Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Last Hurrah of "The Simpsons Movie" Crew

Ran around to Starz Media and Rough Draft Feature Animation this a.m and p.m. At Starz Media, there is maybe a week or eight days left on the feature. (People I've seen on the feature the last nine months keep filtering back to "The Simpsons" television version.)

Work also continues on Slacker Cats, a series Starz Media is doing for the Disney Family Channel. An eleven-episode order is wrapping up, and there are rumors of more down the road, but thus far only rumors.

Over at Rough Draft Feature Animation (a cousin of Rough Draft Animation Glendale, which in turn is a cousin of Rough Draft Animation, Korea), The Simpsons Movie staffers are pretty much in their final days on the Yellow Family picture. I got lots of questions from artists about other work around town ("When is 'Princess and the Frog' going to start hiring? Anymore hand-drawn projects out there?")

I was delighted to answer promptly. I told them I didn't know...but I thought the end of '07 or the start of '08 was a good guess, and that I didn't know how much of The Princess and the Frog would be done in-house and how much someplace else (70%? 90%? Who knows?).

But as The Simpsons Movie wends its way to a conclusion, most of the staff's happy to have worked on it, confident of its success, and pleased that the writers over at the Fox lot on Pico kept rewriting, as it created more well-paid work. And well-paid work -- in these uncertain times -- is a good thing.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Winnie the Pooh" -- Soviet Style

From time to time TAG gets accused of being communist (my participation in the Great Patriotic War to Save Vietnam from the Reds to the contrary.) So we present... the Soviet animation industry's answer to Disney's "Winnie the Pooh."

In case you're wondering, Milt Kahl didn't animate on this version of the Milne tales. In fact, it's doubtful that Ivan Kahl worked on it.

The moral of this little fable: Don't overstay your welcome. A lesson the Soviets failed to learn in Afghanistan, and we failed to learn ... elsewhere.

We can only hope that Disney and the Milne family got their cut of the profits from the Workers' Paradise ...back when it was the Workers' Paradise.

1993 Peg-Board logo, by Tom Sito
The 1993 Peg-Board logo, by Tom Sito. © by the Animation Guild. Click on the thumbnail for a full image.
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A Few Words About Josh Meador

Josh Meador, born and bred in Louisiana, was an oil painter extraordinaire, and one of the giants of the Disney animation staff...

Josh lived in La Crescenta, California for decades (just a few blocks from our house.) He and my father were close chums for years, going on numerous painting trips the width and length of California.

Josh had a passion for "The Valley of Fire" in Nevada. And not just for its beauty. For years he searched for a treasure of gold he believed was hidden in the Valley. He never found it, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

Josh joined the Disney staff in the 1930s, and was soon promoted over more senior animators by Mr. Disney, who recognized a tyro effects animator when he saw one. As animator Eric Larson noted:

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

Meador was in charge of effects on Pinocchio, Fantasia and most of the Disney features that followed. And he did effects for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Forbidden Planet for which MGM sub-contracted the Disney effects department. He also did his share of television. That flashing "Z" that Guy Williams carved into various jackets and uniforms as Zorro? Josh Meador animated a lot of them in stop motion.

Josh died in 1965, the victim of a congenital heart defect. His wife Libby told my father that she found him sitting on a step at their house in northern California, looking out at the Pacific. He just sat down and died, a cigarette smoldering in his hand. There are worse ways to go.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

El General Membership Meeting

A larger than usual turnout at tonight's membership meeting, and lots of animated discussion on written outlines disguised as premises, too-long storyboard tests, and the amazing shrinking storyboard (aka "production board") schedules...

For some reason, people seem exercised about working sixty hours and getting paid for forty while staying on deadline with storyboard schedules that get shorter and shorter.

"The usual rotation used to be six, even seven weeks for a half-hour production board. Now studios expect it in five weeks..."

"The producers don't like the shorter time lines, because boards are just adequate, everyone is straining just to get them done. But upper management insists..."

"Every studio wants more drawings for the animatic to look good. But there's less time to get them done..."

Consensus seems to be that schedules need to reflect how long it actually takes to do a half-hour television board, that some studios want five pages for a premise while at other studios the premise lengths are okay. (But three or five or ten page "premises" are actually outlines, and should be paid as outlines).

Everybody had to exit the building at eight o'clock. Discussion continued for another hour in the parking lot.

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Asian Goldleaf

Ralph Hulett goldleaf painting
© by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

Since today I've been running from one studio to another, posting has been like, minimal. But the above specimen is an R. Hulett painting on gold leaf in the Chinese style...

It's a long way from his usual kind of artwork, but I post it because a) the painting came back into my possession over the weekend, and b) it's shiny, and c) I'm cramped for time.

The painting -- thirty-seven years old -- was a gift from my dad to my grandfather, who owned it for decades. It's somewhat the worse for wear, but you can squint at it anyway...

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Monday, May 28, 2007

The "Go To" VFX House

Back when Disney was working on Dinosaur at Disney Feature Animation North (next to the Burbank Airport), a Wise Old Computer Supervisor said to me:

"There's just no profit margin for effects studios who specialize in just digital visual effects. The studios ask for bids from all the different houses, and they all cut each others' throats under-bidding each other..."

All except for one. Which Daily Variety profiles here:

ILM is lead shop or a major contributor to four of the summer's biggest tentpoles, all opening between Memorial Day and late July: Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," Universal's "Evan Almighty," DreamWorks' "Transformers" and Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." The effort has to be one of the most prodigious technical accomplishments in the history of the biz...

"We were booked to just over 100% of capacity," says ILM topper Chrissie England of the push to get the quartet of summer films done.

ILM had to turn down some "Pirates 3" shots, and warned all clients that the f/x house didn't have excess capacity for any large, late additions.

There are a myriad of effects shops that can execute big, complicated shots studded with collapsing bridges, or giant marauding robots, or waves of attacking fighter planes. But studios want a comfort level that they only get by going with a big-name supplier who they believe can guarantee results. (No hot-shot director wants his big, special effects-laden action sequence loused up by some no-name operation in the San Fernando Valley.)

Funny thing is, a year or two after my conversation with that Wise Old Supervisor, Disney (with much fanfare) put together its very own internal special effects house called The Secret Lab, designed to do Disney's live-action features and also bid for outside work.

But do you think that Disney used its sparkly new TSL effects division for the money shots in the Disney big-budget extravaganza Pearl Harbor? Noooo. That gig went to ILM.

I mean, there are effects houses. And then there are effects houses.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Roberta Greutert, RIP

Roberta Reutert, longtime ink-and-paint supe at Hanna Barbera, has passed away at the age of 93...

Born in Tennessee in 1914, she began her career in animation as a painter at MGM in 1938. While at MGM, she worked as a background artist in the CineScope Tom and Jerry shorts, TIMID TABBY (1957) and HAPPY GO DUCKY (1958).

In 1957, when the studio closed, she went to Hanna-Barbera, working as the ink-and-paint supervisor until she retired in the 1970s.

Another person who remembered animation's early days has departed, and one more doorway to our history is closed. And so it goes.

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"Complaints" Follow Up

A short while ago we posted "Complaints TAG Gets." We also sent out letters and printed an article in the newsletter.

And whattayaknow? E-mails flowed in confirming that yes, there are execs in 'toonland who insist on outlines (mislabeled "premises") that studios don't pay for. Who would have thought it?

I also got a phone call from the creator of a show asking: "What's TAG's position on two or three page "premises" that have guarantees of outlines and script (and accompanying fees) attached to them?"

The answer is, premises longer than a page which are part of an outline and script payment guarantee aren't the issue. It's long premises that end up orphans -- that is, without an outline, script or money trailing behind them -- that are the problem.

I keep wondering what studios think they're doing. Who the hell wants to waste long days of their lives working for free?

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Bounding Box Office

To nobody's surprise, Pirates of the Caribbean Number Three took the top spot with a box office total of $43 million on Friday. This is $5 million above Shrek the Third's Friday tally of a week ago...

