Packs a Punch
Austin's up-and-coming indie animators, Powerhouse Animation
Success in the animation field can be measured many different ways. In terms of major studio films like the latest Disney offering, box-office receipts are the standard. But local animation firm Powerhouse Animation has a better barometer of success: They got an e-mail from indie film icon Kevin Smith that called their work "fucking awesome." It's hard to argue with hipster vulgarities like that, so when Jersey's sorta-favorite son needed a wrap gift for his Jersey Girl co-stars Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, Smith turned to the fledgling Powerhouse for ideas.
What he got was beyond anyone's expectations: the Jen Saves Ben game, a freestanding video game console (actually an old Galaga case) with an old-school look and an entirely original, entirely personal game inside in which J.Lo must rescue her kidnapped boy-toy and fiancé from the clutches of evil, high-kicking ninjas. And say, who's that shadowy bulk lurking in the background and orchestrating the stealthy assassins' every move? None other than Smith himself, artfully rendered into a video-game parody of his real-world self. No wonder the game was written up in a dozen-odd media outlets: It's just that cool, man. (For more on Jen Saves Ben, see austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2002-12-06/screens_feature6.html.)
At a time when the animation industry appears to be fragmenting over cost overruns, bloated budgets, and diminishing box office returns, the tiny Powerhouse (tiny compared to industry behemoth Disney, anyway) is not only keeping its head above water, but it's actually thriving. In an ironic twist to be savored, that's thanks to the majors' inability to keep their soaring budgets in line. As more and more big-shot animation houses maneuver their way toward some form of Chapter 11 or, more commonly, initiate rampant downsizing (the Fox Animation Studio in Phoenix, Ariz., closed up shop, for example, after their disastrous return on the poorly received and megabudgeted Titan A.E.), independent outfits like Powerhouse are benefiting from the chaos as the big boys learn that it's far cheaper to farm out work to those wacky Austin guys than to pay a year-round salary to the in-house team.
And chances are you've seen Powerhouse's work, whether you know it or not. Its portfolio includes Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights, Disney TV's The Proud Family, and plenty of local TV spots, ad campaigns, and one-off Flash animation projects. All can be viewed on the company's ginchy, goofy Web site at www.powerhouseanimation.com.
Like the fine print on their press release says: "Powerhouse Animation is made in America by Americans. Only the finest in handcrafted paper and pencils are used in the preparation of our animation. Our animation is not tested on animals and contains low amounts of sodium and nicotine. Caffeine however is present in large quantities. Powerhouse Animation may cause feelings of excitability and euphoria, results similar to sugar pill."
Depend on it.
Set back off of Bee Caves Road, Powerhouse's smallish office is an unassuming outfit that seems tailor-made for hunching over a computer, animating superheroes and making video games for the rich and famous. Slipcased hardback copies of the initial comic book-sized Mad Magazine are on display, as are prototype Bluntman and Chronic bookends, courtesy of pal Smith. According to Director of Animation Frank Gabriel, Smith discovered the Powerhouse outfit by chance when its "Heroes" Flash animation short film took second place in a contest sponsored by fanboy bible Wizard Magazine. (The short, which is available for viewing via the Powerhouse Web site, has Marvel Comics stalwarts Captain America and Daredevil mulling over the intricacies of Smith's oeuvre in between battles with Hitler. Daredevil: "I hated Mallrats anyway. It had Ben Affleck in it. I can't stand that f**ker!")
"We had done 'Heroes' for a contest that Brad [Graeber, Powerhouse founder and director of operations] had heard about," explains Gabriel. "Long story short: After we took second prize, I ended up sending it to a guy I knew in New York City, who in turn sent it to a friend of his who just happened to be the editor in chief of Marvel Comics, who then handed it off to Kevin Smith. No sooner than Kevin sees it, we get an e-mail from him saying how much he was blown away by the piece. He was really flattered."
"It was kind of unexpected," says Director of Production Bruce Tinnin, "but ever since then we've just had a great working relationship with Kevin. He wrote back and actually said that we had inspired him to do some serious animation work in the future. Not long after that we began working on a game for his comic-book shop, which in turn got us the job to create the Jen Saves Ben game."
