Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The WGA Amends Its Strike Rules

And now for some brighter news: The WGA strike rules have been updated. They used to apply to some WGA members who wrote for feature animation. The original version of the rules said it was prohibited for WGA writers to work under:

... contracts for writing services in connection with fully animated theatrical features negotiated or entered into during the strike.

Happily, that's no longer the case. The WGA strike rules now say:

The [Strike] Rules apply to (1) all network primetime animated series covered by a WGA contract and (2) contracts for writing services with struck companies in connection with fully animated theatrical features.

The words "struck companies," the WGA informs me, refers to companies doing feature animation with which the WGA has contracts (like, for instance, Fox-Gracie Films). The Guild said to me:

"Were not telling people that they can't work for animation companies covered by an IATSE agreement..."

This verbal explanation is made clear further down the WGA's current strike rule page:

... With regard to animation programming, this Rule applies to all network primetime animated series covered by a WGA contract. In addition, members are prohibited from performing writing services for any struck company on a fully animated feature. With respect to all other companies, members are encouraged during the strike to refrain from negotiating or entering into a contract for the performance of writing services in connection with fully animated theatrical features, though this request is not enforceable through Guild discipline ...

So, are we clear on this? The Strike rules have been changed, and for the better. The WGA is no longer asserting that its members can't write on fully animated features covered by an IA contract. Happy day.

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Sony Selling Animation Unit?

As my late grandmother used to say: "Oh my..."

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 30 — Sony Pictures Entertainment is considering selling half of its fledgling animation studio, maker of the films “Surf’s Up” and “Open Season,” and even more of its thriving 15-year-old digital visual-effects company, which pioneered computer-generated imaging techniques in films like “Stuart Little,” “The Polar Express” and the “Spider-Man” movies.

Sony Pictures, a unit of the Sony Corporation, has hired the investment bank Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin to assess the value of the two divisions. An outright sale of both, which is possible, could bring around $500 million, according to people involved in the discussions.

I was aware from talking to to staffers down at SPA (Sony Pictures Animation) that things were not going 100% swimmingly. The two released pictures didn't soar into the stratosphere like the company was hoping.

Still in all, the scuttlebutt I've been hearing is that the unit would continue.

As far as Sony Pictures Imageworks goes, I've always wondered what kind of cash flow and profit margin the studio had. SPI is a pretty elaborate facility. And the visual effects industry is not known for its high markup.

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Calloused Hollywood Princes

As I stumble along the narrow goat path of my so-called career, I keep getting smacked in the face about how fungible the lower orders are considered to be by Tinseltown's hierarchy. And part of me is always surprised ... or shocked ... or disheartened.

I'm finally catching onto the fact that a small corner of my psyche is going to be naive and doltish in perpetuity, no matter how many industry depravities I witness. Which is surprising, because as a college student a hundred years ago I used to listen to a veteran Hollywood screenwriter (Niven Busch), describe Hollywood's abrupt firings and dismissals in gruesome detail, so it's not like I don't know it's part of the ongoing culture. And yet...

I got ticked when a Warners exec laid off dozens of artists after assuring them "We've got plenty of work." (This was in the first half of the nineties, when I was still a starry-eyed romantic) ...

I was surprised when Tom Schumacher cut hundreds of Disney staffers loose after assurances that "everyone's job were safe" (Even though I was more battle-hardened by then) ...

I had a bad reaction when David Stainton told John Musker and Ron Clements "We're just an anchor around your feet" as he was laying them off.

And over the past few weeks, when board artists and directors told me about the write-ups and dismissals after years of service, I still found the bile rising in a sour column in the back of my throat, even as I thought: "Yeah, there it is again." One artist was particularly poignant:

"You know, I never moonlighted. The other guys took outside jobs but I gave them 100%, didn't take outside work. And a few weeks after I got dismissed, an exec called and said: 'I feel a little bad about this. I'm not sure we did the right thing letting you go, but we can't undo it now...'

The only remarkable thing about the above is that somebody called and admitted to second thoughts, even though nothing changed. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the Hollywood elite clings to John Wayne's edict in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon:

"Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness."

And yes, this sort of thing goes on so frequently and with such regularity that it's almost not worth posting about. Almost.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Quick Study of the Top Ten Domestic Features

Paging through the Hollywood Reporter today, I was amazed by the top movie performers during the first ten months of the year.

Three of the Top Ten films are animated features: Shrek the Third (#2), then Ratatouille (#9). And #10 is either The Simpsons Movie or Happy Feet, depending on whether you have more faith in Box Office Mojo or the Reporter.

But wait, there's more ...

The feature that stands as Numero Uno is Spider Man 3, almost an animated feature unto itself. And right below Shrek rumbles Transformers, which is not only heavy with animation, but derived from an animated series.

Numbers 4-6 -- Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, Night at the Museum -- are all pretty much ditto. (Live action bopped up with elaborate CGI squids, dinosaurs and flying wizards.

So. If you squint your eyes, tilt your head and look at the list just right, 50-70% of the whole thing is animated. And whatever else is going on in the business, we do have that encouraging statistic...

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Tinkerbell Lives!

The long, corporate bad dream is over. Tinkerbell will hit a Best Buy or Walmart near you in one year:

Buena Vista Home Entertainment has selected October 28, 2008 as the direct-to-video DVD and Blu-ray Disc debut for Tinkerbell, one year and two days from now. The Peter Pan character's first starring and speaking role, courtesy of Brittany Murphy, was originally scheduled for release this year until Pixar's famed creative mastermind John Lasseter voiced his displeasure with the film's direction which lead to a major creative overhaul.

I was a young man when this picture was first developed. With a full head of thick, brown hair. Twinkling eyes. But as time rolled along, year after year I listened to story crews quietly gnashing their teeth as they worked on various incarnations of Tink.

It began life as a traditional, hand-drawn, DisneyToons Direct-To-Video feature. Then it morphed into a cg feature. Then it got 60% of the way through production when Mr. Lasseter at last viewed it and said something to the effect of: "Uh, I think we need a reboot."

So now the new, refurbished Tinkerbell is on track for release just before our national elections reach their frenzied high point. And from what I'm told and see, the new specimen will be a decided step up over the old one.

Perhaps the older, unused footage will one day find its way to a supplemental disk of the Super-Deluxe Tinkerbell which will no doubt roll out in 2009.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

College Students

I spent the afternoon at Cal State Fullerton on a panel of professionals -- not the usual industry mix of cg artists and union reps, mind you, but one that included a gallery owner, lawyer, an art jobs website owner (and former agent). Also a licensed cpa and me.

In short, it was an eclectic group, and just right for the crowd in Fullerton's big lecture hall. Because the students -- graphic designers, c.g. artists, painters, sculptors -- had few illusions about the artistic universe they wanted to enter, and wanted ideas about the best way to build careers inside it.

What's remarkable -- at least to me -- is that a large number of them wanted to find out how to start their own businesses. (You know, skip over the "work for hire" horrors so many of us have endured.) So here are some of the questions with answers that popped up:

If you start your own business, how do you handle taxes?

Find a good CPA within the first year you set up your company. Lots of people launch their company, then a year and a half later, ask an accountant: "Okay, what do I do about taxes?" That's about six months or a year too late. People need to know that they'll be paying both parts of the Social Security Tax: 15%. Also, small-company owners shouldn't get incorporated unless they're earning above fifty or sixty thousand per year. (Otherwise there's no meaningful cost-benefit.) When incorporating, LLCs are good for rental property but not little companies with a small cash flow; an S-Corp is often a good way to go.

What about Personal Service Contracts? Are they worthwhile?

Depends. Lots of things in PSCs are crap. In California, non-compete clauses are crap. There's a few exceptions in the dental and medical areas, but outside of those, non-compete clauses are unenforceable. If a PSC is "at will" (no end date or guarantee of a set term of employment), then an employer can lay off an employee whenever it wants. But then an employee can quit when she or he wants. (It's got to be reciprocal.)

