Former Paramount, Reel FX Exec Jared Mass Launches Chalkdust Animation Studios’ First Project, An Animated C.S. Lewis Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE) (2024)

Today, at the Annecy Animation Festival, former Head of Reel FX Originals and Paramount Animation vice president Jared Mass announced the first project at Chalkdust Animation Studios, a new CG label based in Atlanta, Ga. focused on real-time, virtual production for film and TV projects.

Chalkdust’s debut project, “Boxen: The Childhood Chronicles of C.S. Lewis,” weighs in as a serialized adaptation of Lewis’ first-ever short stories, written with his brother when he was still a child. Financing for the first season has already been finalized by Noble Road Media, a new Atlanta-based organization formed by Michael Carney, who will executive produce with Mass and Vincent Sieber-Smith, co-director of The C.S. Lewis Company.

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Production of “Boxen” will feature a mix of traditional animation tools, motion capture and cutting-edge software. It’s a production pipeline that Mass is familiar with from his time producing Netflix’s “Super Giant Robot Brothers” at Reel FX Originals.

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“I found the workflow, combining traditional animation tools with the Unreal Engine and live-action mocap, to be like a new art form,” he explained to Variety during a conversation at this year’s Annecy Festival.

Former Paramount, Reel FX Exec Jared Mass Launches Chalkdust Animation Studios’ First Project, An Animated C.S. Lewis Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE) (3)

Mass spent more than two decades as an entertainment executive in Los Angeles, so it’s a bit of a surprise he’d want to set up shop in Atlanta, a city he’d never even visited until 2020. However, during the pandemic, Mass’ family started talking about moving away from L.A. Several friends from the industry had recently relocated from the West Coast to a small town near the Georgia capital, so Mass and his family packed their bags and visited to see what the area was like.

“At the time, we were producing [“Super Giant Robot Brothers”] using the real-time engine, which was the first time anybody had made a show rendering with Unreal at a scale like this,” he recalled. “So, when I visited Atlanta, I tried to meet as many people as I could, including at schools and universities, who were familiar with the technology. I realized that there was a lot more animation going on there than I once thought, and there were a lot of people doing terrific things with a similar workflow.”

One advantage of that workflow is the speed with which motion-captured performances can be animated. Because most of the “Boxen” visual assets will be finalized before production kicks off in earnest, “While we’re shooting on set, what we’ll see on the screen is the closest thing to final characters and environments that we’ve ever seen during production,” he explained.

That opens up some truly unique possibilities for Chalkdust. According to Mass, “One thing we really want to do, hopefully by the end of Season One but definitely with Season Two, is bring in a live audience to the stage and have them watch an animated show being filmed, which has never happened in that way before.”

To do that, the Chalkdust team will spend far more time in development than is typical, so the show’s visual assets will be highly refined when shooting starts. The longer development time also means less time in post after the footage has been shot.

According to Mass, Chalkdust will initially employ a team of around 25 people, including several L.A.-based artists who will move to Atlanta to help launch the company and its first series.

Regarding the eventual distribution of “Boxen,” Mass says several distributors have already shown enthusiastic interest in the show based on its bible, pilot script and a short test. However, because Season One is already fully financed, Chalkdust and Noble Road are in no hurry to commit to a distribution plan and can take their time deciding on the best path forward for the show.

“We’re all very big C.S. Lewis fans, so we want to do right by this project. I believe we have a big responsibility to make a show for 4-7-year-olds that stands for something, is entertaining, and that meets the high standards of C.S. Lewis’s work,” he explained.

The work, in this case, is the “Boxen” short stories, which Lewis and his brother wrote between the ages of 8 and 15. The siblings, showing maturity far beyond their years, created a deep and fantastic world full of kingdoms of talking animals with their own cultures, economies and traditions.

Aesthetically, “Boxen” is being developed to feel like a kids’ pop-up book, with each shot feeling layered. Backgrounds will look like matte paintings, midgrounds will feature hybrid 2D/CG props and sets, and the characters in the foreground will be animated in crisp CG with a classic storybook look.

“One of the most exciting things about Unreal Engine is that we can play with sharp shapes and soften them to make the characters feel like they’re really part of a fantasy world,” Mass explains.

In terms of scope, Mass says his artists are thinking on a scale similar to Nickelodeon’s “Avatar the Last Airbender.” “That show is for older kids, but in terms of the scale of the world, it’s a good comparison,” he says. “In ‘Boxen,’ there are 13 provinces, and they’re all geographically distinct, but we want to make sure they all feel cohesive.”

In 1986, HarperCollins published the stories, which were later re-released as “Boxen: Childhood Chronicles Before Narnia.” The new series will use those books as a guideline to create a kid’s show with depth and morality that will introduce young people to the fantasy adventure genre.

Beyond the C.S. Lewis series, Chalkdust is funding the development of original animated projects that can be made using its state-of-the-art pipeline that can be modeled inside or outside of the studio distribution system. There are also plans to continue collaborating with Noble Road on future projects.

Former Paramount, Reel FX Exec Jared Mass Launches Chalkdust Animation Studios’ First Project, An Animated C.S. Lewis Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE) (2024)


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