Friday, August 31, 2007

Links of Animation

India has rolled out its most expensive animated film ever. Its title?

Since ants are called ‘cheenti’ in Hindi, we decided to title the film Cheenti Cheenti Bang Bang. The film is based on a Bengali novel Lal Kalo though a lot of changes have been effected. We have also dramatised some portions for filming purposes. It is a story of two kingdoms of ants (red and black) who are at loggerheads with each other. However, it is not a battle story. There is a romantic twist too, as the Prince and Princess of the warring kingdoms fall in love. The film in fact works on the premise that war never pays. It endeavours to drive home the point that unity and peace are the driving factor’s for a nation’s health.

The Southpark guys Trey Parker and Matt Stone have just nailed down a lucrative new contract that could have ramifications for other animation creators (Seth? You listening?):

Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker and their bosses at Comedy Central, a unit of Viacom’s MTV Networks, are attempting to leapfrog to the vanguard of Hollywood’s transition into Web. In a joint venture that involves millions in up-front cash and a 50-50 split of ad revenues, the network and the two creative partners have agreed to create a hub to spread “South Park”-related material across the Net, mobile platforms, and video games.

The deal, signed Friday, begins with a three-year extension of the show and its creators’ contracts through a 15th season, in the year 2011, and gives Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker sizable raises, both in their salaries and in their guaranteed advances against back-end profits from DVDs, merchandising, syndication and international sales.

It also creates an entity called, to be housed in the show’s animation studio in Culver City, Calif., that is intended to be an incubator not only for new applications for characters the likes of Cartman, Kyle, Stan and Kenny, but for new comedy concepts that could one day mature into TV series of their own.

I've long had a fondness for the Disney features of yore, where the studio employed lots of radio actors for its voice work (think Hans Conreid as Captain Hook). Today, of course, we're in the expanding age of celebrity voices:

Celebrity casting -- which impacts not only the feature film business, but also TV shows, videogames, direct-to-video productions and even some webisodic series --frustrates everyday voice actors, who believe it not only has dampened their opportunities, but also often has a detrimental effect on the productions themselves. "[Celebrity casting is about] publicity, rather than a fantastic voice," says M J Lallo, a voiceover actor, director, producer and teacher, with a studio and voiceover school in Los Angeles. "You see [the production] and you say, 'that's not an interesting voice, it's just so-and-so's voice.'"

Michael Hack, a voice and casting director whose credits include Blood+, Astro Boy, and the direct-to-video production Bratz: Camp Starshine, acknowledges that celebrity casting probably brings in viewers and dollars to feature films, but he believes the marketing value is less in television, where most viewers are kids who don't care who is doing the voice. Still, celebrities often voice television characters these days; some are naturals, while others are mostly involved for their marquee value.

"I've worked with celebrity actors who are not trained as voice actors and they're terrific," Hack says. "With others, there's a struggle, even if they're great actors, because it's such a specific skill. I might give them a note about showing more anger in a line, and they do something with their face and read it the same way."

Oops. Apparently the Black Entertainment was just making a funny, and not trying to be racially offensive:

Black Entertainment Television’s new animation division seems to have stepped right into a pitfall of self-parody: a short cartoon video it introduced on July 20, “Read a Book,” seems to flaunt every negative stereotype in the African-American community.

In a gloss on the hip-hop videos frequently shown on BET, an animated rapper named D’Mite comes on with what looks like a public service message about the benefits of reading, but devolves into a foul-mouthed song accompanied by images of black men shooting guns loaded with books and gyrating black women with the word “book” written on the back of their low-slung pants. The uncensored cut is making the rounds on YouTube, while a cleaner version was shown on BET.

The cartoon, which represents an effort by the network to broaden its programming, was the subject of an article on Friday in The Los Angeles Times, which noted that the network has been “long criticized for showing gangsta rap videos and those with scantily clad female dancers.”

(The L.A. Times article here...)

Frank Gladstone, late of DreamWorks, Starz Media, Disney, Warner Feature Animation and several other points on the animation compass, has taken a position with Imagi:

Imagi International Holdings Limited (“Imagi” / the “Group”) (Stock Code: 585) today announced the appointment of Frank Gladstone to provide advanced training for Imagi’s 400+ artists and animators. Under this mandate, Gladstone will teach university-level courses in film history, cinematography, storytelling and visual language. The classes will be offered on a quarterly basis, according to Imagi Deputy Chairman, Co-CEO and Chief Creative Officer, Francis Kao.

“Gladstone’s appointment is part of Imagi’s commitment to its animation staff to provide job-enriching training that goes beyond their day-to-day roles in modeling, lighting, compositing, etc.,” said Kao. “Frank’s lecture series provides wonderful insights into the thoughts of the directors, designers and writers who create great animated entertainment.”

Early television (of which I was an enthusiastic viewer) had a cavalcade of animated product: Felix the Cat, Farmer Alfalfa, Popeye, and Bugs Bunny, on mornings and weekends. The list was extensive and the cartoons endless.

But decades have passed, and new characters have supplanted old, which is kind of a problem. Because kids no longer have much of an inkling who these old cats, woodpeckers and sailors are:

How do you market cartoon characters to children when they don't know who those characters are? That's the problem big studios are facing when it comes to Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker. They've tried and failed to introduce these funny-talking drawings to a new generation of children. And now that it's finally becoming clear that kids would rather watch SpongeBob Squarepants than Popeye the Sailor, the studios have to do the unthinkable: market classic cartoons to adults.

This year alone has brought a flood of DVD releases and other products that basically present cartoon characters as classic movie icons for adults, like Humphrey Bogart or some other dead star. Recently released were a mammoth Popeye collection (from Warner Brothers, which aquired the rights to these cartoons a few years ago) and a 75-cartoon collection from Universal focusing on Woody Woodpecker as well as lesser-known cartoon stars like Chilly Willy, who's mostly remembered for being mentioned one time on The Simpsons. These collections include things only grown-ups would be interested in, such as verbose audio commentaries; they also restore scenes that are usually banned from kids' TV for offensive content.

Guilty of plagiarism? Don't think so. But Paul Lumley of Oxford reminds us that Homer Simpson was not the first comedian to voice the words "D'oh."

'D'oh' was first uttered by the actor James Finlayson on many occasions in the Laurel and Hardy series.

Lastly, TAG Prez emeritus Tom Sito interviews animation veteran -- and one of the leaders of the '41 Disney strike -- Bill Littlejohn:

TS:During the Walt Disney strike in 1941, you were union president and you flew your plane, doing victory rolls over the picketing cartoonists.

BL: You can't do a victory roll over a populated area without getting in trouble with the Civil Aeronautics Board. I wiggled my wings and the picketers below on Buena Vista would wiggle their signs back at me. I was flying a Luscombe Phantom two-seater.

Have a splendid weekend.

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Disney Recruitment Booklet -- 1977

Page 1

A quick trip down memory lane, courtesy of TAG member Hank Tucker.

The above is part of a page from Disney's "Come Work For Us!" pamphlet from the mid-seventies. The top photograph shows effects animator Ted Kierscey with animator Jim George. (Ted on the left, Jim on the right.)

Ted started at Disney in 1970, and is still there to this day. Jim I've lost track of. He directed Rover Dangerfield a bunch of years ago; I don't know what he's been doing lately.

The photograph on the lower right is of Pete Young, a story artist who started at Disney in '71 and passed away prematurely in 1985. The young woman on the left is Carmen I've-Got-Her-Last-Name-On-The-Tip-Of-My-Tongue. She worked with Don Bluth for many years.

Page 2

Here's another page from that Disney book. Lots of photographs, lots of folks.

Photograph on the upper left shows Gary Goldman -- a longtime Bluth collaborator -- looking at film (and I don't know who the girl in the shot is.)

The picture in the upper right is from the Disney Morgue (as it was then called), where there were shelves and shelves of animated scenes from Disney shorts and features going back to the beginning of time. It was down in the basement of the old Animation Building, and an eerie place to visit. I can only guess who that is on the ladder, so I won't.

The photo right beneath it shows the 2-F wing of the original animation building. Tad Stones -- a Disney veteran now working as a producer at Starz Media -- on the left, and a bearded punk named Hulett on the right. Naturally I draw a partial blank on the young woman standing between us, except that she later married Dale Alexander, the head of Disney Art Props.

