Sunday, May 31, 2009

Animation's Latest Soaring Success

While I was away not paying attention, apparently Pixar had another successful opening:

Pixar's perfect streak at the box office continued this weekend with "Up," which opened to a studio-estimated $68.2 million.

That puts the quirky tale directed by studio veteran Peter Docter just behind the Disney-owned company's biggest films, "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles," which both debuted with $70 million. It also puts to rest any fears that a movie starring an old man won't appeal to kids.

Helped by 1,530 3-D screens with higher ticket prices, "Up" came in above last year's "Wall-E," which opened to $63.1 million, and 2007's "Ratatouille," which started off with $47 million. Both those movies went on to gross more than $200 million at the domestic box office, and "Up" will almost certainly do the same ....

So let's see. DreamWorks Animation's last effort came in at $195 million, and Pixar's new entry will no doubt do the same.

Animated features appear to be on a roll, despite "DreamWork's pictures not being as good as Pixar's" ... and "People are getting tired of all the c.g.i. features out there" and the usual nattering from negative nabobs.

Apparently the always-dim general public hasn't gotten the memo.

(Reuters and Variety weigh in here and here.)

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Where Is Hulett?

I've been in northern California, talking to IM Digital employees about the biz, the pension plan, and the health coverage they get under the Motion Picture Industry Health Plan ....

The informational lunch that was held Friday at a fine Novato eatery had a big, lively group with lots of questions. Topics that came up during and after the meeting were how c.g. artists got screwed working on effects in Montreal on Journey to the Center of the Earth (weeks of work without pay), and how much c.g. work remains unorganized.

Addressing the problems in Montreal, I said what I've said before: If you, the employee, don't get paid, you don't show up for work. Simple.

And often scary, because management will put the screws in and tighten them, using the argument: "What's the matter? Aren't you a team player?" "We're a family here!" "You'll get a big bonus if you just stick it out!"

(Added scariness: I found out that for workers in Montreal there was an extra whammy: If they quit the job that wasn't paying them, they couldn't collect unemployment. Truly amazing.)

Regarding the non-signator parts of the industry, the solution is the same that it's always been. People have to organize their workplace. (Not always easy, particularly in times like these, but the only answer I can think of. Corporations seldom behave like benevolent institutions. That's not what they're designed to be.)

I'm off on vacation the next four days, so be good to one another.

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Questions We Get Asked

Q: So what kind of grievances does TAG do?

A: All kinds.

Over the years we’ve had grievances over screen credit, grievances over unpaid wages and overtime, grievances over illegal termination. The list is long ...

We once had a grievance involving a background artist who had a meeting with a producer that the artist thought was a good meeting, but the producer decided was terrible. The producer walked out and told a production assistant to fire the artist, which the assistant did … almost immediately.

Problem was, this instant termination – which wasn’t for theft or gross insubordination – is in violation of the contract. After we filed a grievance, the artist stayed terminated, but he got a big chunk of money for getting axed because the company had violated the contract.

We filed a grievance over whether an artist had drawn X-rated images in his designs. We maintained that he didn’t, and after a full arbitration we lost.

We filed a grievance for two animation writers who created a television series with the promise of a bonus if their creation became a network show. It became a network show, the producer said “no bonus,” that the memo that had promised the bonus was null and void. The arbitrator ruled otherwise, and the writers got their bonus.

The biggest grievance we’ve filed was on behalf of a large, feature animation staff that was being laid off en masse. TAG claimed that the layoffs were due to “technological change” and therefore due displacement money. The arbitrator – after a year of research and hearings – ruled “No.”

Most grievances never get to arbitration, but are settled before a hearing happens.

Thanks for asking.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Will it be an Up weekend?

If Rotten Tomatoes's 98% rating is any indicator, Up shouldn't have to worry about negative audience reaction. And certainly, the critical reviews so far have been almost universally rhapsodic.

Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times notes that:

As success follows success for animation powerhouse Pixar, the pressure to maintain the streak must be phenomenal. Will the next film be the one that stumbles, the one that breaks stride? No one need worry, however, about Up, Pixar's 10th and latest effort. It's not only good, it's one of Pixar's best. Some films are an obligation to write about, Up is the purest pleasure.

Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly gives it an A:

As buoyant and richly tinted as the balloons that figure so prominently in its story, Up is also thoroughly grounded in real emotion and ideas of substance. How's that for an instant boost? The result is a lovely, thoughtful, and yes, uplifting adventure ...

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times has been known to snark about 3D films (mostly about having to wear the glasses), but even he waxed rhapsodic:

... this is a wonderful film. It tells a story.The characters are as believable as any characters can be who spend much of their time floating above the rain forests of Venezuela. They have tempers, problems, and obsessions. They are cute and goofy, but they aren't cute in the treacly way of little cartoon animals. They're cute in the human way of the animation master Hayao Miyazaki.

Rotten Tomatoes registers only one splat amongst the critics, Stephanie Zacharek's writeup on

There are so many charming visual touches in Pixar's Up -- like the homey-looking wood-frame house that floats into the sky with the help of a thousand translucent candy-colored balloons -- that, frame by frame, the movie seems to be daring us not to fall in love with it. The characters may not tug at our heartstrings outright, but they do surreptitiously plink away at them ... Up is unapologetically life-affirming, for those who like to have life affirmed. And from a technical standpoint it certainly is beautifully executed. But save for a few inspired canine gags and a handful of very pretty visual details, Up left me cold. Its charms appear to have been applied with surgical precision; by the end, I felt expertly sutured, but not much else.

So, consider that a warning: if you hate life-affirming movies, you should avoid Up at all costs. Fortunately for those who feel that way, Drag Me To Hell is also opening this weekend ... and we'll have to wait for the box-office numbers to see if Carl gets dragged downwards or if he gets to fly away.

NOTE: Occasionally we allow Steve Hulett to go on vacation, on the strict condition that he occasionally post during his absence. Never fear, he'll be back to full-time blogging on June 8; until then, you'll occasionally be hearing from yours truly.

Artwork © Disney/Pixar
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A Producer's Wisdom

Former TAG shop steward (and current entrepreneur) Kevin Geiger sends us longtime producer Randy Fullmer's list of "How to Succeed in Making Movies if you Really Work At It":

Only hire nice people who don’t freak out when things get tough.

Stay calm even when you’re not.

Learn not to say everything that’s on your mind.

Stay positive.

Don’t think you have to be the smartest voice in the room.

Learn to ask simple story questions. Who should we care about and why? What does our main character want, and why can’t they get it? ntertaining, or does it just line up logically?...

Don’t get caught up in the minutia and forget the fundamental building blocks.

Ask questions and invite participation. At the same time, protect you and your director’s ability to calmly think. Don’t send out any message to anyone that you’re closed to new ideas. This is a hard one. There are many times when you just want to be left alone.

Making a movie is a marathon. Don’t get too up or too down ....

And so on and so forth.

What struck me as I pored over Mr. Fullmer's bullet points was how much they apply to anyone working at a higher stakes job who has to make decisions and lead others.

Some of the things that people who are heading up a department, division or conglomerate can't do and remain effective are:

Blubbering down the shirt fronts of your employees, whining about how stressed out and overworked you are.

Hiring mediocrities out of fear that somebody good will threaten your position.

Being the Big Foot in meetings, sucking the creative oxygen out of the air by doing most of the talking. And making sure that nobody feels secure or comfortable enough to challenge bad ideas.


I'm sure you can come up with plenty of success killers on your own, but these are a few of the jewels that popped into my head.

