This article originally appeared on Zerply. By Victor Fuste.
Story Artist Spyros Tsiounis is an 18-year veteran of the animation game about to release his first independent short film. The project, entitled Them Greeks…!, is about the cultural difference between Tsiounis’s native Greece and America, where he currently lives. It’s also about a bar.
This marks a rather major departure from supplying Darth Maul’s snarl. Tsiounis spoke about leaving DreamWorks and Industrial Light and Magic to do his own thing.
Let’s start with the basics – how long have you been working in the industry, in what capacity, and what are your goals with this film?
I came from Greece to the US at 17 for college. I attended USC for film classes and then transferred to CalArts to specialize in Animation.
After graduation, I started working for Industrial Light and Magic back in 1998. I trained in computer animation there but wanted to focus on story, so I moved to Los Angeles and worked in story development teams at Sony and DreamWorks Animation, among others, on films like Stuart Little, Kung Fu Panda, The Bee Movie, and Shrek Forever After. I also briefly visited Laika to work on Coraline*.
In 2008, I went back to Lucasfilm to work on The Clone Wars – a lavish TV show that won 4 Emmys and pushed the technology in pre-visualization tools. Around the same time, it became obvious to a lot of us in the industry that soon there will be an opportunity to set up sophisticated computer animation productions entirely over the internet and that could finally make the medium more affordable and accessible to more independent filmmakers, not just a handful of huge studios.
I had boarded a short story called “Them Greeks…!” that I pitched to a bunch of colleagues. I think that the fact they could see that the preparatory work had been done inspired a lot of them to join and thus I was able to start building a team.
What inspired the original idea for “Them Greeks” and how has it developed throughout production?
“Them Greeks” is the story of Norman – a lonely, workaholic who can’t sleep because a Greek Tavern under his bedroom is shaking the neighborhood with noise and music. The whole film is about him coming downstairs to make them shut up.
The story was inspired by the contrast between my Greek and American experience. As a Greek, I know how to throw a party. As an American, I find myself working long hours in a much more regimented culture. These two sides have been fighting inside of me for as long as I can remember.
The story for any film should ideally be fully fleshed out before production starts. Down the line, every step of production becomes an opportunity to plus the original ideas. You do so with performance in animation, or mood in lighting and FX, for example. The challenge is to keep all these improvements aligned with the original intentions and keep the story feeling spontaneous despite the multiple iterations.
What was it in either your personal or professional life that pushed you to create your own short film? Was this idea something you had been working on for some time or was it a reaction to something specific?
I was frustrated with what I felt was stagnation over the industry. Like I mentioned before, it bogles my mind that more than 20 years after the introduction of sophisticated computer technology and an overall boom in the industry’s output, there has nevertheless been relatively little creative, operational, and technological innovation. I have experienced repeatedly tremendous potential in all these areas at the big studios that rarely finds expression.
The opportunity that my team and I saw to do things differently came from outside the studio system. Mostly from the entrepreneurial world of the Bay Area, who by now, has made a habit out of identifying industries resistant to change and disrupting them.
I don’t mean to complain about the studio system per se – I have had a fun career in it for years. And for that I am grateful. I just feel that it benefits everyone to have non-industrial alternatives in any field. Small agile companies, side by side large infrastructures, that focus on finding new ways of doing things.
Some of your colleagues have started using Artella to build their production pipelines with talent scattered all over the globe. Could you talk about the challenges and benefits of mounting a production in this way?
We developed our pipeline independently of Artella. Only recently we became aware of each other’s progress and have been in touch. Artella seems to be building a great platform in the right direction and we are always looking for opportunities to collaborate. The prerequisite for that is that our process through “Them Greeks” becomes more solidified, which is finally now beginning to happen. Up until recently, it had been a struggle to pull all the pieces of the pipeline together.
We both share the same hopes in terms of what can be improved in the industry.
The biggest challenge right now has nothing to do with the distributed model and everything to do with the fact that we’re trying to pull off something terribly ambitious with a team made up of volunteers. This means that everyone works on the production part time. Trying to keep such a team motivated, collect small contributions at a slow pace, and stitch them together into a cohesive whole is super hard.
If the production were fully funded, and therefore operating full time, then I believe that our distributed model would be subject to similar benefits and challenges that professional distributed teams have already been experiencing in a number of other industries. The distributed model is well studied by now. The conclusions are that, depending on whether certain aspects are managed properly, a distributed team can either well over-perform the traditional model or do worse. At the heart of this challenge is the issue of “social distance”.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far in the production of “Them Greeks”?
Would you do anything differently if you had to start over?
I could literally write a book about the lessons my team and I have learned. The biggest one would probably be that lavish, great quality, computer animation is a stunningly complex process. To accomplish something independently, you cannot enter it with the studio mentality of “oh, what I love to do is just the creative part. Other people will take care of the rest”. It requires an, at least, fundamental understanding of almost every step of the way (especially, if you are a lead). A few people find themselves having to perform multiple varied tasks compared to a large organization where many people only need to perform single highly specialized ones.
What were your goals for this project?
Our goal is for computer animation to not be “stuck” in two specific ways:
- Thematically, animation doesn’t have to be just family entertainment for kids. It can run the entire spectrum of storytelling and reach all kinds of audiences.
- Animation shouldn’t be locked behind the walls of just a handful of major studios. Creative, and even technological innovation, is more likely when more talented independent teams have a chance at telling their stories and reaching new audiences.
I wish that the team I am working with on “Them Greeks” get to contribute to this vision by finishing the short film as proof of what is possible. If we succeed, we hope to have shown that we have the capacity and talent to handle such productions professionally. Either by telling the stories we ourselves are passionate about, or by helping other independents do so, or both.
Any advice you have for someone who has a short film of their own they want to produce?
Be rigorous about estimating your resources and capacity and those of your team. Then make sure you understand what exactly your production would require and whether that would be well handled by what you can afford.
This article originally appeared on Zerply. By Victor Fuste.
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