How a Global Community of Artists Can Work Together in a Shared Pipeline to Bring Visions to Life

With an eye toward revolutionizing the global animation content market, Nimble Collective has stepped out of the shadows and onto center stage. Supported by $1 million in seed funding, the Collective aims to become the world’s largest online animated community, which it estimates includes 10 million aspiring and professional animators around the world. Founded by Rex Grignon, former head of character animation at PDI/DreamWorks, and Michael Howse, a technology entrepreneur, the creative startup recently announced a strategic partnership with Citrix Systems. Grignon has taken the role of Chief Creative Officer, and Howse, who most recently led Bigfoot Networks through its acquisition by Qualcomm in 2012, will be Chief Operating Officer.

In a nutshell, Nimble Collective will offer a complete animation production pipeline using industry standard tools that can be accessed in a web browser. The underlying Citrix technology allows those remote applications to respond fluidly, in real time, to the artist's input. For instance, on stage at the Citrix Synergy Conference keynote presentation earlier this week, Nimble Head of Content and Co-Founder Jason Schleifer demonstrated animation techniques while accessing Maya in the cloud. 

Rex Grignon and Michael Howse

Rex Grignon (left) and Michael Howse

Grignon traces his career in animation back to the first CGI feature, Pixar’s 1995 film Toy Story. He then became supervising animator for PDI/DreamWorks first CGI feature Antz, and has remained with that studio since. He was head of character animation on Madagascar, the first film to push 3D characters into a wacky 2D style. All told, he’s worked on nine feature films at PDI/DreamWorks, and those films have garnered multiple Annie awards (Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda) and nominations, an Oscar (Shrek), and an Oscar nomination (Kung Fu Panda). We asked him why he left the world of big studio feature films to put all his energy into a startup, how he envisions Nimble, and why he thinks the time is right for the Collective.

StudioDaily: Why did you start Nimble Collective?

Rex Grignon: When I was working at DreamWorks, I’d walk around the studio and see the incredible talent of hundreds of artists, amazing art in those cubicles that didn’t make it into the big features. I believe there is a huge backlog of cool stuff waiting to get made. If someone has a short film idea, though, they have to find a rigger, a modeler … there’s barrier after barrier. A few filmmakers who are incredibly motivated and have incredible resolve can do it. But that’s the exception. Animation is a team sport, especially computer animation. It isn’t like photography where you can be a lone wolf. We have different disciplines that have to come together and that’s what Nimble wants to make easy.

When did you start working on this?

The first genesis was about a year ago, and then we’ve been working on it in earnest for the last six months. A few of us left our jobs six or eight months ago. We had gotten to the point in our nighttime conversations where we realized that, wow, this really could work and it will work only if we commit 100 percent. So we moved from our “garages,” to a modest space in Palo Alto.

So is Nimble Collective a kind of virtual studio?

We’re not a production studio. Our goal is to get millions of people creating their own animated content. We don’t want it to be our creative vision. We aren’t a mini-Pixar or mini-DreamWorks. We want to help people turn their ideas into films. We’ll give them a way to distribute. Nimble is really about the individual. We want to liberate the animation community to create, collaborate, and prosper.

How will Nimble help someone make an animated film?

We provide a pipeline that individuals can use to get up and running in a moment. A few people can get together and start a virtual animation studio on the spot and be in production minutes later. They won’t have to worry about versions of software, whether the software will work. With that comes a huge advantage. There will probably be some tradeoffs — the tools won’t be infinitely configurable. But as we grow, that sophistication will grow. Right now, it’s a powerful place for people to get going.

What tools will you have in the pipeline?

We’re working with a lot of vendors. They’re excited about having a package that pulls things together. The users will have a choice depending on what they want to get involved with. We’re not writing apps. The magic is that the apps are all chained together in a pipeline. Our goal is to provide a soft landing place for artists to start making stuff and get something going quickly

Using your example of all the barriers to making an animated film, how will Nimble help someone with a great idea find a rigger, or modeler, or others needed to make that film?