Randy, as you might know, departed Disney Animation after Chicken Little's release. Fun fact: CL remains the highest domestic grosser for any Disney c.g.i. feature.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Global Workroom

The subject of Indian and Chinese computer animation continually comes up, but the centers of animated creativity are really everywhere:

... What started as a cottage industry in Sydney has become a hub for animation around the world. The city has six major animation and visual effects studios, including Animal Logic ( Babe , The Matrix and Happy Feet ), Omnilab (Spike Jonze's upcoming Where The Wild Things Are ) and Rising Sun Pictures ( Wolverine ) ...

The lesson that I glean from stories of burgeoning animation industries on different continents is this:

It isn't, strictly speaking, about "cost." It's also about creativity and the depth of local talent; it's about animators, story artists and writers, designers and technicians having the chops to turn out world-class work.

This isn't to say that small and medium-sized job shops in low-cost parts of the world aren't going to pick off wire-removal contracts and win bids for low-end DVD features, but if you don't have trained employees capable of turning out higher end product that is salable in the global marketplace, having folks that will work for two dollars per hour isn't really going to help you very much.

Which explains why Australia is now cooking as an animation production center. The country sure as hell isn't a low-wage destination, so maybe it's the infrastructure and the talent pool.

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DreamWorks Rolls Out Schedule

DWA will be increasing its feature output over the next few years:

DreamWorks Animation unveiled its feature film slate through 2012, including a follow-up to the 2008 hit "Kung Fu Panda," the latest sequels to the blockbusters "Shrek" and "Madagascar," and five other movies. DreamWorks Animation has added an additional film every other year to its existing two picture per year release schedule ...

Representatives of the studio tell us that DWA will be adding staff in coming months and years. At the same time, they are working to hold down labor costs.

The big, overscale deals that happened at DreamWorks Animation and elsewhere in the nineties? A few writers and actors get them, but for the artists, not so much.

Add On: Variety has a more detailed breakdown of DWA projects here.

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Hanging on to Ideas

The Post profile of Mike Judge demonstrates why it's a good idea to hang onto and nurture those brilliant concepts you had at age twenty-four:

... Judge's first animated short, "Office Space (Featuring Milton)," foreshadows "Office Space," his live-action office-satire hit nearly a decade later. In another early short, his arrested adolescents Beavis and Butt-head swear and stare — well before they would become household names. And in one of Judge's early rough animations, we're lectured by a health-food-obsessed eco-goodnik— a direct tie-dyed forebear to the father figure who debuted Wednesday night on ABC's "The Goode Family" nearly two decades later.

If you look at Seth McFarlane's early shorts, you'll see the early green shoots of Family Guy and the whole McFarlane comedic approach. And bits and pieces of the Disney Silly Symphonies found their way into Disney features years later.

Alluring ideas never go away. They get sliced, diced and used again (with embellishments) in newer productions. (To be fair, a number of bad ideas also crop up again and again.)

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Barney tees off at the Screen Cartoonists Golf Tournament

© Hanna-Barbera, Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.

From the MegaCollector, an early Flintstones model, most likely by Ed Benedict. Speaking of which ...

... the Screen Cartoonists Golf Tournament is coming up on Saturday, June 13 at the Twin Oaks Golf Course in San Marcos. Tee time is 8:30 am. The tournament is open to all comers.

Contact Lyn Mantta at (818) 766-7151 ext. 103 to reserve your spot.

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Tuesday's General Membership Meeting

Left: Apple consultant and lecturer Ian Mackie. At rear, behind his laptop, is TAG President Kevin Koch.

The main points of TAG's General Membership meeting on Tuesday night:

The Business Representative (yours truly) gave a lengthy report on the first day of The Animation Guild's negotiations with the AMPTP. The producers have (tentatively) accepted the Pension and Health Coverage benefits negotiated last year by the IA, but have not accepted the wage package proposed by the Guild. The producers also have their proposals on the table, through which the parties are slowly chewing through in side bar.

We haven't reached agreement. The next negotiation session is Monday, July 13th ...

Executive board member Stephan Zupkas gave an update on the new TAG building. He explained that most of the work is completed, and we have reached the "touch up" and "final coat of paint" phase. Phones need to be activated, the heating and a/c systems fired up, and the gallery floor cured before final varnishing. After all that, staff will move in to the facility ... hopefully in the next several weeks.

When the meeting adjourned, Apple consultant Ian Mackie devoted an hour and twenty minutes to touting some of the wonders of Apple lap and desktops, among them:

Spotlight: A handy computer search engine that can pull up any file, e-mail or word document. Click on the magnifying glass on the top right of the desktop (command: space bar, then the dialogue box appears. type in the word or phrase spotlight should search for.)

Gmail: the best e-mail service out there, with the best span filters. Free, and Google isn't going aywhere.

Tab-browsing: When searching topics in Google or some other search engine, hold down command key and click on items of interest. Creates tabs on tool bar without leaving the search screen.

Free Apple Training:

Because the Apples have a newer (2001) operating system, at present there are no viruses for Apple computers.

(There was lots more covered, but these are some of the major points. See what you missed by not showing up last night?)

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Other Animation Studio in Canada

Today in my studio wanderings several artists asked me about Pixar's newer animation facility in Vancouver. I said it should really be thought of as Disney's 'toon studio in Canada, since Pixar is actually a subset of the House of Mouse.

Be that as it may, there are a few things to keep in mind: 1) A decade ago, Disney had two animation studios in the Land to the North, headquartered in Toronto and Vancouver, and 2) There is another animation player making news in Canada right now that isn't named Disney:

Sir Elton John was waxing so eloquently on Ontario's burgeoning film animation industry today that Premier Dalton McGuinty jokingly offered him a cabinet post.

The pop star and the politician were at Starz Animation, which is producing a new animated movie called Gnomeo and Juliet for John's film company, Rocket Pictures.

McGuinty said the Ontario government is giving a $23 million grant to Starz to create new jobs ...

Gnomeo and Juliet, of course, was originally a project at Disney Animation Studios ... until the current management said "Uh, no." At which point Miramax, another Disney subsidiary, picked it up.

Starz Media is also working on the Tim Burton feature 9 (which looks not half bad, judging from the theatrical trailer now gracing your neighborhood AMC).

As always, animation is happening at many different points on the globe ... and this hemisphere. If it isn't being done in Los Angeles, then we're always glad to see toonage being turned out in a high-wage place like Canada.

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Work For Free?

This happy notice showed up on Cartoon Brew the end of last week:

Deferred payment 1st episode (no-pay), action/adventure series, Cartoon Network, paid assignments and/or production contract after 1st episode.

Quick update from Your Truly: We have contacted Cartoon Network about this Craig's List love letter. A CN exec told us he had no clue to what this was about. (They don't communicate real well over there, do they? Or maybe there was no communication because whoever placed the ad was less than honest about their actual connection with CN.)

Any company that has employees working for free is breaking the law. Forget about "union contracts," how about federal (and state) statutes?

To cut to the chase: CN employees who are not being paid should contact TAG immediately, and we will file grievances like yesterday.

And we'll do it with gusto and enthusiasm.

Oh, and we should point out that working for free for ANYONE, union or nonunion, is usually a very bad idea. Unless your time and talent really are worthless.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Weekend's Total Tally

The final weekend numbers were, apparently, a disappointment for the biz:

The healthy box office seemed to lose its mojo over Memorial Day.

Overall ticket sales for the weekend rose only 2% from last year, according to, a big downward shift in a year where the total is up more than 14% ...

Night at the Museum Deux came in at $70 million, which was (we're told) right in the middle of expectations. Terminator Salvation? Not quite there:

"Terminator" paled next to other big summer action movies like "Wolverine" and "Star Trek" and didn't even match the opening weekend of "Terminator 3" six years ago. The $200-million movie started relatively well Thursday but quickly lost momentum. That's a sign of weak word of mouth and should leave Warner Bros. and The Halycon Co., which financed the film, concerned that it will decline rapidly in the coming weeks ...