If I want to get hired in computer graphics, what programs should I know?

Software is always changing. Companies customize software, install plug-ins, develop their own programs, so it's important to know a couple of packages well, because when you move to something new you'll have the basic knowledge to learn whatever they throw at you quickly.

There were lots of other questions. We got into California labor law, when an accountant or lawyer was most useful, the globalization of the entertainment industry (and the animation biz.) I learned a lot of new things. Hopefully the students did too.

(Oh. That picture up top? That's the actual lecture hall with actual students. Only it's an image-grab off the web from a year ago ... when President Emeritus Tom Sito was there giving a lecture -- to a fuller house.)

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Another Hulett "How To" -- Appian Way

Appian Way #1

A half-century ago, Ralph Hulett spent a year painting in Europe. He took a leave of absence from the background painting job at Disney, leased the house, packed up the family and went.

He used subject matter that he collected during that year for oil, watercolor and acrylic paintings of all sizes and shapes for the remainder of his life. This step-by-step Italian landscape, rendered in acrylics, is but one.

Appian Way #2

"Halfway around the world, I saw this ancient roadway. After two thousand years of use, this old Appian Way is still in remarkably good condition..."

Appian Way #3

"The day this scene was painted, it had just been drenched in a spring shower. Everything was still wet when the sun broke through the coulds and made the old road sparkle. It seemed to be harking back to the golden days of the Roman Empire..."

Appian Way #4

"The Appian Way was painted with a bristle brush on illustration board."

-- Ralph Hulett

Appian Way #5

(The colors used in this painting: white and cadmium yellow; cad. oxide green, blue and white, burnt umber, and raw sienna. But you can probably see that if you look closely at the painting directly above...)

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Now the DGA Disagrees With the Writers' Strike Rules

Turns out it's not only the IA that demurs from some WGA strike rules:

"It is an essential element of our basic agreement that the guild not only refrain from striking during the term of the basic agreement, but also that the guild assure employers that our members will continue to perform DGA-covered services during the term of the basic agreement," the Directors Guild said. "These provisions are treated very seriously by the companies and the courts, and we take these obligations very seriously as well."

"...[I]f you are employed as a director and these services are needed on your project, and your employer has requested in writing that you continue working, then you would be contractually obligated to perform them ... You may be subject to discharge and claims of breach of contract by an employer if you refuse to do so."

Like I've said, the basic problem here is overreaching. The Writers Guild has every right to enforce discipline inside its jurisdiction, but no right to discipline members who work outside it.

Pretty simple concept.

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Half Billion Dollar Rat

No wonder Wall Street's so upset over Disney's Pixar purchase. Just look at the dreadful Ratatouille numbers...

For the frame of Oct. 19-21, Disney-Pixar's toon "Ratatouille" was the market leader, cooking up another $30.1 million from 4,377 runs in 34 markets for an international cume of $313.3 million. That included a solid U.K. soph sesh of $9.1 and a German soph sesh of $6 million.

The Rat movie: a half billion dollars and counting. Pixar: Seven films, seven money makers. Are any of us surprised Steve Jobs is close to going on welfare?

Oh, wait...

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

B.O. Plenty

Horror rules Friday as Saw IV grates out $14.3 million. And Dan In Real Life runs a distant (but well-reviewed) second.

Slicing and dicing is a lucrative business to be in, don't you think?

And the Zombie Flick is #3, putting Steve Carell in middle of a horror-gore sandwich.

Meanwhile, animated Tim Burton now holds down #10 on the hit list. Nightmare Before Christmas has collected $7.6 million in its latest reissue...

Update: To nobody's surprise, the carnage fans turned out in force for Saw IV, and the gore-fest takes in $32.1 million (slightly below the last Saw's opening weekend numbers.

Dan In Real Life -- running in the Place position a half mile back -- snares "$12 million, while 30 Days of Night, last week's Big Horror Movie, drops 58% while collecting $6.7 million.

In the animated category, Nightmare Before Christmas, jingling along at #10, drops a mere 37.2% to run its total to $10 million.

And The Ten Commandments? It stands at $788,000 after two weekends in release. It won't be adding theaters.

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Write Ups

The last week or two, it seems like there's been more than the usual amount of disciplinary activity -- artists getting a curt memo from a supervisor -- often the director, producer or production manager -- that goes something like this:

Dear Bill/Helen/Ted:

This is your first disciplinary notice under Article 16 of The Animation Guild's c.b.a. As we discussed with you on August 1st, you have repeatedly drawn Burlap Bear off model. You've also missed deadlines.

If there is no improvement in your overall drawing, we may take further disciplinary action, up to and including discharge.

There needs to be two written disciplinary notices before a singnatore employer can fire somebody, but employees can be let go the same day they receive notice #2.

I've seen all kinds of disciplinary notices in my time. Ones that go into long, single-spaced detail about what the problem is, how many times the employee has been talked to, and what the employee has to do to correct the problem.

Ones that are cryptic and maddeningly uninformative: "Your work is below the usual and expected standards of a board artist..." (What the hell does that mean?)

Painting with a broad brush, there are two basic types of disciplinary notices.

The first type is where the employer has an actual issue with an employee's work performance. Maybe the artist comes in late over and over again, or the artist never hits a deadline, or the artist's work never comes up to the standard his supervisor wants and expects.

The second type is political. Maybe the artist has ticked off the wrong muckety-muck. Maybe the muckety-muck wants his own close pal in the slot occupied by the artist, and so reasons are invented to get rid of the artist. (In this case, there is nothing wrong with the artist's work, but problems are invented because somebody wants the employee gone. Doesn't happen a lot ... but it happens.)

And here's the rub: It's difficult to prove type #2 because the write-up looks an awful lot like type #1.

Like, identical.

And unless the employee can prove the employer is being discriminatory, unfair, and breaking state and federal laws in the process, his or her head will roll if the employer wants him or her gone.

Which isn't to say the animation guild can't help the employee strategize on remedies to the problem, or slow the discharge down, or secure some kind of settlement on the way out the door. Because we have. But the hard truth is:

If the employer really really wants you to be missing, when the dust settles you'll be missing.

I've learned this from thirty years of first and second-hand experience.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

The Links of Fall

Let the linkage begin.

Xbox 360. It's not just for Halo 3 anymore:

Starting today [Oct. 23], Warner Bros. for the first time offers more than 50 episodes of the classic Looney Tunes library in high definition for on-demand download to own. Fans of all ages will be able to digitally download Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck episodes and all the other classic characters episodes directly to their TV via Xbox LIVE.

John Lasseter holds forth on Rotten Tomatoes:

(Re Ratatouille): 97%. In the early days of Ratatouille's release we were checking it, every day, on Rotten Tomatoes. We were 100% for a while! I think when people start seeing 100% up there for a while they start coming in and saying, "I'm going to write a bad review to see how much it drops!"

Variety examines animation on the web, and how it often meets with more success than live action:

... [T]oons tend to translate easily across cultural and language barriers. The Web merely speeds its proliferation to the world, as evidenced by Disney's recent purchase of British Columbia-based Club Penguin, a popular children's networking site, as well as the popularity of animated clips on aggregator sites like YouTube, Channel Frederator, Revver, Metacafe and Atom Films.

"Animation is very successful online," says Jay Zaveri, CEO of the indie Indian studio Future Thought. "On Atom, animation attracts over 60% of the views, and as soon as an animated video is featured on YouTube, it gets three times the typical views."

The viral nature of the Web -- where people email animated clips to their friends -- makes online success a tricky thing to control, but also eliminates the hurdles for entry. ... [Fred] Seibert recalls that launching Channel Frederator in 2005 triggered a huge number of pitches from animators worldwide. Until the Web, he observes, "There was no focused outlet for most animation outside of festivals." ...

And look Ma! A web animated feature called BloodSpell!! Neato jet, eh? Until you take a look at the salaries for the artists:

Hancock and his team labored for three years producing BloodSpell as a 15-episode series released every two weeks during 2006, creating the visuals by adapting computer game Neverwinter Nights, supported by the developers.

