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Monday, August 12, 2013

The Rise and Fall of the Computer-Animated ‘Foodfight!’

Larry Kasanoff the director of “Foodfight!,” with designs for its characters in 2004.
The brand managers at Georgia-Pacific were not about to budge. They agreed that Brawny Man, the plaid-shirted character adorning millions of paper-towel rolls, could come to life and share a moment with Mr. Clean. But their Angel Soft Baby, who had sold countless reams of toilet tissue, could never be displaced from her perch in the clouds.
Such concessions were typical of the two years spent negotiating for more than 80 food-industry characters to appear in “Foodfight!,” a computer-animated movie that was announced in 2000 by Threshold Entertainment. The company’s chief executive and chairman, Larry Kasanoff, proclaimed the project, featuring a voice cast led by Charlie Sheen and Eva Longoria, would help make Threshold’s animation arm “the next-generation Pixar.
He predicted a huge $100 million tie-in merchandising campaign, with the film being promoted by partners like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola. There would be “Foodfight!” Web episodes, storybooks, plush toys and possibly a live stage show, “Foodfight on Ice.
That final notion was prescient. Despite Mr. Kasanoff’s track record — a producer on “True Lies,” he was a onetime partner of James Cameron and had control over much of the lucrative “Mortal Kombat” multimedia franchise — “Foodfight!” failed to make a 2002 release, as well as anticipated 2005, 2006 and 2007 dates.
In May, the feature made a muted debut on DVD, where it was quickly seized upon by Internet purveyors of bad cinema and dissected like the Zapruder film.
The animation appears unfinished. The sexual innuendo is flagrant for a film ostensibly aimed at children. And the plot — grocery store mascots come alive at night to fight generic Brand X antagonists intent on taking over the shelves — is impenetrable and even offensive. Dressed in Nazi-inspired regalia, the villains declare their intention to send the “Ikes,” or brand icons, to the “expiration station.
As Disney’s “Planes” this weekend closes out a summer filled with animated successes — Universal recently proclaimed “Despicable Me 2” the most profitable film in its 100-year history — the torturous production of “Foodfight!” stands as a cautionary tale regarding the pitfalls of a complex industry.
Mr. Kasanoff started Threshold in 1992. Formerly known as Amalgamated Widgets, the company billed itself as an intellectual property hub, harvesting rights to video games like Duke Nukem or Lego animated projects; its subsidiary Threshold Digital Research Labs provided animation and effects work for a variety of clients, including a “Star Trek” attraction in Las Vegas. Threshold also tried to court the young-male demographic of the emerging World Wide Web with content like the series “Bikini Masterpiece Theater.
In 1999, Mr. Kasanoff and a Threshold employee, Joshua Wexler, conceived a film in which food mascots would come alive when away from prying eyes, much like the playthings in “Toy Story.
“Imagine,” an information packet for potential licensees later read, “shopping cart chase scenes up and down the aisles in the same manner as ‘Ben-Hur.’ ”
Mr. Kasanoff raised an initial $25 million for production costs in conjunction with a Korean investment consortium and expected the rest of the budget, which Threshold projected at $50 million, would come from foreign presales and loans against those sales. He worked with IBM for on-demand processing power off site, an early precursor to cloud computing that Mr. Kasanoff predicted would save the production millions in operating expenses.
He also decided that he would produce and direct, despite never having supervised a full-length animated feature.
“His approach, because he had gotten the money for it, and no one could say no to him, was very idiosyncratic,” said Kenneth Wiatrak, a layout artist on the project. “You didn’t know from day to day what would occur. Would there be a review? Would he suddenly want to change the whole thing?
Citing legal reasons, Mr. Kasanoff declined to comment for this article.
With preproduction under way, Mr. Wexler and consultants met with major brands, enticing them with the notion of free on-screen placement in exchange for promoting the film upon its release.
Chef Boyardee, Twinkie the Kid and others were not the stars. Those roles were reserved for original Threshold characters like Dex the Dogtective, a private investigator searching for his missing girlfriend; Sunshine Goodness, a raisin spokeswoman; Daredevil Dan, a squirrel piloting a small-engine airplane and serving as the comic relief. Threshold’s aim was a role reversal: that the proprietary characters would soon be courted to endorse their own breakfast cereals or chocolate bars.
Nothing at Threshold had ever been deemed so crucial to the company’s success. “For us,” Mr. Kasanoff told the press, “this is ‘Casablanca.’ ”
