Post-production work for animated programming has virtually disappeared from the United States, with low-cost companies overseas handling most of that time-intensive work. Also, an increasing number of animators have themselves bought digital equipment to handle the post-production process in-house.

Nonetheless, North Hollywood-based VirtualMagic Animation Inc. manages to stay in business by focusing on short-form animation, such as the Chester Cheetah Cheetos commercials, MTV's "Beevis and Butthead" show, and TV promo spots. Because of short turnaround times and the relatively small amount of labor involved, short-form animation producers often opt to use VirtualMagic rather than ship work overseas.

"We found our niche with commercials," said VirtualMagic President Don Spielvogel. "But there's a limitation on the size of the short-form market, and we had desires to grow as a company."

In trying to break into long-form programming, VirtualMagic formed a joint venture with Filipino animator and post-production company ImagineAsia Studio. Last May, the two companies created a jointly owned company that operates out of ImagineAsia's existing studios and handles digital work originated by VirtualMagic.

This opens up opportunities for animated TV series and small-budget movies by charging lower rates than post-production houses in the United States, while offering clients more services than companies based only in Asia.

While digital animation software has been around for nearly a decade, most overseas post-production facilities just started using the process over the last two years. VirtualMagic has developed a strong reputation for digital work, according to Animation magazine Editor Sarah Baisley and that reputation, combined with the low costs of its Asian operations, give the company a competitive advantage.

One of its first major shows, Carsey-Werner Co.'s animated series "God, the Devil and Bob," begins airing March 7 on NBC.

"Episodic work is looking for a digital solution," said Andrea Romero, Virtual Magic vice president and executive producer. "We want to be able to fit into a $20 million to $30 million film budget. This allows us to offer a low-cost alternative."

Painstaking work

Animation post-production work traditionally has involved the animation producer handing over black-and-white pencil drawings of cartoons to post-production animators, who would then clean up the drawings, redraw the lines and fill in the colors all by hand. The work was painstaking, with a single 22-minute TV episode containing as many as 25,000 individual slides.

Unlike the traditional "ink-and-paint" post-production facilities, which hand draw and hand paint each slide on acetate paper, digital post-production houses scan drawings into a computer, and then a worker uses a software program to do the ink and paint digitally.

A database program keeps track of each drawing by placing a number on a piece of the film. The software calculates the speed of each scene and turns what were once individual slides into a continuous show.

VirtualMagic has taken advantage of the digital revolution by having low-cost workers in its Philippines studio handle the labor-intensive post-production work on long-form programming, and then digitally monitoring the job's progress from L.A.

Alternative to Asia

The animators' drawings and color scenes are scanned and colored in the Philippines, and then the program is digitally transmitted to the company's office in North Hollywood, where a producer or studio executive can make sure the work is on track.

"Most production studios overseas don't have an L.A. base for episodic work," Romero said. "For years, producers handed over (their work) to Asia. Now it's possible to change things on a prime-time show. The idea is to offer the client the range of services."

With that cost-saving system now in place, VirtualMagic wants to expand on relationships it has built with animation heavyweights including Walt Disney Co. and Film Roman.

Renegade Animation has worked with VirtualMagic for five years first for short-form commercials and now on some longer-form productions.

"When we first started using them, there were a couple companies doing what they do and we went to (VirtualMagic) when we could afford to," said Ashlet Postlewaite, Renegade's executive producer.

The company handled 100 post-production projects in 1999, about the same number it's been averaging for the past five years. But Spielvogel said many projects in 1999 were longer (and therefore higher-paying) because they involved an upcoming animated movie and some television series.

VirtualMagic also plans to expand into the online arena within the next year. Spielvogel said he would like to partner with a medium-sized animation company to move VirtualMagic into production work and other parts of the animation process.

"We want to expand into different areas to reduce the risk of being involved in just one side of the business," Spielvogel said. "We're keeping a close eye on potential strategic partners."

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