They worked unpaid ... supported by consultancy work.

And Variety has yet another article on animation -- this one a quick overview of animation along the Pacific rim, that will warm the cockles of your hearts. The title says it all:

Asia Shops Juggle U.S. Animation Jobs

But the Big Trade Paper doesn't stop there. It explains how the Middle East is the next great animation frontier:

"The Middle East is so rich with myths like Aladdin," Mohammed Saeed Hareb [animation graduate of Boston University] says. "We wanted to create and repackage something out of the Arabic traditions which would relate to the 21st-century generation here. To be honest, three years ago I wouldn't have had any hope that we could create an animation industry here, but if you look around at all the things happening now, I think that in the next five years, with all the talent that is now capable of expressing themselves, we might be able to build one."

Disney CEO Robert Iger gave a wide-ranging business presentation on Wednesday where he talked about digital piracy, digital downloads, and how yesterday it is to dwell on moldy-fig things like box office recepits ...

"I know I'm a walking, talking commercial for Apple. Why not? Steve's our largest shareholder..."

Have a fine and relaxing weekend.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Everyone Does It

Call me warped, but I found this highly amusing...

It's great to see the state department spending its resources wisely and well. (Our tax dollars at work.)

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Meet the Robinsons in High Def

Monday, when I was over at Disney, one of the staffers held up the new high-rez DVD for Meet the Robinsons given to him by the studio and enthused:

"You know, this looks amazing. The guys upstairs said this is the first time that the film we made is all here on the disk. Not compressed, not altered or rejiggered. Exactly the way we configured it. The Blu-Ray DVD is the same files and format as the theatrical release..."

I guess that means you could put the high def version into a theatrical projection system and get the same sparkling image you would get with a new 35 mm print, probably better...

...Presented in 1080p using the AVC MPEG-4 codec, 'Meet the Robinsons' is another gorgeous high-def CGI transfer. Colors are bold, black levels are inky, and an abundance of texture details are a real visual treat. Jump to any scene with the tyrannosaurus rex -- take note of the crisp scales, the nicks on its claws, the imperfections in the grass beneath its feet, and the fabric in the bowler hat on its head. In fact, throughout the film, clothing textures not only showcase the filmmakers' extraordinary eyes for detail, but they reveal the proficiency of this transfer. The Bowler Hat Guy makes for an excellent demo reel of every texture the film throws at the screen, from his pants legs and cloak, to his oily eyebrows and mustache.

So the Disney artist is correct; the film does look terrific on Blu-Ray. Sadly, this means nothing for me and my 24-inch Philco.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

California Fires

Somewhere I read that Mr. Katzenberg was fireproofing the roof of his house. But it looks like it was a firefighter....

Glad your house was spared, Jeffrey. Too many other didn't have the same good fortune.

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TAG 401(k) Plan Change

A quick heads up: The Animation Guild's 401(k) Plan, as of November 1st, shifts from quarterly enrollments to monthly enrollments.

This means you can change your contribution amount into the plan every thirty days rather than ever ninety. And you can jump into the plan (or out) on a thirty-day cycle. The ninety day wait that participants have endured since we started the thing, are now over.

(You'll still need to have worked for a cumulative ninety days under TAG's jurisdiction before your initial enrollment. And we'll still be having the large enrollment meetings on a quarterly basis. But in-between times, I'll be tromping around the various studios with enrollment books for those who want them.)

Everything clear? Carry on then.

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A Stroll Through Starz Media

Today was Simpsons - King of the Hill day at SM's animation studio next to the Bob Hope Airport...

And I would say that 75% of everyone who talked to me asked: "So. What's with the Writers going out?"

I was happy to answer promptly. I said I didn't know.

The Simpsons crew has been cranking extra hours because of the WGA contract deadline on October 31st. A couple of layout guys said to me: "Some of us have been here late to get extra episodes done before November, but that's okay. They're feeding our faces."

When I asked the King of the Hill people if they were also speeding things up, they said no. "All the scripts are written," one artist said, "so I think we're good 'til the end of the season."

Here's hoping he's correct.

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Writer Bash at Gordon Biersch

So I trucked on down to GB in Burbank last night, and mingled with a hundred-plus animation writers, gathered there to eat, drink and talk shop.

I had a good time (and I hope there was enough cash in the basket to cover the tab*).

One of the major topics of conversation -- unsurprisingly -- was a possible (probable?) Writers Guild strike. Will the writers go out? When will they go out? Is a WGA strike going to impact animation?

I said I thought writers would hit the bricks because the two sides in the contract negotiations (the AMPTP and WGA) are far apart and not getting any closer. Not q question of "if" but "when." The conglomerates don't appear predisposed to give the scribes what they want, and the writers aren't in the mood to take N-O for an answer.

Some animation writers worry that a fresh flood of WGA writers will invade the animation side.

I said I thought any invasion would be minimal. TAG will get a number of inquiries, but not a lot of jobs will shift to sit-com writers.

One of the old-timers and I got to jawing about how the biz had changed over the years, how the days of easy negotiations over job responsibilities ("How much more you want to be story editor?") and pay rates are over. Now the congloms are ferociously bureaucratic and ruthlessly bottom-line. How script rates have flat-lined for years.

(On the other hand, a writer told me how the best experience he's had as a writer was working for Nick: conditions good, money good.)

There was talk about foreign levies and the lack or residuals, talk about working for middle managers who don't know much about story ... or anything else regarding animation. (There's a new one. Not.) And there was talk about the joys of listening to lectures on CDs from The Teaching Company during long commutes into work.

I ducked out while the festivities were still roaring. Hopefully everyone else had a good time too.

Thanks to Steve Marmel for setting the whole thing up. (*And I'm glad the overage for the money basket was only $19. Steve, I tossed in a few bucks hoping it would help.)

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Meanwhile at SPA

Now it can be told! I spent a big part of Monday at Sony Pictures Animation, visiting the troops and helping on the SPA contract ratification vote...

For those new to the party: The IATSE negotiated a first-time contract with then-new Sony Pictures Animation four years ago. It was a four-year deal, and it came up for renegotiation last month.

The IA sat down and hammered a new three-year pact with Sony in late September. The deal contained wage increases that were 30% higher than the increases negotiated by The Animation Guild and the IA for their respective contracts a year and a half ago; it also had the same sweeteners for the pension and health plans ("sweeteners" = more money into the MPIPHP.)

We held a series of informational meetings about the renewed contract at the studio in the early afternoon, after which SPA employees voted on the deal.

The breakdown: 89% in favor of the renegotiated collective bargaining agreement.

So the contract was ratified for a second time. (And the IATSE -- whose contract this is -- bats two-for-two at SPA).

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In and Around the Disney Studios

Today was spent jumping between Disney Animation Studio (the fabled "hat building") and DisneyToon Studio. (The unfabled Sonora Building, which from the outside occupies a rung immediately above a down-at-the-heels warehouse/office building. On the inside, however, DisneyToons has hanging lights, retro furniture, potted plants, and a general air of northern California chic. The big-screen LCDs hanging on a center wall aren't too shabby either...)

The "Tink" crews up on the second floor at DisneyToons are working right along. They're at the end of the second pass of the first "Tinkerbell" sequel, with a screening for John Lasseter and the southern California division of the Diz Animation brain trust soon to follow.

The crew's hoping that the next Tinkerbell epic (there's a total of four) is ready for boarding by the end of the year so they can seamlessly swing on over.

Over at Disney Animation Studio, Bolt is slowly accelerating. Crew expects to be working hard on the flick right through to its release next Fall.

And as long as I'm talking about the hat building, let me mention the fine display case in the long entry hall. It ain't just a display case anymore, but a multi media case. It's got art, photos and LCD screens displaying shorts, test footage, and documentaries on Disney history. For the last month or so they've featured development on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and a cluster of photographs from various Snow White premieres.