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Published: August 9, 2013 
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“Foodfight!” was originally intended to be a computer-animated film resembling the original Warner Brothers Looney Tunes shorts. Animators call this look “squash and stretch,” with figures performing wildly exaggerated motions.
This changed when a portion of the film was reportedly stolen during a break-in at Threshold’s Santa Monica, Calif., offices around Christmas in 2002. With no backup available, the production started from scratch in 2004, after months of additional conceptual work.
The break had given Mr. Kasanoff a new idea, one that probably sealed the film’s fate. He wanted to direct it like a live-action movie, complete with retakes, motion-capture performances and more spontaneity. As a result, he and animators were speaking two different languages.
A roving Mr. Kasanoff, animators said, would request that things be “more awesome” or “30 percent better” and didn’t understand why someone trained in texture couldn’t do modeling work. (The production’s previous software had allowed for such flexibility, but the new system, Maya, was geared toward specialists.)
Mr. Kasanoff sourced out part of the production to House of Moves, a motion-capture company, and Image Metrics, which had developed software to sync animation to a voice actor’s filmed performance. But Image Metrics had a limitation: Performers had to stare straight ahead and keep still. The result was subdued, with eyes appearing vacant or looking in the wrong direction.
“There’s a very conscious exaggeration in animation that makes it feel alive, and the mo-cap didn’t work like that,” Mr. Wiatrak said. “It gave you a first pass of animation, but it wasn’t particularly lively.” Animators would then have to attempt to apply plasticity to natural movements, which only increased their jarring motion.
As the production wore on, the more overt innuendo began to give staff members pause. The villainous Lady X performs a seductive dance in a schoolgirl outfit for Dex, who appears to sport a visible reaction in his trousers.McKee Foods wouldn’t allow Daredevil Dan make catcalls at Little Debbie. One snack mascot was to declare a case of “peanut envy.
It is not unusual in the animation industry for workers to amuse themselves by sexualizing their characters. “I thought: ‘They’re just having fun writing this. It won’t make it into the finished film,’ ” said an animator, Mona Weiss.
In 2005, Threshold secured roughly $20 million in additional financing through private investors represented by StoryArk, a financing firm that had been impressed by the brand tie-ins, the celebrity voice cast and a new distribution deal Mr. Kasanoff had struck with Lionsgate. The studio balked, however, when planned release dates in 2006 and 2007 didn’t materialize.
“It wasn’t as tightly structured as I had experienced subsequently in other places,” Mr. Wiatrak said. “Studios doing large animated features have a defined pipeline, a hierarchy of how shots are launched, reviewed and approved. The process here was less formal.
The mortal wound for “Foodfight!” was inflicted when StoryArk’s investors, frustrated by the missed release dates and the fact that Threshold’s production company had defaulted on a secured promissory note, invoked a clause ultimately giving the insurance company, Fireman’s Fund, the right to step in and complete the film as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Shots barely realized were pushed through. “The film was already ruined,” said Ken Bailey, an animator during the project’s last stages. “They were just trying to salvage what they could.”
The film was shelved until 2012, when Fireman’s Fund obtained the full copyright to “Foodfight!” and began selling it to territories. Some of the plush toys and storybooks made it to stores and eBay. In the United States, Viva Entertainment waited until Walmart could assure good display placement and released it in May.
Viva’s president, Victor Elizalde, said the film was “already profitable” after the company’s modest investment, which he declined to disclose.
Animators arranged for viewing parties, remembering particularly stressful deadlines or half-baked sequences they were ashamed to put their names on.Internet forums performed blunt post-mortems.
“It’s an utter travesty of cinema,” one poster wrote on .On , Nathan Rabin wrote, “The character design alternates between nightmarish and hopelessly generic.
While Threshold remains in operation and is soliciting money on Kickstarter for a documentary on meditation, it has yet to tackle a second animated feature.
“Early on, it looked to me like, ‘O.K., this is great,’ ” Mr. Bailey said. “It was one of the best ideas for a kids’ film I’d ever seen.
Or as the Threshold licensee packet put it, “All of this technology, work, time, talent and artistry will make ‘Foodfight!’ unlike anything ever before seen on film.”

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