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Digital Domain Sets Up Florida Shop, Aims To Be Next Pixar

Digital Domain

Visual effects house Digital Domain is building a $40 million, 120,000-square foot studio in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The plan: expand beyond service work for live-action features and create “extremely clean, family films that are memorable, strong, powerful stories.” Since feature animation is quite nearly the most lucrative thing going in Hollywood right now, everybody wants a piece of the action. Digital Domain is moving in the direction of vfx shops like Sony Imageworks and more recently ILM, which released its first original production, Rango, earlier this year. DD has already greenlit an idea for its first feature (what is it?) and hopes to have it in theaters by 2014.

The only hitch is that Digital Domain has been talking about creating original content since the mid-1990s. The company tried to launch an IPO a few years back which failed to ignite interest from investors. Now, they’re getting ready to try the IPO again. This time they hope the results will be different. For starters, the state of Florida and the city of Port St. Lucie has awarded them $70 million worth of incentive grants to set up shop down there. Second, they’ve hired Disney animator and Brother Bear co-director Aaron Blaise to helm their first feature, presumably so that he will recreate some of that Brother Bear magic.

They’ve also hired the executive producer of Brother Bear, Chuck Williams, who told the TCPalm that, “As Pixar is struggling with sequels and Disney’s struggling to find itself, I think it’s a good time for us to come in with a different point of view with great family films.” Frankly, other studios would kill to struggle as much as Disney/Pixar, which created the top grossing film at the worldwide box office last year, plus another animated feature in the top ten.

Plenty more details about DD’s plans in this TCPalm article, including this bit:

In exchange for incentives, the company agreed to create up to 500 jobs with an average annual salary of $65,000 by 2014. The company, now at 243 employees, is on its way to overwhelmingly exceeding that goal.

According to the article, only 15 of those employees work in its feature animation division. The photo up top is of (l. to r.) Chuck Williams, Aaron Blaise, and Craig Grasso. There’s also a solo photo of Aaron Blaise accompanying the TCPalm piece which has a special surprise that I’ve highlighted below:

Aaron Blaise

I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything, but as a rule of thumb, if you’re launching a new animation studio, it’s a smart idea to make sure that logos of other studios’ animated films aren’t visible in publicity shots.

  • I love to hear that more companies are looking to produce animated films, I love hearing that good people are being hired and that opportunities are being generated for artists.
    I think it sounds like its going to be a great place to work.

    I wish it was here in LA.

  • So the first thing a new studio wants to do is jump into feature films without any smaller projects to get their feet wet with? I’m not a movie producer, but from experiences go with new studios jumping straight into features like this seems…risky.

    • amid

      Tedzey – You’re right. Digital Domain’s top-down approach is extremely risky. They’re setting up a super-expensive studio with no creative visionaries at the helm, no clear purpose other than they want a piece of the action, and no track record of creating original IP. I wish them luck, but there are few precedents for this type of scenario working out well. At least DD got a baseball studio named after them.

    • Animation professional

      I feel that this situation is a bit different. If the heads of the studio had no experience at all in directing, yes, absolutely, short first. However, the head creatives have already created a profitable animated film (even if it wasn’t one of Disney’s greatest hits). They’ve got the financial backing and experience–why n

  • John

    I hope they make some good films. Looks promising, to me. I just hope they don’t go with a “let’s do what Pixar does!” mentality and instead come up with some really original ideas.

  • I’m joining the team at Digital Domain Florida this summer as a Vis-Dev/Story intern (and hopefully staying longer!), and all I have to say is that this is a truly special place. The film in development is heartfelt, moving, and absolutely has the potential to be a great hit. Keep a look out for this studio–they are going to make incredible films, one after another!

    • amid

      Good luck, Betsy! Hope it works out for ya.

  • Lucy

    If that’s struggling, sign me up >.<

    Also, cool to see a studio in my area…. I'll hope for the best for them.

  • Jim

    The feature animation industry in Florida died when the Disney studio closed down so this is awesome news for animators and student animators in Florida!

  • Chris Webb

    I wish them luck.

    Not to be a downer, but I think it is worth say that Florida is a right-to-work state. That means they discourage Unions.

    As an unabashed lefty, I find that troubling.

    • Ashley

      Being a Conservative, I think that will make for a winning formula.

