Tuesday, February 28, 2006

What's happening in animation

It's always the case in Los Angeles animation that one studio is roaring while another is...relatively quiet. Here's a quick overview of studio activity right now (click on the header of this post for specifics): Sony Adelaide Productions produces "Boondocks" in a satellite building near Sony Pictures ImageWorks in Culver City. Cartoon Network Studios has a lot of series in work at their facility in Burbank near the AMC theatres. They've expanded into the skyscraper next to their original building, so you KNOW they're busy. DreamWorks Animation is wrapping on "Over the Hedge" and in full production on "Flushed Away." "Bee Movie" is getting going and "Kung Fu Panda" is in the early stages. DPS Film Roman just moved to a spanking new building on Hollywood Way near the Burbank Airport. High time, too, as the old building in North Hollywood was...ahm...kind of dumpy. (When you see a sign warning you about cancer-causing chemicals as you enter, you're heart drops.) Big news here is they have picked up twenty new episodes of "King of the Hill." Fox TV Animation is over on Wilshire Blvd. on the Miracle Mile, and clicking right along with "Family Guy" and "American Dad." Nickelodeon Studios has a lot of pilots in work via its "Oh Yeah Cartoons" division. Fred Seibert is the top-kick on this; he's using the same strategy he used years back at H-B developing the original Cartoon Network slate. Otherwise, Nick has a couple fewer series going than they did last year. Walt Disney Feature Animation -- big changes afoot here-- some detailed below. Obviously the major changes will come after the Pixar-Disney merger is finalized. Walt Disney TV Animation -- in case you didn't know DTVA now reports to the Disney Channel. It used to be under the umbrella of Feature Animation, but that has now changed. (And one of the reasons a Disney TVA exec ankled after many years. DTVA managers and Diz Channel managers were somewhat redundant.) Warner Bros. Animation -- Warners is doing two episodic shows and one Direct to Video at present. The DVD is a "Scooby Doo" extravaganza. A Time-Warner exec recently informed me that there is the intention to do more Scooby Doo TV episodes. Apparently the world community just can't get enough of the big dog. Click here to read entire post

Trouble for Flushed Away?

Many of us were surprised when Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit opened poorly and went on to only $56 million in North America. After all, Chicken Run had done well, Wallace & Gromit had a definite (if small) following over here, it got fantastic reviews, and most of us in animation eagerly anticipated the film. It also did well overseas ($128 million in theater grosses), and it's now the Oscar front-runner. Yet, as we all know, it didn't click with American viewers. My first reaction when it opened weakly was that DreamWorks marketing had scuttled it with an underwhelming ad campaign. I didn't see many ads on TV, and the ones I did see emphasized the penguin short more than W&G. The film and filmmakers/voices didn't have that omnipresence that we've seen with other major animation releases. Where was the marketing? Later, I considered that maybe the marketers knew something I didn't -- that however wonderful this film is, it wasn't going to connect with the broad cross-section of American filmgoers. Did the marketers see signs of this in test screenings and surveys and conclude that a massively expensive ad campaign wouldn't be cost effective? Well, I got a little glimpse that that might have been the case this weekend. During my Sunday brunch ritual at Cindy's in Eagle Rock (i.e., read the entire Sunday Times while noshing on the French Toast Sandwich), I couldn't help eavesdropping on a large, loud group beside me. There were obviously big movie fans, and were eagerly giving reviews of their latest Netflix viewings. The youngest (about 13) sang the praises of Shark Tale. She'd obviously seen it a bunch of times. Like I said, she was the youngest. Then two twenty-somethings had this exchange: "Oh, yeah, and I saw Curse of the Were-Rabbit. It was stupid." "Is that the animated one, with clay or something?" "Yeah, and it's sooo stupid! So stupid. Don't see it." "Why?" "It's just stupid. I can't even tell you, it's so stupid." "But why is it stupid?" "Okay, first, the dog doesn't even talk. Then, when the other characters talk, they've got those stupid English accents and you can't even understand what they're talking about. And . . .uh . . . it's just stupid! Don't waste your time. Don't see it." Believe it or not, that's pretty close to verbatim. Now, they weren't Rhodes scholars. They even stiffed their waiter on the tip when their bill was slightly bigger than expected. But still, they clearly loved movies, and W&G got a strong thumbs down. Much as I hate to say it, I'm not sure this gang was all that atypical. I'm not sure what all that means for the very British Flushed Away, but I don't think it's good. Click here to read entire post

