Thursday, July 31, 2008

Anatomy of a Shot

Kevin writes:

Amidst a long-overdue vacation to the east coast, some freelance work, and an exhausting trek down to Comicon, I’ve managed to do a little personal animation. My Animation Mentor students usually ask about my workflow and methods, which I have a hard time explaining, so I thought I’d show the result, and then a progressive series of earlier versions ...

The whole post is here (along with the shot) at Synchrolux.

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Minimums

At last night's membership meeting, we discussed that as more and more of us find ourselves working at minimum scale (or less), it's important for members to know what the union minimum is for their category -- yes, even if they're making overscale. Three weeks ago, I posted about our CBA minimums that are going up effective this coming Sunday.

A number of years ago, I was privy to a discussion with a member who was bragging that he was the highest-paid animator at Miracle Pictures* -- why, he was making $1,000 per week! Whereupon Bud Hester informed the fellow that the journey minimum for animators at Miracle Pictures was over $1,000, and had been for the past year-and-a-half.

It seems he had negotiated his overscale rate several years previously, when he may well have been the highest-paid at his studio. But his rate had stayed the same while the minimums had gone up. (We filed a grievance, and the employer coughed up the back monies.)

Another example: for a number of years now, the going rate for half-hour TV scripts (inclusive of outline and teleplay) has been $6,500. When that standard was set, the Guild minimum was much less. But a year ago the minimum passed $6,500, and as of next week it's $6,766.67. We've filed (and won) grievances over writers paid less than the half-hour minimum.

Of course, Guild employers are supposed to make sure no one is making less than minimum scale, but (intentionally or otherwise) they often don't until they're reminded. And remember, the Guild doesn't get reports of the amount of people's weekly checks. So it's up to us to police our own rates.

Bottom line: the employers can't be reminded unless we do the reminding. If you don't know your minimum rate, check the previous post or contact me at the Guild.

* "If It's A Good Movie, It's A Miracle!" -- Preston Sturges, Sullivan's Travels
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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Originality Isn't Dead

It's so good to be out of circulation for a few days. You find out that the creative geniuses have been hard at work in your absence .

Warner Bros. is launching development of a "Marvin the Martian" feature at Alcon Entertainment, with principals Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove producing along with Steve Crystal.

It's good to know with the vast array of talent in Hollywood, with the fountain of new and exciting ideas, that WB is going to go with the fresh and different, circa five or six decades ago.

No doubt it will make a potful of money.

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He's baaack ...

Glenn Martin DDS

Monday's Daily Variety announced that Nick at Nite has picked up a new stop-motion series produced by an old acquaintance of ours ...

Nickelodeon’s Nick at Nite has given a 20-episode order to Glenn Martin DDS, a stop-motion animated comedy series from former Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner.

Series reps the first to come out of Tornante Animation, a newly formed part of Eisner’s investment firm, the Tornante Co. Eisner has partnered with Celebrity Deathmatch creator Eric Fogel to design Glenn Martin, which Nick at Nite plans to launch next summer ...

"It’s not a Disney Channel show," Eisner said. "This show is not a fit with Hannah Montana, it’s not a tween show. I always thought that animation should be made for adults, and then you get the kids automatically. It’s not to say this couldn’t have worked on some Disney properties, but I read that article, about how they’re moving more older-appeal shows earlier in the evening on Nickelodeon, and knew there would be a great flow of kids coming in to this as well" ...

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The Exec Board Meeting - Day Two

Lots more reports on the second day of the IA Executive Board. The take-away from Tuesday's session was the lengthy report on the Motion Picture Health and Pension Plan (kind of important, since it's the pillar by which 42,000 participants get health coverage and a big part of retirement money ....

The Plan has been in solid shape for years, but:

* It took a hit in the actors' commercial strike in 2000. Some of the commercial work that went away during the six-month job action has never come back.

* It took a hit during the 2007-2008 WGA strike.

* After robust investment growth of over 8% over twenty years, investment returns have slowed down in 2008.

* The cost of the MPIPHP's Health Plan has increased every year over the past decade; costs are expected to double in the next eight years.

* The ironically-named "Pension Protection Act of 2006" has made it more difficult for Defined Benefit Plans across the country to avoid the risk of default because the reserve requirements are far higher than they were previously.

The upshot of the report? Although the Plan is well funded, and has had better investment returns over time than other entertainment union plans, the next negotiation (which only got partway done back in April) will require "hard bargaining and creativity on both side of the table."

Over the time I've done this, I've never not heard that there were big problems hammering together a deal for pension and health benefits. But the hard, dollar-and-cents reality is that the rest of this year's IATSE-AMPTP negotiations (that will most likely happen when the SAG soap opera wraps up) will be ... ah ... challenging.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The IATSE Executive Board Meetings

No studio visits for me most of this week. I'm camped in San Diego at the IATSE's national executive board meeting ...

These meetings are held multiple times per year. IA officers gather together and hear reports about IA labor activities across the U.S. and Canada. Labor reps (and there are a lot of reps here this week) get to catch up with what's going on in the continent-wide I.A. sphere, and hobnob with fellow union officers.

Okay, so it ain't Comic Con. But it's the best I can do.

Some of the reports on Monday centered on "poaching" by rival labor organizations intruding on IATSE turf. This kind of stuff goes on all the time, and the IA doesn't like it much (actually, not at ALL).

In the last couple of months, NABET (another union group that reps broadcast engineers, among other areas of work) has tried to push into IA jurisdiction in reality teevee. And of course, the WGAw made a recent run at repping animation writers on Sit Down, Shut Up, which also miffed the Mother International. (One piece of information I didn't know: the WGAe has represented a group of film/tape editors on the east coast for years ... and the IA still doesn't like it.)

The lesson in all this: Labor organizations don't willingly relinquish jurisdictions they're used to owning.

If there are any exceptions to this, I can't think of any.

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The Always Oncoming Waves

In the not-distant past, a talented-but-older story artist sat in his cubicle and said to me:

"I wrap up on this feature the end of next month, and I'll start looking around for whatever project's out there to jump on. Don't know when I'll get back here. They've got a roomful of trainees who work a lot cheaper" ...

The above segues nicely into this recent piece in the Houston Chronicle, which writes with fatherly approval on the eager-beaver grads coming out of Texas A & M and trekking to the West Coast:

More than 30 graduates of the A&M Viz Lab, as the program is commonly called, currently work in the many technical-arts departments at Pixar and have a hand in creating all the studio's films.

"There are a ton of Aggies here," says Viz Lab grad Jean-Claude Kalache, a director of photography for Pixar currently at work on Up, the studio's major release for 2009. "We call it the Aggie Mafia." ...

"If Pixar let me get coffee for them, I'd be happy," says a grinning Bobby Huebel, a second-year graduate student from Houston ...

And no doubt happy receiving a coffee-getter's salary, at least at first.

The problem for older workers is always the same: As the years go by you develop the chops, also gain knowledge and production savvy, but your energy wanes and your interests divert to mundane things like marriage and child-rearing And for some weird reason, you just don't dig working the eighty-hour weeks anymore.

At the age of thirty, thirty-five or forty, the thrill of pulling all-nighters and eating cold pizza with your co-workers, of sleeping under the desk after you've gotten the shot done at 2:30 in the freaking morning is ... how to say this? ... not there.

Some time back, I fell into conversation with a storyboard artist who has worked with high success for thirty years. He told me this:

"I went in to interview at Disney. They were interested in hiring me, but they weren't interested in paying what I was used to making. 'Oh, you'll get more money when you work overtime. And we'll have lots of overtime.'

"That's great, but I've done the overtime thing already. And at this stage of my life, making up the lower salary by doing overtime is not ... ah ... the kind of deal I'm real keen on making." ...

Of course, when there are all those starry-eyed graduates coming from Texas A & M, Ringling, Sheridan and other fine institutions of higher learning, sometimes you have to take the lousier deal, like it or not.

Because too often, the newbies are happy just fetching coffee. At coffee-fetcher wages.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

American Animation in Foreign Lands

Is doing quite nicely, thank you very much.

... Coming in No. 3 at the international box office over the July 18-20 weekend was DreamWorks Animation toon "Kung Fu Panda," which grossed $29 million from 6,506 playdates for a hearty cume of $273.2 million. Pic's worldwide gross is a pleasing $479.8 million [interestingly, the Hollywood Reporter gives the overseas cume on Panda as $305 million, for a combined total gross north of half a billion bucks]...

