Saturday, March 31, 2007

Will Ferrell Lands a Triple Salchow Against Wilbur Robinson

Mr. Ferrell, on a hot streak with sports comedies, rides Blades of Glory to Number One on Friday with $12 million. Meet the Robinsons collects $7.7 million for a Number Two position...

And the Weinstein-Warner animated offering TMNT falls to #5 with a $31.8 million total.

Sunday Update: As predicted by the forecasts, MTR finished a solid second with $25 million for the weekend, behind the glorious Blades at $33 million. Compare that to TMNT's $24 million last weekend, and it looks like the new Disney flick did pretty decent in a tough weekend.

The turtle movie nabbed another $9.2 million for fourth, a 62% drop from last weekend (and yes, that's a big drop). If Robinsons holds up better than that next weekend, it could turn out to be a modest hit, though not any kind of blockbuster.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Captain America may be dead, but Steve Canyon lives

Click on the thumbnail to see the full image
Over at the ASIFA-Hollywood Archive, Steve Worth has posted some jim-dandy panels of the classic Milton Caniff comic strip, "Steve Canyon", donated to A-HAA from the Caniff family's private collection.

Caniff started "Steve Canyon" after walking away from his classic "Terry and the Pirates" strip. The strip continued until a month after Caniff's death in May 1988. When and if I read it as a kid, it was when my dad wasn't looking, for Caniff's right-wing, pro-military politics made him anything but politically correct in our circles.

I've been making up for lost time by following the strip at Humorous Maximus, which started posting the original strips in sequential order on January 13 of this year, the fiftieth anniversary of its first appearance in a newspaper.

Go to Humorous Maximus at the link above and click on the calendar to go to the Sunday panel they published on February 4 of this year (sorry, but the site is hard-wired against direct-linking). Compare this with what gets published in Sunday comic sections nowadays (and how the newspapers publish it). Tell me you don't agree that this is newspaper comic art at its finest ... hell, it's storyboarding at its finest.

And counting from when he started "Terry", Caniff kept this up for fifty-four years.

Anyway, this is an animation blog, so my question is ... why wasn't "Steve Canyon" ever done in animation? Could it have been animated?

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Will the country Meet the Robinsons?

For the second weekend in a row, a CG-animated feature opens wide, this time the first from Disney since Chicken Little back in October '05. The reviews for Meet the Robinsons are good (68% "fresh" so far), and the forecast is for a very solid $32 million weekend despite stiff competition from the latest Will Ferrell confection and the hold-over TMNT . . .

The marketing on The Robinsons has struck me as severely front-loaded -- I'd swear I saw far more ads six weeks ago than I'm seeing now (it appears Blades of Glory has bought up most of the ad time), but awareness of the film seems high.

I've heard some folks making this film a referendum on the Pixar merger, sometimes with contradictory logic: If the film succeeds, it means that Disney was already on the right track, and maybe didn't need the Pixar brain trust. Or, if it succeeds, it's proof that the film needed the Pixar gurus to fix it up at the last moment. Ultimately, we know how success is treated in Hollywood, and in Burbank -- if its a hit, everyone takes a bow. And if it tanks, well, there was a good reason the prior leadership needed to be booted out.

This is a film I've been looking forward to seeing since a glowing report was given of the story reels at the San Diego Comicon a few years ago. Congrats to the crew -- I'll see you in the theater.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Jeffrey loves 3-D

Jeffrey Katzenberg, that is (no one asked my opinion ...)

In a front-page Hollywood Reporter article (that, rather bizarrely, doesn't mention Meet The Robinsons), Katzenberg touted the potential of the 3-D format to boost theatrical revenues.

He said that moviegoers will gladly pay up to a 50% premium to watch 3-D films in a theater and that such a scenario will make the debate over collapsing distribution windows largely irrelevant. He noted that the exhibition industry hasn't used variable pricing strategies to boost its fortunes nearly to the extent that other industries have.

And one more added benefit[, he said]: 3-D movies can't be easily pirated.

[According to Katzenberg,] Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are embracing 3-D, and George Lucas is giving "Star Wars" the 3-D treatment.

"Once the alphas start to move, the herd gets restless and others start to follow," Katzenberg said.

Katzenberg opined that Casino Royale and The Departed would have done better in 3-D. He suggested that re-releases of 3-D versions of The Godfather, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia would be profitable. He also said Disney/Pixar is planning Toy Story 3 in 3-D, although a Disney rep refused to confirm.

Film history buffs will remind us, of course, that 3-D movies are nothing new: William Friese-Greene patented a 3-D movie process in the 1890s. In the 1950s, of course, Hollywood saw a phenomenon with many parallels to today, as Hollywood studios, faced with declining revenues due to television, touted the stereoscopic 3-D process as the savior of the theatrical feature.

At first, the so-called "stereoscopic" 3-D format was tested on B movies such as Bwana Devil and Three Stooges shorts. But by 1953 several studios were releasing big movies in 3-D such as The French Line starring Jane Russell (left) , with the tag line "It'll knock both of your eyes out!". Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder and the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate came out in 3-D.

The process was crude -- two prints had to be shown from separate projectors in perfect synchronization, and if one print was damaged the other had to be mangled in exactly the same way or both were useless. Eventually, exhibitors saw more potential in Cinerama to wow moviegoers back into theaters.

The fad faded away as fast as it had come in, and the last 3-D feature of the stereoscopic age was released in February 1955. Attempts to revive the process continued through the 1960s and 1970s, mostly in B movies and soft-core porn.

Recently, of course, we have seen Polar Express and Chicken Little in limited-release 3-D format. And tomorrow ... well, tomorrow, Meet The Robinsons will be showing in 3-D in over 600 theaters.

Is Jeffrey right? Will we see a resurgence of theatrical features due to the improved technology? Or will the prints of these movies end up in revival-house festivals alongside Cat Women Of The Moon, Flesh For Frankenstein and The Stewardesses?

Time will tell.

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Sanders gets Crood at DreamWorks

Daily Variety has reported that Chris Sanders has been signed on to direct Crood Awakenings at DreamWorks. He started on Monday.

Sanders had been at Disney for twenty years, cumulating in his co-direction with Dean De Blois of the Lilo and Stitch feature. He left Disney two months ago due to creative differences over the American Dog project.

Crood Awakenings has a script co-written by John Cleese of "Monty Python"/"Fawlty Towers" fame and Kirk De Micco (Racing Stripes). It was to have a co-production with Aardman Animations, but DreamWorks reclaimed the project after their partnership ended.

Sanders indicated in the article that he may re-work the script, which has a caveman premise. The studio didn't commit to a release date, but Variety speculated on 2010 or 2011.

Sanders is the second Disney alumnus to land at DreamWorks in recent months; Rob Minkoff (Lion King) is developing the Mr. Peabody and Sherman feature as well.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The 2007 wage survey, complete

Last week Steve posted a summary of some of the categories in our annual wage survey. The complete survey is now available in Adobe Acrobat format.

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On Negotiations, part II: war stories

There are probably as many colorful anecdotes regarding contract negotiations as there are negotiators. I've been doing this since the early nineties. Here are a few tales that stick out in my mind:

Early nineties: I'm involved in my first big union negotiation. Because I don't know any better, I've worked a lot of hours pulling proposals together with our negotiation committee, and we have a nice fat laundry list of demands.

The IATSE representative (that's somebody from the West Coast office of our "mother international") is a grizzled veteran who's manner is brusque. He sits in on our first caucus before the actual negotiations, looks at all the proposals and bellows at me: "What the hell are you doing!? You don't want to come in with this many proposals! You want to keep the thing short! Get in and get out! What you doing!?"

We go in with the list anyway, and get pretty much nowhere. We propose reclassifying "sheet timers" as "timing directors"; the producer reps tell us we can't use the term "director" because the Directors Guild of America has exclusive use of the term "director" in its contract. The TAG negotiating committee finds out later this is...ah...not true. (We have "directors" in the contract now.)

After the first day of this negotiation, the Warners negotiator -- a Vietnam veteran named Jay Ballance -- announces that Warners is not going to negotiate over some of our "off the wall" proposals. He slams down his briefcase, sweeps his papers into it, and storms out. I think: "Wow."

A day later he's back. Nothing more is said about our proposals. This is, I soon find out, is what can be classified as "negotiation theatrics."

Mid-nineties: This is when Lion King is making ka-jillions for Disney. TAG President Tom Sito decides that the time is ripe to try and get residuals for animators, directors, story people. Tom has a meeting with Disney staffers. Many say (and here I paraphrase): "Go for it, but we're not sticking our necks out and doing a job action or anything. But, ah, we'll take it if you get it."

Tom makes a couple of impassioned speeches during negotiations. One is on behalf of impoverished retirees sitting at the table who negotiate against labor relations veepees driving their BMWs and Lexuses. Retiree Ed Friedman -- sitting near Tom at the table -- leans over and whispers to him: "Uh, Tom? I drive a Lexus..."