      • AltredEgo

        Being a lefty or a righty or a liberal or a conservative is nonsense.
        It’s a kind of shorthand for having an individual point of view.
        Saying ‘I’m am a conservative therefore I think it’s good, or I’m on
        the left, so I think it’s bad is to say nothing at all.
        If you have a problem with people not being forced to pay money to an organization
        That may or may not represent them or will use that money to support political parties that an individual member might disagree with, just to have a job, then you should really state why you feel that way. And if you think workers getting together to protect themselves from predatory management practices is a bad idea then you should explain that too. This. Left/right shorthand means that the two sides can never find common ground because you’re not arguing ideas, you’re just fighting for your side like it was a football game.

        This is an animation site, but we all operate in a real workplace environment, so I think these mini-conversations are worthwhile but personally I’d like to see statements of substance rather than the typical red versus blue fighting that has all the nuance of a California gang fight.


      • Chris Webb

        Yes, you’re right. I used “lefty” as shorthand. And perhaps using shorthand when discussing as something important as collective bargaining and worker’s rights is not a good idea.

        So I will come right out and say it: I don’t agree with Florida or New Mexico’s policies that discourage labor unions. So I am always against a studio setting up shop in a state that is not union friendly.

        Just about everything I have I owe to a union (the WGA) and I believe without them we’d still all be working 8 hours on Saturday and would not enjoy paid holidays and other things Americans take for granted.

        Like many businesses, most of the entertainment business (and the movie business specifically) does not see that their success is built upon the backs of workers. They think success comes from ideas, not people.

        Yes, unions are flawed like any organization run by humans, (gov’t, the church) but one can’t deny that they’ve had a positive effect on American society.

      • Jason

        I find it unusual that being against unions is a conservative stance. Many unions used to be and continue to be conservative organizations. I also find it unusual that the current democratic party appears to be against them as well.

        Everyone knows that unions are needed in this industry. Everyone also knows that the powers that be are against them for similar reasons. Unions worked for Walt Disney and they’ll work today.

    • Ya as a Libertarian I think its good…

  • I’ll be sure to tell other SCAD students about this. They’d love to hear it!

  • I liked “Brother Bear”. I liked the commentary track by the two moose more.

    Someone on the government side didn’t negotiate right here:

    “In exchange for incentives, the company agreed to create up to 500 jobs with an average annual salary of $65,000 by 2014.”

    “up to” would include any number down to zero.

  • 2011 Adult

    I was depressed when Disney closed down their Florida 2D studio. DD will no doubt go the CG route, but I hope for the best for them anyway.

    One thing: Pixar has a slate of original films coming up as well as sequels- sequels aren’t crippling them at all!

  • Darkblader

    How can we be certain if the last pic is showing their studio logo? I cant even make a good contact of it.

    • amid

      That’s the “How to Train Your Dragon” logo.

  • Steven M.

    Their plan sounds very much a recipe for failure, but then again thats just me.

  • Along with Betsy, I will also be joining Digital Domain as a story/visdev intern and from what I’ve seen in development, it’s very exciting. The upcoming projects have great potential and can’t wait to see where it goes next!

  • Toaster

    “…Pixar is struggling with sequels, Disney is struggling to find itself…”

    That’s a pretty bold comment for a new studio looking to join those studios as a peer in the industry! I’m not saying it isn’t a true statement (though Pixar’s “struggling” is something I’ll leave for Cartoon Brew readers to endlessly debate!)

    However, I would think a studio looking to get it’s name out there for “extremely clean family films” would not want any of it’s early publicity to make it seem like mud-slinging at the big boys for attention.

    I do wish them luck, and as a former Floridian animator now living in California for work, I’ll keep an eye on them as they go!

    • dbenson

      Not too worried about the “extremely clean” line. I’m sure they’ll learn to softpedal it even if the films really ARE that clean — especially if they’re good. Recall back in the day, studios would actually add a single “sh**” purely to avoid the G rating, which was quickly understood to mean “for TV-addled infants” as opposed to “incidentally OK to bring kids to.”

      If they keep making a big deal out of how clean they are, it’ll be a warning sign — like comics or rock groups who make a big deal of being “courageous” or “edgy” (THAT’s why they’re playing dive bars on weeknights)

    • floridaresident

      Peer in the industry?

      As much as I like to pretend these companies aren’t in competition and that we as animators would like to help each other to further the craft, it just isn’t realistic.

      This is competition, they are drinking Disney’s Milk Shake, they drink it up.

      Also, the “extremely clean family films”, I just think they mean they aren’t going to have a rather princely norse mythological deity smashing people’s faces off with thunder hammers.

  • Toonio

    I think is fair to say that we’ll bear with them till the movie release.

    • floridaresident

      At least until they’ve become masters of their domain.

