Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Universal Chugs Along

Universal Cartoon Studios resides on the 25th floor of Universal's "black tower" on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. The black skyscraper is kind of forbidding, but the studio halfway up its interior is actually pleasant, relaxed, inviting.

Tom Ruzicka, formerly of Disney Television Animation, is the captain of the 25th floor, and currently he presides over the 13th DVD feature of Land Before Time, 26 episodes of a TV series with the same name, and the beginnings of a second season of Curious George.(21 new episodes, I think. But I could be off.)

The studio is also considering doing a second Curious George feature for home video. So all in all, Universal has a number of things percolating along. They're not big, but lately they are steady.

I mention all this because UCS was the studio I visited Monday afternoon. (The nice thing about being the cartoon union rep, is there is always a cartoon studio somewhere around to visit.)

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Monday, October 30, 2006

The Disney Monday Roll Around

As is my habit, I was at Disney's hat building beside the 134 freeway on Monday morning, seeing what I could see. The mood in the place is somber because the production staff has processed and now owns the fact that, come the end of the year, a sizable number of them will be receiving pink slips.

I got asked a lot of questions about how long health benefits would last after departure (answer: 6-15 months, depending on length of service. Everyone's mileage varies.) I got questions about work around town (answer: it varies day-to-day.)...

I found out that the new producer on "Rapunzel" is Roy Conli. The other news is that longtime Disney animation producer Don Hahn will be taking a lengthy sabbatical from Disney Feature Animation. Don sent out an e-mail to the animation staff on Friday saying that he needed a break, and planned to take one for an indeterminate length of time.

Don is a Disney "old-timer," starting at the studio as an in-betweener and then a production support guy back in the seventies. He was an associate producer on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" in the middle eighties, and then producer of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Lion King," two Disney animated films that did a bit more than okay at the box office.

It'll be a loss for the studio while he's away; hopefully it won't be forever.

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DreamWorks Strong Slate

A report from Jessica Reif Cohen at Merril Lynch is touting DreamWorks upcoming roster of films as a reason to be bullish on the company's stock...

"In a report titled "Shrekilicious" she upgraded DreamWorks (DWA-NYSE) shares to a "buy" from a "neutral" and set a 12-month share price target of $31 (U.S.). The shares closed Friday at $25.65...."

So the analysts on Wall Street think DreamWorks is going to have a good run with most or all of its upcoming films, and its stock will be moving up quite a bit (so buy now!) I would definitely bet on the "Shrek" and "Madagascar" follow-ups as doing big business. As to the others, there's a lot more competition in the marketplace than there was as recently as two years ago, so I don't think anyone can assume that every movie that rolls out of an animation studio is automatically going to be a monster hit.

We get to look at "Flushed Away" and its opening weekend numbers in six short days. Will "Open Season" hold up? Will "FA" triumph? It won't be long before we have an answer.

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Fulcrum Power (Or...Having Leverage)

Recently,TAG has been working to organize some smaller non-signator studios. The drill is, you collect the representation cards from interested artists, and when you have enough, you phone one of the managers at the company, askinghim if he wants to sit down and negotiate a contract before you fill out the National Labor Relations Board paperwork to get a union election that will FORCE them to negotiate (I won't hold you in suspense. The answer is usually "no"). So you go to the NLRB with your rep cards and petition, and let the National Labor Relations Act of 1938 (as amended) take its course.

The manager I called on this particular day wasn't thrilled with his folks wanting to unionize. "I told them these were non-union jobs when I hired them," he said to me. "How could they stab me in the back this way?!"

I rejoined that nobody, least of all him, was getting "stabbed in the back," that employees had a right to organize for better pay and benefits, and that it was a simple mathmatical equation. "Your people want to be paid TAG's minimum wage rates," I said. "And they want health benefits."

He wasn't mollified, but the Animation Guild has pressed on. I've no idea how this particular organizational drive will come out. Artists have reported to me that there have been the usual elliptical threats about "maybe having to close down," if the staff votes to "go union," and how the company is running on a shoe-string, etcetera, etcetera. (I've heard this song-and-dance something around 325 times. The tune varies but the lyrics stay the same.)

Despite the shoe-string alibi, I'm willing to be that the people at the top of this particular low-budget pyramid are not underpaid. They never are. As Variety's Peter Bart points out in his latest column:

"...Giant corporations now run all the major studios and networks. Hence, a company like Viacom can decide that a Tom Cruise makes too much money from his studio deal, then it turns around and pays a Cruise-like deal to a top executive, who isn't even a star...Of course, CEOs today live like stars in terms of power and perks -- Barry Diller got by on a mere $295 million last year. And they also decide how the rest of us will live...

"...All of which raises the interesting question: Who creates the criteria for corporate belt-tightening? What determines that profit margins must be improved and hence, heads must roll?

"The answer, of course, is that the CEO superstar invents his own criteria..."

In our corporatist age, leverage is everything, and corporate CEOs own the fulcrums and steel bars to move the blocks of gold bullion into their numbered bank accounts. Four years ago, a Disney company lawyer griped to me how Michael Eisner and Robert Iger had gone to the Disney board, each asking for eight million dollars of bonus money -- this in a year when Disney stock had not only languished but lost ground. "And the board gave it to them!"

"What reasons did Eisner and Iger give for deserving the bonuses?" I asked.

"They said they needed the money."

So there it is, ladies and gents. When you've got the leverage (i.e., you've appointed all the directors you are now asking to give you the money), you get what you want. And when you don't?

Well, you go to the National Labor Relations Board and hope for the best.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

"Open Season" Keeps Truckin'

The third installment of "Saw" takes in a huge sum on Friday (not unusual for a new installment of a lucrative horror franchise), but "Open Season" clings to the fifth position...

The flick's running total (and we're talking about "OS", not the scare fest in #1) is now $72.7 million, and it looks like it's going to get within hailing distance of the century mark in the not-distant future. How it holds up when "Flushed Away" rolls out nationwide is anyone's guess.

Sunday Update: "OS" collects another $6.1 million, running its total to $77,357,000. With a decline of only 25.3% this weekend to last, Sony Picture Animation's maiden effort has the smallest down-tick of any of the top five pictures for the weekend.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Types I have known, by John Sparey: Glenn S.

John Sparey says that "capturing Glenn Schmitz's stride was a challenge."


Glenn Schmitz apprenticed at Disney on Alice In Wonderland in 1950 before spending two years in the Army. He returned to Buena Vista St. to work on Ben and Me, Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty before resigning in 1957. He seems to have made a living as a freelance commercial artist until he returned to work doing breakdowns under Bob McCrea on the Little Ranger series and with John Lounsbery on Jungle Book and Winnie The Pooh and the Blustery Day.

After several years pencilling the Scamp comic strip and the Big Bad Wolf comic books, his following years were spent as a layout, storyboard and character artist for Filmation, DePatie-Freleng, Sanrio and Hanna-Barbera. He returned to Disney and later to Baer Animation, before retiring in 1993.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Too-Long Scripts = Too-long Boards = Frustrated Artists

(Okay, okay. The above isn't a page from an animation script. So sue me.)

When I was pounding out half-hour scripts at Filmation, at least once every couple of weeks my boss Arthur Nadel would come into the office with a sheaf of pages in his hands and say to me: "The girls stop-watched this free-lance script. It's eight pages too long, so read through it and cut out eight pages, I don't care how you do it." Then he would drop it on my desk and move out the door, muttering over a shoulder, "That one you're already working on? It still needs to be finished by Tuesday."

I would smile and nod until the door snicked shut behind him, after which I'd drop the cheery facade, sigh heavily and start reading through the opus he'd just plopped on my desk. And one way or the other, I would cut eight pages of deathless prose, sometimes bridging an excision with a short scene, more often just chopping several old scenes out. It was crude work, but Arthur always seemed to be satisfied with my amputations...

At a lot of studios today, there doesn't seem to be much amputating that goes on, because production board artists keep complaining about how they have to board thirty-five page scripts, forty page scripts, and stay up late doing it. (Schedules don't expand to accomodate an extra fifteen or twenty pages.)