A short time later, Sito has a tantrum over an employer demand, knocks over a chair and stalks out. His fit makes an impact. (Three years later when he tries much the same thing, it has less of an impact. This is where I relearned the truism: The law of diminishing returns...)

Film Roman/IDT Entertainment Negotiations:

This was, in many ways, the most amazing negotiation I have ever taken part in, even though it was a first-time organizing negotiation, where the new contract is not always supercalifabulistic...and the rest of it.

The big difference was, the Film Romanians were ticked off. They thought they'd been treated badly by management and weren't going to take it anymore. They voted by almost 90% to have TAG represent them as bargaining agent. Twenty of the heavy hitters who worked on The Simpsons and King of the Hill volunteered to serve on the negotiating committee. And when management, angry at the size of the committee, back-tracked on an offer to serve everyone lunch, they got more ticked off. So we started off on not a great foot.

Once we got into the swing of things, however, negotiations went relatively smoothly. Management initially balked at some of the retroactivity for health benefits, but when they realized that employees were ready to strike over the issue, they did a smart about face.

After that, negotiations went -- dare I say it? -- swimmingly. Leverage is a wonderful thing when you have it (too often you don't). We wrapped up all outstanding issues and reached an agreement on a sparkly new contract in just a few days, and I must say that TAG's relationship with the company has been fine ever since.

I'll admit it. I enjoy leverage. It pops up so rarely.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Ben Ferrer, 1960-2007

Designer and artist BEN FERRER passed away on March 22 of a heart attack at the age of forty-six. He worked for HBO Animation on the Spicy City series, for Warner Bros. on Baby Blues, and for Sony TV Animation, and he freelanced through his own company, Fly'n Filipino Productions. There is a tribute to him here, and a portfolio of his work is here.

Services will be held at Forest Lawn Cypress, 4471 Lincoln Avenue in Cypress. The visitation will be Wednesday, March 28 from 5 pm to 9 pm (Mortuary rooms A and B); the funeral will be Thursday, March 29 at 11 am, at the Church Of Our Fathers.

Here is a map.

Artwork © Fly'n Filipino Productions

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Membership meeting tonight -- and panel on Websites for Artists

Our General Membership Meeting is tonight, and will feature a panel discussion on artists and animators setting up websites for self-promotion and profit. Guest panelists scheduled to appear are Doreen Chen from Charles Allen Imaging Experts, Howard Morris from Howard Morris Photo, and Kristofer Youngstrom from Digital Housing & Administration. Executive board member Carla Falberg will moderate . . .

Also on the agenda is the election of IATSE District Two delegates, and the ever exciting business agents report on the state of the industry. Pizza and sodas are served at 6:30, with the meeting and panel at 7:00.

The meeting happens at the IATSE Local 44 Meeting Hall at 12021 Riverside Drive in North Hollywood (just off Laurel Canyon).

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On Negotiations - Part I

Negotiations? Well, since I got asked...

The recent negotiations I wrote about below were typical and atypical at the same time. The typical part was the posturing and arguing. The atypical part was the (thus far) inconclusive results. But this is an organizing negotiation: talks to get a contract where none exited before...

But let's talk about negotiating in general.

Most every individual in the 'toon business negotiates. We negotiate salary, we negotiate working conditions, we negotiate the size and opulence of our work space. And how successful we are depends on a) how much leverage we've got, and b) the frame of mind of the people with whom we're negotiating.

But mostly a).

It's much the same thing with negotiations for collective bargaining agreements. And the people any union negotiator is up against -- salaried lawyers from the major corporations -- work diligently to convince said union that it doesn't have any leverage, that the union is only getting the deal it's getting out of the goodness of the company's heart. And isn't the union lucky that the company is so good and kind and benevolent?

That is usually the dynamic companies strive for. Occasionally union negotiators fall for it; more often they don't.

And before any labor-management negotiation culminates in a new contractual agreement, both sides go through the following kabuki theatre:

Each side presents their list of demands. For the union or guild, it's higher wages, more generous health and pension benefits, a larger slice of the residual pie. The union presents arguments of why this is a good thing for both parties, why it's just and right and truly American, why a benevolent God smiles on it.

And management presents its wish list: small bump-ups of minimum wages, rollbacks in health and pension, a new residual formula. The argument is always put forward that the company just can't afford the old deal anymore, that theatre receipts are down, television licensing fees are shrinking, production costs are breaking the corporate back.

In almost all cases, the companies are looking for "relief." And they tell you why it's the wise and even inevitable choice. And why the union should be "statesmanlike" and agree to it.

"Relief" and "statesmanlike" always means: "We pay you less money."

Fifty years ago, the playing field between management and labor was semi-level. Guilds and unions could not only hold their own against Warners, Disney, Universal and Fox, but they could get steady improvements in labor contracts. Now? Not so much. Now the movie studios are tiny cogs in monster conglomerates, and unions and guilds are fighting corporations as powerful and rapacious and giant squids.

Then as now, the success of unions and guilds at the negotiating table is tied directly to how much of the work force they control. If they control most or all of it, they can do okay. But if they rep only a small segment, they've got problems. Big problems.

In recent years, the IATSE, our parent union, has been lucky in this regard. It's managed to organize most of the movie and television grips, camera people, editors, makeup artists, set builders and the rest. With that strength, they negotiate pretty good contracts, especially when compared to the not-so-good contracts they were forced to agree to fifteen years ago when a lot more workers were "non union." One poignant example of this was triple-time getting reduced to double-time, and double-time getting reduced to time-and-a-half. It hurt then and it hurts thinking about it now.

Within the Animation Guild's small corner of the world (Southern California), labor contracts have gotten better over time -- mostly. This is because our local agreement is tied to the Basic Agreement of our Mother International, and as the Basic has improved, our Animation Guild contract has improved with it, particularly with better pension benefits. We've also gotten some boosts in certain job classifications, and that hasn't hurt either.

Achieving contractual improvements isn't always easy and often involves screaming, yelling and boisterous theatrics. I'll provide some examples tomorrow.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Animation Nation #9 coming up this Sunday

This may be redundant for many of us since I know there's a lot of cross-pollination between the TAG Blog and Animation Nation. But in case you're not aware of it, Animation Nation's ninth annual meeting will be held this Sunday, April 1, at the Burbank Historical Society, 1015 W. Olive Ave. in Burbank.

Many people new to wonder what the 4.1 stands for in the AN logo.

It's a not so secret code for April 1st.

AN endeavors to make April 1st of every year a day of celebration for artists, animation enthusiasts and creative people in general.

On the afternoon of April 1st, artists at studios the world over are asked to take the afternoon off. To empty the studios and to come together in groups.

We first did this in 1999. It was called the Great Alliance. It was held at Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City, California. At the time, the community here in Los Angeles was factioned. There was a lot of finger pointing going around that was detrimental to our commonwealth. It was playing into the hands of an executive management community that was in the first throws of dismantling our industry as we knew it, after many years of creative and commercial successes followed by increasing managerial problems that were paid for at the expense of the creative community here in LA and elsewhere.

April 1st is a day in which animation artists are asked to unite for just one afternoon in a show of collective power. To remind the world that without artists, there would be no animation industry.

On April 1st, artists, creative technicians and assorted movers and shakers here in LA come together and share a common unifying experience.

They converge.

-- Charlie Zembillas, from the main page at

Charlie deserves our kudos and support for the time and effort he's put into the most vibrant, fascinating, infuriating and liberating forum for animation talent on the Internet.

If you haven't been a part of this, maybe now's a good time to start. Details are here.

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"Freelance" is not a magic word

free * lance {'frE-"lan(t)s}, noun. 1: a. a mercenary soldier, especially of the Middle Ages. b. a person who acts independently without being affiliated with or authorized by an organization. 2: a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer.

-- Webster's Dictionary

Animation freelancing in 2007 is a lot less romantic than the fantasy of board artists and sheet timers riding around in full battle armor on their war-horses, hiring themselves out to the lord of Castle Disney or the seigneur of Hold Nickelodeon.

Nor should anyone be fooled into thinking of the freelancer as some abstract ideal, the noble artisan who "acts independently" of the monolith of Big Animation. In this "buyer's market" for talent, it's less an issue of the artist having no "long-term commitment" to the employer, than it is the employer having no commitment whatsoever to the artist.

There's really nothing wrong with freelance work per se, and there's no reason why an energetic, well-connected artist can't make a living at it. But as with anything else in this business, you need to know the rules, and you need to be careful. We'd like to puncture some of the myths that surround freelancing.

Let's get our definitions straight: we refer to "freelancers" as those employees who work at home or away from the studio premises, typically (but not exclusively) at piece rates. Freelancers are not the same as independent contractors. Freelancers are employees, independent contractors are not.

  • MYTH #1: Freelancers have none of the protections of full-time employees, and they are not covered under the Guild contract.