The smallest slide in the Top Ten happened to #7 Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which dropped a mere 27.3%. The biggest decliner was tenth place 17 Again, taking a -62% body slam.

Monsters Vs. Aliens, hanging in at #9, has $195.3 million in its knapsack, and for a few more hours will continue to be the most successful film of 2009. (Fifty-six percent of a worldwide total of $345,566,683.)

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Pixar Expands

Like DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, (which has been adding square footage to office buildings and parking structures), Pixar's Emeryville campus is also on a building spree:

[Emeryville City leaders] have been on pins and needles after Disney bought Pixar in 2006, wondering whether substantial jobs — or the famous animation studio itself — would move to Anaheim. The start of construction on Pixar's long-awaited campus expansion seemed to put to rest those fears.

"We're very glad to see this construction go forward," City Manager Pat O'Keeffe said. "It's a signal to us that Pixar has a continued investment in Emeryville. "... We see this as a good affirmation they want to stay."

Once complete, the construction will liven up the street with the addition of a new building and employee entrance to the corner of Park and Hollis streets, across from City Hall. More Pixar construction is planned for the empty lot closer to San Pablo Avenue ...

It's also probably good affirmation that Pixar isn't going to outsource everything to Malaysia in the near future. (But it was never ... ah ... moving to Anaheim.)

Who knows? The way the world economy is spinning, the day may come when Glendale, Emeryville and Burbank are taking on work from other parts of the globe.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Brave Little Remake?

There's talk on the intertubes of remaking The Brave Little Toaster as a Pixarian Extravaganza:

... My own suspicion ... is that Brave [referenced by Pete Docter in an interviews about Pixar's projects in development] is a new adaptation of Thomas M. Disch’s The Brave Little Toaster.

Already adapted into an animated film - and two sequels - the original novel was billed by the author as “a bedtime story for small appliances” ....

The Brave Little Toaster is a terrific property and Pixar could do way worse than making a spiffy, c.g.i. feature out of it.

In case you don't know much about the original Toaster feature, it was bought by Disney, and preliminary story development was done by a small, young group of animation artists (Joe Ranft and John Lasseter among them.)

But The Brave Little Toaster fell victim to a turf war between the Old Guard of the Disney Animation department, and younger artists championed by then production head Tom Wilhite. Long story short: Development on the project halted, Wilhite departed taking TBLT with him, ultimately setting up the feature as a Disney Channel project.

The final budget was miniscule ($2.5 million), the animation was done in Taiwan with a core American crew (Joe Ranft doing story, Jerry Rees directing, and Brian McEntee working as art director.)

The feature never had much of a theatrical release, but has enjoyed a robust life in a variety of home video formats. I was always sorry the picture didn't get a bigger budget and full-bore roll out in multi-plexes coast to coast, but such is life.

So is Pixar going to redo this animated diamond-in-the-rough? Damned if I know.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Box Office Tent Poles

With the Add On.

It's the Weekend of Movie Tent Poles as summmertime flick watching gets underway with a vengeance.

For Friday, five of the top six box office entrants are sequels to mega blockbusters from years gone by.

Up at #1, Night at the Museum Deux rakes in $15.3 million, while Terminator Salvation collects $14.8 million. (This edition stars Christiam Bale; Arnold Schwarzenegger currently toplines the stinkeroo entitled Califonia's Budget Crisis.) ...

The Sony Tentpole Angels and Demons stand in the hird position with a $66.1 million accumulation, while Star Trek (#4) has gathered in $167.1 million to date. And X-Men: Wolverine has made off with $157.3 million.

In the animated department, Monsters Vs. Aliens hangs tough at the ninth position with $191.9 million in the till.

Add On: One more day in the extended weekend, but to date, Museum ($53.5 million) is out in front of the pack by a couple of lengths, with Terminator ($43 breathing hard trying to make it a race.

In the meantime, Star Trek lopes along in third with $183.6 million in its saddlebags, while fourth place Angels and Demons has generated $81.5 million at the box office.

Monsters Vs. Aliens, dropping 57.7% to ninth, has $193 million after nine weeks of release. No doubt it will drop out of the Top Ten the end of next week, when Up floats into town.

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The Daffy MegaCollector

© Warner Bros.; click on the thumbnail for a full-sized image.

From 1944, models of Daffy Duck from the Clampett unit; artist unknown.

Below, "Draftee Duck" ... "A smashing frontal attack on the enemy's rear!" I can remember as a kid being frightened when the big eye appears in the telescope.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

End of Week Linkomatic

Cartoon linkage for a weekend free from care, beginning with ...

Ed Asner talking about landing the part of Carl F. in the oncoming Pixar epic:

Mr Asner: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson were aware of my work and they came to watch me in a one-man reading I gave in San Francisco where I was playing the part of a Holocaust survivor. How they thought a Holocaust survivor would blend in with the concept of “Up,” I’m not sure.

Mr. Docter: The first time Ed saw the model we’d made up of Carl here at Pixar, he looked at it and gruffly said, ‘That doesn’t look anything like me." That’s when I knew he was perfect for the part ...

Newsarama details the beginnings of Japanese animation in the U.S of A.

... In 1963, one Fred Ladd, who was working for NBC’s syndication wing NBC Enterprises, came on a fast and dirty solution for the problem. He found he could buy the rights to a hit Japanese animation series entitled Tetsuwan Atom for the price he once described as “three bowls of rice per episode.” He took the show, gave it a catchy theme song, hired the likes of Pete Fernandez and Corinne Orr to voice over a dozen characters each, and renamed the series Astro Boy.

Next thing Ladd knew, he had a hit on his hands ...

The rest as they say, was a stream of money. And this Fall, c.g. Astro Boy on the big silver screen comes to an eager public.

Nickelodeon will be ginning up yet another DreamWorks series after Penguins and Panda:

Nickelodeon has ordered a pilot from DreamWorks Animation for a series based on the studio's recent "Monsters vs. Aliens" movie, DWA CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg said Tuesday. ...

DWA knows a winning hand when it sees one.

And comic strip artists are aware of when they are eating it:

"We're going to hell in a handbasket," said [Lalo Alcaraz], the creator of the comic strip "La Cucaracha." ...

"We live and die by our newspapers," said Cathy Guisewite, who created the comic strip "Cathy" in 1976. "We've all built our careers on trying to be content for newspapers. If newspapers are struggling, then we're struggling as well." ...

... [T]hose not entirely convinced by the revenue stream generated online are looking to animation as their next target. Alcaraz has dabbled with producing "somewhat animated" editorial cartoons and has pitched an animated version of his comic to Fox.

Hot dog! Up has won an award at the Cannes Film Fest

The movie “Up,” ... has won the Palm Dog prize, an award given annually during the Cannes Film Festival for best canine performance, BBC News reported. The prize, a satirical alternative to the Palme d’Or and voted by British film critics, was given this year to the animated character Dug

The screen's first Lois Lane (Fleischer edition) has died at age 94:

Joan Alexander, 94, a leading radio actress of the 1940s best known for playing Lois Lane, the ace reporter who was constantly being rescued from peril by Superman, died of an intestinal ailment May 21 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

... Ms. Alexander and [actor Bud] Collyer provided voice-overs for 17 animated Superman shorts, made by Fleischer and Paramount studios, that played in movie theaters during World War II.

Ms. Alexander and Collyer reunited in the late 1960s to do voice-overs for the Saturday morning cartoon "The New Adventures of Superman" on CBS ...

Diz Co. has come up with a pretty ingenius (and retro) way to promote its other holiday animated release:

Four Disney-branded train cars left Los Angeles' Union Station last week as part of a stunt to promote "A Christmas Carol," the performance-capture pic starring Jim Carrey that bows Nov. 6.

