nanc­ing that fi­nally re­sulted into a pro­duc­tion start about two years ago.

Help­ing to sell the movie was veteran agent Si­mon Crowe of SC Films. “He did a fan­tas­tic job sell­ing the film world­wide so we could green­light it,” Hel­louin says.

The movie tells the tale of young Yel­lowbird (voiced by Seth Green), who is sep­a­rated from his fam­ily at birth and raised by Lady­bug (Yvette Ni­cole Brown) with no bird role mod­els to follow. Afraid to leave home, a ten­ta­tive out­ing sees him en­counter the dy­ing pa­tri­arch of a fam­ily of mi­gra­tory birds. Cir­cum­stances force him to pre­tend he’s been cho­sen as the flock’s new leader on its trip to Africa. Other voice ac­tors in­clude Danny Glover, Jim Rash, Dakota Fan­ning, El­liot Gould and Chris­tine Baran­ski.

Kouper says she and di­rec­tor Christian de Vita wanted a unique look for the movie. “We were very cau­tious not to go some routes that had al­ready been achieved,” she says. “We wanted to cre­ate a styl­ized graphic look and avoid pho­to­re­al­ism.”

“I think it looks bet­ter when it’s styl­ized that way and you’re not try­ing to achieve a re­al­is­tic look,” says de Vita. “There’s noth­ing worse than to de­sign a character and give him real pores and skin and hair. It adds a layer of re­al­ism that I think brings things a bit too close to re­al­ity when it’s bet­ter to just keep an­i­ma­tion what it is.”

The look was de­signed by Ben­jamin Ren­ner, whom Kouper hired based on his short film A Mouse’s Tale, and gave carte blanche to come up with some­thing dif­fer­ent. “It was to­tally per­sonal and I love that, so we thought that was the way to do it,” she says.

Learn­ing to Fly

Pro­duc­tion had its own set of chal­lenges in ad­di­tion to the typ­i­cal bud­get and sched­ule is­sues any in­de­pen­dent fea­ture faces, start­ing with a rather ob­vi­ous one. “To start, birds are no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to an­i­mate, so that was a bit hard for every­body,” says de Vita.

The look Ren­ner came up with also was a chal­lenge to an­i­mate, as he had de­signed each feather like a hand-painted piece of pa­per that was then ap­plied to the CG model, de Vita says. “The big­gest and most com­plex as­pect is when the char­ac­ters are mov­ing the feath­ers can cross and pen­e­trate each other, so we had to de­velop a soft­ware or a tool to main­tain the look with­out all this com­plex pen­e­tra­tion hap­pen­ing.”

To han­dle the work, TeamTO rethought its pipe­line, switch­ing its ren­der­ing soft­ware to Ren­der­man and us­ing Nuke for com­posit­ing and build­ing a large ren­der farm. There also were tools cre­ated to tai­lor-make skies and 3D clouds for the birds to fly through.

“We could achieve all this be­cause we in­vested a lot in re­search and de­vel­op­ment to build a pipe­line and to build the tools we are us­ing to op­ti­mize the process, to min­i­mize all the time-con­sum­ing work in or­der to let the artists fo­cus on the cre­ative part of their job,” says Hel­louin.

The film was con­ceived and orig­i­nally made with an English cast and later dubbed into a French-lan­guage ver­sion reti­tled Gus: Petit Oiseau, Grand Voy­age.

The pro­duc­tion had some 38 an­i­ma­tors that worked on the project for seven or eight months, part of a to­tal crew that Kouper says was be­tween 250 and 300 peo­ple.

The re­sults are speak­ing for them­selves. “In terms of what we achieve in terms of the time we had, we are very proud of it,” says de Vita. “The first screen­ings with the crew, ev­ery­one was sur­prised and amazed at how well it turned out.”

As for TeamTO, it is al­ready de­vel­op­ing a sec­ond fea­ture called The Ar­ti­fi­cials, which is planned as hy­brid live-ac­tion and an­i­ma­tion fea­ture about an­droids with hu­man brains, Hel­louin says. Ad­di­tional CG an­i­mated fea­tures are also in de­vel­op­ment, en­sur­ing an in­ter­est­ing sec­ond decade for TeamTo and its crew.

The film­mak­ers at TeamTO pro­duc­tions de­signed the char­ac­ters in Yel­lowbird to have a more graphic look .

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