Spain animators drawing attention

As industry ramps up, int'l market is placing orders

Ilion Animation Studios' feature film "Planet One," the most expensive Spanish movie ever budgeted, at about $50 million, underscores a boom in local cartoon production.

Spain's animation sector has long stood out for its talent and creativity, but it is increasingly accessing larger international audiences, both on the big screen and the small. Written by "Shrek"-creator Joe Stillman, "Planet One" exemplifies this new dawn for "Spanimation."

"If you want to compete with the big international productions, especially American, you have to make films with equivalent quality," Ilion producer Ignacio Perez Dolset explains. "The industry can't survive eternally thanks to subsidies or appeals to Spanish identity and patriotism."

"Planet One" aims to compete head-on with Pixar and DreamWorks, with its own innovative technology and design, Perez Dolset says.

Until recently, Spanish animation barely registered at the domestic boxoffice, but 2001's "The Enchanted Forest" started to turn the tide. Now, a handful of innovative companies are making a big splash at the boxoffice.

Much of the growth is centered on Spain's northwestern Galicia region.

Filmax is working at its Galician studio Bren on "Donkey Xote," a wacky version of Cervantes' classic, and "Nocturna." Other projects in production in the region include a trio from Perro Verde — "Going Nuts"; "Missing Lynx," a co-production with YaYa!; and puppet animation film "Zombie Western" — and a brace from "Enchanted Forest" producer Dygra, the conservationist-minded "Spirit of the Forest" and cross-cultural tale "Holy Night."

Dygra typifies the exponential growth some Spanish toon companies are experiencing. The Coruna-based studio has picked up the pace from releasing a film every four years to one every 18 months. "Not only have we had a radical change in our pace and presence in the market," Dygra president Manolo Gomez says, "but no one that I know of creates the totality of their 3-D films like we do. We are in the vanguard in Europe."

But feature films — which have yet to break the symbolic 1 million-admissions barrier — are only one side of the story. Spanish cartoon series also are being gobbled up at international markets.

"The Spanish animation community is rising to another level," says Maria Doolan of Zinkia, whose co-production with Granada International, "Pocoyo," has sold in more than 100 territories and snagged the top TV production award at the Annecy Animation Festival last year. "The creatives are getting international exposure. We have a talent pool in Spain that has been largely untapped," she says.

Spanish companies are forced to co-produce with other territories because they simply cannot finance locally, given the private channels' lack of enthusiasm for children's programming. "Funding is not easy to come by, so when we do release properties, we have to be sure that they'll work all over the world and that they are truly global. Part of that is working multiplatform," Doolan says.

Thanks to technology, new windows are opening up that are well suited to animation. The launch of broadband channels — with a plethora of thematic channels geared toward children — gives Spanish companies access to the coveted U.S. market and has allowed them to fill a niche.

Spanish preschool specialists Neptuno has worked hand-in-hand with Nickelodeon sister channel Noggin to create fillers of its show "Connie the Cow" and with U.S. high-definition broadband children's channel Animania to create four shows in high definition specifically designed to meet the channel's needs.

"They were looking for high-definition suppliers in Europe and we told them we could meet their needs," Roberto Mizrahi, Neptuno's director of international operations, says. "That was three years ago and it opened the door to a new market."

The result is that now "Dougie in Disguise" has sold in more than 100 territories, including Fox's U.S.-launched Babyfirst TV and digital cable's Animania.

The success may just help keep Spain's increasingly numerous and talented animators from packing up and leaving for greener pastures.

"More international projects are needed to revitalize cinema and keep the talent here in Spain," Perez Dolset says. "Development is extraordinarily expensive, and the only way to be competitive and profitable is to compete on an international level."