And that fellow waving behind the yellow sheet and stop watch? That's Glen Keane, now the director of Rapunzel.

Enough already. I'll roll out more of Disney circa 1977 next week, when my batteries are recharged.

(pages copyright 1977 - Walt Disney Productions)

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Continuing O.T. Dialogue

The Issue that is always with us:

A few days back I got an e-mail from a producer-director at one of the major animation studios. It's worth sharing, and so I share it. It went as follows:

I'd like to say a few words about this from a director's/producer's point of view. If anyone is being taken advantage of, then definitely, they should say or do something about it.

Now...union hours as we all know, are 9-6, with two fifteen minute breaks and a one hour lunch. If you were to come over to the BLANK offices right now, you'd find that fewer than one third of the staff is in the building, let alone at their desks beginning work (I am writing this at 9:15).

We don't make a big deal about it, because ultimately, the work is getting done. I admit that usually I don't come in at nine either, I take long lunches, and goof off during the day. That's why I don't mind staying until 7:30 or 8:30 usually.

This is also the case with other employees I've encountered here late at night. I've actually asked some of them to go home, but they reply that they came in late and want to make up the time.

Again, if an employee is honestly being taken advantage of, they should make an issue of it. But if any of the people who are complaining are guilty of any of the above habits (long lunches, excessive talking or phone conversations, long breaks, or coming in late), my response is for them to shut up, sit down at their desks and do the job they are being paid to do. They might find out that they don't need to put in overtime to get their jobs done.

I responded with this:

Yes, I get complaints. I've had meetings with board artists at BLANK where I've said the following:

"Put down the ACTUAL amount of time you work each day on your time cards. The cards are legal documents. If you take a long lunch and work six hours that day, put down six hours.

"If you work eleven hours, put down eleven hours. Just be honest and accurate."

But you know the drill. People complain about the uncompensated o.t. they're doing, but of course nobody wants to rock the boat and stick his/her neck out by getting vocal about it.

From my p.o.v., scheduling for shows is all over the map. Sometimes it's realistic, sometimes not. I think there are ways of adjusting things without a lot of pain, but it always depends on everyone's flexibility. I tell artists to let management know if they're having problems as a group. (This has happened a couple of times, believe it or not.)

Wandering through studios as much as I do, I see lots of different things happening and get lots of different complaints, stories, etc. Two weeks ago I was at a big studio (not BLANK in the exchange above) and got complaints about two different shows.

On Show #1, a demanding director who wanted changes, changes and more changes, caused everyone to work extra hours, and it was made clear that "there was no budget for o.t." So everyone was sucking it up and working uncompensated o.t. (I got one complaint from someone leaving the show. Nobody else made a peep of protest.)

On Show # 2 (same studio) I was getting complaints about endless o.t., overtime on many nights, overtime on weekends, etc. Problem here was, arms were getting sore and sleep was being lost. But no problem with uncompensated o.t. On this show, the studio was paying all the o.t. hours.

Like I say up above: In Toontown, the ways artists are treated tend to be all over the map.

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Over at Schlesinger's in 1937

Another walk through animation history...

Schlesinger, 1937

Second row from the front, fourth from the right: Tex Avery; Back row, eighth from the right, in white shirt: Chuck Jones; Fourth to the right of Jones: Rudy Larriva. Uncle Leon -- the gent with the nifty comb-over -- is kneeling front-row center. He's in the suit.

As Wikipedia describes Schlesinger's merry band in the early years:

From 1936 until 1944, animation directors and animators such as Freleng, Avery, Clampett, Jones, Arthur Davis, Robert McKimson, and Frank Tashlin worked at the studio. During this period, these creators introduced several of the most popular cartoon characters to date, including Daffy Duck (1937, Porky's Duck Hunt by Avery), Elmer Fudd (1940, Elmer's Candid Camera by Jones), Bugs Bunny (1940, A Wild Hare by Avery), and Tweety Bird (1942, A Tale of Two Kitties by Clampett). By 1942, the Schlesinger studio had surpassed Walt Disney Studios as the most successful producer of animated shorts in the United States

The Schlesinger unit was based on the Warners Sunset lot (which today is Channel 5.); Warners purchased the cartoon unit in 1944 and the rest, as they say, is lots of cartoon entertainment. (At this time in '37, Chuck Jones was a new director in his mid-twenties.)

The staff turned out just a few paltry shorts in 1937:

Little Red Walking Hood, September in the Rain, Porky's Hero Agency, The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos, A Sunbonnet Blue, Egghead Rides Again, Porky's Double Trouble, The Case of the Stuttering Pig, The Lyin' Mouse, Rover's Rival, I Wanna Be a Sailor, Dog Daze, Porky's Garden, Speaking of the Weather, Get Rich Quick Porky, Porky's Railroad , Ain't We Got Fun, Plenty of Money and You, Porky's Badtime Story, Uncle Tom's Bungalow, Porky's Super Service, Sweet Sioux, Porky's Building, Streamlined Greta Green, Clean Pastures, I Only Have Eyes for You, Porky and Gabby, Porky's Duck Hunt, She Was an Acrobat's Daughter, Porky's Romance, The Fella with the Fiddle, Picador Porky, Porky's Road Race, Pigs Is Pigs, Porky the Wrestler, He Was Her Man

All the work was done on Sunset in Hollywood. Nothing overseas. Nothing sub-contracted. How did these people do it?

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Bob Youngquist Sendoff -- Part the Third

Remember my last Bob Youngquist posts, Parts I and II? No? Shame on you. They were only back in May, just a few months ago. (We don't like posts too close together, you know...)

Today, we have the third and final Youngquist bye bye post:

To refresh: Mr. Youngquist (above left) was a Disney animator and assistant for over three decades. He retired on December 15, 1970, and almost anybody who was anybody in the animation department attended his farewell lunch up in the Disney "Penthouse Club."

This photograph (the last in this stretched-out series) shows (left to right): Dave Michener, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ward Kimball, Dave Suding, Stan Green, Cliff Nordberg, person unknown, Jack Buckley, person unknown.)

Dave Michener was at this time Milt Kahl's assistant. (Milt told me that Dave was "the best assistant I ever had..."). Dave had been at the studio since the middle fifties, later moving in to the story department and then becoming a director.

Milt Kahl was considered (along with Marc Davis) the best draftsman of the "nine Old Men." He was a directing animator on almost all of the Disney features up until the time of his departure from the studio in the summer of 1976. He maintained that he didn't retire, but "quit."

Frank Thomas was known from the 1930s on as a master actor with an animation pencil. He animated on most of the Disney features from Snow White to Fox and the Hound.

Ward Kimball was a legendary animation dynamo who at this time (1970) had his own unit doing featurettes. He'd recently picked up an Academy Award for It's Tough to Be a Bird. He would leave the studio a few years later after a fight with upper management.

Dave Suding was a long-time Disney animator and assistant who retired to Laguna Beach in the late 1990s.

Stan Green worked as an assistant to Milt Kahl and as an animator. He passed away in Oregon at age 76.

Cliff Nordberg was a talented animator, dependable as the sunrise, who worked at the studio from the 1940s until his death.


Jack Buckley was an effects animator with a parallel career as a fine artis painter skilled in oil painting.

A word about the Penthouse Club: When I knew it, there was wood-panelling on the walls and old furniture and it had the atmosphere of a out-at-the-sleeves restaurant located in Bishop, California (that's a town at the foot of the Sierras in the high desert, if you don't know.)

It sat atop the animation building. In the 1970s, it didn't look as if it had been changed since 1940. I have no idea what the space is used for now.

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The Bill Hanna Rule

A Wise Old Animation Director and I were chatting today. He reminded me of the fabled rule of animation from the co-founder of Hanna-Barbera:

There's never enough time to do it right, but there is always enough time to fix it.

Now. A small addendum to this rule -- which is actually implied in the rule -- would be: "There's never enough time (or money) to do it right, but there's always enough time (and money) to fix it."

At a large, nameless television animation studio a decade ago, an artist pal of mine marveled that the yelling and screaming by executives about show budgets and schedules magically stopped when the shows came back from the overseas studio and had big mistakes in them.