Untrue: a freelancer is as much an employee as somebody who sits at a desk on the studio premises for forty hours a week. There is a simple test: is your employer taking taxes out of your paycheck? If the answer is yes, you're an employee. End of discussion.

  • MYTH #2: Freelancers don't get health or pension contributions for their work.

Again, not true. As long as you're an employee of a Guild shop working under the Guild's jurisdiction, the employer must make health and pension contributions, regardless of whether you work on the premises or at home.

For scripts and storyboards, pages 76 and 77 of the Guild contract booklet list the minimum per-piece contributions. For piece work in other categories, pay should be prorated so that the hourly rate and benefit contributions do not fall below the CBA minimums. Before you do any freelance work you should have a clear understanding of the basis on which you are to be paid, and the basis on which your benefit contributions are going to be calculated.

  • MYTH #3: The studio can get around the Guild contract by calling you an "independent contractor".

Independent contractors are not covered under the Guild contract since they are not employees of the company they are performing work for. If you're an independent contractor, no benefits, no contract protections ...

As an independent contractor, you will be responsible not only for health insurance, but also for taxes, Social Security, etc., and you will need to have a business license. In addition to sales and income taxes, you may owe business taxes and fees to the city in which you reside.

In order for you to be a bona fide independent contractor, you must be truly independent. State and Federal tax regulations define what kinds of work can legally be considered as independent contracting. Rule of thumb: the work must be of a nature that is independent of the direction and control of the company for which the work is being performed.

So, for example, it would be very difficult for an employer to claim that work such as animation, assistant animation, sheet timing, checking, or any form of clean-up, could be done by independent subcontractors, since the nature of the work is defined by the control and supervision exercised by the employer.

On the other hand, most writing and storyboard work could be subcontracted ... but not rewrites, revisions, story editing, cleanups, etc. Pre-production models and visdev could probably be independently subcontracted, but if the company starts to require any kind of revisions, then by definition the work is no longer "independent".

Bottom line: to survive in the dangerous world of freelancing, you need to have your lance sharpened and your faithful steed well-shod ... and you need to contact your Guild whenever the lord of the manor is shortchanging you ...

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Yes, he does go on vacation

Ninety percent of union workers in the U. S. receive paid vacations, versus seventy-eight percent of non-union workers. At an average of two weeks per year, the U.S. offers the second-lowest average yearly vacation time among industrialized countries. The Danes, Austrians, and Finns, for example, enjoy six weeks off. The Norwegians and French get to play for five weeks. The Brits, Swiss, and Irish savor a month off, while the Germans, who receive 24 days of base paid vacation may, over time, earn up to 15 weeks off each year!

As one of those unions that's helping weaken the national work ethic with such self-indulgent notions, every so often we kick Steve Hulett out the door for a week or so. While he's out of town, Kevin and I will be filling in here on the TAG Blog, and we'll be posting a few of Steve's thoughts that he left behind.

Don't forget, there's a membership meeting Tuesday night (March 27) at the IATSE Local 44 meeting hall, 12021 Riverside Drive in North Hollywood (one block east of Laurel Canyon, across from the Gelson's parking lot). Carla Fallberg will be hosting a panel on website design, and there will be elections for the District 2 convention. Pizza and refreshments at 6:30 pm, meeting starts at 7 pm.

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TMNT and Imagi

Technology moves faster all the time, and new animation studios sprout like mushrooms. This story from Animation World Network details a little background on Imagi, the Hong Kong studio responsible for this week's first place animated feature (see immediately below.)

Imagi got its start in 2000, producing CGI TV series like Zentrix and a direct-to-video feature based on the Digimon franchise. The studio always had its eye on the prize, though: theatrical feature animation, beginning with the Ninja Turtles. [Paul] Wang [formerly of PDI/DreamWorks] joined Imagi's TMNT team in 2005, while director Kevin Munroe was still working on the film's script. Gray, the producer of the Turtles' three previous features, had convinced their co-creator Peter Laird to go to the well one more time and Imagi, formed in 2000 was ready to play with the big boys. Towards that end, they had opened up a creative development office and production facility in the Los Angeles area, the better to tap into the local talent market and pitch to the studios in town.

Imagi was also the studio that produced cgi animation for DreamWorks' Father of the Pride. It is, of course, headquartered on the southern coast of China.

Fear and trepidation regarding foreign animation studios has circulated at 'toon studios in L.A. for as long as I've been doing this job. Last week, at one of the bigger L.A animation studios, I once again got the inevitable question: "Is all the work going overseas?"

I had much the same answer I always do: "Some work will migrate out, and a lot of work won't. The game company Electronic Arts, which has other studios overseas, has built a large studio in Playa Vista (which isn't the low rent neighborhood that, say, New Delhi is), and looks to have every intention of remaining.

"Now. Why would EA do that? For the same reason that every other effects house, animation facility, and movie studio still functions here. The Los Angeles talent pool is wide and deep, and that is a major driver. Low costs aren't everything. It does no good to produce a cheap film that makes no money."

Imagi isn't run by stupid people. Besides Hong Kong, it has a studio in the San Fernando Valley.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Mutants Overpower Ancient Warriors!

TMNT knocked 300 out of the top spot as the sword-wielding turtles -- resurrected by computer graphics -- slice off $8.6 million on Friday -- beating those other buff fighting machines from the Middle East by $2.6 million...

How the Ninja Turtles hold up through the rest of the weekend is anyone's guess, but after two decades as iconic cultural figures, the muscled amphibians still represent a formidable franchise. And put Hong Kong's Imagi studios solidly on the map.

BV's Wild Hogs dropped to #4 and Sandy Bullocks journey into the supernatural (Premonition) dropped to #6.

Final box office totals for newbies and holdovers arrive tomorrow...

Update: Turtles dredge up $25,450,000 at the North American box office, to take Numero Uno. Warners and Weinsteins score with yet another animated cgi feature, this one from Hong Kong (with a reputed $35 million budget.)

If the Koch box office calculator holds, TMNT will end up with a $75-$100 million box office take, and sizable profits. So the turtle franchise continues to be potent.

Elsewhere on this weekend's scorecard, 300 fell to #2 with a take of $20,510,000; Wild Hogs grossed $14,362,000 in 4th position, and Premonition suffered a slide to #6, gathering in $10.1 million for a total of $32.2 million.

Bridge to Terabithia, until now holding up stoutly, had a 55% drop (those ninja amphibians are murder) and how resides at #12 with $78.9 million in the coffers.

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Animation News Roundup

And here we go with the ever-popular end of week animation news roundup, designed for those who care about animation (and have a bunch of time on their hands)...

Variety reports on Tokyo's Anime Awards, and this years big winner:

"The Girl Who Leapt Through Time," Mamoru Hosoda's feature-length toon about a time-traveling teenage girl, scooped the Animation of the Year prize at the Tokyo Anime Awards ceremony at the Tokyo Anime Fair on Thursday.

The pic, which was a surprise hit at the BO in Japan last year, won prizes in a total of six categories, including Best Director, Best Original Story, Best Script, Best Art Direction and Best Character Design.

And Hollywood Reporter columnist Martin A. Grove dishes background on the making of the latest Ninja Turtles Movie, that franchise that just keeps on giving:

The first three "Turtles" films, distributed by New Line Cinema, were live action adventures that got off on the right foot about 17 years ago. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" opened March 30, 1990 to $25.4 million and went on to gross $135.3 million domestically. "Turtles II" arrived March 22, 1991 to $20 million and ended up with $78.7 million domestically. "Turtles III" kicked off March 19, 1993 to $12.4 million and wound up with $42.3 million domestically. By then the films were running out of steam and for the past 14 years the "Turtles" were sidelined theatrically although they lived on as a successful syndicated television cartoon series. Today there are high hopes that Munroe's computer animated "TMNT" will give the movie franchise a new lease on life.

Those guys in turtle suits all those year ago gathered in a diminishing amount of domestic grosses. This weekend, we get to see if CG turtles reinflate turtlemania.

And while we're on the subject of crime-fighting turtles (see also below), there is this interview with TMNT's director Kevin Monroe.

Which is neatly counterbalanced by an interview with Dorothy McKim, the producer of next week's big cgi entry, Meet the Robinsons.

Have a fine weekend. I have hopes of sleeping in beyond 7 a.m. (My wants are modest).

Update: The L.A. TIMES has a profile of the artists/creators of El Tigre, Nickelodeon's hot new show that premiered earlier this month:

This is the tale of "El Tigre," a new animated TV series about Latinos that was actually created by Latinos. It's a story, like so many in Los Angeles, of immigration, ambition, defeat, triumph and, of course, romance.

It starts at the border town of Tijuana, where the show's creators, Jorge R. Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua, met in high school 13 years ago and fell in love, initially against the wishes of her family, who are all doctors.

Gutierrez studied at CalArts on a student visa, graduating in 2000 with a master's in experimental animation. That's when the clock started ticking. If he didn't get a job and a work visa within one year, he'd be forced to go back to Mexico.