Meanwhile, Shrek took the expected plunge to #2, taking in $14.4 million for its second Friday in the marketplace. It will be interesting to see its decline weekend to weekend (remember that last week to this week isn't exactly comparable, since this is a three-day holiday.)

Spider-Man 3 meanwhile, collected $3,850,000. Every other top-ten entry was a relative cipher. There's not a lot of breathable space in the marketplace when you have three studio "tent-poles" competing for box office doubloons. (Although Fox Searchlight's Waitress outgrossed Spidey on a per-theater basis...)

Sunday Update: Pirates raked in $112.5 million through Sunday ($126,547,000 total), the Green Ogre swept up $51 million (for a $201,380,000 cume) and Spidey 3 accumulated $13.7 million and a $303,342,000 domestic gross...

"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" will make off with only a portion of Hollywood's box office records.

The Walt Disney Co. film was projected to have grossed $126.5 million in the U.S. and Canada through today, box-office tracker Media by Numbers reported.

That puts the film well short of the domestic weekend record of $151 million set by "Spider-Man 3" earlier this month.

"Spider-Man's" totals also came over just three days. "Pirates" in the comparable period grossed $112.5 million but supplemented its total with $14 million in special Thursday night "preview screenings."

Nonetheless, "Pirates" is easily breaking the industry's holiday weekend box office record.

L.A. Times

Monday Update: Pirates of the Caribbean 3 ended up with $142,0555,000 four-day total (Thursday night screenings added a chunk more; total gross stands at $156,055,000.)

Shrek the Third collected $69,085,000 to run its gross to $219,424,000, dropping a respectable 43.2%. (Bonus checks for everybody!)

Spidey 3 collected 18,000,000 in its fourth week, and now has piled up $307,642,000. (It dropped 38% week-to-week).

This puts Johnny D. and his crew at the top of the Memorial Day box office heap.

"This is probably the most competitive Memorial weekend ever if not one of the most competitive weekends all time. It speaks volumes for how well we did," Chuck Viane, [Disney's head of distribution], said. "Obviously, we fell short of the three-day record of 'Spidey.' Everything's really obvious and really good."

Adding in $14 million (€10.41 million) from Thursday night previews before its official Friday release, "At World's End" had taken in $156.1 million (€116.03 million) domestically.

The movie also grossed $245 million (€182.12 million) internationally since Wednesday, putting its worldwide total at $401 million (€298.07 million) in a matter of days.

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Animation Links Extravaganza

And it's another links festival for another weekend...

The Hollywood Reporter observes that the Age of Monster Tentpole is upon us, and will be around for years to come:

Thomas Mallory's hoary observation about the "lusty month of May" also applies to the global boxoffice, with summer tentpoles now staking out their day-and-date claims to the month with unprecedented gusto.

Internationally, the May syndrome received a major lift early this month when Sony Pictures' "Spider-Man 3" set all-time international opening records of $176.6 million for a conventional weekend opening and $231 million for a six-day blast.

DreamWorks Animation/Paramount's animated sequel "Shrek the Third" got off the ground in four international markets this past weekend. Then, on Wednesday, Disney/BVI's third film in the "Pirates" franchise, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," lifts off in France and explodes around the globe by the end of next week.

There's a new French animated feature that sounds like a rib-tickler, growing up in "Mullah-ridden Iran":

"Persepolis" is an animated feature by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud based on Satrapi's graphic novel about her growing up in Mullah-ridden Iran during the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. The young woman, who now lives in Paris, paints a grim picture, one familiar to those of us in the West but one that many Iranians and Islamic fundamentalists will no doubt vehemently reject.

The drawings themselves are plain, generalized and almost entirely in black-and-white. Perhaps Satrapi and Paronnaud feared that if the animation were more vital and realistic, the film would become too cartoonish and vulgar. Perhaps they're right. But as animation, "Persepolis" is fairly uninteresting, its characters' facial features not conveying much individuality.

Satrapi's dramatic young life so far has been anything but uninteresting. The film should attract those interested in women's issues and politics in specialty venues. But Sony Pictures Classics will have to market hard to reach out to adult moviegoers beyond those categories in North America.

Disney top-kick Robert Iger was in Anaheim last Monday holding forth about the Disney Company and the movie biz:

On the future of the movie theater: "I got myself in the headlines a couple years ago by making comments about making DVDs available at the same time that movies were available in movie theaters. What I really meant was I thought that we had to listen to the consumer and make content available more aggressively, which meant that I thought at the time that the window, meaning the time that movies are in theaters, would probably collapse and should collapse.

"I actually believe that the movie-going experience, when you go into a theater with a number of other people and see it on a big screen, is a good experience and an important experience for the business, and I don't think that should go away. And I believe it actually should be protected in a few ways. One, we should all be working as an industry to make the product more compelling, which means everything from digital theaters, digital cinema to just a better movie-going experience.

My spies and stoolies informed me that Mr. Iger allowed as how "some personnel changes" might have triggered the decline of Disney animation in the late nineties. (You think?). Sadly, I can't find any reference to this in a published article...

Re that other big animation company: Ted Allrich at Seeking Alpha analyzes DreamWorks Animation's financials moving forward:

...Revenues are expected to be $705 million this year, up from $394.8 million last year. Most likely they'll drop next year to $650 million since Shrek 3 is such a runaway hit. Earnings this year are expected to be $1.85, up from 15 cents last year. Look for $1.55 next year.

Other numbers to consider: Current assets are almost 18 times current liabilities with more than $500 million in cash. Return on equity was 1.5% last year with forecasts for 15.5% this year and 11.5% next year. Debt is 15% of the capital structure. Officers and directors own 60% of the stock with institutions owning 30% of the Class A stock.

...This division, the Animation group [of DreamWorks], was spun off in 2004. Since the stock started trading in late 2004, it has gone mostly down, getting to a low of $20 a share last year. Now things are starting to turn for the better, revenues are way up and so are earnings. For the moment, anyway. And that's the caveat with this stock: things can look great for a current release but that's only good for the one movie. If the next movie is a flop, the stock is going to reflect it. That's why the new projects such as the Broadway musical and the television special are important: they give the company a more diversified revenue stream.

Then there is this speculative piece from the Hollywood Reporter about what films might turn out to be the summer's "sleeper hit." It includes an animated offering that's been overlooked in all the hoopla regarding Shrek and Ratatouille:

...what's left that could emerge as a sleeper hit? Well, looking over the rest of the pack there are at least 10 interesting possibilities -- based on release schedules now circulating, but subject to change -- that might be able to fill the bill...

...(2) Sony's computer animated family film "Surf's Up" (June 8) is a mockumentary about surfing having been invented by penguins. Directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, it's rated PG and features the voice talents of Shia La Beouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder and James Woods.

Lastly, Variety published a story about the increasing pressure on visual effects houses to do the work "better, faster, cheaper":

If the visual effects industry had its way, the Disney tentpole that sailed into theaters May 25 might have been named "Pirates of the Caribbean: At Wits' End."

Industrial Light & Magic topper Chrissie England, who's seen many blockbusters come through her shop, calls the editing/post-production race to the pic's delivery deadline "about the scariest thing I've ever seen." The film's vfx supervisor, John Knoll, calls it "a freakin' miracle" that the film was done on time.

"Pirates 3," warn England and Knoll, is just one tip of an iceberg that's sending a chill through the visual effects industry. Visual effects houses are worried about the increasing demand for more product, at higher quality, in less time. Some effects houses have been losing key workers, and a few are threatening to shutter, because of the shifting economics....

So nothing seems too different in animation/movie land, just the usual b.s. Have yourself a splendid Memorial Day weekend.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Thirty Years Ago Today...