Fun stuff to look at. Without any trouble at all I could stand gaping at everything for an hour or more. But I work hard to hold my open-mouthed staring down to a few minutes.

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The Ginza

Another painting shown step-by-step by Ralph Hulett:

Ginza #1

(From the first of his Walter Foster art books: "Painting People and Places.")

Ginza #2

"The Ginza is a world-famous shopping district in Tokyo, Japan. Many of the shoppers still wear their native costumes. As I walked through this interesting series of shops and observed such scenes as the one above, I could help but think of Utamrao and his beautiful Japanese women..."

Ginza #3

(Hulett painted this scene in 1963, on assignment for the U.S. Air Force.)

Ginza #4

"The classical Asian simplicity certainly influenced my thinking in this composition. Another reason for selecting this painting for the book, is to emphasize the use of white paper as an important part of the finished picture..."

Ginza #5

"This watercolor was done entirely with controlled washes on dry paper."

-- Ralph Hulett

(Most of the time, when Hulett did watercolors, it was on wet paper...)

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Landmark Animation Training Ground Celebrates 40th Birthday

The big name animation and arts college that the MSM always talks about is, of course, Cal Arts. Funded by Walt Disney (and others) in the mid sixties, it sits on a hill above Valencia, California turning out animation talent by the truckload. (LasseterBirdMuskerRanftMcEntee, etc)

But there are other animation colleges with claims to fame. And one of them -- Sheridan College -- is just now turning forty.

"Sheridan is synonymous with animation," says Angela Stukator, associate dean, animation (Sheridan has five associate deans), as she hosts a personal tour through the new 37,000-square-foot animation building.

"And the students all have their own light tables," beams Stukator, opening yet another new door in the expansive $9-million wing that still smells of fresh paint.

Remarkably, Sheridan continues to teach invaluable basics on light tables before allowing students to upgrade to digital techniques on state-of-the-art equipment during the three-year animation program...

...Sheridan has always been the avant-garde of animation schools in the country, starting a digital program 15 years ago. "Our most noticeable and significant contribution to the arts is the animation program," Collins continues. "It provides the basis for an animation industry in Canada and gives us a foothold in the U.S."

I visited Sheridan a few years back, working with some Canadian unionists to plant the seeds of union awareness in up-and-coming Canadian talent. I found the students quietly enthusiastic about animation's future, also open to the idea of getting better money and treatment under labor contracts.

Canadians seem to have pretty firm grips on their priorities.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday Links Addendum

There's such a plethora of animation stories out there, let's continue the link-fest we launched on Friday ...

More bad news for the "Ratatouille is a horrible under-performer" crowd:

Remy's ruling the roost at the international box office, even though it's four months after the original release of "Ratatouille." ... Pixar pic's on target to hit the $300 million international mark as early as the Oct. 19-21 weekend, thanks to strong holdovers, plus openings in China, Italy, Poland and Sweden.

And a French Canadian cartoon makes a splash on the eastern side of the Atlantic:

MONTREAL -- One of the hottest Canuck websites pulls in huge numbers thanks to odd "South Park"-like animation sketches featuring a slew of blue-collar characters who speak in rough, slang-filled Quebecois French.

Tetes a Claques -- which translates literally as "faces you'd like to slap" -- clicked with French-Canadians from the moment it hit the web last fall, and it's now set to try to conquer new markets.

The site is beginning to make inroads in France, which led Canal Plus to strike a deal with Salambo Prods., site-creator Michel Beaudet's company, to buy Franco broadcast rights to the first 45 clips from the site.

And Japanese anime features -- according to Variety -- are getting away from their rampaging 'bots and young willowy females underpinnings:

... [A]nime films, which have typically topped the B.O. with themes intended for children ... are increasingly being shaped for wider audiences through new means of expression and different sources of inspiration.

"The trend in anime is to experiment with various ideas," says Sachio Masugata, a representative of Enta Matsuri, which is forecast to have attendance topping 180,000, up more than 10% on last year.

Back stateside, new animation will be unspooling at a Boston screening:

... 15 animated films, including five premieres, [will be] presented next Sunday at the Institute of Contemporary Art at 100 Northern Ave.

The offerings feature regional artists who have been pouring their vivid imaginations into animated renderings and spending an inordinate amount of time on their work.

"The fact that there are five animators ready with premieres at the same time is so unusual and exciting," Gentile said. "Usually premieres are scattered."

Lastly, the Mouse House is entertaining the sturdy core of the nation with clips from upcoming film projects:

As part of the Heartland Film Festival, [Mark] Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Group, will give a sneak peek tonight of three scenes from Disney's big holiday film, "Enchanted," plus exclusive looks at several other upcoming movies....

Zoradi will also show clips from several other upcoming Disney films never seen by the public, including "Bolt," about an adventure-seeking dog voiced by John Travolta, and "Wall-E," the next Pixar feature about a robot who breaks out of his programmed life. There also will be a preview of "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian." ...

Don't overstress yourself during the upcoming workweek...

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Josh Meador at Bodega Bay

Well, his paintings anyway. Josh Meador, head of the Disney effects department for decades, is no longer with us. But a vast array of his art is on display at the Bodega Bay Heritage Gallery until the end of October.

Josh was one of the favored stable of artists who worked for Walt Disney. Beginning in 1936, he participated in a long list of Disney productions, and worked with other notable Disney artists such as Bennett Bradbury. He is most proud of the water effects in Cinderella, Bambi, and the fire and bubbling mud scenes in the "Rite of Spring" in Fantasia. He also was part of a team winning a special effects Oscar for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Josh and [his wife] Libby were high school sweethearts in Columbus, Mississippi. Both were quite bright. Josh received a nomination to attend the Naval Academy at Annapolis, but turned it down. He wanted to follow his passion and paint. After visiting New York and Pittsburg trying to find the right art school for him, he arrived at the Chicago Art Institute in 1931, the same year Josh and Libby were married. He studied illustration, painting, portraits, and etching. After graduation in 1935, Josh and Libby came to California where Josh applied and went to work for Walt Disney ...

Within four years, Walt put Josh in charge of the studio's rapidly growing effects department, jumping him over the heads of senior artists. (The Naval Academy knew what it was doing, nominating Josh for the Naval Academy.)

Outside of WDP, Josh was an avid landscape painter -- mostly in oils -- until his death in 1965.

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The B.O. As We Know It ...

Hey kids! There's a new animated feature in town!

And it's not, apparently, busting any box office records.

$145,000 on Friday. In 830 theaters.

It's the latest incarnation of the story of Moses, otherwise known as The Ten Commandments. We'll be tracking it with our hearts aflutter.

(Elsewhere in this weekend's box office, 30 Days of Night collected $6,250,000 at #1, Why Did I get Married slumped to #2 and a $3,375,000 take; third position went to the Rock's Game Plan ($2,475,000) and Mr. Clooney's Michael Clayton took 4th... along with $2,250,000 into the bargain.)

Update: The Ten Commandments takes in $450,000 ($578 per screen) in the weekend box office steeple chase, good for #23. Don't look for Commandments to claw its way into the Top Ten.

On a brighter note, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (in Disney Digital 3-D!) snares $5,145,000 on 564 screens, making it by far the highest per-screen grosser ($9,122) for the weekend. It lands at #8.

Elsewhere in the charts, #1 horror flick 30 Days of Night collects $16 million, #2 Married drops 43.3% and now possesses a $38,856,000 total, #3 The Game drops a mere 26.4% and has $69,150,000 under its belt, and #4 Michael Clayton snares $7.1 million while dropping 31.6%.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Linky Links

Another weekend of tasty animation links...

Apparently The Prince of Egypt and DeMille epic don't have many worries about being supplanted by this animated biography of Moses:

This new version of the story of Moses is a huge step backward for theatrical CG animation, or any animation for that matter.

