Fantastic at 15!
OddBot founder Chris Hamilton discusses the history and bright new chapter of his creative animation shop. By Ramin Zahed
‘I love watching footage and spotting everyone’s thumbprints all over the shows we produce.This collaborative spirit is also shared with our partner studios, our vendors and clients. Bottom line: We’re making cartoons and our goal is to have a blast doing it!’ — Chris Hamilton, OddBot Studio founder, president & creative director
Over the past 15 years, Los Angelesbased OddBot Inc. has been one of the best-kept secrets of the animation community. Founded by animation veteran Chris Hamilton in 2006, the boutique studio has been delivering top-notch animation for shows such as Muppet Babies, Phineas and Ferb, Club Penguin and Star Darlings. We caught up with Hamilton to find out about some of the hot original shows that the studio has in the pipeline and learn more about the beginnings of the studio as it celebrates its sweet 15th birthday.
“In the beginning, I didn’t set out to fulfill some life-long dream of running my own animation house. I found myself in a place of crazy circumstances that ultimately led to me taking a walk down this path. I haven’t shared the story of our studio’s origins with many people,” he says.
Hamilton says he bounced from a few independently owned animation studios in L.A between 2001 and 2005, getting his start as a Flash clean-up artist and ultimately landing as a creative director for a small indie studio. “There we produced a Flash-animated series along with many digital 2D preschool shorts,” he notes. “At this studio, I built the animation pipeline, staffed the crew, trained new artists and oversaw all creative, production logistics and client relations. I also built a friendship, trust and a wonderful working relationship with our network executives.”
Keeping the Dream Alive
However, halfway through the production of one of the network series, the owner of the studio told Hamilton that he couldn’t afford to finish the project and had to let everyone go. “I didn’t know what to do, so that night I
discussed the bad news with my wife, and she proposed a risky idea,” he recalls. “She suggested we take equity out of our house and pay to finish the show. So, we loaned the company money to finish production on the series. I drew up a contract that stipulated we would be paid back in full. Eventually, the series was successful and the network wanted more episodes.”
Eventually, Hamilton ended up having to make a big decision. “I could try to sell everything I acquired and attempt to make a fraction of our money back or incorporate a company and continue to employ my friends and produce cartoons,” he tells us. “I chose to create OddBot — and 15 years later, here we are.”
What was clear to Hamilton from the start was that he wanted his studio to be a place where artists and production staff feel at home. “We wanted to have a creative safe space where everyone is encouraged to speak up, collaborate and share their thoughts and ideas,” he explains. “We want people to do their best work and be super proud of it. We invest in people and work to build leaders that will help improve efficiencies within the company and give opportunities for growth they might not get elsewhere. Production is hard and stressful at times, so cultivating joy and fun is a priority for us.”
As a young boy, Hamilton was obsessed with Disney and Don Bluth films of the ’80s and ’90s. He recalls, “The moment that sent me down this path was when I saw The Secret of N.I.M.H. for the first time. Specifically, the scene where Mrs. Brisby meets the Great Owl. Not only was the old owl masterfully animated — his limp, the cracking stiffness in his bones — but man, was he scary! As a kid I remember thinking how cool it was to be creeped out by a cartoon, an illusion; just a series of drawn images flipping in front of you and tricking you into believing that old owl is alive and might eat that poor mouse. But then, it is alive, right? I wanted to do that; use this wonderful medium to bring characters to life and tell stories that an audience can emotionally connect with.”
Currently the studio is humming with a hot slate of animated projects. Among the shows Hamilton can actually talk about are the third season of Disney’s Muppet Babies along with Disney Junior’s Ready for Preschool musical shorts, and Mo Willems’ CG-animated musical special Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience for Stampede Ventures and HBO Max.
“I’m also very excited about a new preschool superhero series we’re producing (and I’m showrunning) for Netflix called Action Pack,” he points out. “It’s about four super heroic kids, Treena, Watts, Wren,and Clay, as they use their incredible powers to take on the biggest threats in their town of Hope Springs and bring out the good — even in the villains. It has humor, lots of heart, llamas and, of course, action!”
Creating original animated content is also a big part of OddBot’s business these days. “We have an original show in development with a network right now,” says Hamilton. “Our original IPs are created in-house or are from outside writers, artists and producers. A few are book-based. For example, we’re working with New York Times bestselling author A.J. Hartley to develop his YA novel Steeplejack into an animated limited series.”
Also on tap is a preschool series based on Barney Saltzberg’s beautiful art book, Beautiful Oops! which is about turning mistakes or “blunders into wonders.” “We also co-develop originals in partnership with other studios or production houses,” says Hamilton. “At the moment we’re co-developing a preschool series with Ánima Studios in Mexico. OddBot’s investment in original IPs will only continue to grow in the years to come.”
When asked about the studio’s challenges, Hamilton responds honestly. “Right now, our biggest challenges are shared with the rest of the industry,” he notes. “What does a postpandemic studio look like? Like many other studios, we’ve been so successful producing shows from home, but there’s also no substitute for working side by side with your peers. We all miss collaborating in person, but our lives have changed and we have new routines. For me, I get to see my wife and kids throughout the day, and it would be hard to go back to the days before COVID. So many people feel the same way. So how do we have both in person (eventually) and at home?”
He says he and his team are trying to figure all those things out, like everyone else in the world.“Whatever we decide we want to make sure our employees are happy, supported and don’t feel pressure to change their lifestyles again,” he says. “My goal is to always preserve OddBot’s culture so our current employees, plus new ones who may never meet each other in person, will feel welcomed and part of our family.”
Smiles for Miles
Looking back at the past 15 years, Hamilton says some of his favorite memories are simply just about getting to walk around the studio and seeing all the friendly faces. “I miss that, as we all do,” he admits. “I miss our crew parties like ‘Fiesta Fridays’— Mexican food, margaritas and games. Our Halloween costume parties were so fun! Then, there was the day after Halloween when one of our directors would cover the office in Christmas decorations. So, at the studio, Christmas started November 1st! Some people were annoyed at first, but then it became a day you looked forward to every year. One great memory that sticks out was our Christmas cocktail party in 2019 when we all got fancy and dressed up to party in a hotel ballroom. That was the last time we all gathered for a big party before COVID. I’m looking forward to the day we can do that again!”
Hamilton says he feels very lucky and grateful that the animation industry was able to grow in the midst of the pandemic. “Animation studios had to quickly adapt to working from home and were so effective that they’re busier than ever,” he shares. “I’m just amazed at how much content is being created across the world this way. My hope is the need for animation continues to grow with new and established SVOD networks occupying the space. I’m all for more opportunities to keep people working.”
The future looks quite bright for OddBot. Hamilton says the studio plans to expand its production and original IP slate to focus on content beyond preschool audiences. “This studio is about family — both entertaining families and working closely as one,” says the optimistic animation veteran. “So we’re excited about the projects we have cooking and are always looking for new collaborators to join us as we continue our journey bringing characters to life and telling great stories!” ◆
To find out more about the studio, visit www.oddbot.net.