Making feature films is expensive and making animated CGI feature films is very, very expensive. Films that fall under the banner of “Art House” traditionally don’t have the budget of their blockbuster counterparts. So does a film that attempts to combine feature production values, Art House sensibilities and CGI animation make for an inevitably un-fundable project? As someone who is attempting to make such a film and is now 4 years into the journey, I am still undecided. The film we are making is called Stina & the Wolf. It’s being made with staff, industry professionals and students at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. It’s an animated and motion captured magical realist adventure that we hope takes CGI to a place it’s never been before: full CGI magical realism. So far it has provided a fantastic vehicle for exploring the boundaries of what’s possible in film making both in terms of storytelling and technique and allowed a lot of students to hone their craft. We’ve completed our screenplay, most of our production design, example CGI sequences, storyboarding and all of our onset capture of the actors. We believe that our story is worth telling and that we have the right tool for the job. We have raised over £500,000 in cash and equipment to date and this is a substantial achievement, but inevitably a lot more money needs to found to take the project to the next stage of the CGI production process. But can this be done?
Large scale CGI film production budgets are well in excess of $200,000,000, with Avatar coming in at somewhere between $237,000,000 (1) and $425,000,000 (2). In making films for the mass market money is obviously important, or to be more specific returns on investment are important. $425,000,000 (Avatar’s budget) is a lot of money to invest in a piece of art if only a few people will eventually pay to see it. The cheapest feature to be made in full CGI in a similar vein to Avatar was the recent Japanese production Captain Harlock. This had an estimated budget of $30,000,000 (3) and was funded on the back of a well-known comic book character. So there is wiggle room for getting the costs down if the backing is available. But given that a popular definition of Art House is an “Independent film aimed at a niche market rather than a mass market audience” (4) and “intended to be a serious artistic work, often experimental and not designed for mass appeal” (5).
So why would you want to make a CGI Art House film? Firstly, CGI hasn’t really been pushed as a medium extensively in film yet. As with all mediums, it’s the idea in combination with its form of expression which generates the art. In the case of CGI, the medium has become incredibly sophisticated and technically brilliant and as a pure visual craft it has progressed to an amazing level. The movement and rendering of the creatures in Avatar and the recent Planet of the Apes franchise are so real that there is no longer a worry about breaking the illusion of reality. Even the harshest critics now rarely complain about entering the “uncanny valley”. This level of craft is extremely impressive, but its use remains entirely grounded in the predictable. One of the only examples of CGI being used extensively by an Art House/mainstream cross over film maker is that of Ang Lee’s film adaption of The Life of Pi. It employs hyper real CGI very effectively to recreate the imaginary world of its main character Pi. But at its core it is still essentially a series of recreations of photo realism in the traditional of Hollywood VFX. For the most part CGI still services fantasy and space operas, blockbuster explosions, giant robots and scene replacements for those on a tight budget. It has yet to be explored as a medium for more challenging and abstract works of cinema (apart from a very brief cyber-sex scene in the French film Holy Motors.)
For Stina and the Wolf we want to try and push CGI into this Art House realm. Whether we will be successful artistically, or even in getting the film completed at all only time will tell. At present we’re attempting a traditional route for financing, having tried and failed to make any headway with a recent Kickstarter campaign. We are now making a short film from our footage to take to the festival circuit in an attempt to secure interest, and with any luck a producer to fight our corner. We have yet to attempt enticing anyone famous into the production, although this is something we are seriously considering (as we’ve been told by film producers time and time again that no star = no film). Our production to date has existed in the cosy if limited funding bubble of the University. But as useful as the experience is for the students and staff, Universities cannot afford to make feature films and certainly not CGI animated ones. So the next few years will be a good test to see how successful we can be at finally moving our project into the real world of feature production.
For more on this project please check out: stinaandthewolf.net
1 Josh Dickey, Avatar’s’ True Cost – and Consequences. The Wrap. Retrieved 16 December 2009 from https://www.thewrap.com/avatars-true-cost-and-consequences-11206/
2 Movie Budgets (2015) Retrieved from http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/budgets/all)
3 Harlock: Space Pirate (2013) Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2668134/business?ref_=tt_dt_bus
4 Art film definition – Dictionary – MSN Encarta. (Archived from the original on 2009-10-31)
5 The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company
Paul Charisse has worked for a variety of VFX companies over the past 10 years including work on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy animating the character Gollum. He has also worked as an animator and pre-viz sequence designer on “Prince Caspian”, “Stardust” “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ” ,”Zorro II”, ”Hellboy II” ,”Brothers Grimm”. He is presently senior lecturer in animation at The University of Portsmouth.