Each character looks less like a person than an animated marionette, and in one sense that's not a bad thing. With all the violence inherent in this Old Testament story, the fact that everybody looks like a puppet helps lessen the impact of the death and destruction. After all, this is a family film...

(More hossanahs -- and otherwise -- for The Ten Commandments here and here.)

Jeffrey Katzenberg again predicts a plethora of 3-D Three Dee toons in three years' time, also lots of other Three Dee:

Katzenberg went on to say that as a selling-point for movie theaters, they expect there to be "5, 6 or 7 'Super-A’ titles" in full 3D, with 2 to 3 being from DreamWorks, in 2009. And in 2010 that number would increase 2 to 3 times, bumping the total up to around 12 to 18 respectively...

Katzenberg is hoping to have 6,000 3D-equipped screens in movie theaters around the world by March of 2009. In addition to DreamWorks’ upcoming animated 3D movie Monsters vs. Aliens hitting theaters in March 2009, I think the real tipping point is going to be James Cameron's Avatar, also slated for 2009. Not only at this seminar, but also multiple times throughout ShowEast, I've heard from industry professionals that Avatar is going to change this industry forever. It's going to be the final push for 3D and will be the determining factor on 3D and the future of cinema.

Many others have noted the large and largely well-reviewed biography of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, so we'll point out several of them here...

By the end of this well-drawn biography, you can't say if Charles Schulz was a good man, but there's no question: He was one who made his mark. As he said, he was the strip and the strip was Schulz. He died on Feb. 12, shortly after the millennium, with his final strip in that Sunday's paper...

The Father of Star Wars will be creating more Wars for home screens:

George Lucas is finally ramping up production on those long-awaited Star Wars TV projects he has been promising.

The head Jedi confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that Lucasfilm has "just begun work" on a new live-action spinoff that will bring the Star Wars mythology to the small screen. Additionally, Lucas Animation is deep in production on a weekly computer-animated 3-D series dubbed Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which the filmmaker expects to shop to various networks when finished.

Over in Boris Putin's stomping grounds, a big Russian Animation festival is being held:

Big Animation Festival, as it has been called by the organizers, brings together works by modern Russian and foreign animators, retrospectives of celebrated film directors and studios, children's cartoons, flesh-animated films, and archive and documentary programmes.

Toon Zone interviews Cartoon Network's new veep of programming, Jennifer Davidson:

We just launched Out of Jimmy's Head, and Chowder is coming this November, so in talking with the development team, we're looking to see what would be the follow-up there. So it will very much be a partnership...For me, it's not about Japanese animation or anime or live-action or animated -- it's about the content and the entertainment that's going to serve our core audience, which is kids 6-11.

(Probably not the best time to be getting into live-action, what with all the talk of strikes and all. But what do I know?)

And let's put our hands together for Blue Cat, soon to be China's own Mickey Mouse...

In the world of cartoons, the cat has been a central figure. In the West, the cat is the evil nemesis of the dog. But here in China, the cat prevails over the mouse.

To Sunchime Cartoon Group, that could be symbolic. Blue Cat, whom it has developed to be the most recognizable cartoon character in China, is eyeing the hallowed status of Mickey Mouse. After solving 3,000 science-related issues, the kitty not only reigns China, but has meowed into a dozen overseas markets. In 2002, the series was dubbed into Cantonese and aired on Hong Kong's ATV; in 2005, it prowled its way into Taiwan's Disney Channel...

Lastly. This is a week old, but worth bringing to your attention. Fox, even as its animation writers are poised to walk out, is still high on teevee cartoons:

Fox is stocking up on dysfunctional animated families for next season.

The network is developing three projects: an animated version of its 2003 short-lived live-action comedy "The Pitts," from "The Simpsons" veteran Mike Scully; "Relative Insanity," exec produced by Jack Black; and "Mothballs," from "Drawn Together" creators Matt Silverstein and Dave Jeser. All three shows hail from 20th Century Fox TV.

Fox has ordered two scripts from "Pitts." The studio is casting the project for a table read. If that goes well, "Pitts" will be ordered straight to series, bypassing the monthslong process of producing a presentation.

It's good to know animation, even in these times of trouble, is still commercially viable in the eyes of Those Who Count. Have an excellent weekend.

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A Strike Rule Analysis

I know that this is getting beaten to powder, but since I am still getting inquiries (even after all the previous posts) about TAG's position on animation writing during a possible WGA strike, let me analyze and comment on the WGA's Strike Rule below:

First. The WGA's Strike Rules inform members that they can't perform work on struck writing, not submit "spec" material, and so on.

Second. The part of the Strike Rules that TAG is focussed on:

The Rules apply to (1) all network primetime animated series covered by a WGA contract ...

Neither TAG, nor, I assume, the IATSE, has any problem with the above. It's WGA-covered work. So the WGA is within its rights to strike that work if its members choose to do so. Any union or guild in its position would have the same right. But to continue:

... and (2) contracts for writing services in connection with fully animated theatrical features negotiated or entered into during the strike. Writers are advised to consult with WGA staff to determine whether animation writing is prohibited before performing any writing services. Members should assume that projects combining live action and animation, and live action-based processes such as motion capture, are covered by the Strike Rules.

The WGA is being sort of crafty here. If it's a fully animated feature under a WGA contract, again no problem. The Writers Guild isn't explicit, so we can't say with certainty which fully animated features it's referring to here. A non-represented feature? (That is, no union contracts covering the film.) That's an internal matter between the WGA and its members.

Howsoever. Fully animated features under Animation Guild and other IATSE contracts? Ixnay no way. The WGA can't demand its members do anything regarding this work. It's none of the WGA's business who works on, or negotiates for work on, or begins work on an IATSE or TAG feature. Why? Because it's not work within the WGA's jurisdiction. So the WGA has no say, zero, nada, over writers that negotiate of work on IA-covered animated features.

The IATSE does.

So, when the WGA says it prohibits WGA members from negotiating for work on an IA animated feature during the strike, the prohibition is unenforceable. First time the WGA gets hauled into court over this, the WGA loses (or so believes every lawyer I've talked to. And I've talked to lots.)

Last item. "The WGA advises..." If "advising" equals "suggesting" (and that's the way I interpret the word), then okay. Suggest away. But any writer who doesn't want to follow the "advice"? They have every right to do as they choose.

Last last item. As to work on non-WGA television animation, the WGA doesn't even bring up the subject of writing or not writing on this type of work.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Your Taxes and Mine

Here's a fine and simple chart-- part of TAG's occasional look at financial items -- that shows where U.S. taxes fall in relation to other countries on the globe (and let's hear it for the Netherlands) ....

Thank God we're running a large deficit. Otherwise our taxes would be higher, no?And I wish for you enough income that you have to pay taxes.

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Around the Studios

I've hit multiple studios over the past several days, and in the way of production news, there's not a lot to report. Same teevee shows in production. Same movies and movies for dvd in production.

But a lot of the conversations I've been having -- with members and management -- revolve around ... guess what? ...

The Upcoming WGA strike.

The artists working on the four WGA animated series have dogs in the hunt and wonder how much longer they'll be employed. Management has given me different answers to how long studio staff will have work to do if and when writers hit the bricks. ("A few weeks? A couple more months? We don't know yet ..." They seem to be channeling Donald Rumsfeld.)

Artists at TAG repped studios ask if they're going to be impacted; I tell them that the rubber will hit the road if the actors walk when SAG-AFTRA's contract expires next June. They then relax a little, since June is a long ways off (or so it seems.)

Management people are miffed that the WGA is calling WGA-TAG writers on company payrolls and telling them to stop work in the event of a strike. (Miffed isn't exactly the right word -- "concerned" to "freaking out" is more accurate.)

I always have the same answer:

"The WGA can ask for writers to stop working when a strike comes. And if the writer chooses to stop, then fine. But if the WGA punishes anybody who continues to work, then the guild is over the line. It can't demand that a dual card holder working in another union's jurisdiction stop work. Legally, that just doesn't hold water."

