Cracking the Mighty Coconut
Inside the Austin animation studio
By Richard Whittaker,
11:45AM, Fri. Jul. 22, 2016
People come back from Belize with strange mementos. Christina and Lucas Martell came back with a laptop full of sand, an animated short, and the beginnings of an animation company.
Austin-based 3-D VFX and animation studio Mighty Coconut is only a couple of years old. "We're definitely the newest guys on the block," said Lucas. Yet it's already making an impact: The studio has already outgrown its first offices on South Lamar, moved up Burnet, taken over a converted house, and added additional space in a nearby office complex, with more staff joining.
Next Wednesday, the team presents a night of locally produced animation with the Austin Film Society (see more about the event here). That may seem a long way from Belize's beaches, but it's really a short step. Lucas had spent six years working on his first short, 2009's spy spoof "Pigeon Impossible," when he and Christina started developing his follow-up, "The Oceanmaker." But rather than simply sit in a studio stewing over a laptop for months, the couple had a simple idea: gather the best talent they could find, head down to the Caribbean, and engage in some oceanside animation.
Christina called it "a way to keep the family at the table," away from the distractions of everyday life. But, she said, "There's the magic of it all, and then there's the reality, that you can't sit on the beach because of the glare and the sand."
Yet the team they built provided a solution to a growing problem for Lucas. He'd been freelancing for 12 years, and as work demanded he would put together teams for one-off projects. However, it was clear that wasn't sustainable, especially if he wanted to take on bigger gigs, "So a lot of it was wanting to keep the people we brought together for 'The Oceanmaker.'"
Along with art director Tad Catalano, they founded Mighty Coconut in March 2014. Three months later, as they were finishing the last renderings on "The Oceanmaker," they added Tim Cunnigham to the team as partner and producer. They nearly missed out: a 16-year veteran of the L.A. animation industry, he and his family moved back to Texas on a leap of faith, "and that leap of faith didn't seem to be working out." With so much of the animation and FX business in Canada, Australia, and Asia, he was looking outside of the U.S. When Lucas called, he'd accepted a gig in Vancouver. Cunningham recalled: "[Lucas] said, 'Hey, we've got a little project, can you come in for a couple of weeks and help us with it?' I said, 'Sure. Couple of weeks? Sounds good.' And then I canceled my tickets to Vancouver, and before the two weeks were up, it was, 'Hey, can you stay?'"
It was an undoubted risk. Even now, Lucas described the Austin animation scene as "not fully matured, but there's a lot of stuff going on, and there's a lot of places that are growing." Moreover the talent pool has increased: not that there weren't animators, but because they were working in the games industry "because that was where all the jobs were." However, as Austin's reputation has grown, and its links with production houses on the coasts have improved, the job market has changed. Lucas said, "Now we've gotten to the point where there's at least stability, and if anything we're probably pulling people from the games world into animation."
That said, Lucas is still taking the lesson from Belize on board: A tight team with real talent and real commitment will always be better, more productive, and ultimately more cost-effective than a big team that can't get on the same page. He said, "We're smaller, but there's a lot of punch packed into that smaller package."
As with most animation companies, there is commercial work, but their credits have also appeared in a series of films, including locally shot titles like Rooster Teeth's Lazer Team and Andrew Bujalski's Results, as well as POV actioneer Hardcore Henry and gut-punch siege flick Green Room. Lucas said, "We're at the size where we really need to have a big project, and then some very small things, but it's easy to fit those small things in."
However, they've kept their original work stewing as well, and that's an increasing part of their workload (currently their slate is about 90% original and 10% vendor work, but "two months ago, the numbers were the other way 'round," said Christina). Aside from various projects under wraps, they're heavily engaged in their first feature, Koalaroo. Lucas said, "We are diverse, and we're doing stuff for vastly different audiences. We're doing some stuff for kids, we're doing some stuff for adults, we've got a couple of projects that are maybe network prime-time things. It's all over the map, so it's less about a specific style, and more about what the project needs."
For Cunningham, it's perfectly OK this early in the studio's history to experiment and find that voice, because they have a very clear idea of what they are not. He said, "We're not Pixar, we're not Disney, we're not Rooster Teeth, we're not Powerhouse. We try not to compare anything that we're doing to them, we just know that's not what we're doing."
Austin Film Society and Mighty Coconut present Texas Animation Showcase: An Evening of Austin Animation, Wed., July 27, 7:30pm, at AFS Cinema, 6226 Middle Fiskville. Tickets and info at www.austinfilm.org.
For more on Mighty Coconut, visit www.mightycoconut.com.