Monday, February 27, 2006

Disney Shorts and Hand-drawn Animation

When I was nine years old, my father -- a background artist at DIsney -- came home one day and told the family that Walt had just laid off most of the animation staff.  This happened after "Sleeping Beauty."  Dad was one of the survivors, and was happy to be one.
Disney went on producing hand-drawn animated features until "Home on the Range" wrapped in 2004.
Today Ed Catmull, the soon-to-be President of Disney Feature Animation, told animation employees that the new creative team planned to explore doing more hand-drawn features.  He also said that producing more shorts would be part of the agenda.
Click here to read entire post

Scuttlebutt at the House of Mouse

I was out at Disney Feature Animation this afternoon, and the buzz around the building was that Ed Catmull (the incoming Prez of Disney Feature Animation) was holding meetings across Riverside Drive with groups of Disney Animation employees.
Employees with whom I chatted were very upbeat about the meetings.  They related that plans by the incoming team include:
* Having directors be the drivers of the features in development and production, with less interference from corporate administrators (this would be a big step in the right direction, IMO.)
* Fixing small problems before they become big problems.  For instance, when Pixar employees were having carpal tunnel problems because of work crunches, they made work stations more ergonomic and brought in physical therapists.  Medical expenses fell dramatically.
* Pixar and Disney Feature Animation will remain separate studios turning out different projects; each likely doing one feature a year.
The new creative team can't get into specifics of its plans, since there's government regs preventing them from making decisions before the merger becomes final.  But the half-dozen employees I talked to think there is definitely a new and better era coming. 
Other scuttlebutt:  Ron Clements and John Musker (director/writers of "Aladdin," "Little Mermaid," and "Treasure Planet" among others) will be returning to Disney Feature Animation after six months away.  They left the studio last September.  So the Fall departure was really more like a half year sabbatical.
Click here to read entire post

Hoodwinked = the end of feature animation?

When 'Hoodwinked' had a decent January opening last month, some of the animators at work came in that Monday with reactions of "There go our jobs!" The conventional wisdom was that if a movie that cost a few million to make, with animation that could barely pass as animatics at a major feature studio, could do reasonably well at the box office, then the big producers would likely soon dump all of us pampered, overpaid bums, and ship future features overseas. The logic went that if a film that cost somewhere less than $10 million could make $50 million at the box office, then our $70-100 million productions were doomed. Well, not quite. 'Hoodwinked' had a fat marketing budget (my impression was that it got far more advertising than did 'Curse of the Were-Rabbit'), probably well north of $25 million. Add in the cost of redubbing the film with big name actors, of prints and distribution, then take away the theater owners 50% of the gross, and it becomes apparent that while 'Hoodwinked' did pretty well, it likely won't break into the black till it hits DVD. Still, it's a success, for what it is -- a tiny, independently made animated film. Compare all that to 'Shrek 2' ($920 million worldwide b.o.), 'Finding Nemo' ($865 mil.), 'The Incredibles' ($631), or 'Madagascar' ($528). 'Robots' (down at #13 on the CG box office list) was far more modest, yet still had a ww b.o. of $261 million, and 'Chicken Little' will blow past the $300 million mark this week. The question is, which would a studio prefer: ten 'Hoodwinks' or one 'Madagascar'? The total box office is about the same, and ten Hoodwinks likely cost less than a single 'Madagascar' to produce. But don't be fooled. The big studios don't want to bunt for singles -- they want bases-loaded home runs. The profit from a single blockbuster far exceeds the money generated by multiple marginal hits, no matter how much cheaper the latter. The big budget animated films are safe, at least until they start consistently tanking. Now, what 'Hoodwinked' does mean is that some of the talented folks among us may have an easier time getting a few fist fulls of funding to make their own indie animated films. Now that would be cool. Click here to read entire post

