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New London - With a new video game just out and an original "Star Wars" character under its belt, Killer Minnow is cruising.
The downtown animation, game-design and video-production studio, started by a former criminal defense attorney and two veterans of Sonalysts Inc. in Waterford, also is the creator of an original sci-fi comedy series called "Zerks Log" that can be accessed online. And it runs an independent science fiction website called scifinal.com that helps fans keep track of more than 300 original shows.
All around its light-filled new office on State Street, Killer Minnow employees display old sci-fi characters such as R2-D2 side by side on shelves with some of the favorites from its own animation efforts, including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which appears on the Nickelodeon television channel.
"At heart, we're fans of the toys," said Steve Lettieri, executive producer and Killer Minnow co-founder. "We bring that kind of enthusiasm to it."
Lettieri, a one-time attorney who previously did contract video production work for Pfizer Inc., decided to start his own company four and a half years ago when he realized his days were numbered at the downsizing pharmaceutical giant. He asked two friends from Sonalysts, creative director Rob King and three-dimensional animation guru Chris Conway who had formed a company called StoryForge Labs LLC, to join him in creating original content for the web.
As the recession hit, however, the partners quickly realized it was going to be a while before they would be able to survive on original content alone. So they flipped the focus of the company, turning largely to commercial clients to pay the bills.
Working with advertising agencies and production companies, Killer Minnow has produced a wide variety of informative and entertaining promotional videos and animations for clients ranging from shoe manufacturer Reebok to toy seller Hasbro to pharmaceutical firm Amgen to electrical co-ops around the country.
The money was good, but Killer Minnow's founders still had their eyes on finding more creative work.
"Things for us really got rolling two years ago when I cold called LEGO in Enfield," Lettieri said. "A week later, we were working on LEGO Star Wars projects."
Killer Minnow's speciality for the "Star Wars" series on Cartoon Network has been character development and special effects. One of the episodes introduced a Killer Minnow-designed Star Wars character, Jek-14, that was the first ever added to those seen in the original George Lucas films.
Producers from The Cartoon Network were in New London last month to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Killer Minnow developed the character.
The studio followed up that success by releasing just this month a new iPhone action video game called Rocket Runner. The app is available via an iTunes download for 99 cents.
"As a service company, you're always trying to identify who's your next client," Lettieri said. "But with our game, now we're selling a product. It's a different kind of approach, which is cool."
Lettieri said Killer Minnow's prominent place within the sci-fi community has given it a strong social media network from which it can launch new games. He said games account for only about 10 percent of the studio's business, but their importance could increase significantly in the months ahead.
"We're in the midst of a couple big proposals with well-known clients," he said.
In anticipation of bigger things ahead, Killer Minnow has added two new employees in the past few months in addition to finding larger quarters in the Dewart Building. Lettieri said the company contracts out a significant amount of work as well and is considering adding a full-time programmer to its mix.
Killer Minnow has had a hand in producing visual effects for Rocky Hill filmmaker A.D. Calvo feature films including "The Melancholy Fantastic," "The Other Side of the Tracks" and "The Midnight Game." It also completed an innovative "building projection" at the downtown Garde Arts Center to draw attention to its Broadway series.
Though far from Hollywood, Killer Minnow is close enough to New York City that it finds competitive advantages to staying in New London. As a small firm in a relatively low-cost city, Killer Minnow can provide a wide range of services at reasonable cost, Lettieri said.
"We're sort of flying under the radar, but that's starting to change," he said.
Name: Killer Minnow
Principals: Steve Lettieri, Rob King, Chris Conway
Years in business: 4
Address: 300 State St., New London
Phone: (860) 263-0660