"It's the greatest motivator of all time to be told, 'If you don't find a job, we'll deport you,' " says Gutierrez, 32.

So the artist started schlepping from studio to studio with his portfolio, filled with fanciful drawings of colorful characters steeped in his cultural roots...

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Friday, March 23, 2007

The NEXT Collision of Animated Features

The usual "We're in the middle of a glut" press mantra seems to have faded a bit, but two cgi features will get released within a week of each another, TMNT and Meet the Robinsons. And we'll get to see whether the foreign-made turtles beats out the domestically produced Wilbur Robinson at the nation's cineplexes.

My guess is that both features will rake in cash, but for different reasons.

"Turtles" is a pre-sold property. Its live-action predecessors did well, its hand-drawn teevee version is still out there in permanent syndication. But "Robinsons" has a different dynamic:

Disney successfully experimented with 3-D in its 2005 animation "Chicken Little," which was released primarily in 2-D. The 84 screens that showed the film in a special 3-D format grossed three times the average of national box office sales for the original version. Still, despite the format's popularity, too few 3-D equipped screens existed to make a huge impact on the national level. Since then, the number of 3-D screens in the country has increased. "Meet the Robinsons" will be shown in the new format in 600 theaters in almost every major U.S. city, and has the potential to shake up the industry.

So there you have it. The established brand-name franchise going against a time-travel epic in eye-popping 3-D.

Which, do you think, will end up on top?

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What? No Studio Reports?

Usually I have at least something about this studio or that. But this week I've got mostly nothing...

It was 401(k) meetings (now at an end) during most of the week. And also me walking around office to office and cubicle to cubicle with a lopsided smile catching people who missed the meetings: "Uh, you don't want a 401(k) enrollment book, do you?"

Fascinating stuff.

The most interesting studio visit was an ongoing negotiation with a non-signator studio where the producer let me know I was a creep for trying to organize his facility.

Being told you're a creep by your children is one thing. But getting told what a sh*t-heel you are by a non-union 'toon producer? It's not something you want to post in detail about on the internets.

At least, I don't.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Diamond Mines That Keep Giving

The Mouse House is gearing up for a bunch of "platinum edition" releases on a raft of its old animated classics. Features like Peter Pan, Jungle Book, and a dozen others.

And why does Disney issue fancy-dancy versions of features that have been out in the marketplace for years and years? Uh, maybe because of this:

This month, the Platinum Edition of "Pinocchio," which debuted in theaters in 1953 (sic), gave "Borat" a serious run for its money in stores when both titles came out the same day. In October, the Platinum Edition of "The Little Mermaid," a big-screen hit in 1989, sold 4 million copies in a single week. In October 2003, "The Lion King" sold 3 million DVDs in two days; in October 2001, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first Platinum Edition DVD, became the first DVD to sell 1 million units in a single day.

Pinocchio debuted in 1940, but let that small error go. The larger point here is that there are zero live-action films released in 1940 that could give Borat a "run for its money" in 2007. Or much anything else.

And The Lion King? Animation buffs will remember that LK sold 30 million videocassettes the year after its release in '94. And Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Putting aside the question of why any work of art should be under copyright seventy years after its creation, SW sold 26 million units when it was first released to home video.

But a million "Platinum Editions" of the brunette and the dwarfs in one day? Not bad for a picture that made so much money on its initial releases in '37 and '38 that it paid for Walt Disney Productions' Burbank studios. Not bad at all.

We should all have such diamond mines.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The FernGully Studio

Over the years, animation studios have risen up, prospered, and then vanished into history. There was Famous Studios in New York. The Fleischer Studios in Manhattan and then Miami. The UPA studios in Hollywood.

I worked at Filmation in the last year of its existence, and there have been many others. But today let's remember a studio that came into existence, produced a ground-breaking film, and then receded into the mists of time. Why? Because it's the fifteenth anniversary of...

Fern Gully.

Long before An Inconvenient Truth, FG raised the issue of environmental destruction, of humankind's inhumanity to the natural world around it. (The feature also gave Robin Williams his first role as an animated character.)

Most of the film was created in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. The following piece was written in 1992, the year of FG's release.

On Location with the Kroyers by Harvey Deneroff

FernGully: The Last Rainforest is a film that is saturated with color and life, mirroring, as it does, the life-giving richness and warmth of the Austrailain ran forest that is its subject. This ecological fairy tale tells how Crysta, a young forest sprite, encounters Zak, a logger, whom she accidentally shrinks to fairy size....

This story of a clash between nature and technology is a familiar one to Bill and Sue Kroyer, who first gained fame for their company, Kroyer Films, with their Oscar-nominated short, Technological Threat (1988). That film dealt with the danger of office automation, an ironic commentary on the innovative combination of hand-drawn and computer animation that it introduced. The success of Technological Threat led to a number of fruitful assignments for the studio, including the animated titles to such films as National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Troop Beverly Hills, and Honey I Shrunk the Kids (all 1989).

It was their work on the latter that brought them to the attention of the director and associate producer of Crocodile Dundee, Peter Faiman and Wayne Young, who were in town looking for a hungry young studio to make an animated feature based on stories by Young's wife, Diana.

The Kroyers were initially wary of taking on something so ambitious. "I thought that there was no way we could do a feature," Sue Kroyer recalls. "There's full employment in the industry, we'll never be able to hire people. Just the thought of trying to find one hundred and ten 'A' people was just staggering, and I was really despondent. But Bill had a sort of Field of Dreams attitude. He said, 'If we build it, they will come.' And they did. They quit other jobs to come here. It was really amazing."

Bill Kroyer agrees. "Our company was doing pretty well and we enjoyed short things. We could easily gear up or down for any one project. And then Wayne Young came along with this feature, and we realized how unbelievably hard it would be to do. However, it was about the rain forest, which we knew was a sgood cause. And it wasn't really supposed to be a kiddy movie, even though it was about fairies. We just liked the felling of the whole project."

"So in order to put a crew of forty 'A' animators together," Sue said, "we literally had to go all over the world." In the end, they had animation operations in Toronto, London and Copenhagen, in addition to staffing up new facilities in the old Stroh's Brewery complex in Van Nuys, California, which was their home base.

"The thing about our film that was so difficult," Bill notes, "was the fact that we started with no script, just a treatment. And because of the limits of the budget and the schedule, we had to go into production almost immediately in February, 1990. We started boarding the film in April or May." However, before boarding started, they did what perhaps no other animated feature crew evered did before that time: they and some of their key staff went on location to the Australian rain forest.

The visit provided them with a much-needed understanding of the ecology and beauty of the locale, as well as providing considerable visual material, and many of the sketches they did there showed up in the final film and is certainly the inspiration for some of its rich visual texture and its startling colorations.

It was important to the Kroyers that their film not be mired down in cliches. "The characters," Bill says, "are all real people. They all have a reality. The rain forest is real, because we actually went to the rain forest and we used our real life experiences."

But turning those experiences into a feature took more than good intentions, they involved doing what the Kroyers had never done before, i.e., setting up a whole new organizational structure from scratch, including increasing their staff from eleven to one hundred and ten.

"The fact of the matter," Bill notes, "is that neither we nor anyone we could find knew a whole lot about setting up a feature. We just had to stumble."

In the end, as Bill says, they realized that "You really have to form your company around individuals. You just can't put somebody in and say, 'Your job description is this!' We discovered people who had abilities to organize, abilities to keep things straight, or on schedule. We let the production system mold around the people. Finally, everything got covered."

"Bill and I are artists," Sue says, "and we wanted to run a studio that we wanted to work in. This is an artist-friendly studio, the studio of our dreams, where you don't have production people beating down on you. And instaed of having a pyramid structure, you have more of a network, where it's us in the middle and we give a lot of power to the department heads."

This lack of rigidity resulted in considerable flexibility and fluidity in staffing and decision making. Thus, Tom Mazzocco, head of storyboard on FernGully, said that, "I think we were all called upon to do more than we would be allowed to do elsewhere. Because you get to see what you are capable of doing. I was in storyboard and also became assistant director. But I think that's indicative of what's happened to everybody here. People from the animation department helped with the storyboards. We had some assistant animators who were given a chance to animate. The departmental lines here are fuzzier than anyplace else."

Dori Littell Herrick, assistant animation supervisor, concurs. She says that compared to other studios she has worked at, the environment at Kroyer was "equivalent to being at an artist's studio." Thus, despite her title and job duties, Dori recalls, "I was brought into color modeling, I was brought into every aspect that touched upon my job, and asked my opinion. I think that really showed up on the screen. We have a quality feature and it doesn't look like Disney or Bluth made it. But it is also our first feature. And because we could be in each other's faces all the time, we became a working unit that allowed us to bring together a bunch of people and make something that was greater than if we had been isolated, like in some other studios. I think the whole industry will look at that and say, you know, we went from six-minute titles to a feature and we're right up there with the best."