The effort is unique not only because of its length -- it stops in 40 cities in 36 states and runs through November -- but also what's on board. The remodeled passenger cars from the late 1940s and '50s are plastered with images and slogans from the 3-D toon ....

This kind of thing happened a lot in the olden days. (Warners had a cross-country train trip for its Western epic Dodge City in 1939). But the train publicity gambit has been absent of late. Bet it garners a lot of publicity at less than exorbitant cost ...

Have a splendiferous three-day holiday ... and be good to one another.

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Our Cozy Corporatist Bargain

Now with diamond-crusted Add On.

It's kind of all the same, innit? No matter who's in power.

While 17 financial institutions have repaid TARP funds, only two have come to terms with the U.S. on the value of the rights to buy stock that taxpayers received for the risk of recapitalizing the industry. The first was Old National Bancorp in Evansville, Indiana, which gave the Treasury Department $1.2 million last week for warrants that may have been worth $5.81 million, according to the data.

If Geithner makes the same deal for all companies in the rescue program, lenders may walk away with 80 percent of profits taxpayers might have claimed.

“For once we’d like to get a fair value when we come into contact with the banking system,” said Representative Brad Miller, a North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of House Science and Technology Committee.

All these folks -- whether they're in the Bush or Obama Administrations -- have the same goal: Make nice to the banksters. Protect those who drove the bus over the cliff at all costs.

I don't want Republicans talking to me about "the magic of the marketplace." And I have no interest listening to Democrats nadder on about "protecting the working man."

It's all about making sure nothing real bad happens to the big financial institutions. We stopped practicing "capitalism" last September.

Add On: But here's one good thing. All those Too Big Too Fail Banks? They're gonna have to pay more to the FDIC for the privilege of Corporate Sccialism. This is a good thing, especially since they're the ones getting the bulk of the bailout moolah.

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RIP Wayne Allwine

This is especially sad:

Wayne Allwine, the actor who voiced Mickey Mouse for more than 30 years, has died.

The Walt Disney Co. says Allwine died Monday of complications from diabetes, with Russi Taylor, his wife of 20 years and the voice of Minnie Mouse, by his side. He was 62.

"Wayne dedicated his entire professional life to Disney," chief executive Robert Iger said in a statement Wednesday. "Over the last 32 years, (he) gave so much joy, happiness and comfort to so many around the world by giving voice to our most beloved, iconic character, Mickey Mouse."

A Southern California native, Allwine joined Disney in 1966 when he took a job in the mail room. He went on to work in the sound effects department and began voicing the company's main mouse in 1977.

His falsetto can be heard in 1983's "Mickey's Christmas Carol," 1988's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and at Disney theme parks around the world. He won an Emmy Award in 1986 for his sound editing on the NBC series "Amazing Stories." ...

This hits me hard for a simple reason. When I was a week out of high school, I teamed up with Wayne Allwine in the Disney print shop.

We were both traffic boys. I was eighteen, Wayne was twenty. I was a gawky, pimply-faced teenager with a spotty work record (I'd been fired from the Montrose Public Library six months before), Wayne was a rock musician with several hit records behind him. (He was a member of The Arrows -- as in, "Davey Allen and the Arrows" -- and had toured and recorded.)

But here we were, side by side at a print shop work table, wrapping packages and running out to make deliveries all day long. Wayne was the funniest human being I had ever met. He told hilarious stories about doing rock and roll. He performed dead-on impressions of the other traffic boys (the humor of which which doesn't translate well to a blog 42 years later; you would have had to have been there). He made fun of current events, joked with the print shop guys, found the funny side of freaking everything. He was just a non-stop circus main event, and I looked forward to coming in and wrapping packages every summer day of 1967, because Wayne would be there to entertain everyone within earshot, and I (oh lucky me) was the closest.

Wayne's dream back then was to be an editor and a sound guy, goals that he achieved in the course of a long career. Becoming the Voice of Mr. Mouse was not then on his radar; at least, he didn't voice the goal to me.

Though I went off to college at the end of the summer and Wayne stayed on at Disney, we intersected numerous times over the years. When I returned to the studio in the late seventies, Wayne was in the sound department ... and grousing that the studio wouldn't give him a shot at being a film editor. One day he said to me that the only way he would get to be an editor was if he left and did it someplace else, which he ultimately did.

But Wayne was first and foremost a Disney guy, and after he'd earned his place on the editors' roster at another company, he came back to the studio. And at some point in there he became the voice of Mickey Mouse, a job he did with humor and sure-footed professionalism for decades.

But then why the hell not? Anybody who could spin jokes all day long while wrapping tightly-creased packages of eight by eleven letter-bond paper could perform a pitch-perfect Mickey Mouse in his sleep.

So good night, Mr. Allwine. It was a rare pleasure knowing you, there in the Disney print shop. It really doesn't seem that long ago.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Disney Animation's TeeVee Special

The last several months, every time I trek through Disney's hat building, I see some nice images and artwork for Christmas elves. I even get artists to tell me what the heck they are, but since it hasn't been unveiled, I keep my mouth (and typing fingers?) quiet about it.

But now those elves are out of the sleigh:

Half-hour animated event revolves around an elite elves unit -- known as Prep and Landing -- that makes sure homes are ready for Santa's visit. Story centers on an elf (Dave Foley) who thinks he's about to get a promotion -- but instead is paired with a new recruit (Derek Richardson). The duo then go on their Christmas Eve mission, where they encounter unexpected challenges ...

DreamWorks and Disney are both busy doing television specials of the c.g. variety. These aren't series spin offs of theatrical features produced cheaply in Mumbai, but high-end specials done top to bottom in Glendale and Burbank.

I think the idea is to create a clatch of entertaining featurettes that can go on the teevee, those little silver disks that people play in their computers and home players, and also go into theatres. I personally like the half-hour format, and I'm happy that the big studios are doing a clatch of them in-house.

I know of others now in work, but since they haven't been announced, you won't hear any details about them from me.

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The Viz Effx Slump

A former TAG board member shot me this cheery bit of news yesterday. Though it's several days old and isn't precisely our baliwick, it's worth sharing. All those huge, effects-laden movies now in production or planning stages might not have anywhere to get all their c.g. imaging done:

Here's the dire scenario: As pics now in production wrap, vfx work slumps, killing off more midsized and small vfx companies. Then a new wave of tentpoles arrive, wanting more and bigger vfx, only to find insufficient capacity to complete them at the breakneck pace -- and with the sometimes huge last-minute additions and changes -- the majors now favor.

When this scenario may play out is the subject of some debate. Some expect the crunch to come late this year. Recently, though, tentpoles including Warner's "Green Lantern" and Marvel's "Thor" have been pushed back. That could push the potential crisis back to 2010 but may actually make things worse, as it means the lull would last longer.

"The studios need to be concerned about this," says Industrial Light & Magic exec producer for marketing Gretchen Libby. "Their options could start to run out for finishing their projects. There could be fewer companies that can help out at the 11th hour."

A dozen years ago, a c.g. supervisor and I discussed how visual effects houses were always on a knife-edge because of the houses' tendencies to low-ball job bids in order to get work on big effects films, and then discovering that ... whoops! ... they had low-balled so much they were losing money on the deal. So a lot of them quickly went out of business.

This was over a decade ago. The situation has only gotten worse in the intervening years. Show me a small or medium-sized effects studio, and all show you a company that hasn't been around very long.

In the nineties, the majors set up their own effects divisions, but soon discovered they could get the work done more cheaply by jobbing the work out. Soon thereafter, studios' internal effects departments closed.

But now this method of getting the work done is coming to a crisis point. If you need it fast and good, you can't send it to a job shop in Mumbai that may or may not deliver its shots timely and up to say, director Michael Bay's exacting standards. And a lot of small, local places where you probably have more input and control are out of business. So those big tent-poles that are being shot might not have their big, complicated effects ready.

