Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The FernGully Studio

Over the years, animation studios have risen up, prospered, and then vanished into history. There was Famous Studios in New York. The Fleischer Studios in Manhattan and then Miami. The UPA studios in Hollywood.

I worked at Filmation in the last year of its existence, and there have been many others. But today let's remember a studio that came into existence, produced a ground-breaking film, and then receded into the mists of time. Why? Because it's the fifteenth anniversary of...

Fern Gully.

Long before An Inconvenient Truth, FG raised the issue of environmental destruction, of humankind's inhumanity to the natural world around it. (The feature also gave Robin Williams his first role as an animated character.)

Most of the film was created in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. The following piece was written in 1992, the year of FG's release.

On Location with the Kroyers by Harvey Deneroff

FernGully: The Last Rainforest is a film that is saturated with color and life, mirroring, as it does, the life-giving richness and warmth of the Austrailain ran forest that is its subject. This ecological fairy tale tells how Crysta, a young forest sprite, encounters Zak, a logger, whom she accidentally shrinks to fairy size....

This story of a clash between nature and technology is a familiar one to Bill and Sue Kroyer, who first gained fame for their company, Kroyer Films, with their Oscar-nominated short, Technological Threat (1988). That film dealt with the danger of office automation, an ironic commentary on the innovative combination of hand-drawn and computer animation that it introduced. The success of Technological Threat led to a number of fruitful assignments for the studio, including the animated titles to such films as National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Troop Beverly Hills, and Honey I Shrunk the Kids (all 1989).

It was their work on the latter that brought them to the attention of the director and associate producer of Crocodile Dundee, Peter Faiman and Wayne Young, who were in town looking for a hungry young studio to make an animated feature based on stories by Young's wife, Diana.

The Kroyers were initially wary of taking on something so ambitious. "I thought that there was no way we could do a feature," Sue Kroyer recalls. "There's full employment in the industry, we'll never be able to hire people. Just the thought of trying to find one hundred and ten 'A' people was just staggering, and I was really despondent. But Bill had a sort of Field of Dreams attitude. He said, 'If we build it, they will come.' And they did. They quit other jobs to come here. It was really amazing."

Bill Kroyer agrees. "Our company was doing pretty well and we enjoyed short things. We could easily gear up or down for any one project. And then Wayne Young came along with this feature, and we realized how unbelievably hard it would be to do. However, it was about the rain forest, which we knew was a sgood cause. And it wasn't really supposed to be a kiddy movie, even though it was about fairies. We just liked the felling of the whole project."

"So in order to put a crew of forty 'A' animators together," Sue said, "we literally had to go all over the world." In the end, they had animation operations in Toronto, London and Copenhagen, in addition to staffing up new facilities in the old Stroh's Brewery complex in Van Nuys, California, which was their home base.

"The thing about our film that was so difficult," Bill notes, "was the fact that we started with no script, just a treatment. And because of the limits of the budget and the schedule, we had to go into production almost immediately in February, 1990. We started boarding the film in April or May." However, before boarding started, they did what perhaps no other animated feature crew evered did before that time: they and some of their key staff went on location to the Australian rain forest.

The visit provided them with a much-needed understanding of the ecology and beauty of the locale, as well as providing considerable visual material, and many of the sketches they did there showed up in the final film and is certainly the inspiration for some of its rich visual texture and its startling colorations.

It was important to the Kroyers that their film not be mired down in cliches. "The characters," Bill says, "are all real people. They all have a reality. The rain forest is real, because we actually went to the rain forest and we used our real life experiences."

But turning those experiences into a feature took more than good intentions, they involved doing what the Kroyers had never done before, i.e., setting up a whole new organizational structure from scratch, including increasing their staff from eleven to one hundred and ten.

"The fact of the matter," Bill notes, "is that neither we nor anyone we could find knew a whole lot about setting up a feature. We just had to stumble."

In the end, as Bill says, they realized that "You really have to form your company around individuals. You just can't put somebody in and say, 'Your job description is this!' We discovered people who had abilities to organize, abilities to keep things straight, or on schedule. We let the production system mold around the people. Finally, everything got covered."

"Bill and I are artists," Sue says, "and we wanted to run a studio that we wanted to work in. This is an artist-friendly studio, the studio of our dreams, where you don't have production people beating down on you. And instaed of having a pyramid structure, you have more of a network, where it's us in the middle and we give a lot of power to the department heads."

This lack of rigidity resulted in considerable flexibility and fluidity in staffing and decision making. Thus, Tom Mazzocco, head of storyboard on FernGully, said that, "I think we were all called upon to do more than we would be allowed to do elsewhere. Because you get to see what you are capable of doing. I was in storyboard and also became assistant director. But I think that's indicative of what's happened to everybody here. People from the animation department helped with the storyboards. We had some assistant animators who were given a chance to animate. The departmental lines here are fuzzier than anyplace else."

Dori Littell Herrick, assistant animation supervisor, concurs. She says that compared to other studios she has worked at, the environment at Kroyer was "equivalent to being at an artist's studio." Thus, despite her title and job duties, Dori recalls, "I was brought into color modeling, I was brought into every aspect that touched upon my job, and asked my opinion. I think that really showed up on the screen. We have a quality feature and it doesn't look like Disney or Bluth made it. But it is also our first feature. And because we could be in each other's faces all the time, we became a working unit that allowed us to bring together a bunch of people and make something that was greater than if we had been isolated, like in some other studios. I think the whole industry will look at that and say, you know, we went from six-minute titles to a feature and we're right up there with the best."

...Sue Kroyer noted in retrospect that, "It all seems pretty simple. You hire the absolute best people in their particular fields of expertise, then you just let them do what they do. And just stay out of the way. You don't have to sit there and control everything they do. ...If just left alone, people on this film are working on their wildest dreams. I think the mistake most studios make is that they have to get a middle-management guy who has to put his two cents in, and somebody else has to put their two cents in too, thus watering it down. So you just put all the artists together and let them go and they will come up with something incredible."

* * * * * * *

After "Fern Gully," Bill and Sue moved on to Warner Bros. Feature Animation. For the past decade, Bill has been a director and key employee for the CGI company Rhythm and Hues.

Tom Mazzocco has worked as director and board artist for almost every animation studio in Los Angeles.

Dori Littel Herrick is now a professor at Woodbury University.


MrFun said...

I never worked for the Kroyers, but I admired their studio and the work they did. Some studios deserve to die --but this is one that should have lived.

It was a very special time in animation. Boy, I miss those days.

Anonymous said...

Boy oh boy, were the Kroyer's GREAT to work for! They really made me, and everyone, feel special; and they went out of their way to make even the hard days a lot of fun.


Anonymous said...

I heartily second that, Anon #1!
I, too, was privileged to have worked on Fern Gully;it was an experience I cherish to this day.
I think it was Maya Angelou who once said" You will always be remembered by the way you made people feel.."
The Kroyers ran a wonderful studio. They instilled within it a uniquely all-inclusive family atmosphere which yielded loyalty, hard work and a great product.

Steve K. said...

One of the best experiences I have ever had was working for The Kroyers on various projects including FernGully. Now that was truly an artist-friendly studio. One of the best!

Anonymous said...

I concur with everyones praise of working with Bill and Sue!! Ferngully was a fantastic experience and will always bring to mind great memories! THAT was the 'artist friendly' studio, if ever there was one!

Happy 15th Anniversary!!

Greg Manwaring

Anonymous said...

Your animation was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life. I have loved the environment ever since that fateful day that I picked it up on that library shelf over a decade ago.

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