Pittsburgh ready for animated closeup

| Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012

Major movie studios are cashing in with increasingly popular digital animated movies.

And Michael Kadrie believes Pittsburgh's zoetifex Studios LLC can join those Hollywood heavy hitters as he works to establish an animation production studio here.

"We're not going to be a little boutique animation studio," said Kadrie, who founded zoetifex and works as art director for a Strip District advertising agency. "We want to compete with Pixar and Dreamworks."

It's a bold statement. But a number of factors are working in zoetifex's favor.

Tax incentives are drawing producers. With more than a dozen movies shot in Western Pennsylvania in the last two years, the region is among the top 10 U.S. locations, according to the Pittsburgh Film Office.

Advances in computer technology and Internet speeds mean animation work can be done anywhere, and often at lower costs than in California.

A number of people in the industry who live in Pittsburgh or have ties to the region are supporting Kadrie's efforts.

And in a deal that further raises Pittsburgh's profile, 31st Street Studios this week announced it will establish in Lawrenceville the nation's only high-tech "motion-capture" studio outside Hollywood.

"The reputation of the city is becoming huge," said Todd Eckert, who will run the motion-capture studio and also serves on zoetifex's advisory board.

"I think the work that zoetifex is doing is timely," Eckert said. "It is another piece in a comparatively large puzzle. Maybe 10 years ago it might not have been a great idea, but today it's perfect."

The studio's history goes back to 2007, when Kadrie ran a design company and wanted to branch out into animation. He formed zoetifex and created a website as a marketing tool, he said.

In 2009, Kadrie began hearing from animators from around the country with Pittsburgh ties who had found zoetifex's website and were interested in moving home. With the help of some unemployed animators, Kadrie said, zoetifex created a demo for a New York producer who was interested in setting old radio broadcasts to animation.

While the project never got off the ground, the demo of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Birds" can be seen on the company's website and YouTube.

The experience and the large number of animators who were looking to work on movies in Pittsburgh convinced Kadrie he could create a studio.

"There was so much interest it sparked the idea to build a studio from ground up with artists," he said.

It has taken a few years, but Kadrie made a breakthrough recently by securing rights to several creative works that he plans to turn into animated features. Kadrie said he signed deals this month for the rights to two children's books by Michael Garland, a New York Times best-selling author, and to a concept album by 1980s metal band Queensryche.

The Garland books, "Christmas Magic" and "Icarus Swinebuckle," will be made into a television Christmas special and a short movie for the web, respectively, Kadrie said.

The Queensryche album, "Operation: Mindcrime," tells the story of a drug addict who's convinced by an underground movement to become an assassin. It would be a movie with a "serious, darker theme," Kadrie said.

And in addition to the feature-length movie, the "Mindcrime" rights also give zoetifex the ability to spin off a video game and popular soundtrack, he said. Discussions are underway with modern-rock bands to record updated versions of the Queensryche originals, he said.

The projects could bring Pittsburgh "close to 150 jobs for the next two, two and a half years," Kadrie said. This week, zoetifex hired Osnat Shurer as executive producer for "Mindcrime." Shurer was an executive producer for "Arthur Christmas," released last year, and previously worked in Pixar's shorts division, Kadrie said.

While momentum is picking up, he said, challenges remain, not the least of which is fundraising to find studio space, hire animators and purchase equipment. Kadrie has estimated it could cost about $2.5 million to produce the two Garland projects. "Mindcrime" could cost $20 million, he said.

But Kadrie and others argue the pricetags are significantly less than on the West Coast where high cost of living drives up the salaries of animators.

"Pittsburgh has all the pieces," said Alex Lindsay, who worked for Lucasfilm Ltd. and Industrial Light & Magic, the special-effects studio behind the Star Wars films, before starting his own production company Pixel Corps. in San Francisco. "What it will take is someone like Mike to spearhead it. You need somebody to create a flashpoint and that's what he is doing."

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