A conundrum, yes?

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DreamWorks' Future

While TAG was in negotiations discussing the terms of its next contract, Jeffrey K. was holding forth about how DreamWorks Animation is doing ... and is likely to do in the near future:

DreamWorks Animation SKG Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg expects the company's television series and specials to boost revenue, and film marketing costs to drop in 2009.

Katzenberg told analysts on Tuesday that DreamWorks sole 2009 film release, "Monsters vs. Aliens," has grossed $191 million at domestic box offices so far and that DVD sales of "Kung Fu Panda" and "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" had "set us up for possible year-over-year earnings growth in 2009."

DreamWorks is "poised to have our single biggest year ever" in 2010 because of its theatrical release schedule of an unprecedented three feature films, including a sequel to its blockbuster "Shrek" franchise ...

DreamWorks has built its viability on the "hit follows hit" business model. And guess what? Despite the sneering of some Pixar afficionados, the company has been pulling it off.

And I think that Mr. Katzenberg is correct about 2010 being a gangbuster year for DreamWorks Animation. Not only will three features be rolling down the distribution pipe, but Shrek Goes Fourth is going to do big numbers. Staffers have been telling me this entry is far better crafted than the last Shrek go-round, and (of course) it's the company's tallest, strongest tentpole.

So Jeffrey isn't being hyperbolic about DreamWorks Animation's prospects for Oh-Ten. He's being fact-based.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Later Night Animation

The Sony animated half-hour is gone, but Turner Broadcasting has stepped into the breach:

TBS is making its first forays into original animation ... network executives announced at their annual upfront presentation to advertisers on Wednesday. The animated half hour Neighbors From Hell, executive produced by Jeffrey Katzenberg, will follow a family of four who have been relocated to Houston from the underworld. (The net already runs syndicated episodes of Family Guy, but Hell will mark its first original animated program.)

Family Guy, you might recall, clawed its way back into the Fox network's primetime lineup by pulling big numbers on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim after it got cancelled. Also by selling a bajillion DVDs.

Soon thereafter, an empire was born.

I'm sure Turner is hoping for a breakout hit from Neighbors. We'll find out if the hopes are well-founded soon enough.

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The SPMR* is very disappointed

Above: 1105 N. Hollywood Way in Burbank, circa 2006 ...

Above: 1105 N. Hollywood Way as of this morning. (TAG's New Place ... and someday soon we will move here.)

* The Society for the Preservation of Mansard Roofs† ...

†... although they really weren't Mansard roofs (they only had one slope per side).

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Foreign Toonage

Since we tend to get U.S. and California-centric around here, permit us to highlight animated product and animation activities beyond America's shores. Like for instance, what's going on way down south:

Toonz Animation and Argentina’s Illusion Studios have inked a co-production deal to produce a 90-minute 3D animated feature film based on the famous Argentine comic strip Gaturro ...

“Production will commence here in the next few weeks. The show is expected to hit theatres worldwide by 2010,” said [said Toons chief executive P.] Jayakumar in a press statement. Pre-production work has been completed ....

And on the other side of the world, there are Japanese animators doing their thing:

In the world of Japanese anime, and in fact, animation in general, there is probably no greater modern auteur than Mamoru Oshii. Since his directorial debut in the series Urusei Yatsura in the late 70s, he has quietly built up his own language, symbols, even mythos. ... Where other Japanese masters cite Max Fleischer and Walt Disney as their main early influences, Oshii claims the likes of surrealist Luis Bunuel.

His latest effort to come to the U.S., the feature film The Sky Crawlers (out this week on DVD through Sony), fits comfortably in the Oshii oeuvre. Also important, it stands quite well on its own ...

In France, animated filmmakers are going down a different road than the one paved by Uncle Walt and his heirs:

... [T]he jokes are dirty and the milieu mildly gritty in the urban, adult-skewed French animation "Round Da Way." Based on a popular TV series that started in 2000 on Canal Plus and morphed into a comicbook, pic follows the adventures of various ghetto-dwellers on the make in the sexual as well as criminal sense. A fun, polished crowd-pleaser that depends a lot on its target aud's knowledge of street slang, "Round" should assemble a good-sized posse of supporters locally when it opens in mid-June this year, but may not achieve much more than cult status offshore.

Also in France, Onyx and MK2 are getting into the animated film biz:

MK2 topper Nathanael Karmitz and Onyx Films' president Aton Soumache are teaming up to produce a 3-D animated film and videogame based on Antoon Krings' bestselling children series "Funny Little Bugs."

Budgeted at $33 million, the "Bugs" toon and vidgame will be produced simultaneously by MKO. Kringe will co-direct the family-oriented toon, which is in development and will begin production in January 2010 ...

Via his shingle Onyx, Soumache is producing a TV toon series of 26 52-minute episodes for Gallic commercial net M6. He's also considering developing an animated film for theatrical release ...

To sum up: a lot of cartoon production is going on worldwide, at all different price points, in a variety of formats. Some of the product catches on commercially outside the country of origin, but a lot of it doesn't.

Despite what Americans sometimes think, it's not just Pixar-DreamWorks-Disney-Blue Sky. It's not merely Japanese anime. There's a world of cartoons that U.S. citizens never hear about. What's striking is the depth and breadth of toonage that's out there.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Continuing Power of Our Charming Corporatist State

Months and months ago, I had occasion to talk to an IA Vice President who is a hell of a lot more politically active (and engaged) than I am. I asked him what he thought the odds were of getting the union-backed card check legislation through Congress and onto President Obama's desk.

He thought the percentages were pretty good. I didn't. But I deferred to his opinion based on his political activism (he's a player in local L.A. politics). Now it looks like maybe I'm more right than I wanted to be:

The nation's labor unions, which organized so effectively last year to help elect President Obama, have been outmaneuvered so far on their top priority by their opponents in the business community.

"We were outspent, outhustled and outorganized," said one chagrined union advisor who was not authorized to speak by name ...

The Times' piece is all right as far as it goes, but it tiptoes around a central problem of today's America:

Despite a Democratic President and Democratic Congress that (supposedly) back organized labor, we live in a Corporatist state. And even though automobile companies are bankrupt and giant banks teeter on the edge of financial ruin, the big conglomerates still own the playlist and control the volume of the tunes to which we dance.

Republicans might live inside companies' large intestines, but Democrats sit on corporate laps, nuzzling close. If you don't believe this, consider that many of the Democratic sponsors of card check legislation when Bush was in the White House are now opposing the prospective law. What's changed? Only that there is now no President at the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue who will veto the bill. If Card Check clears House and Senate, it's law. This concentrates legislative minds, especially when they depend on corporate donations for a sizable part of their re-election funds.

Now. We are certainly going to get a larger Federal government (although Washington's power was growing briskly under Mr. Bush), and more liberal-leaning laws over the next few years will certainly come into existence. The political sons and daughters of Ronald Reagan have failed resoundingly, so the electorate has sent them to the political wood shed and turned to the party of Kennedy, Clinton and Johnson.

But card check legislation? That trims back some of the power of companies? Not a flipping chance.

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In full color ...

© Hanna-Barbera. Click the thumbnail for a full image.

... from the MegaCollector, the classic H-B characters, for the cover of a coloring book; artist unknown.

Clockwise from upper left: Quick Draw McGraw, Baba Looey, Yogi Bear, Boo Boo, Mr. Jinks, Dixie and Pixie. Center: Huckleberry Hound.

(A simple rule of thumb: Pixie wears the bowtie, Dixie wears the vest.)

Below, from 1958, the very first Pixie and Dixie cartoon, "Cousin Tex".