At 11:45 on a sunny springtime morning in 1977, I was standing on the front steps of the Disney Animation building, dreaming my slacker dreams. A lot of animation artists were streaming past me, bee-lining to the parking lot. I came out of my trance long enough to ask one of them where everybody was going.

"There's a new movie opening over in Hollywood," the artist said. "And we're all going over to see it. Wanna come?"

Always eager to ditch a half-day of work, I said "Sure," and fell in step with the crowd...

A short while later, I found myself standing in the forecourt of Mann's (aka Grauman's) Chinese Theater. But I wasn't looking at the movie stars' hand and footprints. It was the pictures up in the theater's big display case that held my attention. There were color photos showing space ships. There were photos showing small creatures in monks' robes around a huge vehicle with treads. There were pictures of star fields.

"Ah," I thought. "This thing is some kind of, uhm, science fiction movie."

I got in the line that extended around the block. Twenty minutes later, I was inside the big theatre, watching two good-sized space ships flying through dark, star-flecked space.

"Neato," I murmured to myself.

And then a bigger space-ship, a MONSTER-SIZED ship, cruised into the frame, going on and on and on, bigger than thirty football fields. It was shooting colored rays at the smaller ships.

The sold-out audience began to rumble, and the rumble built to a roar. There was clapping, and yelling, and the stamping of feet.

The rest of the movie unspooled in wide-screen splendor, and the audience was with it through every frame. Cheering. Whistling. Bouncing up and down. I haven't attended many historic events in my life, but seeing Star Wars on the day it was released was one of them.

And the best part is, I get to rub that fact in the face of my sixteen-year-old whenever he puts one of his Star Wars movies in the drive of our dvd player.

For like thirty seconds, it makes the old man marginally cool.

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Farewell Sander

This has been echoing on the animation jungle telegraph for some time now. I heard whisperings about Sander S.'s departure from Warners like maybe a month and a half ago. Since we don't traffic in scurrilous rumor around here, I kept my yap shut...

Sander Schwartz is ankling his post as Warner Bros. Animation prexy after six years with the studio.

Schwartz will segue to a production pact with the studio. He'll focus on developing a range of animated projects for broadband and new-media outlets as part of the Warner Bros. TV Group's big push into original programming for the Net. Warners has yet to name a successor for Schwartz; a search is under way and is expected to take a few months.

Sander Schwartz came over to Warners from Sony Adelaide, replacing Jean McCurdy at a time when the studio was very quiet (as in "few people working there".) A year later, the place was jumping with activity.

I've no idea why Warners Animation has been so sleepy and relatively inactive the last fourteen months, but then I'm not let in on all the corporate hob-nobbing that leads to the sleepiness. I do know that not giving Warners Animation product a bigger berth on Cartoon Network seems short-sighted. But I'm only a union thug, so what do I know?

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Disney of 1983 - Part Deux

Click on the thumbnail for a larger image

To follow up on how things were in 1983: Here's Disney story artist Randy Cartwright being pulled around on animator Ollie Johnston's steam train by...Ollie Johnston.

In '83, Ollie had been retired from Disney for five years. He and Frank had written their classic The Illusion of Life and were now essentially high priests in the cathedral of animation, dispensing wisdom and benevolences...

Click on the thumbnail for a larger image

And here's John Musker behind his director's desk on the second floor of the Disney animation building. John was directing on Basil of Baker Street, and kept everything neat and orderly, as you can see.

(Disney feature directors' desks were something to behold. Not only were they BIG, but they were constructed with a multitude of drawers and shelves, which meant they had what seemed like an infinite amount of storage space. And there was almost enough room for a baby Fiat in the hollow center.)

(Photos -- once more -- courtesy of Randy Cartwright)

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Seeing Starz

I was up at the big yellow building by the Burbank Airport this a.m. There is still a sizable crew on The Simpsons Movie, but the good times are soon to end. David Silverman passes the word (per crew members I talked to) that mid-June is the end-of-project date, no ifs, ands, or maybes. If everybody goes much past then, Fox doesn't get the yellow people movie into neighborhood AMC by July 27th.

And if that were to happen, many corporate hearts would go flitter-flutter, I'm sure.

Meanwhile on the t.v. show side, show staffers continue to filter back from the feature. Today's questions: "What happens if the WGA goes on strike?" Does it hurt animation? Hurt us?"

I answered that a Writers Guild strike could impact 'toon production at Starz Media (The Simpsons, King of the Hill) and Fox Animation (Family Guy, American Dad) this Fall when the contract is up, since those four half-hours are written under a WGAw agreement. (Of course, I don't know if scripts are being stock-piled, or if the producers will record the voice actors ahead of a possible actors strike in mid 2008, or what the internal corporate dynamics are.)

But I allowed as how there's a bigger chance of a work slow-down or work stoppage if the WGAw and SAG go out on strike together in Spring 2008 when the Screen Actors Guild agreement ends. If that happens, and happens for a long span of time, then yeah. That could affect animation studios and artists big time.

I'm sure people felt way better after I got done explaining.

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The Persistence of That OTHER Big Animation Producer (not named Dreamworks, Disney or Pixar)

This item passed my Eagle Eye this morning:

CANNES, France, May 23 -- The Weinstein Company is pleased to announce that they have formed a strategic alliance with Exodus Film Group to jointly develop, produce and finance a multi-picture slate of CG-animated feature films, DVDs, and television series. TWC will distribute the titles worldwide.

TWC is handling worldwide distribution for Exodus' much-anticipated CG- animated film "Igor," which is set for a wide theatrical release on October 24, 2008.

Harvey Weinstein stated, "With our first collaboration 'Igor' looking so strong we thought the timing was right to further the relationship and to begin work on an 'Igor' sequel. John Eraklis and his team, led by Max Howard, have the unique ability to create dynamic animated entertainment that attracts kids, parents and everyone in between."

As we've noted before, the Weinstein brothers, late of Miramax, currently of the Weinstein Company, have big stakes in a wide array of animated product. And they keep pushing chips into the middle of the table.

The Weinsteins co-financed TMNT, which has collected $54 million domestically under a Warner Bros. release.

The Weinsteins had a mid-sized hit with Hoodwinked, and are now producing a sequel titled Hoodwinked 2: Hood vs. Evil, under the direction of animation veteran Mike Disa.

The Weinsteins are partnering on a cg feature titled Escape from Planet Earth.

The Weinsteins are partnered with the Henson Company in a trio of low-budget, CG animated fairy tales (the Shrek bandwagon is wide and deep) called "Unstable Fables." These are Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs and Tortoise and The Hare - all of which are being animated by Prana Studios in India. (Prana, by the by, is also animating the Disney direct-to-video feature Tinkerbell. It's a busy studio.)

To be sure, the Weinsteins have had their share of misses. Doogal and Arthur and the Invisibles were hardly box office smashes, but what gets our attention is that, despite the setbacks, the Weinsteins see animation as a profit center and keep right on trucking.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Disney Days of Yore (like 1983)

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Let us journey back (again) to Walt Disney Productions, before Eisner and Katzenberg grabbed the corporate reins from Ron Miller and turned it into the behemoth we all know and love today. Before it was high tech, high-powered, and thick with "production support" staff.

The shot above is Ron Clements, Peter Young and moi, working on Basil of Baker Street in early 1983, in the original Disney animation building in Burbank, CA. (I had hair then...)

Ron Clements had recently stopped animating and plunged into animation story work. (He and John Musker were still years away from teaming up on The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and all the rest.) Pete was a talented story artist on an upward trajectory. Two years after this picture, he pitched "Oliver Twist with dogs" to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who greenlit it. Oliver and Co. would become the first animated feature of the Eisner-Katzenberg era.

But Pete wouldn't live to see it released. He died in the Fall of 1985, at age 37.

Ron, of course, went onto fame and fortune. Me, I got into union repping in a big way.

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And these two fresh-faced tykes are Joe Ranft and Tim Burton. In '83 they were relative Disney new-comers, straight from Cal Arts. They're standing outside the old animation building.