Welsh Animated Feature Industry in Jeopardy

Think its just the U.S. Film Industry that takes outsourcing hits? Think again. This comes to us via Kathleen Milnes of the Entertainment Economy Institute. We DON'T make this crapola up... Ping Wales Digital-Media WTI Thai Visit Thailand hungry for Welsh business opportunities By Basheera Khan | 24 Feb 2006 A handful of Thai companies will set foot on Welsh soil in March, looking for business opportunities with companies across a range of sectors including animation, CGI and special effects for feature films, graphics for the computer games industry, interactive media and design further education, feature film, television and broadcast, and post-production. The inward trade mission, organised by WalesTrade International, will look to introduce the Thai companies to key Welsh counterparts over the three-day visit, which runs from 6 – 8 March. A spokesman for WTI said: "We are keen to offer a warm welcome to these companies and to introduce them to some of the key players in these sectors in Wales, as they are interested in developing partnerships with Welsh companies." The award-winning Imagimax animation and design studio is one of the companies that will be hosted, and according to managing director Saksiri Koshpasharin, is hoping to meet with 2D and 3D animators, distributors, publishers, production or post-production houses and organisers of animation-related events. The company has worked with studios in Japan, Europe and the US on 3D animation for TV, movies, and PC and console games, as well as productions for the Thai advertising industry. The Sripatum University, which offers courses in 2D and 3D animation, interactive design, multimedia, digital print media, digital sound, and Internet-based art will also be represented. Dr. Kamon Jirapong, head of the university's Digital Arts Department, is hoping to meet with leading Welsh universities in the area of animation, interactive media and design. Surachet Thienbunlertrat, a founder of Blu Fairy animation studio says their mission is to meet production and post-production companies, co-production partners, and companies looking to outsource visual effects, CG animation and motion graphics development. The company's biggest film project to date was the Thai box-office hit Garuda, for which it created the eponymous CG monster. The Kantana group, one of Thailand's largest service providers to the film, television and broadcast industry; Oriental Post Co Ltd, a post-production hub; and Right Beyond Company Ltd, which manufactures and replicates CDs, VCDs and DVDs, will also be looking to extend their business interests in Wales. Click here to read entire post

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Building a Three-Legged Pension

Kevin has mentioned that a number of people have failed to apply for retirement benefits when they become eligible.  He's also mentioned that a number of guild artists who've worked here (Los Angeles) but hail from somewhere else believe they can't take their earned pension with them.  Actually, they can.  Here -- in super succinct form -- is what that Guild Pension Plan consists of:
1)  The Defined Benefit Plan -- this is the oldest part of the Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan.  It's a monthly annuity for which the Plan will send you a check each month.  The SIZE of that check depends on the number of qualified years that you work (you need at least 400 hours worked in a year - and a minimum of five years to get the DFP). 
2)  The Individual Account Plan -- this is an account created for you into which your guild employer contributes money each week.  If you work all or most of the year, you'll end up with several thousand dollars annually in this plan. It vest in just one year.
Both of these plans are yours automatically if you work at an Animation Guild signator studio.  I haven't gone into any windy details about either of them.  For those you can go to www.mpiphp.com and mouse-click on "retiree plans." (left side of the screen.)
The last (and optional) leg of the Guild's pension plan is
3) The Animation Guild 401(k) Pension Savings Plan.  This is a no-match 401(k) plan into which you can deduct up to $15,000* per year in pre-tax dollars (that's state and federal income taxes.  You'll still be on the hook for FICA tax.)  The Plan offers twenty-four different bond and stock mutual funds, offered through Mass Mutual.
*under age fifty; it's $20,000 per year if you're fifty or above.
Click here to read entire post

New Disney Hand-Drawn Features??

