Trevor Pryce is the creator of Netflix's animated "Kulipari", and brings his animation skills to the MICA campus. (Xavier Plater / Baltimore Sun video)
On the last Thursday of June, the atmosphere at the OVFX office felt surprisingly calm. Most of the dozen young animators that populated the open-floor concept space, on the fourth floor of a Maryland Institute College of Art building near I-83, kept their heads buried at their workstations. Their boss, Trevor Pryce, emerged from his corner office and joyously queued the Academy Award-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” onto a flat-screen television on the wall.
“I saw this movie before it came out,” Price said nonchalantly, before breaking down how the final cut’s animation style differed from a previous version.
Pryce, a former defensive lineman who spent five of his 14 NFL seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, stands at least seven inches above his 12 full-time employees. He speaks on most topics, from animation technique to Hollywood studio politics, with the same conviction that he once used to call ex-colleague Ray Lewis’ critiques “a little self-serving.” He reflected on how he manages these recent art school graduates, with tons of talent but little entertainment experience.
“You have to get them to trust you,” he said. “Because I’ve made two TV shows, they kind of have to. I say, ‘Okay, this is how this works.’ None of them here have gone through that process. I have, several times.”
Pryce’s build, arm tattoos and athlete-level confidence don’t immediately scream “children’s cartoons,” yet that’s his world. He turned “Kulipari,” his comic series about warrior frogs fighting arachnid invaders, into two Netflix shows. Variety reported in April that his Outlook Company will launch a digital channel for on-demand content, aimed at audiences of all ages.
Pryce is trying to bridge this world with Baltimore’s creative economy with OVFX (which stands for Outlook Visual Effects) . He and his employees work at a breakneck pace to make this content possible, often developing new skills on the job, and this day was no different.
Pryce will share the fruits of OVFX’s labor on July 21 at San Diego Comic-Con, the annual epicenter of Hollywood’s symbiotic relationship with comics culture. The exposure could open doors to more fans, media attention, financing and other opportunities for OVFX.
More importantly, he’ll get to show that cities as creatively vibrant as Baltimore can produce Hollywood-grade entertainment on a national scale.
But first, Pryce and his employees needed to make the looming July 17 submission deadline.
A month-and-a-half earlier, Pryce recounted the personal and professional motivations for OVFX, which launched in mid-March, in his office. He mentioned his own children, who grew up in the area while he played with the Ravens.
“My kids are from here, so [I thought], I’m going to give kids in this part of the country a sense of what they can do,” he said.
Pryce also saw an advantage to opening shop in an artistically rich part of the country that, unlike Los Angeles or New York, isn’t already a hub for commercial animation jobs.
“There’s an opportunity in Maryland because the cost of living is low, there’s an art school and there’s an artistic nature to this part of the country,” Pryce said. “I spent 10 years in Denver, and as you go further west, before you get to California, that culture starts to disappear.”
That culture supports a vibrant arts sector that, according to the Maryland State Arts Council’s latest economic impact report, pays $262 million in salaries across Baltimore City and the surrounding counties.
Dr. Sheri Parks, MICA’s vice president of strategic initiatives and head of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance’s board, said that Pryce met with her and leaders of other local creative entities like the Maryland Film Office and the Emerging Technology Center while pitching OVFX. She sees potential for OVFX to build opportunities for artists, especially women and people of color, that might otherwise leave to pursue them.
“Baltimore currently has a lot of industry professionals who either grew up here or moved here when we were had John Waters, ‘The Wire’ and [other major entertainment productions],”she said. “Now, a fair number of those people still live in the city, but fly out to work. We’re interested in creating an environment where those people can work closer to home and be a more vibrant part of the creative sector. ”
Pryce cited Noelle Stevenson, who graduated from MICA in 2013 before becoming the then-youngest National Book Award finalist and developing “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” for Netflix, as an example of the talent that Baltimore risks losing to more established animation hubs in the U.S. and overseas.
OVFX, which Pryce supports with investment from undisclosed financiers (and no money from MICA), opens doors to both professional education and the work that builds strong portfolios.
“There’s a talent base that is, I would say, 70 percent as good as there is in LA and New York,” he said. “The last 30 percent has to do with what they’re working on, so I’m the last 30 percent.”
Pryce showcased rough versions of the projects that he planned to bring to Comic-Con. He and the animators circled around the television and cued their projects on the screen. One standout sequence placed “Kulipari” characters in benign situations, like going to school, that turn absurd with the help of irreverent character tics and abrasive musical sequences. This particular project, like many of the others Pryce will bring to Comic-Con (not including a few that Pryce outsourced to other studios), puts the animators in the driver’s seat of Pryce’s creative vision.
OVFX staffers generally fall into one of two teams, based on their skillsets: 2-D and 3-D. In the beginning, potential employees had to prove their skills within these disciplines to Pryce. For instance, 2-D team member Erin Duggins created her own cartoon.
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Fast-forward back to late in July, to when Duggins, a graduate of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, plugged away at a “Kulipari” spin-off (“It’s very different, more comedic, pretty family friendly”) while explaining her team’s evolving workflow.
“We all do storyboards, most of us do voice acting, rough animation, in-between frames, clean-up and color,” she explained. “It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck thing, but since there’s only about five of us, we need to do everything we can to get this ball rolling.”
Success at OVFX, whether creative or managerial, takes on a few different forms. Financing matters a lot at this stage, and Pryce admitted that OVFX faces “the production crunch that all media companies go through.”
“We don’t generate income yet because nothing’s been sold, because nothing’s been seen yet,” he clarified in a post-interview email. “You just have to get through this hard part where it’s burning cash and you don’t have anything to show for it revenue wise. But we will.”
Pryce’s tempers his faith in his company – and himself – with a realism about entertainment’s fickleness. He established OVFX in Baltimore in part because he found understanding with MICA and the local arts sector that he couldn’t with big studios. His belief in Baltimore’s artistic and economic potential saturates every step he takes, from his grand hopes for Comic-Con (“If 1,000 people show up, shit will go completely sideways, in a great way”) to the elemental advice he gives young creatives reaching for Disney, Pixar or another animation powerhouse.
“A lot of artists who want to be animators, the first thing I tell them is to learn how to tell a story,” he said. In this chapter, Pryce and OVFX appear poised to write their own definition of success.