Wednesday, February 28, 2007

El Studios

At Disney Toons Sonora (second floor), there is a thin coating of white dust over desks and cubicles on the east side of the building as reconstruction continues in the west. Happily, only a couple of dozen staffers have to wipe off their work surfaces each morning when they come in.

Most of Mermaid III, the last hand-drawn direct-to-video feature on the books, has been shipped to Toon City.

Downstairs at Disney TVA -- where dust has stayed away and most upstairs noise is subdued -- work continues apace on the second season of Mickey's Clubhouse (thirty-nine episodes). There's also work going on for Emeperor's New School second season, with a third season to start shortly.

And I've been in and out of DreamWorks Animation a bunch the last few days, meeting with a few staffers and handing out pension info. Animators tell me the Bee Movie is really coming together (which is a good thing.) Last week, Mr. Seinfeld was around the DW campus shooting new video teasers for the film. (One of the old ones is here.)

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

DreamWorks Reports

Since we started in on DreamWorks Financials yesterday, let's follow through with a final report today. (Great day to come out with your stock perfromance, yes?)

DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., maker of the ``Shrek'' films, reported a fourth-quarter loss after writing down the value of the animated film ``Flushed Away,'' and said the company will buy back $150 million in stock.

The net loss was $21.3 million, or 20 cents a share, compared with net income of $63.2 million, or 61 cents, a year earlier, Glendale, California-based DreamWorks said today in a statement. Sales, rose 18 percent to $204 million, exceeding the $150.5 million average analyst estimate compiled by Bloomberg.

DreamWorks lowered the value of ``Flushed Away'' by $109 million after its British humor was lost on U.S. audiences. The failure prompted Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Katzenberg to end a partnership with U.K.-based Aardman Animations Ltd. Losses from the movie overwhelmed DVD sales of ``Over the Hedge.''

``The writedown was more than we expected,'' said Los Angeles-based Sanders Morris Harris analyst David Miller, who has a ``buy'' rating on the shares and doesn't own any.

The buyback, amounting to 6.4 percent of DreamWorks's shares, helps mop up shares sold by billionaire Paul Allen, who sold $224 million in DreamWorks stock in November.

Shares of DreamWorks Animation fell 84 cents to $26.80 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. They have declined less than 1 percent in the past year.

Not a big surprise that DWA stock fell today. There were lots of headwinds (like a frigging hurricane). But we're betting that Shrek the Third will be a little bit of all right for the company's upcoming bottom-line.

Update: Now that the unpleasant news is behind DW, some analysts are recommending a "buy" move on DreamWorks stock. Like for instance:

NEW YORK, February 28 ( - Analyst Michael Savner of Banc of America Securities reiterates his "buy" rating on DreamWorks Animation (FKP.ETR). The target price is set to $37.

In a research note published this morning, the analyst mentions that the company has reported its 4Q results ahead of expectations. DreamWorks Animation has announced a $150 million share repurchase authorization, the analyst says. The release of Shrek III in May and Bee Movie in 2007 are expected to lend upside to the company’s share price

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Larry E.'s Portfolio: Tenny Henson

The latest of Mr. Eikleberry's handiwork. Today it's Quintin "Tenny" Henson (sometimes credited as Teny Henson). Tenny was a comic artist in his native Philippines before coming to the U.S. in the mid-1970s to work for DC Comics on such titles as G.I. Combat, Ghosts, House of Mystery, The Unexpected, Weird War Tales and Secrets of Haunted House. Tenny Henson

Larry Eikleberry did the above portrait shortly after Henson came to Filmation in 1981, where he worked as a layout artist on "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" and "Blackstarr" and as a production designer on "Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night".

After Filmation's shutdown he went to Warner Bros. where he did layouts and backgrounds for "Tiny Toons Adventures" and "Animaniacs", and to Marvel where he worked on "X-Men".

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Monday, February 26, 2007

DreamWorks Rolls Out Earnings Report Tomorrow

DreamWorks Animation will be unveiling its profit and loss stats on the morrow. A preview:

Last quarter, the Glendale, Calif.-based DreamWorks, which created computer-animated features including the "Shrek" films and "Antz," swung to a profit on strong DVD sales of "Madagascar." During the fourth quarter, DW Investment II Inc., an investment firm controlled by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, exercised a right to force DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. to issue an undisclosed amount of shares. The company warned it expects to take a write-down in the fourth quarter on its latest animated film, "Flushed Away," which opened Nov. 3....

Tuesday we get all the ornate details.

DreamWorks is now the last stand-alone animation studio now that Pixar has been swallowed up by the big mouse. And all they have to do to remain i nthe black is turn out one hit after another.

No problem at all, right?

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Oscar Upset!

I think we can safely guess what the Monday morning water cooler talk will be about town -- the stunning upset by Happy Feet in the Best Animated Feature category. While Cars wasn't quite seen as the lock that, say, Helen Mirren was, few doubted John Lasseter's film would take home Pixar's third Oscar for in the Animated Feature category . . .

We can only guess what tipped things away from Lasseter and in favor of George Miller. The Academy is overwhelmingly dominated by live action film professionals, and Mr. Miller is one of their own. Much was also made of Happy Feet's emphasis on the use of live-action cinematography techniques (apparently unheard of in our backwards industry), and of the live action actors and dancers who provided the motion capture data for the animation (well, of course animators can't dream of providing great animation without real actors to help). Many loved the environmental emphasis of Happy Feet (I even had one person tell me they liked that it dealt with global warming, which of course it didn't). And it probably didn't hurt that 2006 was widely seen as a fairly weak year for animated films, despite the large number of major releases.

Pixar was also shut out in the Short Animated Film category, as were fellow major studios Blue Sky and Disney. Not too big a surprise here, since this category has usually been seen as the natural venue of independent, personal visions. So Torill Kove's The Danish Poet, a co-production with the National Film Board of Canada, was no surprise.

[In case you don't remember the previous Oscar winners for Best Animated Feature: Shrek, Spirited Away, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit.]

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Weekend Animation News Roundup

And here's a compilation of still more animation news stories...

Three weeks back, longtime Disney/DreamWorks/Warner Bros. Feature Animation exec Max Howard was in the news with a new animated feature and new eecutive post:

Max Howard has been named president of Exodus Film Group, Exodus CEO John Eraklis said Wednesday.

Howard has held posts as president of Warner Bros. Feature Animation and senior vp at Disney Feature Animation.

"Max is one of the most talented and experienced animation executives in the business today," Eraklis said. "His track record of building outstanding animation teams worldwide is unparalleled."

Exodus is working on the CG-animated feature "Igor," set for fall 2008 release by the Weinstein Co.

Complementing its Pixar story (see below), Variety gives a sweeping overview of all the changes that Robert Iger has brought to Disney since he ascended to the CEO position two years ago:

[Says} Dennis McAlpine, an independent analyst: "Iger continues to win points simply for not being Eisner..."

ABC News profiles Pixar director Brad Bird:

While animation is [Brad Bird's passion, Bird's next project will be to direct a live action film....

Finally, the Australian press speculates on native son George Miller's prospects for picking up an Oscar for Happy Feet:

The affable physician turned trail-blazing Australian film-maker, George Miller, can cap a brilliant 30-year career today by claiming Hollywood's highest honour.

The bespectacled 61-year-old has walked the Academy Awards' red carpet twice before as a nominee, but missed out on an Oscar each time.

Singing and dancing penguins may finally lead him to film-making's Holy Grail.

Miller, nominated in the best animated feature category for his blockbuster Happy Feet, is Australia's best chance for an Oscar at the 79th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre....

Happy Feet was Miller's most ambitious project.

It took four years to make, he oversaw a crew of more than 500 and Animal Logic, the Sydney special effects house he charged to make the musical comedy, had never made a feature-length animated film before.

Miller's rival for the Oscar is the world's top animation company, San Francisco-based Pixar.

Pixar's film, Cars, also a blockbuster, is the front-runner.

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Variety on the Disney-Pixar relationship

No real surprises (or even news), but there's a nice summary of the situation at Disney since the Pixar honchos took over feature animation there . . .

In what seems like a pretty fair assessment of things, there's this quote:

Everybody recognizes the fact that they're trying to change the culture down here for the better, but it's safe to say that the pixie dust that surrounded their arrival has pretty much disappeared," says one source close to Disney Animation.

