Sunday, September 30, 2007

Surviving Job Stress and Nasty Deadlines

I know I beat on the subject of insane quotas and unpaid overtime like a sadist whipping a stubborn horse, but since Kathleen Milnes brought this piece to my attention, I offer it to you. Joseph Gilland, a long-time animation vet, offers some sage advice:

I see too many people in the business (myself once upon a time included) with some kind of victim/martyr complex who let themselves get treated like absolute slaves. If you let them get away with it, they will use you all up, believe me. But there is a fine line between really working your ass off, and letting yourself be abused. Recognize that line. When you are overtired, and need some rest, be clear about it. Leave when you need to, and don't let people guilt-trip you.

When I was cranking out television scripts, the story editor leaned on me relentlessly to get my current half-hour masterpiece off of my desk and onto his as quickly as possible.

"Done yet? I need it like yesterday." ... "What page are you on?" Etc.

Full confession: Though I was a TAG executive board member at the time, I took work home and worked extra hours without additional compensation. However, ninety-five percent of my off-the-clock work happened in the first three weeks I was a staff writer. I knew it was violating the contract, but I was busting my hump to prove myself. And I had made up my mind to do whatever it took, even if that meant ignoring work rules.

But once I turned in my first script, found out the editor liked it, and knew I was on firmer ground, I stopped doing unpaid late-hours work. I still busted my hump, but I did it nine-to-five. And if my boss Arthur got the thirty-five page opus a day late, he got it a day late.

In the eighteen years I've been business representative, I've never not known there to be pressure to do things "faster, better, cheaper" because production management is always focused on costs. But employees need to be smart about how they respond to the Golden Oldie: "We need this tomorrow and there's no money in the budget for overtime..."

Do what you need to do. But whatever it ends up being, don't dig yourself into a hole so deep that only a block and mile-long tackle will get you out.

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The Box Office Slugfest

Here at the tail end of September, no tent poles are being planted. Autumn is the time of year when film with lesser expectations make their appearance.

Newbies The Game Plan and The Kingdom, neither with sterling reviews, finish one-two for the weekend. The Game Plan with $22,675,000, and The Kingdom with $17,694,000.

Resident Evil, last week's winner, declines a steep 66% -- the usual fate of a horror flick -- to gun down $8,000,000 for a $36.8 million total.

There aren't any animated film in current competition, Ratatouille and The Simpsons Movie having run their lucrative courses.

The two big film currently in release, Evan Almighty and Dragon Wars, haven't exactly been burning up the box office. Almighty, with a reputed $175 million price tag, just ticked over $100 million this weekend (something I doubted it would do.) It stands at #43 with a $100,291,000 total.

Dragon Wars, which has wowed them in South Korea, has evidently left audiences numb over here. This weekend it fell 59.3%, dropping from #10 to #17, and has taken in a whopping $10 million.

Interestingly, the non-C.G. $55 million western 3:10 to Yuma has declined less than any other film in the marketplace on a week-to-week basis. This week it dropped 34.2%, took in another $4 million, and now has a cume of $43.9 million...

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Animating Links

Another spate of news from which you can choose:

Jerry Seinfeld is out there publicizing the Next Big Thing from DreamWorks. And why not, since he wrote, acted and produced it...

"Why'd you want to do a movie about bees, Jerry?"

Here's the answer: "I just thought bees are funny. They live in a small company. They have a product. They have offices. They have bosses. They have employees and schedules. So it seemed like a little corporation hanging from a tree. And I thought that's a good situation for a movie."

C. W. Oberleitner dishes generalized gossip on O-Meon's "Animation Grapevine":

If the Goofy short is as big a hit with audiences as the folks at Disney think it will be, it could usher in the return of a dedicated shorts unit to the Burbank animation studio. With parent studio Walt Disney Pictures planning on releasing fewer than 12 films a year, it’s conceivable that each could be preceded by a cartoon short.

(The small digital loops that I've seen look excellent...)

One of TAG's most recent signator studios -- Imagi -- has just signed a distribution deal with Warner Bros. and the Weinstein Co.:

Warner Bros. Pictures, The Weinstein Company and Imagi Animation Studios agreed upon principal terms for the worldwide distribution of the feature films Gatchaman and AstroBoy...

Featuring some of the most ambitious action sequences ever seen in animation, Gatchaman is set in a future world grappling with environmental and technological issues. The story focuses on five reluctant heroes whose remarkable genetic code makes them Earth's only hope of defeating extra-terrestrial invaders. Kevin Munroe (TMNT) is the director, with Lynne Southerland producing...

Slated for release later in 2009, AstroBoy was created by the "god of manga," Japan's Osamu Tezuka, in the early 1950s. The animated television series first aired in 1963 in Japan and found great acclaim and success around the world. In the U.S., it quickly became a top syndicated children's show. The iconic character's fame grew in the 1980s and 2003 with two new AstroBoy TV series attracting new generations of fans...

There's also a raft of reviews for "Superman/Doomsday", the new Warner Bros. Animation dvd feature directed by Bruce Timm:

Timm and co. manage to create one of the better Superman films to date with animation that takes an edgier angle on the past Timm style. Superman looks more mature, less wholesome and he’s constantly draped in shade, while Doomsday gives him a better outlook on his importance that he questioned in “Superman Returns.”

Trouble in paradise. A couple of trouble-makers get collared at Hong Kong Disneyland for ... dare I mention it? ... rabble rousing:

HONG KONG, China (AP) -- Police arrested two protesters during a parade at Hong Kong Disneyland after they lifted banners accusing The Walt Disney Company of labor abuses in China, police said Thursday.

Hong Kong Disneyland CEO Bill Ernest and Mickey Mouse celebrate theme park's first anniversary in 2006.

The two men, identified only by the surnames Yau and Lai, disrupted the parade as they scuffled with park workers who tried to stop them, police spokeswoman Celia Tam said.

Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper reported Thursday that the banners said "Disney exploits Chinese labor."

Who could have imagined such a thing? Have a spiffy weekend.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Ralph Hulett on mood

Colosseum part 5

From my father's Walter Foster book, "Painting City & Village Streets Around The World," the steps towards the cover illustration at the right. (Click on the images for a full-sized version.)

Down the Street from the Roman Forum, we see one of the most famous ruins in the world, the Colosseum. This huge amphitheater was constructed about two thousand years ago. It comfortably seated forty=five thousand people. For many years, after the fall of Rome, People hauled away parts of it to make lesser buildings. In the 1700s Pope Benedict XIV saved the building from complete destruction. Today the Colosseum appears the same as when Benedict issued his edict.
Colosseum part 1

1. At this point we know what the composition consists of. We want a fluid sky (in movement) that will play against an architectural shape.

Colosseum part 2

2. Introduce strong values in the foreground and sky. The light and dark pattern starts to emerge.

Colosseum part 3

3. Bring the dark shapes down into the foreground. Thsi helps give the composition a solid foundation

Colosseum part 4

4. Bring more local color into the scene such as green in the foliage, and red into the sky.

Colosseum part 5

5. Once the general balance of the picture is set we will use the painting knife to set the textures and the color.

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"I Got Tired of Making Not Much Money"

A few days back, I met a digital animator who had moved down from the Bay area some months ago. He had an interesting story to tell:

"I worked up north for over six years. At the studio where I worked, you have to have a champion who touts you for the next picture or you get laid off.

"I was lucky, I had people who helped me get picked up. But if you're down in the middle ranks like I was, never getting cut loose but never getting up to the top rungs, you don't make a lot of money. Of course they frown on you sharing wage information with other people you work with.

"And management comes to you when you get restless and says: 'Hey, if you factor in the bonuses and the stock options, you're doing pretty well.' But a lot of the people in my department, they had to sell their stock options to make ends meet. One day at a meeting a manager asked a group of us if we had still had options left. Only about thirty percent of the employees raised their hands.

"And I thought to myself: 'Okay, that's enough for me. I'm moving to L.A.' Three weeks later I did."