A few days ago, I was in a frustrated board artist's cube asking him how work was going. He shrugged, "Same old, same old. I have a forty-two page script to board, not enough time to do it, and the producer doesn't want to cut it back to half-hour length. 'We'll cut it on the animatic,' is what she says."

This isn't an isolated phenomenom. Today it seems as though nobody wants to rough time a writer's prose poem and get it down to the right running time. Better to let a board artist visualize all the excess angles and action, then trim it down on the story reel before shipping it overseas.

Wouldn't it be more efficient to cut the damn script FIRST? And save the board artist all the work that won't be used? Or am I nuts?*

*This past week, I sent a letter to one of the offending studios, asking for a meeting to discuss this issue and try and get some relief for board artists.

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"Family Guy" Layoffs??

The trades and national press have had news stories about the ongoing negotiations between Fox/News Corporation representatives and "Family Guy"/"American Dad" creator Seth McFarlane over McFarlane's new employment contract. The part of the news story that uh, sort of concerned us was this:

"...Production on the show's sixth season was scheduled to begin on Monday, but the staff was told not to report to work. By holding up work on the show, insiders said 20th hoped to push along negotiations...." --Daily Variety

Hard to believe that a company would play hardball with a creator who's making it big bucks by putting a lot of artists' livelihoods at risk, innit? But I guess Fox pulls the levers that it has nearest at hand. Anyway, I was unnerved by the trade paper story, so I drove down to Fox's Wilshire Boulevard studio this morning to find out if it was true.

I found out the story was, happily, somewhat off the mark. My informants and stoolies told me that Mr. McFarlane (for some reason) wants a bigger payday with his new deal, and Fox (for some reason) is balking at Seth's proposals. And what will happen next week if negotiations aren't concluded is not artists getting the axe, but that staff writers won't come in to commence working on scripts for the new season. The artists, directors and designers will continue to be employed for the forseeable future.

The expectation is (we're told) that Mr. McFarlane and his lawyer will conclude a new deal with Fox in the near future. If they don't (we're also told), then a month or two from now, the artists, designers and directors might have something to worry about. But for now, everyone is working away on new episodes, happy and content.

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Barry, Michael and New Media

As we note below, new media is roiling old markets. On Thursday a DreamWorks artist showed me how the company is using YouTube to heighten interest in the upcoming "Flushed Away." The animation studio reworked animated bits from "FA" and put it out on one of the major new internet pipes. (You can see the variations people made with the DW clip here.)

Which is kind of what Barry Diller and Michael Eisner were talking about at the opening session of the Forbes Media Electronic Entertainment Technology (MEET)last Tuesday.

Regarding conglomerates' purchases of MySpace or YouTube, Diller maintains that "It doesn't matter who buys what," because the internet is the great equalizer and gatekeeping isn't a viable option.

Mr. Diller might be on to something, but the old forms of distribution haven't gone away (Disney and DreamWorks are still selling a lot of DVDs. "Pirates of the Caribbean" was still huge at the world box office.) What I think could be true is that there has been a steady shift in the way people get their entertainment (and fill their leisure hours), and companies that don't adapt will have trouble surviving. Record companies, to present one pathetic example, have tried to hang on to the failing business model of selling CDs at sixteen bucks a pop to kids who download songs for free and load them onto Ipods and MP3 players. The old price point just isn't going to work when the worldwide web can offer something better.

That's why, I think, smart companies are going with the flow instead of trying to thrash madly against it. DreamWorks knows that it's going to have its images pasted all over the internet, so why not channel those images to promote your latest theatrical release? The dancing slugs are now showing up on lots of computer screens, and the money DreamWorks spent to get them there has been minimal.

There's a lesson here. But it isn't "keep selling recordings and movies in the same old way and prosper."

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dancing Slugs

Today I walked through various floors at DreamWorks Animation. This video was on a lighter's computer; he explained how DW was posting it on YouTube and getting some dandy guerrilla advertising for "Flushed Away." (See what others have done with the original clip here.)

This is the wave of the future, ladies and gents. As Media Mogul Barry Diller noted a couple of days back, the gatekeepers to our viewing pleasures are going away, and it's rapidly becoming every creator for her or him self.

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At Disney

Going through Disney Feature Animation's hat building yesterday morning, I ran into one of the Mouse House's A-list animators who told me that he'd been to a story presentation of "Frog Princess" (Disney's next hand-drawn feature) the day before and it had been "fantastic."

"Then the picture's greenlit?" I asked. "They're going to make it?" (I'm nothing if not redundant.)

"Of course they're going to make it," he said.

So there it is. A year or year and a half from now, people will be wielding pencils or styluses and creating the first Disney hand-drawn animated film since "Home on the Range." (Unless the above information is wrong.)

The Disney/Secret Lab Agreement

Although the new Disney Feature/TSL contract was negotiated to a successful conclusion a couple of weeks ago, final language for the Memorandum of Agreement is still being reviewed. Which means a ratification vote on the new contract won't be happening before the end-date of the old one. (Since a new agreement has been reached, no break in the agreement will occur.)

We're still shooting for a ratification vote sooner rather than later. Just as soon as the Memorandum gets finalized and sent to all the Disney employees that it covers. On a related note, the TAG contract -- ratified last Spring -- is finally being mailed out to members after a review by the Allinace of Motion Picture and Television Producrs that took longer than a rhino's gestation.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

"Over the Hedge" Scores Big on DVD

"Over the Hedge" is off to a roaring start on DVD, which of course underlines what we've been talking about here the last few days. Animation is a huge and continuing hit on home video...

As The Hollywood Reporter noted:

The DreamWorks Animation/Paramount release generated an estimated $65 million in consumer spending for an easy slide into first place on the Nielsen VideoScan First Alert chart for the week ended October 22...

With "The Little Mermaid" ensconsed at postion #4 on the chart, and three other titles crammed into the Top Ten, animation -- either hand-drawn of computer-generated -- now has something like half the real estate of the video sales chart to itself.

Since only a tiny sliver of all filmed product is animation, that's not at all shabby. But of course we're prejudiced.

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A day with Walt

The Disney studio was close to bankruptcy in 1941. European markets had dried up, domestic releases (Bambi and The Reluctant Dragon) were under-performing, and things looked grim.

But after Pearl Harbor, the Federal government rode to the rescue with beaucoup training films. Artists who had been laid off after the strike -- my father among them -- were slowly recalled to work; others went into the service.

Suffice it to say, Walt Disney Productions was soon a beehive of wartime commerce, turning out hundreds of training films along with military insignia and civilian-toon output.

Thanks to James Walker for bringing us this "day in the life" (art by Roy Williams, words by Ralph Parker), from Dispatch from Disney's, vol. 1 number 1, published by the studio for employees in the services.

Click on the images for a larger view


Left: Walt, arriving at the studio, is greeted by a reception committee bearing messages.

Right: The army and navy join Walt at the conference table.


Left: Joe Grant, offering an idea to Walt, holds him with his electric eye while Dick Huemer prays hopefully ...

Right: Walt ponders the philosophic values in a script ...


Left: -- eats lunch, talking to three tables at the same time ...

Right: -- enjoys a quiet cigarette while his mind roves ...


Left: -- answers fan mail ...

Right: -- speaks Mickey Mouse's voice, an assignment which has always been his exclusively ...


Left: -- journeys into the hall, where he is approached by persons having problems ...

Right: -- listens to the gang "selling" a gag in Victory Through Air Power ...


Left: -- gives careful consideration to Donald Duck's comments about his work for the day ...

Right: -- hitches a ride with a car pool.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006


In case you missed it, this morning's Daily Variety tells of a new alliance between DreamWorks Animation and Nickelodeon, turning some of DreamWorks's theatrical hits -- both current and prospective -- into what all parties hope will be small-screen gold...