And now they're the only gamehouse in town sporting official Kevin Smith bookends. Who says there's no future in animation?
Founded, fittingly enough, on April Fools' Day 2001, the core Powerhouse members met while working at local animation house Zippity.com. ("The dot-com tells you everything you need to know about what happened to Zippity," adds Tinnin.) Having previously worked for Fox Studios in Phoenix on large-scale projects ranging from Titan A.E. to Space Jam, in Tinnin's case, and from Thumbelina to A Troll in Central Park, in Gabriel's case, the group was spurred to unite their various talents under the Powerhouse label after Zippity collapsed.
Tinnin: "It was really a case of simply taking the next step. When Zippity closed down, Frank and Brad and I wanted to continue to do animation if we could, and very quickly we founded Powerhouse. We almost immediately had a job, too, which is rare. We started working with Neil Bush's company, Ignite Learning, doing educational animation for them. The name [Powerhouse], by the way, was courtesy of Cindy Crowell who's a cleanup artist for us." (That's Peggy Suicide, the bass player in the Flametrick Subs, for you psychobilly fans out there.)
Industrywide, animation is in flux, with various studios and smaller companies siding with either traditional two-dimensional animation, ô la classic Disney, or the newer, flashier three-dimensional, computer-generated panache of Pixar's CGI, like Toy Story. The Powerhouse crew, while generally employing the more traditional, hand-drawn style, takes pains to point out that they're not averse to 3-D. The ongoing animated argument over which style is "better" is moot, however, since much of Powerhouse's work so far has employed the wildly popular Flash animation program (see "Heroes" for an example). For the Luddites among us (my own tribe until recent developments superceded my natural attraction to simplicity), Macromedia's Flash animation program is a Web-based animation and content development program that allows users to create and stream animations, videos, and various time-sucking creative endeavors onto the Web. For homegrown animators like Powerhouse, the emergence of Flash as the online industry benchmark has made the heretofore laborious process of animation (and animation distribution) as simple as falling off a cliff while strapped to an Acme-brand anvil, or nearly so.
"The way we do most projects at Powerhouse," explains Tinnin, "is like this: We rough out the animation in blue pencil to get all the movement down and make sure it's working from an artistic standpoint, and then we scan it into the computer and do a test to see how it flows. When we're satisfied, we hand it off to the cleanup artist who does the finished line. They take a graphite pencil and they go over what you've done and 'clean it up' -- they taper it and make it look smooth."
Powerhouse's greatest ally these days -- from a dollar-and-cents point of view -- is the major studios' recent conversion to the gospel of cost-effectiveness. When supersized animated films like Disney's recent Treasure Planet -- reported to have cost the studio some $140 million to produce -- bring in only a paltry $16 million dollars at the box office, something has got to give. What have been giving lately are the studio's payrolls, which have been slashed in order to save costs. Meanwhile, work previously done on the studio lot is more and more frequently farmed out to much smaller outfits like Powerhouse.
"Fortunately for companies like us," says Tinnin, "studios like Disney are now farming out all that work that previously would have been done in-house, and that's been a real shot in the arm, not just for us, but for smaller animation firms all over the country.
"A good example of that sort of thing," Tinnin continues, "is how we worked on the Adam Sandler film that came out a couple of months ago, Eight Crazy Nights, doing cleanup animation. We've worked on a Disney TV show called The Proud Family, too, doing the same sort of thing. That's what they do these days, though: They send out scenes, and we just finish them up. Especially with computers and the way things are set up now, it's almost unnecessary to have a studio animation team in the traditional sense. With e-mail and whatnot, it's much more cost-effective for the studios to farm the work out to various and sundry small animation firms, such as us, or even to individual animators working out of their homes."
Gabriel agrees. "It makes it just that much cheaper for a studio to get the job done, and the bottom line is even more so these days. ... There's just so much overhead to pay all those Disney employees to work year-round, and with the economy the way it is, it makes far more sense from a studio's perspective to send the work out to the little guy in the field and let [him] do it as contract labor. And of course, that way they don't also have to pay salary, benefits, insurance, or any of that stuff. They keep a core group and ship the rest out.
