Studio: Original Force Animation
Film: Duck Duck Goose
Director: Christopher Jenkins
Writers: Christopher Jenkins & Rob Muir
Release: 2017 (date to be confirmed)
Budget: “Less than half of a DreamWorks, Sony or Disney film” – Penney Finkelman Cox
Led by a triumvirate boasting decades of experience in both Hollywood and China, Original Force Animation has seemingly all the right elements to create something of real quality for its debut feature.
Original Force is one of the longest running CG studios in China, founded in Nanjing in 1999 by animation artist, Harley Zhao. Under Zhao’s leadership, the company became a prominent and respected outsourcing hub handling high-end animation and effects for video games like “Grand Theft Auto V,” “League of Legends” and “The Sims 3” for clients like Microsoft, Electronic Arts and Rockstar Games.
Sandy Rabins and Penney Finkelman Cox, who serve as co-presidents of Original Force’s newly formed original feature division, bring a wealth of Hollywood acumen. The pair’s stellar CV includes launching operations at DreamWorks Animation in the mid-90s and Sony Pictures Animation in 2002, during which time they oversaw multiple major animated features such as “Shrek”, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and “Hotel Transylvania”.
Rabins first linked up with Zhao when Original Force served as the lead animation shop for the DreamWorks Animation series she was producing, “Dragons: Riders of Berk,” the television spinoff of “How to Train Your Dragon”. Along with Finkelman Cox, the trio bonded over a mutual desire to develop and own original IP.
Harley Zhao talking at the US China Film Summit, Los Angeles, Nov’ 2016
Original Force subsequently launched its new division in Culver City, Los Angeles, in August 2015, as a creative development hub seeking to “build a new creative home for the world’s best storytellers, writers, directors, animators, digital artists and designers.”
With almost 1,000 employees across its L.A studio and four facilities in China, the company has the ambitious aim to produce at least one major CG feature film every 12 to 18 months.
The studio is inviting creative contributions from all quarters, stating in a 2015 press release, “whether you are an established filmmaker or an emerging artist with a…fresh new voice, we want you to think of our company as a new destination where your best work can be nurtured and flourish.” Projects under development include IP owned by the studio, like the book “Where the mountain meets the Moon”, or properties produced with partners like Tencent, for whom Original Force Animation are developing the game, “QQ Speed” in to a movie directed by John Eng (“Rugrats Go Wild”).
The first of Original Force’s inaugural slate of three features, set for release in 2017, is “Duck Duck Goose”, telling the story of Peng, a self-centered goose that gets lumbered with looking after two young ducks, through which he learns about responsibility and compassion.
It will be interesting to see if there is any distinctive Chinese character to the film. When I spoke to Penney Finkelman Cox in Los Angeles late last year, she told me that although Original Force Animation is backed entirely by Chinese finance, and Chinese fairytales and mythology serve as inspiration for many of its projects, the studio is focused squarely on creating “global content”. Critical to that objective is implementing a clear beginning-middle-end story structure to which Western audiences are accustomed, rather than the looser, more open-ended stories often told in China. That said, with “Duck Duck Goose” they were careful of being sensitive to Chinese values of community and harmony, with Peng ultimately embracing the importance of family. Finkelman Cox says the action was initially set in Canada, but moved to China due to its wealth of diverse landscapes, not as a token to appeal to domestic audiences.
All the front end work – story, art, editorial, creative and music – is being handled by a team of 50 to 60 artists and producers working in-house and remotely in the Culver City studio. Layout is done in both countries and everything else is being handled in China. To develop the feature pipeline and train the local team, international expertise like Head of Animation Dennis Couchon, is positioned full-time in Nanjing. Zhao and Rabins regularly fly between facilities and there is constant back and forth via Skype, usually in the L.A. evening as China starts a new day.
Penney Finkelman Cox talks at the US China Film & Television Expo, Los Angeles, Nov’ 2016
Finkelman Cox and Rabins have recruited an impressive array of Hollywood talent to enhance the international flavor. Directing is Christopher Jenkins, an effects animator and producer by background, who first collaborated with the duo at Sony Pictures Animation on, “Surf’s Up”, for which he wrote the screenplay, before later producing “Home” with DreamWorks Animation. The screenplay is written by Rob Muir, and will be voiced, and no doubt elevated, by an A-list Hollywood cast led by Jim Gaffigan as Peng and Carl Reiner as the old turtle sage, Larry. Prolific composer Mark Isham, whose credits include “Crash”, “Warrior” and “Black Dahlia”, will create the film’s score.