This is a tale I've heard (with variations) for the whole time I've been doing this job: Artist works at a place for years, can never get more than a $25 raise. Finally the artist quits in frustration and goes to a new studio and increases his salary by 50%.

I still have memories of my father relating how an acquaintance from Europe asked how Dad could work at Walt Disney Productions for such paltry money: "You let this man Disney take advantage of you! I don't know why all the artists stay there year after year..."

Father never tired of the thin Disney money. He had other gigs going.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Whoops. Disney Cell Phone Bites Dust

This is unfortunate. The Disney Co. is giving up on the Disney cell phone (chock full of Disney content):

Walt Disney launched Mobile ESPN and Disney Mobile last year as mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs... However, Disney failed to make headway with the big-box retailers and find outlets to sell its phones and related services...

Disney will instead license its content to bigger carriers to sell. Earlier this year, it forged a partnership with Verizon Wireless, which is owned by Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC, to sell ESPN sports news and video. Disney said yesterday it is considering offering some of its Disney-branded services through a partnership with a major carrier. Disney Mobile included services that let parents locate their kids as well as content such as ring tones and games with Mickey Mouse and other Disney stars...

It seems like only yesterday I was sitting at a Disney stockholder meeting watching John Lasseter roll out a lengthy clip of Cars ... but before John unspooled that chunk of film, Robert Iger got up and announced Disney's big cell phone initiative.

And now, one year and seven months later, a large part of that phone deal is kaput. Marketplace realities are often cold and cruel. Even to big, wealthy conglomerates.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Cartoon Network

At the membership meeting last night, a member asked about "Cartoon Network shutting down."

The info came from a participant at Animation Nation who wrote:

Word on the street is that Cartoon Network is not renewing any of their shows, and then they are planning on doing a major corporate revamp. Meaning they won't have any art jobs for 2-3 years.

There was an added request for confirmation of this scuttlebutt.

So your intrepid reporter commenced rooting about at CN and came up with these observations from two CN mucky mucks:

"Steve, I've been here for a bunch of years now, and the first thing I heard when I arrived was that Time-Warner couldn't have two animation divisions, that we were going to merge with Warner Bros. Animation. We're still here. It's true that the division is being retooled and reworked. We haven't been doing well in the ratings, like we're a distant third after the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. But we've got several different series going, Out of Jimmy's Head, Foster's , Chowder, Flapjack, Transformers, Ben 10 and some new series in development. But no question that we're going through changes..."

"...The new head of the division is doing analyses of what kinds of shows we'll be doing, seeing if we'll do more live action, since the Disney Channel is being real succesful with their live action shows and movies. But we're still in the cartoon business..."

An artist upstairs who works on Fosters says they're going on hiatus for two months but will be back for a new season of the show. And Chowder, not yet aired, has been picked up for a new half season (six additional episodes).

Now. It could be that execs are blowing smoke up my hindquarters. Wouldn't be the first time. And it could be that the people I've talked to haven't been clued to the whole story of what's really going on at CN.

But as of right now, I would have to say that the studio isn't going anywhere, although it's going through some wrenching changes. Naturally, I could be wrong.

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El Falling Dollar

Oh. Here's another question from Tuesday TAG member meeting: "Is the rising Canadian dollar going to keep jobs here?"

Before I tell you what I said, let's look at what Starz Media's CEO thinks:

"If you're going to do CGI, the dollar (exchange rate) has no bearing, [Starz Entertainment Group Chairman and CEO Robert] Clasen said Tuesday evening as he cut the ribbon on Starz Animation Toronto, a 45,000 square-foot 3-D cartoon and visual effects factory.

First off. What do you expect the Starz Media CEO to say as he's opening a big 'toon studio in Toronto? ("Ooh. Look at the rising Canadian dollar. This place is getting sooo un-economical. We are so outta here!")

Don't think so.

Of course it has an economic impact. We're talking $$$ here folks. Moolah is always a big lever on corporate decisions. Just ask the laid off inkers and painters at Hanna-Barbera in the 1980s. (Now, Mr. C. is also right -- partly -- about a stable and trained workforce being a factor. Toronto will be a player into the future because it has a pool of skilled artists and technicians. But the rising Canadian dollar having zero impact? Come on already. We didn't just step off the Metrolink train from Chicken Run, California.)

Second off. I said that the falling dollar will certainly have an impact on employment. You can see it in the rising export statistics, in the American factories that are humming along with foreign orders.

More and more, we're becoming an international bargain.

This is one of the results of running an aggregate deficit (government and trade combined) that totals 6.5% of GDP.

As Reagan's assistant secreatry of the treasury Paul Craig Roberts said on the radio yesterday: "We're getting close to having the currency of a banana republic."

So stuff at Costco will start costing lots of money, but we'll all have plenty of work.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

TAG 2007 Officer Nominations

A looong membership meeting tonight, with a fresh slate of officer and executive board nominees for our upcoming election -- some old and some new.

For President:

  • Francis Glebas

  • Kevin Koch (incumbent)

For Vice President: Earl Kress (incumbent, unopposed).

For Business Agent: Steve Hulett (incumbent, unopposed).

For Recording Secretary: Jeff Massie (incumbent, unopposed).

For Sergeant-At-Arms: Jan Browning (incumbent, unopposed).

For TAG's Executive Board, thirteen candidates for eleven seats:

  • Bronwen Barry (incumbent)

  • Russell Calabrese (incumbent)

  • John Cataldi (incumbent)

  • Nicole Dubuc

  • Bob Foster (incumbent)

  • Cathlin Hidalgo

  • Janette Hulett (incumbent)

  • Karen Carnegie Johnson

  • Cathy Jones (incumbent)

  • Nathan Loofbourrow (incumbent)

  • Karen Nugent (incumbent)

  • Matt Wayne

  • Stephan Zupkas (incumbent)

Since I'm unopposed I'll be continuing with the TAG Blog. The candidates will be blogging over at the TAG Election Blog.

Best of luck to one and all.

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401(k) International Index Fund

In the last few minutes before tonight's General Membership meeting, let me do a little house cleaning and catch-up.

A commentator recently asked about getting a less expensive international fund tucked into the TAG 401(k) Plan. Here's what we came up with:

Mass Mutual has made available the State Street International Equity Index Fund with a .68% admin fee (that's 68 basis points). It's almost a percent less expensive than the managed international funds now available.

This index fund is rated three stars by Morningstar (pretty normal for an index) and it gives exposure to large cap foreign stocks in Europe, Japan and the Pacific basin. (There's a .2% exposure to South America, but we're not talking about a lot of emerging market equities here.)

The fund tracks the MSCI EAFE index that contains approximately 1200 foreign stocks.

Naturally, the TAG 401(k) Plan trustees will have to sign off on adding this fund, but we'll hopefully get it into the plan in the near future.

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A Day In Rotenburg

Rotenberg, afternoon

Three more Ralph Hulett paintings -- these in oil. (Ordinarily I would post these puppies later in the week, but ... no time like the present ...) .

Rotenberg, morning and evening

The different studies here are from -- again -- a Walter Foster art book. Here's Mr. Hulett describing his paintings and techniques:

Color is very important in helping create various moods. Here, I have tried to demonstrate several different moods using a common composition. The palette used for these three paintings is shown above. All of the colors for each picture are listed in the procedures.

This scene is inspired by a quaint little medieval town in the southern part of Germany. The village is entirely walled. The story-book buildings are timbered and have steep, pitched roofs. Its name is Rotenburg, and it is one of the most interesting villages I've ever visited.

Procedure - "Evening Rotenburg." I washed in dark buildings. Next I did sky and foreground. The lights in the windows and the figures were put in last. COLORS: monastral blue, viridian green, burnt umber, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, alizirian crimson, and white.

"Morning Rotenburg." I again washed in buildings, sky and foreground. After the underpainting was dry, I painted the sky and foreground with warm colors. Finally, the figures were defined. COLORS. cadmium organt, alizirian crimson, cobalt blue, burnt umber and white.

