From Woody to Elsa, Shrek to Nemo, some of the most beloved characters in the past 20 years of film have been animated. Charleston-based Moondog Animation wants to add to the list by producing the first feature-length animated film from a South Carolina-based studio. And the company has already started to make that goal happen.
Bryan Ransom, JM Khayat, and Ben Davis, the trio behind Moondog, met in France after collaborating on a project that ended up going nowhere. Yet despite the failure of the project, the men stayed in touch, knowing that they wanted to work together to create their own animated stories. The group started a company three-and-half years ago, and in 2013 Davis and Khayat joined Ransom in South Carolina.
After years of working for other studios, the group wanted to control their own work, from the story to the animation. "When you create work for other studios, you lose control over the art," explains Davis, chief technological officer and technical strategist.
Considering Moondog's mission is to make "substantial and life-changing animation content that is highly entertaining," keeping control over what they produce is vital. The animation studio wants to produce not only an aesthetically pleasing end product but one that has deeper emotional meanings. "Did you see [How to Train Your Dragon 2]? I won't spoil it, but there's a moment when I was choking back tears because we're guys and we're not supposed to cry at movies," explains Davis. Ransom, Moondog's CEO, says, "It's a very strong movie, very well-done movie. It'll be one of the greats for a long time. We're looking for that texture."
That's the kind of movie Moondog wants to make. "We want to tell a story that's not just pure entertainment. We want it to have good meaning to it, be rich with families, and everything," says Davis. Ransom adds, "You push it for kids and you see a simple story about what was going on, but then it has these complex stories behind it that really involves the older audience. There's believable human emotions."
The animators want to find those heavy-hitting stories because at the end of the day that's what is remembered more than the visuals. And they've already gotten some experience at creating a project that pulls at the heartstrings: Orbie for Orphans. The studio was approached to make a series of animated films about orphans, with the idea that the shorts will help children in group homes feel less alone. "There's 150 million orphans in the world," says Ransom. "However, 95 percent won't be adopted."
And Moondog plans on bringing those same layers to their first feature film, which they're in the process of making. It's still in the early stages and there's lots of development to come. In fact, the guys just scraped their original story idea and are starting fresh. But as of now, they know they want it to be a father-and-son tale with coming-of-age elements. Once production ramps up, the studio hopes to hire 150 people over the course of the three years it typically takes to create a full-length film. "We're hoping to hire 30 new people in the next year," says Ransom. That's up from the eight they currently have on staff.
Just because it's the studio's first feature-length film doesn't mean they aren't prepared. Combined, the three of them have created animation for the equivalent of nine feature lengths — and worked with the best of the best, from Nickelodeon to Eurosport, along the way.
But it's not every day one comes across three former residents of France who transplanted to the Charleston. The Holy City beat out places around the country, from L.A. to New York, Greenville to Atlanta. The trio even considered Canada. But when it came down to it, Charleston won out based on its quality of life, cost of living, and ability to attract quality artists. "Why would we pay three times the overhead costs to be in L.A. and compete with the established studios?" Ransom says. Plus, they already have the contacts they need in those industries, from distributors to marketing reps, investors, and other artists, so there's no need to be pounding the streets looking for them.
If only choosing a name had been as easy as finding a location. Before Moondog was selected, the group created a spreadsheet full of ideas — from references to the car Ransom left in France to names revolving around sheep and mustard. Nothing was sticking, so one day Ransom found a dictionary listing for moondog, an astronomical term for when the moon looks like it has ears. It took a while before it caught on, but it eventually did and Moondog Animation was born.
And how's this for some kismet? "It was our first time in Charleston, and we're looking at different properties. And we're driving in the rental, and all of a sudden — there's the same effect for the sun — I see a sundog and just start yelling 'Sundog, sundog,'" explains Davis. They knew Moondog Studios had to call Charleston home after that, and more specifically the Navy Yard at Noisette Boulevard sharing a studio with MAGA Design.