Silicon Harbor welcomes a unique addition to its thriving creative and tech community—Moondog Animation, the first animation studio in South Carolina focused on feature films. The studio has been operating in stealth mode for the last year and is ramping up its team and funding for production of its first feature film which will bring over 150 jobs to South Carolina. Moondog was accepted into SCRA Technology Ventures’ SC Launch who recently announced a first round investment of $250,000 in the studio. Silicon Harbor Magazine caught up with the Moondog team to learn more about their story, feature film plans, and production process.
Moondog’s dream is to offer a positive alternative to a demanding audience by creating substantial and life changing animation content that is highly entertaining. Bridging the gap between the artist and the general public, the studio also pushes the envelope of innovation. Storytellers at heart, the Moondog team seeks to find new and exciting ways to entertain and bring to life the colorful stories that enrich the lives of their audience. “We’re an animation company who creates unique content that inspires people with good values and good quality movies,” said Moondog CEO, Bryan Ransom. “Parents want their kids to see it. Where you can really stand alone in animation is where you can make quality entertainment.”
THE MOONDOG STORY
Ransom, a native of Georgetown, South Carolina, worked in France as a producer for the development of over 15 different products ranging from television series to feature length films. It was there, while working on animation projects, that he met fellow French veterans of the animation industry—COO/Studio Director Jean-Marc Khayat, and CTO/Technology Strategist Ben Davis. The trio shared a common vision in creating an animation studio focused on feature films that would deliver high quality content and family values. They jokingly call themselves “the three-headed monster” working together effectively and concentrating on their own main tasks while having a lot of positive friction. Ransom believes the trio’s strengths and French influence give Moondog an advantage. “In producing animated content, everything is culturally based. Some of the greatest animation talent has come out of France. It’s a cultural hotbed of animation and they don’t promote it and get as much investment as the U.S. They really value creativity. When you take a studio like Moondog that has a French and European atmosphere, and then blend that with an American mass, it becomes a uniquely different style and feel for the entire film.”
After three years of planning, they set out to form Moondog in the States last year and selected Charleston as its headquarters for a number of reasons, but especially recruitment of other animators from other areas. Davis says, “We were interested in Quebec, Greenville, Atlanta, Savannah, and Charlotte. We wanted to be attractive enough to recruit people from L.A. and New York. Being the first feature film studio in the state was very important. Charleston has a lot of incentives for coming here—the climate, low cost of living, artistic vibe, small town and history.”
Since its founding, Moondog has worked on a wide range of projects including television series, conceptual design, script development, marketing campaigns and animated video teasers for various non-profit organizations such as Orbie for Orphans and Change=Water for Africa.
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Moondog is also working closely with Clemson University’s Digital Production Arts master’s program to mentor students and get recent graduates hired. Students learn the skills needed to work in the animation, visual-effects and electronic-games industries. The program has created a pipeline between Clemson and Hollywood—helping students get on the fast track to their dream jobs in the movie industry. Three graduates were recently selected for the Dreamworks FX Challenge.
THE FEATURE FILM
Moondog is now focused on growing its team and funding its first feature film starting with 30 new hires in the next year. They are seeking veterans of the animation industry from all over the world to come to Charleston and form the core management structure of the company. After the initial hire, they plan to ramp up to full production with 150 employees and then continue to expand to as large as 300. They will be hiring to fill every skill-set—from experienced animators to those fresh out of school to clerical workers and business management. “We’re looking to bring them in for different positions from Canada, Florida, and New York as well as Europe and around the world. We’re going to groom out our own talent in South Carolina in our studio,” says Ransom.
Ransom emphasized the importance of STEM education in Charleston as it relates to filling the talent gap in technical fields like digital animation. “One perspective is that digital animation is 75 percent technical, and 25 percent creative. That 75 percent is extremely important. We talk to a lot of STEM education movements in town because science, technology, engineering, and math is the basis of what we do. From the creative side, you can imagine something so beautiful that can go only as far as the technology can keep up with it. It’s a constant battle to move technology forward to where it can be at a service to the creativity. If it’s not there, it falls apart and vice versa.”
COO/Studio Director Khayat has worked in the animation field for over 17 years and in the image-making business for over 25 years. He looks forward to attracting new talent into the studio and creating a culture in the team:”One of my challenges has been how to adapt what I achieved with my success in France into the U.S. culture. One thing I’m really convinced about is that people will want to work with us because we believe very strongly in striving for excellence. That is done by giving our team the opportunity to excel. It creates the culture for everyone to go the extra mile. It goes well with the feature film aspect, which is the holy grail of animation all around the world. Most of the animators are working in every other aspect. Really, everyone is willing to go to a feature film animation studio because that’s where top quality is achieved. You have the most budget to do creative things and express yourself the most everyday.”
CTO/Technology Strategist Davis is an artist and all around 3D expert bringing over 12 years of experience and high level technical knowledge to the team. He emphasizes the tremendous effort required to coordinate the technical aspect of producing an animated film. “It’s no small feat,” he says. “We have to equip 150 people to do their job on a huge infrastructure. The backbone of our production is ‘the pipeline’ consisting of servers running proprietary modularly developed software. It allows us to control every aspect of the movie. What makes it all possible is the well-thought-out technical underline of this so that the artistic tasks are optimized by using industry software, but especially by bridging the gaps with our own developments. We’ll be putting together a highly efficient process for making these movies,” says Davis.
Moondog will launch a Kickstarter campaign to allow the public to participate in funding the initial phase of the project, which will go directly into the studio itself to build initial assets in its development phase such as proprietary software and background assets that will be used for multiple films.
FEATURE FILM PROCESS
Full feature films can take as long as three years and from $20–$145 million to fabricate. Moondog shared their production process, which is similar to an industrial process consisting of prototyping, preparing the assembly line, then assembling the project:
Development Phase—The prototype phase where work takes place on the basic script and gathering talent. The major pillars of the project are put together, which includes the visual conceptual art and the artistic design for characters. Once that entire package is made, the foundation of the film is complete.
Pre-Production—The mechanics around the fabrication process are in place and starting to staff up to build the assets. The assets are taken from a 2D conceptual design into the 3D realm. Modeling, rigging, and building all the pieces needed for when animating begins. All those things are individual segments that continually evolve throughout the process.
Full Fabrication—The crew starts to animate by making things move and bringing inanimate objects to life. This step is where the bulk of the film actually lays.
Post Production—Finishing the project by wrapping up visual rendering, which puts the final look and feel on the project. This stage also wraps up the sound by applying the music and getting the soul of the sound from small details such as papers rustling. These things are applied to film wrapping in final edit before going to the theater.
As production advances, the studio starts to ramp up marketing through multiple outlets in order to gain acknowledgement across the world that they are about to release their film.
MOONDOG & SILICON HARBOR
Although technology is incredibly important to the production process, it is transparent in Moondog’s animated films. Said Davis, “Technology is the paintbrush that Moondog uses. In the end, we are telling a story and trying to push through heartwarming, enriching characters and story lines that tug at the heartstrings. Our real passion is to tell the stories that we’d be proud to tell our kids and these are made possible through this technology we’re putting together. But it is always at the service of the story, strong characters, powerful messages, good family content and entertainment.”
Ransom believes Moondog is a great fit for both Charleston’s creative and tech community. “A lot of what we do is technical—it’s called digital animation for a reason, and we understand developers, technology and what they go through everyday to make cool programs, applications and innovate new ways for attacking a problem. That’s what we do as well.”