"Afternoon Rotenburg." I established light and dark patterns with thin washes (use turpentine or light fluid for a medium to dilute oil paint.) After the rough pattern and color was organized, I used a palette knife and undiluted pigment to build up the texture.

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Strikes and the Harbingers of Strikes

Workers went out on strike at GM yesterday morning. Seems the UAW and management just couldn't find enough common ground:

Thousands of UAW members who work for GM walked off the job at 11 a.m. today — 9 days after a 4-year contract was set to expire. The contract had been extended hour by hour, until late last night when the UAW issued the strike deadline.

UAW Ron Gettelfinger said during a noontime press conference that the union will continue to negotiate with GM while workers picket.

“We were very disappointed in this round of negotiation to discover as we moved forward that it was a one-way set of negotiations. It was going to be General Motors way at the expense of the workers,” Gettelfinger said.

Of course, there are always two sides to every argument:

“We are disappointed in the UAW’s decision to call a national strike. The bargaining involves complex, difficult issues that affect the job security of our U.S. workforce and the long-term viability of the company. We will continue focusing our efforts on reaching an agreement as soon as possible,” Flores said.

The crux of the matter, according to the United Auto Workers, is that GM wants rollbacks and the UAW seeks assurances that jobs stay in the country.

So maybe we are in a time of union activism, who knows? The UAW hasn't staged a national walkout for decades. And in the entertainment biz (labor division) there is this:

TV writer and producer Michael Winship was elected president of the WGA East Friday, receiving 67.7% of the votes.

"I'm taking office at a critical time in the guild's history and will work on behalf of all of our members," Winship said. "Together, we will fight to get the too long denied respectful, fair and decent contracts for our members at ABC News and CBS News and work diligently and closely with our esteemed colleagues at the WGA West as we continue our MBA contract negotiations."

So labor militancy is rising on different fronts. I have the idea that everything is interconnected, that events and movements don't happen in a vacume but are tied to one another. People seemed to be bent out of shape for some reason...

The UAW strike against GM might point toward job actions this year or next in the movie and television industry. (Certainly, if SAG and the WGA walk out, it could impact employment in the 'toon business.)

I mention these things because forewarned is forearmed. In other words, hope for the best -- unbroken stretches of work -- and plan for the possibility of a strike.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

El Disney Boom

Now that my 401(k) enrollment duties are over, I was back to the usual studio rounds.

The deal just now at Disney Animation Studios on the hand-drawn front is the Toon Boom Harmony software. (These are programs designed for hand-drawn animated product. No hole-punched paper. No eraser crumbs. Just fire up the computer, put your stylus down on the cintiq screen, and have at it.)

Is it good...and getting better? Or is it, you know, not good?

I fell into a long conversation about the pros and cons of with an animator who happens to like the software a lot. He said he has no trouble using it, likes the convenience of not traipsing down the hall to shoot his drawings, likes the new erasable functions of the program.

"But there's still animators here that love paper and don't like doing their drawing on a computer screen. They're like, really strong against it. But the Harmony people have really improved the product from when we first started using it, so I think it's the way we'll go..."

But then I've heard from clean-up artists who say that using the software is like wearing mittens and using a magic marker when they try to get the line the want, so go figure.

And the studio, I'm told, is still weighing other programs and hasn't locked in Toon Boom Harmony as their ultimate software of choice. But it seems to be what's happening for the two hand-drawn shorts now in production.

Draw your own conclusions.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Animated Feature Grosses Overseas

And here are how various animated features are performing in foreign lands through September 16. As tallied and reported by Variety:

In Germany, Surf's Up came in at #3 with a $1.1 million take. From Variety:

Coming in No. 10 over the Sept. 14-16 frame was Sony's toon "Surf's Up," which grossed $3.2 million for an overseas cume of $43 million. Pic, one of the summer's few washouts, grossed $58.9 domestically. Its overseas run is largely done, so the worldwide cume of $101.8 million probably won't budge much.

In France, Ratatouille owns the number two position with a $56.6 million cume. In Australia, the ratster perches at #3 with a $5.1 million total. In Spain it's #8 with a $18.6 million cume...

With "Hairspray" coming in No. 5, Disney-Pixar's overseas hit "Ratatouille" came in No. 6, grossing $5.4 million from 3,092 runs...

Shrek the Third is #2 in Italy (behind the Yellow Family) with a total of $24. million...

After "Bourne," "Simpsons" and "Hero," DreamWorks Animation-Paramount's "Shrek the Third" came in No. 4, grossing $5.7 million from 1,445 runs for a cume of $459.3, and including a $938,000 launch in Greece, where it set an opening-day record for an animated pic...

The Simpsons Movie had the #1 slot in Italy ($8 million), the tenth slot in U.K. Ireland ($76.3. million), #8 in Australia with $26.2 million, #6 in France with $29 million...

At the top of the heap for the Sept. 14-16 frame were Universal's "The Bourne Ultimatum" and 20th Century Fox's "The Simpsons Movie"...

It's important to know how the movies people work on perform, since (ultimately) employment is tied to box office performance. An animated feature's economic health -- or sickness -- helps give you a roadmap of what's coming next...

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Of Working Stiffs and Workers' Unions

TAG President Emeritus Tom Sito had a few words to say about labor unions, and workers' participation therein on his blog:

...[N]ext Tuesday is the meeting for nomination of new officers for the union. They will serve a three year term. I hear a lot of top jobs may be up for grabs. Even if you usually can't be bothered going to these, THIS is always the most important General Membership meeting you can ever attend.

This is your chance to have a direct impact on how decisions are made by the local. The people you nominate will have the power over the financial health of LA animation, which has ramifications for the rest of the country. A bad or militant board can provoke major ruptures within the business which could bring on a strike or drive work out of town. A lazy or apathetic board can let the relevancy of the union movement fall away from the newer members and could cause management to ignore your rights under our contract.

Ignoring this meeting is like lending your wallet to a stranger.

A grizzled old union rep told me years ago: "People stopped going to guild meetings when television came in. Who wants to go out on week-night when they can sit in a lounger and watch the tube?"...

Sometimes that's been true, but sometimes not. I've known for a long time one of the most important jobs that I do as Business Representative is getting out into the work place and talking to people: trouble shooting problems in the workplace, clearing up confusion about the health and pension plan, and just plain old communicating.

If member don't attend meetings, then we work to bring meetings to them.

Even so, we've had a string of quality artists and technicians show up to participate, and over the past decade and a half, TAG has been blessed with some quality officers. Sito again:

Under my presidency (1992-2001) we organized big studios like Dreamworks, brought more CGI artists into the union than any other such organization in the world, built a multi-employer 401k plan and helped create complete medical coverage for same-sex couples.

Under current President Koch retraining and user groups for traditional artists to CGI accelerated, big studios like Starz Media/Film Roman now enjoy union benefits ... and a new 839 headquarters is being built. We are the fifth largest union in the Hollywood backstage...

Allow me to elaborate a little. Sito pushed hard for 401(k) benefits at Disney after our proposal was rejected in negotiations. Today TAG is the only IA union in the Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan that has a 401(k) Plan on top of a Defined Benefit Plan and an Individual Account Plan. For individual members in the middle of their careers, that is a huge deal.

And Tom was the first IA officer to publically push for same-sex couples getting health coverage. Another huge deal.

And President Koch has toughed it out with employers at every contract negotiation, defended employees' rights inside the studios, pushed our organizing efforts. Because of his advociacy, we will next year move into a new building in Burbank, closer and more accessible to the studios.

None of these things happen without the participation of members being active and running for office. As El Sito says:

A corporation is not a democracy. A company is not a democracy. Our union is us, artists united. We are a democracy. For all our sakes and our families, please participate.

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San Francisco

Ralph Hulett Golden Gate

Another Hulett watercolor, this from the late forties or early fifties. It's a color reproduction from his second Walter Foster art book, in the "California watercolor" style. Beneath it he includes this short tutorial:

Perspective can mean aerial or distance as vanishing points. We look down on the city and we also look out to the distance beyond.