As many of you may know, James Baxter's Pasadena studio is providing new animated sequences for Disney's upcoming "Enchanted." Jim Hill at JimHillMedia.com has an interesting take on this: http://www.jimhillmedia.com/article.php?id=1860 Here's a key quote: "Mind you, based on what I've been hearing ... If traditional animation does come back at Walt Disney Studios ( And right now -- in spite of Lasseter's obvious enthusiasm for this form -- that's still a very big "If"), it won't ever be like it was before. With some 2000 artists and technicians laboring in studios in Burbank, Orlando, Paris and Australia to deliver a new top quality traditional animated feature every six months to a year. The way I hear it, if traditional animation does come back at Walt Disney Studios, we're talking about a much more modest operation. With only 150 - 200 people working together to turn out a single new traditionally animated film every 3 1/2 to 4 years." Actually, if hand-drawn animation comes back to Disney with 150-200 staff people, it will be exactly as large as it was when John Lasseter started at the studio as a fresh-faced Cal-Artsian a quarter century ago. Under Woolie Reitherman, the Disney Animation department was (drumroll, please) 150-200 artists and technicians. And it had been that size since the days of 101 Dalmations. Walt, you see, cut back the animation staff from 1600 people (1957) to 200 (1960) after Sleeping Beauty proved to be a very costly enterprise that didn't rake in the big bucks the studio had been hoping for. But believe me, there are a LOT of people hoping for a return of traditional animation, my Animation Checking wife among them... Click here to read entire post


I know many of you are far more blog savvy than we are, so feel free to suggest things that might make this blog more interesting and useful. I want to get some photos up, so it's just not words and more words, but I had a much harder time than I should have when I tried that yesterday. I'll try again later, but any other suggestions are welcome. Click here to read entire post

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Interviewed by News Hounds And Zoning Out

Here and there Kevin and I get called by reporters because we're officers in The Animation Guild and the reporters need a quote. For instance, when the Disney-Pixar merger went down, we both got peppered by phone interviews because A) we were representatives of the labor union with "animation" in its name and the story was about animation, B) we were happy to talk, and C) we knew almost nothing about the merger but had lots or opinions we were happy to share. The funny thing about doing interviews is you blab away, then hang up the phone, then have somebody come up to you a week later saying: "Hey. I read your quote in the L.A. TIMES" or "I heard you talking on KPPC." Usually, you know what the person is referring to because the interview (all four minutes of it) happened a day or two before. But then sometimes something like this Feb. 13th LA TIMES article happens: ...three Disney computer-animated movie projects became collateral damage as part of Disney's Pixar purchase. While the three -- Disney-made sequels to Pixar's "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo" and "Monsters, Inc." -- might still become movies, Disney says the sequels will be produced by Pixar. What is less clear is whether any of the early production or scripts for the films, particularly after a year of creative labor on "Toy Story 3," will be folded into a future Pixar production or pitched on the scrap heap. Last year, when it looked as if Disney and animation giant Pixar were going to part ways, then-Disney Chairman Michael Eisner authorized his studio to start work on the sequels. Eisner had feuded with Pixar Chief Executive Steve Jobs over extending Pixar's production and distribution deal, with Disney claiming it alone had the rights to make Pixar sequels. Operating largely in secret under the code name Circle 7, Disney hired some 150 computer animators to start work on the sequels, and "Toy Story 3" had both a script by "Meet the Parents" co-screenwriter Jim Herzfeld and a director in Bradley Raymond, who made Disney's direct-to-video "Lion King 1 1/2 ." A 2008 release date for "Toy Story 3" was penciled in. Disney's "Toy Story 3" filmmakers were far enough along that they completed a test where Woody (the character voiced by Tom Hanks in the first two movies) was made to look like the Pixar creation. But when Disney announced its Pixar acquisition in late January, Jobs and new Disney head Robert Iger made it clear that when the deal closes, Buzz and Woody would be moving from Burbank's Circle 7 to Pixar's campus in Emeryville. Steve Hulett, a business representative for the Animation Guild, a union for television and movie animators, says he is hopeful that the Circle 7 animators -- a number of whom are foreigners working under visas -- will soon find new jobs. Disney "will try to find them something else to do," Hulett said of the animators, especially the foreigners. "Because it costs a lot of money to get them over here, and it costs a lot of money to send them home."... Now. When Hulett saw this piece a few days ago, he stood there goggling at it, trying to remember having said those things directly above, and when he could have said them. After his small brain rattled around in his head awhile, he vaguely remembered talking to somebody weeks previously. And now here was the result, hopefully accurate, popping up in print. Was it accurate? Don't ask Hulett. He'd long-since forgotten whatever pearl had come out of his mouth on that particular day. Usually I worry that I've said something stupid (and I've done that often enough.) But it's truly pathetic when I can't remember having said anything at all. Click here to read entire post

