Where Technology Becomes Art
Written by Cheryl Eagan-Donovan | Posted by: Anonymous
You could walk right past Hatchling Studios in downtown Portsmouth New Hampshire without noticing the door that leads up one flight of stairs to the world Mark Dole has created. Nestled in between brew pubs, coffee shops and an eclectic mix of specialty retail shops, the animation and web design company that has created an international buzz seems right at home in this New England Brigadoon. Like the skeptics from Disney and Pixar who came to verify that the studio really exists, I wanted to see the place "where technology becomes art," and meet the people who bring dreams to life. I found a team of artists brought together by their belief in a true pioneer who attributes his success to the power of active listening.
The studio is an open space with lots of desks close together, edit suite lighting and think-tank intensity. Dole was finishing up a conference call, so J. Zachary Pike, director of The Toll, Hatchling’s award-winning computer animated mockumentary, screened the seven-minute film for me in Dole’s office, an alcove that doubles as screening room. He showed me around the rest of the studio space and introduced me to some of the crew. Pike, who started at Hatchling as an intern four years ago, describes Dole as diplomatic, the ideal opportunist, and most importantly, an idea guy.
Cheryl Eagan Donovan: I know that in 1990s you were working out of your garage, doing graphics for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and the Discovery Channel. What’s the backstory?
Mark Dole: I was in college. I went to Lyndon State in Vermont and studied video production. At that time, from 1988 to 1992, computers were just starting be affordable enough to use in a regular broadcast scenario, and I had been brought up on computers. I started teaching classes while I was still a student. I helped install one of the first Avid systems in New Hampshire. I also did freelance work as an editor and cameraman. In 1994, I won my first editing award at the Chicago Film Festival.
A lot of my friends were going to Los Angeles to work in television. I got a six-month project working for PBS, then moved to Connecticut to be head of computer graphics for a stop-motion company. When they closed in 1999, I came back to New Hampshire and started my first company, M2-3D. In 2004, we changed the name to Hatchling Studios and all of a sudden, people understood what we do: we make movies.
CED: Since the name change, the company has grown quickly and its product mix has shifted, from web design to entertainment. Where do you see the company headed now?
Dole: Today 40 percent of our business is entertainment and 20 percent is crossover, animated and interactive. We just did an animated website for Charmin. We have created partnerships with other companies that on the surface look like competitors to us. Everybody at Hatchling works on story ideas, bits and scripts, no matter what their job title is. One of our designers in the interactive department is one of our best bit guys.
CED: Tell me about the process that led to the creation of The Toll. You started with 25 ideas, narrowed it down to 14, wrote scripts for four and finally decided on the character study of the troll as told by the fictional film student Harvey Stevens.
Dole: Everyone gets together after work at the Muddy River brewpub down the street. That’s where our stories are born. We started by considering all the barriers to producing an animated film: the number of characters and sets. These are the same barriers on any film. They’re just exponential on an animated film, because we can make anything. The idea was to create a proof of concept film that we could use to get more long-form work. We were pitching feature films and television programs but were getting rejected because we weren’t in LA. The story we ended up with is a modern-day take on the Billy Goats Gruff, told from the troll’s perspective, with an autobiographical element. I was the filmmaker who thought I could do everything myself.
We built a render farm with 40 machines dedicated to rendering the visuals. The Toll is approximately 10,000 frames at 25MB per frame. We shot in High Definition Video because that would give us access to better festivals and better screening slots. For example, our London premiere was in front of Snoop Dog’s film because the film was shot in HD. Zack wrote a 15-page script, we cut it to seven minutes, and are making the last few edits to the film today.
CED: The Toll was nominated for Best Animated Short at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, and won at Woods Hole, the New Hampshire Film Expo, and FAIF Los Angeles. Next up are screenings in Las Vegas, Santa Monica, and Anchorage. You mentioned that you are waiting to hear from the Park City festivals. Any word yet?
Dole: We submitted to Slamdance. We haven’t screened on film yet, and are hoping to have a film print by Christmas. The Toll has had great audience response at genre-based festivals but surprisingly the awards have come from other festivals. The film screened at the Siggraph Animation Show, not in competition but at the trade show. That got us a lot of press. We’ve had 20 school tours of the studio in the past year. The film plays really well to different age groups, which has always been our goal. We want to entertain everybody.
CED: Tell more me about Harvey Stevens. He’s modeled on you as a college filmmaker?
Dole: That’s what I did in college: documentaries. The film fades in and the title card reads "Harvey Stevens presents a film by Harvey Stevens." Harvey Stevens is an alias for Hatchling Studios. Any project with more than one creator is now credited to "Harvey Stevens." Somebody’s going to want to hire Harvey Stevens someday and realize that it’s 22 people.
CED: You have several other projects — a television pilot called Endurance Challenge starring Billy West, an animated Bulldog advertising campaign for a law firm in DC, an international marketing website for Reebok, a feature film in development, a popular web based program called Control Alt Delete. How do you balance work and family?
Dole: I have four kids and three of them have special needs. They come to the office and hang out while my wife does the accounting. All of them are teenagers. Since we moved the office out of the house six years ago, it’s been a good delineation. Now when I’m home, I might still have my laptop open and be answering email, but I’m also watching television with them or helping them with their homework. It is a big juggling act, and my wife is just amazing.
The growth plan we put in place four years ago seems to be working. We have an advantage in that we don’t have to outsource. At one of our first meetings with MTV, we told them we have 22 people, and they said you need 66 people to do this show. I explained that we could double in size within a month. We’ve received over 700 resumes in the past two years. These are artists who are ready to leave L.A. for the benefits Hatchling and Portsmouth offer. A guy who worked on The Lion King wants to work here.
CED: You’ve attained a phenomenal amount of success. MTV greenlit a pilot you produced, you’re meeting with Nickelodeon again next week, getting phone calls from HBO, Warner Brothers, the producers of Ice Age and Roger Rabbit. What advice can you offer entrepreneurs about building a business?
Dole: Our business model is founded on a wide knowledge base as opposed to one vertical area of specialization. We are storytellers. The staff has real ownership of projects and that results in quality. You have to lead by example, be the first one in and the last one out. When everyone is working late on a project, I’ll stay until 8:30 or 9 pm. Even if you’ve just had your biggest billing month ever, that doesn’t mean you can stop forecasting. The summer is traditionally slow for our industry, so we have to plan for projects that will take us through that downtime. I didn’t go to business school. If I hadn’t freelanced for 10 years before I started this company, I never would have survived the summers. You have to know the industry. I’m a fourth generation entrepreneur. My father makes false teeth, my grandfather made custom cabinets and my great-grandfather owned a men’s clothing store. What is required for success is the drive to listen to other people, to let others try what want, but then to pull back the reins based on what you know about the industry and your business. The important thing is to foster an environment where people can work hard and play hard. We definitely do that here.
The Toll screens at HD Fest in Los Angeles (www.HDFest.com) on December 1st, where it has been nominated for Best Animated Short and Best Comedy Short, at the Anchorage International Film Festival (www.anchoragefilmfestival.org) on December 3rd, 5th and 10th, and in Santa Monica (www.nihilists.net) and Beverly Hills (www.StudioScreenings.com) later this month. For more on Hatchling Studios go to www.hatchling.com.