He marveled because huge amounts of money were at that point thrown at the shows to make them right, yet the execs who had been so exercised months before about the cash that was being spent were now calm, cool, collected. Relaxed, even.

My artist pal asked why all the new spending didn't bother them. The answer:

"It comes out of another budget. So it's no problem."

See what drooling simpletons we all are? It comes out of another budget. Therefore no problem. Therefore why worry?

Or as Bill Hanna would say:

There's never enough time/money to do it right, but always enough time/money to fix it.

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The Monday Studios

Cartoon Network has garnered a bunch of Emmy nominations (a good thing), but the studio is still in transition because of changes at the helm of the mothership down in Atlanta (a less good thing, as artists wonder what they're next assignment is going to be...)

Some of the shows going through just now include the Class of 3000's Christmas special (the series has come to an end after two seasons), Chowder, Flapjack and a scattering of pilots.

At Disney Animation Studios Bolt is slowly accelerating into fuller production and the conjecture 'round and about is if more staff will be hired when the show hits warp speed, the better to make the release date.

Much of the production crew for The Princess and the Frog will probably get hired next year.

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Here's one of the better definitions of genius film-making that I've seen:

Pixar movies, the smartest person in the room and the dumbest person in the room will both get something from it. You cannot say that about a lot of modern things. So to me, that’s what’s brilliant.”

This observation comes from actor-producer Jeff Garlin. Since Garlin is working on the latest Pixar flick, you could argue he's being the teensiest bit self-serving, but it still seems on the mark to me.

It's like arguing about what's a "classic." We all point to various films, or paintings, or books. Raymond Chandler once defined it this way:

A classic, most simply put, is any work of art that exhausts the limit of its form and can't be bettered...

Good definition. Stringent requirements. Which raise the bar regarding what's classic (or brilliant) to heights almost impossibly high.

Garlin's parameters seem more open and realistic.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Low Overhead

Nick Park of Aardman...

Out to the studios all day (about which more later), but this piece on the straight-ahead, day-to-day simplicity of Aardman Animations is worth perusing:

Aardman Animations holds meetings in parking-lot trailers while wailing seagulls circle overhead. A picture in its boardroom proudly commemorates a visit from the queen, as if that quaint ceremony were the highlight of the company's 30 years in business. And the founders still do their own ironing.

...Even the company's reasoning for creating commercials for the likes of Coca-Cola Co., Pepperidge Farm and Skittles, smacks of humility. "We thought we'd be in and out of fashion, so we took as many advertising opportunities as we could," said co-founder David Sproxton. "To our surprise and delight, that market continues to call us. It was lucrative, and we learned a huge amount because we were being challenged all the time."

What charms me is the low-rent mind-set and the basic simplicity of AA. Because it's such a contrast to the usual grandiosity of Hollywood Studios.

When I was at Disney early in the Mike Eisner era, I walked by a couple of large dumpsters overflowing with sheets of black marble. I mean like layers of the stuff. I asked a couple of different people what was with all the marble in the dumpster. The answer:

"Oh. Mr. Eisner's wife was redecorating the executive offices up on the third floor. After they installed all the new marble floors, she decided it should be shiny marble and not dull marble. So she had them tear all the non-shiny marble out."

Which, I think, encapsulates perfectly the Hollywood ethos. And has for seventy or eighty years.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Cry Not For Ratatouille

There's been a little hand-wringing over Ratatouille's domestic box office performance. To date it's taken in $199 million and change. (It will no doubt hit $200 million in the coming week.)

But let's stay focused, people. Domestic b.o. is only one slice of the cheese wheel. Overseas, Brad Bird's latest is doing quite nicely:

Disney's "Ratatouille" turned in another tasty weekend with $11.6 million at 3,055 in 29 markets, pushing the Pixar project to $172 million overseas with half the foreign territories still to open. "Ratatouille" will far surpass the final international cume of $218 million for "Cars," last summer's Pixar entry.

Note the words: "With half the foreign territories still to open..."

As Variety observes, this means the gourmet rat will sweep up $240 ... $260 ... $330 million in foreign revenue. Stacked on top of the domestic take, this will add up to more than half a billion before secondary revenue streams (dvds, broadcast, cable, downloads) are factored in.

Can we say "healthy profits?"

I would say that Pixar and Disney won't be getting out of the animated feature market anytime soon.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Guvmint Health Care

Last week, the California Labor Federation came knocking on TAG's door about supporting state-mandated Universal Health Care.

The particular bill with which they wanted assistance -- AB 8, supported by Fabian Nunez, California Assembly Speaker -- isn't supported by Governor Arnold.

No surprise there. Its costs are somewhat higher and it focuses on an employer mandate to get more people covered, rather than an individual mandate, which is what the guv wants.

Long story short: TAG and the IATSE (our mother international) won't be supporting it unless there are amendments which address the problems the legislation causes for our trust fund -- the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan.

At this point, the bill is really a non-starter anyway, since Arnold S. has announced he's going to veto the sucker if it lands on his desk, and there aren't near enough votes for an override.....

I bring this up because:

A) State coverage could, theoretically, impact TAG members who now get their health coverage from the MPIPHP, and...

B) If state-wide funding for health care happens at some time in the future, it might free up hundreds of millions of dollars that now go into our Health Plan and enable the millions to be redirected into the Pension plans.

Like I say. Theorectical. But worth thinking about for five minutes if you're an active participant in the Pension and Health Plans.

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Late August B.O.

Superbad continues its winning ways with a second Numero Uno finish. $5.7 million in the till on Friday.

The Bourne Ultimatum is in the second spot, hauling in $3,600,000 for a total of $176.4 million. As for animated product...

The Simpsons Movie occupies Position #5 and has now crossed the $170 million threshhold.

And Ratatouille (#19) is this close to the magical $200 million club. With $300,000 in the till on Friday, it's now at $198.2 million for domestic box office.

Update: No huge surprises or epiphanies at the end of August. Superbad repeats in the top spot, The Bourne Ultimatum climbs back to #2 as it chugs inexorably toward $200 million, and Mr. Bean's Holiday -- the biggest grosser of the new entries -- collects $10,121,000 at #4.

As for the animated contingent: The Simpsons Movie takes in $4.4 million in the 7th slot (with $173.4 mill and counting) while Ratatouille is poised to nose over $200 million any second now. (Currently it's at $199,036,000.)

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Friday Mornings on "Family Guy/Dad"

For once I got over to Wilshire Boulevard and the Fox Animation Studios early enough to spend a good amount of time intermingling with both "Family Guy" and "American Dad" crews. (It helps when traffic is good.)

American Dad, the crew tells me, has been picked up for a new season and everyone seems pleased about continued employment.

Family Guy, of course, has never ceased being a money-making comedy dynamo, and will probably go on for years, with maybe a big-screen version in its lucrative future:

Seth MacFarlane recently stated he wants to make a Family Guy feature film, but now we have even more. MacFarlane's told us what genre he wants the Family Guy movie to occupy.

"I would like to do a Family Guy movie at some point, MacFarlane said, "I'd like it to be a musical."

A couple of Fox artists and I fell into a conversation about overtime (paid and unpaid) across the animation industry. I said it's a work issue I pretty much steadily work on; one of the artists said:

"I just don't do unpaid overtime. I stay at my desk, work my forty hours and go home. I've learned to work fast and not worry about the hassles..."

He's been at Fox for a good stretch of time, so apparently the forty hours a week routine works for him.

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The Links of 'Toons

Time again for linkage far and wide on the biz that makes cartoons...

Variety details the robust and expanding French animation industry. (French animation? Mon Dieu!)

...French animation has grown up with an eye toward the international market -- because it has had to.

Coin from French broadcasters typically covers only around 15% of an animation series' production costs, so a project simply cannot get off the ground unless it attracts international presales or co-production deals.

That economic reality, coupled with a plentiful talent pool of animators trained at internationally reputed schools such as Paris' Les Gobelins and La Poudriere, in the South of France, has put French animation up there with the world's best.

The Hollywood Reporter tells us that Hollywood movies are putting more bells and whistles into end credits (which, as we know, can roll on endlessly), including this about Ratatouille...