Tim seems to have a bleeding problem with his mouth. Joe appears to be enjoying life (but he always did. He had a buoyant sense of humor and bright disposition, even as a newbie.)

Tim was toiling away in the animation department then, creating dark, eccentric characters that Disney management didn't know what to do with. He left a couple of years later after doing some live-action shorts. (Hope he's doing okay, wherever he is.)

Joe was edging into the story department. He went on to a long, rich animation career at Disney, then Pixar. Like Pete Young, he left the world way too early.

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And here's another shot of Pete and Ron, in Pete's office on the second floor of the old Disney animation building.

(Photos courtesy of Randy Cartwright)

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The Mid-Week Hulett: Nevada Goldmine Town

Nevada gold mine
© by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

Here's a 24 x 48 painting that was done the late sixties.

Mr. Hulett was moving in a kind of impressionistic direction, at this time. The oil and acrylic paintings were never created out in the field. He'd take lots of pictures with his 2 1/4" Rolleiflex, then project the resulting slides into a darkened closet off his studio, and wield the palette knife and brush to varying effect.

Addendum: Mrs. Hulett thinks the above could be a water-color. Since a lot of these paintings are from photographs, and my discernment is not..ahem... always spot on, she could be right.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

This Looks Like A Winner

Here's the Enchanted trailer (via www.slashfilm.com) that I just ran across.

The flick seems pretty amusing to me (and the animation looks good). But what do I know? I'm just a thuggish union rep.

Besides, doesn't Disney know that 2-D is dead? And there's an animation glut driving people away in droves?

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The Youngquist Send Off -- Part II

Disney artists at lunch, part 1
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From left to right: Dale Oliver, Dave Davidovich, Don Duckwall, Don Griffith, Bill Berg, Julius Svendsen, Eric Cleworth, Hal King, Ted Berman, John Lounsbery, and Ollie Johnston.

Still more photographs from the Youngquist bye-bye party.

Dale Oliver (with the mustache) was an assistant animator at Disney who ended his career as an animator on The Fox and the Hound. (Dale served as a glider pilot landing troops in Normandy on D-Day. The odds of glider pilots surviving at Normandy were minimal, and I once asked him: "What did you do after landing?" He replied: "Not too much, just kind of stood around until they shipped me back to England." Relaxed attitude, no? Probably helped during that June morning of 1944. Dale retired from Disney after a bad car accident)...

David Davidovich was a background and layout artist who started in the biz at Warners in the mid-1930s. Don Duckwall was a long-time production manager in the animation department, with just the right name to work at Disney's. Don Griffith was a veteran layout artist who worked at the studio through the '80s.

Bill Berg was a long-time Disney story artist (mainly on shorts) who was working for Les Clark at this time. (You click on Bill's link, you're going to think that Bill later became an assistant animator and character lead on Lion King and other epics. That's a different Bill Berg, IMDb to the contrary.) Julius Svendsen was a veteran Disney animator and story artist. Sven's career was cut short when he died in a boating accident.

Eric Cleworth was an animator and story artist in Woolie Reitherman's unit. Eric had been at the studio since '39; a few years after this photo was taken, he retired with his Disney stock options and had a long and comfortable retirement in Morro Bay. Hal King was a pillar of the Disney animation department, having been an animator and directing animator for decades. Ted Berman was a story artist who ended his career as a director on The Black Cauldron. John Lounsbery, one of the "nine old men," was at this time a directing animator. At the time of his death (six years after this picture), he was a director on The Rescuers. At the far right is Ollie Johnston, directing animator and the last survivor of the Walt-designated "Big Nine".

Disney artists at lunch
Click on the thumbnail for a full picture

From left to right: Phil Meador, Ruth Tompson, Jim Swain, Fred Hellmich, Dick Lucas, Chuck Williams, Pat Lestina, Sylvia Niday, Barbara Orum, Bud Hester.

Philip Meador, the son of Disney vet Josh Meador, worked in Disney special effects; Ruth Tompson was a scene-planner. Jim Swain began his Disney career as an inbetweener in 1952; after working as an assistant animator, he moved on to assistant director. Fred Hellmich was a longtime Disney animator, later to move on to Hanna-Barbera and other studios. Dick Lucas animated on Disney projects from shorts in the fifties to The Fox and the Hound in the eighties. Chuck Williams was an assistant animator who'd been at Disney's from the 'fifties (and not to be confused with the later Chuck Williams.) Sylvia Niday started at the Mouse House in 1939. An assistant animator, she was part of the Animation Guild's first executive board in 1952 and retired from the business in '72. She passed away two decades after her retirement.

Barbara Orum worked in blue sketch. She joined Disney in 1955, and was later a Xerox checker at Hanna-Barbera. She died in 1991. Harry "Bud" Hester (the man with the beard) came to Disney in the early fifties after combat service in Korea as a bomber pilot. Long active in the Animation Guild, he served as TAG president and business representative, retiring from the industry in 1989.

Photos courtesy Bob Foster.

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The Ever-Turning Wheel

Thirty-five and more years ago, fierce arguments broke out at Hanna-Barbera about American animation artists going overseas to train foreign artists and technicians. One of the main destinations at the time was Korea.

Over time, a bunch of jobs departed Los Angeles for countries along the Pacific rim. Over more time, jobs that had originally been sub-contracted from animation studios here to Japanese studios were getting sub-sub-contracted to companies in Korea.

And today there is this:

The Korea Animation Producers Association (KAPA) will help develop an applied graphic design training center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The Vietnam News Agency is reporting that an agreement was made by the city’s Information Technology Training Institute (ITTI) and KAPA on May 16.

The terms of the agreement are that ITTI will facilitate the training courses, while KAPA will assist in technology transfer, training lecturers, providing specialized software, and assessing training quality.

During the first two years, the center will train 200 learners, with the number increasing in the following years to 500-800 learners.

This is not the first time these two countries have worked together in helping build part of Vietnam’s entertainment industry. Previously, Korean cable firm CJ Media helped develop Vietnam’s first fully equipped TV studio in Ho Chi Minh City.

How the big wheel keeps on turning. When this whole sub-contracting thing got started, I was wearing a Navy uniform, part of the military machine that was dropping bombs on the country to where Korean animation jobs will -- we have no doubt -- soon be going.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Up In the Disney Penthouse -- December 15, 1970

Click on the thumbnail for a full-sized image

Bob Youngquist's retirement lunch, December 15, 1970. From left to right: Andy Engman, Les Clark, Bob Youngquist, Charlie Downs, and Ken Peterson.

Mr. Youngquist had been at the studio for thirty-five years, working as an assistant animator and animator. On this day he was hanging it up, and most of the animation department was gathered on the top floor of the old animation building to provide him with a proper send off.

Bob was 29 when he came to the studio, and 65 when he left. He died on August 3, 1996, three weeks shy of his 91st birthday...

Andy Engman sits at the far end of the table, a former effects animator who had long been in studio management. Then there's Les Clark, one of the "nine old men" who at this time had his own unit doing educational films. Next is Bob Youngquist, and beside him sits animator Charlie Downs, then animating in Les's educational unit (with Bob Y. working as his assistant.)

On the other end of the table sits Ken Peterson, a Disney production manager and animation producer who'd been at the studio for decades.

Click on the thumbnail for a full-sized image

And here's Bob Youngquist showing the camera how young and handsome he was thirty-five years previously, as Les Clark applauds.

Photos courtesy Bob Foster.

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Studio Walk-Around

I do more than analyze box office returns. I'm also tramping around studios in the regular way. The end of last week found me at Disney Toons...

Disney's direct-to-video division has stopped work on more "Princess" featurettes, deciding they've got enough Princess inventory on the shelves to keep elementary school age girls happy.

But Tinkerbell proceeds apace, as does the trilogy of features designed to follow it as installments of the new "Fairies" franchise. The crews on these flicks have left their old digs in the Frank Wells Building on the Disney lot, and relocated in Glendale, where brand new cubicles were ready to receive them.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

What? No Whining About the "Animation Glut"?