Chris Wedge Hosts Academy Shorts Screenings

Chris Wedge, the co-founder of Blue Sky Studios  (now owned by Fox and headquartered in White Plains, New York) will be hosting the Academy's annual public screening of this year's ten nominated short films, both live action and animated.  Mr. Wedge, in case you don't know, is a 1998 Oscar winner for the animated short "Bunny," and the director of 2002's animated feature "Ice Age" as well as last year's "Robots."
He'll be talking with this year's Oscar nominees on stage.  The event is sold out, but the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch will be holding some additional seats for Branch members with one guest.  (Contact the Academy's Special Events office at 310-247-3000 Ext. 185 to RSVP.)
Click here to read entire post

Friday, February 24, 2006

"King of the Hill" Returns...Along with Higher Employment

Several months back, "King of the Hill" wrapped its 100th episode and retired its crown.  With no more episodes to create, a lot of the crew was laid off, but WHAT a difference a few months (and DVD sales) make!  Word's out that an additional 20 episodes are in the works.
Trouble is, "KOTH's" producer Film Roman is crammed to overflowing in its new building on Hollywood Way.  Rumor has it that FR is searching for other space.  Rumor also has it they might rent digs from Warner Bros. in Sherman Oaks, but this might be a few board artists (who told it to me) embroidering on known facts.
One way or the other, there are a lot of people working in animation right now.  The Guild's active membership has grown steadily since the employment recession of 2001 and 2002, plus I've seen of board artists, animators and tech directors toiling away, so I know that SOMEBODY is earning a paycheck.  And one side benefit of full employment was related to me yesterday by a grizzled animation vet: "When most of the good talent's working, the studio's abuse you a little less." 
Click here to read entire post

Let's all retire to the south of France

A couple of weeks ago one of the French animators at work made the casual comment that it was a shame that when he eventually went back to France he would be leaving his Guild pensions behind. I was surprised, and asked him where he got that info. Another French animator had told him that they could only collect their pensions if they stayed in the States. Now, that would be incredibly unfair, wouldn't it? Imagine having your studio pay into your two pension plans year after year, and then you leave that money behind when you return home. So I was very happy to tell him that whatever pensions he earned were his to collect, wherever he may be at retirement. I said it would be the same if I retired and moved to the south of France -- I would just have to notify the pension plan that I was retiring, and where I was living. Actually, it sounds like a pretty damn good idea. Sell the house in LA and buy a chateau! Definitely a plan. And remember, we all have to do the same steps to collect our pensions. When you hit retirement age, the MPIPH will not automatically start sending you checks. You must confirm to them that you are indeed retiring -- after all, some people keep working well beyond retirement age. Steve can tell some pretty sad stories of people who, for various reasons, never contacted the MPIPH when they retired. If you delay doing that, you'll never get back the pension money you missed collecting. By the way, for all you members from other countries, Social Security works in a similar way. There's a 10 year vest for Social Security, and if do vest you're entitled to it, even if you don't still live here. Also, many nations have signed "Totalization Agreements" so that whatever years you work here and pay into our Social Security system can count towards social security in your home country. If that might apply to you, I suggest you do a little research. You might be earning a lot more retirement benefits than you ever imagined. Click here to read entire post

"Chicken Little 2" ...Buh Bye

On Wednesday, the crew of artists that had been working on "Chicken Little 2" was abruptly told its show had been cancelled. The first section of the DVD feature had just been put on reels and the artists were clicking along, then...BOOM. This is hardly the first time that a Toons project had been cancelled soon after launch...or two or three years in, for that matter. Canning projects, directors and artists is, I'm told by employees, a Toons management specialty. "No amount of cash too large to toss away," seems to be their motto. Click here to read entire post