As several recent movies demonstrate, filmmakers are getting creative with their end credits. They're starting to add a flourish that's akin to an exclamation point at the end of a sentence, giving viewers a reason to stay a bit longer in their seats for a memorable treat....

The end credits for "Ratatouille" came about during the design stage of the movie, when the filmmakers discovered drawings done by fresh-from-Cal Arts grad Nate Wragg. Wragg then was paired with Teddy Newton, who designed the credits for Bird's "The Incredibles."

One reason Pixar went with the 2-D credits was practicality. Bird came into the project so late in the process that all computer resources were diverted to making the main movie.

"We certainly didn't have any more bandwidth to do 3-D," producer Brad Lewis says. "We were maxed out. So that was probably a factor..."

As we did earlier this week, Rob Pegorora in the Washington Post weighs in on the high def wars:

* HD DVD's single most appealing feature is its hybrid-disc option, in which a single disc can contain both a DVD and a high-def version of the movie, meaning you don't have to buy one copy of the movie for viewing at home and another to watch on your computer. But it's been half-ignored in practice, with studios either failing to support it at all or reserving it for new releases.

* Blu-Ray is an extraordinarily lame product name (even if it's no "Xohm").

The only safe move continues to be DVD. Get an "upconverting" player and connect it to an HDTV with high-def video cables, and you'll have a risk-free solution with video quality that falls short of what's capable, but which should also be good enough for most people.

If enough customers do this, the entire format war might end in the most fitting manner possible: a nothing-nothing tie, with lots of injuries on both teams.

(Tech Digest has a cynical view of the Paramount-DreamWorks- Toshiba menage a trois here. And the New York Times has its take here.) The more I think about this, the more insane it seems. No high def in the Hulett household until there's an actual winner.

The Huffington Post's Michael Giltz has some acerbic observations about Political Correctness in films, and this paragraph about Popeye the Sailor (which we've covered before):

The worst sins of these Popeye cartoons include vile stereotypes of Japanese as World War II approached and the sight of two men fighting over a helpless woman. Among the extras are many commentary tracks, quite a number of bonus cartoons and two substantial documentaries, including "I Yam What I Yam: The Story Of Popeye the Sailor, which is relatively frank about the decline of the cartoons after the era covered in this set. (By the Seventies, Popeye wasn't even allowed to hit anyone. What's the point, wondered one animator?)

From Netribution's Nicol Wistreich in the U.K. comes this report on some commies who attack our fine free-market system:

The BuynLarge Corporation's website illustrates a future where one company effectively controls everything on the planet - from industry and media to the world clock, government, and, even North on the compass. If it want's to stop paying tax, it can. It's opponents such as anarchists and anti-consumer groups, are in fact 'customers we haven't reached yet'. To top it all the site is littered with cringable stock photography and a web-standards unfriendly Flash interface.

And the source of this smart (and wet myself funny) illustration of the nightmare Stalinist totalitarian future for unchecked global capitalism? Adbusters, perhaps? Greenpeace or Armando Iannucci or Chris Morris?

It's actually Disney subsidiary PIxar and the new promotion site for 2008's Wall-E....

While we're on the subject of cgi animated features, India is ready to release its first home-grown cg feature (the sub-contracting jobs don't count...)

ICY ‘N’ SPICY is destined to be India’s first 3D full length animation feature film. It is due for release in first week of September 2007.

It is a project which was conceived more than two years back by the young and dynamic director Anil Goyal and was brought to the drawing board nearly 18 months back...

Lastly, old Disney animation chiefs don't fade away, they just move on to new venues and projects:

The newest Disney Theatrical Productions musical, The Little Mermaid — hoping to be a big "part of your world" — officially opens at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver Aug. 23. The pre-Broadway engagement began its Colorado run July 26.

Directed by Francesca Zambello, the new musical will play in Denver through Sept. 9. Mermaid will then arrive at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, the recent home of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Nov. 3 with an official opening scheduled for Dec. 6.

Disney Theatrical Productions is under the direction of Thomas Schumacher.

Be excellent to one another.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Starz Media Thursday

My tour today was through the spacious halls of Film Roman/Starz Media, where the Simpsons crew has returned to working on half-hours of the Yellow Family's 19th season.

As one staff person said to me:

"We're slowly getting back up to speed around here. Late on the last episode we did, but that sort of happens when everybody's working on the feature...

No doubt they'll soon be at full throttle.

Meanwhile, the King of the Hill crew has moved out of Film Roman's old home on Chandler Blvd. (cheek by jowl to the San Fernando Valley's fabled "Orange Line") and back to the mother ship next to the Burbank Airport.

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Since You Mentioned It...

Mr. Reitherman

I said:

So the halls of DW/PDI are alive with the sounds of money...

And a commenter rejoined:

If you mean the halls outside management's offices, then yeah. If you mean the halls where the TDs and animators create this stuff, then no.

Joe Hale (a longtime Disney artist) said:

Know why the union gives animators "Fifty Year Awards"? Animation is the only business where you have to work fifty years..."

And Woolie Reitherman (Disney "Second Old Man") said:

Shit, I didn't get rich around here from the money they paid me. I got rich from the stock options..."

And Tom Toles said (click below):

Comics and Editorial Cartoons: Tom Toles on Yahoo! News
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So It's Not Just Animators

Pretty much speaks for itself.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Wednesday DreamWorks

I walked through an energetic ping pong tournament going at lunchtime over at Jeffrey's Place. People were into it...

Inside DW's Italianate buildings, the Bee Movie crew is into crunch time as the end of the Seinfeld epic looms up. (Flick is scheduled to be done in early September. It can't go on much longer than that, as release dates in Hollywood are solid objects set in concrete.)

Kung Fu Panda is in full production swing, and a few folks are working on the Shrek Christmas special, although most of the work is getting done up at PDI. I got questions about Personal Service Contracts, questions about the pension and health plan, the usual kinds of inquiries.

In the meanwhile, Shrek 3.0 rolls out in the Middle Kingdom day after tomorrow:

According to the China Film Group, “Shrek the Third” will be released on August 24 in digital cinema theater chains nationwide. Like “Happy Feet” shown in China earlier this year, “Shrek the Third” is another imported film limited to release to digital cinemas in the mainland market.

...First tier multiplex theaters in Beijing have been marketing “Shrek the Third” as the key-tone film for the second half of August. This week, the film’s related toys and other products from DreamWorks will begin loading on the shelves in retail points at these theaters.

So the halls of DW/PDI are alive with the sounds of money...

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New Box Office Records!

In dollars, if not ticket sales...

We can all jump and cheer as new records at the nation's turnstyles were set this summer:

Aug. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Sony Corp.'s ``Spider-Man 3'' and ``Shrek the Third'' from DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. helped fuel a record summer box office for Hollywood, with sales of $4.15 billion eclipsing the 2004 mark.

Sales from May 1 through Labor Day are projected to rise 7.8 percent from a year earlier and break the $3.95 billion U.S. record set three years ago, researcher Media By Numbers LLC said today in an e-mailed statement.

Tickets sold fell 7.3 percent to 605.8 million from the 653.4 million record set in 2002, according to Media By Numbers. They rose 3.1 percent from a year earlier. Studios released 14 sequels over the summer, the busiest time for movie-going. A record 14 films released since May 1 topped $100 million in sales, according to Encino, California-based Media By Numbers.

Even with the happy news, I think the trend-line to watch here is that the numbers of tickets sold isn't going up in any big way. Long-term, in fact, they're going down.

Hardly surprising with all the new distractions and platforms available to the average consumer (the average consumer being a fifteen-year-old male). There's video games, i-pods, i-phones, computers and big-screen teevees.

Who's got time to traipse to the corner AMC? (Thank God a sizable component of those who do hike into the stadium theaters showing animation.)

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

El Disney Walk Through

It's hard to wrap my mind around "Disney Animation Studios" after so many years of "Disney Feature Animation." But then, it used to be "Walt Disney Productions." The only constant in our ever-expanding universe is change...

My morning jaunt through the hat building found me talking to the first floor crew. Finalers are still training on software for Bolt (aka American Dog). Work on the Goofy short (How to Build a Home Entertainment Center That Really Rocks...I'm pretty sure that's the title.) is nearing completion...