It might have been interesting to read a little more about the future plans for DFA regarding the kinds of films they'll be making, but I guess we'll all have to wait and see.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

B.O. Plenty

Another weekend, another two and a half days of box office....

Through Thursday, Ghost Rider scares up $58 million, while second-place Bridge to Terabitha collects $32,648,034. (How you gonna keep animation mucky-mucks in toonland when they're doing so well in live action?)

Update #1:The Friday chart is in, and Bridge falls to #4 (and a $3,530,000 take.)

Meanwhile, Ghost Rider rumbles along at #1 -- its second Friday in that position -- and a haul of $5,950,000.

Jim Carrey and The Number 23 holds down #2.

And the whackjobs of the Reno Sheriff's Department -- Reno 911: Miami -- cling to #3.

Update #2: Ghost Rider takes a 56.6% drop in the weekend totals but still hangs on to #1, gathering in $19,700,000 and a $78,660,000 cume.

Gabor's Bridge to Taribithia clasws its way back to #3 after a shaky Friday start. Bridge has the smallest percentage drop (39.8%) of any top-ten holdover, collecting $13,574,000. (Meanwhile, Jim Carrey and #23 takes the #2 position...along with $15.1 million.)

Night at the Museum has now dropped from the Top Ten, but has run its domestic total to $241,670,000. Not shabby.

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Larry E.'s Portfolio: Herb Hazelton

At the time of Larry Eikleberry's 1979 portrait of layout artist and art director Herb Hazelton (1930-2002), he had been the head of Filmation's layout department on the "Star Trek" and "Space Sentinels" series.

Herb Hazelton

After a brief gig at Grantray-Lawrence's "Spider-Man" series, Herb had started with the original Filmation crew in 1966. His Filmation credits included "Superman", "New Adventures of Batman", "Aquaman", "Superboy", "The Young Sentinels", "She-Ra, Princess of Power", "Flash Gordon" and "Blackstar" series and the Journey Back to Oz feature.

At Hanna-Barbera he contributed to "Tom and Jerry Kids", "Droopy", "Screwball Squirrel" and "Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures", and Turner Feature Animation's Once Upon A Forest feature. For DIC he worked on "The Super Mario Brothers Super Show" and "Camp Candy", and he worked for Ruby-Spears, New World, Universal and Adelaide. At DreamWorks he was credited on the Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Road to El Dorado features.

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The End of the Week Studio Gadabout

Since it's the tail end of another busy workweek, allow me to blog about various studio visits hither and yon...

At DreamWorks, they are mostly done with story work on Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie and a large chunk of the animation is done. Word is that they had a successful test screening of the flick out of town. In town, Mr. Seinfeld has been filming various promo pieces for the feature. The epic is set to unspool at a theatre near you on November 2.

At Film Roman/Starz Media, work on the "The Simpsons" feature continues seven days a week, even as the writers -- over on the other side of the hill at Gracie Films -- battle over gags and story points.

And in Burbank at Cartoon Network, board artists are wrapping up on Class of 3000's second and final season, even as other artists commence work on Season #2's music videos...

Have yourself a glorious weekend.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Al Dempster and "Song of the South"

Al Dempster was one of the tyro background artists at Disney's in its "Golden Era" years, and after. He worked with my father for decadess, headed the department, and retired from the studio in the early seventies.

The illustration to the left (courtesy of the ASIFA Hollywood archive) is a Golden Book illustration done by Al (or perhaps Bill Justice) tied into the combination feature Song of the South that the company released soon after WWII...

SOS was the first feature my father Ralph worked on as a Disney background artist. (Before this, he'd done backgrounds for a number of shorts, also effects airbrush work.) But Al Dempster was an old hand, having worked in the department before the war on Fantasia and Dumbo.

Al left Disney's in the late forties to own and operate an apple farm. He once told me in amazement that after his farming stint, he'd returned to the studio and a week after his rehiring passed Walt Disney in the hall:

"As Walt walked by he said to me, "Hi Al. How's apples?" I had no idea that he even knew I was off raising apples. It kind of knocked me for a loop."

Al and my dad were close friends. In the sixties, our families went on skiing trips to Mammoth Mountain together, and Al -- then in his late fifties -- was an enthusiastic and graceful skier.

Al retired from Disney in the early seventies. The last time I saw him -- in the Disney parking lot in 1980 -- he told me why. He'd had one too many fights with Woolie Reitherman (head of the department):

"Woolie was always telling me how to paint backgrounds, what colors to put in the sky, and I couldn't take it anymore. So I left. But when the studio was doing "The Rescuers" and they needed a background artist because Ralph had died, they called and asked me to come back. I said 'no way.' But they offered me a lot of money and told me Woolie had changed. So I told them, "All right, I'll work for six months."

And two weeks after I was back, Woolie came into my room and wanted me to put more pink in a background and I thought 'Nothing's changed at all!' I did my six months and got out."*

Al Dempster passed away in June of 2001, a month shy of his ninetieth birthday.

* I've got a feeling I've told this tale before. Oh well. It fits in here. Again.

Addendum: Song of the South was the the last feature on which Al painted until he returned to work on Peter Pan. (The apples were calling.)

I don't think we'll be seeing SOS at Blockbuster Video anytime soon; Robert Iger was asked if the studio was going to put it out during Q and A at the 2006 stockholders meeting. Mr. Iger said it wasn't.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Larry E.'s Portfolio: Maureen Bushman

Maureen Bushman -- granddaughter of Francis X. -- started at Kinney-Wolf in 1971, moving on later that year to Hanna-Barbera and Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings feature.

Maureen Bushman

By the mid-1970s she was doing effects animation on Disney's Tron feature. By the time of Larry Eikleberry's portrait she was married to animator Rich Trueblood and was known as Maureen Trueblood.

In 1984 she returned to Filmation as a layout artist on the He-Man and She-Ra series. She spent a couple of years at Disney as a key assistant on Beauty and the Beast and The Prince And The Pauper, later moving to DreamWorks as a Key Assistant Animator.

She's done layout on Bakshi's Cool World; key assisted for Warners on Space Jam and the "Carrotblanca" short; and did character designs for MGM's Babes In Toyland and DIC's "Super Mario Brothers".

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Good Times and Cool Projects

When I started at Disney in my twenties, I would have been totally behind this declaration, from comments to a previous post:

If a non-union studio is treating their employees well (sic), there's no real need for an artists guild. And for many people, it's not just about getting a fat paycheck, its about having pride in working on a great product that you can truly be proud of. Money comes and goes. Having a blast on a good production is priceless.

I had many blasts at Disney. And through most of them, I never gave a thought to the money I made, or if I qualified for some pension or other, or what I was going to do ten or twenty or thirty years beyond the thrill of being involved in the creative process. I was working on animated features for cripes sake, with giants in the industry. That was all that mattered.

But I'm older now, and have come to the realization that you can't live on happy memories or reflected glories of the productions you worked on. I realize, with mortality glowing brighter at the end of my particular tunnel, that boring things like wages and annuities and health insurance are important. Way more important than I believed them to be two or three decades ago.

Now. This isn't a wind-up for a pitch about the wonderfulness of labor unions. Forget labor unions. They aren't the end-all and be-all (trust me, I know), and they've had a fifty-year corporate campaign against them, so among many they are not held in particularly high esteem. And if companies were altruistic, and employees invested ten or more percent of their paychecks each and every year, there would be way less need of them.

But employees don't sock money away religiously (many can't.) And companies, at the end of the fiscal year, aren't altruistic. They can't be. They are entities that exist to make a profit, and as such, they will hire and lay off workers as the need arises.

As happened at Sony a few months ago. As is happening at Disney now. As will happen at Rough Draft and Starz Media a week or a month from now. As will happen at every studio, sometime, in the course of the average artist's working life. It's business after all, not charity. That's the way the United States -- and the world -- works.

And because the world works this way, it's important that the garden-variety mook who isn't the top-talent star has some kind of mechanism and/or safety net which will help him avoid getting wiped out when the next down-sizing occurs. That's why unemployment insurance and social security were invented. It's why there's an ongoing debate over universal health care. It's why, in the 1930s, the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into law and pretty much invented labor unions.

If you're fortunate and hard-working and skilled, you might work for one company your whole working life. That company might have a gang-buster pension and health plan, and you might be set up for a rich, fulfilling retirement. But the odds are against it.