This kind of thing has gone on like forever. Disney, of course, has transformed the Winnie-the-Pooh featurettes from the sixties into long-running television shows, also "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and currently "The Emperor's New Groove." And it has a fine cottage-industry making DVD sequels to its theatrical library.*

Klasky-Csupo -- a half-dozen years ago -- went in the other direction, turning animated television shows into animated theatrical features. (Disney had less success with this particular wrinkle.) And then there is "Scooby Doo," who lives on in DVD features, theatrical live-action features and endless numbers of t.v. half-hours.

(On the live-action side, theatrical features turning into boffo television series has been much more hit-and-miss. There have been two failed attempts to turn "Casablanca" into tv episodics. OTOH, M*A*S*H became a long-running television blockbuster.)

*Recently, Disney Toons had a sequel to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in development, centered, I think, on the Dwarfs. From what I've been told, it might not be made, and that's a shame. I think the boys and girls are missing a bet if they don't turn Dopey, Sneezy, Bashful, Grumpy et al into action heroes. ("C-c-c-cover m-m-m-e Grumps! I'm going in!")

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Pixar Storytelling 2

Here's part two of my notes from Andrew Stanton's Journey of Pain talk, from the Screenwriting Expo 5 in Los Angeles last weekend (part 1 can be found here).

Be warned that some of these notes are fairly cryptic, and quite a bit is lost reading them without the video clips and additional info provided during the talk. . .

Andrew's next key point was to know your characters. He described how Toy Story 2 was initially being done in a separate building, staffed by a "B-team," while the A-team worked on A Bug's Life. They realized that TS2 wasn't up to snuff, but couldn't do anything about it until they finished ABL, at which time only 10 months remained on the TS2 schedule. The A-team and the B-team combined, and the script for TS2 was rewritten in a mere 3 months. That compares to 36 months for the original TS script, and 38 months for the ABL script.

How was that possible? Because the characters were known. This is where most rewriting happens -- in trying to find, and refine, ones characters. With TS2 the tricky part was defining the three new characters (including Jessie, whom Joe Ranft nailed by describing her as "a bipolar Ellie Mae"), and this was were most of that three months was spent.

When thinking about characters Andrew said he enjoys returning to The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Less Masters, which is a collection of post-mortem autobiographical "epitaphs" of 244 former citizens of a fictional town in Illinois. It reminds him that there are an infinite number of characters, and stories about their lives. He also cited a quote from Mr. Rogers to the effect that, "There isn't anyone you can't love once you know their story."

He also read a passage from American Pastoral, by Philip Roth, regarding meeting people, and how we always get them wrong. (The second paragraph of this review contains much of the passage, along with a discussion of its significance.)

The next key is to Know your world. As an example, Fantasy = Rules. In a fantasy world, you must establish your rules (which can be anything you want), but then you must be consistent and true to those rules. A key element of audience enjoyment is anticipation mingled with uncertainty. If you don't follow any rules, then there's nothing to anticipate. Anything can happen, so nothing matters. In Monster's Inc. a crucial story development was the invention of the rule that screams = fuel -- this gave the film structure, and much of the story came easily once this was established.

Which lead to the next key, Inner, not Outer, Conflict. An example was that initially Monster's Inc. had a complex lead story involving an "industrial accident" for Sully (he'd been stuck in a child's room and saw the effects his frightening had on the child, leaving Sully traumatized). This focus on the outer conflict (the screams, and the effects on the kids and on Sully) turned out to be a dead end. In the film you'll recall that the screams ended up occurring off screen.

Writing is like Archeology -- keep digging, and throwing away what doesn't fit. Write, and rewrite, and rewrite some more, and be ruthless about throwing away your ideas that don't fit.

Closing the gap between intention and effect. I have to confess that my notes here are too spare to give this bullet point much context, but I believe he was referring to both the writing process (having a clear idea of what you want, and doing what it takes to achieve that) and an element of a satisfying story. Andrew talked of how Finding Nemo was conceived as a CG film from the start, that the story required an emphasis on reality to work, since the ocean was the antagonist. He went on to describe how the Pixar effects artist did such a perfect job of recreating the ocean and it's elements that they had to go back and make it slightly hype-real to convince people that they didn't just shoot live-action for the backgrounds.

No Flashbacks! Initially Finding Nemo began with Nemo going off to school, and the backstory of Marlin and his wife, and her murder along with all but one of the eggs, was told in a series of flashbacks. The problem was that the audience didn't find out why Marlin was so horribly overprotective until late in the film, by which time the audience had long before made up their mind about him. Andrew was finally convinced that the flashbacks had to go, and came to the conclusion to Only tell what's vital . . . and tell it linearly.

Music -- the score in Finding Nemo kept it from being treacley and playing like an After School Special. The music was conceived from the start to be another character. Andrew frequently constructs scratch soundtracks from existing music, and writes to that music.

Storytelling Unified Field Theory: 2 + 2. Notice that it's not 2 + 2 = 4. The story doesn't tell the answer -- the audience adds it up. The writer supplies the key elements, and leaves it to the viewer to finish the thought. This is yet another example of the idea that audiences enjoy working for their entertainment. Plus this is a good way to keep your writing economical. And this applies to every aspect of the film, and not just the writing.

He then played an audio clip to illustrate this idea, from the first lines of an Elaine May/Mike Nichols' play:

[phone ringing]

[male voice]: Hello.

[elderly female voice]: Hello. This is your mother . . . remember me?"

With those few words, the audience has all the information it needs to fill in the back story and know the situation.

Tell the truth obliquely -- let the thrill of suspense and discovery work within the viewer's head.

Don't let the strings show. This is pretty self explanatory, though much easier to say than to do.

In wrapping up, he listed the Pixar Philosophy:

--It's not for kids (the films are aimed at everyone).

-- Be filmgoers first, and filmmakers second (make movies you want to see).

-- No formulas.

-- If a formula appears, stop doing it. (Now, about those Pixar blinks . . . ;))

-- Animation is a medium, not a genre (something Brad Bird has been saying for years).

-- Dare to be stupid.

-- Just make good movies.

He gave a Walt Disney quote, the key part of which was: "Fun and wonder are the important elements [of great animation], in addition to quality in production and performance -- fun in the sense of cheerful reaction, the appeal to love and laughter, wonder in that we appeal to the constant wonder in men's minds, which is stimulated by imagination." For Andrew, the emphasis should be on the last phrase, on appealing to the wonder in people's minds.

Then he noted that, despite how much he has learned about screenwriting and storytelling, he misses the "stupidity" he had on that first Toy Story screenplay. The problem is that once you get experienced, you have a tendency to kill your daring ideas before you explore them.

During the Q and A, Andrew was asked about screenwriting books he recommends (The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri), the key to a good second act ("know your punchline"), and some question that lead him to say that he'd found Robert McKee's story seminar beneficial.

That's all I have from my notes on Andrew Stanton's talk. If I have time I may post about the rest of the day, though I took many fewer notes as the day wore on. As before, feel free to add comments that will flesh out what I've written.

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Types I have known, by John Sparey: Jacques and Fred

When Floyd Norman started at Disney, his neighbor in the bullpen was Jacques Charvet (left, below the fold) ...

... who, as Floyd points out in this article, was affectionately known as "the crazy Frenchman". Two days after the birth of his child in 1958, Charvet was yet another casualty of the post-Sleeping Beauty layoffs. He seems to have dropped out of the business until the mid-1970s when he went to Hanna-Barbera as an assistant animator, eventually being promoted to layout. He was working at Filmation when he passed away in 1983.

Like Don McPherson and Don Christiansen in our last John Sparey post, Fred Cooper (right) left Disney in 1957. He worked in Europe and NYC for a few years before returning to LA and an assistant gig at DePatie-Freleng. He picked up from DFE and Hanna-Barbera for a few years after that, before taking a withdrawal in 1968 to move to Santa Maria and become a high-school art teacher.

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Screenwriting Expo 5 -- Pixar Storytelling 1

Steve and I shared a pass to the Screenwriting Expo 5, and I used it Saturday to spend the day (and it was the entire day) listening to top Pixar creatives discussing their process of story collaboration and creation.