I don't feel it's important not to get "hung up" on vanishing points when you are trying to say something about a given subject. If you feel it can help strengthen your picture, then use it.

Remember, it's just another tool to be used as the artist chooses.

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The Weekend Grosses

Animated flicks have fallen out of the Top Ten. So what have we got?

Residing at #1 is the horror movie Resident Evil: Extinction. After one day of release, it's stuffed $9.5 million into its greasy craw. (Horror flicks are often bullet-proof at the box office. RE proves to be no exception.)

At #2, the Lionsgate comedy Good Luck Chuck, carrying a load of negative reviews on its back, still managed to rake in $5 million.

And sophomore flick The Brave One, dropped to #3 while running a $20 million total. (Apparently Jodie Foster isn't going to produce Charles Bronson numbers with her Charles Bronson retread.)

The heavily CG epic Dragon Wars fell out of the Top Ten to the Twelfth Position. Its total after a week of release: an anemic $6.7 million...

But how have our two animated specimens -- Ratatouille and The Simpsons Movie -- performed? Quite well, by any sane measure.

The Yellow Family has collected $181.2 million after eight weeks in release.

And the French Rat has run up a cume that ain't too shabby, either.

On the domestic side, however, both features have about run their course.

Update: The weekend totals are in and the horror movie RE collects $24 million (most fright films drop like stones in ther second week...)

Good Luck Chuck hammers down $14 million, while Jodie with a gun (Brave One) declines 44.9% to $7.4 million and a $25.1 million total.

3:10 to Yuma has the smallest drop with 28.9% and a $38 million cume. And Dragon Wars suffers the biggest downdraft with 50.2%. It now clings to the bottom rung of the Top Ten and an $8.4 million domestic total.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

'Toon Linkage

The Writers Guild of America West has re-elected Patrick Verrone, attorney and animation writer, as Prez of the WGAw:

TV animation writer Patric Verrone has faced off a challenge from a radio newswriter to secure his reelection to a second two-year term as WGA West president.

Verrone drew 1,081 votes – or 90% of the 1,199 cast in the race – to challenger Kathy Kiernan's 118 votes. The balloting was announced Tuesday, one day prior to the scheduled resumption of all-important talks on a new contract for guild movie writers and primetime scribes.

And we congratulate Mr. Verrone...

This think piece from Johannesburg South Africa gets at the essence of Pixar: "It's the story-telling, stupid:

the visual splendour of Pixar again has obscured its most essential characteristic: antiquated. Beneath the eye-catching CGI sheen of Pixar's dazzle lies a nostalgia and style indebted to classic filmmaking.

"People in Hollywood, the press always fixate on technology because it's easier to quantify," Brad Bird, director of Ratatouille and The Incredibles said.

"Technology has never been the answer. The same answers to making a good movie are the answers that were around 80 years ago," said Bird....

Steven Higgins, curator of film and media at the Museum of Modern Art, wonders if Lasseter and Bird are beginning to show an authorial stamp to their work like Scorsese or Hitchcock. "What they're really trying to get at in Pixar films is: technology is simply the tool," Higgins says. "What they're really all about is classic storytelling."

The Weinstein Co. continues to push forward with various c.g. animated projects:

The Weinstein Co. and Exodus Film Group have set "Navy Seals" as the first film under their recently announced CG-animation co-production pact.

Under the strategic partnership unveiled in Cannes, TWC and Exodus will jointly develop, produce and finance a slate of CG-animated feature films, DVDs and TV series. The seeds for the partnership were sown a year ago, when TWC picked up worldwide distribution rights to Exodus' first CG-animated film, "Igor." That film is set for U.S. release on Oct. 24.

"Navy Seals," an adventuresome family comedy developed by Exodus, tells the story of an elite pod of U.S. Navy dolphins who are captured. Their only hope for rescue is a group of seals.

You probably know about the Weinstein Co., but here's the skinny on the lesser-known Exodus:

Exodus Film Group is an independent production company based in Venice Beach, California, with satellite offices in New York and Paris. The company develops a wide range of projects for all media outlets in both live action and animation. Exodus has taken pioneering steps in the animation field by creating one of the first private equity animation film funds.

The President of Exodus is Max Howard, formerly of Disney Feature Animation and Warner Bros. Feature Animation. We wish him well. We also wish him a contract with TAG...

Celebrity Cafe reviews Warner Bros. Animation's newer Batman feature:

Until just a few weeks before the premiere of "Batman: The Mask of Phantasm," directors Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski thought it would be a Direct-to-Video release. The decision to make a theater release came only at the last minute.

The first spin-off from the successful and acclaimed "Batman: The Animated Series," famous for its dark themes and characters drawn with a characteristic square chin, Phantasm is also the only spin-off to follow this path, all the other were released direct-to-video.

This goes back almost a month, but it's a nice remembrance of the last Disney project Ward Kimball worked on:

Lasting just over thirteen years, the World of Motion is one of the most beloved extinct attractions from Epcot. The pavilion was one of the few light hearted attractions of the very serious collection of Future World rides. This is largely due to animator/imagineer Ward Kimball's influence on the project. Previously, Ward Kimball had been involved in creating some of the most zany moments in Disney animation...

I remember Tad Stones (now a producer at Starz Media) telling me about working with Ward at Disney Imagineering (then called WED) on this project. Ward, Tad said, always had lots of items on the burner:

One day we got hold of a big peanut butter cookie. Ward wondered how much grease the thing had in it, and so he put it on a couple of big sheets of paper. He kept it sitting there for days, and by day three there was a huge pizza-sized grease stain radiating out from the cookie..."

Ward Kimball. He will not pass this way again. Have a fabulous weekend.

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Katzenberg on DreamWorks Animation

The Motley Fool has a nice summation of Jeffrey K's Q & A session at the Merrill Lynch Fall Preview:

Katzenberg spoke about a few projects coming down the animated pike.

Bee Movie, written by and starring Jerry Seinfeld, will be out in November, and it promises to deliver the famous comedian's wit and sensibility. Shareholders might be disappointed by the movie's international potential, though. Katzenberg seemed to hedge his bets when speaking about Bee Movie's ability to perform in non-English-speaking territories...

Kung Fu Panda, starring Jack Black and Jackie Chan, sounds much more interesting to me, since Katzenberg believes it's a bona fide franchise in the making. I almost got the sense from reading Katzenberg's comments that he believes this could be another Shrek in the making...

I also admire the CEO's willingness to criticize the last act of Madagascar... Katzenberg didn't think it was up to par with the rest of the cartoon. Such honesty is refreshing, and it shows a willingness to improve on the creative process. The upcoming Madagascar sequel will hopefully reflect this...

J.K.'s comments on Madagascar strike a chord with me. When I saw the film (and it was a considerable hit), I was knocked out by the design, the comedy, the characters. But when the lights came up and I walked out, I was thinking: What happened to the third act?

Which goes back to the age-old axium: "It's the story. First, last, and always."

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

At the Ebb

Talked to an executive at one of the t.v. animation studios today. She told me that her perception was that things are slow just now:

"They're doing some focus groups and trying to figure out what they should greenlight next. The Disney Channel is having good ratings with their new live-action shows and movies."

"So now other studios and cable networks are doing live action shows. Problem is, live-action is real expensive. And who knows how successful other players are going to be with it?"...

I allowed as how it seemed like a risky proposition to me, especially with the WGA and SAG threatening to go on strike in the next few (or several) months. She agreed that there were potential problems.

* * * * * * *

I take the long view regarding live-action horning in on kid television. It's just one more fad that will crest, have its crowd of imitators, then recede.

Think about it. When Hanna-Barbera was hot, competitors' shows looked like H-B. When Disney hand-drawn features exploded in the early 1990s, other studios mimicked their style and approach.

In the 21st century, a whole flock of television cartoons have followed the Nicktoons model.