There's been several rounds of cannon fire between the IATSE and the WGA. IA President Short says the WGA is out of bounds telling writers in IA jurisdictions they can't do the work (he's on firm legal ground here, methinks). WGA President Verrone says that "virtually all" animated features are written by WGA members. (he's correct if you define "writing an animated feature" as turning out pages of script.)

Problem is, storyboard artists also write large parts of an animated feature, and most of them have never been WGA members.

The other problem is, whether or not WGA members write animation scripts is irrelevant. WGA membership only counts if the WGA also represents the work.

As longtime animaation-comic book-live action writer Mark Evanier says:

There are some animation projects that are covered by the WGA. There are some that are covered by The Animation Guild... There are also animation projects produced that are covered by no union at all...and I should add one other category, lest folks get confused: There are projects where the WGA represents the writers and The Animation Guild represents the animators and other artists. The Simpsons would be the best example of this.

So. Let's take Mark's last example and spin us a scenario: TAG is about to strike against the studio doing The Simpsons. I call the WGA writers on the show and tell them: "TAG's going out Monday. We demand that you stop work and go out too."

Two writers yell "Solidarity forever!" and walk. Three writers -- one of whom is also a TAG member -- stay in. And TAG fines its member for staying in, even though the member is working under a WGA contract.

What then happens? Probably this: Member refuses to pay the fine, TAG takes member to court in an effort to collect, TAG loses.

The judge, you see, would most likely rule that our member was working under some other labor organization's jurisdiction and therefore we had no legal right to fine him. But in the real world, this would probably end up being academic, since Fox would demand amnesty for its writer-employee long before the case wended its way through court, and TAG would almost certainly agree to the amnesty.

The above is pretty much a mirror image of what I think will play out in the real time, real world situation between labor and management we're going through now.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

California Adventure ReBooted

When the Walt Disney Co. began tearing up the old Disneyland parking lot, I thought: "Hot Dog! A new amusement park going in! It's probably going to be something!"

Instead, it turned out to be ... pretty awful. Acres of cement. Carny rides. A big shallow pond reflecting the big ferris wheel and rollercoaster. Also a ghastly attraction called "Hollywood Limo," the worst dark ride ever conceived by the mind of man.

Happily, since CA's opening, the company has made slow but steady progress in making it semi-decent. More happily, they now seem ready to improve it big time:

Walt Disney Co. said Wednesday that it is planning a major overhaul of its troubled California Adventure park near its cornerstone Disneyland park in Anaheim, Calif., and indicated the entire facility may be renamed.

Disney plans to add at least 12 acres as part of an attraction centered on its recent "Cars" movie, co-produced with its Pixar unit, as well as a new entryway, a "Little Mermaid" attraction and what it calls a "nighttime spectacular."

Any company that has the good sense to get rid of "Hollywood Limo" has to be doing something right. Diz will also be calling on J. Lasseter and Co. to bop the place up...

Disney will lean heavily on its Pixar unit for creative input; both Rasulo and Iger said Pixar's John Lasseter is intimately involved in the designs for many of the rides. Further, Pixar software will be used on several attractions.

When they jackhammer a couple of acres of cement, and deep-six the silly-ass lake, I'm there.

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Strike Watch

So there's now slightly more than two weeks before all the sand runs out of the WGA-AMPTP hour-glass:

Reps for the WGA and AMPTP huddled in separate meetings Wednesday and did not hold any face-to-face negotiations. With no new date set yet for the resumption of formal bargaining and the WGA's strike authorization vote concluding late today, talks won't probably start again until Friday at the earliest.

Two key questions...: Will the WGA agree to a contract extension in exchange for a multiyear study of compensation, even though it spurned the idea in July? And can the AMPTP sweeten an extension deal enough to get the guild leaders aboard?

Two answers to that.

No and definitely not.

The WGA has rallied behind its leadership because of the AMPTP's silly-ass proposal (now off the table) to erase residuals.

And the way the AMPTP bargaining unit operates is, all or nearly all of the studios have to be on board Nick Counter's proposals. The studios aren't going to give an inch on WGA residual proposals, and the WGA is after at least half a foot. we go. On to November 1st.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Labor Wars

We live in warlike times, and the local front between Hollywood management and labor seems to be almost as hot as other battle areas.

The AMPTP, in response to the Writers Guild's Strike Rules, has now ramped up its rhetoric about how unhinged the WGA is -- "We are outraged" ..."It is troubling and irresponsible" -- and provides a handy FAQ on its website about how to go "Financial Core" and ignore the Writers Guild's strike rules:

If you are a full member of the WGA, the union may under some circumstances impose fines and other internal discipline in the event that you perform writing services during a strike. However, as explained below, you have the right to continue to work without the threat of fines if you resign your full membership with the WGA and become a “financial core” member...

For those of you relatively new to the animation biz, TAG went through this same malarkey in 1982. Then, we had a long strike. Then, the animation studios helpfully provided tips on how to resign from the union and "become a financial core member."

Which is a mis-characterization of the term "financial core." When you resign from the union, you become a non-member who has "financial core" status. You're no longer a member; you have picked up your ball and bat and gone home. But you have the right to work under union or guild jurisdiction so long as you pay the appropriate union/guild dues fees.

In 1982, we had a whole lot of people -- mostly at Disney -- who resigned from the union and went back to work a few days before the strike ended. The strike had dragged on for months, and studio lawyers advised various employees about "going financial core". And some employees, tired and desperate, bolted through that open doorway.

Since then, many have returned to full membership. Others have totally blanked on their resignations for a quarter century ago, and are shocked when somebody in TAG's office points their status out to them. Many are sorry they left.

I point all this out because in this corporatist age, when the monster companies that dislike paying employees a nickel more than they need to sling words around like "irresponsible" to characterize a union's attempts to get slightly more money for its members at a time when the top 1% of the population controls more national wealth than at any time in U.S. history, is a tiny bit disingenuous.

Companies are good at using the weapons at their disposal to get what they want. They wrap themselves in self-righteous morality when that's convenient, resort to the "it's business" line when that's most convenient. God knows I have disagreements with the WGAw, but we need to be clear on a couple of things:

The WGA is trying to get better treatment and more compensation for its members, and that's a good thing.

The AMPTP is using one of the more despicable tactics of the labor-management wars to damage an organization representing workers, and that's a bad thing.

All the talk from the moneyed elite about wanting to "empower and help" employees get a better shake in their day-to-day lives is mostly twaddle. Face it: The posturing and speech-making is designed to keep more of the wealth with the top bracket of income-earners.

Given the realities of corporate power, resigning from a labor organization is a really dumb thing to do. After all, if you honestly disagree with the leadership of your
union or guild, if you think the people in charge are a bunch of raving lunatics, then resigning is the equivalent of handing us they keys to the asylum.

(Richard Verrier of the Los Angeles Times writes a good piece this morning about why it's important for working stiffs farther down the economic food chain to get more than the occasional crumb.)

So the unchanging battle goes on. As I overheard an administrator say to a background artist at Disney decades ago: "If we give you more money, you'll just go out and spend it."

Update: In this continuing saga, the AMPTP (referenced above) has now pulled its biggest, baddest proposal off the table:

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 16 — Attempting to break a three-month impasse in contract negotiations with screenwriters, Hollywood producers withdrew a controversial proposal that would have retooled the entertainment industry’s decades-old practice of paying fees known as residuals for the re-use of movies and television programs on DVDs and elsewhere.

The proposal was withdrawn during a bargaining session this morning ...

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Imagi, the Asian Pixar?

That's what the Hong Kong animation studio is shooting for. And Business Week profiles the company's ambitious plans:

A year ago, Tim Cheung had one of computer-generated animation's dream jobs—working on the latest installment of Shrek for DreamWorks Animation SKG (DWA). Today, the 35-year-old Texas native works in an old warehouse district in a remote part of Hong Kong, helping film neophytes learns the do's and don'ts of how to make a movie featuring computer animation [for Imagi Studios].

