by Gigi Wood
WINFIELD – A local animation company with connections to Hollywood has moved to a new location.
Grasshorse, an animation, design and information technology business focused on developing and marketing mobile and Internet content, moved from Mount Pleasant to Winfield about six weeks ago. Winfield is about 45 miles south of Iowa City and was the launching point for Asoyia, a cooking oil maker.
The company produces marketing materials, animation projects, mobile applications, desktop publishing, graphic design and web development projects. It is in the historic Pratt Theatre building, which Grasshorse is renovating into a modern technology office building. The business moved from Mount Pleasant because its former office building was being sold. And being in Winfield allows the Jennings family, which started and owns Grasshorse, to be closer to the family century farm, which dates back to Iowa’s homesteading days in 1854.
Grasshorse is hosting an open house from 5 to 7 p.m. on Aug. 4 at its new location, 111 N. Locust St., Ste. 100 in Winfield, to show off its new digs, which once served as a skeleton-model factory for chiropractic companies.
Steve Jennings, the company’s founder, was born in Ames and grew up in Virginia studying animation and visual effects. He attended animation school and eventually moved to California, where he was involved in films such as “Spiderman” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” and cartoons such as the “Powerpuff Girls.” He even worked as a walk-on in the film, “Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth.”
He started his company as a one-man shop in 2002 before moving back to Iowa to capitalize on the state’s film tax credit program. It had 25 employees working on five projects registered with the Iowa Film, Video and Television credit program before it was suspended in 2009. Gov. Chet Culver suspended the program to investigate alleged misspending by filmmakers and misconduct by an executive in the film office.
“They stopped the program, so we had to focus on different projects,” said Vivan Jennings, Grasshorse’s executive vice president and Steve Jenning’s father.
Cartoons and games
Officials with the company were at the Coralville Marriott over the weekend attending AnimeIowa, an annual convention that attracts anime industry experts from across the globe. They were promoting two programs, Poke My Voodoo, a social media application that allows users to customize voodoo dolls and hex other characters in the game, which is available on the iPhone and Droid and is being developed for Facebook.
They were also showcasing ShBoinks, a mobile-based game, where at least one character “farts rainbows,” company officials said. It is available through iTunes and on the Android market.
The slowdown in Iowa’s film tax credit program has stifled Grasshorse’s original plan to promote the games. The company plans to increase promotion of those products over the next several months.
One of Mr. Jenning’s first three-dimensional animation innovations was developed while he was working on the Powerpuff Girls cartoon. As the cartoon superheroes fly around buildings in their hometown, the skyline has a very hand-drawn look. Mr. Jennings developed a technology to create a 3-D environment that cut the cost of animation and reduced the time involved to produce the cartoon.
“He took the city that the Powerpuff Girls are in and in the cartoon it has a very hand-drawn look,” said Kathy Buxton, Grasshorse’s CEO and Mr. Jenning’s sister. “He took the hand-drawn look and put it in 3D so the girls could fly through any part of the city and it wouldn’t cost more money to do all hand drawings. He proposed a 2D/3D hybrid, and he was one of the first (to develop it).”
Grasshorse has intellectual property rights on several technology innovations it has created. One is for its ProtoMotion, a new method of stop-motion animation, which is the process of filming animated character’s movements in film and other media.
One of the benefits of the technology is it allows companies filming animation to repeat and redefine the motion within stills without slowing down the production process.
The company operates a robotics shop that utilizes simulation software to create animation at a faster pace than current methods. The company expects its portfolio to grow as the industry demand for animation increases 35 percent each year.
“We’re on the leading edge of finding what’s new (technology) out there,” Ms. Buxton said.
Grasshorse’s work has not gone unnoticed. In February, it received eight gold ADDYs at the American Advertising Federation: Cedar Rapids-Iowa City’s awards gala. The company has also received recognition from the Iowa City Area Development Group and funding from the Iowa Department of Economic Development.
The work recently landed the company a commercial job with Jeep. Grasshorse created 200-layer still shots to produce the final ad.
The technology Grasshorse uses on a daily basis is in high demand, creating a need for trained animators. Employees at Grasshorse will be teaching technology classes at Southeastern Iowa Community College to train future animators. The company will likely work with other schools in the area as the industry expands.
One technique in particular, rotoscoping, which involves tracing over live-action film movement, frame by frame for use in animated films, will be the focus of some of the classes. Animators skilled in rotoscoping are needed by animation companies, Grasshorse officials said.
Micoy Corp., a 3D animation company in Ames, developed a strategic partnership with Grasshorse to train more rotoscopers because of a lack of animators skilled in the technique. CBJ