It's like that radio wit Fred Allen said fifty-two years ago:

"Imitation is the sincerest form of television."

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3-D vs. 3-D

This came across my computer screen yesterday; I link to it now. Apparently DreamWorks Animation is steering clear of big Jim Cameron:

Backing off from a showdown in the 3-D corral, DreamWorks Animation is moving Paramount's 2009 release date for the 3-D animated feature "Monsters vs. Aliens" to March 27, 2009. The date change avoids a head-to-head collision with James Cameron's "Avatar," from Fox, that would have had the films fighting over the nation's growing number of digital 3-D screens...

Had "Monsters" stuck to its proposed May release, "I saw more and more problems splitting the market for 3-D right at the time when it will be becoming the most exciting thing in moviegoing," Katzenberg told The Reporter. "Instead of splitting the market, I want to see it get launched in the best possible way."

Katzenberg predicted that there would be 5,000-8,000 3-D screens available domestically by the time "Monsters" rolls out in 2009. While a 2-D version of the film also will play in smaller markets, the majority of its U.S. dates will use the new 3-D technologies...

DreamWorks, of course, is banking on 3-D animated features to give a shot in the arm to box offices grosses both here and around the world. And maybe they will. Of course, over time, as three-dimensional entertainment becomes ubiquitous, the shots might become less potent.

It will also be useful if the 3-D films coming our way are also, you know, good.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The 401(k) Studio Tour

I'm coming to the end of my grand circular jaunt through various animation studios, my sack of 401(k) enrollment book slung over a bony shoulder. In no particular order, here's little snapshots of various mind-sets and doings at different facilities:

At Starz Media, the Simpsons crew is cranking on the 19th season (the first episode being aired this Sunday). And concerned about possible actor and writer (WGA) strikes that might throw a monkey wrench into the gears of their regular season work schedule.

I told them that I don't believe there will be a job action by SAG or WGA much before next June, when the writers could go out with the actors when their collective bargaining agreement is up. (Writers agreement is up the end of October.)

I added: "Im not psychic."

At Disney TVA in the Frank Wells Building, the artists who worked on series down on the second floor (like The Replacements, Secret Agent Oso, etc.) have now moved to an upper floor to be with Phineas and Ferb and others.. Disney TVA now occupies just one floor of Frank Wells rather than two. Artists await the greenlighting of new projects in development, which the Diz Channel may do in the near future.

At Cartoon Network, I'm told that the series Chowder has been picked up for half of a second season. After the show premieres later this year, the new CN honcho will most likely decide whether to greenlight a complete second season.

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Painting Made Easy Too!

And now...the rest of the Taxco paintings...

Taxco part 5

#5 - rooftops and foliage

Taxco part 6

#6 - highlights

Walter Foster book cover

And the final painting ... again ... reproduced on the cover. (Note the price. A buck went further in 1965...)

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

401(k) Followup -- Cheaper International Funds

Last Saturday, a question under our 401(k) post asked:

Why don't we have cheaper (lower fee) funds like dfa or vanguard?...Apart from choice, which I understand is difficult to please all, my main complaint is higher expense ratios. eg ... our 401k International New Discovery (MIDAX) has a 1.63% annual fee [while] Vanguard's International Value index (VTRIX) is only 0.45%

Today I received our 401(k) Advisor's reply to my "How about a less expensive international stock fund?":

I have heard that there is a new International Index fund about to be offered by Mass Mutual. I will check its availability and let you know.

The 2 international funds you currently have are actually doing quite well.

The MFS fund is in the 14th percentile over 5 years in median ranking within its Morningstar peer group, and the Euro-Pacific is around the top third.

The MFS fund expenses of 1.55% (Morningstar average is 1.65%) has outperformed its index in the 5,3, & 1 year periods (ending 6/30/07) as follows: 5 Yr - 22.6% vs. 18.2%, 3 Yr - 25% vs. 22.8%, 1 Yr. - 31.2% vs. 27.53%.

The EuroPacific Fund has expenses of 1.10% (lowest currently available through Mass Mutual) and has pretty good performance also...

So there you have it. Straight frmo the mouth of the TAG investments guru.

Remember, almost all 401(k) Plans have higher expenses than the low cost mutual funds Vanguard and DFA in the investing arena. No getting around it, 401(k) Plans have higher structural costs.

The best a 401(k) Plan can do is compete with quality managed mutual funds beyond the Vanguard neighborhood. I wish it were otherwise, but that's the reality.

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Painting Made Easy!

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Walter T. Foster "How To ... Paint ... Animate ... Sculpt ..." art books were major sellers at art stores all across the land. Probably the best-known today are the "How to Animate" titles by Preston Blair.

In the middle sixties, Ralph Hulett (my pop) took a stab at the genre with two books he published with WF. The first was called "Painting People and Places in Oil, Acrylic and Watercolor." What follows is a fragment of the book ... a step-by-step painting of the small Mexican city of Taxco...

Taxco part 1

Above: #1 vignette

Taxco part 2

Above: #2 cadmium wash

Taxco part 3

Above: #3 mountains

Taxco part 4

Above: #4 local color

Pictured above is the development of "Taxco", photographed at different stages of the painting. Taxco is a beautifully situated hill town south of Mexico City. Its main claim to fame is that it was a very wealthy silver mining center around the turn of the last century.

Much of the architecture is Spanish Colonial, which gives it a great deal of character and charm. In this mountainous section of central Mexico, the sunlight is nearly as bright and clear as it is in Greece. In this study, I attempted to capture the unusual elements of this town as viewed from a nearby hillside. The problem was not unlike putting together a colorful mosaic that said 'Mexico' at first glance.

-- Ralph Hulett

Tomorrow, the final "Taxco" paintings of the series...

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Serving TAG

When I was but a lad, I found myself on a picket line in front of Walt Disney Productions. The animation union was out on strike over a contract, and members of the Animation Guild (then called "Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists") hit the bricks for ten weeks in mid-summer.

I lost a couple of months of salary in the job action, but ultimately gained a wife (we met on the line). When the strike was over, I thought to myself: "Maybe I should start attending union meetings, so I know what the hell is going on."

Up until then, you see, I had never been to a union meeting, barely knew where the building was, and could have cared less. But I began attending the bi-monthly meetings regularly, and after a little while found myself learning a few things. And soon after that, nominated for and then elected to the august position of union Vice-President.

The competition was not stiff that particular year.

Since that time, I've served as board member, Veep, and Business Representative (which is what I am now.) It's been a wild and interesting ride the entire way, sometimes exhilerating, sometimes aggravating, but seldom boring.

I write of this now because next Tuesday, one week from today, TAG will once again meet to nominate officers and executive board members. I'll be running again, but I thought it would be a fine idea to float an invitation to TAG members reading this to consider giving up a night or two a month and throwing your hat in the proverbial ring.

If you do, I can promise that the time spent will be interesting, aggravating, and seldom boring. And you'll be serving an organization that exists to improve the lives of its members. What could be more honorable and good for your soul than that?

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Monday, September 17, 2007

"Disney Heroes of Imagination"

Mel Shaw castle

Artist Mel Shaw. The art in this post is not necessarily featured in the Van Eaton exhibit.

As brother Sito noted on his own dandy blog, the Creative Talent Network and Van Eaton Galleries hosted an exhibit/reception Saturday night that honored Mel Shaw, Joe Grant, Walt Stanchfield and Rowland Wilson for their work at Disney Animation Studios (aka Walt Disney Productions) over the years....

Steve Hulett and Tom Sito

Steve Hulett and Tom Sito.

Van Eaton Gallery

Mel Shaw was in attendance, looking almost exactly as he did three decades ago when he was bowling everyone at Disney over with his artwork. (If the man doesn't have a large portrait in his attic, then he's drinking some potion that I'd like him to share...)

Tom Sito and George Scribner

Tom Sito and George Scribner.

