Genndy Tartakovsky is a 35-year-old man who still wakes up early on Saturdays to watch cartoons. He confesses: "I can't outgrow them. " That passion and...

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SAN FRANCISCO — Genndy Tartakovsky is a 35-year-old man who still wakes up early on Saturdays to watch cartoons. He confesses: “I can’t outgrow them.”

That passion and persistence have paid off for Tartakovsky, whose list of credits includes hit animated television shows “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Samurai Jack” and “Star Wars: Clone Wars.”

As creative director at Orphanage Animation Studios he now finds himself among a small group of Northern California artists hoping to rival the towering leaders in Hollywood computer animation: Pixar and Dreamworks Animation SKG.

While the Bay Area upstarts have yet to make a feature-length film, companies such as Orphanage, Wild Brain and CritterPix have recently announced separate plans to make computer-animated feature films with characters they hope moviegoers will embrace as fondly as Pixar’s Buzz Lightyear and Dreamworks’ Shrek.

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The rub is that the new players find themselves working on shoestring budgets, often with hand-me-down technology, and working under noose-tight deadlines.

“You can’t look at Wild Brain in its current state and say we’re going to be competitors to Pixar,” said Charles Rivkin, who was named CEO of the San Francisco-based company in September. “On the other hand, we would hope in the near future we make it into their rearview mirror.”

Consider what the challengers are up against: Dreamworks produced “Shrek 2,” the third highest-grossing movie ever ($436 million) and the No. 1 animation film of all time, and the company is only No. 2 in the market.

Pixar emerged as the industry heavyweight by releasing the first computer-generated movie, “Toy Story,” in 1995. It has since produced an unprecedented string of five hits, including “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters Inc.” and “Finding Nemo,” which have made about $3.2 billion in worldwide sales.

Pixar and Dreamworks, whose executives declined to comment for this story, benefit from technological prowess that cost them millions to develop. Their rendering software allows characters to interact in three dimensions, adding lifelike qualities that wow audiences.

Limited resources

Wild Brain and Orphanage lack such resources, relying on off-the-shelf software and building other digital tools to enhance the quality, says BZ Petroff, Wild Brain’s production director, who worked on “Toy Story” while at Pixar.

Wild Brain has the same improvisational spirit that Pixar had back before anyone had coined the term computer animation, she said.

“Pixar had practically nobody who had worked on a motion picture before,” Petroff recalled. “They had an industrial designer who worked on cars. Not ‘Cars’ the Pixar movie but cars in Detroit. He worked in the automobile industry. … Nobody was doing this kind of work then.”

When it comes to computer-generated short films, Wild Brain’s system has proved successful.

In 2001, the company released “Hubert’s Brain,” a dark comedy about a lonely boy who finds a talking brain. The 17-minute film won Best Professional Computer Generated Short Film at the 2001 World Animation Celebration.

“The 3-D works, and it’s a lot of fun,” said Karl Cohen, president of the Bay Area Animation Association, said of “Hubert”. “Whether they can turn that into a full-length feature is another question.”

Orphanage, founded in 1999 by three ex-employees of George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, is further behind Wild Brain in its evolution. It is best known for supplying special effects for live-action films, such as “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Sin City.”

Hiring Tartakovsky, a golden boy at the Cartoon Network who will anchor the company’s foray into features, has given Orphanage credibility within animation circles.

Bay Area wooing

That these digital animation companies are cropping up in the Bay Area is no accident. Civic leaders here are rolling out the red carpet for computer-animation firms.

Producing computer-generated characters begins with a hand drawing. A clay model is sculpted then three-dimensional features are plotted by a software program.

Once the character exists as a digital file, a computer-animation artist becomes an electronic puppeteer, manipulating the character’s movement with a computer mouse and keyboard instead of strings.

Computers, however, have done little to speed up the process or reduce the costs of making animated films. Pixar has produced only six films in 11 years and spent an average of $77 million per movie, according to Bruce Nash, who runs The Numbers, an online movie-data tracker.

Lacking those kind of resources, Wild Brain and Orphanage plan to leverage their expertise animating television shows, which require a faster turnaround, to produce films for about half as much money, executives from both companies said.

After spending 11 years producing mostly commercials, Wild Brain made its first significant strides toward the big screen when it penned a five-picture deal last year with Dimension Films, a unit of Walt Disney Co.’s Miramax Films.

Under the terms of the agreement, each company will co-finance and co-produce films that Miramax will distribute.

Orphanage, headquartered in San Francisco, will seek a similar financing and distribution partnership once its story ideas are ready for production, Tartakovsky said.

Wild Brain plans to keep its costs down by hiring artists in far-flung places such as South Korea, China and Malaysia to draw background and other scenes that can be easily mass-produced.

Outsourced animators

Some of the work for Wild Brain’s “Higglytown Heroes,” a daily Disney Channel show for preschoolers, is done in South Korea, Rivkin said. Sending work overseas doesn’t hurt the quality, he added.

Others aren’t so sure.

Pixar, which is run by Apple Computer Chief Executive Steve Jobs, and Dreamworks, led by former Walt Disney Co. animation hit maker Jeffrey Katzenberg, do all their work in-house.

“Pixar has such a thoughtful approach, both from a story line and business perspective,” said Ralph Schackart, an analyst with William Blair & Co. “I don’t think anyone one has quite figured out how to do it like them.”

“It all starts with the story,” said Schackart. “You or I can go buy off-the-shelf software and make an animated film. The barrier to entry for this industry is the story.”