  • Clutch

    “..they’ve hired Disney animator and Brother Bear co-director Aaron Blaise to helm their first feature, presumably so that he will recreate some of that Brother Bear magic”

    Classy as always Amid!

  • Jeff Simonetta

    A company wanting to take a big financial risk in feature animation? What is this earth coming to!

  • Adam

    One huge incentive to anyone thinking of knocking on their door: it is dirt cheap to buy a house in Florida now. 65K in Florida money goes a lot farther than 65K in California money.

    • floridaresident

      If you live on the west coast of Florida. East Coast Florida is hella expensive. The only thing 65k will get you is down payment on a house.

      • Torgo

        Yeah, you are better off asking the state for a handout. Say, maybe, $70 million to fund a pipe dream?

  • dbenson

    Fleischer came, flowered, and was taken over and moved away.

    Disney came, flowered, and was folded up by the home office.

    If Digital Domain does get something going, can’t help but feel its backers will drag it back to LA.

  • The Disney Animation studio in Florida was an amazing place filled to the brim with wonderful people that did top notch work. I’m pleased to see 3 of those people in the photo above. I for one wish them nothing but success!!!

  • “Extremely clean family films” kind of scares me. I translate that into “nothing more offensive than a fart joke, no deviation from father-mother-child role models, no problem more serious than not being accepted by father”.

    The recipe seems complete (a working CGI pipeline, amount N of money, and the importance of story at least mentioned in PR), but it will all depend on the cooks.

    • That’s really jumping to conclusions

    • I assure you that no one at the company is interested in making fart jokes. The term family film gets a bad name in the motion picture business; it just means that the film can be marketed to a wide audience. If you will recall, I believe Rango was marketed as a family film, too, and it was anything but typical.

      • Justin

        The Pirates movies are also considered family films.

  • Craig

    “different point of view with great family films.” Hmmm. Doesn’t sound like a plan to grow the medium beyond anything we haven’t seen before.

    • This is the part I was concerned with too… I’d be much more excited if they tried making more adult themed movies, or even shows aimed at young adults. Really anything but more family films in animation!

      Well who knows, maybe their films will be real diamonds.

    • floridaresident

      gotta get the bread and butter out there first. Doesn’t make sense to go “out-there” straight out of the gate.

  • Teafly

    Guys guys, this is just Amid speak for – “Good luck, gang!”

  • Studios no longer have the option of “starting small.” There’s no real market for shorts, and television specials won’t cut it. You’ve got to jump in the deep end of the pool and hope you don’t drown.

    This studio is great news and I wish them all the best. By the way, who cares if there’s another studio’s poster on the wall? We’re all in the same business, dammit.

    • amid

      Digital Domain has been around not just for years, but decades! Have they ever had a shorts department? If they had a clear goal of eventually creating original content, they would have planted the seeds earlier through a shorts program, just as Pixar, Blue Sky, PDI and Sony Imageworks did before advancing to features.

      • AltredEgo

        Amid, I think that’s a bit disingenuous to include Pixar in that list.
        Pixar did short films because 3d animation was brand new. At that time, no one knew if you could do it for 3 minutes let alone 90 minutes! Also “Pixar” did shorts because that’s all it could physically handle. It was an offshoot of ILM and not the giant mega studio that it is now. It’s not like there was a giant Pixar facility with hundreds of employees and they sat down and worked out a plan to do shorts and work their way up to features.

        As for doing shorts, sure it’s a good idea but who has the money to invest in a 3d short that will likely generate no money? The alchemy involved in turning youtube views into cash is a tricky one.

        What I find most offensive about this entire post is that right off the bat there is an attack on this newcomer. No one cares about them having some type of promo for another studio visible. If they had a Mr. Incredible action figure on a desk would that also be a problem? The pro-Pixar propaganda on this site is becoming harder and harder to ignore. At first it was a cute bias, now it’s like this site exists to praise Pixar as though it is the pinnacle of human achievement while simultaneously attacking all other entries to the market. This must be what Fox news is like with a Democratic president.

        One minute everyone here is kvetching that there isn’t enough American animation jobs and studios not outsourcing work, then when someone does create something in America, this site goes into Pixar-Protection-Attack mode.

        Pixar, like Disney before it, will have it’s time in the sun and then fade, as newcomers to the market enter with fresher ideas. Lord knows, there is certainly ROOM for newcomers. I shudder to think about the imaginations of people who believe that Pixar has somehow cornered the market on storytelling. How about stories for adults instead of constantly infantalizing the adult audience by forcing animation lovers to watch movies for children? The Japanese have been doing brilliant work for years…and on television! Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a staggering achievement. Anyone who has seen it knows what I’m talking about.