I would wager that Shrek the Third's performance over this May weekend will trigger any number of column inches about animation's place in the Hollywood firmament, how it's viable and robust, how lots of big money is bankrolling various animated pics:

Even if 2006 wasn't widely considered the best year ever for animated movies creatively, it certainly became a most animated one at the box office.

"Cars," the latest model from hitmakers Disney-Pixar, finished No. 3 domestically, making $244 million...

There were 13 animated movies in the top 100 in '06. A decade ago, Hollywood released only three or four animated features a year.

In Hollywood, nothing exceeds like excess, of course. So this year, counting three animated features that have already premiered ("Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters," "Happily N'Ever After" and "Meet the Robinsons"), viewers will get to pick from more than a dozen 'toons at the multiplex...

"More than a dozen." But if we were to pay attention to the MSM's genius theory of last year, that "too many CGI animated features" was killing the genre, how the hell did Happy Feet rake in so much money? Or Cars? Or now Shrek the Third? Here's a clue:

A small group of people created a film that a whole lot more people wanted to see.

It's always this way. The audience lurking out there in the dark doesn't care that there's a glut of animated films, or that pirate movies are poison at the box office (Cutthroat Island anyone?) or that space operas are from nowhere (which explains why, thirty-three years ago, most studios passed on the original Star Wars.)

To paraphrase William Goldman: nobody in the media or Hollywood knows what's going to set AMC's turnstiles to twirling, they can only guess. They do, however, have lots of pet theories that, over time, are invariably proven wrong. My bet is, the "glut of animation killing the market" meme will die off for awhile, since -- although it was always untrue -- it's now obviously untrue.

So to repeat yet again: When you make a picture millions of people want to go see, they will go and see it, ignoring all the smart theories and conventional wisdom about what they shouldn't be watching and why they shouldn't be watching it.

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Nobody Sane Thinks They're Making a Blockbuster

There's a nice article about the writing team Ted Elliot and Terry Russio in Variety. This quote from Mr. Russio caught my eye:

"We don't make hits. Making them, they don't look like hits. Making them, they look like problems, disasters, things not working. You don't know you're making hits; you just don't."

Most times (as I remember), you're just trying to have the thing make sense and be entertaining, if possible. And sometimes you get lost among the towering trees and lose sight of the forest. Click here to read entire post

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Ogre (and Company) Rampages

Wow. All those billboards on Ventura Boulevard paid off. Shrek the Third takes in $38.1 million on Friday...

This puts the Green One (the third time around) at #7 for all-time Friday openings (and $10 million ahead of Shrek 2's opening-day numbers.)

Elsewhere on the Friday list, Spider-man 3 declines to $8,000,000, and Meet the Robinsons get knocked out of Friday's Top Ten for the second week in a row (although it climbed back to #10 for the full weekend six days ago.)

Update: Shrek takes in $122 million in its opening weekend (which should make Wall Street breathe easy.)

For those keeping score, the $122 million places Shrek the Third in the #3 position for all-time opening weekends, behind Spidey3 and Pirates 2.0. (Shrek 2 collected $108 million in its first three days.)

POC: At World's End (opening next weekend) could very well push The Green One down a notch, also slash deeply into his second weekend numbers. (Arrgh!)

This weekend wasn't kind to Wilbur Robinson and his clan. MTR took in slightly more than $500,000, and dropped way out of the Top Ten, declining 71%. The pic now has a total cume of $95.3 million (double Arrgh!).

Update 2: Daily Variety analyzes overall box office for '07:

Thanks to Shrek and Spidey, overall B.O. continued to outpace the same time frame a year ago. Top 10 pics combined for $170.7 million over the latest weekend. A year ago, the top 10 combined for $152.9 million, with "The Da Vinci Code" leading the charge followed by toon "Over the Hedge."

This summer is outpacing that of 2004 -- the biggest summer in box office history -- by 15%, or $70 million, so far...

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The Usual End-of-Week Animation Links Carnival

Fox is not amused. The Simpsons family has its new movie hitting the multiplexes in July, but News Corp. is having its temper tantrum now about a Simpsons' spoof that it doesn't much like:

Not everyone finds funny a new Internet parody of Fox’s long-running animated series “The Simpsons” with O.J. Simpson in the starring role.

Lawyers for 20th Century Fox have sent letters to video hub Broadcaster.com requesting that they remove "The O.J. Simpsons," three animated clips that reimagine the Fox series starring the former football star. Broadcaster Inc. is reviewing Fox’s demand but noted Friday that fair-use doctrine protects parodies.

And on the Shrek front (which is wide and deep on Shrek's opening weekend), Wall Street is watching intently as the Big Green Ogre works to make his third outing a third lucrative outing:

Los Angeles, May 16: "Shrek the Third" will likely capture the box office throne this weekend, but Wall Street is closely watching to see whether the green ogre's reign over ticket sales may be cut short by pirates.

DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. sandwiched the release of the third installment of "Shrek" between "Spider-Man 3," whose USD 151 million debut on May 4 smashed records, and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," whose predecessor held the previous opening weekend record.

The Motley Fool also muses on Shrek the Third's box office prospects, and points out the other animated features which will be rolling out behind it:

...June...has a pair of highly promoted computer-animated films on tap. Sony's "Surf's Up", about surfing penguins, and Disney's "Ratatouille", about a rat who wants to become a chef, will eat away at the inked entertainment dollar. Ratatouille opens at the end of the month, but it's the second Pixar release to come out since Pixar became a wholly owned Disney subsidiary. The Disney-Pixar project Cars was last year's top-grossing animated flick.

The Daily News has a piece on the newest crop of Cal Art students, jockeying for job positions in the ever-changing animation industry:

VALENCIA - Graduation is show time in the CalArts animation program, with students vying for studios ready to hire them...

To its credit, CalArts has a long list of alumni who have graduated from its animation programs and done more than just find paying jobs in the industry. Tim Burton is virtually a cult figure; Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise co-directed "Beauty and the Beast"; Craig McCracken created "The Powerpuff Girls"; John Lasseter became an executive at Pixar after having directed both "Toy Story" movies and "A Bug's Life."...

The year culminates with a boisterous marathon showing of all the students' animation shorts. Students down alcohol and cheer each other on at the "open show." Then comes the "producer's show," when only the best shorts are showcased and students dress up to hobnob with studio execs - another stepping stone to a potential job.

"It's like the open show is the bachelor's party and the producer's show is the wedding," said student Dimitri Frazao...

I remember in the nineties, animation shops hired Cal Arts graduates by the truckload, many way before graduation...

In the Land Down Under, Animal Logic is signing a long-term partnership deal with Warner Bros.:

Through the deal, the two companies will develop and co-produce a slate of animated feature films. Immediately under the deal, three projects will be put into the development pipeline—the titles of which will be announced in the coming months. Warner Bros. Pictures will have worldwide distribution rights for all films produced through the deal.

Newer animation studio Imagi (based in Hong Kong, but with a satellite studio in Sherman Oaks, California) is shooting to have a new feature ready every eight months:

Imagi Animation Studios has pledged to deliver a computer-generated imagery (CGI) animated film to movie audiences every eight months. Since that process typically takes 18 months now, the studio knew it would have to give its storage environment a proverbial shot in the arm if it was to have any chance of hitting the self-imposed deadline.

To shorten the production process so dramatically, Imagi’s IT managers knew they needed a technology that could alleviate storage bottlenecks and improve substandard system performance caused by the constant accessing of tens of thousands of files in the digital animation rendering process.

And we'll end as we began, with the Yellow Family...and it's 400th series episode:

It's the longest-running comedy, in terms of years, in TV history, reaching its 400th-episode milestone on May 20 (the Federal Communications Commission-baiting instalment You Kent Always Say What You Want, which finds newsman Kent Brockman locking horns with Ned Flanders over alleged indecency).