Back in the early nineties, when the entire industry was roaring and people were making money hand over fist, a Disney Television Animation exec said to me:

You know, there's not really any need for labor unions anymore. I mean, there used to be, but people make way above union scale now, and there isn't much point.

Five years later, the industry was roaring less and the exec, a victim of one of the ongoing corporate shuffles, got bounced from the company and his corner office. After a time, he landed at another studio. I had occasion to pop in on him one day, and reminded him of his 1992 observation of "no need for unions anymore." He smiled mirthlessly and said: "Yeah, well. I said a lot of things back then."

Disney Feature Animation had an incredible string of cool projects in the eighties and nineties, from Little Mermaid to Lion King and beyond. I knew a lot of feature animation employees who made good salaries and big bonuses and believed the good times would go on forever. I had more than one tell me, when they were collecting a paycheck that was double the contract minimum: "What do we need union wage rates for?"

Almost all are now working for less money. Some are working at jobs out of the industry for way less. And they'd be delighted and thrilled to make a wage within hailing distance of contract minimums.

None of the above is written to impugn anyone's talent, drive or passion. Or the memories they have of working on some of the coolest projects of our time. But stuff happens, and the cool projects don't go on forever. And it's useful to have something other than a screen credit and a bucket of anecdotes when you reach the age of sixty.

Which brings me to the situation I sometimes encounter in this job and never like. In fact, I hate it. But it has gifted me with the life philosophy I have today.

There's a sixty-something animation veteran, one who's been in the cartoon business for three or four decades, working at signator and non-signator studios (but mostly non-signator). And he traipses into my office with a glassy, desperate, pinched look on his face. And our conversation goes like this:

"Any work out there? I haven't worked in the past year and a half."

"You're a board artist?"

"Yeah. Also do design work and layouts."

"Where's the last place you worked?"

"Calico. But they haven't had much going lately."

"There's work going on at three or four studios, but they're mostly staffed up. Know anybody at Warners?"


"Disney TV Animation?"

"Not really."

"You look like you're old enough to file for the pension. You thought about doing that? To get some cash flow?"

Long pause. "I don't have any pension. I bounced around too much. Worked at too many non-union shops too long to get one."

"Have anything saved?"

"Not really."

It goes downhill from there. I give him a few names, telling him it might be tough to land anything since there's other people out job-hunting, but good luck. And he nods and shuffles out the door, and I sit gloomily in my chair knowing he's at a place in his life where he's screwed, and there's not a damn thing I can do to help him. And I'm depressed about it.

So see, it's great to work on cool projects, and the memories are indeed priceless. But as you reach your sixth decade of life here on the mud ball, you really, really don't want to be in a position where you walk into the ratty office of some twerp like me and hear yourself saying:

"Is there any work out there?"

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Story Construction 101

Let’s careen away from animation for a moment, and look at one of the great nine minutes and twelve seconds in American film (partly because it's terrific; partly because it's on-line here.)

It’s The Sea Hawk, photographed at Warner Bros. in Burbank in early 1940. It represents (for me) the apex of the studio system, when every department at Warners, Fox, MGM and others fired on all cylinders: music, sets, miniatures, casting, cinematography, editing. Everything worked...

But that’s not the reason I’m posting it. I’m posting it because it represents nine minutes, twelve seconds of top-of-the line story telling and character development.

This is the second nine minutes of the picture, where we’re introduced to every one of the “good guys”. Geoffrey Thorpe, captain of the Albatross, and all the crew members (or the ones who have speaking parts). A single, sweeping shot introduces each one of them, gives them a few lines and a little of their characters.

Then we get to First Mate Carl Pitt (Alan Hale, Sr.). And in a few lines, we get his relationship with Thorpe. Pitt is over-eager, but the level-headed captain reins him in. And what’s interesting here is Thorpe is seriously in charge throughout, maintaining control of the entire crew.

And at the same time we are enveloped in a slam-bang action sequence with two full-sized ships on a soundstage, limited (only slightly) by 1940 technology. And as the nine minutes and twelve seconds end, we get a little more of Thorpe’s character as he reprimands the rambunctious Eli Matson (J.M. Kerrigan, in his second sea-faring film of 1940 – the other being “The Long Voyage Home.”)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold did the music that’s been imitated by almost every action-adventure film since; Michael Curtiz directed with his usual style and panache; Howard Koch – fresh from Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre (and three years from the Academy Award for “Casablanca”) -- rewrote Seton I. Miller’s original screenplay.

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Imageworks in India

Another bit of news that it might be important to keep up with. Sony Pictures Imageworks Its Culver City headquarters shown above) is expanding.

But it won't be happening in Culver City.

MUMBAI: Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI) has picked up a 51 per cent equity stake in Chennai based visual effects and animation studio FrameFlow.

As part of the deal, FrameFlow will become Imageworks India and will work seamlessly with Sony Pictures Imageworks’ main production facility in Culver City, California.

The newly named entity expects to quadruple its workload in the coming years and deepen its capabilities through investments in infrastructure, technology and training from Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Imageworks India also plans a significant growth in its current talent base of 80 employees. To accommodate anticipated expansion, Imageworks India will relocate to a larger office in Chennai with a seating capacity of up to 300.

"We are extremely excited to announce this partnership with Sony Pictures Imageworks. It’s a testament to the passion and talent of our team and creative leadership of Krishnakant Mishra to receive this supreme validation of the quality of our work,” said FrameFlow co-founder Hitesh Shah, who now becomes co-managing director of the new entity Imageworks India.

FrameFlow’s Indian operation managing director Abhaya Kumar added, “This relationship represents the culmination of our strategic vision to expand and deepen our capabilities through integration with an industry leader like Imageworks. We look at this strategic investment as a part of the continuing Indian Success Story – one that elevates the standing of the whole Indian visual effects and animation industry on the global stage.”

FrameFlow was founded three years ago and has worked with Sony Pictures Imageworks on movies such as Click, Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 3.

“The level of professionalism and quality of work that we experienced in working with the FrameFlow team was exemplary, and gave us the confidence to extend and establish a strong long term relationship. We are very excited about expanding our capacity with Imageworks India in Chennai,” said Sony Pictures Imageworks executive vice president Jenny Fulle, who is now the co-managing director of Imageworks India.

As part of Sony Pictures Imageworks, Imageworks India will continue to provide visual effects and animation services as a resource to the industry.

Animation and effects work is more and more a global industry. I've never believed that this kind of thing means "all the work is going to India," because the pie steadily grows larger and Americans will continue to bake a large slice of it (of course, maybe I'm overly optimistic.)

But one way or the other, this seems to indicate that India will be getting a wedge of Sony's animation and effects work. How that impacts staffing in Culver City remains to be seen.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A New Week, Another Round Through the Same Studios

On the animated feature front:

The Simpsons feature cnotinues to crackle along, with the picture up on reels and going through revisions. Over at Rough Draft -- the Glendale studio aiding and abetting the larger Simpsons crew over on Hollywood Way-- some animators have been cycled off the production as key domestic animation winds down a bit...

At the House of Mouse (feature division), Frog Princess, American Dog (expect a new title soon) and Rapunzel are all working their way from storyboard to story reel. One of the story persons on Frog enthused to me that everyone is free to improve story elements as they go along, and that group story sessions are yielding good ideas everytime the crew gets together.

It's a lot like it used to be way back. People are throwing out lots of different ideas and the good ones are getting incorporated into the boards..."

Walking out at lunchtime with a couple animation veterans, I spied an exhibit of Marc Davis's animal studies. Which reminded me of a Marc Davis story told me a while back by Marc's widow Alice:

Marc, when he was designing exhibits and rides for WED (the Disney subsidiary that developed attractions for Disneyland), one day found himself in an artistic fight with superiors over designs. Ken Anderson, then on loan to WED, was involved in the argument and sided with Marc.

When the meeting was over, Ken said to Marc: "You and I don't need to take this kind of stuff! We should both quit! In fact, let's quit together!!"

Marc, carried away by Ken's passion, decided that was a good idea. So he cleared out his desk and left.

The next day, however, he had second thoughts, and decided to go back to WED and talk to the supervisors with whom he'd had the fight.

When Marc got to WED, he happened by his old office. To his surprise it wasn't empty. There, behind the desk that had yesterday been his, sat Ken Anderson.

