PIEDMONT -- Some of the top stop-motion filmmakers in the industry are joining forces with Emeryville's Athena Studios, headed by Piedmont resident Jon Peters, to work on "Auntie Claus," a new animated film that is expected to create jobs for almost 200 local artists.
Co-producer Brice Parker, whose many visual effects credits include the "Batman," "Jurassic Park' and "Matrix" movie franchises, left Pixar to work with Peters.
"Pixar doesn't do stop-motion," Parker said, "so this was a great opportunity."
Parker loves the medium, but he also was excited about the possibility of working with some of the talented artists who lost their jobs when Disney suddenly shut down production on Henry Selick's latest stop-motion film a year ago. Selick, who directed "Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Coraline," had to sell off his equipment and lay off all of the artists when his Cinderbiter studio in San Francisco closed its doors.
"He had built up a huge infrastructure to support all the stop-motion they were about to shoot," Parker said. Athena and several other studios bought most of Cinderbiter's equipment. "We were able to acquire a lot of animation hardware and motion control systems," Parker said.
Up to that point, Athena had done primarily commercial and training films, but the new equipment made a feature film more of a possibility for the small studio.
"I started thinking it would be fun to do something bigger and better," Peters said. "And then I happened to walk into Barnes and Noble and this book ('Auntie Claus') was all over the shelves, even though it was written back in 1999. I remembered it because it had been one of my kids' favorites."
Written and illustrated by Elise Primavera, the story takes place in New York City, where young Sophie Kringle's eccentric great-aunt lives in a penthouse atop the plush Bing Cherry Hotel. Auntie Claus is "part Auntie Mame and part Coco Chanel," Peters said. She mysteriously disappears every Christmas on a so-called business trip, and one year Sophie decides to stow away.
Peters and Parker loved the charming story, lush illustrations and the message about learning to be selfless and kind. "So we contacted the author and found out the story had been optioned by Nickelodeon," Peters said. But Nickelodeon's live-action film (with real actors) never got off the ground.
"They had worked on the script for several years, and the author (Primavera) wasn't happy with any of them," Parker said. "After a time, the option just lapsed. Then Jon contacted her and pitched our take on the story -- a stop-motion film -- and she through-the-moon loved that idea."
The prospect of doing a feature-length stop-motion film that could become a holiday classic and hiring those artists who had just lost their jobs was a double-thrill for Peters. But stop-motion animation is expensive. Peters would need major financial backing, and to do that he would have to create a pitch, a short teaser film. Stop-motion animation involves creating an entire miniature world and complex articulated puppets with interchangeable eyes, eyebrows, foreheads, mouths, noses and other features required for different facial expressions. Production of even a short teaser would cost more than $60,000, but dozens of artists volunteered to work countless hours -- for no pay -- to make it a reality.
Peters set up a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the pitch/teaser, and with less than 72 hours before the deadline, donors came through with $42,486 to pay the volunteer artists. The final step was the sound mix, done at Skywalker Sound with Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt. Peters has pitch meetings set with major backers this month and hopes to start production on "Auntie Claus" in January.