Upstairs on Floor #2, Ron and John have moved into bigger, more opulent offices for Princess and the Frog. Until recently, they were up on the third floor in large broom closets.*

*A Brief History of Animated Feature Directorships at Disney:

See? An old Disney director's room. With a very young director. Behind a desk big enough to play badminton on.

In the olden days (pre-1986), Disney animated feature directors had big rooms with "director desks" the size or Rhode Island. They presided on the second floor of the original animation building. The directors had assistant directors in nearby rooms, storyboard artists, all the accoutremonts befitting their rank. There were no "story rooms" per se, just large rooms with board artists. From time to time, directors would go into these rooms and launch into story meetings where a half dozen or more staffers would magically assemble and watch the board artist tell his boards, then everyone would spitball ideas as the director methodically tore the board apart.

In the Katzenberg Disney Flower Street Days (1986-1994 in nearby Glendale. And not to be confused with the Katzenberg DreamWorks Flower Street Days -- down a few blocks at the DreamWorks campus right now), directors had smaller, sometimes windowless rooms, and board artists were sometimes in more distant locations. This was "the warehouse period" of Disney Feature Animation.

Lastly, there was the "Hat Building" period (mid-'90s to present, back in Burbank). Directors would start with the germ of a feature idea up on the third floor and develop their property in small, windowless rooms (sound familiar?).

But when the feature idea had ripened to adulthood (or at least budding adolescence), executives would smile upon it, and the feature idea would be "green-lit for production."

Then the directors would move down to the second floor of the Hat Building into unit suites where the offices were large and artwork, displays and whimsical figurines of the green-lit feature were abundant, decorating the entrance to the unit.

And so it went, for many years. And the directors' desks were the size of Rhode Island.

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Health Insurance and Pension Explained

I never got around to putting up this small cluster of factoids: At the July membership meeting, a panel of pension and health plan staffers provided info on the Motion Picture Pension and Health Plan's bennies. The high points:

The Plan (known to aficionados as MPIPHP) offers two different pensions. The so-called "defined-benefit" pension pays retirees monthly checks based on a defined formula of "qualified years and contribution hours. The Individual Account Plan (IAP) pays off a lump sum at the point of retirement"...

Since 1990, the pension, IAP and health insurance have been totally funded by employers. The health insurance and pension contributions are based on an hourly formula. (Work the year, and the monthly payout goes up $70-$80+ per annum. This is a ballpark figure. Mileage varies with the size of contributions.)

In addition to the hourly contribution, the IAP is funded by a percentage (currently 5.5%) of minimum salary, paid by the studio into the Plan.

Companies make one hour of contributions for every hour worked. To initially qualify for health benefits, participants must work at least six hundred hours in one or two consecutive six-month periods, after which they must work three hundred hours in each successive six months to continue benefits. After an employee is laid off, health benefits continue from six to fifteen months. Individuals can also qualify to use a "bank of hours" to continue coverage.

Participants who work at least four hundred hours in a year earn a "qualified year" towards pension:

  • If you have one qualified year, you are "vested" for your IAP; that is, you qualify to collect the IAP at your point of retirement;

  • Five qualified years makes you vested for the defined benefit pension plan;

  • If you are disabled, after ten qualified years and 10,000 hours you may be eligible to collect a disability pension;

  • Fifteen qualified years makes you eligible for retirement health benefits;

  • Twenty qualified years makes you eligible for early retirement at age fifty-five with a reduced benefit; and

  • Thirty qualified years makes you eligible for "special reduced early retirement" at age 55 at a higher rate (but still less than retiring at age 65).

Participants who file for a pension may work only 39.9 hours per month in the industry — that is, at either union or non-union jobs. Although the health and pension plans track hours, pensioners should keep careful records such as past paystubs.

PacifiCare (a mental health HMO) has merged with United Health and the increased access to in-network mental-health care; the MPIPHP has also recently instituted partial coverage for out-of-network mental-health care. Infertility treatments are not covered under Blue Shield but are covered under some of the HMO options.

No one panel could cover the length and breadth of issues involving benefits, but this panel really gave it a shot. We capsulize the presentation here because we really dig repetition.

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Unemployment and the Economy

Hey! But at least they're coming back up a little!

Time out for a quick economic post, with help from The Big Picture (Barry Ritholtz's fine economic and investing blog).

Barry today has some pretty good analysis of where the economy and unemployment is:

...So long as we are popping economic myths, let's also dispatch with the 4.5% unemployment rate. That number has been largely caused by several million exhaustees and others simply leaving the work force...

The actual unemployment rate is closer to 6.5%. And if we measured it the way the Europeans do, its closer to 8%. This explains why wages and labor costs have remained subdued despite the alleged 4.5% UE measure.

Anyone with more than 4 functioning brain cells should be able to figure out that a 4.5% unemployment rate would be causing huge labor shortages and wage increases.

Instead, the average income gain is merely a measure of inflation: reported gains reflect increased costs for medical care -- the exact same coverage (but with a higher copay) which costs 15% more year-over-year shows up as increased total wages.

In animation land -- as in the entertainment business generally -- employment/unemployment is way more pronounced.

Employees go from sizable salaries (relative to the national average) to unemployment in three-month, six-month, nine-month cycles. Small wonder the stress levels get so high in Toon Town. The man or woman collecting eighteen hundred or two thousand per week today might well be down registering at the Employment Development Department tomorrow.

"Project to project" is a major theme among industry workers. And the anthem in-between the work? "Bleeding ulcer to bleeding ulcer."

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Warner Bros. Animation Monday

Strolling inside the Warners/Columbia Ranch...

Like I said before, Warner Bros. Animation at the Warner Bros. (formerly Columbia) Ranch is a hell of a lot more picturesque than the Sherman Oaks Galleria. Trees, movie sets, and a slight breeze out of the Cahuenga Pass. I only wish that production was moving at a more frenzied pace.

But it isn't right now. Most of the crews from Legion and The Batman ended their gigs last week, and there are only just a few folks left. (Batman has wrapped it's fifth season, so they've pretty much topped out the number of half hours they need for perpetual syndication. Scooby Doo the DVD feature (not it's actual name) is also winding down...

Added to which, the latest Tom and Jerry series order is pretty much at an end.

Happily, there's new some super hero DVDs in development that director Bruce Timm talks about here:

..."We've got four scripts in active development, one is 'Teen Titans,' the others I can't tell you about. It's a matter of which script we get into shape at first. The ones I really wanna do are the really weird and obscure ones. I'd kind of like to try something really off trail, but there's not a big market for those."

With a bit of luck and a nudge from the new WB Animation topkick, the studio will get all those cubicles and animation desks occupied in the relatively near future.

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Battling High Def Formats

Disney and DreamWorks Animation are touting different High Def formats. How very, very spiffy.

For Disney:

The Studio announced the first animated Platinum coming to Blu-ray will be the timeless treasure Sleeping Beauty. Releasing Sleeping Beauty on Blu-ray marks a milestone for the format as these titles are not released until a format has been proven both technologically and in terms of consumer acceptance - and Disney's animated releases in the past have been a major catalysis for any format's growth.

And DreamWorks:

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 20 -- Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc. (NYSE: VIA and VIA.B) and DreamWorks Animation SKG (NYSE: DWA), each announced today that they will exclusively support the next-generation HD DVD format on a worldwide basis. The exclusive HD DVD commitment will include all movies distributed by Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Paramount Vantage, Nickelodeon Movies and MTV Films, as well as movies from DreamWorks Animation, which are distributed exclusively by Paramount Home Entertainment...

..."We decided to release "Shrek the Third" and other DreamWorks Animation titles exclusively on HD DVD because we believe it is the best format to bring high quality home entertainment to a key segment of our audience -- families," stated DreamWorks Animation CEO, Jeffrey Katzenberg. "We believe the combination of this year's low-priced HD DVD players and the commitment to release a significant number of hit titles in the fall makes HD DVD the best way to view movies at home."

This doesn't impact people like me who are barely into the DVD age and still using their old Philco televisions (with the rabbit ears). But for people who've got the big home theater and the billboard size LCD screen, it's a pain.