As you can see from the list of speakers and panelists (click the link above), there were a lot of uber-talented Pixarians talking and sharing insights. For me the hightlight was Andrew Stanton's keynote talk about his "Journey of Pain," in which he gave an well-organized talk about some of what he's learned as he's become a screenwriter. Here are some of the highlights of Andrew's talk . . .

First he stared with an vulgar and hilarious joke, which I won't repeat here, but which served to make his point that Storytelling is joke-telling. Or, as David Mamet wrote, storytelling is no different from gossip -- we want to know what happens. The joke or story, and the way it's told, are important . . . but we want to know what happens. And the payoff should be unexpected and satisfying. And, more importantly for the writer, one should know that punchline as one is writing.

Then he gave the keys for why he thinks Pixar creates such great stories:

-- No politics

-- No studio execs

-- It's a director-driven studio, with a stable "brain trust" for oversight

-- Only in-house original ideas are used, with a 1:1 ratio between developed ideas and films made

-- It's fairyland (this was the comment made by a live-action writer at a previous event at which Andrew was speaking, to contrast Pixar from the way every other studio works

In 1992, when he first got the chance to do a story from whole cloth, he was somewhat overwhelmed and intimidated by the task. Then he saw a particular scene in Ryan's Daughter, after which "the clouds parted" regarding movie storytelling. He then understood it's about audience participation -- that a good storyteller makes the viewer connect the dots and form a conclusion. This was a recurring theme, that the audience has an unconscious desire to work for their entertainment.

He then emphasized a point that I think most screenwriters ignore, that Screenwriting is not writing. A screenplay is an intermediary form, a kind of cinematic dictation. I think this is abundantly clear to those of us in animation, where so much of a film is built, piece by piece, by talented people in a number of disciplines.

He described the list of rules they started Toy Story with (you've probably seen this elsewhere -- no songs; no "I want" moment; no love story; no happy village; no villian), and how at an early story screening at Disney, a top lyricist who was then working with Disney gave a list of notes calling for every single element on that list. The message was to dare to be different, and to do things your own way, without relying on formulas.

A key to a great story is to like your main character. Initially Woody was a selfish, abrasive a-hole. He assumed that, since he was going to have a story-arc in which he would change, that this wasn't a problem. But the film didn't work (he proved the point with an early story reel, complete with Tom Hanks' dialogue, that was painful to watch) until he understood that "like" means "empathize" -- that even if Woody was a jerk and selfish, that the audience had to empathize with him.

This led to the idea of Unity of Opposites -- characters need clear goals that directly oppose each other. Woody's selfish goal, to get back in Andy's good graces, directly opposed Buzz's goal.

Writing is rewriting -- the story will emerge as one rewrites, and the first draft is always nothing more than a starting point. Therefore, "be wrong as fast as you can" -- blast out that first draft, then dig into the rewriting and do the real work.

Building a scene -- you need to have something to say, something that gives the scene purpose. This is not necessarily a message, but a truth (which you can debate in the story). The example here was the scene of Woody in the crate at Sid's house. He begins by giving a phoney pep talk to Buzz, but as the scene unfolds he reveals the truth that he is deeply insecure. This unfolding truth is what powers that sequence.

Story Physics-- this was a tag that sounded very specific (and the audience really wanted some genuine story formulas here), but what he referred to was more the underlying and seemingly contradictory truths which often thwart or drive character's behaviors, like "If you really love something you'll let it go," or "If you really want to sell someone something you have to not care if they'll buy it."

Key Image -- a key image should epitomize the core of the story (this is similar to what I've read from Stanley Kubrick). This image embodies key elements of theme and story and helps keep the storytelling on track. As examples, he showed the image of Woody being knocked off the bed for Buzz, of Sully holding Boo's hand in a doorway, of the last vulnerable egg in Finding Nemo. And he noted that A Bug's Life didn't have such an image, causing him to struggle with finding the heart and a core of the story.

Eventually, during a story screening of A Bug's Life he realized that the initial main character, "Red" (a red ant who owned the circus and was something of a con man), was unsympathetic, and his actions late in the film unbelievable. It became clear to him that Flik, a relatively minor character, needed to be the lead. And the rest was history.

Given that this is already a fairly long post, and I have more notes than time to transcribe them right, I'll post this first segment now and put up the second part tomorrow. I saw lots of animation pros in the audience, so anyone who was there feel free to chime in with your highlights in the comments section . . .

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DVDs and Animation

Perusing the Hollywood Reporter, I came across this sales chart (and when you think about it a minute, it's kind of stunning...)

DVD SALES -- Mid-October 2006

1. Click

2. Little Mermaid

3. X-Men - The Last Stand

4. Waist Deep

5. Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties

6. Fox and the Hound

7. Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

8. Curious George

9. Prairie Home Companion

10. X-Men - Trilogy Pack

Now, consider the above. Adam Sandler's "Click" arrived a week or two ago and bumped "The Little Mermaid" (1989) from the number one position. "Garfield" was ambling along at #5. "The Fox and the Hound" (1981) entered the list at #6 (Soon to come: the recently completed sequel "Fox and the Hound 2"). And "Curious George," the last-released hand-drawn feature, was at #8.

So out of the eight top-selling DVDs, four were animated features. And two of THOSE were released in the 1980s. Can anybody think of the last time two live-action features from the 1980s placed at the top of the 2006 DVD sales charts? I didn't think so.

When you're down-hearted about the gloom-and-doom that gets spouted regarding the state of animation, think about the list of titles immediately above. And know it comprises four more reasons that animation will continue to be produced.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Animated Weekend Box Office

"Flags of Our Fathers" gets the critical hossanahs and "The Prestige" gets the top spot as "Open Season" drops to #7, taking in $2,125,00 on Friday, its 22nd day of release. And an animated Golden Oldie makes a reappearance in the Top Ten...

"Open Season" has now gathered in $63,727,000 on its way (prospectively?) to $95 or $100 million.

And the Tim Burton/Henry Sellick holiday chestnut "Nightmare Before Christmas" opens at #9 ($1,225,000) in 168 Imax theatres. In its three-dimensional incarnation -- courtesy of ILM -- it gathers $7,292 per venue. Which makes "Nightmare," on a screen-by-screen basis, the highest grosser by far on Friday. ("Oh Jaa-acck!?")

Sunday Addendum: With the little ones out of school for the weekend, Open Season roared up to fourth place for this round, bagging $8 million with a mere 28% drop from the previous weekend (and a $69 million total).

Nightmare in 3-D nailed 12th with $3.28 million and the highest per screen average by a wide margin. Whether it's on DVD or in re-release, animation is the gift that keeps on giving (to the studios at least). Click here to read entire post

Friday, October 20, 2006

Events at Screenwriting Expo 5


Over this weekend, Screenwriting Expo 5 continues at the Mariott at the Airport on Century Boulevard. I attended WGA(w) President Patrick Verrone's talk in the Imperial Room Thursday morning. Mr. Verrone's speech was funny and informative (and much of what what follows is paraphrase, since I'm a lousy stenographer)...

He opened with a comedic spiel about "making money in real estate with other people's money," then moved on to writers' issues and concerns, like how to break into the movie and television industry, where that industry is now, and where it's likely to go. He cited screenwriter/novelist William Goldman's well-known quote about the Hollywood power-structure: "Nobody knows anything," and then quoted Danny Rubin (author of Groundhog Day) in regards to Hollywood's mind set:

"They tell you that nobody knows anything, then say to write what you know..."

And Mr. Verrone noted how they tell you that the hard part is selling the first script, then the second script, then the third script ...

In other words, Patrick Verrone said, being a screenwriter -- or any kind of writer -- never gets overly easy, no matter who you are. One example he gave of this reality was Matt Groening, the very successful creator of "The Simpsons." Groening pitched "Futurama" to Fox-News Corp. as being "just like the Simpsons," whereupon Fox said "Great! We'll make it!" The new show ran for several seasons, but did not make Fox the billions that "The Simpsons" did. Fox News-Corp. said to Groening "you said this was just like "The Simpsons," and Mr. Groening replied: "Sure, it's new and original."