        So, I for one am rooting for DD, though after hearing about their “family film” plan, I know that they’re already dead in the water. Unless they are exceptionally lucky the public will treat it like a red-headed stepchild because it’s not a Pixar. I would of course like them to try to push things forward, but I know that’s not how these things go.

        The only thing that really surprises me is how many animation professionals seem to be completely satisfied with such a limited range of animated cultural product. Pixar-Dreamworks-Sony-BlueSky Heck they’re so similar that one studio’s film actually killed another studio’s film because they had the same premise! I’m not knocking any of the above studios but if that’s all animation has to offer, I think that’s a pretty sorry state of affairs because the real world is so much broader than what any few studios can offer.

        It would be nice to see less genuflecting before the altar of “Pixar” and more enthusiasm for all newcomers and perhaps a demand for better films, with real diversity of ideas and characters and concepts. So I say, welcome Digital Domain, stay a while, survive and maybe some other newcomers will enter the pool and we can finally start to push this whole business forward.

      • Anne

        What’s wrong with a company taking new ventures? Happens all the time. The reason a lot of studios, such as those you mentioned above, do a short first is to make sure that the head creatives have the ability to direct and understand the 3D pipeline. All 3 head creatives have been at/directed at/produced at Disney/Pixar respectively. Aaron was in the process of directing King of the Elves (one of those fancy CG films) at Disney before the film was shelved. And we all know that Disney has kicked the projects from great directors in the past (Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, anyone?)

        If the head creatives understand how this process works already, why waste time on a short that will pull in virtually no profit for the company? I for one am in favor of going full throttle into a feature. Lord knows the animation community can always use more jobs.

      • Teafly


        Great reply, I share your sentiments about the PIXAR worship that seems to be everywhere.

        The only problem with your observation is that PIXAR DOES think they are pushing boundaries with every film. They DO think they make films for adults.

        I don’t wish them any ill future but you’re right, their time is coming, & everyone has already seen the writing on the wall.

  • Its great to see more animation and jobs made possible. I just hope this won’t lead to an “animation bubble”. Technologically savvy studios can use their resources to jump into the medium – just like ILM did with Rango. But how many families can afford to see all of these films? I’m sure for some families, seeing these films in 3D, let alone 2D, is out of the question with ticket prices ranging from $10 to $20 bucks.

    I’m also waiting to see how Kung Fu Panda 2 and Cars 2 do at the box office before I pass judgement. I’m just thinking: If I spent $50 to $200 bucks in the past 2 months to take the family to see Rango and Rio – can I afford to do the same for the next two months as well?

    • floridaresident

      Growing up I rarely got to go to the movies because five bucks to three to 15 bucks was a lot of dough for my family. However, the better off kids at school not only went to these movies and sometimes even saw them three times, they also had the watch, the bookbag, pencils, shoes, toys, etc.

      The money isn’t so much in the tickets but in the merchandising. It’s in the $40 Cars t-shirts, in the $70 tinkerbell costumes, the $6.00 Might Kids Meals, $20 Shrek Balls, that’s where you money is at; welcome to the animation industry :)

  • Ron

    I think a new studio setting up shop anywhere in the US is good news. Especially a high quality one like Digital Domain. It’s good news for animation and good news for the US economy. As others pointed out, Florida has a long history with the animation industry so it’s fitting they’d set up shop there. I grew up in Florida and probably would have stayed had there been an opportunity like this at the time. Disney was there but closed shop by the time I finished school. Alas. Anyway, I hope this studio does great and becomes a permanent part of the Florida landscape.

    • Bud

      Digital domain has never created CONTENT—they’ve only been a service provider, sometimes on good product. This is the big question mark (and why the IPO a few years ago went bust).

  • Chris Webb

    Do they have a distribution deal with a studio? The article doesn’t mention it. I wonder how they will get their movie into theaters? Does anyone know?

  • Zinnea

    “Spunky and Tadpole” was done in Florida!

  • The Gee

    The endeavor is worth well wishing, for sure.
    Mr. Norman might be right that you have to Go Big nowadays but I hope the studio is smart about it.
    Integrating the studio into the community is a good thing but the business end needs to work out great and get better, especially if they are taking it public almost out of the gate before even the first feature is made.

  • draw52

    Judging from the two images I’d say the project involves elephants…..just a guess.

