In the 1970s, San Francisco was one of the filmmaking hotspots of the world, home to a close-knit community of visionary filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and John Korty. Today, a group of animation producers in the city are channeling their spirit by launching a new initiative, the Bay Area Animation Alliance (BAAA).
The alliance is the brainchild of three prominent indie studios: Baobab Studios, Kuku Studios, and Tonko House. Their aim is to “inspire local creativity while raising the bar for independent animation worldwide.” Their method: to run events that focus on “education, craftsmanship, and community.”
They’ve already started, hosting a talk by Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith. Another upcoming event is an online charity auction, for which all three studios will create original art. The proceeds will be donated to the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that campaigns for racial equality by targeting flaws in the penal system.
BAAA was born from the friendship between the three companies’ CEOs, Alex Woo (Kuku Studios), Robert Kondo (Tonko House), and Maureen Fan (Baobab Studios). For some time, they’ve been meeting up to share advice, give feedback on each other’s work, and generally show mutual support. “It’s difficult to be an entrepreneur,” Fan tells Cartoon Brew. “We’re indie studios, so we’re small.”
The trio found that they were learning a lot from each other about everything from recruitment issues to deal negotiations with larger companies. For example, as former Pixar employees, Woo and Kondo were able to distill advice from their experiences working for a major studio. Eventually, they came to a realization, as Fan explains: “We’re sure that many other people in the Bay Area would like to have access to this advice.”
The example set by the likes of Lucas and Coppola was critical. “They fostered a really dynamic and thriving filmmaking community,” Woo tells Cartoon Brew. “What came from that is all these incredible films. [Not only that,] they laid the groundwork for computer animation. Pixar was a small division at Lucasfilm … We just thought that’s a great tradition and legacy to continue.”
Aside from the auction, BAAA is planning a line-up of other events — virtual ones, to begin with. The specifics are still under wraps, but the organizers tell us that two upcoming themes will be pitching and the representation of minorities in the industry.
Their ultimate aim is to address schools, the general public, and other studios, and eventually spread their influence beyond the Bay Area. “We raised the bar for each other’s artwork,” says Fan. “[We want to make] the entire Bay Area’s art better, and then to expand by raising the bar all over for independent animation.”
Founded by Fan, vfx artist Larry Cutler, and Eric Darnell (co-director of the Madagascar films and Antz), Baobab Studios has made a name for itself in the vr/interactive space with works like Crow: The Legend. The studio, which is based in Redwood Shores, has won six Emmys since launching in 2015.
Berkeley’s Tonko House was founded in 2014 by former Pixar art directors Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi, who earned an Oscar nomination for their short The Dam Keeper. Tonko House has developed the film into a series, Pig: The Dam Keeper Poems, and a feature adaptation is in the works. The studio has also partnered with Netflix for Oni, a series inspired by Japanese mythology.
Kuku Studios, also based in Berekely, was set up in 2016 by Woo, Stanley Moore, and Tim Hahn, who formerly worked in story and production at Pixar. The studio has signed a multi-year overall deal with Netflix, whose first project is the preschool series Go! Go! Cory Carson. The only other project to be announced at this stage is an as-yet-untitled feature, “which explores the power and magic of dreams.”