...Sue Kroyer noted in retrospect that, "It all seems pretty simple. You hire the absolute best people in their particular fields of expertise, then you just let them do what they do. And just stay out of the way. You don't have to sit there and control everything they do. ...If just left alone, people on this film are working on their wildest dreams. I think the mistake most studios make is that they have to get a middle-management guy who has to put his two cents in, and somebody else has to put their two cents in too, thus watering it down. So you just put all the artists together and let them go and they will come up with something incredible."

* * * * * * *

After "Fern Gully," Bill and Sue moved on to Warner Bros. Feature Animation. For the past decade, Bill has been a director and key employee for the CGI company Rhythm and Hues.

Tom Mazzocco has worked as director and board artist for almost every animation studio in Los Angeles.

Dori Littel Herrick is now a professor at Woodbury University.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Oooh...the SECRECY

I've been fairly busy the past couple of weeks, but I note that Jim Hill laments the secrecy that has now shrouded Disney Feature Animation:

Well, these past few months, it's like a giant Cone of Silence has been lowered over Burbank's Feature Animation building. Where once Disney artists used to brag and/or bitch & moan about the animated feature that they had been assigned to work on, now a lot of these employees have grown strangely mute.

Funny. I'm in and out of the hat building all the time, and nobody is particulalry mute to me. I just keep my mouth shut -- and typing fingers quiet -- more than most.

Not, mind you, as much as some would like. I talk about hiring and layoff issues from time to time. And early on, I relayed a few anecdotes that were amusing.

But in the past year, I've gotten like three exec complaints. One regarded an image-capture showing doughnuts falling out of the sky. One was about a direct-to-video project a producer said I could mention but the company didn't for contractual reasons, and the third was about the screen shape of an upcoming feature. Screen shape.

Disney and the rest have proprietary interests to protect. If a "cone of silence" is the way they want to do it, bully for them. What we're interested in here is labor stuff, wage stuff, the ebb and flow of the 'toon business. Things like that.

Revealing plot points of the next tent-pole epic coming from Disney, DreamWorks or somewhere else? Not our bag.

We leave that fertile ground to Jim Hill and associates.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

SAG-WGA Contract Planning Begins

This morning's trade papers report on the strategizing which has commenced between SAG and the WGA. (Contract talks for writers start this summer)...

East and West Coast executives of SAG and the WGA huddled at SAG headquarters in Los Angeles on Friday to begin mapping out strategy for the next round of film and TV contract talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

The WGA is expected to begin talks with AMPTP in July on a new contract for movie and primetime scribes, with the old film and TV pact expiring Oct. 31. Similar producer contracts with the DGA and SAG/AFTRA expire in June 2008.

No representatives of the DGA or AFTRA attended the Friday meeting, sources said, but it wasn't clear whether invitations had been extended to those unions. The DGA tends to be a bit independent, but AFTRA for decades has negotiated jointly with SAG on the all-important film and TV agreement.

If history is prologue (and any kind of predictor), here's the way it could go:

WGA begins talks with the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), but reaches no agreement by October 31 (contract deadline.) Trade media and conglomerates wring their hands. No writers' strike-vote is taken until SAG negotiations kick in.

But in the meantime, the AMPTP turns its attention to the DGA (Directors Guild of America), which negotiates to agreement. Much hand-shaking by participants, hossanahs from trade press. SAG and the WGA release (or leak) statements from officers saying this undercuts their bargaining positions, and they're not overly happy.

Two months later, SAG and the WGA reach agreement with the producers (AMPTP) almost concurrently. "Thorny issues" like increased residuals for DVDs are kicked down the road. Compromise is reached on residuals for mobile devices. (Charges of "sellout!" are heard.)

Planning for the 2011-20012 contract-negotiation cycle begins.

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Teenage Mutants...and Other Turtles

Walking out of the AMC Sunday afternoon, my wife and I spied a long line of parents and kids lined up. I stopped to ask "So what's the flick?" A Mom told me "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Which means they're having an early Burbank screening of the upcoming CGI feature. This pup was animated in Hong Kong at the Imagi Studios -- the same outfit that propelled DreamWorks' CG series "Father of the Pride" to life a couple of years back -- and if the crowds of elementary school kids outside AMC are any indication, it might make some coin.

TMNT is a Warners/Weinstein Co. release that rolls into theatres later this month. Those Weinsteins, they're into animation in a BIG way.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Latest B.O.

In box office estimates for Friday, 300 maintains its hold on the top spot (and the emnity of Iran) as it collects $10.2 million at the start of its second weekend....

Premonition, Sandra Bullock's new film, takes second spot with a $6,315,000 first-day opening.

And Gabor's Bridge to Terabithia collects $1.5 million as it slides to sixth position and a $71,290,000 total.

Update: 300 drops 56% but still hangs onto #1, garnering $31,185,000 for a $127,473,000 total in its second weekend.

The critically lambasted Wild Hogs cops $18,825,000 and crosses the $100 million marker.

Premonition ends up in third (but takes the second best per-screen average) for an $18 million opening weekend. Using Dr. Koch's box office calculator (patent pending), expect a $55-70 million gross from this mid-budger ($20 million) Bullock vehicle.

Bridge to Terabithia (#6) closes in on a $75 million gorss as it dips a mere 24.2% (the shallowest slide) in its latest frame. All power to Gabor!

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Another example of why unions are obsolete?

Here's an interesting article from the San Francisco Bay Guardian about the Orphanage, a San Francisco visual effects house. In a nutshell, because they're located in space rented from the federal government at the Presidio, and because the Presidio is federal property, then state and local labor law apparently don't apply. Which means the minimum wage there is $5.15, and 20-hour shifts can be demanded at will . . .

Here's a key quote:

At one point, Seeley charges, he was asked to work a 20-hour shift — and return to work two and a half hours later. When he didn't come in, he was fired. Seeley sued, and the case was eventually settled. But along the way, the lawyers for the Orphanage raised a startling argument: since the Presidio is a federal enclave, they said, California labor law, which restricts the length of shifts, doesn't apply.

When I was doing my medical internship at the Wadsworth VA Hospital in Los Angeles, there were drug dealers who made sure to only operate on the VA grounds. That seemed odd to me, until someone explained that by doing so they were completely safe from arrest and prosecution from city and state law enforcement. It seemed the feds weren't exactly worried about drug dealers on federal property, and these dealers operated in plain sight.

Apparently, the same logic applies here. Federal labor law is meager compared to California state labor law, so why not rent space from the feds, and get an extra bonus at the expense of employees?

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Weekend Animation Links

The usual end-of-week roundup of animation stories is again upon us. News you might not use but get here anyway...

DreamWorks fired off a press release about its upcoming 3-D projects, and various publications ran with it:

DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. intends to produce all of its films in stereoscopic 3-D technology starting with MONSTERS VS. ALIENS (working title), which begins production this spring for release in the summer of 2009 in both flat and 3-D versions.

The news follows on the heels of the proposed digital 3-D rollout for exhibitors, which has become a catalyst for digital cinema, beginning with Disney's animated MEET THE ROBINSONS bowing March 30 on 600 3-D screens nationwide.

And our comedy friend Jim Carrey, who was originally cast in DreamWorks' Over the Hedge, will be making his animation debut with Hedge alumnus Steve Carell in Horton Hears a Who:

Several of today’s cutting-edge comedic stars and legendary comedy icon Carol Burnett are joining previously announced headliners Jim Carrey and Steve Carell in the voice cast of Dr. Seuss’ HORTON HEARS A WHO, the new CG animated feature from Twentieth Century Fox Animation.

In what promises to be the most renowned comedic cast ever assembled for an animated movie, Carol Burnett plays the always skeptical Kangaroo, who doesn’t believe Horton’s claims about life – indeed an entire community – existing on a speck of dust...

To be released on March 14, 2008, HORTON HEARS A WHO is from Twentieth Century Fox Animation’s Blue Sky Studios, whose recent Ice Age: The Meltdown grossed $650 million in worldwide theatrical box office. Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino will direct. The script adaptation is written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio. The executive producers are Audrey Geisel, Chris Wedge and Chris Meledandri, and the producer is Twentieth Century Fox Animation production executive Bob Gordon.

Fox, of course, has another animated feature slated for 2007: a wide-screen epic about a family of yellow people.

So, where are ambitious young animators going to get training these days? Utah...

DreamWorks Animation SKG called Brigham Young University student Emron Grover on Wednesday morning to set up an interview for one of its three coveted internships....

Grover couldn't take the call for the very reason DreamWorks and Pixar want to interview him — he was at the premiere screening of the short animation film "Las Pinatas," winner of another student Emmy for BYU's decorated animation program.

Each year, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences gives out three student Emmys — for first, second and third place — which means it has awarded 12 Emmys for computer-generated 3-D animation in the past four years.

BYU has won five of the 12.

