New York design, effects and animation shop Charlex is undertaking its first long-form project with Labratz, a 10-minute film that represents a distinctive and darker look for 3-D animated films and a new creative channel for the company. The film centers on Cagney, an urban-dwelling rat, as he follows a bit of floating debris into a research lab and a strange, stark new world. A trailer for the film depicts a shadowy, dense metropolis as a backdrop for the rat's story. The film departs from many of the animated offerings of the recent past in the nature of its central character, which is a furry mammal rather than a hard-skinned or scaled creature, and the darker, more textured look of the animation, which approaches photorealism but with a rich, noirish edge. Charlex creative director Alex Weil says the aim was to create a film with more of a "New York" than a West Coast vibe and with characters that weren't plastic looking. "We want the film to look like no other CG film," says Weil. "At first, it looks like Charles Dickens shot by Ernst Lubitsch. When we enter the lab, it looks like a Kubrick vision of the future."
Weil points out that the makers of animated features have long leveraged the available technology in the creation of characters and scenes; hence the history of films to date that have been centered on non-mammalian beings. With Labratz, Charlex is similarly employing the latest off-the-shelf technology, which provides increased facility for animating supple creatures with hair, fur and the like. While Charlex artists did write a few software add-ons, the film was created almost entirely with Alias Wavefront's Maya and its Mental Ray renderer. To meet the further challenge of creating a real-looking yet somehow appealing rat protagonist, Charlex turned to Muppet designer Michael Frith, who designed the Cagney character. Weil says the self-financed film, scheduled for completion in March, will hit the festival circuit and act as a calling card to demonstrate the film chops of Charlex, toward the goal of producing feature-length animated films. "We hope to create a feature film division of Charlex," says Weil. "Labratz is the first step in this process."