(While this story was being told, I kept thinking about how Mr. Groening was a cartoonist first, and screenwriter second ...)

Verrone noted how writers are driven to write, and how there are 70,000 spec scripts written by hopefuls every year, offered up to an industry that is now controlled by six conglomerates (down from 29 or 30 companies a couple of decades ago). He talked about how he started by writing a spec "Remington Steele" script while he worked as a lawyer in Florida, and soon after moved west to California. He told how he's written standup, comedy-variety, animation, sitcoms, even riddles on food wrappers.

The movie and television business, he said, is changing rapidly, and that material for all the "new media" out there (cell phones and internet web sites like NBC.com or YouTube) is desired by conglomerates just as cheaply as they can get it. For instance, Universal-NBC has asked the writers and show-runners of the tv series "Battlestar Galactica" to create two-minute mini-episodes of the show for the worldwide web. The writers have been asked to perform this work as part of their other duties (i.e., no additional compensation), and have resisted. And the WGA is now fighting this issue on their behalf before the National Labor Relations Board.

If it's up to the industry, Mr. Verrone said, content -- which industry leaders say is "king" -- will be created at cheaply as possible, and writers treated like peasants.

(True enough. But in this day and age, most everyone this side of a corporate Vice-President is treated like a serf.)

Verrone said that the WGA(w) considers "Every image and written word on a screen has a writer (behind it), and every writer deserves to be under a WGA contract." He observed as how conglomerates don't want to pay residuals to writers if they can avoid it, and how companies have made billions from animation, but the writers of animation haven't worked under a WGA contract and haven't gotten a dime of residuals.

("The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and other Fox prime-time shows are done under a WGA(w) contract with WGA-style residuals. Some other animated product has been done under Writers Guild contracts without WGA-style residuals. Other animated shows -- most features and TV series -- are done under IATSE/TAG contracts which channel residual payments for writers and board artists into the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan. And of course the Pixar and Blue Sky Animation Features -- "Ice Age," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" among others -- are made under no collective bargaining agreements. Writers and board artists who work on these films have instead received bonus payments when the pictures have performed well at the box office.)

All in all, Mr. Verrone covered a lot of ground in his twenty-five minute talk, and there was much of it with which I agreed. But whether content creators can get a larger piece of the corporate cash flow moving forward? Well, here's hoping.

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Types I have known, by John Sparey: Don, Lin and Don

The stories of the artists pictured in John Sparey's portfolio of the Disney bullpen from the mid-1950s, remind us that not everyone who started their careers at the Mouse House became a Disney "lifer". For example ...


Inbetweener Don McPherson (left) started at Warners in 1954, then resigned fifteen months later to go to Disney. He became an assistant in early 1956, only to resign from Disney a year-and-a-half later. His letter to us requesting withdrawal in 1959 says he had moved to New York and was working in commercial art.

Lin Larsen (center), a breakdown artist at the time this was drawn in 1956, also left Disney the following year. Within a few years he had worked at Mike Lah's Quartet Films, Sam Singer, Format, TV Spots, Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera, where by 1969 he was doing layouts. For the next twenty years he pursued the career of a "journeyman", at H-B, Ruby-Spears, Orsatti, DePatie-Freleng and Marvel. For the last three months before his 1989 retirement, h ended up doing storyboards for ... Disney's TV division.

Don Christensen (right) left Disney at about the same time as McPherson and Larsen, moving to NYC for several years. He's probably best-remembered as the longtime head of Filmation's layout department. After Filmation's close he worked for DIC, Disney TV, Marvel and Universal, retiring in 1994.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

"See Jane" panel soundtrack

For those of you who weren't able to attend the See Jane panel last week, TAG board member Karen Nugent has supplied us with an audio track of the first half-hour of the meeting. It's unfortunate that we don't have the whole two hours, but this will give you a good idea of the issues discussed, and the tone of the event . . .

Click below to play; the sound file is in two parts (the second part is very brief). The sound is audible but not crystalline. Geena Davis's first sentence is cut off, as well as a sentence at the end. The voices you'll hear are (in order) GEENA DAVIS, moderator KEVIN KOCH, FRED SEIBERT, JILL CULTON, BRENDA CHAPMAN, JENNY LEREW, and DEAN DE BLOIS.

Part 1:

powered by ODEO

Part 2:

powered by ODEO

Here's the written summary of the panel.

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Eric Larson Speaks! Again!

So here's part deux of my conversation with Mr. Larson....

Eric Larson: I think you do have to figure that what you did on "Snow White," plus the work on the mutli-plane camera on "The Old Mill" was all experimental. The work on "Pinocchio" was the first time the multi-plane camera really got its challenge, I think. And you had some on "Bambi," but there you were just panning along on a beautiful sylvan setting and the trees came in, and the characters came out of the background, but you didn't have the camerawork of "Pinocchio."

Albert Hurter designed the screwy little chairs and table legs and clocks. He was the guy you depended greatly upon for the imaginative quality, so you could go into the layouts that Phillipi and Hugh Hennesy did...

On early conceptions, you had an old Italian woodcarver who, every time he picked up a piece of wood, something had to happen. And this is what Albert wanted to do, and what Walt wanted to do, of course, but Albert was the key in determining it. Albert gave all the carvings in Geppeto's house a life and personality of their own. Everything in that house that Gepetto had would have some...figure or animal...it would have something in there. It woud have to be part of the armchair of the detail on the table leg or the clock on the wall or the door or whatever.

But when you come to that kind of original thinking...Hurter was the key. I can't say that a lot of other people didn't contribute. I can imagine Walt...in fact I can remember quite clearly...looking at some old things, and he'd just go hog wild and give Albert a lot more things for Albert to work out.

But Albert drew as he pleased, as the book on his work is titled. And this is what he did. He'd come up with the most imaginative things. He'd just sit there all day and scribble. He didn't want to be involved in detailed layouts or the detailed this or that, but he wanted to be an inspiration.

Albert wasn't social. He just came in and worked and worked and worked. He lived in a little old hotel down in the middle of Los Angeles on Main Street. And on weekends my wife and I would meet him out on the desert someplace, all alone, driving like fury across the desert.

Philippi was the key on the street scenes. He used to render all that stuff in black and white so it would be absolutely beatiful. Paintings in pencil, really. And there was I.A. Mosely, and Ken Anderson did some of the stuff, I think. Walt brought back kid's books from Europe, but he also brought back all manner of clocks, and music boxes and that kind of thing. And that was an inspiration to us. And of course, Albert was born in Switzerland. But you just can't hand it to any one person, because everybody's hands were in it. Claude Coats was a very key man...very involved in clolor. I think you'd find that he led off, color wise.

Steve Hulett: What were you in charge of in "Pinocchio?"

Eric Larson: I did some Gepetto, but mostly Figaro and Cleo and that group. The marionettes, the gals form Holland. Some of the chorus girls that came in. I did some Pinocchio.

Walt just fell in love with Figaro and said "just do what you want." So we ran about...I don't know how many hundreds of feet over. All that sutff inside the whale. We developed more gags and things going on. FInally we cut out enough to make two shorts. But Walt fell in love with it. Even so, he cut a lot of my footage. But there's so much of Figaro I really like. My choice stuff, of course, that I liked tremendously, is when Gepetto's going to bed. Figaro wants to go to sleep, and Gepetto doesn't want to go to sleep. He wants to look at his star. He asks Figaro to get up out of his bed, and go across his bed... I had a lot of fun with that particular little sequence. Then, when he's told he can't eat his dinner and he's got to wait untilGepetto goes out and finds Pinocchio, so he gets into all this tantrum. But we tried to give him to personality of a four-year-old kid in the anatomy of a cat. But that's the charm of all of our animal characters. You can identify them as individual human personalities that people know. Other studios don't worry about that. They just moved the characters around.