"At Powerhouse we have a much lower overhead, and the way that we work we feel we can compete easily with all these overseas animation companies in Korea and the Philippines. And it's a lot easier for the studios to deal with someone who is relatively closer to home."
Like every other type of creative endeavor these days, the rise of the Web has both fueled the current state of animation as well as served as a much-needed distribution arm for homegrown animators. Flash animation is at the heart of the online animation boom -- it's easy to learn, looks great when it's done right, and allows for ultra-low-budget filmmaking that can be seen immediately and by millions all over the world. Unfortunately, as the Powerhousers are quick to point out, just because suddenly everyone is a Flash animator doesn't necessarily mean they're good Flash animators. You've got to swim through an ocean of craptastic crud to find the occasional bit of online brilliance like the popular Strindberg and Helium site (www.skumpy.com/eha/) or Powerhouse's own work, much of which utilizes Flash.
"The popularity of Flash is just like the popularity of digital filmmaking," notes Gabriel. "Just because every kid on the block got a new Canon mini-DV cam for Christmas doesn't mean they're all going to be the next Steven Soderbergh. They're far more likely to be the next Ed Wood Jr."
Adds Tinnin: "You have the tool to do the job now, but you don't necessarily have the knowledge or the skill to do a good job. There's a lot to be said for experience. It's just as important to know how to draw, in the traditional sense, as it is to be able to use the newest computer animation programs. We do our traditional animation, and then we scan it into Flash, not the other way around. I think a lot of young animators forget that you have to have some sort of background in drawing if you want to be a successful animator. Flash is just another tool."
Speaking of animation, Powerhouse animator Doug Beck is another of the little studio's aces in the hole. Having served previously on major studio productions like The Prince of Egypt and Space Jam (everyone in the Austin animation community, it seems, has worked on Space Jam; the title comes up more frequently in conversation than "uh," and that's a lot), Beck's fluid, thick-lined style recalls nothing so much as John Kricfalusi's groundbreaking work on the now-classic underground-to-aboveground smash Ren and Stimpy. It's reductive to piggyback the former to the latter, though; Beck's style, combined with Gabriel, Tinnin, and Graeber's work, is ultimately Powerhouse's own style. You know it when you see it, and you're going to be seeing a lot more of it if Powerhouse's global domination plan continues to bear fruit.
And now, a brief exchange on the state of animation today:
Gabriel: "Based on the feature films out there, the state of animation is pretty poor, I'd say, just from a cost-effective standpoint."
Tinnin: "No, you can't say that because Lilo & Stitch ended up doing pretty well."
Gabriel: "Oh, yeah, that's true."
Tinnin: "I think it's like anything else: You've got to have a good story and good animation to back it up. Disney went for the teen boy market with Treasure Planet and learned the harsh lesson that teen boys aren't interested in that kind of thing these days. The market just isn't there."
Gabriel: "So where did they go, then?"
Tinnin: "Well, they went to Eight Crazy Nights. Which, by the way, only cost around $15 million to make, as opposed to Treasure Planet's $140 million. And you can bet Sandler's film made its money back right away. ... Again, I think the bottom line is that our industry has always been judged by how Disney does, unfortunately. It's the yardstick by which all other animated work is measured. So when Disney does poorly, people immediately begin writing an epitaph for the industry as a whole, and that's just not the case. Powerhouse has so little to do with that, and we're gearing up for more work, both film and possibly something else with Kevin Smith.
Gabriel: "He's offered to put anything we do on his Web site, actually."
Anything at all?
"Yup. Anything at all."
In the world of indie animation houses, you can't get a better recommendation than that. Aside from future Smith projects, up next is "Web Jackson: Hardboiled Dick," a "seven minute neo-noir parody" by Gabriel, with assists from the Powerhouse team. After that, nothing short of the aforementioned global animation domination will suffice. "Excelsior!" as Stan Lee would say.