Grasshorse Studios finds its groove with character animation and local talent

Grasshorse Studios founder and director Steve Jennings said carving out a niche in the field of character animation is driving the Winfield-based company forward as it draws artistic talent from Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa. The Great Recession and September 2009 freeze on Iowa’s film tax-credit program helped Grasshorse Studios to refocus its…

Grasshorse animator Elizabeth Linneman at work in the studio.
Grasshorse animator Elizabeth Linneman at work in the studio.
Grasshorse animator Elizabeth Linneman at work in the studio.

Grasshorse animator Elizabeth Linneman at work in the studio.

Grasshorse Studios founder and director Steve Jennings said carving out a niche in the field of character animation is driving the Winfield-based company forward as it draws artistic talent from Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa.

The Great Recession and September 2009 freeze on Iowa’s film tax-credit program helped Grasshorse Studios to refocus its efforts and, over the past five years, the company honed in on its core capabilities.

One of those competencies revolves around building its workforce via spring and summer internships and nurturing Grasshorse artists in a low-stress environment that’s intended to get them excited for future work while developing new animation skills and networking abilities.

Jennings, a past-president of the Iowa Motion Picture Association, said improving his business model as the animation industry has gone through substantial changes has been a major production.

Grasshorse has three full-time employees and more than 10 freelance artists on tap for any given project.

Recent clients span the City of Tulsa to 20th Century Fox

The most recent buzz has revolved around the studio’s creation of an animated homage to the American television drama “Mad Men,” prior to the airing of its final episode, and the August release of feature film “Hitman: Agent 47.”

The studio was approached by the marketing department of 20th Century Fox to produce that short and another – “The Flair Virus Explained” – in relation to the upcoming release of “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.”

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Compilation reels on Grasshorse’s website reveal an affinity for 2D animation, 3D animation, stop motion and various hybrids of those techniques. Jennings commented on a recent animation and design project for the city of Tulsa, for which his company produced three character PSAs using both 2D and 3D animation.

The “painted turtle” piece created by Grasshorse for the Oklahoma municipality’s storm water quality initiative picked up three Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area American Advertising Federation awards. Grasshorse was also named in June as the National Defense Industrial Association’s 2015 Iowa Small Business of the Year.

“As a small studio, we have a lot of things to offer to up-and-coming artists,” said Grasshorse producer Kathy Buxton. The animation program at Southeastern is both affordable and capable of turning out some exciting talent. We’ve benefited from attracting talent that actually wants to be here and to work on these types of projects, while not being limited to one area of specialty. It’s good proving ground.”

Focusing on character animation and live animation

Grasshorse was founded in 2002, relocating to Iowa from California five years later, with a portfolio of work that has included products for everything from features films to commercials and smartphone applications. In 2010, Grasshorse moved from its office in Mt. Pleasant to a former movie theater space in Winfield.

The company has worked with national and regional brands, including Warner Bros., Cartoon Network, Walt Disney Television, Union Pacific Railroad, Jeep, East Texas Medical Center and the Iowa Lottery.

“We’ve been focusing on character animation and live animation,” Jennings said.  “Our Instagram account is filled with images of everything from Legos to mannequins, robotic heads and puppetry.”

“We’ve tried a lot of things,” Buxton said. “The secret is to leave behind things that don’t work and keep trying. It’s failing upwards.”

Todd Razor is a Des Moines-based writer and multimedia storyteller who covers technology and innovation in the real estate, construction and manufacturing industries.

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