One state down in Las Vegas, Nevada, ShoWest feted animation DreamWorks/PDI directors Raman Hui and Chris Miller:

Miller and Hui have been with the "Shrek" franchise since the series' first installment. They remember a time when Chris Farley was set to play the green ogre in a motion-capture version of the story.

But things have a way of changing on the Shrek pics.

"I would say we've probably made it 20 times. I don't think this is an exaggeration, just the amount of trial and error that went into it," says Miller, who worked as a story artist on "Shrek," then advanced to head of the story department on "Shrek 2."

Eustace Lycett, one of the parents of Disney's multi-plane camera and a forty-three year Disney veteran, had his 2006 death reported in last week's papers:

For much of his career at Disney, [Lycett] served as director of special visual effects, and created f/x for Disney pics including "Song of the South," "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "The Shaggy Dog," "The Absent-Minded Professor," "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," "Swiss Family Robinson," "The Love Bug" and "The Black Hole." He received four Oscar nominations. He also worked on attractions for Disneyland such as "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln," "Rocket to the Moon" and the Circle-Vision 360 theater.

Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt put together (for the third time!) an eclectic group of global 'toon shorts for your movie-going pleasure:

For their third compilation of short animated films, Mike Judge (“Beavis and Butt-head”) and Don Hertzfeldt have assembled visually stunning material from the United States and Europe.

The 12 entries in “The Animation Show” (opening today) are not all equal in quality, but they all provide a highly entertaining look at what’s happening outside the studios of Pixar and Nickelodeon....

Addendum: Uh oh. Everybody's favorite cleaning lady is suing a bumptious, animated Dad:

US cartoon show Family Guy is being sued by actress Carol Burnett. The 1960s and 1970s US television show host, famous for her own brand of satire and fun-poking, is seeking $2 million (£1.03 million) for copyright infringement on one of her best-known characters. Charwoman, a cleaner in the original Carol Burnett Show, was briefly shown as a maid in a porn shop on a Family Guy episode broadcast last April.

Have a fantabulous weekend. And don't get tied up in expensive litigation.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

The Week of 401(k)

"Gonna be huge" (we're not talking about Homer's brain)


A lot of studio visits this week, most of them with me in a room doing 401(k) enrollment meetings where I drone on about the joys of tax-deferred retirement accounts: "The value of bonds goes up when interest rates go down...There are two basic types of stock-picking, value investing and growth investing..." blah de blah blah.

Today was Film Roman/Starz Media, where the television season for "The Simpsons" proceeds in fits and starts as teevee takes a back seat to "Simpsons, the Feature," Staffers working on the smaller screen version keep getting yanked away to pinch hit on the feature. (And next week, the still-in-work theatrical version is screened again for crew.)

A veteran Simpsonite told me he saw the last screening and thought it was damn good: "The animation is at a high level and it's got a lot of good gags. Cartoon gags. It feels like a real animated feature, and it spoofs itself a lot. The writers have really worked on it."

He echoes what many others who've seen the flick have said to me. "Fine flick." An artist who's worked on the big screen version for months reported that fine-tuning and revisions go on -- along with lots of overtime for crew.

On a related note, the last couple of weeks, I've had members of the press (who are calling about other things) mention that they're hearing loud and positive buzz about "The Simpsons" theatrical adventure. "Gonna be huge," seems to be the refrain.

And the voice cast, I'm told, is already signed to a sequel.

Fox is covering all its bases.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

2007 Wage Survey! -- Part I

A dozen years ago, a background artist at Warner Bros. Feature Animation (which is, sadly, no longer extant) made the suggestion: "Hey, wouldn't it be a good idea if the Animation Guild did a questionnaire to members about, like, what they make?"

My first thought was: "Why the hell didn't I think of that?" My first verbal response was: "Yeah! Great idea!"

From then until now, we have sent out questionnaires to the membership about what kind of money everyone is making. This year, we got a return of 29.6% (742 surveys came back out of 2,508 sent.) Last year, the return rate was 33.5%.

In the next couple of weeks, we'll publish and post a more detailed breakdown of wages in all surveyed job classifications. For now, here's a truncated preview.

We show the minimum, median average and maximum survey response for each category. The 2006 and 2007 medians are compared.

All the wage numbers are based on a forty-hour week, which is a very important distinction in comparing apples to oranges wage-wise. If you're getting $2,200 per week for a fifty-hour-per-week guarantee, for example, you're actually being paid the equivalent of $1,600 per week on a forty-hour-per-week guarantee.

Story Artists (2007 response: 28%; 2006 response: 35%)
    • Story supervisors
  • minimum: $2,100.00 median: $2,910.44 maximum: $4,700.00 2006 median: $2,705.45 difference: +$204.99
    • Story development
    minimum: $1,700.00 median: $2,100.00 maximum: $2,500.00 2006 median: $2,099.38 difference: none
    • Feature story artists
    minimum: $1,446.55 median: $2,020.00 maximum: $4,700.00 2006 median: $1,825.00 difference: +$195.00
    • Production board (TV)
    minimum: $1,163.64 median: $1,900.00 maximum: $3,000.00 2006 median: $1,425.00 difference: +$475.00
    • Storyboard revisionists
    minimum: $1,000.00 median: $1,500.00 maximum: $2,254.55 2006 median: $1,825.00 difference: -$325.00
    Animation/Modelling (2007 response: 29%; 2006 response: 29%)
    • Supervising animators
    minimum: $1,500.00 median: $3,122.50 maximum: $5,000.00 2006 median: $3,025.00 difference: +$97.50
    • 3D animators
    minimum: $1,040.00 median: $1,672.73 maximum: $3,454.55 2006 median: $1,809.09 difference: -$136.36
    • 3D modellers
    minimum: $1,000.00 median: $1,976.00 maximum: $2,600.00 2006 median: $1,950.00 difference: +$26.00
    • 2D animators
    minimum: $1,200.00 median: $1,530.00 maximum: $6,200.00 2006 median: $1,425.00 difference: +$105.00
    • Animatics
    minimum: $1,047.20 median: $1,356.00 maximum: $1,500.00 2006 median: $1,475.00 difference: -$119.00
    • Flash processors
    minimum: $1,047.20 median: $1,219.00 maximum: $1,500.00 2006 median: $1,134.09 difference: +$84.91
    Technical directors (2007 response: 22%; 2006 response: 25%)
    • Generalists
    minimum: $1,046.56 median: $2,000.00 maximum: $4,400.00 2006 median: $1,924.50 difference: +$75.50
    • Lighters
    minimum: $951.60 median: $1,666.44 maximum: $3,100.00 2006 median: $1,600.00 difference: +$66.44
    • Look development
    minimum: $1,207.95 median: $2,368.84 maximum: $3,000.00 2006 median: $2,450.00 difference: -$81.16
    • Surfacers
    minimum: $1,454.55 median: $1,563.64 maximum: $2,254.55 2006 median: $1,492.37 difference: +$71.27
    • Texture painters
    minimum: $1,100.00 median: $2,093.50 maximum: $3,900.00 2006 median: $1,854.55 difference: +$238.95
    • Assistant/Apprentice TDs
    minimum: $1,236.36 median: $1,367.00 maximum: $1,400.00 2006 median: $1,228.98 difference: +$138.02
    • 3D compositors
    minimum: $1,527.27 median: $2,060.00 maximum: $2,700.00 2006 median: $2,000.00 difference: +$60.00
    • 2D compositors
    minimum: $1,400.00 median: $1,900.00 maximum: $2,500.00 2006 median: $1,726.37 difference: +$173.63

    For earlier surveys and CBA minimums, go here.

    The issue of uncompensated overtime reared it unlovely head in some of the returned survey forms. To quote from one t.v. production employee's form:

    "...The storyboard artist is paid on a 40-hour work week with no overtime, but it is nearly impossible to complete this job in a 40 hour work week (more like 50-=60 hour weeks.)"

    This has been an issue at studios for television shows as long as I've worked here. Tight schedules, more and more drawing to serve the demands of animatics (those are computerized/digitized story reels, in case you're wondering), in general a steadily rising bar without equally elevated salaries.

    The reality of unpaid o.t. varies from show to show, but it's a continuing issue across the industry. The problem, now as ever, is that few want to complain or file grievances for fear of not getting re-upped for the following season.

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    Wednesday, March 14, 2007

    Al Dempster Interviewed -- Part IV

    And finally, the last segment of Christopher Finch's interview with Disney artist Al Dempster, discussing the now half-forgotten art of painting backgrounds with actual paint. (Find the first three parts here, here and here)...

    CF: Some of the backgrounds I saw down in the Morgue were done in what appeared to be tempera.

    AD: Yes.

    CF: Was that used much?

    AD: Tempera was used occasionally for short subjects. Years ago, we painted with transparent watercolor. Pinocchio was done with transparent watercolor. Just layer after layer after layer. And one of the artists, Art Riley, didn't like to work with it, so he decided to add a little bit of white to his transparent paint which gave it some body. He achieved some very interesting things with this method. About that time the Paint Lab ground some good poster color for our use.