There were some great pieces of art decorating the walls, and a spiffy book filled with co-workers' reminiscences. Disney director John Musker was there, as was Simpsons director Mark Kirkland, Don Hahn, George Scribner, and many others. Good times.

Artist: Rowland Wilson, from Disney's Hercules. © Walt Disney Productions.

Rowland Wilson Phil from Hercules
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Sunday, September 16, 2007

American Animated Features Overseas

Once upon a box office (Fifteen? Twenty years ago?) the grosses that counted most were from the coins collected in the fifty united states of America.

Today, not so much. Now a majority of theatrical box office for high profile films come from abroad. And with growing foreign markets ... and a sagging American dollar ... ticket sales beyond U.S. shores are more important than ever.

With that in mind, we review foreign cumes for animated features in the week gone by:

"Ratatouille" is the 25th Disney picture to top $200 million outside the U.S., mirroring the domestic cume of $202 million. Toon will continue cooking up box office biz overseas for weeks to come, including October openings in the U.K., Germany, Italy and Scandinavia.

For the frame of Sept. 7-9, "Ratatouille" grossed $8.5 million from 2,809 locations in 34 markets, putting it at No. 2.

So let's see. That makes $400 million that the disappointing Ratatouille has now rung up worldwide. But wait, there's more:

Coming in right behind "Ratatouille" was "Shrek the Third," which grossed $8 million from 1,933 playdates to push the international cume to $451 million, only $28 million shy of "Shred 2." Placing No. 3 for the weekend, "Shrek the Third" took $4.3 of its coin from Italy, where it declined 47% in its second sesh.

And how is the third animated candidate for the world box office sweepstakes performing? Not badly at all...

"The Simpsons Movie" and "Knocked Up" each took in roughly $4.1 million for the frame. Perf bumps up the cume for "Simpsons" to $309.4 million, far outpacing expectations.

To date, The Simpsons Movie has run far beyond Fox's initial expectations, taking in -- to date -- $491.7 in global box office.

With a cume nudging up against half a billion dollars, the odds are good that the execs down on Pico Boulevard will order up another Simpsons feature, which is what we're focused on.

Because nothing insures future employment better than a blockbuster. And in the last three months, animation has had three of those in the world marketplace. It's always beneficial to remember that...

"In Hollywood, a good movie is a movie that makes a lot of money."

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Brad Bird at the Sunday Times

Once you get past the brain-damaged title of this Sunday Times piece, you'll find some very perceptive things:

While Pixar uses pop-culture boffonery as the icing on the cake, for DreamWorks it is the cake..."Pop culture references are easy," sighs [Brad} Bird, "and they give the audience a cheap thrill. But they don't last. Take Disney's Aladdin, which I like -- when that came out, and I saw the genie doing an impression of [U.S. talk show host ] Arsenio Hall, I thought 'this is going to mean nothing in ten years time.' We try to avoid that. People who are familiar with the James Bond movies could feel their influence on The Incredibles, but hopefully you didn't have to be familiar with them to enjoy the film."

The plays of Shakespeare have topical references that have long since been lost to the mists of time. Today we don't know always know what the bard was talking about, exactly, but we still enjoy what the rest of what he had to say.

Years ago, I read a lot of Disney sweat box notes regarding Pinocchio. There was a discussion about whether to have J. Worthington Foulfellow make some topical references to Hollywood actors who were then in vogue. After going back and forth about it, Walt and co. decided to leave the references out.

Sixty-eight years later, it's probably a good thing that they did.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Mid September B.O.

The Fall Season is upon us, and Ms. Jodie Foster jumps into the box office fray and rules the Friday roost as The Brave One lands at #1 with a $4.5 million take...

Mr. Woodcock -- the teacher from hell -- collects $2,750,000 on his opening day of school, while 3:10 to Yuma rids close behind with $2,745,000.

Fourth place Superbad stands at $107,811,000, while on the animation front, The Simpsons Movie is pretty much a spent force as it descendes to #21 and a $180,742,000 gross after fifty days of release.

Update: As the weekend derby wraps up, The Brave One collects $14 million, and sophomore flick 3:10 To Yuma garners $9.1 million for a $28.5 million total. Mr. Woodcock comes in at #3 with $9.1 million (tepid reviews no doubt damaged its final numbers.)

The Korean CGI-live-action blockbuster Dragon Wars landed at #4 with a $5.4 million total. (Lousy reviews probably shot a hole in this pup. What wows them in South Korea doesn't -- apparently -- knock audiences dead here.)

On the animated front, Ratatouille hangs at #25 and a $202.6 million cume, while The Simpsons Movie clings to #16 and a domestic total of $181.3 million.

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The TAG 401(k) Plan

Let us swerve away from the nuts and bolts of animation to focus on survival -- salting bucks away for the future.

Yesterday (Friday) trustees for the Animation Guild's 401(k) Plan -- now 12 1/2 years old -- sat down to review the plan's assets with Plan administrators.

Some statistics:

The Plan has $110 million in total assets.

The Plan has 2084 participants - most of them 30-59 years of age.

Four largest holdings: 1) Large Cap Stock Fund (15%)- 2) Fixed Interest Fund (12.4%) - Small Cap Fund (11.9%) - Euro-Pacific Fund (9.9%)

The Plan's tyro expert from 401(k) Advisors explained that:

401(k) Plans work really, really well when they serve as a supplement to a Defined Benefit Plan. (That's a pension plan which pays out a monthly check to its retirees.)

Small problem: DBPs are rapidly being phased out by corporations because they're expensive to fund and maintain.

401(k) Plans don't work very well when they are the only retirement plan someone on the cusp of her/his sunset years possesses.

Bigger problem: Most people in the country have an underfunded 401(k) (the average is $60,000 for people in their fifties) and Social Security.

Many TAG participants have a skosh more than that, and for some it's come in handy. After I finished an enrollment meeting at Fox Animation a few days ago, a storyboard artists told me:

"I've got to get back into the Plan. I had a bunch of money in it, but after I got laid off from Disney I had to tap into it. Thank God the 401(k) Plan was there. It helped me hang onto my house."

The Feds tack on extra taxes to 401(k) assets if you cash them out early -- like before the age of 59 1/2. But sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

Happily, many in the entertainment industry have union pensions to supplement 401(k) Plans. For everybody else, they need to put money away with energy and discipline.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Your Animation Links

A new DVD of The Jungle Book rolls out in October as a 40th anniversary edition. Some of the participants from Walt's last animated feature remember:

Composer Richard Sherman: “The first meeting my brother Bob and I had on Jungle Book many years ago was actually, we were called into Walt's office with several other people, Woolie Reitherman, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnson and Larry Clemmons and a whole bunch of the regulars at the studio.

We were all staff people and did our various specialties, but Walt asked us… He sat us all down in his office, looked at us and said, ‘How many of you guys have read The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling?’ And of course nobody raised their hand. Nobody. So sheepishly I said, ‘Well, I saw a movie with Sabu, the Indian kid.’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you didn't read the book.’ I said, ‘No, no, no.’ ‘Good. We're going to tell the story of The Jungle Book the Disney way.’

And with that he sat down and he told us how he wanted to see this film. He acted out every part. It was an amazing thing. To hear Walt Disney tell a story was like nothing. It was transfixing. So basically, no, I have yet to read The Jungle Book.”

Update: Jungle Book is currently unspooling at the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. Animation World Network and Box Office Mojo cover the panel discussion that took place at the movie's opening here and here...

Indian animation and animated features, India tells us, is taking off:

The number of professionals employed by the Indian animation industry in 2006 is estimated at 16,500. This figure is forecast to exceed 26,000 by 2010.

Laika, the animation studio headquartered in Portland, Oregon, is apparently ramping up for the long haul as it names two new executives to its roster:

Indie animation house Laika has tapped former Lucasfilm and Hanna-Barbera exec Alan Keith as its new chief financial officer and veep business operations.

Artist Travis Knight has also been promoted to VP of animation.