Only one other TV comedy – The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, with 435 episodes – has produced more segments. Already renewed for Season 19, Simpsons will tie all-time series champ Gunsmoke if it gets renewed for a 20th, which is thought to be likely but hardly a certainty.

Have a relaxing weekend.

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Winter In Connecticut

RH snowscape
© by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

Or somewhere in New England...

This one-sheet watercolor was painted in 1946 during my parents' honeymoon. (Even with other things on his mind, Dad always had his paints, brushes and watercolor paper close at hand.)

So here we get the east coast in the California watercolor style...

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Friday, May 18, 2007

SMH Capital Analyzes DreamWorks Animation's New Release

Our old friends at SMH Capital have now sat down with their green eyeshades and focused their laser-like vision on the latest Shrek feature. Here's their analysis from "Morning Notes":

“Shrek 3” Opens Today

• Today DWA will release the third installment of its most valuable franchise, on 4,125 screens. Based on that screen count, we believe the film will open within a range of $95 million - $110 million. Our sense of the marketplace is that the film needs to clear at least $80 million in order not to see meaningful downside pressure come Monday morning.

• Our global box office expectation for “Shrek 3” remains $750 million, which is the simple average between global box office scores for the first two “Shrek” films plus the effects of ticket price inflation and screen count increases overseas.

• One angle that we do not believe is being fully appreciated by the Street is that of “participations.” Bonus payouts to the principal actors in this film will likely total 10% - 14% of global box office, depending on ultimate performance. Therefore, DWA’s revenue recognition schedule on this film will be total box office minus the “net rental,” the 8% distribution fee, P&A, and participations...

You'll note that SMH Capital touches on an issue about which Kevin Koch blogged a little while back.

Great analytic minds think alike.

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Hollywood, strikes, and the "new media"

A recent column in the Wall Street Journal, by entertainment lawyer Kevin Morris, had an interesting take on Hollywood's upcoming labor negotiations, with the AMPTP producers' association squaring off against SAG, WGA and DGA:

A strike would put over 100,000 actors, 15,000 writers and 13,000 directors out of work, right at the dawn of global distribution for filmed entertainment over the internet and mobile devices. In case you've been under a rock, the long-awaited convergence of technology and content is here: Video streaming works, advertising on the Internet is thriving, and the "Old" companies are nervous ...

Given this backdrop, the guild and the studios should consider the possibility that 130,000 unemployed artists might find something to do when they are put on strike. And in so doing, they may just start creating original content for the new media because it is easy and, well, they're not allowed to go to the set or the lot. And once they do so they may enjoy the lack of interference from "suits" and become smitten with the ability to put their work out immediately and world-wide...

In other words, Morris is saying, this might not be a great time for companies to get stiff-necked about cutting labor unions in on a bit more of the entertainment cash flow, because to do so could accelerate changes that threaten the conglomerates' profitable status quo.

Will the companies see things this way? And loosen up a little? I wouldn't hold my breath. The wonderful thing about the status quo -- any status quo -- is that the people who have the largest stake in seeing it continue sometimes don't make the smartest decisions about preserving it.

I'll give an example from the union side: Eighteen or twenty years ago, lots of IA unions had a hiring system known as a "jobs roster" whereby hiring priority for union jobs was given to union members who had worked a stretch of time in a union classification on a union show and had what's called "roster placement". This system worked fine when 97% of Hollywood jobs were unionized. But a funny thing happened.

The IA and Teamsters got a large increase in wages in the 1985 contract negotiations. Lots of low-budget producers didn't want to pay the higher rates, and began using non-union crews. And where did these non-union crews come from? They were mostly newbies in the business who couldn't get onto union shows because they weren't on the rosters (the old status quo.) And non-union work -- fueled by higher minimum rates that the low-budget film-makers didn't want to pay and a growing workforce blocked from union membership -- mushroomed.

Suddenly the IA's live-action unions were faced with an up-ended status quo in a fast-changing world -- sound familiar? Staring irrelevancy and extinction in the face, it adapted. It loosened up all its roster systems. It began organizing aggressively. It negotiated new, "low budget" agreements that many IA business agents screamed about, but got the big non-union workforce inside labor's tent.

In short, the IATSE changed the way it had done business for almost sixty years, often in a slow and painful way, remolding itself to the Brave New World of smaller budgets and newer producers. And they survived and prospered.

Now, of course, the entertainment guilds and the conglomerates are dancing a tango that can either help them or deepen the wounds already inflicted by New Media. And within months we will know which option of the old mantra "Adapt or Die" they've decided to take.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Cost of Living" Pay Increases

From time to time (meaning like once a week, once a month, or once a quarter -- depending on how many Personal Service Contracts are up for negotiation), I get the question: "Hey, does the company have to give me a cost-of-living raise?"

I have a standard answer: "If you're working at scale, you get a 3% raise. If you're overscale, then no. The company doesn't have to give you a raise."

This response often meets with some surprise (like "Wha-at?") because staff employees -- particularly long-term employees -- have been used to getting the commonly-known "yearly bump-up" in their salaries.

This was pretty much the standard deal through the 1990s. Wages in general were rising. And animation employees who'd been at one studio a while were used to getting annual hikes in their paychecks, like from 4% to 7% a year.

But in the 21st century? Ah, not so much.

Today the corporate watch-word is "hold the line." And while there is pretty robust employment across Animation Land right now, companies have been fairly aggressive about holding down labor costs. Nobody hands out four-thousand-dollar-per-week stipends unless they absolutely have to.

The irony here is that real-world inflation is probably higher now than at anytime since the 1970s. The government "Consumer Price Index" tracks along at 2.2% per year. What's considered the "core inflation" (everything but fuel and food) is what the Feds call "subdued."

But in Reality Land, that piece of real estate where individuals have to put gas in their cars and food in their stomachs, inflation is way higher. As Barry Ritholtz at BigPicture.com says:

One way to actually measure how absurd the US core inflation measure is to look at what has happened to the spread between headline CPI and Core CPI. If Core CPI is understating inflation, than the spread should be widening. If it is accurate, the overall ratio between the two should be relatively steady.

What does the data show? The spread has increased substantially since the US adopted an ultra low rate/easy money policy under Greenspan (now affiliated with bond giant PIMCO). Since the easy money policy of the 1990s, and the rate slashing of the 2000s, it is no coincidence that the spread between the headline number and the core has grown dramatically.

What this means to YOU is that, as studios phase out cost-of-living bumps, you -- especially if you're overscale -- fall farther behind relative to where you've been.

The other wrinkle: In the seventies, most labor unions were negotiating bigger minimum-rate increases for members because official inflation was so high. And now that the inflation rate is "lower"? Why, negotiated increases are lower.

Funny how that works.

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The Artful Writer and Foreign Levies

A little while ago, I posted here about how the WGA and DGA are the conduits through which "foreign levies" flow to writers and directors. And not just writers and directors for live-action work, but also animated product.

How the two guilds became the distributors of the millions collected by various tax organizations in European countries is a long story. The L.A. Weekly had an article on the subject, but the Weekly didn't have all the details and facts right.

For that, I think you would do well hopping over to The Artful Writer's discussion about foreign levies, and whether the Writers Guild of America is performing yeoman's service...or committing a crime...with its distribution methods:

Some people are obsessed with the grassy knoll. Others are sure that 9/11 was the first time fire ever melted steel (except for every single day in every steel mill in Pennsylvania, but hey, Rosie O’Donnell knows best).

In the WGA, there’s only one conspiracy theory worth talking up, and lo and behold, it’s the strange case of Foreign Levies.

Last week, no less than three articles were published about this topic. The Los Angeles Times, Fade In Magazine and the L.A. Weekly all weighed in, and with varying degrees of accuracy and sensationalism. Prior to this, I guess the only person really interested in this topic (who isn’t a conspiracy theorist) was me. I wrote an article about foreign levies, and if you want the rest of this piece to make sense, you should probably go read that first....