Disney's "Wall-E" opened in second with $8.5 million at 501. The Pixar toon, which has been heavily promoted in Blighty, scored an impressive screen average of $16,990.

Overall weekend U.K. biz was upbeat with the top six pics in the charts clearing $1 million. "Hancock" and "Kung Fu Panda" both put in decent showings in their third outings. Third-placed "Hancock" dipped 45% to $4 million and a $41.6 million. "Panda" dropped 46% to $3 million and a cume of $27.7 million.

Like I always say, the more successful American animation is overseas, the more American animation will get made. And by American, I mean "made in the United States," no offense to Mexicans and Canadians, who are also Americans, in the hemispheric sense of the word.

But hey. I've got an economic self-interest in seeing animated features from here wail at the box office. No point in me being cute trying to dress it up any other way.

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Upcoming free Actors Fund seminars

The Actors Fund is a nonprofit, national human services organization that helps entertainment and performing arts professionals in theater, film, music, opera, television and dance through a broad spectrum of social, health, employment, and housing programs that address their essential and critical needs.

In the next few weeks and on an ongoing basis, the Actors Fund is offering a number of seminars of interest to professionals in the animation business. This post concentrates on resources available in the Los Angeles area, but the Fund offers most of these resources to pros in the New York area and around the country as well.

  • Job Search Over 40

On Wednesday, July 30, from 4 to 6 pm, the Actors Fund will offer their free Job Search Over 40 seminar at their offices at 5757 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 400, in Los Angeles.

How do you approach the job search when you are over 40? Are there differences? How do you present yourself and where will your experience be welcome? Hear from some Actors Work Program members who have found work that values maturity and experience.

The Actors Work Program (AWP) assists entertainment industry professionals (not just actors) in identifying and finding sideline work and new careers. AWP is a comprehensive employment and training program committed to fostering resiliency and self-reliance for industry professionals as well as providing a resource for referral of highly skilled and creative workers to the larger employment community. Services include group and individual career counseling, job training and education, financial assistance, and job placement services.

The AWP also offers an introductory orientation explaining and discussing their services. Orientation is held every Monday from 1 pm to 2:30 pm except for legal holidays. No reservation or pre-registration is required for the orientation.

These events are open to all professionals in entertainment and the performing arts and is free of charge. For further information, contact Lauren Trotter at (323) 933-9244 ext. 50 or ltrotter@actorsfund.org.

  • Getting And Keeping Health Insurance

Getting and Keeping Health Insurance is a seminar offered by the Actors Fund for members of the entertainment industry and the performing and visual arts communities who want to know their options for obtaining affordable health insurance and health care in the Los Angeles area. Participants will learn to use the Actors Fund's Access to Health Insurance/Resources For Care website. This seminar is held on the first Wednesday of every month; the next seminar is on Wednesday, August 6, at 5757 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 400 in Los Angeles, from 1 pm to 2:30 pm.

This event is free of charge, but registration is required. For further information or to register, contact Aaron King at (323) 933-9244 ext. 38 or aking@actorsfund.org.

(I've attended these seminars, and while they aren't some kind of magic silver bullet, they really do offer useful information and strategies, and they do buoy people up. It's always good to know that there are others searching for answers -- and getting some -- when you've gone a stretch without work. -- Steve Hulett)

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Stalemate with a Big "?"

The question that I'm most asked (after When is hiring in teevee animation going to pick up?) is:

"What's the deal with the SAG negotiations? They going to go on strike?"

I'm always pleased to answer promptly. I tell people: "I don't know." *

But now my not knowing has reached a deeper, cloudier level because of this:

SAG's national board has unanimously backed its negotiating committee's stance that the majors' final offer is unacceptable because it allows non-union work in new-media productions.

The vote, taken at an all-day meeting Saturday, probably means the month-long stalemate between SAG and the congloms will persist for the foreseeable future.

The resolution said, "It is a core principle of Screen Actors Guild -- That no non-union work shall be authorized to be done under any Screen Actors Guild agreement and; That all work under a Screen Actors Guild contract, regardless of budget level, shall receive fair compensation when reused."

It seems to me that there's a big, fat impasse here, with immovable object bumping up against irresistible force.

Last week I was telling people (based on scant knowledge) that I didn't think SAG could muster a 75% strike vote if it polled its membership; therefore, no strike.

Now, I guess I'm not so sure. But I'm even more not sure whether SAG will risk taking a strike vote, since if it fails to hit 75% -- certainly a possibility -- it will really have nowhere to go.

Why is all this important? Because as long as there's a modicum of strike threat (no new contract), work will inevitably slow down.

Right now, although television production is going great guns, fewer theatrical features have been started. There's the palpable fear that if a longer shoot begins and then SAG manages to pull the strike trigger, millions of production dollars could go down the drain.

On the theatrical side, fewer people are willing to take that risk.

Happily, thus far the stalemate has had little impact on animation, but it has had an impact on cash inflow into industry pension and health plans, including the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan, so to say that we're completely out of the line of fire would be wrong.

My main hope is that some creative minds on one side of the negotiation table can soon produce a solution that will get the entertainment industry out of its present conundrum. But I'm not holding my breath.

(* Full disclosure: this is a direct lift from Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi," but I've never been shy about stealing it, as it's now in the Public Domain).

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mid Summer Day's B.O.

The weekend box office romp ended up about as anybody who's paid attention would have expected.

The Dark Knight had another huge three days, gathering in $75.6 million and rocketing to a domestic total of $314.2 million, reaching the 300 million mark in a record ten days. The next big signpost, of course, is the magic $400 mill marker:

The previous speed record for a $300 million film was 16 days set by “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” in 2006. The next target is $400 million, which took “Shrek 2” 43 days to reach. Warner Bros. distribution president Dan Fellman predicted “The Dark Knight” would take just 18 days to reach that milestone.

“Where we go from there, it’s uncharted waters,” Fellman said.

The last movie to break $400 million was the 2006 “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, which ranks No. 6 on the all-time list with $423 million. The 1997 epic “Titanic” leads the field with $601 million.

New entry Step Brothers proves Will Ferrel still has the old stuff as it collects $30 million to come in #2.

Pierce Brosnan shows he doesn't need to wear Saville Row suits and serve on Her Majesty's Secret Service to star in a box office winner. Yes indeedy, Abba song-fest Mama Mia! had a mild 35% dip as it made $17,9 million and ran its U.S.-Canadian total to $62.7 million.

While X-Files landed with a dull, intergalactic clank in the fourth position ($10.2 million), the Brendan Fraser 3-D remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth had the smallest percentage drop of any Top Ten holdover (23.7%) with $9.4 million weekend and a domestic total of $60.2 million.

And on the animated front, seventh place Wall-E, closes in on $200 million as it takes $6.3 million to run a total of $195.2 million in the United States and Canada. Space Chimps hangs tough in the 9th spot to drop 39.1% in its second stanza, collecting $4.4 million out of its $16 million total.

Kung Fu Panda, runs out its lucrative string in 12th place, taking in $1,030,000 for a $209 million cume.

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Don't Take It All Too Seriously

A year or so ago, my sister-in-law turned me on to the individual above -- Randy Pausch -- and his now-famous Last Lecture.

Noting Pausch's departure here is appropriate, since he was a computer science guy who worked (briefly) for Disney and Electronic Arts, and sent many other computer scientists out into the entertainment world. I had learned the lesson that Randy Pausch taught two or three times before in my life, but it's always good to have the important lessons repeated. Because we tend to forget them when they're not ...

Randy Pausch died on Friday at age forty-seven. He wrestled pancreatic cancer for a long time by most measures; the cancer, as expected, won the last match. But in the meanwhile, Dr. Paush dispensed bits of wisdom he had picked up in his his forty-seven years, among them:

1) Enjoy your life and have a good time.

2) Don't bog yourself down with jobs and activities you hate.

3) Being successful doesn't make you manage yur time well; managing your time well makes you successful.

4) Don't do things right; do the right things.

5) Become more organized and efficient with work time to gain a better work-life balance ("Going home at 5:00 and being with the people that you love.")

6) Do the ugliest task first.

7) Do the unimportant things last ... or not at all.

8) Learn the art of saying "no."

9) Use speaker phones to counter stress.

10) Use two (maybe three) computer screens to increase efficiency.

There's more, but no point in making this post too horribly long. You've got enough to get the idea. (I've attempted to prioritize the list, with the more important items toward the top).