Because any self-respecting techo-buff is going to want to have all the big hits in high def. And he or she will either have to own two high-def players or one of those models that play both.

Like I say. A pain.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Animation Climbs to the Top of Foreign Box Office

Twentieth Century Fox and Homer Simpson are on a roll:

Fox's toon -- propelled by solid launches of $5 million in Russia and $3 million in Brazil plus respectable Euro holdover biz -- has continued to show impressive traction overseas. International cume is $270 million, or 62% of the $435 million worldwide total.

Should Sunday's estimates hold, "The Simpsons Movie" will become the only 2007 summer tentpole to take first place on four straight weekends, besting the three-peats achieved by "Shrek the Third," "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and "Spider-Man 3." The toon will have also posted the longest winning streak at the foreign box office since Fox's "Night at the Museum" won five frames in a row early in the year.

A few details re that $270 million foreign gross:

The Simpsons Movie has collected $30.1 millon in Germany.

$20.4 million in France (vs. Ratatouille's red hot $25,533,074 mill).

$21.6 million in Spain.

$22 million in Germany.

$11.7 million in Mexico.

If Fox wasn't sure how the wide-screen son of their moneyed sticom would play around the world, I guess they know now. And it's a no-brain bet that they'll be gearing up to do another one.

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Disney Channel's Blockbuster Mentality?

One of the last times I walked through Disney TVA -- the animation studios that is now run by a the Disney Channel -- an artist mournfully told me:

"The Channel hasn't greenlit any new mainstream cartoon series lately. Looks like they're going for the little kid demographic with Mickey's Clubhouse and My Friends Tigger and Pooh and going after the teens and tweens with blockbuster live action movies and series. You know, things like High School Musical..."

I've no idea whether what this veteran artist told me has the core of truth to it or not, but you wonder if he could be onto something. Especially when you see something like this:

...[E]very division at Disney is geared up for "High School Musical 2" ahead of its TV debut on Friday, with expectations running high for the movie and its franchise.

"What's different for the second one is that demand is soaring," Rich Ross, president of Disney Channel Worldwide, said in an interview. "Every division at Disney has figured out how it makes sense for their products to roll out."

Disney apparently was caught flat-footed when the original teevee flick -- which cost $4.2 million -- became a worldwide sensation that made back way more than its cost:

Disney estimates the "High School Musical" franchise will contribute an estimated $100 million in operating income in 2006 and 2007 and has forecast it will grow to $650 million in global retail sales in fiscal 2008.

Judging by the ratings for the new flick High School Musical 2 the moolah estimates are well-founded:

The Friday night premiere of the Disney Channel made-for-television movie "High School Musical 2" has set numerous ratings records and delivered the largest single audience in basic-cable television history, according to preliminary ratings reports provided by Disney.

In early overnight estimates, the debut of "High School Musical 2," a sequel to the wildly popular 2006 children's television movie about a diverse group of teenagers who learn to channel their inner theater geeks, was watched by 17.2 million viewers nationwide.

So. Is the Diz Channel going to be more excited in chasing the golden grail with cheap "all singing, all dancing" extravaganzas and allow animation to languish in the little kid ghetto? And leave it at that?

I tend not to think so. I like to believe that all this money the Channel is raking in from its new musical franchise will mean DC will get more muscular in the animated arena as well. After all, if the twelve-year-old set wants musicals in high schools, why not in 'toon-land as well? Worked pretty well for Beauty and the Beast, after all.

I guess I'll hunker down behind my keyboard and wait to see what develops.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Late Summer B.O.

It might be mid-August, but new movies continue to be rolled out in the ever-changing cavalcade of filmed entertainment.

This weekend, the pinnacle of the mountain appeared to be occupied by Superbad, the latest comedy from Judd Apatow, on a hot streak of fiery proportions (Knocked Up grossed big $ earlier in the summer.) SB took in 12.1 million on its premiere Friday, and almost everybody else moved down a notch or two...

Rush Hour 3, now at #2, collected $6,450,000 for a total of $72.8 million (rounded).

The Bourne Ultimatum garnered $5.6 million with $150,410,000 in the till.

On the animated side, the fifth place Simpsons Movie took in $1.9 million after 22 days of release for a total of $160,317,000....

And Ratatouille, currently in the 16th position, sipped a $400,000 bouillabaisse for $195.4 million after 5o days in release.

Update: The weekend results are in, and the running totals are about as expected.

Superbad tackled $31.2 million in its opening frame.

Second place Rush Hour 3 ran down $21.8 million for an $88.1 million total.

The Bourne Ultimatum snared $19 milion for a domestic haul of $164 million.

And The Simpsons Movie collected $6.7 million for a cume of $165.1 million. (This one should go past my predicted $170 million in the next seven days or so...)

Further down the list, Doug Lefler's The Last Legion finished out of the Top Ten at #12, and Ratatouille (#16) is now within spitting distance of the $200 million mark at $196.4 million...

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Lunch With Doug Lefler

Twenty-one years ago, I walked out of Disney Vice-President Ed Hansen's office dazed and shell-shocked.

Ed had just fired me, and I wasn't tracking too well. The first person I saw in the hallway was story artist Doug Lefler. He looked at me curiously.

"Are you alright?"

"Not really," I said. "I was just let go. By Ed."

Doug shook his head. "That's too bad." Pause. "Why don't I take you to lunch?"

I accepted the offer gratefully. An hour later we drove to the Bombay Bicycle Club, a Burbank restaurant long-since torn down.

I have no memory about what we talked about that day except for one thing. We ran into a pretty female background artist named Kathy, and Doug said to her:

"Steve just got fired, and we're out celebrating."

He said it in such a light, good-natured way that I actually laughed. Which was a nice trick, since I wasn't in the mood to laugh.

The reason I bring all this up here is that Doug isn't storyboarding animated features anymore. He's now a live-action director, and he has a movie coming out today called The Last Legion, which stars Ben Kingsley and Colin Firth.

Go see it.

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The Friday Imagi

Friday found me at the Imagi Studio (the U.S. version), located in the middle of the San Ferando Valley where Ventura and San Diego freeways converge.

The Mother Ship of Imagi, if you don't know, is a Hong Kong cgi animation studio that is moving briskly into animated features. Its first feature creation was TMNT (just out on DVD), which got them noticed.

Now they're working on Gatchaman and Astro Boy, with international releases in both of their futures. To that end, Imagi has hired crack story development crews -- artists from DreamWorks, Disney and other points on the creative compass -- so the studio is serious about going toe to toe with other feature animation producers. As one storyboarder said:

"Astro Boy and Gotchaman were originally Japanese anime, but Imagi wants to broaden out from the original Japanese product, which I think is smart. They stay in the Japanese anime realm, they're not going to be as salable in the rest of the world..."

The artists I chatted with are happy to be working for Imagi. Most had job offers elsewhere, but they wanted to work for a new player and work on something with a different flavor to it.

They think Imagi does that for them.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Oregon Beach in August

Most Ralph Hulett artwork I put up comes out of the stash held by one farflung family member or other. But this one is just a lousy image grab off the intertubes.

Because it's late and I'm lazy.

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Linky Toony

Bill Hanna on his birthday, circa 1994. With Andy Bialk on the left and Miles Thompson on the other side.

Good golly, where does the time go? Another week and another sweep through the blogosphere vacuming up cartoon-related jams and jellies.

Bonnie Jean Hanna remembers her dear old dad William H.:

“When he started the studio, he actually made all of the artists’ tables in our garage and my mother would send me out there and say, ‘Watch your father. If he cuts a finger off, run out and tell me.’”

Toon Zone takes a look at the latest DVD compilation of the well-loved Animaniacs.

Animaniacs was like an animated version of Saturday Night Live: There were recurring sketches every week, and while some were funny, others weren't. In A!'s case, the best skits usually came from the Warners themselves, Pinky and the Brain, Slappy Squirrel, and occasionally the Goodfeathers. The stinkers were almost always Mindy and Buttons, Rita and Runt, and Chicken Boo.

Pixar animation supe Dylan Brown talks about the creative process for Ratatouille:

[O]n this film, it was a four-year process, and often things which looks great on the conceptual designs or the storyboard don’t work the same way on the screen. The muzzles on the rats looked fine on paper, but when animated, you couldn’t see both their eyes at the same time and therefore couldn’t see their expressions properly. They have to seem like living, breathing creatures for us to make the right connection with the audience.’