Nimble won’t provide the talent per se, but the community will. The goal is that if I have an idea, I can post a project. Say I need a rigger from May 14 to May 23 to do this thing. I’d post it and say, “Here’s what I can pay you.” And, people will connect from wherever they are, Boise, Singapore, wherever. And they might say, “I’ve got a gig from the 14th to the 23rd, but I can work from June on.” We’re putting together a nice freelance model where people can quickly find work and not have to move their families every time their job changes. It’s a collaboration environment where people in a lot of different disciplines – painters, story artists, writers, animators, riggers, modelers – can bop from project to project. At the same time, there will be a mentoring component if someone wants professional input. If you’re a vetted pro, you can come in and help others.

How will Nimble manage that?

Nimble won’t micromanage. We will build an infrastructure where people can do their own budgets, time-sharing, and revenue sharing if they want. That would be automatically tracked in Nimble. Nimble provides the structure for people to make those choices, but they do it on their own. They could be in a brick and mortar studio that uses Nimble inside their walls, or it could be one person in a basement collaborating with others around the world.

How would Nimble help someone make money?

That’s the whole idea. How do people make money doing animation? Traditionally, they work for a studio and get paid a salary, which I’ve done for a long time. It doesn’t matter if the film makes a billion dollars or nothing – I go home with the same amount of money in my pocket. But, if someone can create a hit, we feel the artist should benefit from that. We’re trying to make it so that if you have a cool idea, we’ll help get the content out there. We can hook people up with the right people. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than some artist we nurture ends up with a cool TV series.

We want to think of ourselves as investment partners. We won’t own the copyright or the IP; the artist will retain that. We’ll get something that’s more the equivalent of an agent’s fee. And we’ll provide a lot of value for that. We’ll give artists the means they otherwise might not have. We imagine Nimble as a big, very big community. We’ll have a marketplace for people to buy and sell assets and services. We want the world’s animation community to commit to this way of working together.

Do you believe there’s actually a way for independent artists to make money doing their own animated films?

Absolutely. Animators have been going to animation festivals for eons. That doesn’t make us any money. Getting in front of viewers does. Look at what’s happened with the iPhone and live action. There are YouTube stars making videos in their living rooms and making a lot of money. That hasn’t happened in animation yet. We want to help filmmakers doing animated films get their ideas seen and out there in the world. We see Nimble Collective doing what iTunes did for music-making. Democratize the whole thing. Help people get their ideas realized. We figure there are at least 1300 animation schools around the world. All those artists are not landing in studios. We want to help them reach their full potential.

It sounds like you believe the market for animation is changing.

The consumption market is huge in all its forms, but this is the perfect time for shortform consumption. If you look at the volume, only a tiny portion is animation — less than one percent, from everything we’ve looked at. But it tends to get the highest hit ratio when it’s out there. Animation is extremely healthy right now, and I think there’s a big demand.

The press release talks about a secure cloud environment. How can people be sure the content they create in the Nimble cloud will be secure?

We have great tech partners who are making it bulletproof. I know a lot of people say that, but we’re not flying data around the world in the traditional way where people upload and download to a cloud. We’re not doing that. We’re different; we’re doing app streaming. You never sync between your local laptop and the cloud or your local laptop and another local laptop. Everything is living in the cloud. It’s one garden with a wall around it, not millions of little gardens with pathways. One walled garden. Once you’re inside, it’s very secure. Everyone providing this service takes security very seriously.

Nimble Collective says this is the first short film created entirely in the cloud.

When will Nimble Collective be ready for people to join?

We have 15 productions working in the cloud right now. Independent filmmakers and animators. We didn’t do any promotion, but within a month of starting up we had 15 people come to us saying, “I have this thing I need to get done.” It’s been fantastic. So we invited them to make content with us to show what’s possible in Nimble. We’re flush with stuff right now, so we’re not open to more yet. We expect to be open to the world early next year. We’ll be doing talks and presentations between now and then. Now that we’ve made a public announcement, we’ll start talking about specifics and how people can become involved. We’re not shy about what we’re doing. People can find us at

This is huge, isn’t it?

Oh yeah. It isn’t a little casual thing. We’ve been working on it for quite a while now. Our first goal was to make sure we could deliver an experience that is really solid and would hold up to the highest level of scrutiny. And we’ve done that. We have a short demo created entirely in the cloud. We’re really jazzed.

A lot of people say this is too good to be true, and ask, “What’s the catch?” That’s the goal. Too good to be true. I’m breaking my back making this too good to be true. I haven’t taken a dime for doing this. I want Nimble to be a place where artists come and say, “I can’t believe it. This is too good to be true.”