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Monday, May 18, 2009


You will notice that blogging today has been light (How about ... non-existent?) There is a reason for this. Kevin Koch and I, along with our faithful counselor Stu Libicki and TAG's negotiating committee, have been in contract talks with animation companies since early this morning, and we have just recently wrapped up ...

We did not, sadly, reach an agreement. We tried and tried but our fine international conglomerates wanted trinkets and baubles we were not prepared to hand over, so the Animation Guild came up short in the giving department.

We had no agreement to keep any of what we talked about confidential, but there's no point in me blathering on about the details here when I'm exhausted and will shortly be headed off to dreamland, but I will say this:

Often there is an elaborate kabuki theater in contract negotiations, with each side coming in with proposals and dollar figures they know will never be achieved, which is followed by much emoting and hand-wringing on the way to a "compromise" and ultimate contract.

We elected not to travel this route. We showed up with a short, snappy list of desired outcomes we believed were reasonable and all parties could live with, rattled them off to the group in the large conference room, and then received their proposals. There were then meetings in "side bar" to try to hash things out (fewer players, more focused negotiating) and then side bars to the side bars.

This went on until after the dinner hour, and finally there was a final big meeting where we were told "yes" on some proposals and "no" on others. (Those others were pretty major items; we had been doing similar things in the little side bar meetings.)

At the end we were still apart. And it's why I love negotiations almost as much as I do organizing. They are seldom life-enhancing walks in the park. Mostly they are long and enervating.)

So we are not done. But I'm still convinced that ... and stop me if you've heard this ... unions and guilds end up with the contracts they have the leverage to get. Sometimes they get less because they misjudge, and sometimes they get more because the Force is with them, but mostly labor organizations end up where they were destined to get in the first place.

Wish I could tell you where that destiny will take us, but I can't. Not yet. Happily, we have a date set for a resumption of talks. I'm sure we'll be letting you know how things develop.

In the meantime, enjoy the balance of the evening. I am off to bed.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Little Girl Marches On

We get so focused on Up and MvA, we forget there's other players out there.

Universal's "Coraline" took in $2.7 million at 1,423 in 21 markets, mostly with $2 million in its Brit soph sesh, for an $18.5 million foreign cume ...

...Which makes a worldwide total of $94 million ... or thereabouts.

The little girl, by the time she rakes in all her chips (theatrical, DVDs, merchandise, licensing, broadcast and cable, etc.) should be a nice, tidy money maker, should she not?

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Animation's Gravitational Pull

Reading Newsweek's hymn to the creative glories of Pixar, the thing that struck me wasn't the effusive praise of early Walt features ... or Pixar's present product ... but this quote from the New Republic, circa 1929:

"When it comes to 'pure cinema,' 'visual flow,' 'graphic representation,' 'the freedom of the cinematic medium,' and all the other things foreign cinema enthusiasts talk about, nothing has more than a roll of celluloid's chance in Hell beside Felix the Cat and the other animated cartoons."

Embedded in TNR's observations about animation in the days of silent, back-and-white shorts are the reasons animation has survived and thrived as a story-telling genre: Animation offers a filmmaker total control in ways that (until recently) live-action films could not.

If you wanted flying elephants or pirate ships or talking toys or large blue genies, animation could create those things and make audiences believe they existed. Live-action filmmakers, on the other hand, were shackled with actors in actual places in front of real cameras. For animation artists, the boundaries of time and space were non-existent, the horizons limitless. And audiences, when the story-telling underpinning cartoons' wider worlds was as compelling as the unconstrained visuals, bought into it in a big way.

Snow White, after all, made more money than any feature film* before it. Seventy years further on, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, and Blue Sky Studios have all created animated product that have earned billions, which is why there are more cartoon features being made today than ever before in animation's hundred-plus year history. Everyone wants to elbow onto the gravy train.

It's also why so many live-action features today resemble their animated cousins. Superman might have been born in the pages of a comic book and nurtured in Fleischer cartoon shorts, but today the Man of Steel and all his super-hero cousins, from Wolverine to Ironman to Spidey, defy the laws of physics in live-action universes morphed into imitation cartoons courtesy of computer generated images.

Because, after a century of film-making, the gravitational pull of animation grows ever stronger. And every film-maker aspires to the 'pure cinema,' 'visual flow,' and 'graphic representation,' that Felix the Cat enjoyed in 1929, and cartoon features own today.

I don't think this cinematic reality will be changing anytime soon.

* "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" earned eight million dollars in 1938, more than any tracked feature film to that time. "Birth of a Nation" probably earned more, but there are no records that document its total gross.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Box Office Ave Maria

Now with heavenly Add On

To the astonishment of nobody, Angels and Demons finishes Numero Uno on Friday.

Adults outnumbered fanboys at the multiplex Friday as Sony's "Angels and Demons" drew an estimated $16.6 million ...

Bowing nearly three years ago to the day, "Da Vinci" marked career opening records at the domestic box office for both Howard and Hanks with a first day gross of $28.6 million and a weekend of $77.1 million.

Angels won't be tearing up the wickets the way Da Vinci did, but then, the underlying material isn't the red hot best seller that Da Vinci was.

The rest of the pack finished about as you would expect on a balmy springtime evening: Star Trek dropped a mere 33% to land at #2 with $11.9 million, while Wolverine glommed on to $4.9 million in the show position (#3).

In ninth place, Monsters Vs. Aliens approached the $190 million marker. It now has $188.1 million in the domestic till.

Add On: Angels and Demons ends its opening aria a wee bit short of what Sony was hoping for, but still performs nicely with $48 million.

Second place Star Trek takes a plunge, bagging $43 million as it descends. And #3 Wolverine claws out $14.8 million for a $151 million total.

Three of the Top eight features stand north of $140 million. Monsters Vs. Aliens ends the weekend in eighth place, takes in $3 million and now stands at $190.5 million domestically.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Our Schizoid Business

There are two dynamics going on in Animationland just now. And they're pulling in opposite directions.

On the one hand, there's a lot of employment. It isn't centered in the formerly booming area of television, but in c.g. theatrical features, visual effects, and digital games, which explains why I'm getting a cascade of calls from television production board artists and designers complaining about lack of work at the same time TAG receives 2-3 foreign visas per week for jobs in theatrical c.g. animation.

It seems borderline shizophrenic, but here's an example showing why it's not:

Advancements in animation technology and consumers' insatiable appetite for stylized robots, animals and monsters have propelled the industry. The momentum isn't likely to slow down anytime soon, industry watchers say.

"If you look worldwide, there are 45 or 50 fully 3D feature-length, computer-animated films in production today, ready for release over the next couple of years," says Terrence Masson, an industry veteran who has worked at George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic and consulted for Disney and DreamWorks.

See what's going on? At the same time production rockets upward, the fierce competition for production gigs amid a global recession have caused animation salaries to go south.

International competition in the visual effects industry is intensifying and ambitious German companies, exploding onto the scene with upcoming pics like Sony's apocalyptic thriller "2012" and Warner's "Ninja Assassin," are looking for a bigger piece of the action.

... Germans are used to working with "very low overhead. The money all goes into the work." ...

It's little wonder that, with the money squeeze and eagerness of hungry foreign contractors, the dynamics of the business are what they are.

Over the past three weeks, I've heard complaints about shorter schedules and heavier workloads. I've listened to veteran animators talk ruefully about their shrinking salaries, even as the projects on which they work make big money. Four days ago, a staffer at a well-known studio told me:

"They've let us know that when the current project is done next month, we're out the door. They don't want anybody to think they're going to be held over until the next project gets going. A bunch of us told them, 'Yeah, we know. You don't have to keep rubbing it in.'"

Day before yesterday, an IA representative said to me over lunch: "It's a damn good thing we've got contracts at most studios. Otherwise they'd be paying everyone eight bucks an hour."