What Dr. Pausch showed me is, wear your time on the planet lightly; be joyous rather than dour; have a sense of humor. (When I think of the idiotic things I believed to be Really Big Deals at age twenty-eight, I want to vomit).

And don't sweat the small stuff. Because the older you get, the more you realize that 95.4% of it's small stuff.

(Find Dr. Pausch's L.A. Times/Chicago Trib obituary here).

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Your Weekly Linkfest

One more links festival of cartoony goodness:

Animator and director Glen Keane expounds on Disney Animation's Rapunzel:.

"It's a story of the need for each person to become who they are supposed to be and for a parent to set them free so they can become that. It will be a musical and a comedy and have a lot of heart and sincerity ... There’s no photoreal hair. I want luscious hair, and we are inventing new ways of doing that. I want to bring the warmth and intuitive feel of hand-drawn to CGI.”

Matt Groening and Seth McFarlane hold a mutual admiration festival:

"Matt and I get along very well," MacFarlane said. "People want us to hate each other. We get along extremely well. He's a wonderful guy. Seriously." ...

"I wouldn't be sitting here if it wasn't for The Simpsons," MacFarlane said.

And since we're heavy on Family Guy information, there's updates about the oncoming Cleveland Show ...

... perhaps the biggest event coming up on Family Guy is Cleveland's exodus from Quahog. He'll end up losing his house to wife Loretta, then will move back to his hometown in Virginia and hook up with a new girlfriend who has a couple smart-talking kids of her own. MacFarlane described the new series as "the black Brady Bunch," and also promised that the character's new neighborhood will be filled with all sorts of memorable weirdos. Cleveland's new neighbors will include a stupid redneck, as well as a family of bears voiced by MacFarlane.

And if you're in the vicinity of Los Angeles, you might want to visits this exhibit at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

The Academy’s new exhibition “Ink & Paint” highlights the work of numerous artists who have devoted decades of their lives to creating the characters, storyboards, color keys, backgrounds, layouts, cels and thousands of other process artworks that are needed to assemble a traditional animated film.

“Ink & Paint” also celebrates the artists whose genius spawned the screwball characters of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes cartoons, the classic fairytale environments of Disney animated features and the Academy Award®-winning shorts of UPA, whose stylized look and simple lines approach modern art.

The New York Times weighs in on Comic Con (I doubt the gray lady would have noticed the Con even existed back in the El Cortez Hotel days ...)

Frank Miller, a revered figure in the comics world, explained how he found the temerity to direct a movie version of “The Spirit,” the signature work of an even more revered figure, Will Eisner.

“If I didn’t do it, somebody else was going to do it, and something very bad could happen,” Mr. Miller told about 6,500 listeners in one of the convention’s big halls ...

Brad Bird, who directed both “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles” for Pixar Animation Studios, worked for years on his own version of “The Spirit” after leaving the California Institute of the Arts. Mr. Bird has said in the past that he thought the project best suited to hand-drawn animation, an approach very far from the live-action, computer-assisted, star-driven approach taken by Mr. Miller ...

(Deadline Hollywood has ongoing posts of the Con extravaganza here.)

And as Comic Con was going on in San Diego, animation was being celebrated down in Brazil:

Anima Mundi, one of the largest and most prominent animation festivals in the world, awarded Delgo, the Best Animated Feature of the year.

An audience of 100,000 viewers, rather than a festival jury, determines the award for Best Feature Film. Anima Mundi director, Cesar Coelho, stated, “We believe it’s important for film enthusiasts to decide on the winner rather than a panel of jurors or film critics. Everyone who watches the selected films has an opportunity to voice their opinion.” ...

We end with George Lucas (you've heard of him, right?) waxing philosophic about the road(s) not chosen:

... “Right at the beginning, I wanted to be an illustrator. Then I wanted to go to art school, to an arts centre in Los Angeles. My father said, ‘No way - you are not going to be an artist. Artists don’t make any money, and I won’t pay for that.’ Knowing I was a lazy underachiever then, he knew I wasn’t going to pursue that seriously. It was hard, but I do believe that, in the end, if I had gone to the arts centre and started to be an illustrator, I would probably have drifted into animation, and would probably have moved into Star Wars, just like I did." ...

Have yourself a joyous, productive weekend.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

The Family of Family Guy

I spent a generous portion of the day at Fox Animation on Wilshire. Most staff is back at work after the Writers Guild strike, but many were missing in action ...

"It's really quiet around here. Everybody is down at the Comic Con in San Diego" ...

Including the top brass.

... [Y]ou'll be thrilled to hear what they're doing with The Empire Strikes Back — it's called "Something, Something, Something Dark Side," executive producer Chris Sheridan jokingly revealed in the show's packed Friday afternoon panel at Comic-Con.

Flanked by Guy creator and star Seth MacFarlane, along with Seth Green (voice of Chris), Mike Henry (who spins off his own series, The Cleveland Show, next year), director Greg Colten, and producers Kara Vallow and Mike Henry, Sheridan was more forthcoming with Fox's take on the new Empire episode, than on the episode, itself. He read from a list of "notes" Fox executives gave the producers, offering guidance like, "Page 68: Han's comment at Lando that he is 'this close to going Michael Richards on your ass,' is in poor taste...." So what did the panel reveal? ...

(That info is here.)

The last couple of months, both Family Guy and American Dad artist have dropped pencils and paper and now use Cintiqs. One story boarder, still climbing the digital learning curve, asked how many studios were doing storyboards on computers now. I said "most of them."

Unlike a lot of cartoon studios, Fox Animation has long-term employment going on, since FG is good for two seasons, and American Dad has a full-season order.

It's nice that somebody has more than four months of work.

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Those At the Top

This from comments below:

Nearly all of the the greatest artists of the industry are those who bucked the system, whether its Brad Bird storming out of Disney or Nick Park washing his hands of Katzenberg's meddling and walking out to pursue his own vision (the man has garnered more Academy Awards than the entire Dreamworks studio).

And it got me pondering. It's true that big talents sometimes rise to the top ... but it's equally true that many don't ...

So why is that the gifted, the special, and the very good don't always end up running their own studios or directing their own films or becoming the Big Cheeses (just look at the various people who are. Do all of them rate as geniuses? Half? I don't think so).

It isn't just talent and hard work that cause people to rise through the ranks of other talented hard-working creatives and reach the pinnacle of success. There's also ambition, drive and the right circumstances (otherwise known as luck).

Take for instance an artist I've blathered about before: Vance Gerry. Vance could do a lot of things well. He could storyboard, he could write, he could design. He could draw layouts with the best of them and work in color. Years back I watched him board a first story pass for The Black Cauldron that was lilting, imaginative, and funny. But little of anything he did for BC found its way into the final picture.

Most everything Vance created in those early months of development got swallowed up in a tug of war between the picture's directors and the story crew. And Vance, never one to fight, yell and scream, went off to work on personal projects outside the studio.

I've seen other examples of tall talent that didn't reach the highest crest, and it's nothing new. Mark Twain wrote about it in "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" over a century ago, when he had an angel explain the pure meritocracy for the deserving that waited up beyond the Pearly Gates:

... "That is the heavenly justice of it. They warn't rewarded according to their deserts, on earth. But here they get their rightful rank. That tailor ... from Tennessee wrote poetry that Homer and Shakespeare couldn't come up to; but nobody would print it, nobody would read it but his neighbors, an ignorant lot.

Whenever the village had a drunken frolic and a dance, they would drag him in and crown him with cabbage leaves, and pretend to bow down to him; and one night when he was sick and nearly starved to death, they had him out and crowned him and then they rode him on a rail about the village, and everybody followed along, beating tin pans and yelling.

Well, he died before morning. He wasn't ever expecting to go to heaven, much less any fuss made over him, so I reckon he was a good deal surprised when the reception broke on him."

Some talented souls -- such as Brad Bird and Joe Ranft -- reach artistic heaven on this temporal plane, but others, equally talented, often miss the Golden Door by a country mile. Maybe they're not in the right place at the right time, or maybe they don't have the bulldog tenacity or political skill to land at the top of the studio heap. Whatever the magic ingredient is, they lack it.

Planet Earth, unlike Mark Twain's Heaven, does not necessarily lift up only the pure-of-heart and deserving.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

For Disney's Bolt, the End of the Runway's In Sight

The thing I noticed when I went through Disney Animation Studios this afternoon? The animators on Bolt look tiired.