Screenwriters Craig Mazin and Ted Elliot are AW's proprietors, and the thread that follows Craig's take on the subject makes pretty compelling reading. Drink it in and draw your own conclusions.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Mid-Week Hulett

Rock fishermen
© by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

Here's a watercolor by Mr. Hulett. It's called "Rock Fisherman" and was the winner of the Purchase Award in Watercolor at the U.S.A. National show in 1967. And...

Ralph Hulett at work

...here's a photograph of Mr. Hulett "painting." I put the word in quotes because it looks to me like Mr. Hulett is faking it for the photgrapher, as he would have had this particular watercolor on his portable easel with watercolors close at hand if he were really painting. (It is an actual watercolor, however. Which I'm sure he did on the actual site. Just not as the shutter was snapped. Circa 1970).

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Complaints TAG Gets...

When I’m out and about, I hear various complaints from members/animation employees about current work situations. Here are some I’ve encountered of late, all from t.v animation studios:

· Extra Drawings for the Animatic: Some directors want more than just key poses in production boards. They want breakdowns and inbetweens so that the animatic “plays.” (i.e. no lengthy, “held” drawings.) The trouble is, often there’s no extra time for the additional drawings required.

· Tighter Schedules and More Complex Boards. Tying into the extra drawing noted above, there is also the specter of less time to do them. This isn’t a huge problem if you’re on staff and charging overtime (like that happens a lot), but the reality is: You’re given a schedule and expected to hit the deadline at the end of it. You’re also expected to stage layouts, do the extra drawings for the animatic, and do revisions. With some shows, the schedules are doable. With other shows, not so much. What often happens is that employees take the work home to keep up with the schedule. Naturally, there’s no overtime.

· Outlines getting labeled “Premises.” In days of yore, a premise was simple: a couple of sentences or a paragraph that broad-stroked the set-up and story for a half-hour or short. A story editor would look at the premise and decide whether to greenlight the premise to outline and script. Simple. Only now lots of story editors want a premise that is multiple pages. (Maybe five. Maybe ten. It’s kind of elastic.) This is really an outline (with a contractually-required payment) getting dressed up as a premise (with, naturally, no requirement of payment). Rule of thumb: a premise is one double-spaced page or less. An outline is more than a page.

The reality today is that many folks in the animation biz just suck it up. If they have a gripe, they keep it to themselves and refrain from rocking the boat or risking the imagined guillotine. The problem with this approach is that, over time, the workloads get heavier and heavier. Sometimes, despite the fear of hissing blades, it's a good idea to speak out.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Studio Snippets

This is not the new "American Dog" character model.

Me and my bag of 401(k) booklets, slogging down various San Fernando Valley hallways...

At Film Roman's King of the Hill, production is moving along at an even clip and work looks to last to the end of the year and beyond.

At Nick, Avatar is near the end of its three-season run. Talked to one of the leads yesterday and he said the show was designed to have a three-season story arc, which is now complete. I speculated that, since a live-action version is in the works and the show still has life in it, they could like always invent a new three season story arc.

At Disney Feature Animation, the American Dog story reels -- unspooled in Burbank and Emeryville, met with the Brain Trusts favor. "The whole picture was up on reels, and the notes were pretty positive," a story artist told me. "The crew worked lots of o.t. getting things up in a few months, and they're pretty satisfied. They know they've got lots of work ahead, but the showings went well."

And The Princess and the Frog and Rapunzel are also well on their way to also being up on story reels.

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Tintin Goes Photo Realisitc

So it looks like Tintin, one of the more famous comic book characters of the last six or seven decades, will get the photo-realistic treatment on the big screen rather than the hand-drawn treatment:

STEVEN Spielberg and Peter Jackson are to join forces to direct and produce a series of three-films based on the beloved Belgian comic-strip hero Tintin.

Entertainment journal Daily Variety reports that the legendary film-makers would direct at least one of the films each, and serve as producers on all three...

From the stories, it appears as though Weta in New Zealand will be the principal studio making these films. Of course, there's three features, so maybe one gets produced stateside? Like maybe at DreamWorks Animation's Glendale campus?

Regardless , animation is a global enterprise -- have a Imentioned this? And the more product that gets made, the better for everybody.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

"Needs More Baby"

A few decades ago, I was sitting in a story meeting at Disney Feature Animation on Flower Street. Jeffrey Katzenberg and a few other people from his management staff were being shown a sequence of "Oliver & Co.," and a story artist (I forget which one) was putting his all into the presentation.

When it concluded, one of the execs who'd come in with Mr. Katzenberg began to expound on things that bothered him about the storyboards. He went on for awhile, and then, as he paused for breath, Jeffrey said: "It seems fine to me."

End sentence. End paragraph. Close quotes.

The executive who'd been nattering on about the boards' shortcomings swallowed and shrank about three inches in his chair. And made the tactical decision -- a smart one, it seemed to me -- to say nothing more.

It was kind of clear who had the final word in the meeting. And who wasn't afraid to use it.

Of course, things don't always turn out that way.

Late this afternoon I was sitting in the cubicle of a story artist who regaled me with the following tale:

"I was working on the story development crew at [a large animation studio], and we were finally getting a handle on a feature we'd been working on. There was a writer who the studio had just hired who turned out to be really good. And he'd written a great new outline and we had fleshed it out. And we pitched the new approach to a high-level studio exec and one of the managers.

"The high-level exec wasn't crazy about the writer who's work we liked, and wanted to put in two of his favorites -- neither of whom the story crew thought were any good.

"So we're in the conference room, doing the story pitch. And when we get to the end, everybody sits there waiting for a reaction. Finally the manager says: 'Needs more baby.'

"Except there was no baby. None. And the story would have been wrecked with a baby. It didn't fit. But the high exec says: 'Yeah! Needs more baby.'

"So naturally we put in a baby. And the good writer got replaced by the two favorites of the executive, and the project went downhill from there.

"After awhile it was canceled. And now, years later, all I remember from that meeting where it started not to work is 'Needs more baby.'"

Sometimes executives make right decisions. Sometimes the decisions are something other than right.

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Shrek Blitz II

I seem to be buried in union bidness today, with little time (thus far) for blogging. But DreamWorks is continuing the publicity drum-beats for Shrek the Third. I got this in my e-mail...

I like to think of it as "snail dancing viral video, part deux." Click here to read entire post

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Spain Jumps Into CGI Features

Forget about India. Or China. Or upstarts in Hong Kong. Ilion Animation (in Madrid) and Handmade Films (in London) are bringing a $54 million cgi feature to the world marketplace:

Shrek didn't remain forever after at Prince Farquaad's swanky castle. Now one of his creators, screenwriter Joe Stillman ("Shrek," "Shrek 2"), has also found pastures green outside Hollywood, penning the screenplay for indie toon "Planet One."

Produced by Madrid's Ilion Animation Studios and London's Handmade Films in a 60-40 financing split, the 1950s-style alien-world spoof underscores the existence of increasingly ambitious life in the international CGI animation arena.

Directed by Jorge Blanco, the $54 million pic is the biggest-budgeted film of any type ever to come out of Spain.

It's the twenty-first century, and like almost everything else, animation lives in a global economy. Animated features are going to get made in studios all over the world, and writers, board artists and animators are going to travel the world to work in them.

I'm made aware of this on a daily basis, as immigration visas come across my desk for review. Asia, Europe and South America all have animation communities, and lots of their folks come to the U.S. to work on product...even as Americans head offshore to work on features, commercials and television shows in different parts of the globe.

It's the new reality that we all live with, like it or not.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Goodbye to Grizzly Flats Railway

The L.A. Times reports that Ward Kimball's Grizzly Flats railroad (situated in Ward's backyard/sideyard for the past seventy years) will be passing into history:

It was short in length — but long in its reach.