Ken, you see, after talking Marc into quitting, had hurriedly recquisitioned Marc's office.

Hope your Monday is a happy one.

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Larry E.'s Portfolio: Alberto De Mello

Layout artist and art director Alberto De Mello came to Filmation in 1968 after several years of work in Toronto.

Alberto De Mello

Alberto was another Filmation long-timer who worked there pretty steadily, for much of the last decade as a department supervisor, until the studio shut its doors in 1989. He went to Warner Bros. for the first season of "Tiny Toons Adventures," and did storyboards for Universal and Hanna-Barbera before retiring in 1998.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Why Pixar Won't Soon Go Union (Probably)

Grizzled old union organizers (of which I am one) learn various rules as they work to drag non-union companies into the union fold. Here are three basic ones:

1) Abusive company management is an organizer's best friend.

2) A company won't get organized until company employees reach a "tipping point" and get fed up with the status quo.

3)Treating employees well enables a company to avoid unions.

A case in point is the Disney Company's non-union animation studio Pixar. The Emeryville facility has been around for a dozen years making animated features, and it's been "non-signator" from the first day of its existence to right this minute.

One reason for this is, it's in the Bay area, where very little cgi work is unionized. Another reason is Pixar management's style and philosophy. To wit:

Pixar Keeps Its Crises Small, Says Founder Catmull

Pixar thrives because it seeks out small crises, said Ed Catmull, the animation studio’s president and cofounder.

Rather than skate on the success of animated hits such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, Pixar’s executive team continually solves problems in hopes of avoiding big ones, Catmull told a packed auditorium at the Stanford Graduate School of Business Conference on Entrepreneurship on January 31.

The last thing anyone wants to do after producing a hit movie is dissect what worked and what didn't but Catmull insists on postmortems. “Organizations are inherently unstable,” he said. “You have to work to keep them going.”

To not engage in workplace soul searching is to invite potentially catastrophic problems for your business. Look at what happened to Evans & Sutherland and Silicon Graphics, Inc., both of which lost their place at the top of the computer graphics industry after a few serious mistakes, Catmull said. Success can mask a company’s problems until it buckles.

Catmull thought he’d learned this lesson from watching other companies, but when he and his colleagues began working on their second movie, A Bug’s Life, they faced lingering problems from Toy Story, their first release in 1995. Pixar’s jump into the movie business left newly arrived production managers feeling like second-class citizens to the artists and computer animators who had shaped the company’s first success. Coordinating the detail-oriented work of moviemaking had choked off communication. The problems were fixable, but they could easily have festered.

Making movies at Pixar also taught him the value of people over ideas.

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre group, they’ll screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a good group, they’ll fix it,” he said.

To avoid such problems, Pixar’s development department now spends much of its time building healthy creative teams.

Catmull also believes in taking care of employees, both in principle and as a money-saving tool. With so many “overachieving people working for overachieving managers” to produce Toy Story 2, Pixar started limiting the number of hours people could work and hired a full-time ergonomist and masseuse. Injuries dropped dramatically, along with insurance premiums, he said...

The question I most often got from Disney animation employees when Disney absorbed Pixar was: "Is Pixar going union?"

At first I said, "I don't know." Then, as the merger dust settled and I got more information, I replied: "I don't think so. Not soon, anyway."

I pretty much feel the same way now. Pixar employees, I keep getting told, have lower rates of pay than its unionized Disney Feature counterparts in Burbank. This may or may not be true, but I haven't confirmed the information. And have no real way to confirm it. But pay won't be most Pixar employees' determining motivation for wanting to "go union." (At least, I don't think it will be.)

Pulling in the other direction will be the overall studio culture, that sense of fulfillment and well-being which comes from working on quality films (and here Pixar currently bats seven for seven). These things are intangibles that often trump mere moolah. And of course, there's the pride people have in working for Pixar because it's, well, Pixar.

So then, what would make Pixar slide over into the union column? Possibly changed perceptions. Maybe a different culture. If, for instance, management got more arbitrary and abusive. Or like, if the Pixar story department decided it would be better served by organizing under the WGAw, with all the residuals and other goodies that would flow from a WGAw contract. Then there might be a surge in that direction. (As President Bush says, sometimes money trumps other things. Even a pleasant studio environment.)

Like I say, there's always that elusive and ever-shifting "tipping point." Sometimes its hard for management or employees to know exactly where it is.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Weekend Animation News Roundup

Time once more for articles of lasting interest...detailing some of the happenings over the past week in the 'toon and cgi animation biz:

First up: the Big Mouse lost a round last week in its ongoing battle over Winnie the Pooh royalites. On Thursday last, a copyright lawsuit seeking to end Disney's royalty obligations to the Slesingers of Beverly Hills was tossed out of court:

"The court specifically indicated in its order that Disney's claims against the Slesingers were inappropriate and improper," said Barry Slotnick, an attorney for the Slesingers. "We plan to ask Disney to pay us billions of dollars in compensatory and general damages."

Not so fast, said Daniel Petrocelli, an attorney for Disney, who noted that it was Disney that had come away the big winner in a pivotal battle in the long-running legal saga.

In 2004, a state court judge threw out the Slesingers' 1991 breach-of-contract lawsuit against Disney after finding misconduct on the part of the family. That judge accused the Slesingers of trying to gain an edge in the litigation by stealing confidential Disney documents from the company's trash, and then lying and altering court papers to cover up the thefts.

On Friday, Petrocelli downplayed the Slesingers' ability to parlay Thursday's ruling into an award for damages.

"The ruling has no bearing on Disney's rights to Pooh nor does it affect the judgment that Disney won, throwing out the Slesingers' state court case with prejudice," he said.

Petrocelli refers to Disney's earlier state-court win where a Slesinger lawsuit was jettisoned because of some unseemly rummaging around in dumpsters. But how much will be paid to who remains to be seen (no settlement seems in sight)...

As Pooh percolates along, Disney-ABC is going after the diaper and pre-school set with some of its older characters not created by A.A. Milne::

Disney has introduced a whole new generation to Mickey and its other core characters (Donald Duck, Pluto, Goofy, et. al) via the toddler-targeted Disney Channel skein "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse."

It's a money move on Disney's part: The munchkins who fall in love with Mickey today will be the kids who clamor to visit Disneyland tomorrow. In turn, those tweens will become the teens who wear Mickey-branded merchandise and then adults who spawn Mickey-loving kids of their own.

"No question this is the most beloved and important character to the Disney company," says Disney Channel Worldwide entertainment prexy Gary Marsh. "Certainly, the conversation internally has been trying to, if not reinvent, then reintroduce Mickey to this new generation. Our goal is, in success, that this character will be exposed to 500 million people."

Mickey's rebirth as a character for the under-5 set is paying off: Earlier this month, "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" posted its best ratings yet among kids 2-5, improving the channel's "Playhouse Disney" block by almost 40% vs. last year. Show regularly finishes in the top 10 basic cable rankings with the high-chair demo.

And as the #2 conglomerate focuses on the high-chair demographic, conglom #1 (Time-Warner) goes after the young adult "Comedy Central" crowd:

In the many-stationed world of cable television, where every niche channel is an isolated island or remote valley, new species of programs are born and new forms emerge.

When Ted Turner had the idea to recycle cartoons from the massive film and TV libraries that he had acquired and use them for a 24-hour, all-animated network, he surely could not have imagined that he was creating the soup from which would crawl Adult Swim. That programming block of funny-strange and even antisocial series now occupies 45 hours a week of Cartoon Network real estate and consistently leads ad-supported cable stations in delivering to advertisers the prized youth demographics.

But success, even the iconoclastic kind, always establishes a code, and there is now a recognizable Adult Swim aesthetic, and new shows are created in its image.

"Adult Swim" on Cartoon Network has been a commercial success for a while now. Sometime back, studio head Brian Miller related to me how Family Guy took off like a rocket when CN picked it up for its "AS" nighttime block and Fox took notice. Then FG dvds started selling like hotcakes, Rupert M.'s company put the show back into production, and the rest, as we say, is a Major Revenue Stream...

Off on the other side of the globe, Indian cgi animation -- which accounts for low-budget fare like Mickey's Clubhouse, the upcoming My Friends Tigger and Pooh and Tinker Bell, is working on domestic product:

The fledgling Indian animation film industry is on an unprecedented roll: according to trade projections, the sector is well set to touch the $ 1 billion mark by the year 2010, accounting for one-sixth of the total size of the Indian entertainment business...