"We've been doing lots of overtime the last five, six months, and there's another month of heavy going. The schedule says we're done in August, but man. We're going to be going hard at it right to the last shot" ...

Upstairs, I got asked what other projects are going on around town, since a number of folks were told the middle of last week that when the picture wrapped they'd be looking at a lay-off. As a staffer said:

"Leaving at the end of the picture [Bolt] was no big surprise for the production hires who came on to do the film. They knew they'd be leaving. But there were a bunch of long-timers, some of them who've been here since Dinosaur, who got told they were going. They were surprised to be getting pink-slipped" ...

More and more, the days of long-term employment are as extinct as saber-toothed tigers.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Simpsons Animation Crew Gets Resucitated

Simpson artists are being rehired, unit by unit, at Film Roman for the Yellow Family's (slightly abbreviated) new season:

"Crews for four episodes are back working, about every two weeks a new group gets hired for a new show. Some people have been out for eight or nine months, what with writers' strike and the voice actors' wildcat strike. I've been lucky. I was only gone for three months ..."

Another item of interest, at least to me: I'm informed The Simpsons is going high def this year.

"The screen ratio is changing to take advantage of the newer LCD screen shape -- a square next to a square. It's not the feature's ratio exactly, but it's wider than the old teevee shape we were doing before, and it's taking a little getting used to. The fielding is different." ...

Elsewhere in the building, crew is back working on a new group of King of the Hill episodes. Nobody told me if the screen ratio is changing for that animated series ...

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

DreamWorkers

DreamWorks Animation's Lakeside Building, located in the magical burg of Glendale, California.

I whiled away the morning at the cartoon studio that hugs the shore of the Los Angeles River, wandering the Lakeside building. As I've mentioned, the structure (seen above) is undergoing extensive renovation and enlargment (a bunch of hit films will do that) ...

A couple of the lower floors, still occupied by artists, have hammering, drilling and floating dust. Happily, the artists are through the worst of it as the loudest construction is done at night ... and the employees have now been offered other relief:

"We've all gotten noise neutralizing earphones, and they help a lot. Wish we'd gotten them a couple months sooner than we did ..."

So work on Monsters and Aliens continues merrily along, with the irritating workplace noises (mostly) blocked out.

I found out one other fine thing. A feature director informed me that for the past several months DreamWorks Animation has had its own Starbucks.

Its own Starbucks. This places DreamWorks on a par with the Disney lot, that has its Starbucks in the Frank Wells Building.

And people say the big corporations don't care.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Charlie Downs, 1927-2008

Charlie Downs
Charlie Downs, from the June 1960 Peg-Board, by Ric Gonzalez

Animator Charles Downs, Local 839's last known living charter member, first Sergeant-At-Arms and a past president and vice-president, passed away the evening of July 21st of heart failure. He was eighty-one years old.

Charlie "Red" Downs (so nicknamed for his hair, not his politics) graduated from Chouinard Art School after wartime naval service, beginning his animation career at Disney in 1951. Part of Ward Kimball's unit, he worked on both Mars and Beyond and Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. On working for Kimball he related:

"When you worked for Ward, you did everything. Storyboards, designing, backgrounds. And you animated and painted cels.

"One day I showed him a pencil test. He looked at it and said 'Well, it isn't the way I'd do it, but it works. Cut it in' ..."

After nearly 10 years at Disney (where he assisted on Peter Pan, briefly animated on 101 Dalmatians), Downs moved to U.P.A., to animate on The Mr. Magoo Show and Bob Clampett's Snowball Productions, where he animated on The Beany and Cecil Show. Through a large part of the sixties, he animated on Jay Ward projects, principally Ward's Cap'n Crunch commercials. At the same time, he was a lead animator for DePatie-Freleng, also animating for Hanna-Barbera on television and feature projects.

Returning to Disney, Downs worked in Les Clark's educational unit, then worked as a directing animator on Ward Kimball's uncompleted featurette Bingo.

From the 1970s into the 1990s, Downs moved back and forth between television and theatrical productions. A directing animator on Richard Williams' Raggedy Ann and Andy, he also animated on The Black Cauldron, Coonskin, Heidi's Song and Jetsons, the Movie. Between feature assignments, he worked on t.v. episodes ranging from The Flintstones, to Scooby Doo, G.I. Joe and Tiny Toon Adventures.

Downs retired from the industry in 1992, thereafter receiving the Animation Guild's Golden Award. He leaves two daughters, Janette and Lynda, along with two grandchildren.

From Tom Sito's blog.

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A Question and Answer

Last week I got a call from one of the writers on Sit Down, Shut Up, the Sony Adelaide series where the writers negotiated themselves better terms and conditions than the usual TAG c.b.a.* I was asked the question:

"Is TAG going to enforce the terms of this side letter?" ...

I had gone over the letter and signed it a day or two before. It's got stuff in it that's tied into the WGA's contract, to let you know. I told him:

"Yes, absolutely. Everything that's in it."

And we will. It's like, kind of a responsibility that labor organizations have.

* Although the usual TAG collective bargaining agreement says: "Nothing in this Agreement shall prevent any individual from negotiating and obtraining from the Producer better conditions and terms of employment than those herein provided ..."

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Worldwide Nick

I spent the morning at Nickelodeon Cartoon's Burbank studio. Although there are empty cubicles here and there, the place has a lot of projects going. A lot of older shows (Sponge Bob, Fairly Odd Parents) and the pre-school cartoons have staffs going on new half-hours (Supervising Producer Jeff DeGrandis ricochets from one office to another as he works on Dora the Explorer, Go Diego Go and Mi Hao Kai Lan) ...

Next door in the condo annex, work continues apace on Madagascar Penguins with a sizable crew that fills a lot of the building. (This is a CGI show starring DreamWorks' black-and-white bird maniacs, in case people are wondering). Nickelodeon, unlike some of its sister L.A.-based cartoon studios, has a pretty robust slate of product. But then, Nick is expanding globally:

Nickelodeon UK is extending its animation offerings with the launch of a new channel, NickToonsters, on August 18 on Sky.

NickToonsters will target the 5-to-7 set ... It joins the Nickelodeon family of channels already on air in the U.K. that includes Nick Jr. and NickToons.

When you've got to feed a hungry global distribution network, it's kind of mandatory to create fresh product on a regular basis. The kids won't sit there and watch test patterns or static, after all.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Meanwhile Across the Seas ...

Batman rules.

The box office Batfrenzy swooped into international markets as "The Dark Knight" launched brightly with $40 million at 4,500 playdates in only 20 territories.

Meanwhile, Universal's "Mamma Mia!" continued singing sweetly overseas with $26.8 million at 2,407 in 21 markets, turning in the best per-screen average among major pics with $11,134 ... "Mamma Mia!" has cumed $72.6 million internationally in 11 days with 35 markets left. The feel-good musical looks likely to remain a counterprogramming player along the lines of "Sex and the City," which has topped $225 million offshore ...

On the animation front, the two big performers stateside are also twirling the turnstiles in foreign markets:

Par's "Kung Fu Panda" and Disney's "Wall-E" -- also showed plenty of traction with "Kung Fu Panda" putting its paws on $27.8 million at 6,525 in 58 markets as holdovers contributed the lion's share. "Panda" has dug up solid biz everywhere, led by $41 million in the U.K. and $26 million in South Korea, for a foreign cume of $270 million to trail only "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," with $448.4 million, among 2008 releases ...

Doing some rough addition, the Panda pic is closing in on half a billion in worldwide theatrical grosses. Not bad at all.

"Wall-E" scooped up $14.4 million at 3,950 in 20 markets, mostly from an impressive $8.8 million launch in the U.K., where it was edged by "Mamma Mia!" The Pixar toon's still early in its foreign run with $53 million in overseas coin ...

Which animated feature gets bragging rights for top worldwide grosser of the year? Too early to tell.

Me, I'm waiting to see how Space Chimps does in foreign markets before rendering any final judgments.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

The NYT on KFP

The New York Times has now weighed in on the angst in China over Kung Fu Panda:

... A few weeks ago, when the movie opened in China, there was already a call for a boycott — on the grounds that foreigners had lifted one of China’s most precious symbols, the panda, and were using it for their own profit.

The boycott never got off the ground, and “Kung Fu Panda” was an immediate box office hit. In the last few weeks the movie has provoked a deeper discussion, even a degree of soul-searching and critical self-examination of the sort that China, which has an amazing mix of ambition, self-confidence and insecurity, goes through from time to time ...