The Grizzly Flats Railroad's steam engines traveled for 70 years along a 500-foot-long stretch of rails next to the San Gabriel home of Betty and Ward Kimball.

Along the way, the Kimballs' picturesque narrow-gauge line helped inspire Walt Disney to build the famous passenger train system that circles Disneyland.

Now, though, its locomotives, vintage cars and caboose have been hauled away, and workers have finished pulling out the steel rails and wooden ties. Soon, the antique-looking Grizzly Flats train depot will be dismantled. The old train barn and firehouse will be demolished.

"It's an emotional thing. But it has to be done," said John Kimball, the couple's 66-year-old son...

Both Kevin and I attended train parties out at the Kimball place. Years ago, Ward took me on a walking tour of the rolling stock and the sheds filled with Disney memorabalia. I poked around the little movie-set station that will now find its way to John Lasseter's Sonoma estate.

Ward once told me the story of Walt calling him up and wanting to move Mr. Kimball's steam engine down to Disneyland, and Ward refusing. Shortly after, (Ward said) Walt temporarily exiled him to the commercial unit at the studio.

It's definitely the end of an era.

John Kimball and Nathan Lord.

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Fragrant Box Office

As the smell of highly mobile corpses fills the air...

A new weekend of theatrical grosses, and Meet the Robinsons and Blades of Glory have fallen from the Top Ten after 43 days of release.

Blades collected $385,000 on Friday, good enough for the 11th position and $112,809,00 in box office, while MTR took in $380,000 at the number twelve spot. Robinsons now totals $92,874,000. Any guesses as to whether Diz will keep it in the marketplace until it ticks a hundred million? (I'm betting yes.)

Farther up the list, Spiderman 3 maintained its hold on #1 with a $17,800,000 take, while the zombie fest 28 Weeks Later racked up $3,910,000 for its debut. (Horror pictures usually fade fast. Seems as though the political allegory that was embroidered into it had no or minimal impact at the turnstiles.)

Georgia Rule, the Lindsay Lohan-Jane Fonda picture, placed third with $1,860,000 despite tepid reviews.

Update: Unsurprisingly, Spider-Man 3 holds down the top spot with a $60 million take, running its total to $242 million after two weekends. (Next week, it's Spidey vs. Shrek.)

Way back in the #2 and #3 positions were the sprinting zombies (28 Weeks Later) and Lindsay, Felicity and Jane (Georgia Rule). Interesting that the third picture on the list took in just $5.9 million. Sort of demonstrates that Spider-Man is sucking up most of the loot, even though it dropped over 60%.

And as the weekend finished, Meet the Robinsons ended up in the tenth slot, edging out Blades of Glory>. MTR has now collected $94 million domestic, while Blades stands at $114 million.

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The City Square of Old Los Angeles

Ralph Hulett street scene
(c) by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

Another weekend, another Ralph Hulett. This time it's an oil of downtown Los Angeles near Olvera Street.

This specimen was painted in the mid-sixties, when artist Hulett was doing a lot of different studies of L.A. (Bunker Hill paintings here and here.)

The scene here is old Los Angeles Square near Olvera Street. Union Station would be a block or two away, and L.A.'s City Hall (seen on the right side of the street) isn't in that precise location, I don't think. Mr. Hulett had the habit of putting the landmark in a lot of his L.A. paintings for like, reference.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

The Shrek Blitz

An hour ago, I was stopped at a light on Ventura Boulevard. In front of me, at various distances, were three different billboards displaying Shrek the Third...

And they weren't the only billboards. I had already passed one. And there was yet another around the next curve.

When you've got yourself a big, green tentpole, you like people to know it's out there.

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End-of-Week Links

Shrek

No pun intended.

Although Shrek the Third hasn't been released, DreamWorks Animation has rolled out a director for Shrek 4:

Ready to take big project into his hands, Mike Mitchell is engaged in talks to helm Shrek 4 which DreamWorks Animation is keen to develop in its follow-up to Shrek the Third that will open in theaters on May 18 this year.

The fourth installment of the mega-hit toon franchise, the flick will still chronicle the continuing adventures of the titular character, a peace-loving ogre, and his friends. Script initially was penned by Tim Sullivan before getting a rewrite by Josh Klausner, known as a second-unit director for a number of the Farrelly brothers flicks.

USA Today has an article about the revival of hand-drawn animation, and the oncoming Enchanted in particular:

The comeback begins Nov. 21 with Disney's return to the land of traditional make-believe in Enchanted, a long-planned mix of live action and animation.

"Supposedly, people weren't interested in watching hand-drawn animation as much as computerized animation," says Lasseter, weeks after announcing work had begun on The Princess and the Frog. Due in 2009, it's Disney's first true 2-D fairy tale since 1991's Beauty and the Beast. "But what people weren't interested in was watching bad movies. It's as (Finding Nemo director) Andrew Stanton said: 2-D became a scapegoat for bad storytelling."

Enchanted is sprinkled with 14 minutes of hand-drawn romantic adventures that pay humorous tribute to the likes of Snow White and Cinderella. The story of a cartoon princess who is banished to Manhattan and must cope with the realities of urban life might remind audiences how much they have missed Disney fables of yore. "We are tweaking clich├ęs, but it's done with a lot of love," [animator James] Baxter says.

And a website called Mytoons.com is working to become the Youtube of animation:

The three founders of Bauhaus Software Inc. decided to launch a new social networking site focused exclusively on cartoons and animation, but they had a problem.

They needed a name.

Stacey Ford, one co-founder, came up with Mytoons.com.

Paul Ford, her husband and another co-founder, discovered the site registered to an Internet domain squatter, who wanted $8,000 for it. He exchanged e-mails with the guy and eventually got him down to a few thousand bucks.

That was the beginning of San Antonio-based Mytoons.com, which wants to become like the Library of Congress, News Corp.'s MySpace and Google Inc.'s Youtube all rolled into one for animation on the Internet.

"We founded Bauhaus in 2003, and our goal was to bring the professionals and amateur animators together," Paul Ford said. "What we started to realize was that one of the most important parts we were building was the community."

Animated feature fever has reached Canada, where the Vancouver Sun tells us about the big new cgi feature that is taking shape in B.C.:

Vancouver's Rainmaker Animation has jumped into the computer generated image movie business in a big way, attracting two top Hollywood guns to produce and supervise animation for Escape From Planet Earth, Rainmaker's first feature-length film for theatres.

Ed Jones, executive producer of the Academy Award-winning Happy Feet, will produce Escape from Planet Earth, and Steve Nichols, lead animator for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, was named animation director.

Pre-production and storyboarding has begun on the movie, a comedy about aliens making a prison break from Earth, and Rainmaker will have a team of 150 working on the project for the next two and a half years. All work will be done at Rainmaker's Vancouver studio, with the film's release date scheduled for late in 2009.

The Weinsteins, once more grabbing for animation's brass ring, will be financing the film...

Lastly, allow me to link to Jim Hill Media's newer think-piece on The Princess and the Frog, Song of the South, and the current ballyhoo in a teacup about the black villain, the name of the lead character, the complaints of the black community (quick! Get Al Sharpton on the phone!) and the Disney Company's general skittishness over its black animated feature.

This kind of thing isn't new. The Disney Company has long been hyper-sensitive about some of the films in its past. They haven't released Song of the South since 1986. (A film that is, in my opinion, far less offensive than the forever-in-release Gone With the Wind, which is a cash cow for Time-Warner.)

When I was working on The Fox and the Hound, Larry Clemmons wrote the bird characters as black crows (a la Dumbo). Management hit the roof (which I totally understand) and complained to Woolie Reitherman ("Hey! We get angry letters about the crows in Dumbo! Not again!") . The characters were changed.

And now the company is walking on egg-shells once more, with name changes, title changes, character model sheet changes. Given the times in which we live, the egg-shell walking is probably unavoidable.

Have one swell weekend.

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