New Member Lunches

Kevin and I have been holding "new member lunches" for the past year. These meal sit-downs are thrown at various restaurants for artists and techies who have recently started work at one of TAG's contract studios. We talk about work rules, the Motion Picture Industry Health Plan, Pension Plan, and the Guild's 401(k) Plan. All kinds of questions get asked, everything from "Are same-sex partners covered?" (answer - "yes, but not 'male-female' partners. Those kinds of partners have to be married to get health bennies.") to "Is my dependent parent or grand-parent covered?" (answer: "No.") We had a lunch for new DreamWorks employees yesterday, and the discussion was lively. Lots of good questions about the Industry Pension Plan and how to vest pension, how to get retiree health benefits. (Answers: work five qualified years for the first, work fifteen qualified years and twenty thousand hours for the second.) Near the end, Kevin reminisced about the batches of fresh-baked cookies and boxes of Dove bars that were a daily occurence at DW when it occupied the Lakeside Building at Universal Studios. Ah, the good old days of 1997. Click here to read entire post

Thursday, February 23, 2006

My first post

So, what's this all about? Why have Steve and I jumped on the blogging bandwagon? Well, Steve decided after our membership meeting panel on animators doing their own blogs that this would be a great, informal way to spread the word. We both usually write long columns in the Pegboard each month, but I know I often think of interesting things to comment on between those issues. And then, late at night when those columns are due, I usually forget all the things I wanted to say. Plus I think this can be a perfect venue for both TAG members and potential members to give us feedback. We set up a bulletin board a year or so ago, but it just never took off. I think this is a better system, and hopefully between the two of us there will be interesting information on a regular basis, and that will generate comments and questions. Click here to read entire post

The IATSE negotiations

The first part of December 2005, the IATSE and AMPTP (that’s the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) met at the Alliance’s flossy Encino Headquarters to hammer out a new three-year contract. Lots of meetings in the big conference room with all parties from the studios and various unions, lots of small meetings (called “sidebars”) with a smaller, select group in the “fish bowl” (the small conference room with a floor-to-ceiling window fronting a hallway.) The way negotiations go are: Substance and posturing in the Big Meetings, substance and more substance in the small meetings. In sidebar, most theatrics are dispensed with – at least the sidebars I’ve been involved in. At the end of four days, agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement was reached, with almost unanimous approval from the Business Representatives of the various unions. (Local 44’s Ronnie Cunningham voted against, much to the unhappiness of IATSE President Tom Short.) Now the ballots have been mailed to the IA membership of twenty-something unions, and the campaign to ratify the pact is going on in earnest. The Cinematographers (Local 600) have come out against the new contract, and there is tension in the air. Me, I think the contract will be approved by 72-79% of the total West Coast IATSE membership. We’ll see how right I am. Election results due in early March. Click here to read entire post

Sometimes, organizing can be fun

Yesterday was a quiet morning, but busy afternoon. At two p.m. I motored over the hill to meet with a disgruntled group of artists at a non-union animation house; they feel abused and want to organize. Forty people showed up; which is a good crowd. I have driven to meetings where I’ve waited around and nobody has materialized. These folks are interested and engaged, and pretty ticked off. They say the company is making promises and then not following through. Handed out lots or representation cards, lots of flyers. The questions asked are intelligent and specific: what are their rights? What do they do about unkept promises? Sexual harassment? I give lots of specific answers. The meeting breaks up as the sun goes down. I drive home thinking “this will go somewhere.” Time will tell. Click here to read entire post

Talking with a studio

Two days back I had lunch with the head of a local ‘toon studio. After a mutual whine-fest about our children’s weak math skills, we discussed professional issues. One problem, year in and year out, is tight schedules and unpaid overtime. No studio wants to bust its budget and cough up extra cash when the production time exceeds the hours some mushwit production supervisor, who’s never done the job himself, is wrong about how long the job actually takes. Another problem (and one that drives me nuts) are producers and story editors of animated tv shows who have board artists draw up thirty-two minutes of show when the show’s length is only twenty-two minutes. Some producers looove to have extra panels from which to make choices, but the artist is expected to do it in the regular time allotment. We didn’t solve the ying and yang of existence, but at least the studio head knows what some of the issues bugging his employees/our members are. Click here to read entire post
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