In a way, “Kung Fu Panda” is only the latest illustration of a centuries-old tradition whereby Western artists have used China and other Asian countries to produce enduring works of art. You only have to think about Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado” or Puccini’s “Turandot” or, for that matter, the animated feature “Mulan” of a few years ago, to recall the strength and age of this tradition.

Indeed, all of these works illustrate a continuing historical imbalance in cultural cross-fertilization. The West’s use of China as an artistic setting is unmatched by any Chinese use of Europe or America as backdrops for its own cultural productions.

That imbalance is connected to another element in the picture: the animation itself. From Walt Disney on, Americans have long been developing animation as a cinematic form, while China, in this particular area of the arts, has not developed much ...

Let's give the Middle Kingdom a break. China is only thirty years out from the dead hand of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution. Kind of hard for individual artists to flourish in that atmosphere. They're all beaten into conformity with the Party Line (whatever it happens to be that month) or shipped off to a re-education camp until they've seen the light.

China, of course, has ceased being a Communist state. Today it's closer to Franco's Spain than Stalin's Russia. Lots of capitalism, but also plenty of dictatorship of the fascist type, which still makes sensitive, artistic souls unhappy:

“China has first-class directors, first-class playwrights, first-class actors, but it’s a shame that we have censorship by government officials,” one anonymous blogger wrote. “If they don’t like your work, then there’s no way.”

Mr. Lu, the commentator in China Daily, had a telling story in this regard, about a project he undertook to produce an animation for the Olympic Games. “I kept on receiving directions and orders from related parties on what the movie should be like,” he recalled. “We were given very specific rules on how to promote it.

“Under such pressure, my co-workers and I really felt stifled,” he continued. In the end, “the planned animation was never produced.”

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Box Office Action

The Dark Knight rolls to a monster Friday with $66.4 million. (Box Office Mojo has a summary of the biggies from the past six years here.) And Variety notes:

Earning an unheard of $66.4 million in its first day, Warner Bros.’ Batman sequel “The Dark Knight” is poised to become the highest opener ever for a non-holiday weekend after “Spider-Man 3,” which debuted to $151.1 million.

“Dark Knight,” directed by Christopher Nolan and returning Christian Bale as the caped crusader, easily soared past the $59.8 million earned by the “Spider-Man” three-quel on its first Friday in May 2007.

Not only that, but the smash success of “Dark Knight,” along with Universal’s musical romp “Mamma Mia” and several strong holdovers, should deliver the film biz the best three-day weekend ever in terms of overall grosses, which could come in as high as $250 million. Previous record-holdover was the weekend of July 7, 2006, which brought $218.4 million in total grosses, led by the $135.6 earned by “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dean’s Man’s Chest.”

There are two animated flicks in the Big Ten, Wall-E at #6 (and a $175.7 million box office total) and Space Chimps at #7.

So I guess Chimps won't be duking it out with the Caped Crusader for the top spot. A shame.

Meanwhile, Kung Fu Panda has dropped out of the Ten to #11, waddling along with $205.3 million ...

Add On: The weekend totals offer one surprise -- the size of Batman's box office take -- as The Dark Knight and Mama Mia finish #1 ($155.3 million) and #2 ($27.6 million).

The new Batman movie "The Dark Knight" smashed the weekend record set by "Spider-Man 3" last year, selling an estimated $155.3 million worth of tickets during its first three days of release across the United States and Canada, distributor Warner Bros. Pictures said on Sunday.

Downlist, there were three animated features in the Top Ten: Wall-E at 6th place with $182.5 in the till, Kung Fu Panda at tenth with $206.5 million, and the tepid Space Chimps at #7, collecting $7.3 million and breaking my heart by not making a stronger assault on the top spot.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Summer Linkorama

Now this would make a gang-buster live-action Batman movie ...

Another round of 'toony links for a summer day.

Variety asks the age-old question:

So why can't there be an animated performance category to recognize the teams that create toon characters, from voice actors to animators?

Answer: Because the mostly live-action Academy has minimal interest in doing this.

Finally, not Andrew Stanton this time but Wall-E supervising animator Angus McLane holds forth on Pixar's latest:

And when you come to the point where you’re going ahead with the project, and you’re tasked with animating a robot, how did you tackle that?

It’s actually very similar to animating fish!

You think about fish, and you’re like I don’t know how I’m going to animate these things, and you look at footage of fish and start off by trying to replicate it exactly. And then once you figure out how fish move, you go okay, I’ve got a scene where a character, Fish X, says blah blah blah, and so you go after he says blah blah blah, I’ll have the tail wiggle a little bit, just to remind the audience that this guy’s underwater. And then we’ll flip the fin a little bit, and wiggle around, and so you get this thing where you’re always giving indications to the audience that the character is what they are.

Speaking of the Wallster, Disney is doing some savvy marketing for the flick as it rolls out across Yurp:

... for months now, there has been a lot of buzz about this film. Wall-E opened in US theaters on June 27th and is set to open in UK theatres on July 18th, followed by European theaters at the end of July/beginning of August. The buzz is mainly thanks to short and funny teaser videos starring Wall-E ...

Kung Fu Panda has apparently really ticked off Chinese patriot Zhao Bhandi:

"Designing the panda with green eyes is a conspiracy. A panda with green eyes has the feeling of evil. I have studied oil painting, and we would never use green eyes to describe a kind-hearted figure. So I ask them to open their creative meeting records of this film and explain why the green eyes?

"Next, why is the panda's father is a duck? ..."

Yeeahh. Why is Daddy a duck? Seems like inter-species canoodling to us, as it does to Bhandi. So of course, he's suing over this outrage.

As the new Batman feature smashes box office records, writer Alan Burnett talks about the animated version:

How long did you work on this -- was this an easy story for you?

The story came pretty easily. The story wrote itself in a way. I liked doing 11 minutes. It's short and sweet. A little bit like doing a comic book. It's just fun. This is not "Gone with the Wind," you know? It's just a good time ...

And as The Dark Knight rolls out, Warners works to make sure no greenbacks go unharvested. WB is putting "Comics that Mooove" on the intertubes:

the studio is also set to unleash an online series starring the Caped Crusader that it hopes will usher in a new kind of Web entertainment: a hybrid of comic books and animation that Warner calls "motion comics."

"Mad Love" is a series of Web shorts drawing on a particularly popular comic book featuring Batman and the Joker, the first chapter of which will be released for downloading next week ...

The shorts are a kind of hybrid between a printed comic and a cartoon. The animation isn't nearly as rich as a fully animated cartoon, with only limited motion that comes in the form of wisps of smoke, darting eyeballs and the like. But the story is advanced with music and voiceovers that speak the characters' parts.

Warner, a unit of Time Warner Inc., sees the initiative as a way to unlock value from the company's D.C. Comics library by creating a new kind of comic that can be distributed via the Internet, mobile phones and video on demand ...

We'll leave you with this morsel:

A DRUNK punter who gave an Ipswich Cup crowd a chuckle by galloping on the track disguised as the shaggy cartoon crime fighter Scooby Doo has been fined $500.

Nicholas Anthony Allen's joke backfired today when he was exposed in the Ipswich Magistrate's Court as the offender of the booze-fuelled prank.

Allen, a electrical cable joiner, was one of three men to front court for invading the track and racing down the home straight during the June 14 race meeting at Bundamba's Ipswich Turf Club.

I'm telling you, Warners is missing a trick not teaming Scooby and Batman. Box office dynamite!

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sony Pictures Animation, The Next 3-D Player

Sony Pictures Animation will be jumping on the three-dimensional 3-D train in short order:

"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" will be Sony Picture Animation's first stereoscopic 3-D digital release.

"Food falling from the sky lends itself so well to 3-D," said Bob Osher, president of Sony Pictures Entertainment's Digital Production division.

This picture has been in development for some little while now, going through cast changes and more cast changes. I know the story crew has been remolding it to the hearts desires of Sony execs, and that the people on it would like to see it get made.

Sometime.

Looks as though (now?) it will.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Story of Story Revisions

Across the white-capped pond, the Independent tells a tale of story revisions:

[The Princess and the Frog], a musical set in 1920s New Orleans ... was supposed to feature Maddy, a black chambermaid working for a spoilt, white Southern debutante. Maddy was to be helped by a voodoo priestess fairy godmother to win the heart of a white prince, after he rescued her from the clutches of a voodoo magician.