Fake Steve Jobs. CNBC reports that the man who pretended to be Steve Jobs -- Disney's #1 stockholder -- has been outted, and the blogosphere is no longer agog. Somehow I missed the agogness.

Source: Fake Steve Jobs gripped the internet for months: Who was he? Why was he doing it? Was it really Jobs himself? Or someone else? It was a terrific mystery up until the day New York Times reporter Brad Stone unmasked Dan Lyons, a writer for Forbes, as the REAL Fake Steve Jobs last month. It was a bummer. The magic of Fake Steve Jobs was his anonymity. Attaching a face to the fake obliterated the illusion.

Paddington Bear, up until now a character in books and a British animated teevee series, is making the Big Move:

Paddington Bear is to make his movie debut in a live-action film comedy.

David Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter movie franchise, will produce the first cinema adaptation of Michael Bond's classic children's stories.

Have a glorious weekend.

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Robert Zemeckis Speaks

Director Robert Zemeckis, whose new epic Beuwolf arrives in November (see below), just gave a talk to the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam where he said:

I love the ability to separate the technology [of performance capture] from the performance..."

Zemeckis stressed the distinction between performance capture and animation. "To call performance capture animation is a disservice to the great animators," he said...

I'm not sure he totally believes this, but it's nice reading that the statement came out of his mouth.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Week's Studio Visits

Once again I am in 401(k) enrollment meetings mode.

That means one or two studios a day, standing at the end of a conference room table, naddering on about the joys of sheltering and deferring income to animators, designers and storyboard artists until my vocal chords cramp up.

Today it was Sony Pictures Animation, which shares space with Sony Pictures Imageworks...

There's a big display for Beuwolf in the Imageworks lobby. The picture comes out in November in "Enhanced Live Action," whatever that means.

One of the feature development artists and I fell into a discussion of the retooling the studio is now doing with one of its features, also about the recent article in the trades about Sony's commitment to feature animation in general.

The artist isn't certain the commitment is real, what with Sony's less than boffo results with their last release and all. I said: "Disney's been successful with 'toons, also Pixar and DreamWorks. Now even Warners has gotten its act together with Happy feet. Animation is just too lucrative for all the other majors for Sony not to be involved in it."

I'm not saying I'm right, but Sony hasn't cut its development staff. And its slated features are still its slated features. (Another artist I discussed this with thinks SPA is going to stick it out.)

Me, I'm going to keep thinking happy thoughts, right up until the moment I get smacked in the forehead by sad reality.

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The Bomb Called Ratatouille

Somebody quick put me out of my misery.

On its website, New York Magazine labels Brad Bird's latest opus a "flop."

NYM's source? Jim Hill Media.

Why was I born, why am I living?

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Animation Employment

Zero chart

As you can see from the chart up top, the past couple of years has shown steady animation employment.

Even so, I've gotten a number of calls from folks looking for work (or extra work):

"The freelance has slowed down...They're not looking for extra timers...I've got some board work but that runs out in a couple of months..."

The reality seems to be that some studios are humming along and other studios are slow. Parking garages at some facilities I visit are filled with cars while others ... not so much. What I'm telling people is, "There's work at the studios, but nobody seems to be doing a lot of new hiring."

Below is a more detailed chart of the past nine months. You'll note that employment dropped over the summer, then bounced up again. This is a little deceiving if you don't know that some work under TAG's jurisdiction was organized (IM Digital and Imagi) and that new employment at both those studios -- and there was some -- pushed our totals up.

Sept 2007 employment

So what's going on? Really going on? From the stats and anecdotal evidence, a lot of people are working but there's no big new projects at the present time driving numbers higher.

When The Simpsons Movie II comes along, when The Princess and the Frog hires produciton workers, the numbers will change. When Cartoon Network and Nick get more shows greenlit, more freelance work will flow. Until then, we'll strive to keep you posted about ever-changing events...

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The Hidden Documentary

Wade Sampson at Mouse Planet has posted a piece on a pretty much unseen documentary entitled The Sweatbox. It tells the tale of how a Disney animated feature called Kingdom of the Sun morphed into Emperor's New Groove, causing collateral damage along the way, which included the singer-songwriter Sting. And how did Sweatbox come to be made?

Sting's wife was given unlimited access when it came to Production No. 1331 (aka "Kingdom"). She and her camera sat in on story meetings for the movie, rolled while actors auditioned as well as taping Sting while he recorded the score. No one expected two years into the production, it would shift direction drastically.

I remember the making of Emperor's New Groove/Kingdom of the Sun pretty well. It's development went on for a looong time (same was true for Mulan.) But long development times are nothing unusual at Disney Feature Animation (or other feature studios, for that matter.)

...the tone of the documentary is established fairly early when at the premiere for Emperor's New Groove, Sting, Schumacher [then head of Disney Animation}, and a number of other people discuss what a painful experience it has all been.

Following a tense, brutal sweatbox screening for executives Schumacher and Schneider with about 20 percent or more of the animation completed, the original story, which was a sort of a version of the well-known "Prince and the Pauper" story, is torn apart. Director Allers quits. Sting's songs are suddenly out of key in a movie that is now going to be changed into a raucous comedy.

...Styler captures the phone call to her husband from producer Randy Fullmer where Sting learns that the six songs he has struggled over with collaborator David Hartley have been cut from Kingdom of the Sun.

The documentary is pretty extraordinary. It played in L.A. for a week, and I ran across town to see it at the single theater where it ran. The film documents a period of time at Disney Feature Animation when the place was somewhat unmoored and production executives and the animation bureaucracy held a lot of power.

The film that emerged from the chaotic development -- Emperor's New Groove -- I happen to like a lot. When it was released, it didn't have energetic backing from the studio's publicity machine. (Eisner is reputed to have disliked it.) As I recall, the flick opened with something like a $10 million gross on its opening weekend, but rose by 50% in its second weekend. It ended up somewhat shy of a $100 million domestic gross.

A wide release going up that much in week #2 is something that almost never happens. Audience word-of-mouth was a lot more robust than Disney's sales campaign.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007


A Disney feature that broke new ground with its dazzling cg vistas but failed to achieve big box office twenty-five years ago is about to get a sequel:

Commercial director Joseph Kosinski is in final negotiations to develop and direct Tron, described as "the next chapter" of Disney's 1982 cult classic...

In this case, "cult classic" means a movie that is fondly remembered and even iconic (spoofed hilariously on Family Guy, among other places) but didn't burn up the turnstiles a quarter century back. Released at the same time as E.T., the little space alien buried it.

The remembered for its sci-fi gladiator style battles and groundbreaking special effects. It was the first movie to use computer-generated images instead of models and other optical effects in conjunction with live action. The arcade game based on the movie was so popular that it earned more than the movie...

I recall the original Jeff Bridges opus well. Lots of wide-screen computer effects, all put together by a large contingent of Disney's animation staff, which made mattes, created effects, and rendered the computer images one frame at a time. In those days before digital compositing, the film was put together in the old analog way. But it looked great.

If the script had matched the visuals, Disney (circa 1982) would have had itself a mega-hit, instead of just a fondly-remembered cult film.

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The Last Diz Recruitment Book Page

Fox and Hound visdev

Here's the last or the 1977 Disney recruitment book. The only point of real interest is the illustration at the bottom...

...which is another of Mel Shaw's visual development pieces for The Fox and the Hound and not the ad art we see over and over again for Lady and the Tramp, Jungle Book, etc.

Mel's idea for young Tod was a league or two distant from what ended up in the film...

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The Global Cartoon Network

This piece about Cartoon Network Europe grabbed my attention:

Cartoon Network Europe has established itself as an entertainment destination for children in more than a dozen countries across Europe. Since its launch in 1993, the channel has been taking the best programming from Cartoon Network in the U.S. and has also been co-producing series with international partners. Last year, channel management decided to set up a development-and-production arm in London...

Cartoon Network, of course, started as a gleam in Fred Seibert's eye. (Fred was the head of Hanna-Barbera at the time - 1991). A lot of young, budding animators came into the H-B offices on Cahuenga and pitched their ideas for fresh and zingy cartoon shorts.

