Animation boom draws on local talent

Local filmmakers, schools create burgeoning Midstate industry

Friday, December 17, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 51
By Tom Wood

Part of the summary of “The Wingfeather Saga,’’ a four-book fantasy/adventure series written by Nashville singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson, reads thus:

“The family is at the center of a great mystery that will change their lives – and their world – forever.”

That description also rings true for the Brentwood-based animators behind the independent TV series adaptation of the novels, thanks to a life-changing $5 million crowdfunding effort during a 20-day span that got their dream project off the ground. Already in production, season one of “The Wingfeather Saga” six-episode animated series is expected to begin streaming in late 2022 or early 2023.

J. Chris Wall, who co-founded Shining Isle Productions with Peterson in 2016, and Brock Starnes, partner and executive producer at Brentwood Studios, used the funding platform of Utah-based distributor Angel Studios to reach their $5 million goal in less than three weeks.

“We sold $1 million worth of shares in the first 48 hours. It was crazy,” says Wall, executive producer and showrunner for the animated series. “We sold through all $5 million in 20 days. What it demonstrated was the demand was there because we had really believed (in the project).”

Unlike Kickstarter, which allows people to contribute to a fundraising campaign with little or no expectations of receiving something in return, crowdfunding allows people to buy shares of the company. The minimum investment was $100.

“There are over 8,000 families and investors that contributed hundreds and hundreds of dollars or thousands of dollars to help make the series,” Starnes explains. “It is the largest crowdfunded animation project for kids and families that’s been done so far.”

“It was crazy, just crazy,” adds Peterson, who like Starnes is an executive producer of the project. “Nobody likes asking anybody for money, but the cool thing about this was that we’re not asking for a favor, we’re asking for an investment.

“And the people who have read this story and believe in it also believe in it enough to put their money where their mouth is. What’s really wonderful about it is it feels like we’re all in this together – like if we succeed, they succeed financially.

“It’s this fascinating model that I think I underestimated how generous people would be. I just couldn’t believe it and how good it would feel to feel like we have this small army of fans that are all in on this thing.”

The folks behind “The Wingfeather Saga” aren’t the only Nashville-based animators to successfully launch a project via a crowdfunding campaign.

Former Disney animator Tom Bancroft, who in 2015 spearheaded Lipscomb University’s thriving animation program, used the Wefunder equity crowdfunding portal to raise $2.3 million for his pet project, Pencilish Animation Studios.

“I’ve already begun hiring my students, many of them, to help me develop three different animated TV shows that I’m going to put on our Pencilish Studios YouTube channel,” Bancroft says. “That’s how we’re going to launch them with hopes of them becoming popular and making a lot of merchandising and licensing deals with those projects and with those characters.

“That’s sort of phase one of what I’m doing with Pencilish, with hopes of doing a feature film right around the corner. But I’ll need more investment for that.”

Crowdfunding 101

This isn’t the first iteration of “The Wingfeather Saga.” That was in 2017 when Shining Isle teamed with Nashville’s Magnetic Dreams Animation Studio to produce a 30-minute pilot. Funded by a $1 million Kickstarter campaign, the premiere was held at Belcourt Theater.

The plan was to use that short as a promotion for potential investors and/or studios, possibly using Kickstarter again to fund a full-length project. Then, in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, and the entertainment world, like everything else, changed.

“Theaters were closed, and streaming became kind of the normal way that people were going to start accessing media,” Wall recalls. “It created an opportunity of how we can get to audiences in different ways.

State incentives are making it more likely that Lipscomb students might find work in Tennessee.

-- Photo By Kristi Jones

“Entertainment has always had the larger outlets (think Netflix, Disney Plus, etc.) and then smaller outlets that might serve different clientele. Angel Studios was a new entry and their tactic was (to) deliver a series via app … where you’re directly connected (to an audience).”

Angel Studios used the SEC’s JOBS Act of 2015-2016 on Regulated Crowdfunding, commonly known as Reg CF, to launch “Dry Bar Comedy,” which Wall calls “kind of a clean comedy thing” and “The Chosen” series about the life of Jesus told through the disciples. Wall notes the drawback to the 2015-16 rollout was its $1 million cap on shares sold.

“That limited the kind of things that people could do with it,” Wall says. “At the beginning of 2021, it went into law that it was raised to a $5 million cap.