The rep was talking about live action, but I knew what he meant. Nobody in the cartoon business gloats to me anymore about their weekly salaries at double and triple contract minimums. Most of those jobs have gone away.

Of course, a chosen few at the top don't have to tighten their belts. This is, after all, America.

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World Production

Let's not forget there is animation beyond Pixar, Disney, Blue Sky, and DreamWorks. There is also -- among other productions -- multi-nationl European feature animation:

[The Secret of Kells] was animated by a Polish artist working in a Hungarian studio, then cleaned up by a Mongolian who could only communicate with Irish director Tomm Moore via a translator from Transylvania.

[C]o-directed by Moore and Nora Twomey, [it] was made across five countries — Ireland, France, Belgium, Hungary and Brazil — and funded by a patchwork of co-production coin ...

One reason this is important? Because animation production goes to all corners of the globe. (Dirty non-secret: twenty-seven years ago, I penned a Mexican feature while at Disney ... that was animated in Spain. So this has been going on for awhile.)

Face it. If you work in animation you might one day pick up and move to New Zealand, China, India or Taiwan. You might rent an apartment in Berlin or Paris or Sydney and work on 'toons there.

We are a global workforce, and we work globally. Not necessarily because we want to, but because that is the way the business is, and has been for decades.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

White Doggie Prediction

Earlier this week I had occasion to talk to a Disney person who confirmed that no, Bolt has not yet been launched in Japan. "The release is early in the summer ..."

So. Based on that ...

I'll go out on a broad, stout limb and predict that White Doggie will, when the grosses from Japan roll in, the worldwide grosses for Bolt will be comfortably north of $300 million ... and the $294,516,832 it's collected to date.

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Links for Mid-May

Spring linkage ... with the dust whisked off.

Maybe everybody should start doing character teasers.

“There’s a shot where a little girl is in her room and the house goes by,” [Pixar] producer [Jonas Rivera] said of a seemingly simple reaction scene near the beginning of the film, in which a young girl is surprised by the flying house soaring past her bedroom. “She’s playing with her toys. She’s playing with her little plane. She gets up, and she looks [out the window] – under her bed is one of the new stars of ‘Toy Story 3’.”

(Rotten Tomatoes tabulates critics' reactions to Up. And the Nikster weighs in on the Cannes screening here.)

Amazingly, it isn't just J. Katzenberg who thinks that the future of cinema is 3-D. Other execs are getting in on the act:

"I really think we are at the tipping point where we'll have the ability to release a movie in 3-D only," said Disney Motion Pictures Group prexy Mark Zoradi.

I really don't have an opinion about whether, in the next year or three, my eyeballs will be seeing all 3-D all the time. I haven't given it a hell of a lot of thought, actually.

Wade Sampson presents a history of The Firehouse Five Plus Deux.

“The band never, repeat, never rehearsed! We never played any of our repertoire twice the same way. I insisted on a simple beat—tuba and bass drum on 1st and 3rd—snare, banjo and piano left hand accenting 2nd and 4th beats. Most of our work was for big dances playing jazz, waltzes, rumbas—you name it! Crazy textures, slide whistle, soprano sax duets, ‘duck call’ choruses, and harmonica solos. For concerts we upped the tempos. I guess you could call it all SIMPLICITY! Let ‘em hear the tune.” -- Ward Kimball

Ashton Kutcher takes time away from tweeting to jump into 'toonland:

Ashton Kutcher's Katalyst shingle is looking to turn the animated Web series "Blah Girls" into a TV property -- and has found an unusual launching pad for the show.

"Blah Girls" will debut on TV as a series of one-minute interstitials on the entertainment newsmag strip "The Insider" starting today ...

Moving further down the food chain, interviews the Madtwinz (independent animators Mark and Mike Davis) about animation and comic book creation:

... Our career just naturally evolved into for us. We were always bouncing stories and characters back and forth to each other, since we were both in the womb.

Mike: It was never really like, “Yo, i want to do comics and animation.” I just knew that I liked the idea of being able to create stories and images that people could relate to. Stories and characters that me and dudes around my way could look at and be like “I feel that,” that was the most important part. To capture the detail and nuances from the culture we was raised in.

Since Penguins of Madagascar is a hit, why not make it two?

In just six weeks [The Penguins of Madagascar] is reaching nearly 13 million viewers age 2 to 11 a week, according to Nielsen Media Research. Among cartoons only “SpongeBob SquarePants” delivers stronger ratings for Nickelodeon.

Now the channel is adding “Kung Fu Panda: The Series,” a program built around the DreamWorks smash film from last June. The series, planned for a premiere early next year, will chronicle the further adventures of Po ...

Have a most excellent Friday and weekend.

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"You poor simple fools. Thinking you could defeat me, me!"

Click the thumbnail for a full-sized image

From the MegaCollector, the evil witch Maleficent from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. This drawing is by TAG charter member Amby Paliwoda, who animated Maleficent along with Marc Davis and Eric Cleworth.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A DreamWorker's Thoughts

Today I rambled around the DreamWorks Animation campus ... and an employee shared his views on the performance of Monsters Vs. Aliens.

Me: MvA is doing pretty well, isn't it?

DreamWorker: Oh, it's done really well domestically. Better than Madagascar II, and they're happy about that. But the studio's been disappointed how the picture's done overseas. It's underperformed compared to Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda.

Me: Why do you think that is?

DreamWorker: It's very American. The girl's American, an American go-getter. There's the U.S. military, the President. And it's set in San Francisco. I don't think foreign audiences are tuned into those kinds of things, it's too U.S. of A ...

As I listened to what he said, I thought: Yeah, makes sense. Why didn't I think of that?" And the more I turned it around in my head, the more compelling the explanation became, because there's a lot of circumstantial evidence to support it. Just look right here:

Kung Fu Panda

Domestic gross $215,454,591

domestic 34.1%; foreign 65.9%

Worldwide gross: $631,908,951

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

Domestic gross: $180,010,950

domestic 30.3%; foreign 69.7%

Worldwide gross: $594,889,020

Monsters Vs. Aliens

Domestic gross: $187,151,273

domestic 56.7%; foreign 43.3%

Worldwide gross: $330,151,273

The percentages are pretty compelling, don't you think? A 30/60 split for the previous two features, but a 55/44 split for the present release.

The DreamWorker's explanation makes sense to me.

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Coming soon

Above, the sculpture by artist Brad Howe that was recently installed on the outside wall of the art gallery of our new building at 1105 N. Hollywood Way in Burbank.

The second-floor auditorium, future home of membership meetings and other events. The kitchen is at left.

Looking down the stairs from the auditorium to the lobby. (There also will be an elevator.)

Executive Board and Building Committee member Stephan Zupkas walks through the office area. The cubicle at left will house Marta Strohl-Rowand, our 401(k) Plan administrator; the nearer of the two doors on the rear wall leads to what will be Jeff Massie's office.

If we had to take bets, we'd say we'll start moving sometime in June. But there have been unforeseen delays before, and there may be again. Stay tuned ...

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

At the Nick

Today's big do at Nickelodeon was Jeffrey Katzenberg meeting with the crew of Madagascar Penguins in Nick's main building on Olive. I'm informed that he was there to meet, greet and thank everybody for the job they were doing with the series ...

Meanwhiole, Mi Hao Kai Lan has had it's third season trimmed. Word is that Viacom/Nick (I'm told) wants to see how merchandise sales roll out before ordering more episodes, and the toys and baubles are only now hitting store shelves. But a staffer said:

"The show is going good. The characters are cute. Once the toys being to sell, we're going to make new episodes. The studio is going to try assign a lot of the artists to other shows, because they're trained to do the pre-school type programs and don't want to lose them ..."

