Michael Bellavia felt the tingle of excitement as he strained to hear if his show won a Sports Emmy Award. Part of the problem was that the master of ceremonies, former NBA star Charles Barkley, couldn't seem to pronounce the name of the award, much less the winner.
The award's full title was: Outstanding Achievement in Content for Non-Traditional Delivery Platforms. "What the @%* & is that?" Barkley blurted.
A moment later Bellavia's company, Animax Entertainment, walked away with the trophy for "Off-Mikes," a weekly animated series produced for ESPN.com. Animax was the first winner in the category, which the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences created this year. It also marked the first time an animated show won a Sports Emmy.
"We didn't even know this category existed until ESPN submitted us," said Bellavia, the 36-year-old general manager at the Culver City-based company.
"Off-Mikes" is an example of Animax's work creating "character-driven experiences for all screens." The series is based on the ESPN Radio show "Mike & Mike in the Morning." Animax takes the radio script of the sports talks show, edits it down, creates a spoof story line and then draws the animation. The final product is a short humor piece for ESPN's Web site.
Since it takes Animax about eight weeks to do a show from start to finish, the snippets of talk-radio can't be time-specific. So the animators focus on satirizing Mike and Mike one a former NFL lineman, the other a wimp who was cut from his high school chess team for lack of athletic skills.
"They've realized these animations are going to have a shelf life beyond the actual show," said Tim Jones, head of production at Animax. "So we find what works best is what happens between the personalities. We don't talk about last night's score or a particular game. The best stuff comes out of their characters."
Animax rose from the ashes of the dot-com bust. Andrew K. Bain, an entrepreneur with several Europe-based companies in his portfolio, and Dave Thomas, a comedian with credits on "SCTV" and "Grace Under Fire," co-founded Animax in 2001. But both founders focused primarily on their original careers, leaving the day-to-day operations to Bellavia and a crew of animators recruited from Icebox, a defunct dot-com design house.
At first Animax, like Icebox, seemed ahead of its time. The demand for character-driven Web animation simply didn't exist. But the company carefully developed an expertise in animation using Macromedia Flash (now owned by Adobe Systems Inc.), and as broadband access and computer memory improved, the market reached critical mass in 2004.
Besides the year-old gig on "Off-Mikes," the company has rebuilt several sites for Walt Disney Co., a project Jones calls the company's high-water mark to date. Animax has created games and interactive projects for some of the biggest icons in the animation industry: Mickey Mouse, Winnie-the-Pooh, and several of the "Disney princesses."
Other projects include a Web animated series for pro wrestling league WWE, storyboarding for Fox Studio's Intermix, and an upcoming series for AOL featuring a puppet and robot duo, called "Slammo & Sloshie's Super Sexy Interstellar TV Jamboree."
Humor figures prominently in this output, a natural given the company's pedigree. Co-founder Thomas, one half of the comic McKenzie Brothers along with Rick Moranis, has recruited TV sitcom writers for projects as well as penning some himself.
The company's mobile division has also developed numerous TV commercials, a cookbook for HBO's "The Sopranos" and educational content for the "McGruff the Crime Dog" site. The company's most award-winning project was a DVD titled "Coping with Chemo" a cancer treatment project for the Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation.
In the last year, the demand for Flash animation has exploded. Television shows, health organizations, film studios, children's sites "all these places are looking for original content," Bellavia said.
Clients need content for mobile phones, pod casts and their multiplying number of Web sites, besides traditional TV and DVD distribution channels, and they want to give consumers complex character-based experiences. "Those are our strengths and where we see the future of our industry," said Jones.
At the same the time, Animax has reached the point where it wants to move beyond drawing other people's characters. While the company's lifeblood remains providing animation services to ad agencies and movie studios, "original content production is the path we want to pursue in conjunction with our service work," said Jones. "In the future, we want to take the contacts we've made and our money and talent and leverage it to our original content."
The company has made preliminary maneuvers toward developing its own properties. For example, Animax acted as script consultant on the Disney film "Chicken Little" and Thomas reunited with Moranis to use the McKenzie shtick as voices for two moose in Disney's 2003 feature film "Brother Bear." Now Animax has started to actively pitch ideas to the studios for both TV and broadband series.
Internally, the company has built up its library of computer code. In animation, elements such as backgrounds, explosions or sound effects can be used again and again. With slight adjustments, a face, hand, or even a "walk cycle" the left-right-left motions can function for multiple characters. As an animation house collects more of these pre-assembled pieces of code, the labor required for new projects goes down.
Animax has additional advantages because so much of its work is in Flash. "It eases the overall efficiency of the process, but you still can't hit a button on the computer that says 'Animate It,'" said Bellavia.
The company also hopes to repurpose Web-based shows for mobile, DVD, and even broadcast windows. "We want to own a couple of shows, recognized intellectual properties," said Bellavia. "It was nice to win an Emmy, but I would like to win a bunch more."
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