“Well, that changes a lot because now you’re in the territory where you could fund an independent film. You could fund a TV series. Suddenly, that’s a good chunk of money. Now you’re able to compete – still a small independent, but you’re able to compete.”

The Nashville group felt the success of the book series – which last year was acquired by Penguin Random House and relaunched – would appeal to avid fans who wanted an on-screen version.

“For us, we had this opportunity where we had a large audience following from the books. We thought we could tap into those folks and appeal to their commercial sensibilities with, ‘Hey this thing could be a really big success,’ and it’s making a show that they’ve all wanted to see – because they love the books, they want to see it,” Wall says.

“What (regulated crowdfunding) allowed small businesses to do is to sell shares in their company,” Wall explains. “Those people would actually own shares in your company, like if it became profitable, they would a part of it.

“You’re buying shares in a company you believe in and you’re doing it because you think those people are going to do good work, of course. But there’s a motivation in that if it’s successful, you get to enjoy that success because you have shares in that company.”

Wall explains how a $1,000 investment would work.

“We followed basically what ‘The Chosen’ had done because that was really successful on their platform and that was selling two types of shares one with preferred shares and then common,” he says.

“The preferred shares are what we sold publicly, and those people are guaranteed 120% before any profits are distributed. So, in other words, if you invested $1,000 you’re going to get your $1,000 plus 20% back first before anything else happens. And then they get a percentage of the overall company at that point from there into perpetuity.”

“And we, as the creators and distributors, get to share in the profits with the shareholders up to the life in it. And that includes … what’s cool is they’re buying in the company … so that includes anything we make as a part of … toys, shirts, games and all that stuff – they call it derivatives or ancillary – but part of anything we make. Which is really cool.”

Mike Halsey, who started Magnetic Dreams in his garage 27 years ago with co-founder Don Culwell, says crowdfunding “opens up a whole new approach to financing a film or financing animation or getting these things off the ground, particularly when you have something that has a built-in fan base like Andrew Peterson’s books.

“It’s an exciting time to be able to kick off those kinds of projects without having to go through the normal gatekeepers,” Halsey adds.

Incentives’ drawing power

A key factor in Nashville’s animation rise includes booming programs at Lipscomb and Middle Tennessee State University with big-name animators in faculty positions and more moving here.

But even bigger is the state’s new tax incentives program, which includes animation projects. The bill Gov. Bill Lee signed in March provides a 25% credit for qualified expenditures.

Eric Stars, visiting professor of computer generated imagery at Lipscomb University, works with a student on an animation project.

-- Photo By Kristi Jones

In May, listed 14 North American cities for pursuing a career in the field. Nashville didn’t make the list, which ranks San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, New York and Toronto as its top five.

Nashville animators and officials anticipate Music City will be on that list sooner than later, especially with incentives provided through the Tennessee Entertainment Commission.

“A lot of places (have) rebate systems for animation, Canada being one of the primary ones. For many years, it was very difficult to land a film or series work when you’re competing against the rebate system that, simply financially, you couldn’t compete,” Halsey says.

“Tennessee creating a rebate for film and adding animation to that I think will allow us to be at a level playing field again with some of the top animation cities. And I do expect (Nashville) to be on that list of top 25 soon because of that. We can now sit at the table with a level playing field with some of the top cities like Vancouver that have been taking all that work out of the United States.”

Starnes and Wall see Nashville becoming that animation destination.

“I don’t know that Nashville is a hotbed yet but there are some developments that are happening that are really exciting. Some of that is directly tied with some programs that are happening,” Starnes says.

“And the truth is when you get more filmmakers who work in that medium who live and work in and around Nashville or live and work in Tennessee, there’s just going to be more content that’s done. I mean, people want to be able to do that from here. So, I think there will be growing opportunities … with the programs that are going on in the universities and then just the people that are really good filmmakers that happen to live in Nashville.”

Wall says the incentives program is good business for the state.

“We’re competitive in that we’re in the ballpark and being based here in Nashville we can get that done,” Wall says. “We petitioned and were awarded … for our season one and got a 25% match up to $1 million to spend here in the state of Tennessee, which is really exciting to land that.”

Peterson soars over ‘Wingfeather’ success

Peterson, an Illinois native, moved to Nashville for what has been a music career, thought about pursuing a career in animation before adding author to his lengthy list of credits.