    CF: Why is it necessary to make all the colors here? Is it unavailable commercially?

    AD: I think it's cheaper. I wonder if it is cheaper though, because actually, I don't think there is a better color made than that. [Referring to the designers color.] This is loaded with beautiful rich stuff. You take a green and you squirt some of it out and you take the richest green we have, and it looks chalky by comparison. That's why I have two different kinds here.

    Frequently I have to resort to the designer colors if I want something rich and dark. If I want to change the tonality of something, and I want a transparent rich color, and get a beautiful tint that's bright and not white, then I’ll use the Liquitex [Acrilic] because it's an extremely brilliant, bright, clear color. You can put on just a small amount and still retain what you have. It is invaluable in warming or cooling an area without destroying the relationship of values. It's like holding a colored gelatin in front of the painting.

    CF: What kind of surface do you work on?

    AD: It's a very fine illustration board. And before it's shot, it's peeled off the board backing. The layouts are Xeroxed on the illustration board and also on the CL.

    It is usual procedure before starting a painting to wet the illustration board on both sides. This removes most oil (from fingerprints) and allows the board to dry flat without a buckling. This wetting and consequent wetting many times before a background is complete causes the board to shrink.

    As I had said, the illustration and a celluloïd (or CL) each are printed with a duplicate of the cleanup layout drawing. Because of this shrinking of the board the duplicate images would not register in some cases, and we had a problem until we called for pre-shrunk illustration board before the image was printed on it.

    CF: Is there any Multiplane work on Robin Hood?

    AD: Yes, they have to use the Multiplane camera to shoot these ten-field scenes. Outside of that, there's no Multiplane as such in the picture. The last time we used it was in Jungle Book and that was on some of the scenes in the forest. At the beginning and the end.

    CF: When you were using the Multiplane more, was the background artist responsible for every level apart from the animation?

    AD: I should say so. I had to start out this way: from a reduced drawing of all the levels involved in the scene I would make a sketch to determine how the assembled scene should look. When that looked possible, I would then proceed to first paint a large background then continue painting the level next to the background, then the next one away from the background and finally in this case [Al shows a Jungle Book background], these foreground trees were painted on the top or closest level. When the entire sandwich appeared, it would work. We would set up all the elements under the Multiplane camera, light each level, and from that dry run I would make whatever adjustments for color and value that were necessary.

    CF: What are the levels painted on?

    AD: They're painted on glass. In some cases they're painted on celluloïd then mounted on glass, but this is not very good because you can't put a platen down on that celluloïd when it's on glass to keep it flat. They're mostly always painted on glass. When there is animation it is usually on the bottom level on the background, then there is a platen which will hold it down.

    CF: What kind of medium do you use to work on glass?

    AD: We used to use oil, but now we find that we can prepare a surface that's going to be painted with black liquitex and then on top of that we can draw what is supposed to go on that and we can paint in either Shiva color, which is a casein color or we can use an acrylic. We can also use some of these, our regular colors, adding an acrylic medium if we want.

    CF: Do you have any problem matching colors?

    AD: On Multiplane we rarely have animation that will be a direct part of the material that you're painting in the background. Because it's very difficult to get animation on the level that the Multiplane painting will be on, because the animation has to be held down with the platen. That's why they try to put held areas that will go into animation later in the scene on the background level under the platen. Then in that case, if it's going to be part of the animation, like if a wall breaks down or something, that will always have to be on the part that would have a platen to hold things down, or else the cels would wrinkle and show up as highlights dancing accross the scene involved.

    In Pooh, all those page turns were done on ten-field cels. This is difficult, because you know when you squash down two or three levels of cels, even though there is a great deal of pressure to the square inch, the darned things can get a little bubble of air and that shows up on the screen.

    But I started out saying we paint the level with black liquitex or black acrylic on the glass, and the reason for that is each level is separately lit. Now when you get a glare from the light below a level, bouncing up, if it's a light value underneath upper level, it will reflect back in to the level down below. So they paint it black, then on top of the black, we paint the scene. It has to be painted black on the back so it isn't reflected on the level below. Many things that we found out were by trial and error.

    CF: But there's no reason to use the Multiplane anymore? Is it a question of economy?

    AD: Sometimes when there's a special need… I’m not saying that we won't use any for this picture, but I don't see any need yet. They used to go in for production shots, like in Pinocchio, where right out of the star comes the blue fairy down over the town. That took a long time to be painted. I remember Dick Anthony, who was one of the background men here: great guy. He did a great job making this scene.

    We've had a lot of good painters. When I said the layout men did the drawing in full value, that didn't mean that all background people were neophytes. Because there were several who were darned good painters, or they never would have been able to do such fine work. But Dick Anthony painted this and he worked on it I guess maybe two months off and on. Painted it in oil. And some of the down shots, some of the street scenes took a long time to do.

    That was probably the movie that used the most Multiplane. Now, there's less done with production things like that and less need for it, I suppose. There's more characterization, I think, in the last few pictures. Woolie likes to spend his time on the characters and the story part, rather than on the setting. He likes to get the setting over with, so he can get down to the business.

    CF: How many regular 6 ½ field backgrounds are there in a feature?

    AD: There are a little more than 900. Between 900 and a thousand.

    CF: How long does each one take you to do?

    AD: It varies considerably.

    CF: Obviously, with the subject matter.

    AD: You might go through and paint a dozen backgrounds and have them done in a week, or a week and a half or two weeks. And they look great, but then that's not quite what the director wanted. So we will make the necessary changes 'til he is satisfied. They are usually minor alterations.

    CF: Do you often have to return to backgrounds that have already been done?

    AD: Occasionally.

    CF: Do you work strictly sequence by sequence?

    AD: No. I jump all around. But I try to have a helper work in one area on a sequence whenever possible. Then it has a consistency within that area. And if there is a difference between that area and another one, we try to get a subtle transition between one set of backgrounds and another so you're not aware of any change. Even though everybody here who's painting for us is good, it's still not easy to get the darn things consistent in color and value because the semantics of painting is not always the same. No one sees things exactly as another person might.

    CF: So how far are you into Robin Hood now?

    AD: I don't know exactly how far. I had a list of how many backgrounds have been done: 400 or so.

    CF: So about half way.

    AD: Yes, maybe even a little bit more. But, as I say, we have only another year to go. Only!

    CF: This is now very different from the old days where you… I mean the length of time you have and the number of people.

    AD: True. We have a little longer now than normal because there are less people working on it. We have a smaller crew. It used to be that the features had as many as three directors on them. Like Gerry Geronimi and Ham Luske and Woolie: they were all on Sleeping Beauty. They each had three or four sequences. They would work more or less independently but check occasionally. When the sequences neared completion they would work out the tie-in of each sequence. Of course, they'd go back and forth and look at what each other was doing, to make sure there was a flow.

    CF: And then you still had Walt as Director-in-Chief.

    AD: Yes, and he knew what was going on. He did a lot of walking around at night. He had his finger in the pie. He was a smart old boy. A fantastic memory. Unbelievable. I was always flattered if he remembered my name, I really was. He had so many things on his mind and though I’d been here for quite a long time, not as long as many of us. I came here in 1939. Outside of the five years I had gone away…

    I was working with books for the Studio and while I was gone, I’d have to come back occasionally to pick up work. I would be coming up the stairway and Walt and I would meet unexpectedly in the hallway, and of course I knew who he was, I didn't have any problem. But he didn't either. He called me by name and I darned near dropped over. How quickly the man could remember a name! I hadn't seen him for six months or a year, just enough to say hello, and he'd ask me how the apples were or something.

    I had an apple and berry ranch up in Santa Cruz county. When I told him I wanted to get out of my contract and take my family on this ranch we had bought, he said, “I wish I could join you.” He talked about his days on his father's farm and how he used to ride the apple cart. He was a very human character. Real good guy. Real good guy. Too bad everybody has to go. But he made his mark, he really did.

    CF: Were you ever involved in the story conferences on the early features?

    AD: Rarely, once in a while. Not very often. Background work has always been considered as background work. I’ve always felt that backgrounding has not been given enough credit for its contribution to a picture. But if it weren’t for background painters, I mean good ones, there would not be good-looking pictures. Because we’re the ones that dish it all up for the camera.

    It is not too difficult to talk a good background, but when you come down to it, it has to be painted. And if you know what the art schools are putting out today, you know how limited the approach would be. Extremely limited to mostly design and abstraction. They don't even teach life drawing or still life drawing or the basics. They don't teach the scales, as it were. All the kids entering art school want to become prima donnas, be Picasso right off the bat. They forget that he drew realistically and painted realistically before he does the stuff that he does, which I'd just as soon he’d forget. But he’s got a great promoter, I guess.

    CF: Do you have young background artists?