The growth, say industry players, has been hastened by the fact that the once pure outsourcing model is being increasingly supplemented by original intellectual property creation, especially by the bigger producers in the segment...

At least four full-length Indian animated features are lined up for release in 2007. Percept Picture Company is developing a sequel to Hanuman, the 2D animation film that threw the sluice gates open two years ago. Two other mythology-inspired animated features, Krishna and Ghatotkach, are also scheduled to hit the multiplexes this year...

On the animation-live action front, Fox VARIETY reports how Fox is delighted with its latest blockbuster Night at the Museum. It might have gotten laclkustre reviews, but audiences around the world have flocked to it. (Makes you wonder why it spent ten years in development hell...)

After spending a pokey 10 years in development, Fox's "Night at the Museum" opened Dec. 22 to dreadful reviews and a nice but hardly astonishing $42 million. Rival studios considered it a risky bet overseas, where U.S. family comedies often have a dodgy time.

But the pic has proven a surprising success story, expected to near $500 million worldwide. Domestically, it has remained in the top 5 for a whopping eight weeks, and overseas it has maintained a torrid pace, hitting No. 1.

The success story is a mixture of sticking to proven formulas -- and defying others....

Have a jolly three-day weekend.

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Larry E.'s Portfolio: Erv Kaplan

After a few months as an inbetweener at UPA in 1955, Erv Kaplan transferred to the background department, where he worked on several Magoo shorts. He also worked for Larry Harmon on the "Bozo The Clown" show, for Ed Graham on "Linus the Lionhearted", and (briefly) for Disney ... but that's not what he's best known for.

Erv Kaplan

Erv was one of the very few people to have worked for Filmation from first day to last, a twenty-three-year stretch without a layoff. As head of the background department he worked on every cartoon show and feature they ever produced. He retired after Filmation's close, but came back a few years ago to do keys on a couple of episodes of "King Of The Hill".

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Cage Tops Cartoon Mogul

Gabor Csupo returns, but not to the top of the box office heap.

Klasky-Csupo might be pretty much kaput, but its founder has reincarnated himself as a live-action director, with solid results:

Not solid enough for #1, but good for a Place (#2) finish at the Friday box-office derby.

Big Nick Cage rode his flaming chopper (Ghost Rider) to #1. Rider's Friday estimates were $4,214 per theater, with a total take of $15,250,000.

Meanwhile, the Csupo-helmed fantasy Bridge to Terabitha (location by New Zealand, effx by WETA) took the 2nd slot ($1,969 per theater; a $6,180,000 total.)

Sunday Update: Mr. Csupo's directorial debut rakes in over $22 million in its opening weekend, which would have taken the "win" position on a lot of other weekends.

But not this one. Ghost Rider rumbles in to cop $44.5 million. So the flick filmed in Australia (Rider) whomps the one lensed in Kiwi land (Bridge).

And, of course, a lot of folks are off tomorrow, so the fun and greenbacks haven't ended yet.

Elsewhere on the list, the perennial favorite Night at the Museum hangs in at #10, running its total domestic gross to $237.3 million...

Pan's Labyrinth collects another $2.1 million and a total of $30 million...

And Happy Feet (#25) and Charlotte's Web (#23) are now almost gone, totalling $193.8 million for the penguin opus, and $81.3 million for the tale with the pig and spider...

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Larry E.'s Portfolio: Connie Schurr

Connie Schurr, depicted below the fold by Larry Eikleberry, did design work for newspapers and ad agencies before getting into the cartoon biz in the late 'seventies.

Connie Schurr

She worked for Orsatti Productions and Hanna-Barbera before migrating to Filmation in 1981. At Filmation she did layouts on the "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" and "She-Ra, Princess of Power" series, and was credited as a production designer on the Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night and Secret of the Sword features.

More recently she's freelanced graphic design, character design, web design and photo retouching, and she's the design director for the Topanga Messenger. Connie has a teaching credential in Graphic Design and teaches part time for LAUSD.

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From ASIFA's Archive -- Bob Clampett's Swimming Pool

Since we're big boosters of ASIFA's Animation Archive, what better time to link to their blog of treasures than this holiday weekend? Featuring Bob Clampett's swimming pool?

(The picture to the left comes from a February 1962 TV Guide, when "Beanie and Cecil" was in full swing at Snowball Productions and being broadcast -- if memory serves -- on ABC. Bob is shown in the H20 with his four-year-old son Bob, Jr. and his wife Sody.)

Bob C. at this time was in his late forties, and a long-time animation veteran who'd been in the biz since his teens. He'd started his career at Harmon-Ising and came to full flower at Leon Schlesinger's, which is where this short biographical piece comes from (circa 1939):

The first thing Bob Clampett said when we asked him to "tell all" was: "The story of my life to be titled, 'Failure At 26'". But let's delve into his background simply to disprove his theory.

Bob was born in San Diego. When he was two, the family moved to Hollywood. One of Bob's chief delights, when just large enough to walk and talk, was to accompany his mother to the band concerts given at an open-air park. The leader of the band wore a uniform that fascinated Bob. particularly the hat. He fashioned a baton of wood for himself, climbed the platform, and proceeded to aid the conductor throughout the entire program. Not only did Master Clampett steal each performance, but he stubbornly insisted on taking the bows afterwards!

In Eagle Rock, Bob started school, and among his first classmates was none other than Roger Daley, recently with Kats. Later, while living in Glendale, Bob joined the Junior Times. From the age of nine to twelve, he was a consistent contributor. One day, after a full page cartoon of his was published, a reporter from the Examiner came to his home and offered him a contract to study under Webb Smith and Charles Philippi, then heads of the cartoon department. This contract never expired, and was broken only when Bob decided to go into the cartoon business. At this time, he was going to Otis Art school, besides attending Glendale High, drawing cartoons, being sports editor of the school paper, and somehow finding time to usher at the Mjestic Theatre. It was during the ushering episode that Bob witnessed the first Looney Tunes, and decided that that was what he wanted to do.

Right after high school he worked in the Mickey Mouse Doll Factory, brushing off the kapok from each doll. This had to be done on a back porch. As it was then Winter, Bob developed a distaste for Mickey Mouse. Even when Roy Disney would come over to help load the dolls, and offered Bob a job, Bob decided to look elsewhere for a job. He went to Pacific Title and met Mr. Schlesinger who sent him to Mr. Katz, then production manager for Harman-Ising. After waiting 30 days, Bob received word to come into work. From inbetweener to director in five years- we leave it to you; would you say he was a failure at 26?

Bob Clampett left Warners after the war and immersed himself in television, where his puppet show Time for Beany became a major hit of early teevee. In 1959 the characters of Beany and Cecil made the transition to animation, where they became fixtures on network television for the next five years.

Mr. Clampett died at age 70 in 1984.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Peter Ellenshaw, RIP

Let's note here -- a trifle belatedly -- that one of the giants of matte painting has left us: visual effects wizard Peter Ellenshaw:

The British-born Ellenshaw's more than 30-year association with Walt Disney Studios began in 1947 when he was hired in London to do matte paintings for Disney's first live-action film, "Treasure Island" (1950).

In 1953, he was brought to California to work on "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," for which he created several matte paintings of Capt. Nemo's secret island base of Vulcania.

He went on to do matte paintings and other special effects for more than 30 other Disney films, including "The AbsentMinded Professor," "Pollyanna," "Swiss Family Robinson," "The Happiest Millionaire," "The Love Bug" and "The Black Hole." He also did matte paintings for Disney TV fare, such as "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier," "Zorro" and "Texas John Slaughter."

I got to know Peter when he came out of retirement to art direct the Disney space opera entitled The Black Hole. He was always dapper, resembling a British major with his carefully trimmed moustache. His art work for the movie was spectacular. As always.

The last time I saw Peter Ellenshaw was during lunch at the tennis club behind Warner Bros. He was retired again and painting landscapes, still dapper, and that day ebullient. He related how he had just made a killing in the then-recent gold and silver run-up. (This was at the time Bunker Hunt tried to corner the silver market...and failed. Gold and silver had risen 800 or 900 percent before crashing. Mr. Ellenshaw had gotten out at the top. I had a little money in precious metals, and managed to bail at the bottom with my usual fabulous timing.)