His vision for the “Wingfeather” project has been a saga itself. He wrote the four books during a 10-year period, the first published in 2008. Peterson’s faith-friendly tale has been favorably compared to “The Narnia Chronicles,’’ “Lord of the Rings’’ and others in the genre.

“After my second record, I started working on ‘The Wingfeather Saga’ for my children but also for me,” Peterson says. “I grew up reading fantasy novels and love the genre and have always wanted to know what it’s like to get inside a story and tell a big epic fantasy. So, my kids were kind of the impetus. I wanted to write a story that they would get into.”

Before publication of the final book, Peterson had gotten to know Wall, at the time one of the “VeggieTales” producers with Big Idea in Brentwood. Peterson, spurred by readers, had his own big idea for an animated version of the book. They discussed it several times, then asked fans what they wanted to see.

“At some point we reached out to the community of “Wingfeather Saga’’ fans and said, ‘Hey, what if we were to Kickstart a short film as a proof of concepts, a little pilot episode that we can use to try this out.” And they dove in, man,” Peterson says.

“I think it was the largest animation Kickstarter campaign in Kickstarter’s history. We felt this huge love from the readers who demonstrated that they really wanted to see this story like this.”

Peterson says he always projected “The Wingfeather Saga” as an animated epic (or) animated series than a live-action feature film.

“It just feels more suited to that genre – which isn’t to say it wouldn’t be cool to see a (‘Lord of the Rings’ director) Peter Jackson version,” Peterson laughs.

“But I just love animation and I love the idea of a serialized story so that you have time to really let the characters grow and stretch out because it’s a big story. The four books tell a big story and the thought of trying to compress that into 90 minutes or whatever just didn’t make sense to me.”

Peterson calls the books’ relaunch through Penguin Random House “this amazing gift, a huge blessing to see the books have this new life injected into them” that foreshadowed the project with Angel Studios.

Lipscomb students learn animation and are often hired to work on projects while still in school.

-- Photo By Kristi Jones

“It’s a dream for an author to be able to be a part of a team like this with a studio like Angel Studios that gives us the freedom that we have. It’s just amazing. And I never would have guessed that that would be the case but here we are.”

Lipscomb faculty branches out

The Lipscomb animation department that Bancroft began with eight students in 2015 now has more than 115 and this year added a master’s degree to the program. Part of the success has to do with the all-star cast of animators teaching the next-gen animators.

Bancroft’s group includes fellow Disney legend John Pomeroy and “VeggieTales” co-creator Mike Nawrocki. Other industry pros at Lipscomb include James Elston, Eric Stars, Mike Meredith, Victoria Thornberry and Diana Coco Russell.

All are teaching the art of animation while still creating.

“Most all of our faculty are still very involved in the animation industry – meaning they’re still doing freelance and working on projects. That’s something, also, that I’m very proud of when it comes to animation instructors,” says Bancroft, whose extensive credits include the Disney classics “Mulan,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” and “Aladdin.” He is especially noted for creating the character Mushu the Dragon in “Mulan.”

Nawrocki has successfully launched “The Dead Sea Squirrels” with a pilot episode that cost about $120,000. It has been greenlit for 12 more episodes with funding from both state incentives and two private investors for another $2.5 million.

Nawrocki’s project is based on his children’s book series published by Tyndale.

“As I was writing that book series, I also had my eye on animating it eventually. And so, over the last couple of years, through kind of my contacts in the industry and through Lipscomb, we were able to put together basically a plan to animate the episodes,” says Nawrocki, who voiced the character Larry the Cucumber in the “VeggieTales” series.

“We’ve raised all the money to do that to create 13 episodes of the series, which is basically a first season of animation. We’re producing that out of the school, so we’re doing all of the pre-production and post-production out of the school. And then we are also in the production phase, which is the animation itself.

“It’s really exciting. We’re getting the opportunity to take advantage of the new film incentive programs that recently have extended into animation. They were previously just available for live-action (projects) but recently extended into animation. We’ve been able to take advantage of that as well, which is very, very helpful.

“We’re just very excited about the whole situation, the whole opportunity, to create these shows, to create the experience for students. We’re paying the students as well through the production, so they are actually working in the industry, getting real-world experience and their name in credits and that kind of stuff. So it’s a really great opportunity.”