Disney's original storyboard is believed to have been torn up after criticism that the lead character was a clich├ęd subservient role with echoes of slavery, and whose name sounded too much like "Mammy" – a unwelcome reminder of America's Deep South before the civil rights movement swept away segregation.

The heroine has been recast as Tiana, a 19-year-old in a country that has never had a monarchy. She is now slated to live "happily ever after" with a handsome fellow who is not black – with leaks suggesting that he will be of Middle Eastern heritage and called Naveen. The race of the villain in the cartoon is reported to have also been revised.

The film studio began making changes a year ago, first to its title, The Frog Princess, which some had interpreted as a slur. Amendments to the plot followed.

Now, I've got zero knowledge of what changes have taken place with TPATF and what's remained the same. I talk to the board artists every few weeks, but our conversations never dwell on the continuity of the film on which they're working. We generally dwell on studio gossip (that's what is important, after all).

So maybe the Independent's reporting is dead on, and maybe it's fabrication, I've no idea what the ratio could be. But I do know that almost every animated film made has gone through changes ... sometimes BIG changes ... during the course of production. And I also know that studio execs are sensitive to having offensive things in one of their pictures. And when the main characters are black and most or all of the story and production crew is white, the sensitivity becomes hyper. (And probably should be).

Studios are not in the habit of offending wide swaths of the ticket-buying and DVD-purchasing public. They're game is to earn money, not make self-defeating philosophical statements. Ralph Bakshi caught hell in various quarters for Coonskin, Disney is not likely to invite similar controversy.

There might be others, but the only three animated films I recall having African Americans as the central characters are the Bakshi film, Bebe's Kids, and the upcoming Princess and the Frog. Of the three, only Bebe's Kids had an African American director.

The one thing I know the British paper is right about are the Aladdin changes. Lyrics were changed, and the city in the film -- unmistakably Baghdad -- was changed to Agrabah. See, there was this war in Iraq (the first edition) gathering on the horizon at the time, and Disney execs were a little anxious about box office prospects if they didn't change the original title The Thief of Baghdad.

Empires fall and recessions come and go, but Hollywood paranoia about box office grosses is eternal.

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The Indecision is Over

... Let the employment begin!

Kevin beat me to the punch with this, but I post the news anyway:

After five weeks of negotiations, we have accepted employment as writers for Sit Down, Shut Up! under a new contract.

Though the program will be produced under the jurisdiction of IATSE Local 839, The Animation Guild (TAG), we have achieved Writers Guild of America (WGA) parity in key areas such as auditable residuals, new media, script fees, merchandising rights as well as a guarantee that these gains apply not only to ourselves but also to all future writers on the show.

We thank the WGA for its guidance and support during this process. We believe we’ve made a statement to the studios how important the standards of the WGA are to working writers. All animation writing -- television and features -- should be covered by the WGA.

This contract is a compromise: an improvement over the standard TAG terms we were initially offered, but not full WGA coverage. Compromises are never easy nor satisfying, always less comforting than a clear victory. We know that this is part of an ongoing struggle.

Reaching a deal will allow this program to move forward, providing jobs for many writers, animators, actors and production staff. Not every writer originally offered employment on Sit Down, Shut Up! has decided whether to return, and we understand and respect whatever decision they make. We remain hopeful that all animation writing will one day be covered by a WGA contract ...

As we say, negotiations are about leverage and momentum. It appears that nobody came away from this totally satisfied, but I'm happy that the writers made a deal that's acceptable to them. And I'm pleased ... no, delighted ... that a lot of folks are going to have work for a while.

Congratulations to everybody.

Add On: Craig Mazin at Artful Writer has an eloquent take on the SDSU writers, their victory, and the WGA.

Add On Too: Ms. Finke brings us the rest of the story:

After lying to the writers of the Sit Down, Shut Up! primetime animated series that it would be a WGA show, and then watching those same writers stalk off the IATSE toon, Sony offered a sweetened deal -- including payments of as much as $200,000 of additional compensation through a blind script deal -- to convince some of the scribes to come back.

Most of the writers -- including Josh Weinstein, Rich Rinaldi, Aisha Muharrar, Alex Herschlag, Laura Gutin, Dan Fybel, Aaron Ehasz, Michael Colton, and John Aboud -- wound up coming back.

And so it goes.

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Writers, Animation and Otherwise

Here's a short phrase I hear that gets me down:

WGA writers write ...

prime time sitcoms ... live action features ... the overwhelming majority of animated features ... all prime time animation.

The wording bugs me. It's like the Writers Guild hatches writers out, and then the writers write, while the WGA looks on like a proud parent.

I don't think so.

The Writers Guild represents work (live action, animation, video games, news copy) and writers perform that work, becoming WGA members in the process, which is fine.

I have no problem with that, nor the formulation:

Writers who are members of the WGA write ... prime time sitcoms ... live action ... animated features ... prime time animation.

No writer that I've ever heard of is owned by a union or guild. Writers write things, and some of those things are under the jurisdiction of labor organizations.

If a writer composed rhymed couplets for greeting cards under the Rhymed Couplet Guild collective bargaining agreement as a Rhymed Couplet Guild member, and then commenced writing an action screenplay for Warner Bros., would anybody say, "Hey, that Rhymed Couplet Guild writer is doing the new Nick Cage picture!"

Uh, no.

Because there are no Rhymed Couplet Guild writers, just as there are no TAG writers, or WGA writers. There are only writers who perform work under various union/guild contracts, and so become members of various unions and/or guilds by virtue of the work they do.

Maybe the above is a small distinction, but it's a distinction that I believe to be important.

As a Wise Old Union Rep once said to a roomful of other union reps: "Workers follow the work, they don't follow unions."

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Siddown, Shaddup -- A Go?

Yesterday (Monday) I heard from Sony that the company is "close" to an agreement on Sit Down, Shut Up "unless something else comes up." And I read this:

... now it looks as though things are finally progressing forward. The issue has been about which union the show's contract falls under – with Sony Pictures Television insisting the show is IATSE ...

It appears the show will remain under the IATSE contract, as Sony insisted it would. At the Television Critics Association event in Beverly Hills, FOX head Kevin Reilly said he had hoped to have everything finalized by the time he faced the press this morning. "We're still crossing Ts," Reilly said. He added that, as things seem to be heading now, "Mitch Hurwitz will stay, a couple of writers will leave, and we'll add a couple of writers." He added that "By today we'll hopefully be moving forward with a writing staff."

As I've said here and elsewhere, the company has consulted with the IATSE (our mother ship) and the SDSU writers. We're still hopeful that the show goes forward and everyone returns to work -- writers and artists both.

Maybe in 48 hours (or less) we'll know for certain.

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Sinbad and the BIG MacGuffin

Kevin writes:

I mentioned previously that 'Sinbad - Sailor of the Seven Seas' might be my least favorite film among those I worked on. I’ve always been pretty good at separating the work from the product — I loved working on 'Sinbad', and the production was a great experience. I’d been promoted, I was assisting amazing animators (James Baxter and Jakob Jensen), I was getting scenes of my own, the directors and production staff were cool, I was hanging with a great posse of junior animators, the food was free and tasty, life was good all around. But the film? Not so much.

I never really bought into the premise of the film, and ultimately neither did the audience. I could go on at length about some of the story and character failings, but I’ll lay out my thoughts on one major problem. It had the biggest MacGuffin in the history of film. Not just a big MacGuffin, but a MacGuffin that needed to be really important to the story. The first rule of MacGuffins is that they are the thing that the characters care about, but the audience doesn’t.

Alfred Hitchcock is usually credited with coming up with the concept of the MacGuffin . . .

Click the link above for the rest of the post.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Worker Abuse, Part XI

We harvest this pearl from the cgsociety.org forums (via TAG blog's comment thread):

According to David Rand, special effects artists worked for Meteor Studios, a company established by Discovery Communications of Virginia (Discovery) (owners of the Discovery Channel) and Evergreen Films of Pacific Palisades (Evergreen). During October, November and December of 2007, artists worked without pay; some put in 100-hour weeks and stayed loyal to the project with the promise of pay as soon as the accounting glitch was fixed. Most of the artists who applied their talents to the creation of the film have families, and half are American freelance artists like Rand, whose hope for a bright Christmas was extinguished when all artists were laid off without pay in December upon delivery of the film.

Per the story, this small, sad event isn't getting much play in the mainstream press, like almost none.