Globalization raises its unlovely head. American animation staffers fly overseas to train their replacements, and we kiss the domestic industry goodbye, correct?

I don't think so. If it were just about labor costs, animation would be headquartered in Bangladesh instead of various producton hubs around the world, which include at least two in California.

Because the most important issue, first and last, is quality. It does your cause little good if you turn out a lower budget animated product that underperforms at the box office.

Before the [theatrical] release of TMNT [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles], [Imagi]investors pushed up the company's stock price on the hope that the movie would be a big success. But once it was clear the film wouldn't be a home run, investors fled. Today, Imagi's shares are down 47% for the year, compared with a 40% increase in the benchmark Hang Seng index. From a high of HK$4.87 in January, the stock has lost 60% of its value.

This goes a ways in explaining why Imagi has opened a satellite studio in California. If you want to compete with the current kings of the roost [Pixar and DreamWorks], it's probably useful to hire staff that are from those places.

...[O]n Oct. 4, Imagi announced the hiring of Jakob Jensen—who had spent a dozen years working on pictures for DreamWorks and Disney—to be animation director for Astro Boy ...

So you see, globalization isn't a one-way street anymore. It's not enough to be a lower-cost provider. You must also create product that put eyeballs in front of the big, silver screen; that's why California's gravitational pull on global animation remains strong.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Song of the South

Cartoon Brew points out that SOTS enjoyed two screenings in Philly, but there's still no DVD release in sight.

Which I don't get. Song of the South is far from being the most socially conscious film of its time, but compared to Gone With the Wind (now in its 416th video release) it could have been financed and produced by the NAACP.

Per Sam Adams (a fabulous name for a film reviewer in Philadelphia):

Once you've seen Song of the South, it's hard to account for its uniquely untouchable status. It's nowhere near as malicious as The Birth of a Nation, less bizarre than The Jazz Singer and less awful than The Emperor's New Groove....

Song is hardly a great movie, but Baskett's lively performance shows the intelligence behind Uncle Remus' tales, here conceived as parables to help the son of the plantations' owners weather his parents' threatened divorce. Even in their animated versions, Remus' tales reveal their roots in African folklore, and Gregg Toland's cinematography ingeniously soups up the live-action colors to match their ink-and-paint vibrancy....

In the 1950s, the Old Man brought home chewed-up 16mm prints from the Disney library, along with with a 16mm projector that was new at the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural. My brother and I, along with a couple of friends, would watch Snow White, Cinderella or some other opus from the Disney vaults. The scarred prints often broke, the sound went out half the time, but we usually made it through to the end credits.

We saw Song of the South a couple of times. What I remember half a century later is the three-strip Technicolor bright enough to pop your retinas loose, the antic cartoon segments, and James Baskett. Also Bobby Driscoll's wretched acting.

It's a shame that the Disney Co. is so gun-shy about SOTS. The live-action screams Mid-forties! at you, but the animation is great, and the flick deserves a better fate than a nervous conglomerate has given it.

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Animation Rules Overseas

No animated features in play in the U.S., but there's one that's doing quite nicely in other parts of the world:

Remy's time has come -- at least on the international stage. Disney's "Ratatouille" is leading the foreign box office for the first time, during the Oct. 5-7 frame -- its 15th week in release.

As with many family toons, the Mouse House opted to pick and choose dates that would coincide with holidays in each market. That's why it's been more than three months since the Pixar toon first hit multiplexes in the United States.

"Ratatouille" dominated the frame, with $19.4 million at 3,265 playdates, or more than the combined grosses of the next two top performers -- "Resident Evil: Extinction" with $8 million and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" with $6.1 million.

Remy and associates appear to be going the way of the animals in Ice Age II -- a quite nice run domestically, and a gangbuster payout overseas:

The toon's already joined the club of 72 pics to gross more than a quarter billion dollars overseas, and should become the 50th film to cross the $300 million mark by the end of the month -- with openings coming during the Oct. 12-14 frame in the United Kingdom, and then in Italy and China during the following weekend.

So, despite the hyperbolic wailing that "Animation is being crushed under its own glut!" and "Pixar is losing its box office pizzazz!" one thing is kind of certain:

As long as animated features keep raking in the coin that Ratatouille is raking, studios will keep creating new animated product. Because it's not a market that any of them can afford to stay out of.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Animationless Box Office

Or: Why did I go to my neighborhood AMC?"

Not an animated feature in sight unless you count the Bay/Spileberg Transformers, now residing at #18 with a $317 million total and an end-of-run gross of $200,000.

This weekend's b.o. list has Why Did I Get Married in the top spot with a $7.7 million Friday take, and We Own the Night at #2...

The well-reviewed comes Michael Clayton lands at #3 (although it has the second-highest per screen average) and the sophomore offerings bump down to mid-list.

Update: The weekend estimates are in, and Why Did I Get Married elopes with $21.5 million and the top spot. (Janet J.'s fans really turned out.)

The Game Plan drops a mere 30.7% to cop $11.5 million and a $59,447,000 total and the Place position.

Michael Clayton edges out We Own the Night for #3, while Ben Stiller and the Coen brothers tailspin 47% with Heartbreak. They now own a $26 million total after two weekends, which will cause heartburn for DreamWorks-Paramount.

Meanwhile, 3:10 to Yuma slows in its sixth week of release, dropping to the twelve position and a $1.5 million take. It now carries $51.5 million its saddlebags.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

The DEFINITELY Coming Writers' Strike...

That's my prediction, anyway.

I've been looking at the dynamics of this situation -- as expressed by trade press, chatty studio labor reps, and writers -- and I don't think there's any way around it.

The scribes are going to hit the bricks. The gulf between the parties is wide, and it's not narrowing in any discernible way. Plus the WGA's contract term ends on October 31.

And my guess is that a strike will happen sooner rather than later, since the WGA wants to throw the AMPTP a hard curve. Conventional Wisdom has been that the Writers Guild would wait to go out when the Screen Actors Guild strikes. But leaders of WGAw appear to believe the better strategy is to strike before the companies are completely ready for a job action. (They're not necessarily wrong.)

I've shot my over-active mouth off to reporters who've called about the WGA-AMPTP wrestling match, and about the WGA's strike rules blocking dual-card writers from negotiating animation deals. And I've been quoted saying this:

"Any union can discipline their members for violations of internal rules and policy. But I can't imagine our union [TAG] attempting to prevent someone from joining and working for another union. So good luck to them..."

Also this:

"When somebody is performing work under a union's jurisdiction and contract, I don't believe that any other union has the right to punish members for performing that work..."

So why would I say the second thing? Because the WGAw has as much license to punish members for being in another union and performing that union's work as we do to fine animation writers' from being WGA members and writing on ER or Heroes during a cartoonists' strike.

Which is to say, none.

But I understand why the WGA is taking the position it is regarding dual cardholders writing animation: it wants all the leverage it can get, because leverage is what win's negotiations. Not high-minded morality. Not truth and goodness and light. Just muscle.

Now. I want the WGA to get the best contract it can. I want it to get a good deal on downloads over the internet and on mobile devices. I wish for the Guild to secure better DVD percentages and higher wages.

The problem is, I don't think blocking writers from writing animation holds up legally. The first writer that challenges a WGA fine or other punishment over the issue will most likely be supported by a judge.

But it will never get to that. When the strike is over, three or six or ten months after it begins, the producers will have "amnesty" as one of their contract settlement demands.

What amnesty means is, anyone who crossed the picket line during the strike, anyone who wrote live-action or animation, will have to be given a full and complete pardon by the WGA.

And the WGA will swallow and say "okay." Because they'll have lots of members eager to go back to work. And few will be willing to stay out over the Guild's refusal to agree to amnesty.

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Weekend Links of Toonage

Another end-of-week cavalcade of links, starting with a well-reviewed video game that owes its origins and inspiration to Chuck Jones and Mike Maltese:

It's no surprise to see Warner Bros.' inhouse videogame unit tapping the studio's rich library of Looney Tunes characters for a pair of new games...