From those ideas came Power Puff Girls, Dexter's Lab, Johnny Bravo and others. And from those shorts sprang series that launched -- along with Ted Turner's cartoon library -- Cartoon Network.

And what started in the U.S. is now on other continents ... and growing. CN's Fenn Arnesen -- headquartered in London -- is questioned about how all the differing 'toons from Cartoon Network's far-flung pieces interlock:

Q: What comes out of the London studio can be used by other Cartoon Network channels as they see fit, right?

ARNESEN: Absolutely, that’s how it works for us now. I’m in a privileged position whereby I sit on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m involved in the commissioning process in the U.S. for our global networks and I’m involved in the commissioning process for our work here in London, which in turn can serve our global networks. The idea is for these shows to work across the world.

So when you're pitching your next show for CN or one of the other worldwide conglomerates, think global. They like it enough, maybe they'll give you a teensy bit larger back-end...

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Disney Recruitment Book ... Again

Gerry spread

Still more bits of artwork from the Disney booklet of 1977 (copyright WDP)...

These visuals show the usual storyboard-to-pencil-animation-to-full-color progression. I don't know who created the animation drawings, but the board panels on the left are the work of Disney veteran Vance Gerry, one of the old (and relatively unsung) masters who was at Disney Feature Animation from the 1950s until his death.

The last several years of Vance's tenure, when he was in his late sixties and seventies, Vance worked at the studio one day a week. (He had a company called "The Weatherbird Press" that kept him busy the rest of the time.)

But one day of Gerry artwork was fine with the studio. As another tyro artist told me years back: "Vance comes in here on Wednesdays and does more in one day than most of us do in a week."

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

"You Know How Lucky You Are?" Part II

Finally I get around to more about employment in the industry. In Wednesday's discussion, Anon #7 said:

(T)he one skill that trumps everything is storyboarding. If you can storyboard you will almost always be able to find work.

When I first got a bird's eye view of tne 'toon industry a decade and a half ago, it became apparent that quality board artists were pretty continuously employed.

Good board artists shifted from studio to studio without big periods of unemployment. Good board artists shifted between television work, direct-to-video feature work, and theatrical feature work.

It's been true in the past that there's a kind of snobbery between theatrical features and television work, and story artists who've worked mainly in t.v. have complained to me about how hard it was to break into features, but guess what?

I've seen a lot of television board artists from the nineties and eighties who are now doing feature work. Transitions, difficult as they sometimes are, happen...

Moving on. Anonymous #2 said:

I'm telling you there aren't many jobs in LA... (T)hey're for every city BUT Los Angeles....

To reiterate, there's a fairly high level of employment in Los Angeles-Burbank-Glendale-Culver City (etc.). As anonymous #2 said, a chunk of it isn't union work, but it's still gainful employment. In addition to video games, there's studios like Blur, Mike Young Productions, Porchlight, Renegade, Rough Draft, and Rythm and Hues which aren't signed to a TAG agreement but do animation production (and why haven't they signed? Because -- to date -- their employees haven't willed it to be so.)

As I've said before: In 1960, almost 100% of American animation was done in New York and Southern California (and most of that in So. Cal.). But in 1960, that was 100% of a relatively small pie, since the one big employer then was Hanna-Barbera (turning out 1200 feet of t.v. entertainment per week), and Walt Disney Productions a distant second (doing 101 Dalmations). In '60, it would be generous and optimistic to say there were more than three thousand people working in the 'Toon biz.

Today, with far less than 100% of American animation being done in Southern California, total numbers are way higher. There's visual effects, broadcast graphics, vid games, television animation, and theatrical animation. In theatrical animation alone, there is DreamWorks, Disney, and Sony Pictures Animation producing features.

How many employed? Depends on how you count, and what you include. Me, I like to count jobs, and there are far more of those in 2007 than existed in 1960.

But what areas of work are "hot" now, compared to ten, twenty, or forty years back? Outside of story artists, the ground continually shifts. Thirteen years ago, the L.A. Times proclaimed that feature animators were the new movie stars, commanding big salaries, bidding wars, and high respect. But times change. Last week I spent forty-five minutes talking to a Cal Arts grad who's specializes in flash animation, and he couldn't be busier:

I'm talking to a producer about setting up a unit of flash animation in Hawaii, and there are lots of flash jobs here. The studio I'm leaving is sorry to see me go, but this is an opportunity and I'm taking it...

I've heard from other flash animators that they're busy with multiple assignments, so there are categories of work beside board artists who are busy, busy busy.

But let's put aside what category of employment is the most solid right now. Because the way anybody survives in this business, beyond all else, is:

1) Having a lot of skill sets in your quiver.

2) Being really good at each of them.

3) Having a network of co-workers who know what you can do and that you can be relied on to deliver it time and time again.

4) Being upbeat and pleasant in your work environment, even when you feel like throwing somebody -- probably your boss -- out a window.

5) Being cleared-eyed that the animation business, as a sub-set of the entertainment business, can be cruel and capricious and that nobody flies high forever. (Even Ward Kimball got laid off. Chances are you will too at some point or another.)

6) Being lucky. (And remembering Sam Snead's observation: "The harder I work, the luckier I get.")

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Toon Link Two -- Jerry Seinfeld

I overlooked this in yesterday's links post: Jerry Seinfeld expounds on plunging back into filmmaking with the Bee Movie:

"The deal with computer animation is that it's the most time-consuming puppet show you could possibly get involved in. But the effect of it in the end, after you go through it, is so spectacular, it's worth it. And, you know, each of these movies leap-frogs the one that came before it, in terms of technology. And this one is doing the same."

I've seen pretty much nothing of this feature (well, maybe one or two short animation loops, but outside of that, zippo.) The DreamWorks crew working on it has given me updates everytime I go over to the DW campus, and I'm interested in seeing the Seinfeld opus when it comes out later this fall. Final touches are being dabbed on the film, but I'm told it's pretty much done...

Update: Since offense has been taken at Jerry S.'s "puppet show" remark, here's a little balance: Ralph Bakshi from the ASIFA archives website dissing modern hand-drawn animation:

Early on, hand drawn was great- Fleischer's Popeye, Jim Tyer, Freddie Moore, Rod Scribner, Bill Tytla, Johnny Gent... the direct, fresh stuff. But then suddenly, along came "real good animation" with all its complication, and the long painful looks, big shrugs and sighs, batting eyelashes, cutesy pie phony crap until you want to vomit... Overnight, all the old greats were forced to either kill themselves, stay drunk all the time, or quickly fade away. Animation got saddled with a bunch of boring, repetitive, old fashioned, dumb cliches.

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The Weekend Film Take

3:10 to Yuma the remake* takes the top slot with a gross of $4.5 million for Friday. We'll see how the new Western does for the whole three days.

Most everything else moves down a couple of clicks as Shoot 'Em Up enters the list at #4 and a $2 million gross...

The Simpsons Movie nudges up against $180 million in domestic grosses as it falls to fourteenth place on the Top Twenty Movies list...

Update: The weekend results are in, and Yuma comes out on top. (And the summer season is most definitely over, because it only took a cume of $14.1 million to arrive at the mountain crest.)

Halloween took a 62% drop as it collected $10 million of a $44.2 million total (the hefty drop typical for a horror film), while Superbad declined only 36% as it loped over the century mark for a $103.7 million total.

The fifth place Bourne Ultimatum, despite getting labeled "un-American" by some commentators, found a lot of un-American takers inside the fifty states and now stands at $202 million domestic. (I haven't seen it.)

On the animation front: The Simpsons Movie ended the weekend at #13, with another $1.4 million in the till, for a total of $180.3 million.

Ratatouille appears to be close to the end of its domestic run; it's #24 in your Movie Hit Parade, with $202 million in the hopper.

Fun fact: The director of the original 3:10 to Yuma is the father-in-law of a veteran animation director who is still busily directing away...

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