While some animators long to leave commercials behind for the glamorous world of long-form television and film, Wild Brain's co-founder and executive producer Jeff Fino and technical director Nick Weigel find that developing animation centered around products can be just as rewarding. Not only is the feedback almost immediate, clients' tight deadlines tend to boost excitement levels. "Commercials are a wellspring of experimentation," says Weigel. "That's where you find a lot of inventive styles and ways of producing artwork quickly."
So, though they have their fingers in a multiplicity of film, television and even online and interactive pies, the diverse group of award-winning directors and producers at the San Francisco-based animation studio mix it all up, romping with Hershey's Kisses and dogs named after operatic composers, frolicking with Cartoon Network's Cow & Chicken, gliding along the seas of the daily paper's financial section and vicariously blowing off steam by launching purple hippo grenades at unsuspecting adversaries.
Co-founded in 1994 by Colossal Pictures veterans Fino and senior creative director John Hays, along with VP-director Phil Robinson, previously of Industrial Light + Magic, Wild Brain (see their great website at wildbrain.com) came about in an effort to recreate the intimate animation community of San Francisco that its founders had grown to love during the '80s. Originally, the director-driven company aimed to focus on games and long-form work for TV and film in the hopes of "flexing that creative muscle," as Fino puts it, that sometimes softens when doing commercials alone.
Although long-form makes up anywhere from 40-60 percent of the studio's revenues in a given year, Wild Brain, in keeping with the sauciness of its name, refuses to settle on any one area of expertise. Fino stresses, "It's dangerous to be reliant on just one stream of revenue when you have the ability to do more than one." Among Wild Brain's film and television work, the computer-generated short Hubert's Brain, directed by Phil Robinson and Gordon Clark and produced by Nina Rappaport, has earned worldwide acclaim. The tale of the tubby, unfortunately-named Hubert Stinkler and his brain-in-a-jar buddy has won numerous awards, including Best Professional CG Short Film at the 2001 World Animation Celebration.
Also in production for TV is Weigel's chimeric Vanilla Pudding (development deals are in progress) and a personal film underwritten by Wild Brain and directed by Dave Thomas called Poochini, which has spawned 78 TV cartoons. No matter what the endeavor at hand, Fino cites reputation, reliability and solid client relationships as the main reasons why advertisers and agencies choose Wild Brain for animation work. When Ford and JWT/Detroit, were looking to attract a younger audience to the Ford Focus, the agency approached Wild Brain with four different concepts. Everyone at the studio was able to pitch ideas; one of the chosen few being Weigel's "Speedball," a 2-D/3-D hybrid, which leaves the beloved smiley face icon and the ad's viewers gasping for breath by the time it's over.
According to Weigel, completing the spot (it took less than two months) was a snap. "Ford had never done animation to my knowledge, and working with them was pretty easy, because the agency basically knew what they wanted.. We just threw a lot of stuff at them and they just played editor for us."
High-energy movement plays a significant role in much of Wild Brain's creations, including a spot for the Focus ZX5 that cleverly emphasizes the car's roominess. In "Dolls," a modernized Matryoshka doll presented in vibrant colors is twisted open to reveal four more of the Russian-style stackers, all of which pile into the vehicle along with their color-coordinated luggage.
The animation styles exemplified by Wild Brain's work run the gamut from layered and painterly, as in director Ed Bell's "Urban Hip-Hopper," developed for Wrigley's Winterfresh gum, to the notebook-come-to-life feel of "Destination Moon," a black on white, hand- drawn line-art number, created by director Gordon Clark for Nike, which has won both a Silver Clio and a 2nd Place ASIFA-East award. The striking "woodblock print" effect of John Hays' "Up ... Down ... Up," created for Mainstay Mutual Funds, leads the viewer to wonder whether each ad run has been signed and numbered. Hand-drawn art and text was mapped to computer-generated forms to animate a number-navigating sailboat as it dodges sea dragons and gusting winds across treacherous financial market waters in this Bronze Clio-garnering ad. Still, advertisers shouldn't assume that award-worthy animation can save a mediocre concept. Opines Fino, "Without the idea, there's not a heck of a lot we can do other than to make it look pretty. You really need both sides of the coin there."