Not much of a surprise there. Workers being abused isn't news anymore, it happens so often. In our small corner of the forest, we hear of it occuring every six months or so. But here's the skinny. Whenever you hear of a friend that's working without pay (and usually the friend is being harangued by management to "stay loyal" and "take one for the team" until the "payroll problem" is cleared up), scream at them in your loudest and clearest voice:

Put down your mouse! Get the hell OUT of there! You out of your mind?! You don't work for no pay!! That's @#$% NUTS!"

Because guess what? There's nothing and nobody to be loyal to.

The employer has breached the circle of trust, torn it into small shreds and stuffed it down the toilet. People work for money, not a candy gram. When the money is not forthcoming, then laws have been broken, and nobody should aid and abet a lawbreaker. Period. Full stop. End of saga.

We wish Mr. Rand good luck in getting that million dollars he and others are owed. And we applaud his calls for unionization in the VFX world. Fact is, stories like this were rampant all around Hollywood back in the old days, which is a major reason for the rise of organizations like the DGA, the WGA, SAG, the IATSE, and the little ol' Animation Guild.

As a Hollywood old-timer said: "They worked us 'til we dropped. Thank God the unions finally got in."

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So ... How Much Do These Movies Cost?

"These movies" being Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, and Horton Hears a Who*.

The first thing to know: What a studio says a movie costs and what it really costs might be two different things. I know first-hand that companies sometimes put costs incurred by one film onto the production number of another film. (Hard to believe that fine, ethical business executives would do such a thing, but there it is).

Second thing to know: When you look at the alleged costs for this or that film and compare them, there's no way of knowing if you're comparing the same thing. As The Wise Old Production Exec told me moments ago:

Some pictures include advertising and distribution costs in their announced budgets, others don't. Some include costs of A-list talent in the up-front budget, others might not if most of those costs are percentages of gross on the back end. And the costs of studio overhead vary widely ...

By the Wise Old Studio Exec's reckoning, Blue Sky's overhead would be quite a bit less than the overhead for Pixar/Disney. As the WOSE said:

The last studio I worked for, I estimated $120,000 per employee, per year. So figure it out: if the studio is carrying 300 employees, that's $36 million per year. And if a picture takes two years to produce, that's $72 million, assuming the full staff is working on that one picture for all two years.

I don't know exact numbers, but Pixar has a larger staff than Blue Sky Animation.

From the outside, you can never know with total certainty what a picture actually costs. A decade ago, a management person at the late, lamented Warner Bros. Feature Animation studio informed me that Quest For Camelot ran up a tab that was a whole lot higher than the one Warners admitted to. Execs officially maintained the feature cost $80 million; my source said it was more like $130 million, but much was charged off to "studio overhead."

Then we come to the three box office champions cited above. DreamWorks Animation honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg has said DreamWorks's features cost $150 million for new models, $120-$130 million for sequels because a lot of fixed costs that carry over have already been paid for. But Mr. Katzenberg is likely ballparking, since KFP is officially listed at the $130 million mark.

Wall-E was a film in production for a long time, which might account for its $180 million price tag. As the WOSE informed me:

Eighty percent of a picture's costs are labor, and the longer a film is in work, the more expensive it will be. If you've got lots of people on payroll for years, the picture ends up higher priced ...

Studios have different way to attack costs. One obviously is the size of a crew, another is length of production time. (We won't count "just make it up.") Half a century ago, Sleeping Beauty was the most expensive animated feature Walt Disney Productions had yet done, costing around $4 million. Two years later, the studio produced 101 Dalmations for half that price, using less than half the artists.

You see? Feature budgets can be brought down.

* For the original back-and-forth on studio costs, go a couple of notches down the blog.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Con of San Diego

I'll tell you how long it's been since I've been to the Comic-Con in San Diego.

The last time I went, the thing was held in a couple of rooms of the El Cortez Hotel (that's up on the hill near downtown S.D.) and there were a bunch of people running around dressed in Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia costumes.

It was like, 1977. Maybe 1978. The main things being hawked at the Con in those days were ... comic books. Big surprise. Variety's Brian Lowry remembers the way the Con used to be:

Back then Comic-Con was truly about comicbooks and the only stars one was likely to see there were the artists and writers who created them. The confab itself was so strapped for cash that each year the artists donated work -- which they dutifully sketched out on easels as a small crowd watched -- that were auctioned to help support the gathering.

In those early days, the entire convention of a couple thousand people could be held in a single hotel. One large ballroom functioned as a dealers' room, where vendors displayed their wares, and an adjacent space housed panel discussions. Gradually, studios began to preview movies there, but as often as not those events were disasters, irritating fans as opposed to whetting their appetites.

Although it was more than 30 years ago, for example, I keenly recall a preview of the 1978 feature "Superman," where the studio rep described the campy villain Lex Luthor, played by Gene Hackman, as a real-estate mogul, not a master criminal. He was practically hooted off the stage ...

So the festivities start again next week, but the small, hardy band that roved about the tables at the El Cortezn has now grown into a mob in the hundreds of thousands.

Progress. Or not.

President Koch has plans to attend. I have plans to decide what I'm going to do later.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Mid July B.O.

In search of James Mason and Pat Boone ...

And the b.o. is indisputably tangy this time of year.

Hellboy blasts through the #1 with a $13,770.000 tally, and we've got ourselves another strong comic book opening. (Hancockslides to a competitive #2.)

On the animated front, Wall-E drops to #4 -- behind Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D -- and now has $151 million in the piggy bank.

Kung Fu Panda, tearing up the box office over in the Middle Kingdom ($20 million to date), occupies the eighth slot stateside and is now just shy of $200 million.

Update: The weekend finals are in, and Hellboy takes the top spot (barely), with a $35.9 million, while Hancock finishes a close second with $33 million.

The Journey to the Center of the Earth, remake in three dimensions collected $20.5 million and the Show position, as Wall-E fell to fourth while picking up $18.5 million.

Down at the bottom of the Top Ten, #8 Kung Fu Panda has moved over the $200 million marker and now has a cumulative gross of $202 million. Indy and the Crystal Noggin now has $310.5 million.

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SAG Ponders Options

So we're not quite done with the contract negotiating season.

A day after their counterproposal to major studios' "final" contract offer was rebuffed, Screen Actors Guild leaders huddled on Friday to consider their next move in a Hollywood labor stalemate almost certain to drag into next week.

In a brief statement released in the evening, SAG said its negotiating team "met behind closed doors throughout the day today discussing bargaining strategies. The negotiations team remains committed to continue to bargain for a fair contract."

I don't know what there's left to bargain for. The AMPTP keeps saying "no" when SAG brings up a new or revised proposal. And Mr. Rosenberg can keep saying that it was the news readers and sports announcers that passed the new AFTRA contract, not actors. Trouble is, the deal still passed.

And so the Screen Actors Guild is fast running out of options. The producers won't budge, the economy is tanking, and to do a strike the leadership needs to get a 75% approval from the membership.

And if that wasn't complicated enough, various high profile performers are weighing in how doing a job action now might not be a real swift idea:

Will Smith said that “With the writers’ strike and Hollywood having been through this already this year and having lost millions of dollars, [an actors' strike is] just really not a good time for America, for California, or for a lot of people I know and work with. I hope we can come to a resolution all sides are happy with before it comes to that again. If it has to happen, I hope it moves rapidly. But the economy is terrible and we don’t need to be contributing to it.”

And Charlize Theron said that “I just hope some adult conversation can take place and we can resolve this efficiently and fairly and without having to stop work all over the city and the world.” ...

Tense times. No wonder people are starting to feel like Christian Scientists with appendicitis*.

* Cribbed from Tom Lehrer.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Friday Links

This bear is a big hit in China ... and some Chinese are saying: "Why didn't we create him?"

The weekend festival of links arrives with the following:

TIME Magazine beats the "Wall-E for Best Picture Oscar" drum:

... Cries that WALL-E should be considered for a Best Picture nod began as soon as the film hit theaters on June 27. Writers at New York magazine and sites like The Movie Blog and Obsessed With Film declared WALL-E worthy of a Best Picture, and high-profile movie critics are discussing the little robot's odds for that award among themselves ...

Ain't never going to happen. Academy membership is heavily skewed to live action categories, and no way are those folks going to give the top award to a cartoon. That's why they instituted a "Best Animated Film" category.

New series Click and Clack, directed by TAG Prez emeritus Tom Sito, premiered this week on various PBS stations around the country ...