Freddy Moore worked on Lampwick, and I think that's about all he worked on (According to Kimball, Fred also worked on Gepetto -- Hulett). He worked some on "Fantasia," and then he went over to "Dumbo." I did some stuff on Pinocchio turning into a donkey. Nick Nichols animated the coachman. And I'm not sure, but maybe Freddy keyed the children. He wouldn't have animated them.

Frank Thomas did such a beautiful job on the marionnete, when Pinocchio was a marionette. His head would drop and you just knew that there was a guy up there working the strings. We just worked our fool heads off to get that timing. There's a job of timing that people who haven't been in animation can't appreciate.

It's quite a fallacy to think that the old animators animated from pose to pose. I started animating in 1934, but the thing is that you always work stuff out, working out poses that would suggest the action you wanted. You'd figure they'be be strong enough, but by the time you got working through them and making the action convincing, and putting the additional drawings you wanted to put in to carry that action before it went to your assistant, then the drawing you thought was srong enough or had enough attitude was weak, or might be too strong. And you'd have to cut it down. So actually, I think you'd have to say that you worked pose to pose, but you also worked straight ahead.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Animation's Pay Rates vs. "Average American's" Wages

I've been in the animation business long enough to see a couple of booms and at least one or two busts.

In the middle nineties, I saw animation artists making five and six and eight thousand dollars per week, and picking up fifty thousand dollar bonuses. In 2002, I saw former animation artists working at Trader Joe's...

The 'toon business has done several full pirouettes in the time I've been in it. It was comatose in 1988-89, then going at full throttle (with wages to prove it) in 1995. I started as a trainee at Disney at $135 per week, and left Disney a decade later earning $40,000 per year. In the seventies and early eighties, Disney continued a decades-long tradition of steady, long-term employment, paychecks pretty close to scale wages, and stock options.

Eisner put a stop to most Disney Animation stock options soon after he stepped over the hill from Paramount in 1984, but salaries soon shot up as animation exploded, and long-term jobs became the norm...

Today, long-term employment has ebbed from where it was a decade ago, but animation staffers and free-lancers (and I'm talking about animation employees who work at least six months or more a year) still earn from $45,000 to $200,000+ a year. (Obviously, there are outliers on both sides of these figures, and many suffer long stretches of unemployment.)

But how does our micro wage environment stack up against the national macro? These stats from Barry Rithholtz's "Big Picture" web log provide a dandy snapshot. A couple of sample statistics:

Median Income (Men)*

1965 $28,599

1975 $33,148

1985 $42,847

1995 $39,186

2005 $41,386

* All figures in 2005 inflation-adjusted dollars, except where noted. Source: Census Bureau


Median Income (Women)

1965 $9,533 (33% of men)

1975 $12,697 (38% of men)

1985 $27,720 (65% of men)

1995 $27,990 (71% of men)

2005 $31.858 (77% of men)

You could find it fun...or maybe depressing...to check the Average American's pay day against your own via the links above. The "Big Picture" also gives us snapshots of the dollar's earning power, median income, and what CEOs have earned over the last forty years. That's yet another eye-opener.
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TAG Pension Plans Made Simple

If you're working at at Guild shop, here's a quick summary of the three pensions available to you. If you're working at a non-Guild animation, CG or gaming company, you might want to ask yourself "Why can't I have those kind of benefits?"

We've covered this topic in greater detail in our blog postings here, here, here and here, but it's time to simplify and reiterate ...

"How Much Pension Will I Get?"

There's three pension plans for TAG members. You control one -- the 401(k) Plan -- and it's optional. You either participate in it or not. The other two you are enrolled in automatically. (Meaning you have no choice. You're a participant, like it or not. And you should like it, because it mean a bunch of money is automatically being put away in your name for when you retire.)

As regards the hard-number examples we're about to throw at you, your mileage may vary. If you're working at a Guild shop and you're a part of our plans, you should be getting regular statements -- the 401(k) Plan statements should be coming from Mass Mutual (on a quarterly basis), the pension and IAP reports should be coming from the MPIPHP (on a yearly basis). If you have any further questions about the 401(k) plan, contact Marta Strohl-Rowand at (818) 766-7151 ext. 101. For info about your defined benefit pension or IAP, contact the MPIPHP at (818) 769-0007 or (310) 769-0007 [outside southern California, (888) 369-2007].

The 401(k) Plan is a "no-match" 401(k) plan; it's your contributions only, not the employer's. There's twenty-four investment options to choose from. Money deducted from your paycheck goes into the plan (max is $15,000 in '06; $20,000 if you're age fifty or more.) Money gets tax-deferred (you don't have to pay income taxes on it). Four enrollment periods per year: January 1, April 1, July 1, October 1.

The defined benefit plan: This is paid as a monthly annuity (meaning they'll send you a retirement check every thirty days when you retire.)

Five qualified years are needed to be "vested," that is, to qualify for a pension at the point of retirement. A qualified year is a year in which you've worked a minimum of 400 contribution hours.

Five qualified years with 2,000 hours -- fifty 40-hour weeks -- in each year, would get you approximately $375 per month. Ten qualified years (same hours per year as above) would get you $750 per month, give or take. Twenty qualified years (same hours) gets you in the range of $1,750 per month (after your tenth qualified year, the formula gets a little more generous).

Under the Individual Account Plan, a TAG member making minimum rate of $1,436.56 per week, who works fifty weeks in the year, will end up with $4,220 in her or his IAP account. The IAP is a big basket of money that you can't touch until retirement. The basket, averaged over the past twenty-seven years, has earned interest of 7.5% per annum. (The investment mix is about 60% bonds, 40% stock and real estate.)

So, you're working non-Guild and you'd like these kind of benefits? Help us help you to get them. Fill out and sign a representation card, and get your fellow employees to do the same. Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Eric Larson Interview

Now that we have navigated through the Ward Kimball interview, we turn to another of Disney's Nine Old Men, Eric Larson.

Eric worked as an animator and director over a fifty-plus year career, all of it at Walt Disney Productions. Animator, director, mentor, teacher, Eric did it all. I talked to him on April 19, 1978, at 1:50 p.m. in his office (aren't you glad you asked?). As with the other interviews I've recently put up here, this one centered on "Pinocchio"...

On Walt Disney and his studio -- 1938 and 1978

Eric Larson: I don't know how different the atmosphere around here was forty years ago. I do know that everybody was of one thought, and that was to do something good. We all had egos, but Walt had a way of taking those egos and making them work together as a team, and not destroying those egos.

Now that kind of ability doesn't come very often. And Walt's enthusiasm for things was absolutely out of this world. You'd take the most ordinary thing, and if he was enthused about it, you became enthused about it, and I think that's where, if there's a difference [between then and now], that's it.

And here's another thing, see. This guy had the ability to take you into a story meeting, or three or four animators into a sweat box with a reel of film, with a thing they'd been working on, and in ten minutes he could tear the whole damn thing apart. And in another forty minutes he could completely rebuild it so you had something concrete and solid.

And we don't have that talent anymore. What the hell, I don't see why we should avoid talking about it, of this ability that he had. His effort for perfection, his whole feeling was, and this came off of Pinocchio strongly: Perfection is something you keep your eyes on, something you strive for, and once in awhile you attain it.

And tradition meant a heck of a lot to him. It was a big tradition to get something good, that the audience could enjoy, and he wouldn't give up on that. He'd change deadlines and everything else, because he wasn't happy with what was being done. He'd settle back and take more time with it... He wanted a product.

"Pinocchio" today would be impossible to make. They wouldn't spend the amount of money that would be necessary. We just wouldn't do it now. Where in the world would you ever get the underwater effects? Where in the world would you get the ocean effect, the water effect when Pinocchio and Gepetto were on the raft, escaping from the whale?