    -“TEMBO” poster in the background–Tembo means elephant in Swahili.
    -To the right (I believe) is an image of an elephant rearing on its hind legs to reach the upper tree leaves.
    -Above the tree picture is the Muybridge elephant walk cycle plates.
    -On the desk beside Mr.Grasso is a profile image of an elephant.

    Thats an African elephant drawing to the right of the artist’s arm I believe.

  • Cities in my home state of Florida give tax incentives to fund everything. It’s part of why the state has been bleeding money for years. Retirees hold the line on property and other tax increases, and there’s no state income tax.

    The techie jobs from DD are a plus (Lord knows FL needs something other than a bubble-driven real estate development industry to drive it), but I wouldn’t expect the city to build out any infrastructure to support the business and new arrivals.

    • floridaresident

      Yeah, just like they funded the new Marlins Stadium with money from Miami-Dade County tax payers then denied construction jobs to Miami-Dade County tax payers and instead outsourced them to people from other states…

  • Maybe everyone should wait to see what they produce instead of jumping to ill-informed conclusions.

  • Grayson Ponti

    I hope to visit the studio when it opens. Everything I’ve been hearing soons very interesting and I hope to hear more soon.

  • floridaresident

    To students of animation interested in pursuing a career in the field, you guys should check out what’s going on with FSU.

    Did some research on this about two years ago when this was being announced and supposedly FSU’s got some deal with Digital Domain akin the Calarts/Disney thing in the 30s where you were actually being taught to actually start working in the studio. It might end up being more of a “talent development program” since that kind of mentorship nowadays is dead in animation.

    Besides, FSU has, from what I’ve researched, one of the better public film programs in the country.

    • Students will either have to be housed onsite or mentored remotely. Port. St. Lucie is a six-hour drive from FSU. In fact, it’s hours from any school in the Florida State University system.

    • Gene

      Disney/CalArts never had such a program. And neither did Disney/Chouinard. Those were ART schools–not training programs. Any W
      “work” training was done at the studios, at their expense.

  • Graham

    Big dreams, little payoff.

    From what I’m seeing, it’s just another group of guys setting up a cheap animation studio. They only think they can rival the big guns simply because they make CGI.

    Hey, it worked for Vanguard. I don’t see any problem with this.

  • The big post production houses are all depending on service work and the idea of creating content must be very tempting. If successful, that could mean a certain independence and less having to bid against other post houses to secure a few effects shots on the next big blockbuster. It makes a lot of sense to try and do that from a business point of view. Framestore in the UK did go part of the way towards that goal by making “A Tale Of Desperaux” as a service project but have not managed to follow with one of their own (as far as I know). Being good at running an effects company does not automatically make you a film maker. Hiring a hand-full of people who have been employed by one of the other content creators before is a start but if those guys do not have the infrastructure to support them, their best ideas won’t go very far. And with infrastructure I don’t mean render farms and fur software. If the management will allow an entirely new structure to develop, there is a chance something good can happen. And should they manage to make one film, a second won’t happen immediately and I guess they can always use their new facility to work on effects shots.
    Whenever I read about news like this, I have this idea that the people in charge should look at all the other failed similar attempts by others and try and learn from those mistakes. There are plenty of them. I sincerely hope those mistakes won’t happen here, only time will tell.
    As to family films – there is always room for another one as long as it is a good one, whatever that is. Good luck!

  • Nancy Beiman

    I agree with Uli and thank him for his thoughtful, well informed post.

  • Pedro Nakama

    And if Digital Domain treats it’s animation employees the same way they treat their VFX employees this will be short lived.

  • tom bancroft

    A big congratulations and good luck to Digital Domain on this new venture! Anyone that doesn’t have the last name of Disney or “Burg” (Katzenburg or Spielburg, that is) is going to have a hard time making an animated feature film. These guys at least are smart to get local incentive money, top notch experienced creatives involved, and other work (government training stuff as well as VFX movie work) to fill in the gaps/bring in money when people are sitting around. How many studios have thought about those things? Not many. Good luck to my pals Aaron, Chuck, Craig Grasso (Pictured), Pam Coats and many more former Disney Florida alum that know a thing or two about making good animated films! You pray the money doesn’t run out and you can see your vision fulfilled!

  • Chris L

    [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “Be considerate and respectful of others in the discussion. Defamatory, rude or unnecessarily antagonistic comments will be deleted.”]

  • Steve

    I’m a little disappointed that DD doesn’t have any employment information on their own website regarding their Florida location. In fact, for being a company based around special effects and animation, their website overall is quite lackluster.