'Captain Underpants' and the New Push to Make Cheaper Animated Movies

Illustration by Chip Wass

Outsourced to Canada with a budget of just $38  million, DreamWorks Animation’s film is a radical experiment in low-cost studio animation. Is it the future?

Of the top 50 biggest films from the last 15 years, 12 have been animated — nearly a quarter — including billion-dollar blockbusters Frozen, Minions and Toy Story 3. But despite the lack of such hefty budget items as actor profit participation deals and far-flung physical production, CGI cartoon features come with their own steep production price tags.

Even at Illumination Entertainment, the Comcast/NBCUniversal studio behind the Minions movies, boss Chris Meledandri is known for keeping animation costs in check. The studio's latest release, Sing, cost $75 million to produce at the company's Paris-based facility, Illumination Mac Guff. Still, that total is a lot less than for recent pictures produced by DreamWorks Animation (acquired by Comcast/NBCUniversal in 2016): Hit films Trolls and The Boss Baby each had reported budgets of $125 million, while Kung Fu Panda 3 and How to Train Your Dragon 2 each cost $145 million. Films from rival Pixar Animation Studios can cost up to $200 million.

But when the latest film from DreamWorks Animation, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, bows June 2, it will be a bold experiment in a new studio model. THR has learned that the movie, which is based on the children's book series by Dav Pilkey and follows two fourth graders (voiced by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch) who accidentally turn their mean school principal (Ed Helms) into a bumbling superhero, was made for just $38 million.

The exploration of lower production costs was announced by then-CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg in January 2015 as part of a corporate restructuring plan that included reducing the studio's head count by roughly 500, slashing its feature slate to two films per year and outsourcing work on Captain Underpants so that it could "be produced at a significantly lower cost." The bet looks to be paying off with the film, which will be the last DreamWorks Animation title to be distributed by 20th Century Fox, tracking to open at about $25 million in North America.

Mireille Soria, who produced Captain Underpants with Mark Swift, says the decision to make the film at the Montreal facility of Mikros Animation, which is headquartered in Paris, was influenced by cost control as well as a capacity crunch at DreamWorks' own animation studio, where The Boss Baby and Trolls were both underway. Mikros, which was acquired by Technicolor in 2015, also worked on Netflix's The Little Prince and Gkids' Mune: Guardian of the Moon.

Swift adds that the Captain Underpants material was the right fit for this model, since it is "a relatively simple movie in the sense that it doesn't have crazy effects, dragons, the sea. We came up with a budget that was appropriate for what we needed."

There was a straightforward division of labor (and lots of video conferencing) between DreamWorks Animation and Mikros, says director David Soren, who also helmed Turbo for DreamWorks Animation. "Story, art, layout and editorial were all handled at DWA in Glendale with a small crew, and then Mikros did all the animation, lighting, effects — basically everything on the CG side," explains Soren.

"Creatively, it went really well," he notes. "We created a look that would be cost-effective but also suit the material. Dav Pilkey's work is heavily stylized and cartoony in nature. He was very influenced by Peanuts, and I was, too." Soren also incorporated non-CG mixed media for some sequences told from the point of view of 9-year-olds. "To get in their headspace, we went to the comic book style to make it look like fourth graders made the animation. We also used sock puppets and combined 2D and 3D to make a version of their flip-book sketches."

But what really helped keep costs low, says Soren, was "a commitment from the studio to lock down the story early and not tinker with it too much." That meant once they entered the more costly animation production process, there were limited changes. By contrast, Pixar is known to tinker with films throughout production and start over if needed.

Captain Underpants also was finished on a fast schedule, even though Soren came onboard after original director Rob Letterman started the live-action feature Goosebumps. When Soren joined the project, he had a few script drafts from screenwriter Nicholas Stoller, and art and character design already were in place. The film was finished two years later, which is quick by major animation studio standards.

DreamWorks Animation, too, went through a transformation during production, but Soren says, "[Universal chair] Donna Langley really liked the movie and embraced it, and then Chris DeFaria [who was named DWA CEO in January] came in during the last few months, and he really dug it."

With Pilkey's 12-book series to draw from for more material, DreamWorks Animation wants, in success, to make additional films based on the characters. The larger question is whether it will attempt another major release with this outsourced and low-cost process. "It remains to be seen," admits Soria. "It's a new era."

This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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