You know this guy Josh Meador* was a nut. He was absolutely dedicated. And the kinds of people with his talent, you don't very often find. He was so dedicated and observing and analytical, and his sense of timing for [effects animation] was terrific. He shot stuff in slow motion so people could study just exactly how water or milk or any substance of varied density would break up if something was tossed into it. So that the rest of the crew would know exactly how it would break up. All you have to do is look at that underwater stuff, and you realize that he really passed that information on to a lot of people. By the time we got to "Fantasia," we had sixty four people in the effects department alone. We had about twelve hundred people in animation

Like some guy said at lunch today, it wasn't a case of money, it was a case of product. And it wasn't one of the creative people who said that today either, it was one of the lawyers out of the legal department. We started talking about the things we're putting out now, and the things we were putting out then, and the comment was that Walt was after the perfection of good entertainment.

Money was a secondary thing with him. He knew you had to have it, but as soon as he got it, he put it back into the business, until about 1958, 1960 when he started to worry about it because they brought in people from the outside who talked him into the value of money. But I don't think, until that time, that he gave a damn. He wanted to pour it back into the business to get the very best that he could.

Walt never forgot anything, he was always reaching out. He never stopped. Even though he was thinking about EPCOT, I'll bet he didn't overlook the cover of one of those damn telephone directories we got. And you'd better write [what he said to you] down, because he would remember, so you'd better remember.

* Josh Meador was head of effects at Disney, jumped to supervisor over the heads of some senior employees (who weren't happy about it) in the late thirties. He and my father were close friends and long-time painting compadres. Away from the studio, Ralph H. painted watercolor landscapes; Josh specialized in oils and acrylics. Josh was the co-winner of the Academy Award for special effects for "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Types I have known, by John Sparey: Gordon and Fred

Two apprentice inbetweeners from Disney's Class of 1956 are featured in today's entry from the John Sparey portfolio ...


Gordon Bellamy (left) was only eighteen when he started at Disney in 1956. He resigned after a year-and-a-half, and since then has had a long and varied career on both coasts as well as in his native Texas. In the 1980s he did layouts for Ruby-Spears and Hanna-Barbera, and more recently he was an assistant animator on Warner Bros.'s The Iron Giant.


He was living in a loft in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, so close to the Twin Towers that they were visible from his skylight (right). His account of that day, and of the effect on the New York animation community, ran in the March 2002 and April 2002 issues of The Peg-Board.

Fred Kirchmayer (above right) started at Disney three months before Gordon, and was yet another artist let go in the 1958 purge at the end of Sleeping Beauty. A letter in our files from 1959 indicates he had gone to work in another industry, and we have no further record of him.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Warner Bros. Animation -- Future Doings

Warners Animation has been in semi-hibernation the last few months; last week a mucky-muck at WBA explained why that was...

The studio, headquartered in Sherman Oaks these last seventeen years, will be moving back to Burbank and settling onto the Warner Ranch in a matter of months. It doesn't, apparently, want to get a huge amount of production going before the move, and so will put off producing several series and DVD features until it's returned to the east San Fernando Valley.

(Right now they are doing a super-hero project. I'm told there will be more of these, plus multiple series, after the relocation.)

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Animators Obsolete?

Jenny Lerew at Blackwing Diaries happened on this from today's New York Times before I did, and I concur with her analysis: It remains to be seen if yet another chunk of clever software is going to revolutionize animation. (Look at the video in the linked article above and see what you think)...

As for the idea of bringing back dead movie stars to fill up acting space in new film product, it will be interesting to see how THAT turns out. Apart from the hard reality that any new Monroe, Cagney or Gable performance will essentially be the digital reflection of the remembered shadow of the genuine article, there will also be the small problem of acquiring the rights of replication from the actors' heirs.

Then there's the teensy problem of not creeping out an audience by doing it, and having it perceived as anything other than being a stunt.

But enough from me. I'm sure others are going to jump on this. Go read Jenny's piece.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

"Open Season" Scampers On...

As of Friday, Open Season has crossed the the $50 million box office threshhold and now resides at #4 on the box office charts...

The flick pretty much has the family trade to itself. It's doubtful that Mom and Dad are going to take the kids out for an afternoon of Grudge 2 or The Departed. (Well, maybe Man of the Year has a shot. Updates to come.

Sunday Addendum: Open Season pulled fourth place with $11 million and a very good 29.6% drop from last weekend. It's now at $59 million. Much farther down the list, Barnyard just eased past $72 million domestically.

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Types I have known, by John Sparey: Don and Dave

This morning, a comparative Google search yielded the following results:

  • "John Sparey" animation: 609 hits.
  • "Don Bluth" animation: ...

238,000 hits. One of which was my previous posting about this always-controversial filmmaker.


The above caricature of Bluth (left) appeared in The Animated Films of Don Bluth by John Cawley. (As I've said before, Don was the man under whom I trained as a new Disney employee in late '76 and early '77. He was an up and coming tyro then, being groomed as Woolie Reitherman's replacement. This drawing shows Don in his earlier Disney incarnation -- when he was a youngster working on "Sleeping Beauty" -- and much further down the Mouse House's pecking order than he was in the 1970s..)

I also previously posted about Dave Suding (right), in connection with another John Sparey cartoon. Dave spent most of his career at Disney -- from the 'fifties until his retirement after "Hercules" in '97. Dave and his wife now make their home in Laguna Beach.

More of John Sparey's artwork.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Notes and photos from the "See Jane" Panel


From right to left: Dean De Blois, Jenny Lerew, Geena Davis, Kevin Koch, Brenda Chapman, Jill Culton and Fred Seibert

Here's a summary of some of last night's panel. We have a recording of the first half hour of the event, but these snippets are taken from Steve's notes, so there are some inaccuracies and paraphrasing. The photos were taken by Jeff Massie.

I started the panel by asking Geena to describe where See Jane came from, and to summarize their first study. . .

Geena Davis: "See Jane" started when I noticed, while watching G-rated movies and shows with my daughter, and I was stunned to see there was still a huge gender imbalance, pretty much when I was a kid and the only female Loony Toons character was Granny who's job was to leave. I did my own unscientific study, and the ratio of males to females was 4 or 5 to 1. And I'm sure you've heard the adage: "Girls and women will watch stories about men and boys, but boys won't watch stories about girls...so we have to make the majority of our movies about male characters." But I started thinking: "What if kids were exposed to G-rated films where females took up half the space?" And I decided I wanted to form "See Jane" to try to do something about that...

We commisioned the largest study ever done G-rated film at Anenberg, and took the top grossing G-rated films from 1990 to 2005...and the results confirmed my unscientific analysis. The ratio was about three to one, male to female characters, and if you take into account all the townspeople and the whole environment, the percentages are around 70% People come up to me all the time and say: "Well, things are getting better, right?"The answer is "No." The reality is, things aren't getting better. Gender disparity happens in G-rated films made by all companies, and the data is exactly the same if you compare films from 1990-1995 to those from 2000-2005. All entities who made G-rated films across the board were equally guilty. In the final analysis, only 7% of the films had anything close to gender parity.

Fred Seibert: I'm not at all surprised. I've been in the business for fifteen years, and one of the first reactions I had in the business was how much it kind of hated everybody but old white men. It hated young white men, black people, women, any people of color, anybody who wasn't an old white man. The films and the programming are a reflection of the people who are making it, and a reflection of the people making the decisions....so I don't think any of us are really surprised.

Brenda Chapman: It doesn't surprise me, either. I've been in the industry for sixteen years. In 1990, there were 4-5 women in my CalArts class of ninety [I recall that Brenda's class was much smaller, like 40]. So this points, to me, to an even bigger issue. It seems to me that a lot of women are not even interested in animation, at least character animation, which is considered the commercial aspect. What's interesting to me is, back then, in experimental animation, 3/4 of the students were women. Go figure. (Jill and Jenny, also recalled that females made up less than 10% of their classes at CalArts.) Of portfolios we receive at Pixar, less than 10% are from women.

Jill Culton: I was the token female when I started in the business. Very few women seemed to be interested in character animation, though a lot more were interested in experimental.