I remember I wasn't nearly as jovial as he was.

Mr. Ellenshaw spent the last quarter century of his life happily painting in Santa Barbera, after a lifetime of stellar film work. We should all be so blessed.

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The Oncoming Writers Negotiations

Continuing the negotiations theme that appears a few clicks below: The WGA has, as you may or may not know, put together its negotiation committee for this year's contract talks:

WGA taps 17 writers for talks -- Guild appoints negotiating committee

The Writers Guild of America has taken the first formal step toward the bargaining table, tapping 17 scribes as members of its negotiating committee.

Committee chief John Bowman told Daily Variety he expects negotiations to start in July and stressed that he's not expecting a strike.

"We expect a successful negotiation because our committee members are working members," he noted. "We'll be practical but tough."

Panel members include such heavyweights as "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" showrunner Neal Baer, "Desperate Housewives" showrunner Marc Cherry, "Dreamgirls" writer-director Bill Condon, "Syriana" writer-director Stephen Gaghan and "Hotel Rwanda" writer-director Terry George.

Bowman said he agreed to chair the panel due to two key areas -- how writers are to be paid from the fast-expanding array of digital platforms, and the question of WGA jurisdiction in such areas as reality TV. "This is the most important negotiation we've had in many years," he added. -- Dave McNary (VARIETY)

In my experience, every negotiation is important. But I bring this piece up because a job action by the WGAw will impact everybody who works in Hollywood. Including animation artists.

Before 1997, we could have honestly said: "A writers' strike will impact everybody in Hollywood except animation employees" because the WGAw repped no animation writers. But that's nor true anymore. Today board artists, designers, timers and others who work on Fox's primetime lineup -- The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, and King of the Hill -- work on shows that are scripted under a WGAw contract. So if the writers there stop producing scripts, everybody else stops directing, designing, or drawing storyboards. Or drawing a paycheck.

So a large number of us-- just like our live action counterparts -- have a vested interest on how the writers' talks progress.

I raise the issue here because I had occasion to chew the fat with a studio labor rep a couple of days back, and naturally enough the conversation came around to current and future contract talks. Just now, the AMPTP is negotiating with the Teamsters and Basic Crafts over their collective bargaining agreement. I'm told these talks have been, ahm, fairly robust.

A few months after these talks conclude, the Writers Guild and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers will get together. I asked my friend the rep if he thought there'd be a strike. He shrugged.

"Both SAG and the WGA have pretty militant boards. And there's a strike going on with the Canadian actors' unions right now, so maybe that will have an impact on what happens down here."

The Canadian strike was news to me, but then I get around so little. He went on:

"I think there might be a de facto strike. But not one with picket signs. The writers could end up with no new agreement in place by the time their current deal expires, but will they walk then? They could. I'd guess they'll wait on taking a job action until SAG negotiates. They'll want to see what happens with the actors. But then there's the Directors Guild, and the directors march to their own drum. The DGA could negotiate a deal that's fine for the directors but lousy for SAG and the WGA. But they'd set the pattern for new contracts, just like they did last time. And that would be that."

I told him my thinking ran along the same lines. That's the joy of making seat-of-your pants predictions. They're wrong as often than they're right, but who keeps track? I mentioned Nick Counter's often repeated line that unions with which the AMPTP negotiates will end up getting a better deal before a strike than after. He nodded.

"The AMPTP has to say that, do that. If the producers give a better contract to a striking union, it sends a bad signal to the union that doesn't strike."

He could be right. But I'm guessing if there aren't any job actions in '07 or '08, there are going to be several ferocious games of chicken.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Voice of Basil of Baker Street

In this day of big-name actors occupying the lead roles for animated cartoon characters, allow me to trip back to a simpler time when leads were done by Thespians who weren't necessarily household names but just really, really good at what they did. Allow me to present...

Barry Ingham.

Mr. Ingham is an actor who came up through the British Royal Shakespeare Company, who had years and years on the stage. But one day in the early eighties he decided to get less involved with theater and decamp to Los Angeles. As he said over lunch one day, "I wanted a change. I was ready for a change. And if you want to be in films, you almost have to be in Los Angeles. This is where the movie business is."

Barry Ingham didn't end up as the lead voice for The Great Mouse Detective because he was an A-list film actor, or because he had a connection with a high-powered studio exec. He got the role of "Basil of Baker Street" the old fashioned way: he was one of jillions of actors who came in to read for the part, and he was so far ahead of everyone else that he won the role hands down.

I remember the day he came in. We had plowed through a raft of actors, some not bad and some awful, but we weren't particularly happy with any of them. Nobody had possessed the lilt, that spark we were looking for. We weren't even sure precisely what we were looking for. We only knew that the indefinable something hadn't arrived yet.

And then Barry Ingham showed up. He was pleasant, but focused and disciplined. He took direction like the pro he was, immediately understanding the core of the character and what we were looking for. And in about ten minutes he'd nailed the part. (Plus, he didn't have to put on a British accent like the American auditioners did; he had full ownership of that when he came through the door.)

After he was hired and started showing up for voice sessions, the professionalism that was present at the audition got turned up several notches (if that was possible.) One trip through the script and storyboards and he knew how the character Basil should play that particular scene. One day, at the director's request, he delivered 200 readings of a short piece of dialogue without an eye-blink of discomfort or word of complaint. And each reading was different.

I was amazed watching his performance then. I'm amazed thinking about it now.

Lunches with Mr. Ingham were always bracing, entertaining, and instructive. He told us about life on the road touring with Richards Burton and Harris in Camelot, how one day the company would be playing indoors and the next week be thesping in a huge, outdoor amphiteater, and how the actors had to slow down all their line deliveries and make their reactions way bigger because "in a huge amphitheater, the audience can't get what you're doing unless you play it very large and broad. And the laughs start down in the front seats and go slowly up to the back in a big, slow wave. And you have to wait for it before you go on..."

He said how it always took a day or two of adjustments to alter the tempo for maximum effect.

And he explained how, in British Shakespearean acting, there were two distinct schools. "One type goes for the music and rhythms of the text, of making the line deliveries orchestral. The other school -- the one I've always been in -- goes for textual clarity. The whole idea is to get the audience to understand what's being said, rather than just absorbing the symphonic overtones of the dialugue and the soliliquys."

Toward the end of his voice work on Mouse, he told us about a new acting job on a mini-series where he played John Barrymore: "I had a scene where I was a corpse, John Barrymore dead. I was propped up in a chair with eyes closed, working hard to remain still. And I hear the director yell 'action!' and I try to be even more still. It's not often that an actor has to be deader after the director yells 'action'".

I haven't laid eyes on Barry Ingham since Great Mouse wrapped, but reading his credits on IMBD, it doesn't surprise me in the least that he's still working. When you've got the acting chops Mr. Ingham possesses, you can go on working forever.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Larry E.'s Portfolio: Wendell Washer

After receiving his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Cartooning from the Chicago Academy of Fine Art, Wendell Washer started at Filmation in the layout department, where he worked on the "Star Trek" series.

Wendell Washer

He worked for Hanna-Barbera, Sanrio and Bakshi before returning to Filmation as a storyboard supervisor. Then, after gigs at Marvel and Ruby-Spears, he went to Disney for a nine-year run on such shows as "Gummi Bears", "Duck Tales", " Tale Spin", "Darkwing Duck", "Goof Troop", "Bonkers", "Aladdin", "Quack Pack", "Timon and Pumbaa", "Winnie-the-Pooh", "Lady and the Tramp", "Lion King II", "101 Dalmatians and "Hercules".

More recently he's worked for Warner Bros., Universal, Simex, Saban, Stonekey, Sabella-Dern, Outdoors Entertainment, Adelaide, Imagi, Riverstar and Mike Young.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

The Longest Negotiation

TAG's CBA Negotiating Committee -- circa 2000.*

There are contract negotiations that age you but make you smarter. Then there are negotiations that age you and make you stupider...

I'm still trying to decide into which category I would place the 2000 edition. But know one thing: the nine-month-long talks definitely wore me down. (Note the photograph above. I had brown hair then. And more of it.)

In late '99, TAG was in the last eight months of its then-current three-year contract. Animation writers were aware of this, and got active. They came to membership meetings in sizable numbers. And TAG's then-forming negotiation committee (the group of guild volunteers who draw up proposals and negotiate the contract) filled up with writers.

