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A small animation shop is trying to break up a movie monopoly

by VICE News
Jul 8 2017, 7:24am

“Despicable Me 3” opens in China Friday, after winning the U.S. box office over the July Fourth weekend and grossing over $241 million worldwide. The latest animated sequel will undoubtedly wring even more profit out of a franchise that’s already grossed $2.7 billion for Illumination-Universal Studios.

Modern animation films like this can be insanely lucrative, but the huge production costs and proprietary technology needed to bring them to life mean that most new stories never see the light of day, and the ones that do virtually all come from major Hollywood studios.

One small animation shop in the Netherlands is trying to change that with its first feature film.

Blender Animation Studio is using its own open-source software, named Blender, to animate the beloved Dutch comic series “Agent 327,” created by cartoonist Martin Lodewijk.

“So it is a Dutch spy, but he’s not 007; he’s 327. Which means he can have a gun but he’s not allowed to use it,” says Blender’s creator and founder, Ton Roosendaal.

It took about a year for the small Blender team to create the teaser trailer forAgent 327: Operation Barbershop.”

“We decided to first make the universe — What is the world? What are the rules? — and then the story has to come out of that. Because if the story doesn’t fit with the world, you lose it to start with,” says Roosendaal. “You see that with Pixar movies; they come out of a universe. Even though it’s cartoon and animation and it’s based in the ’70s, it still has a modern look and feel.”

“Agent 327” was co-directed by Colin Levy, formerly of Pixar, and Hjalti Hjálmarsson. Hjálmarsson acted out and shot scenes for “Agent 327: Operation Barbershop” himself — slamming his face against a wall or spinning around with a weapon or suitcase — to mimic his movements for the animations.

“I mean, if you look at comic book strips, they are really made to be two-dimensional, and it’s very hard to imagine them turning around in three dimensions,” explains Hjálmarsson. “The style [for “Agent 327”] is very much European. So a punch is not necessarily intentionally going past; it’s really going toward the face.”

Blender Animation Studio is currently shopping “Agent 327” around to make it into a feature film. It will take about $15 million and some creative freedom.

“It happened, for example, with “Despicable Me.” It was originally French. And everybody thinks, ‘I thought ‘Despicable Me’ is American.’ And then Universal took over and they sent over their people and they turned it into a more international film for international audiences,” says Roosendaal.

He doesn’t want that to happen with “Agent.”

“If you get involved with Hollywood,” he worries, “they might eat you.”

This segment originally aired June 29, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.