Jenny Lerew: I fell between Brenda and Jill at Cal Arts, in 1987. I was asked from my first week at Warner Bros. Animation in 1989, where I worked on "Tiny Tunes" I was asked almost from the first week I was there: "Why are so few women in the business?" I have no idea. In television there are more women working in story, in series and in home-video. There's a little more opportunity there, and I don't know why that's the case.

Those things are very script driven, and they don't have as much control as we do in features in shaping the story. But you're always at the mercy of who's driving the story. A lot of the times the goals that I have working in story is exactly as the guys have...we got into this business for exactly the same reasons. When I was a girl who just identified with boy cartoon characters because that's what there were when I grew up. I pretended to be Mowgli as a kid, running around the house in my underpants. And I think small girls still do that...

Dean De Blois: My theory is that boys hang onto their childhoods, and a fascination with comic books changes to a fascination with animation. A little bit of a geekiness. If you walk around the studios' cubicles you'll find the toys are all collected. But I'm very appreicate of all the women we work with. In my first year of college there were maybe three women in my class. Women seemed to go into the fine art aspect. After Gina's presentation I realize just how striking the disparity is.

Chris Sanders and I channeled women for "Lilo and Stitch." "Lilo and Stitch" started as a story (by Chris) about an alien in a forest with forest animals. And he learned to make animal and forest sounds. Then the story line became the alien with a little boy in Kansas, then a little girl in Hawaii. [Dean didn't remember any particular pressure to "boy up" the film, and the transition to a girl character came naturally out of the story development. ]

Jill Culton: I was developing Monsters, Inc" at the same time "Lilo and Stitch" was in development. We had developed "Monsters, Inc." as a relationship between a father and a little girl, it just felt right. But Disney suggested that the human kid character in "Monsters, Inc." be changed from a little girl to a little boy. I found out later Disney was afraid it would be too much like "Lilo and Stitch"...

Brenda Chapman: At the start of my career, I was the only woman in the story department at Disney, but at that time we were working on "Princess movies" with strong female leads, so at the time there didn't seem to be any need to strengthen other female roles...most of the funny characters were guys....But now I'm at Pixar, and there films are very much for the boys. I don't think it's a conscious thing, I just think they're making fillms they want to see.... Joe Ranft asked me to come up to Pixar to work on the female character in "Cars" to make her ring more "true." Pixar is something of a "boy's club", and little thought seems to have been given to female characters, even when it would have fit naturally. For example, why couldn't the Slinky or the T-Rex in Toy Story have been women? [Brenda's business card reads "Token female Pixar story person," but now that she's directing there aren't any women in Pixar's story department.]

Jenny Lerew: And aren't cars usually designated female, like ships. But almost all the cars in "Cars" are male.

[In another example of what some might consider job stereotyping, Jill recalled being assigned sequences involving the character Jessie in Toy Story 2 while she was at Pixar.]

Jill Culton: Studios worry about female characters, and they don't want stereotypes. Females can't be too pretty, but not ugly either. Can't be bookish, but can't be stupid. There are so many landmines. [My observation here was that, when a film only has one significant female character, then that character can't be allowed to be too distinct, because it's representing the entire gender.]

Geena Davis: Why can't the funny sidekicks be female? Then they could be anything creators wanted.

Jenny Lerew: Guys don't think about male/female ratios.

Jill Culton: "Open Season" started as two male animals in woods. One of the things we worked hard on is to give some originality to the "mother" character (Beth, voiced by Debra Messing), make her different...

Brenda Chapman: In the stage show of "Lion King," they made Rafiki a female. When I saw it I thought: "Why didn't I think of that?" (She credited Roger Allers for the change, but Allers said it was Julie Taymor.)

Geena Davis: It would be interesting if "Ice Age," were relooped with all female voices. Without changing the look, the characters could be all females. It would still work.

Fred Seibert: My first network pitch as a cartoon studio exec was to a woman. She said about one of the female characters, "make her breasts bigger," but she didn't use the word "breasts." I couldn't believe she was talking like that, and I thought maybe I should pack up my boxes in my office and go back to New York right there. And I remarked that I couldn't believe she was talking like that. And she said "Big [breasts]. Boys like 'em and girls want 'em."

For the Frederator shorts program, up until the last couple of years, I had maybe five pitches by women out of 5000. And four of those I had to beg the women to make. And the pitches weren't very good, probably because they weren't too enthusiastic about making them. But in the last two years, I've gotten hundreds of pitches from women under 35. So all of a sudden, the odds have gotten way better. [Out of the first 99 shorts greenlit, only one involved a female creator, and that was as part of a wife/husband team. Of the last 39 shorts greenlight, 8 were by 10 women creators.]

Some of the women's pitches are with males, some with females. One was about a babysitter. Not the usual story, with the babysitter being tied up and set on fire. Because she'd been a babysitter. What guy is going to think of the babysitter as a real character?

Women are going to make the changes in gender balance. It's not going to come from having gender balance in movies.

Jill Culton: It takes years to learn the craft. How do we get more women into the craft? Into the schools and colleges?

[No one had any great answers to this, except to again note that art departments and experimental animation programs are often predominantly female, yet there seems to be a disconnection in more industry-oriented programs. On the other hand, Jill noted that the last time she visited CalArts that there were many more females in the animation classes. Interestingly, it wasn't just more females, but especially Asian females, which she thought was likely related to the popularity of anime, and the higher esteem for animation, and female-driven stories, in Japan.]

Jill Culton: I think, yeah, women have to try harder when they get in the business. But if you're kick-ass good, they can't deny you. You're wearing the cloak of your talent...

Dean De Blois: We have to be conscious of the stories and the characters filling those stories.

Fred Seibert: If people want to change the world, they have to make their own films. I've been looking at a lot of indie films, over a thousand, and the people that make them have their own points of view. There are people out there doing it.

Geena: Boys and girls all go to see the same movies, they all share the same sandbox.

[I know the above contains some bits and pieces out of context, and without the ancillary comments from other panelists, but it's meant to give a sense of what was discussed. We then went on to Q&A with the audience, which was more about industry pros making some excellent points rather than really asking questions. The Chicago Tribune sent a reporter and a photographer to the event, so hopefully we'll see their take on the event soon.]

Addendum: If you click on Jenny Lerew's name above, you'll link to her panel recap on "The Blackwing Diaries." I was a little afraid when we posted these notes that, because there were grossly incomplete, they might give a false perception of the event. Given the choice to simply write "You had to be there," or try to provide our own summary of the thoughts and opinions of 7 different people, we chose to give you the notes we had. Unfortunately, those notes contain none of the nuance that one would have felt in person at the discussion, and it's easy for statements to sound harsher in print, or to take on a different valence.

When I first posted this I also failed to emphasize, as I think I've done repeatedly in the comments sections of related posts, that NONE of the women on the panel, or among the commenters in the audience, expressed a sense of having been discriminated against in the industry. Anyone who was expecting male bashing, or complaints about being mistreated by male coworkers or producers, would have been disappointed. The female panelists all expressed great praise and affection for the guys they work with. And several acknowledged that they, like their male counterparts, had themselves often not paid particular attention to creating more and better female characters.

There were also surprisingly few complaints about the system of animated filmmaking. Despite my proddings, we didn't hear stories of studio execs telling directors and story artists not to create female characters. Instead, the women who spoke during the discussion expressed a lot of pride and satisfaction in their work and the industry in general. There was really no "bashing" at all (well, Fred had some pretty harsh words for some of the powers that be, but he also sees that changing rapidly).

To my ears some of the themes I heard from the female creatives was the need to be more encouraging of other women, especially those thinking of entering the industry; that it would have been very gratifying to have grown up with some female characters to identify with; and that it would be nice to work on films where the female characters aren't usually afterthoughts. I hope some of the others who attended the panel can speak to what they got from the panel in the comments section.

The audience was at capacity even before the panel started.


Brenda Chapman and Jill Culton


Fred Seibert


Geena Davis and Kevin Koch

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