Animation writers had an agenda: they were very serious about gaining WGA-style residuals -- the kind that would go directly into their pockets instead of the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan, which was the recipient of IA-style residuals. And they had a valid gripe: live-action scripters got extra payments into their pockets, why not them? And freelance writers never saw pension benefits and health coverage unless they wrote enough scripts to get a qualified pension year. Many never got enough script assignments to see much of anything beyond their writing fee.

I didn't blame the writers for wanting more money. Beyond the issue of fairness, it's the way people keep score in the movie biz (and everywhere else, for that matter.) And it soon became clear that TAG was going to have major residual proposals in the 2000 negotiations.

But I knew from hard experience that Writers Guild type resids were going to be tough to get. (Like, close to impossible.) Nevertheless, I ran around to various studio labor relation execs that I knew and began probing about the possibility of getting some kind of residual structure started. Most executives were iffy. A couple, however, thought maybe some kind of deal could be reached.

Meanwhile, the newly-minted 2000 negotiation committee drafted its proposals on wages, on credit arbitration, on a new residual structure. This took a sizable chunk of time, but within a few months we were ready to rumble.

In late '99 or early 2000 (I forget which, and I'm too lazy to go look up the exact date) we met with the animation producers at the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers in Encino. We presented all our proposals, then handed them in writing to our company counterparts. The studio reps received them in tight-lipped silence, said they needed a little time to digest them, and said they'd get back to us.

By and by they did. They told us residuals were out of the question. "You already get residuals under the IATSE contracts," the producer reps said. "They go into the pension and health plans. We're not giving you more." Our side pointed out that writers saw little of this, and profits from scripts they had written flowed into the trust funds but not to them. And if they didn't qualify for pension and health, well, the IA residuals did them no good, because they never got any.

The producers didn't care. They said no way, no how.

So the negotiating committee made new proposals. Different formulas, less sweeping changes to the existing contract. The producers responded "ixnay."

This went on for months. We'd propose, and the companies would say no. After which TAG's contract committee would have a lengthy caucus where we'd argue among ourselves, and committee members would say how unreasonable and unfair the companies were being.

And the next month we would meet for another round of negotiations. With the same result.

And somewhere along in here board artists decided that writers were trying to get control of screen credits, and that they might get screwed. And the artists got angry, which led to a large, tense meeting with a hundred artists and several writers in attendance. Various tempers flared and nobody was particularly happy, but the writers said they weren't trying for any credit grab. And the negotiations went on.

Through all of this I tried to be mindful of the people working in other job classifications who were not sitting at the bargaining table. It was pretty clear that we weren't getting anywhere, and weren't likely to get anywhere if we didn't pull our "non-starters" off the table. But the committee wasn't keen to throw proposals it held dear into the waste basket. A majority of the committee didn't think it was fair that animation writers were the only unionized scripters in Hollywood who didn't get the kind of deal their live-action siblings got.

I replied it wasn't a question of fairness, but one of leverage: You either have the muscle to get what you want, or you don't.

We were in the "don't" category.

The contract deadline was almost up, and both sides of the table were getting antsy. (At one point, in caucus, a writer grunted: "This is like high school student council. We get to debate, we get to vote. But the faculty and school administration has all the damn power." I said "Yeah, pretty much.")

I let the producers know we were dead in the water. Nobody was willing to pull anything else off the table. Soon thereafter, our mother international called to ask for an update. Soon after that, IA President Tom Short sat with us for the next round of talks. Before we met with the producers, we caucused.

Ten minutes into our pre-meeting, a shouting match erupted. It came down to: President Short insisted on jettisoning our last, watered-down residual proposal, and the writers didn't want to budge. As the decibel level rose, I remembered documents I had to photocopy and scampered from the room.

When the shouting ended, the last negotiation session with the producers went quickly. We talked with them in the big room, then in side bar. We ended up with major movement on health coverage, achieving six months of health insurance for freelance writers who wrote two half-hour scripts and outlines. This was a big improvement over the status quo.

But it wasn't a new deal for residuals.

The writers weren't happy with the package brokered by the IA and voted "NO" on its ratification. Since they were a majority of the committee, that was the way the committee came down. As chairman of the group, I didn't vote. But knowing we weren't going to get a better deal and that the IATSE wouldn't authorize a strike (besides which, we couldn't have gotten a majority of members to approve one if we'd tried), I campaigned for ratification.

Arguments pro and con were mailed out; a week later, ballots went to the membership. And when the dust cleared and all the votes were counted, the 2000 TAG Collective Bargaining Agreement passed by an 84%-16% margin.

Like I say. Some negotiations age you more than others.

(Here's an overview of another writers' negotiation. It's worth taking a few more minutes to read...)

* Seated: Stan Berkowitz, Robert Goodman, Hillary Baiter, Lee Crowe, unidentified. Standing: Unidentified, Earl Kress, Brooks Wachtel, John Behnke, Brain Swindlin, Warren Greenwood, Bronnie Barry, Steve Hulett, Stephan Zupkas.

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Cars Cops Annie

For those not riveted to the Grammies, another awards ceremony was going on slightly to the north. In Glendale:

Pixar's Cars was named best animated feature at the 34th annual Annie Awards, handed out Sunday at the Alex Theater in Glendale, California.

But ASIFA-Hollywood presented Flushed Away, from DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Animations, with more trophies than any other film.

Flushed earned honors in five categories: Scott Cegielski took the prize for animated effects; Gabe Hordos, feature character animation; Pierre-Olivier Vincent, feature production design; Ian McKellen, feature voice acting for the character of Toad; and Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Christopher Lloyd, Joe Keenan and Will Davies, feature writing. In addition, Flushed Away the Game, from D3 Publisher of America, was named best animated video game.

Our congratulations to all the winners, as well as the nominees. (More coverage here, from the East Coast...)

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Animation Weekend Roundup

Here's a few animation news items from the past few days that you might have missed (and should know, since the following stories impact animation artists' future employment):

At Disney, the Princesses Franchise (a huge money spinner the last couple of years) will be making room for the oncoming Fairy Franchise, with Tinker Bell as "Fairy in Chief":

Walt Disney consumer products chief Andy Mooney does the division's numbers crunching.

What he sees in his magic mirror, he says, is "modest, single-digit growth" this year for Disney Princesses, the retail juggernaut that's captured the hearts of small girls worldwide -- and plenty of their parents' dough.

...That's why Princesses will be passing the baton to a whole new group of gals: the Disney Fairies, with Tinker Bell as the Fairy-in-Chief...

It also explains, despite a raft of development tangles with the dvd feature Tinker Bell, why the picture is still on track to get made (even with John Lasseter's lack of enthusiasm for sequels to the classic Disney features.)

Speaking of sequels, Mr. Lasseter and Ed Catmull were in Orlando last week (we mentioned this visit earlier), and while there they confirmed Toy Story III is in the works with a possible 2009 release, directed by Lee Unkrich and written by live-action scribe Michael Arndt.

In an unusually candid presentation from the typically tight-lipped execs, Lasseter and Disney Animation prexy Ed Catmull provided extensive details on their upcoming slate at the Mouse House's investor conference Thursday.

In addition to confirming for the first time that a third "Toy Story" is in the works, most likely for 2009 release, Lasseter said Lee Unkrich will helm it.

Unkrich co-directed "Toy Story 2," "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo" but has never before been sole helmer on a Pixar pic.

And over at Sony Pictures Animation, there has been some changes in the division's executive ranks:

Penney Finkelman Cox, a veteran animation executive who helped launch Sony Pictures' foray into animation, is stepping down to become a producer for the division, the company announced Friday.

The management shake-up follows mounting tensions between Finkelman Cox and Yair Landau, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, over creative control of the animation division.

With the changes, Landau will be directly in charge of creative decision-making in the animation group while continuing in his role as president of Sony Pictures Digital.

Finkelman Cox's longtime partner, Sandra Rabins, will remain executive vice president of the animation unit and report to Landau.

This was the other topic of conversation among Sony Pictures Animation employees when I visited the Culver City studio last week. But since Mrs. Hulett didn't raise her little boy to be a big-mouthed fool, I kept my yap shut about it until the story broke on Friday.

And a happy Sunday to you.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Night Keeps Truckin'

Night at the Museum chunks along at #6 on Your Box Office Hit Parade, and now totals $227,646,000 in gross receipts...

