Spyros Tsiounis, who's worked on the likes of Coraline, Shrek—The Final Chapter, The Bee Movie and Stuart Little is busy these days with a non-studio project. Every evening after work, he retreats to his home in Marin to see if he and an internationally hand-plucked team can create an animated short film entirely over the Internet. It's titled Them Greeks...!, and with the help of groundbreaking software advances and a tireless work ethic, it looks like it might just work out.
SF360.org: How did you conceive of the project?
Spyros Tsiounis: The idea came up when I was in college. When I first came to the States I was experiencing culture shock on a daily basis. I was also going through this schizophrenic experience. CalArts, the school I went to, was extremely competitive and required long hours of work. But during the summer break, I would go back home to Greece and find myself on the Greek islands, dancing on tables with crazy Greek friends. Then I’d return to school in the States working 24/7. One evening, I was in my room at the College dorms, trying to go to bed, and a loud party was going on downstairs. I had to wake up early the next morning for work and couldn’t sleep because of the noise. I was getting urges to storm into the party and tell them to shut up! But then I thought: Really, dude? You, a Greek, will tell them not to party? How hypocritical is that? And then I smiled: I think I have an idea for a short!
SF360.org: How many people are you working with?
Tsiounis: More than 40 by now.
SF360.org: How did you find those 40 people?
Tsiounis: It started out with showing the storyboards for the film idea to friends around the industry and colleagues at the studio I am working for. We were permitted to start a core team and work on it as a side project. Then we ran into the classic problems of being underfunded, having to work on it part time and having to collaborate remotely. The turning point was when I was talking with a friend, Mike Chang, a bright technology expert in the animation industry. He served as the global pipeline supervisor for Dreamworks. After telling him about the challenges we were facing, he told me how he has been involved in this start up, called Cloudpic (http://www.cloudpicglobal.com), which is developing technology that is supposed to precisely enable digital artists to collaborate remotely. The system was still in an alpha stage but very promising. We decided to work together. His group would provide the technology and support for free in return for Them Greeks…! becoming one of the first productions to test it and hopefully implement it successfully. The project then became this interesting attempt at pioneering these types of production. I think that the good story material, the great core team and the prospect to innovate became worthwhile motives for more people to join.
SF360.org: What other software are you using?
Tsiounis: We also use Shotgun (http://www.shotgunsoftware.com), a very sophisticated production management software that is entirely web based and has become the main tool for coordinating and tracking tasks among our distributed team.
SF360.org: What is your motivation with this project?
Tsiounis: The film industry, including the digital industry, like the world economy at large, is in turmoil and changing rapidly. Old economic models are becoming ineffective and many of us are trying to figure out what the heck is next and how the industry will look in the near future. Nobody really knows. But one development I foresee as promising is that people are going to be collaborating remotely from around the world on projects more frequently. Technology tools over the Internet that enable it are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Remote collaboration still has serious challenges but one of its coolest promises is that you could harness talent, no matter where it is in the world, without anyone having to relocate and gather under one roof. That would give the freedom to the ever-growing international community of digital artists to connect and produce projects independently while keeping traditional overhead costs low. We’re talking about the possible advent of independent digital production here! It’s kind of like what happened to live action movies. Live action films were mostly the privilege of big studios, until technology enabled independent filmmakers, mainly with lighter, cheaper cameras and sound equipment. And look what happened: Nowadays, independent live action films are probably half of what we see in theaters. I suspect we may be at the doorstep of precisely such an era of an explosion of independent digital filmmaking. I would like to see Them Greeks…! become one of the very first attempts to get this new production model right. I believe it would be a great contribution to the film community and make the filmmakers involved in the effort so much more advanced and valuable.
SF360.org: At the same time distribution models are also in flux. What is the ultimate goal of all these endeavors? Is this really an artistic renaissance or are we all after that little shrinking slice when it comes to distribution options?
Tsiounis: How exactly distribution is going to happen in the future is anyone’s guess. Most likely, distribution of content, in any medium, will happen almost entirely over the Internet. The sites that handle exhibition and sales of the content will compete for the most Internet traffic. As a storyteller, I’m primarily interested in the creation of content. I don’t see the very strong desire of humans to enjoy great storytelling ever going away. I also believe in the market’s ability to invent new ways of producing, securing, distributing and profiting from the fulfillment of such needs in the new virtual environment.
Technology may be responsible for causing profits to be lower in old markets, but it reaches new ones too.
SF360.org: What’s your advice for some young twentysomething who has a great idea for a short film and wants to do something with it?
Tsiounis: I can only repeat what’s been said throughout the history of filmmaking. It’s an extremely creative, extremely fun, extremely exhilarating process, but at the same time, it’s extremely difficult. It takes a huge amount of perseverance by a talented group of people. My favorite analogy is this: Imagine that you are trying to make a beautiful painting. Not many people can. Now imagine trying to run a marathon. Not many people can. Now imagine running a marathon and you have the canvas wrapped around your waist. Your goal is not to run out of breath, cross the finish line and deliver a beautiful painting.
SF360.org: What would you say is your most valuable resource?
Tsiounis: People! Ideas may suck. Technology may break down. Catastrophes may happen. But if the team is cohesive, passionate and they work well with one another, they can fix almost anything and ultimately succeed.
Learn more about the film at www.themgreeks.com.
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