Ferndale's latest visual effect: Think So Animation studio

Deb Scott says there’s been “really sad” news in the animation industry in recent years, as Oscar-winning studios like Digital Domain and Rhythm and Hues have filed for bankruptcy. But Scott is looking on the bright side.

“What I’m hoping is that, if nothing else, maybe just some pockets of people who are interested generate their own work,” she says. “I definitely like the independent side of things.”

In a way, Scott has been through that process herself. Her full-time production coordinator job in Pixomondo’s Pontiac office ended when Pixomondo closed up shop at Michigan Motion Picture Studios in late 2012. But earlier this year Scott found a way to get back into the animation business by opening her own studio, Think So Animation in Ferndale.

Her main goal in opening Think So is to offer a variety of animation classes for children and adults. Scott, an NYU digital imaging grad and former production coordinator for Blue Sky Animation, is planning a slate of classes for this fall including character development, clay modelmaking and animation production 101. Scott is already a full-time faculty member at the Art Institute of Michigan, where she teaches media arts and animation. But she says she wants to generate even more interest in the art form. 

“When I start my classes, everyone has a story and everyone has something in mind that they’d like to put together,” Scott says. “I think that’s pretty much the audience that I’d like to reach. A lot of people have something in mind and they want to do it, but they don’t have the time or they don’t have the place or they don’t have the equipment. So this becomes a really good place to do that.”

Given the newness of her studio, Scott hasn’t done a lot with it yet. She produced an entry for the 48 Hour Film Project there in July, and she’s also welcomed several friends and visiting artists to work on their own projects. One of them is Patricia Grush, a children’s book illustrator who has created clay puppets and painted backgrounds at Think So with her sister Robin Dewitt, one of Scott’s colleagues at the Art Institute. Grush has high praise for her experience at Think So, noting that it’s one of a kind in the Detroit area. 

“It’s a little frustrating, because unless you want to go to a four-year college and get a degree in animation there really is no place to go and just explore and enjoy animating and find out what it’s all about,” Grush says. “It’s so nice to have a space that is separate from everything where you can concentrate on your work.”

The 600-square-foot studio sits just north of the Ferndale-Detroit border on Livernois, in the dedicated artist studio space called the Balloon Factory. Although Scott has been in the space less than a year, it already has a cozy and inviting vibe. The shelves are lined with various puppets and animation-related memorabilia: Ice Age character statues from Blue Sky, Indonesian shadow puppets and some of Scott’s own creations. The space seems to burst with potential for aspiring animators. In one room there are woodworking, metalworking and paper supplies for the physical design associated with stop-motion and cutout animation. In the other room are the computers and high-tech tools associated with photography and digital animation. Scott, who is also an equine enthusiast, says she struggled for a bit over whether to buy a horse or rent a studio space.

“I said, ‘Let me just go for a studio,’” she says. “I can ride any time and it becomes this money pit. And now I get a place to put all my stuff.”

Scott is relatively new to the Detroit area, having moved from New York in 2011 for her husband’s job. But she says her new stomping grounds in West Bloomfield are very similar to her old neighborhood in Westchester, and she’s a big fan of downtown Detroit’s cultural offerings. She speaks highly of her new studio space in Ferndale as well, praising the city’s “artistic vibe” and “independent spirit.”

“I really feel there’s this brave approach to creativity [in the Detroit area],” she says. “It’s just like, ‘We’ll just do it,’ with low overhead. And there’s so much talent here.”

However, she says she was “really disappointed” with Michigan’s film tax incentive cuts, which took effect very shortly after she moved. Although she says Pixomondo’s departure from Detroit a year later had more to do with the company’s finances, she says things “could have been different” if Michigan’s incentives had persisted.

“I understand some of the reasoning behind [the incentive cuts],” she says. “I think it could have been done a little better, so it wasn’t just pulling the rug out from under your feet for all those people that invested a lot of money.”

Scott says she knows a number of visual effects artists from the Midwest who are looking to come back home. She receives emails every so often from them, checking in to see how things are going. Although business may not be what it was in Michigan for those looking exclusively for film jobs, she says she regularly tells her students that they’re developing “transferable skills” for which there’s still plenty of in-state demand.

“Everything on the Web has an interactivity to it,” Scott says. “They still need designers and they still need motion artists, motion graphics. So whether it’s feature film animation or it’s personal projects or Web banners or a website or infographics, in the corporate world there’s a need.”

Even when it comes to the film industry in particular, Scott’s certainly not all doom and gloom. She says there’s still “a lot of attention” for Michigan and people are still working in the state, thanks to low overhead. As for the specific field of animation, she says it hit a “heyday” in the ‘90s and the market became over-saturated. But while the industry may still be in a down-swing, she says the art form itself is still going strong through amateur animators posting their work on YouTube, Vimeo and other video hosting sites. And, of course, there are studios like Think So who are aiming to keep passing the trade on.

“Everyone’s seeing a lot of up and down,” Scott says. “But in the history of animation there’s always been an up and down. So at least I’m thinking it’s a natural kind of thing.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.