Animation Odyssey: Charlotte Rinderknecht wants to build a state-of-the-art film studio in Virginia. Can her debut short help take this dream beyond fantasy?

Charlotte Rinderknecht's quest to make her dreams of building a state-of-the-art film studio in Northern Virginia reality.
By Stephanie Booth
Sunday, January 24, 2010

The two dozen adults who entered Little Airplane Productions one morning last February looked as excited (and nervous) as Cinderella walking into the castle to attend the ball. Inside the 300-year-old building, a converted dry goods warehouse in New York's historic South Street Seaport, they climbed a narrow staircase to a large, sunny room where comfortable chairs and sofas had been arranged in a circle. A row of Emmy awards glittered on the mantel above a fireplace. On another wall hung an oversized photograph of a baby whose eyes were wide with astonishment.

Once seats were claimed, 20-somethings in skinny jeans sipped coffee and checked their cellphones. A white-haired grandfather clasped and unclasped his hands in his lap. A pregnant woman attempted to find a comfortable position. Everyone had pens and notebooks at the ready.

The anticipation in the room was understandable. For the past decade, Little Airplane has been producing children's TV shows that are as welcomed by critics as they are the young viewers they're meant for. (Its biggest hit is Nickelodeon's "Wonder Pets!" which follows Turtle Tuck, Linny the Guinea Pig and Ming-Ming Duckling as they travel the world to rescue animals in trouble.) Last Valentine's Day weekend, Little Airplane founder Josh Selig was opening his company's doors for three days. He and other notable names in the children's TV industry would be teaching participants, who had shelled out $1,500 apiece and traveled from across the United States and Canada, the secrets of creating a successful preschool series.

Settling into a chair with a cup of hot chai tea, Charlotte Rinderknecht, 54, confided that she had never seen "Wonder Pets!" But she is an ardent fan of children's animation. During yesterday's four-hour train ride from her home in Fairfax, she watched "The Little Mermaid" and "Iron Giant" on her laptop. She brought her "Cinderella" DVD along, too. With her wide blue eyes and frequent, bubbly laugh, Rinderknecht could easily have stepped out of any of the 50-odd Disney DVDs and videos she owns. She doesn't smile so much as beam, especially when describing the ambitious enterprise she has undertaken: Rinderknecht is determined to establish a state-of-the-art 2-D animation studio in Northern Virginia.

In 2008, she acquired her first project: "Pete's Odyssey," a songbird's coming-of-age tale. The film was the brainchild of Larry Lauria, former director of the Disney Institute and now a consulting animation instructor at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Lauria had unsuccessfully pitched "Pete" to Disney years ago as part of a feature film called "Birdland." When Rinderknecht was searching for her studio's inaugural project, a friend introduced them. Lauria suggested making "Pete" as a five-minute musical sequence that could be entered in film festivals and act as the studio's calling card.

But the serendipity of this opportunity came with a gamble. Rinderknecht had decided to quit her full-time job of 18 years as manager of the now-closed George Mason University Media Lab and invest tens of thousands of dollars to concentrate on bringing "Pete," a timid, young robin, to life. Little Airplane Academy, as the weekend's workshop was officially called, would be her crash course in executive producing.

"I'm an oma," she announced to the other academy participants, using the German word for granny, when it was her turn to be introduced. "And I am president of the first animation studio to be built in Virginia." Then, with a loud laugh, she added, "Pixar, look out in 10 years!"

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"People often approach me and ask, 'Why open your doors?' " Josh Selig said by way of a welcome. A "Sesame Street" writer for 10 years, Selig founded Little Airplane Productions in 1999 and has been offering this workshop biannually for the past three years. Dressed in a button-down shirt, jeans and brown leather boots, Selig talked earnestly about his successes and failures in the entertainment business. Participants leaned forward in their chairs, eager to catch each word.

The world of children's television "can use more people throwing their hat into the ring," he explained. "It's good for everyone. It's good for the kids." For all the big companies that dominate the preschool entertainment industry, "their big staffs have trouble creating something organic," Selig said. "I can't emphasize enough how much broadcasters need people to create original shows. Without it," he looked around the room and shrugged, "they've got nothing."

Rinderknecht nodded. The focus of her studio, she said later, would be "community, not corporate," with the animators she hired also mentoring up-and-coming artists. "I want to give young people the chance I didn't have as a young woman."

She's hoping "Pete" will open the door to animation success. Although she and Lauria had yet to find artists to work on the film, they had agreed on how Pete would be drawn and that the film would be set to a folksy pop song written and performed by Michelle Armstrong, Lauria's daughter-in-law and a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter. The plot would focus on a young robin who seeks the courage to overcome her fear of the unknown. The premise of "Pete" "is everyone's story," Rinderknecht explained after the workshop. "In order to become better, we all have to venture out into the world."


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