A crazy dream to build a computer animation industry in Argentina

Gaston Gorali, Director General Creativo, Catmandu studios

Behind the doors of Catmandu studios, on a quiet street in the Capital Federal district of Buenos Aires, Argentina, dozens of young animators stare intently at their computer screens in a couple of low lit rooms, obsessing over the way a blade of grass bends or a character’s hair swishes as he moves. Some of the team, which hail from all over the world, have spent days, and weeks, animating a few seconds where bird crap falls on the face of a statue.
This is the crew, which has now blossomed into 120 people after five years in production, who will be responsible for whether Argentina will be able to produce a smash success out of its first real attempt at making a 3D computer animated feature length film. Picture what Pixar and DreamWorks are doing, but on a fraction of the budget, using a scrappy team and a startup mentality, and a decidedly Latin American flavor.
Of course the movie has to be about football (soccer, for you Americans) — the national past time, obsession and massive money-generating industry for much of Latin America, and the world. The movie is called Foosball, and it’s the tale of a young boy and a team of foosball characters that come to life and play football on a grand scale. The walls of the studio are covered in various misfit football characters that are running, dancing and playing, what else, football. (The team asked me to not photograph the characters directly as to keep some of the mystery hidden).

Dark rooms for animation at Catmandu studios

When the movie arrives in theaters next year, the creators, which include world famous, award-winning writer and director Juan Campanella, and executive producer Gaston Gorali, hope that it will be able to spark a “virtuous cycle,” and the beginnings of an Argentinian animation industry, says Gorali in an interview with a the Geeks on a Plane group in Catmandu’s studios last week. Gorali knows the risks, too. “If you make a bad movie, it really effects the next films,” that could follow, he says.
The project has the makings of a hit. Variety has described it as “the biggest film currently coming out of Latin America.” Before Foosball, Campanella directed and produced the Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes and is the most famous Argentinian director of the past few decades. Gorali, who previously worked on an animated show for Fox Latin America, managed to convince Campanella to not only write Foosball, but direct it, too.
So what’s the problem then? Well, Argentina had no animation industry. At all. Gorali likens developing Foosball, while also building the Catmandu studio, as driving a train full speed while putting the rail road tracks down in front of it. The studio had to recruit and train new animators, some of which had little track record, but who all had the desire to work on something brand new.
Essentially the studio had to operate as the startup, scrappy version of the big animation houses. While DreamWorks might have a couple thousand people working on several different animated computer-generated films that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make each, Catmandu is making just one film, Foosball, and on a budget of $14 to $15 million.
Gorali says that to do this, the studio totally eliminated the various layers of management and executives that usually exist at the large animation houses. And while labor costs in Argentina have gone up a lot over the last two years, the salaries that the animators are paid are significantly lower than what American animators would normally bill for. The animators use basic software and the team has developed many of their own tools to be able to develop their own techniques.
If 3D computer-generated foosball characters don’t sound like a safe bet to you, you’re probably the wrong audience. The film isn’t targeted at American, or even English-speaking viewers, though it’ll be released in both Spanish and English. It’s distinctly being created for Latin America and Spain, as well as Europe. The first pre-sold territories are Russia, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America.
The world will just have to wait for 2013 to see how well Foosball is received by its fans. If it manages to score some level of success, the movie could become the gateway for an entirely new creative and technical industry for Argentina’s students and developers. And that would be a huge feat for the scrappy, young team, and would also would make them not unlike the band of misfit foosball players that they’ve spent years animating.