Pomeroy recently launched Pomeroy Arts Academy to train future animators. Among his extensive credits are “An American Tail,” “The Secret of NIMH,” “All Dogs Go to Heaven” and, most recently, “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”

He describes the Arts Academy as an extension of what he’s doing at Lipscomb.

“We have 15 lessons so far. We just shot 15 more lessons so we’re building the library,” Pomeroy says. “It’ll eventually have something like 150 to 180 different subjects concerning animation and all aspects of animation production, but also including things like basic drawing, basic painting, watercolor (and) sculpting.

“We’ll add those lessons as well to people who are interested not just in animation but in fine-honing their skills. Let’s say if they want to get involved with product design or prop design or any number of things with special effects. We’ll also have that do a cater to.

“So it’s terrific to be able to be on the mainstream with this wave of interest in animation that seems to be generating right now worldwide. The entire globe is like one gigantic cartoon studio right now.”

MTSU’s rise and Rose

Long before Lipscomb, there was MTSU’s animation program in its Department of Media Arts, part of the College of Media and Entertainment. It dates to 1992 and is “actually one of the longest-running digital animation programs, definitely in the United States,” says Kevin McNulty, an associate professor at MTSU and the animator program coordinator.

State incentives are making it more likely that Lipscomb students might find work in Tennessee.

-- Photo By Kristi Jones

McNulty says the program has almost 230 majors and 50-plus minors who learn everything “from 3D animation to 2D animation, motion graphics, visual effects, positing … kind of the whole gamut.

“We’re constantly incorporating new technology. … That way we’re not preparing students for jobs right now; we’re preparing them for the jobs that they’re going to be getting four or five years from now,” McNulty says.

We’re trying to anticipate where the need is going to be, how things are going to be evolving technology-wise because almost daily the technology that we use changes. So I have to anticipate that as much as possible.”

One MTSU graduate who has enjoyed a successful animation career is Mikki Rose, whose credits include “Ferdinand,” “Ice Age: Collision Course,” “The Peanuts Movie,” “OZ the Great and Powerful,” “Hotel Transylvania” and many others.

“MTSU was a wonderful program,” says Rose, calling her switch from education to a digital animation major “a pretty good decision, I think.

“I had a really great time there. I can speak personally to the success of students coming into that program

“I really do love what I do. And that was the basis for my education in it. I really had no idea – besides a love of art and drawing, Disney features and things like that – going into it of what I wanted to do and how those things actually worked out. So MTSU taught me all of that.”

Rose is not your ordinary animator, however.

“I’m very specialized. My specialty is hair, which is not something most people probably really think about in animated feature films. I like to call myself a digital hairstylist,” Rose says with a laugh.

She has become deeply involved in SIGGRAPH conventions, rising to chair for the 2019 conference in Los Angeles. She says she has in the past touted Nashville to host the annual convention and says she will continue to recommend the city in light of its animation growth.

“So far, it hasn’t been a good fit just because of what is available. The amount of people working in the industry there and in southeast in general doesn’t quite measure up to what would be on the West Coast. And so, it would mean travel for that many more people,” she says.

“But we are making a case for it and would definitely come back to the East Coast again. We’ve been thinking about changing sites of the conference because we anticipate it being a little bit smaller in-person for a while.

“Also, like you’re saying, that buildup of the industry in Nashville, I think there is definitely a case to be made for it. So it will be on the list.”

Animation City? Maybe

That would just be one more notch in Nashville’s belt as a great tourist and convention city.

“I love Tennessee and I miss it,” Rose says. “I would love to go back to the South sometime. If studios are thinking about opening up there I think it’s a great area to do so.

“The cost of living is frankly so much nicer there than it is in Los Angeles, which is one of the reasons I’m trying so hard not to move back to Los Angeles right now.

“But it’s also such a nice pace of life there. It’s such beautiful country and I just really like it. I would like to be there and my family is there. So, for me, that’s always nice to go back home for a visit. And having work there would be great.”

Halsey says he is happy to see “anything that grows the field in Nashville. It’s exciting to have more talent available. It’s exciting to have these big projects occurring in Nashville and certainly it helps when you’re talking on the phone with a potential client and they’re aware of things happening in Nashville,” he adds.

“The city has grown tremendously and the animation network here in Nashville continues growing at a very rapid pace with very exciting projects and people involved.”