Almost since the radio show started in 1987, there has been steady interest in bringing fictional Click & Clack, the Tappet brothers, to TV ...

Tonight, an animated adaptation, "Click and Clack's As the Wrench Turns" makes its national premiere ... "It was designed and developed in Connecticut," says Howard K. Grossman of CTTV of South Norwalk, executive producer of the series.

Grossman says his involvement began as a longtime listener.

"I'm a huge 'Car Talk' fan," Grossman says. "I tried to get on the show at least 100 times but I couldn't get someone to return my call."

He didn't get any reaction to his idea to turn the show into a cartoon series until he finally e-mailed the Magliozzis. "I got an e-mail back, saying they always thought of themselves as cartoon characters" ...

Over time, things changed in the approach to making the cartoon. "The original vision was a direct adaptation of the show, from a soundtrack of an existing show," he says. "That didn't work. It was missing something. It was too much like the radio show." ...

Characters based on the Magliozzi brothers were designed, and a group of color characters were created around them, from an Eastern European named Stash to an ex-Harvard professor named Crusty. The impeccably dressed Fidel is of indeterminate background ...

Variety gives a qualified thumbs up to the latest animated incarnation of Star Wars:

... as with the earlier "Clone Wars" shorts crafted using traditional cel animation, the vibrant imagery and sweeping scope provided by animation allows the series to achieve a theatrical level of excitement at a significantly reduced cost -- and in a tighter episodic format, transforming each mini-adventure into a get-to-the-fun-stuff romp. Alien worlds and characters are rendered in explosions of color, with the computer process creating extraordinary depth and detail ...

The Den of Geek has interesting mini-reviews of every DreamWorks animated film except for the newest one:

DreamWorks Animation has proven itself to be the only operation of its ilk to date to threaten the Disney/Pixar empire. But are its films any good?

Click on the link above and see if you agree with DG's judgements ...

Finally, the Washington Post tells us that the Chinese are a tad jealous of the hit film titled Kung Fu Panda:

... The blockbuster ... American animated movie that's set in ancient China, highlights Chinese culture, mythology and architecture and stars a kung fu fighting panda has filmmakers and ordinary Chinese wondering: Why wasn't this hit made . . . in China?

... Even an advisory body to China's parliament debated why China hadn't been first with such a big hit using Chinese themes. "The film's protagonist is China's national treasure and all the elements are Chinese, but why didn't we make such a film?" the president of the National Peking Opera Company, Wu Jiang, told the official New China News Agency last Saturday ...

I'll tell you why. Jeffrey Katzenberg got there first.

Have a most excellent weekend.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Siddown, Shaddup, the Resolution?

Yesterday, while I was in Northern California enjoying the balmy weather (102 degrees), the office was notified that artists working on Sit Down, Shut Up were being laid off due to lack of scripts, but that there was hope they would be rehired soon.

"Why?" the TAG office asked.

"Because it looks like most of the writers have agreed to come back to work," was the answer.

Ordinarily we're cynics about these things, also ordinarily we keep our pie holes shut until there's some kind of actual end result and not just hearsay. But now the trades have picked up the scent:

The month-long stalemate at Fox's new animated series "Sit Down, Shut Up" could be headed for a resolution, with most of the show's writers said to favor an agreement with producing studio Sony Pictures TV. Sony recently approached the scribes with a new version of the deal it offered them June 23. While the current proposal is said to include a more generous package than what's been previously presented, it is said to keep the main deal points from the previous offer intact, including maintaining the show's status as a signatory to IATSE, not the WGA. On June 12, the 14 writers on "Sit Down" walked out in protest of IATSE's jurisdiction over the show and in pursuit of coverage by the WGA. The writers claimed that they were misled by Sony that they would be covered by the WGA. Meanwhile, Sony has maintained that its TV animation division, Adelaide Prods., which produces the series, is a longtime signatory to IATSE.

Not all "Sit Down" writers are said to be on board for the modified proposal. At least two of the scribes, including one of the exec producers have declined it, meaning that if a deal is reached, not all original writers will return to the animated show, an adaptation of a live-action Australian series ...

For the sake of a lot of folks who will lose jobs, pay and benefits if the show slides beneath the waves, we hope that agreement can be reached.

We'll relay news each time we stumble across some.

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Salary Slavery

The past two days I've been in San Rafael holding new member lunches for employees at IM Digital. Lively groups. Lively questions.

But for me, one of the more interesting conversations took place right before the second noontime session, when a c.g. artist arrived early and said:

"This is like, a big change for me. I mean, getting overtime. I was working at a games company before this job, and everybody working there was salaried ... and working like, 100 or 120 hours a week. It was really abusive. The company said that 'this is the model for games' and just paid flats. People were told they'd be let go if they didn't do it."

This is a song I've heard before.

For the past dozen years, I've smacked up against the reality that many game companies use a 19th century beusiness model:

"Work them until they drop, then move on to the next group."

The reason that companies use the 100-hour a week format is because it doesn't cost them anything. (Well, it costs them employee morale, but that's another matter). I explained to the artist that Federal labor regulations classify "animator" as a non-exempt category (meaning that animators are required to be hourly employees who receive overtime after forty hours in a week):

This requirement generally is not met by a person who is employed as a copyist, as an “animator” of motion-picture cartoons, or as a retoucher of photographs ...

In spite of lawsuits and court settlements, a clear majority of video game employers continue to toss animators into the "salaried" category, and said employees thereby have the privilege of working an infinite number of hours for a very finite amount of pay.

When I brought some of these things up, the former games artist remarked:

"What can a game artist do? The company demands the hours, and the threat is that you'll be blacklisted at other companies if you don't do what the company wants ..."

I brought up the fact that there are laws on the books that protect employees who are organizing a company, but that's small comfort when employees believe that their careers will be smashed to small bits if they don't knuckle under and do the 100-hour workweek that Fire Breather Games, Inc. wants. (Forget the fact that people who work endless 100-hour weeks end up doing a lot of unproductive seat time starting at their LCD monitor).

Let's face it: today a wide swath of the game industry is like the movie industry in 1928: "Work them until they drop, then move on to the next group ..."

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Standard CBA minimums going up on August 3

At the end of this month the Animation Guild's standard collective bargaining agreement enters its third year, and the minimum rates of pay will be going up by three percent.

And here's a summary of some of the journey minimums, effective August 3, 2008:

HOURLY/WEEKLY SALARIES (per forty-hour week):

Production Board [staff]: $1,764.84 per 40-hour week

Animator, Background, Layout, Model Designer, Animation Writer, Visual Development, CGI Animator/Modeler, Production Technical Director [I]: $38.366 per hour; $1,534.64 per 40-hour week

Key Assistant Animator, Key Assistant CGI Animator/Modeler [II], Production Technical Director [II]: $36.768 per hour; $1,470.72 per 40-hour week

Assistant Animator, Assistant Background, Assistant Layout, Assistant Model Designer, Animation Checker, Color Key, Assistant CGI Animator/Modeler [III], Production Technical Director [III], Digital Check: $32.833 per hour; $1,313.32 per 40-hour week

SCRIPT/STORYBOARD UNIT RATES:

7-15 minutes

  • Synopsis and Outline: $842.64; 35 health and pension hours

  • Storyboard Only: $1,402.31 38 health and pension hours

  • Teleplay or Screenplay: $2,748.39; 115 health and pension hours

  • Full Script* (outline plus screenplay): $3,591.03; 150 health and pension hours

Half-hour subjects

  • Synopsis and Outline: $1,499.01; 68 health and pension hours

  • Storyboard Only: $2,662,94; 75 health and pension hours

  • Teleplay or Screenplay: $5,267.66; 232 health and pension hours

  • Full Script* (outline plus screenplay): $6,766.67; 300 health and pension hours

One hour or more

  • Synopsis and Outline: $2,230.80; 70 health and pension hours

  • Storyboard Only: $3,971.96; 113 health and pension hours

  • Teleplay or Screenplay: $7,924.11; 230 health and pension hours

  • Full Script* (outline plus screenplay): $10,154.91; 300 health and pension hours
* reflects the Synopsis and Outline minimum plus the Teleplay or Screenplay minimum.

This summary only reflects the rates in our standard CBA, and it is not inclusive of all job categories or non-journey levels. Nor does it reflect the minimums in IATSE contracts with Disney/TTL, Sony Pictures Animation or ImageMovers Digital. For all the CBA minimums, go to our website and click on the Contracts tab.

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