''Duck Amuck'' is based on the Looney Tunes short of the same name, a post-modern classic in which Daffy is tortured by an animator who constantly changes the short-tempered fowl’s appearance, location and even his voice. Translating the cartoon to the DS, with its touch-sensitive screen and microphone, is an inspired idea, since it lets players harass Daffy in the same way, becoming a virtual Chuck Jones...

No residuals or royalties for the Jones or Maltese estates, but certainly a new flow of cash into the cofferes of Time-Warner...

A dandy interview with Brad Bird from the U.K. hits the intertubes:

I think we, with ‘Ratatouille’, have been more than a victim of a lot of fuzzy animal films that came out before us that just have a bunch of jabbering, wise-cracking practically interchangeable animals. People will take one look at our talking rats and think: ‘Oh! It’s one of those.’...

And while we're on the subject of Pixar, there is this re upcoming projects:

The guys at Pixar have apparently made a trip to Edgar Rice Burroughs archives, doing research for a trilogy of John Carter of Mars films. That’s right, they are planning not one, but three films based on Burroughs work. In attendance for the trip: director Andrew Stanton, the director, Mark Andrews, screenwriter and producer of Wall-E / Pixar executive Jim Morris. So it appears that is the creative team on John Carter.

Michel Gondry, up 'til now a live-action director (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Science of Sleep) will now be diving into the animated realm:

“I am working on an animated film with my son,” Gondry revealed to MTV News. “It’s going to be quite amazing.” ...

The time was finally right, the director enthused, saying that the story will be quite personal.

An updated (and cgi-animated) Thundercats will soon roar into production:

Vidgame vet Jerry O'Flaherty will helm [Warner Bros]'s CG-animated "Thundercats" feature, based on the popular '80s cartoon series, comicbook and toy line.

The project marks the first feature directing gig for O'Flaherty, who served as an art director on such bestselling games as "Gears of War" and "Unreal Tournament 3" for Epic Games and the "Command and Conquer" series from Westwood Studios.

..."It feels like a natural thing for me to step into," he said. "Games have come so far now. The last four years of my life have been about bringing the energy of filmmaking into the videogame experience..."

Sony Pictures releases Creature Comforts America in handy DVD format:

...[I]t's hard not to love Creature Comforts, an unusual but highly entertaining short film and subsequent TV series created by W&G mastermind Nick Park. If you've never seen either incarnation, Creature Comforts proves to be unlike most anything else out there...animated or otherwise.

The original stop-motion short (1990) won an Oscar for its brilliant portrayal of animal life behind-the-scenes, created and produced while "A Grand Day Out" (Wallace and Gromit's debut adventure) neared completion. Presented in a mockumentary format, Creature Comforts showed us---and continues to show us---what goes on inside the minds of everyday people, channeled through curious critters...

Have a fulfilling weekend.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Writers Scribbling in Other Jurisdictions

So I walk into one of our signator studios and happen on a studio lawyer, who says to me: "I hear that the WGA told agents that if their writers haven't written animation before, they can't start writing it during a WGA strike."

This seems pretty forceful to me, but what do I know? It's another labor organization enforcing its internal rules and policies. I'm not exactly sure how the WGA knows which of its members has written animation in the past, and which hasn't, but I guess they can ask.

When I get back to the office in late afternoon, Variety calls for reaction about the Writers Guild prohibiting screenwriters from working on animated features:

The WGA's effort to ban work for fully animated features is likely to be controversial, since nearly all of the work in that area is covered through a different union -- the Animation Guild, which operates as Local 839 of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees. The WGA's asserting that its members can't perform new work for feature animation, including negotiating for new work, on any project even if the producers' deal is through the IATSE.

Lots of things go through my head, like: "What would Larry Clemmons have done back in 1961, when he left the WGA to work on animated features before a strike?" And "What would I have done?" since I worked in animated features for ten years, without benefit of WGA membership (there was a WGA strike during my time at Disney) ...

...[A] draft recap of the WGA rules said the guild plans to prohibit any writing for new media and declare that writers can't do animated features -- even though that realm is not under WGA jurisdiction.

The WGA didn't specify what the penalties would be for violating the rules. It's also asserting that nonmembers who perform banned work during a strike will be barred from joining the [Writers] [G]uild in the future.

I like to think I would have had the wherewithal to keep my job, and not been intimidated by a labor union to which I had never belonged. But, I don't know. Maybe I would have wimped out and knuckled under.

In any event, this is what I told Daily Variety Wedensday afternoon:

"Any union can discipline their members for violations of internal rules and policy. But I can't imagine our union [TAG] attempting to prevent someone from joining and working for another union. So good luck to them."


Update: I've gotten input from various lawyers -- some solicited by me, some not -- and the consensus seems to be: "Kinda illegal to interfere with people's right to work under another union..."

But at this point, all is hearsay, conjecture and nothing substantive has happened, so I'm just going to lie here in the weeds and await developments.

Update II: IA President Tom Short has now written WGAw President Patrick Verrone over disciplining animation writers:

"It was reported today in Variety that the WGAw is considering discipline against members who work under IATSE Animation Guild agreements. The Animation Guild has represented animation writers for 55 years. I consider it outrageous for the WGAw to consider violating trade union principles by taking action against individuals performing services under the jurisdiction of another union.

"If the WGAw follows through with this threat, the IATSE is prepared to take legal action against the individuals and institutions involved."

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Padre (R. Hulett) did various versions of this Swiss scene over the years. It was one of my favorite paintings, probably because Switzerland is one of my favorite countries (I lived there for six months in my long-ago youth.) This is a rendering in oil of the terraced slopes of Lake Geneva, circa 1956. (His original field painting was a watercolor...)

Geneva #1
Click on the thumbnails for a larger image

"Along the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, I came upon this striking scene. The Swiss Alps, looming up in the background, made an effective foil for the autumn color of the grape vineyards which seemed to climb to the sky. The medieval village appeared to be huddling along the shore of the lake for protection against the huge mountains in the background..."

Geneva #2

"The breakdown shown above and belowwill give you an idea of the development of this composition. This painting was done entirely with a painting knife."

-- Ralph Hulett

Geneva #3

I recall being fond of the watercolor version. Wish I knew where that one was...

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

At Diz Sonora

Tuesday was my day to amble through the Disney Sonora building in bustling Glendale. (Disney TVA has the big downstairs space, and Disney Toons resides on the second floor...)

The joint has multiple security doors, which work very well. If you don't have a magnetic card -- and I don't -- you get to call operations to let you through the outer door. After which, you walk four feet, and call operations to let you through the inner door.

If you're lucky, there's somebody at the other end of the line to check you out and allow you to enter. My batting average is wonderfully good. Half the time I get in, and half the time it's "Hi, I'm away from my desk right now, leave a message ..." and I cool my heels.

Tuesday, my feet were frosty for only a short while. Disney TVA (now a sub-set of the Disney Channel) is humming merrily with My Friends Tigger and Pooh, Emperor's New School, and Mickey's Clubhouse (there are additional shows -- Phineas and Ferb, The Replacements, and others -- on the main lot in the Frank Wells Building.) I got some questions about possible layoffs at Fox Animation and Starz Media if the WGA goes out, and answered in my usual informative way. ("Maybe the WGA will walk in November, maybe they'll strike in June. Who knows?").

I'm a fount of information.

Upstairs at Disney Toons, they've done their third pass of the Tinkerbell feature, and John Lasseter is allegedly happy with the way it's shaping up. As a couple of artists said:

"We're moving fast on the project, and they've already shipped big chunks of it overseas for production, but John seems to be into it..."

The first of the three sequels beyond Tink The Movie is already into its second pass and racing right along. The initial feature is, I believe, due to hit a Wal-Mart or video outlet near you the last quarter of 2008. The next three will no doubt be released in the years thereafter.

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