    AD: We’re scraping around, trying to find some young people. We’ve got a fairly young girl in there. We’ll have one starting in tomorrow. Very talented girls. Because we’re not going to be here forever. I’m not going to be. Unlike other places, we try to tell people everything we know, so we can help people fill our shoes.

    We like to feel that we can get out of here and leave some of what we have found out behind us. You know, we don't have so many weekends left, and boy, there’s a lot of golf to play and a lot of paintings to paint. I do my own paintings, you know, which are not at all like this.

    But we find art schools do not prepare students that we can use. We went to CalArts, we went to Art Center … I was amazed. I was an Art Center student from way back and they just don't have the type of qualifications necessary now. They're more for design, which is fine; there's a great need for it. But they're more for a commercial thing. For our specialized field, so few people have been taught the academic disciplines. It's the same way in animation. It's frantic time. I’ve been screaming for them to get people with talent to bring their samples in for ten years. I said you're not very far-sighted: we're not going to be here forever

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    Tuesday, March 13, 2007

    MGM Artwork From ASIFA

    Allow us to pivot away from the type-centric posts we've been doing here and link to ASIFA's MGM artwork, a chunk of which is seen on the right -- click on the Tom and Jerry drawing for a larger (and cleaner) picture.

    It's always good to remember that before Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera got into television animation in a big way, they were copping beaucoup Oscars for the shorts they turned out at the "Tiffany of Studios" (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

    And I'll echo what ASIFA says on its blog: "If you know from which shorts these drawings spring, sing out."

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    Monday, March 12, 2007

    Al Dempster Interviewed - Part III

    (To the left, one of the Disney Golden Books that Al Dempster painted during his idyllic years owning and operating an apple farm in northern California.)

    A new week, and time for more words of wisdom from master background artist Albert Dempster, in Part III of Christopher Finch's interview...

    CF: Have working methods changed a great deal since you started out at the Studio? You were saying that at one time there was a definite art director...

    AD: It's still not any different. I don't think it's any different at all, because I feel that though there was an art director, there was always a director and the director was the one that had the last word. It's the same situation, only one less person with a title. That's what it amounts to. Actually, in a way, it depends upon the director. Like Woolie has very definite ideas, and he is the director of cartoon features now and that's all we're doing. In the past, there was Ham Luske and Gerry Geronimi and Wilfred Jackson years ago and a lot of the old timers and Ward Kimball, of course. Ward has very definite ideas too. He's very easy to work with, though.

    He likes innovative things, which is good, and he encourages the painter to look for something new.

    It's not quite that way for the features. They have to be almost straight because these pictures can't be dated. When they're re-released every six, seven years they should retain their appeal and [not] be of a passing faddish style.

    CF: That brings up another point I wanted to ask you about: have there really been any stylistic changes?

    AD: There have been. For shorts we used to do it quite often and they were stimulating and fun. They were short pictures and because they were of 6 to 20 minute duration people enjoyed the variety of presentation. But an hour and fifteen minutes would be a bore if it was something you didn't get with. The first big feature where we had real stylization was Sleeping Beauty.

    It was a beautiful picture. Eyvind Earle was a very fine designer, and he did his own kind of thing. He did the styling of the backgrounds and he was the head background man on the picture and he was also influential in the character design because the characters had to be fitted into this type of stylization.

    CF: Pre-Raphaelite.

    AD: Yes, almost tapestry-like. And Tom Oreb, who was a character designer here at the time, and a very fine one too, designed the characters.

    As I recall, he did most of them principally from Bill Peet's drawings. Bill draws beautiful straight things and Tom Oreb redesigned them to fit in with the stylization of the background. Now the whole picture turned out beautiful, but it lacked a really terribly interesting story. It's one example of when you have something that's very beautiful, lacking in story or something that's even bothersome to the story. Where it becomes so pretty, so beautiful you are more aware of the art form than what's going on. The story is the thing, it really is. That is why we do it straight.

    Now there was another example: 101 Dalmatians. There was another young fellow [Walt Peregoy] that did a very good job of designing backgrounds. This is the first time we used Xerox lines on the backgrounds in the cel and he had studied with a contemporary in France and he liked to work with arbitrary shapes. He did a very beautiful job… good color.

    Ken [ Anderson ] was the art director on that and I thought it was a very interesting picture. I helped out a little on it. I had been working on another project but when I was through I helped paint in the picture. I thought Walt Peregoy had done a very good job on it with the arbitrary shapes held together by the black Xerox lines of the C. L. that overlay the painted background. Walt Disney did not like the handling of the backgrounds, like the pattern of colors under the Xerox line drawing. He liked to see things solid and something you could believe, not something that could disturb realism. Did you see the picture?


    AD: It's a very good picture, a very handsome picture. But if you look at it from the average person's viewpoint, it would be a little bothersome at times, because of the arbitrary shapes in the backgrounds.

    It seems to me that now, with Xerox in pictures like Robin Hood and Jungle Book, particularly those two, that the backgrounds are somewhat looser than in the earlier movies.

    CF: Maybe it's simply that the edges are less defined, perhaps.

    AD: Actually, we try to paint them, let's put it that way. There were few lines used on those backgrounds. If we had used a Xerox line on a CL on them, it would have been too hard a treatment for foliage. Because it would have everything confined with a wire. The architectural things, fine, and say in the case of tree trunks, you can use it all right some of the time. But when it comes to foliage, there's nothing more hard-boiled than leaves with lines around them.

    CF: Bambi already got away from that.

    AD: Oh yes, definitely. That was extremely loose, and it was not really literal. In Jungle Book, we tried to be literal up to the point of not being too foreign to the flat character, which had a Xerox line around it. And this was not easy either.

    But we made the character work on the softer background without the Xerox line, by using accented lines where needed. We drew them in where we felt that they would be needed to hold the character down. And the rest of the background fell away as the background into the distance, away from the character. So it gave it a little more depth.

    CF: Doesn't the softer focus give you in fact less depth?

    AD: Not necessarily. If you have contrast, you don't loose depth. You can use color perspective and linear perspective and value perspective and when you have an object or character that is sharp and in focus against something that's out of focus, the character or sharp focus object is much more apparent.

    Like, when I look at you, you're rather sharp, but what's behind you is fuzzy. What's behind you is sharp if I look at it and it then becomes sharp. But that's not what you're supposed to do. When you have an overwhelming bunch of material behind the character, if it is there and too noticeable, it can flatten a scene as the character and background appeared on a two dimensional surface. This is where Sleeping Beauty was at fault.

    CF: Right, because everything was in focus.

    AD: Too sharp. Though there were some beautiful things in it, everything was too sharp.

    This scene in Robin Hood, we have Robin Hood in a tree. Now he's necessarily wearing a green outfit because this is what he wore, to blend in with the foliage. Can you imagine how the animator and the whole Studio would flip if we filled it full of green leaves and expected the green of Robin Hood to read? My gosh, millions of dollars to animate the thing and you're going to foul it up with a busy green background! We use these characters, both Little John and Robin Hood, with the green costumes against green foliage, but we have to juggle the values and hues.

    CF: You put a lot of white in the background?

    AD: No, but we must use the right kind of green, the right kind of value and the right kind of intensity and whether it’s cool or warm, a different green than his costume but something that will still work with it. It hasn’t been easy, but where we have to use foliage, we have to make it work with proper color and value. This is the problem with backgrounds. And it’s been a special one for Robin Hood.

    Then too, sometimes we have differences of opinion (put it that way) on whether or not we can change a character now and then in value for a specific reason. We’re still with it, we know it’s the same character, but he’s in a different kind of light. And we try to sell the director on a little different kind of value set-up. He doesn't want to change anything, says it costs more to paint it different colors. Actually, it doesn’t. Only the amount of time it takes to make another color model and look at it.

    Now he's afraid that people will lose the trend if the character isn’t always constantly the same, but I don’t think that’s so. Because good Lord, nobody’s ever in the same kind of light. Everybody's always recognizable, whether they’re against a window or in the light. But occasionally, we sell a director on the idea of making a little change of pace and it looks good.

    CF: Do you always work in gouache?

    AD: No, we work with acrylics too. Only gouaches are much easier colors to work with. We can use them as transparent color or opaque. I did not particularly like these colors when I first used them. I had been away for five years on a ranch doing children’s book illustrations and I was used to the designer colors: they're so much richer. They dry very much the same as they are when wet. These colors dry cool and light, and they are made here. They're fine colors. You can use them as transparent or opaque, but because they dry cool and light, it takes a little time getting used to them. They were very milky for a while.

    CF: That's why I was wondering whether you used white in the foliage, with green in the background.

    AD: It is the overall tonality of the thing, and actually, that won’t come out that way on the screen. It loses a lot of that milkiness. What it does: it creates a kind of film of atmosphere, it tends to pull distant things together. As I say, we can't paint paintings. We try to make an overall picture that will enhance the character. Because if you make a painting complete, it would quite often overpower the character.

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