The Hollywood Reporter points out that Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas is becoming a holiday perennial:

The Walt Disney Co's October rerelease of "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" in 3-D digital cinema proved a success, playing in 168 theaters ... It even ran in some venues until New Year's Day.

On Oct. 19, Disney again is rereleasing the film, but this year the studio is planning a 4-week run in about 600 theaters ...

3-D now ... 3-D forever.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Mid-Week Studio Steeple Chase

The last few days I've tromped through DisneyToons Studio and Disney TV Animation, also the Nickelodeon Fun Factory.

There's not a lot to report in the way of new shows. I'm told that the old show My Friends Tigger and Pooh (this is the CGI version of the Milne characters, if you're keeping a scorecard), now in its second season, will be moving from the Disney lot to the Disney Glendale facility.

Although there's still quite a bit of work at the studios, employment is pretty "status quo" with a few series, such as Emperor's New School wrapping up and others still in limbo about renewals.

At DisneyToons, Tinkerbell is moving through another pass on its way to a second Lasseter review, and the first sequel to the Tink feature is moving along.

Climbing up to the Toons facility, I was visually struck by the new decor -- lots of retro '50s type stuff: furniture, big hanging lights, it's actually quite cool. And the newer white cubicles have been altered a bit. A little less of the feeling of Civil War tents in a Pennsylvania meadow. (Okay. One cluster feels like General Grant's going to arrive any minute, but other than that...)

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Sh*tty Producers


Yesterday's forum included this astute observation:

If you are the producer of an animated film/show/commercial and you can't get the job done on time, on budget and WITHOUT breaking the backs of your workers - you, sir/madame, ARE A SHITTY PRODUCER.

Executives don't seem to appreciate that accomplishing all of those tasks is a big part of a producer's job - and if you're unable to get your job done without your underlings working tons of overtime, you're not suited to be a producer.

True enough. But it isn't simply that there are louts at the helm of tv productions. It's -- in part -- the system itself...

When the production pipeline is structured so that line producers, exec producers or whomever are rewarded for coming in under the schedules and budgets that are already as tight as oiled drumheads, then the system is ripe for abuse.

Earlier this week, I talked to artists on a t.v production at one of the major studios. They're getting paid overtime. They're also working long weekends and weekdays because of the schedule. Arms are starting to get blown out.

So I went to a production honcho, and laid out the scenario her for her, detailed the problems and complaints. How arms and wrists are giving out. I've known this person a long time, and she's never been unreasonable. She said:

"We don't want people to break down from the schedules. If people need a weekend off, they should take it. We're not going to blacklist anybody. I've got one artist who works very little overtime and we always rehire him. We don't require they do every bit of o.t., we ask that people do it. But we would like them to do some..."

The artists' responses?

"If I don't take the work, they'll give it to somebody else, and my producer will remember"..."I won't get hired back"..."I gotta do it, I don't care what [blank] says..."

And on another production, an artist told me "They expect people to do a set amount of work week to week, and if they don't do it, those people aren't hired back for the next season..."

In the years I've roamed around the studio landscapes, here are (in order of perceived importance) the reasons people get cut loose:

1) They're totally inept and unsuited for the job.

2) They're hard to get along with.

3) They're slow and miss deadlines.

4) They come in at noon every day.

5) They're drunk every afternoon.

Obviously everyone can add or subtract from the above. I've left out "gross insubordination/stealing" because those are listed in the contract as firing offenses. (My father-in-law, at the end of a 35-year animation career, told his much younger supervisor at Warner Bros. Animation to "go to hell" one bright afternoon, and was dismissed. I was doing this job at the time, but there wasn't much I could do to save him, and he didn't ask me to. Gross insubordination is gross insubordination.)

In coming weeks, I'm going to run an informal poll about schedules and workloads, and try and determine how they've changed over the years. I know there is no perfect ideal. In my far-off youth, I used to listen to Disney veterans speak grimly about the working conditions they endured in the 1930s. Crappy conditions ebb and flow, for a wide variety of reasons. All any mortal can do is work to make conditions better.

*This is, ah, chocolate pudding, not the other thing. But it seemed like a nice visual touch.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Labor Talks Don't Resume. Big Surprise.

Remember when the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was slamming the WGA for not negotiating early? Remember how the AMPTP and WGA were only taking a short break because the Teamsters negotiations had to get finished?

If you don't, it's a fact anyway. And the Teamsters deal has been wrapped up with a bow and sent out for ratification, so the wga-amptp talks should be kicking back into gear, right?


Billed as a brief hiatus for the crafts talks, it now appears that the break in negotiations with the WGA might stretch beyond Labor Day. Blame a surfeit of logistical challenges and a shortage of compelling reasons for re-engaging, sources said.

Screw the sources. If you believe studio gossip, it's not the logistics that are slowing down any restart. It's the fact that the parties are a couple of hundred light years apart.

I had lunch earlier in the week with a bunch of studio people. An exec from one of the congloms said:

"It's a mess, total mess. The WGA wants a big cut of all the new platforms they think are going to be big revenue streams, and the studios don't want to give it to them.

Everybody is pretty much expecting a strike. At best, there'll be a de facto strike."

Most people, it seems, are expecting the obvious scenario: No agreement at the expiration of the Writers Agreement. No walkout by writers. Long wait to see how the SAG talks go. And if SAG walks, the WGA walks.

The Wild Card, as always, is the Directors Guild of America, which is prone to negotiating early, reaching an agreement that serves its members, and (often, but not always) undercutting the bargaining positions of the WGA and SAG.

Maybe not this time, however. We get to wait and see.

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DAS Walkabout

Disney Animation Studio, if you're not up to speed with the above acronym.

I hadn't been there in a while, but got over to the hat building yesterday afternoon. Bolt is moving into production, with finalers getting educated on the new tools (images of picks, shovels and rakes flicker in my head, but it's actually computer software I'm talking about.)

A few production staffers are fully engaged, but many are still in launch pad phase -- knowing the big production wave will soon crash onshore, even as the beachfront stays quiet...

Up on the third floor, the various story crews work on the latest passes of their respective pictures. The work tempo moves to a faster beat than it did in my time (I've had this confirmed by grizzled veterans.)

What I'm saying is, nobody dawdles. And nobody waits for Woolie Reitherman to make an appearance in his own sweet time. Everybody has a schedule, and the keep it.

And everybody does more drawings in the digital age. As a story guy said to me at 4:40 p.m:

"Bill Peet couldn't make it on the kind of boards he used to do. Which is kind of too bad. You could get through the story quicker then, and find out what wasn't working. Now there's way more panels."

Nothing remains the same, not even ace storyboards. The only constant in the universe is change.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

And Yet Overtime

I got an e-mail today from one of my labor relations pals at a Major Studio. ("Labor Relations Departments" are part of every large company, staffed by lawyers and non-lawyers. They deal with all the different Hollywood Unions. Of which we are one.)

He's part of the committee with which TAG will be meeting about overtime issues, and his message, slightly paraphrased, goes as follows:

We're still working to get the whole committee together for a meeting, and it's difficult with all the other talks going on. But we're working on it..

If you could get us a list of examples for non-payment of overtime, that would be helpful...

And so forth and so on.

Now. I have my own list of uncompensated overtime problems, but if you have firsthand knowledge of examples of non-payment of o.t. at one of our signator studios*, I would like you to put your example down below in comments.

And if you want to be part of the o.t. committee, e-mail me or call me at the office.

*DreamWorks, Disney, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros. Animation, Universal Cartoon Studios, Sony Adelaide ... or some studio I've overlooked.

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Was Buying Pixar a Titanic Decision? Probably.

The reason it's Titanic (meaning fine, meaning okay) is simple. You can't put a price tag on the capture of lightning in a bottle...

You also can't calculate the damage that would have been done to the Walt Disney Company if Pixar had been allowed to waltz off to some other conglomerate and cut a deal there. But Robert Iger and some of Disney's green eyeshade boys made mathmatical equations, and Mr. Iger obviously wasn't willing to go near the answer to that particular question. He made a decision made under duress, but he made (I think) the right one.