Meanwhile, the only other (partial) cgi flick in the Top Ten is Pan's Labyrinth (#8), with a $24,042,000 take. As for pure plays in animation, they are way down the big list...

Update: Eddie Murphy wiped out the competition at the weekend box office. Norbit took in close to $34 million in its #1 launch.

And animation? Starting at the bottom, Happily N'Ever After is at #35 and a $15.5 million cume (don't look for any sequels soon)...

The big hit Happy Feet is running out of dancing room as it slides to #26 and a $193,350,000 total...

The Weinsteins' pickup Arthur and the Invisibles stands at #22 and $13,654,000.

Farther up the list, Night at the Museum continues to romp at #5. It's now picked up $232.1 million in domestic box office.

And Pan's Labyrinth resides at #8 and a domestic take of $26,591,000.

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Larry E.'s Portfolio: Mircea Mantta

Mircea Mantta had been an animator in his native Romania for eight years before he came to Los Angeles to work for Hanna-Barbera in 1979.

Mircea Mantta

In the 'seventies and 'eighties he directed and sheet-timed for Hanna-Barbera on "Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo", "Pac Man", "The Little Rascals", "Richie Rich", "The Kwicky Koala Show", and "Smurfs"; Ruby-Spears on "Bunnicula, the Vampire Rabbit"; and Filmation on "She-Ra: Princess of Power".

In his eighteen years at Disney he's worked as a timing and animation director on the "TaleSpin", "Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers" and "Gargoyles" series; as well as the Teacher's Pet, DuckTales: The Movie - Treasure of the Lost Lamp, Boo to You Too! Winnie the Pooh, Gargoyles: Brothers Betrayed, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving, Piglet's Big Movie and Kim Possible: A Sitch in Time projects ... and he produced the "101 Dalmatians" series. (A busy guy, Mr. Mantta.)

And along the way he married Lyn Mantta, the Guild's office manager and guiding spirit.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Buh Bye Jim

This must have been a big surprise. Not.

ATLANTA Feb 9, 2007 (AP)— The head of the Cartoon Network resigned Friday following a marketing stunt that caused a security scare in Boston.

The announcement about Jim Samples resigning was made in an internal memo sent to Cartoon Network staffers.

In a statement to employees, Samples said he regrets the stir that the stunt caused.

"It's my hope that my decision allows us to put this chapter behind us and get back to our mission of delivering unrivaled original animated entertainment for consumers of all ages," Samples said.

Samples said he felt "compelled to step down, effective immediately, in recognition of the gravity of the situation that occurred under my watch."

--Harry Weber, AP

I'm sure Mr. Samples felt compelled to resign. Honor, and all that. Also five or six high-level Turner/Time-Warner executives pushing him overboard.

Thirteen years with the Turner, all blown away like gold dust in a mountain windstorm. But it was bound to happen. The company coughed up two million dollars to assuage the anger of Boston's city fathers. Somebody was bound to take the fall.

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American Dog Next Disney Feature After Robinsons

We'll do a quick post about AD since the speculation of it being "moved back" came up in the comment section down below...

There's this from today's Bloomberg news:

Disney Animation's next movie will be "American Dog,'' Disney's creative chief for animation, John Lasseter, said at today's [investor] meeting [in Orlando, Florida].

The Bloomberg piece goes on to talk about the Disney Animation job cutbacks, to wit:

Disney said on Dec. 1 it planned to eliminate 160 jobs, or 20 percent of the staff, at Burbank-based Disney Animation. The cuts coincide with the unit's planned release of "Meet the Robinsons'' in March and a shift to an 18-month production cycle from one movie every 12 months...

No jobs were eliminated at Pixar, which maintains a separate campus in Emeryville, California.

"We are not merging the two animation studios together,'' Catmull said today. "That goes hand in hand with our principle that there is local ownership and people feel pride in what they are doing.''

So. Whatever the internet gossip is, Mr. Lasseter says that American Dog is the next Disney feature after Meet the Robinsons. And the two studios will remain separate entities. No big surprise there.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

February Studio Roundabout

At Film Roman/Starz Media, the first pass of The Simpsons movie is close to complete...

...and work on The Simpsons feature has kicked into high gear. Like 12 hours per day seven days per week high gear. A staffer who's mostly worked in television asked me:

"Are features always like this? Seven days a week?"

I replied:

"Sometimes. Space Jam was like that, a long grind that went on for months. And the Disney features in the early nineties were tough. One assistant there told me she only went home to sleep, and she had to hire somebody to clean the house and do the laundry, because she was never home. She said it sucked."

"I know what she meant."

Because of the push on the feature, some work on the teevee version is on hold. Some of the television staff had been told their end-of-season layoff dates, but then held over another week...and another week (which of course they're happy about.)

At Disney Feature Animation, it appears that American Dog, Frog Princess and Rapunzel could all have their individual story passes up on reel by summertime.

At Sony Pictures Animation, story work continues on Hotel Transylvania and Cloudy with Meatballs (among others.)

When I walked in, there was discussion among artists about how well Open Season was doing on DVD:

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's Open Season easily took the top spot on the national DVD sales chart for the week ending Feb. 4. The animated feature, which generated $84.3 million in theaters during the holidays, outsold its nearest competitor, 20th Century Fox's "TheMarine," by a margin of nearly 3-to-1. -- The Hollywood Reporter - 2/8/2007.

Happily, a big chunk of revenue comes from direct-to-video, so Open Season will be doing its bit to help Sony's bottom line.

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Larry E.'s Portfolio: Cliff Voorhees

Cliff V. first worked as an inbetweener on Disney's Lady and the Tramp, then went to Chouinard Art Institute for two years. He worked at a few west coast advertising agencies and for Geppy Vaccaro, doing comic strip work.

Cliff Voorhees

Mr. Voorhees was hired to draw the comic strip The Toodles and then became an associate art director at Westways Magazine. He moved back to animation as a layout artist at Filmation in 1969; Larry Eikleberry's portrait dates from just before he left there in 1977.

Cliff Voorhess at the 2005 Golden Awards

Cliff moved to Hanna-Barbera for five years and then to Marvel Productions where he worked on Muppet Babies. Cliff moved to Film Roman when it opened and did layout and design on the Garfield specials and then The Tom and Jerry Movie. At Nickelodeon he designed on the Angry Beavers series; then he moved to Cartoon Network and did key layouts on the series The Grim Adventures of Bill and Mandy until January of 2005, just a few months before he received the Animation Guild Golden Award.

Cliff has retired five times during the last ten years. He says he means it this time. (Me, I don't think he can make it stick. Studios keep offering him gigs, and he likes drawing too much.)

Photo by Moses Sparks, from the 2005 Golden Awards. The above bio was written by Bob Foster for the Golden Awards program.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Wages in Toonland (Deux)

A couple of days ago, I was lunching with a Wise Old Studio Exec who is now happily retired from the studio grind. (He worked at a lot of animation studios in a three-decade career, but he enjoys his new occupation of smelling the roses.)

I mentioned to him that the Animation Guild is now in the middle of its 2007 Wage Survey (see our previous post and survey here), mailing out forms and getting them back. I also mentioned how frustrating it is when people don't return the forms. He said brightly:

"Oh yeah, wage surveys. The last studio I worked for got wage breakdowns for all the big animation studios. It was always good to know what artists were making at all the different houses. Helped keep us from overpaying anybody."

Overpaying anybody. Neato. Wouldn't want to do something awful like that, now would we? What with all the paltry salaries studios execs make.

I'd always known that studios knew what their employees were making, but here was testimony about how they also knew what employees earned at competing studios. (Everything is available...for a fee.)

Which makes it kind of baffling why some artists in the business are still reluctant to share wage information. (Actually, it's not so baffling. Various studios thump out a steady drumbeat of intimidation about not revealing info. Even though Sections 232(a), (b) and (c) of the California Labor Code prohibit employers from requiring as a condition of employment that employees refrain from disclosing wages, forcing employees to sign a waiver of the right to disclose wages, or discharging, disciplining of discriminating against employees who disclose wages.)

But I'm still hopeful that employees will empower themselves, despite the muttered threats around town. And I've reason for hope. To date, TAG has received over 550 surveys from our '07 mailing, and when all of them are tabulated, we'll share the results here and on TAG's web site.

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