Now, did Steve Jobs drive a hard bargain after that decision? Sure. He was in the driver's seat, knew it, and therefore drove.

He's not a billionaire for nothing.

So let's look at Pixar's box office -- the reason that the hard-bargaining and decision to buy -- occured in the first place: Pixar has never had a box office loser.

I mean, they're 8-0.

You can make a to-do over the fact that the company's performance trendline is down, but only fools believe that 800 million to billion dollar worldwide grosses are the norm.

Ratatoutille might be a "disappointment" for someone convinced that John Lasseter and the Pixar brain trust have a magical set of keys to $300 million domestic ticket sales every time one of their features goes into wide release, but there are too many variables for any sane person to get that kind of religion. Take one example from commenter Joe Shelby:

Rat was hit hard not just by a difficult marketing job given its "is not Disney / is now Disney" history. It was also hit extremely hard, as I posted on JHM, by the largest summer blockbuster competition in history (every weekend a new release) driven entirely by sequels to well established franchises.

Yet even with all the heavy hitters north and south of it, Ratatouille now closes in on $200 million domestically, and is doing fine overseas:

The launch of Disney-Pixar toon "Ratatouille" in Gaul over the Aug. 3 frame scored the Mouse House its second-best opening ever in that country, after Pixar's "Finding Nemo."

"Ratatouille" ... made $11.4 million from 721 runs, beating out holdover "The Simpsons Movie."

Disney-Pixar toon also led in its Spain launch, cooking up $3.5 million. Pic is expected to have good staying power...

Staying power, it's a wonderful thing. Remember Titanic? That costume epic that collected all those Academy Awards, and $1.8 billion at the box office? When writer-director James Cameron went over budget before its socko release, Fox executives were a trifle concerned, because Fox was holding the bag for the lion's share of the budget (even though Viacom was in for a big piece of the action.)

But this was only one of the problems. The picture's complicated post-production wasn't completed in time for the original big summer launch date, so the decision (considered risky at the time) was made to roll it out at Christmas instead of the following summer.

Commentators wrung their hands, saying Fox was making a bad choice not releasing it when the kids were out of school. "Bad move...Disaster in the making...Fox's donnybrook..." etc., etc.

But how disastrous could the results have really been? James Cameron, after all, was batting 1.000. Terminator, Terminator2, The Abyss, True Lies. All hits.

And the "risky, foolish" decision turned out to be the right one. Titanic opened with a good but not great $25 million. Then, week after week, the $25 million gross never went down. Staying power.

That corporate decision, made under duress, turned out to be genius. Because the big ship sailed calm box office seas, far away from all the summertime icebergs and ended up a winner. (And wasn't that fortuitous?) And Fox today is still in business with James Cameron, despite the huge budgets and cost overruns for which Mr. C. is famous.

All of this seemed kind of obvious after the fact. It certainly didn't before. Perfect vision occurs only when you're looking over your shoulder, not when you're squinting at the landscape out ahead.

But let's return to Disney's purchase of Pixar. Was it a bad choice? Is it a disaster in the making? Maybe, if the Pixar Brain Trust goes down in the corporate plane. Otherwise, it's a completely rational and okay decision. Just like backing James Cameron was a rational and okay decision a decade ago.

This is Hollywood, after all. Going in, you know you're making decisions about trapping lightning in bottles. And playing the odds.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sunday Toon Links

Okay, it's a day late. Maybe two. But here's the usual 'toon news from various points of the globe...

In lieu of new ideas, Hollywood continues to mine its rich, deep history of boffo properties just aching to be remade:

Hollywood's search for toons-to-film has certainly intensified over the last year. Here's a rundown of all we know so far about the various live-action adaptations of cartoons currently in-development. We're leaving out The Simpsons Movie, as well as The Smurfs and Astro Boy, both of which are being developed as CG-animated features:

Alvin and the Chipmunks: This Fox-Regency live-action/CG-animated adaptation of the cartoon characters created by Ross Bagdasarian Sr. is due out in theaters December 14...

...He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: Speed Racer and Matrix producer Joel Silver and Warner Bros. are teaming for a new big-screen version of the cartoon/toy/comic book franchise...

Talking about animated features, here's one more interview from the godfathers of the top animated film now in the movie marketplace:

Groening: I always thought that the series would be successful. I thought if we could get it on the air, I thought kids would tune in for sure. I didn’t know if adults would give an animated prime time TV series a chance, but I thought kids would. And the fact is, adults did too. I would say that one of the interesting things about this whole process has been as famous and big as The Simpsons have been around the world for the last eighteen years, we were basically working in the dark...

And get on board for Pixar's Monopoly, coming to a Toys R Us near you?? (Nothing is sacrosanct...)

Variety reports that dubbing of major international movie releases -- both animated and live-action -- has turned into a major industry...and headache:

Hollywood tentpoles are primarily dubbed in London for European audiences, Bangkok for Asian moviegoers and Mexico City for Latin American viewers. Otherwise, dubbing takes place in the individual territories, with audiences in France, Italy, Germany and Spain the most avid lovers of such voiceovers.

But the pressure on dubbers is increasing as studios make 11th-hour CGI tweaks and delay delivery of the pics. To foil pirates, Hollywood majors have started to send over top-secret reels that are often very poor quality, likely to have scenes blacked out, boilerplate sound, no effects, and lots of watermarks -- besides being out-of-sequence...

DreamWorks (live-action and animation) is soon to rack up $1 billion in worldwide box office, a first for the entity. Of course, the live-action sleeve is now part of the Paramount-Viacom family, while DreamWorks Animation is a stand-alone company. But still...

It may have taken more than a decade, but Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen's DreamWorks finally leads in market share and is weeks away from crossing the $1 billion mark at the domestic box office.

...there's plenty for Geffen, Spielberg and Katzenberg to celebrate as they enjoy the sort of success that often eluded them as they tried to build DreamWorks into a major studio.

This year, their films have grossed roughly $980 million at the domestic box office, making up the lion's share of Paramount's B.O. bounty and turning Par into the market share leader at $1.1 billion, or 18.8%.

The NickToons Animation festival was on display at Nick's Burbank studio today. A report on it here:

"In its fourth year, the Nicktoons Network Animation Festival continues to grow in both scope and scale," Keith Dawkins, Vice President and General Manager, Nicktoons Network commented in a press article.

"Filmmakers and industry tastemakers from around the globe continue to recognize the festival as a vehicle for the development of truly original animated content and we are proud to be such a destination."

We overlooked this think piece from the Washington Post's Alex Remington, but since it's still relevant, we link to it now (and overlook Remington's tired -- and inaccurate -- swipe at Disney's "anti-Semitism"):

...why should the disappearance of hand-drawn animation from the big screen be mourned? The historic influence of American animation is impossible to overstate, which is why its decline has been so hard to swallow. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny have informed directors from Sergei Eisenstein to Blake Edwards, Hayao Miyazaki to Jerry Zucker, and their cartoons stand, like Shakespeare, both as the most influential work in their medium and as its pinnacle. The Simpsons Movie will be the first major American two-dimensional animated film to hit the big screen in several years, and it is significant as a continuation of that tradition.

And this new animated series, outside the norm for Disney, has been taking shape at Starz Media on Hollywood Way:

ABC Family Channel, owned by the Walt Disney Co, is playing against type in a press kit to promote its edgy new animated series, “Slacker Cats.”

Disney, which is famous for its immaculate presentations of its G-rated products, sent out a booklet describing the new show with an apparent coffee stain on the cover and containing the un-Disney-like phrase “half-assed” to describe the antics of the two feline main characters.

We end with this item from the Seattle Times: "So Maybe Popeye Isn't PC," which ruminates on the sailor man (whose DVD set we noted earlier) being insensitive to the our times because he's still running on the cultural mores of the, ahm, 1930s. (How dare he.)

"The animated shorts you are about to see are a product of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic, sexist and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following shorts do not represent the Warner Bros. view of today's society, these animated shorts are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed."

Back at you, Warner: Thanks for not sanitizing history, but there's no need to be so sniveling about it. All of that goes without saying, except for morons.

Have a glorious week

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