The Mighty Bee is also in production, and of course the inimitable Sponge Bob:

SpongeBob SquarePants ... turned 10 years old this spring ...

He made his debut on Nickelodeon on May 1, 1999, in a pilot episode called “Help Wanted.” The plot: a young sea sponge applies for a job at a grungy ocean-bottom diner called the Krusty Krab. Oh, how he wants this job—the position of fry cook represents the summit of his ambition.

And the Bobster has sold a thousand steamships worth of merchandise over the last ten years. Which is why they're still producing his cartoons.

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A Prime Time Toon Goes Down

Apparently Sony's entry into the prime time animation wars didn't work out.

Fox yanks 'Sit Down, Shut Up' a week early

Fox ... opted to yank the remaining episode of "Sit Down, Shut Up" after the show posted a dismal 0.7 rating/3 share among adults 18-49.

... Fox will run a repeat "King of the Hill" in that slot.

Given "Sit Down's" perf, the animated half-hour is not expected to return.

I always feel bad for crews that work their tails off, only to see the gig go down in flames.

Sadly, these things happen ... and will continue to happen. What gets greenlit isn't always what has a life beyond its initial order.

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Blue Sky Has Plans

While most eyes focus on Pixar, there's a studio on the right coast that keeps trucking:

Fox/Blue Sky Studios ... have greenlit the 3-D digital animated pic "Rio," which centers on a nerdy macaw who leaves the comforts of his cage in small-town Minnesota and heads to Rio de Janeiro.

Up is going to perform well through the month of June, probably very well. But then Blue Sky's new installment of its Ice Age franchise thunders into neighborhood multiplexes, and I expect that Up will, at that point, suffer a vertical drop.

Nothing to do with the quality of either picture, mind you, but it's good to face box office realities. Tent-pole type sequels have a lot of muscle with the ticket-buying public, and by July 1st the Pixar feature will have had a month working the turnstiles.

But what the hey. Both will do fine business. We'll see which animated extravaganza wins the summer cinema horse race soon enough.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Disney Stroll

I spent a part of the afternoon in the Mouse's hat building, running up and down stairs ...

The Princess and the Frog's newer trailer is playing in the lobby hallway, and the Rapunzel story crew was upstairs having a followup meeting about the latest Rapunzel story reel unspooling.

"We had a good Lasseter screening. Picture is working well."

As I've mentioned before, rough animation on PandF wraps up in the next few weeks, and the cleanup crew will depart in late July or August. I'm informed many of the artists expect they won't be around much beyond the production's finish date.

The next hand-drawn project? From what I hear it's a bunch of months off ... at the earliest. And I don't think Disney management's in the habit of carrying artists between projects. (Rapunzel, of course, gets the c.g.i. treatment, even though the key promotional sentence is: "In the tradition of the great Disney fairy tales ...")

Meantime, story work continues full bore on King of the Elves.

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Coraline Watch

Okay, we're tracking MvA and other big titles in feature animation, but what about the little girl from Portland, Oregon?

Coraline, after a respectable $75 million gross in the U.S. of A. (and Canada) is now rolling along in foreign venues:

UPI’s animated release Coraline opened in nine territories and took $4.9m from 1,423 venues in 14 overall for an early $15.2m running total. The film launched in third place in the UK on $3.7m (£2.5m) from 392. There are 34 territories to go over the next five months.

More often than not, the big domestic releases take in half their money stateside, half their money from the other parts of the world. (This obviously varies widely from film to film.) But if the "normal" pattern for animated features holds, then the little girl should see anywhere from $50 million to $100 million in additional box office.

Not at all bad.

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The MegaCollector's Quick Draw McGraw

Above, a color model sheet for Quick Draw McGraw, "the high-falutin'est, fastest shootin'est, cowboy you ever saw", and his sidekick who appears to have had a name change to Baba Looey after the original drawing was completed.

We're not sure who did the model sheet, but the above drawing of "El Kabong" is by Dick Bickenbach.

(I used to watch animation veteran Tony Rivera lay out a Quick Draw short in his home studio when I went over to the house to take piano lessons from Tony's wife Mary. It was 1960, I was eleven years old, and Hanna-Barbera -- all of 2 1/2 years old -- was roaring. And Tony was cranking out the work in his home office using an animator's desk and a lucigraph. He laid out a short per week. Exciting days, long-gone days. -- Steve Hulett)

Quick Draw McGraw and Baba Looey © Hanna-Barbera.
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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Changes At Imagi

I visited Imagi the end of last week; word is out and about that the studio will continue to exist, fuction, and produce new product (a good thing).

One of the execs there said changes would be happening at the top of the company ... and now, whaddayknow, here they are:

Douglas Glen, the chairman and CEO of Hong Kong-based Imagi Intl. Holdings Ltd., has resigned.

In an announcement Sunday, Imagi said it's begun a search for Glen's replacement and that board member William Courtauld has become acting CEO.

Glen joined Imagi in late 2006. Most recently, he oversaw the studio's "Astro Boy," which will be released in October ...

Mr. Glen was the man in charge when Imagi's west coast studio abruptly laid off all its staff when a cash flow problem cropped up several months back. The California studio suddenly found itself in problems because the crew went without paychecks for several weeks, hardly a good thing for a film company aspiring to be a major player.

I think it's a safe assumption that Mr. Glen's departure is related to the fustercluck that occurred earlier this year. Probably other things, too, but I'm wagering the layoffs and unpaid salaries didn't help Douglas Glen's cause very much.

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Meanwhile Beyond the Seas ...

Star Trek makes a smaller splash in foreign markets, largely because it debuts on fewer screens in fewer places:

The foreign launch of "Star Trek" beamed up a solid rather than spectacular $35.5 million at over 5,000 playdates in 54 markets, winning in 23 territories in its opening weekend.

"Trek" topped the second frame of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which slid 59% to $29.7 million at 8,978 in 102 markets.

The revamped "Star Trek," which had never seen significant international traction in its 10 previous incarnations, scored a respectable $7,100 per-location average ...

Unlike the last couple of DreamWorks offerings, Monsters Vs. Aliens is running behind the feature's domestic totals by a considerable margin. The foreign totals come out to $143 million, 43.3% of it worldwide collections.

I donno. Maybe foreign eyeballs don't look kindly on San Francisco.

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Maytime Box Office Polka

Now with scintillating Add On.

Star Trek accelerates to hyper-drive, taking $24 million on Friday and $7 million at Thursday screenings to gin up $31 million in its first day and a half of release.

... "Star Trek" has spawned 10 feature films prior to the current installment beginning in 1979. The highest grossing "Star Trek" film to date remains 1986's "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" with $109.7 million at the domestic B.O. ...

Mid ship, Wolverine captures $8.5 million in its second-place finish, and #3 Ghosts of Girlfriends Past takes $3,135,000.

Monsters Vs. Aliens, now in ninth place, has so far accumulated $184,189,000 during its U.S. and Canada run.

Add On: Star Trek rockets atop the heap, collecting $76.5 million for its opening four days, $72.5 for the weekend.

Wolverine dives -68.3%, still picking up $27 million for a $129.6 million cume at the end of its second weekend.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past declines a mere -32.2%, picking up $10.5 million for a total of thirty and a quarter million dollars after two weekends at the b.o. derby.

Lastly, Monsters Vs. Aliens loses -41.8% of its box office clout, collects $3,378,000 as it lands at #8. MvA now has $186.9 million in the domestic kitty, a bit more than half its worldwide total.

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How to draw Fred Flintstone

Above and below the fold, two lessons from master model designer Ed Benedict, courtesy of the MegaCollector.

(These are originals from Mega's vast collection -- most of it housed in a vault high in the Sierras. They're early Freds, versions of which John K. has posted on his blog.)

Fred Flintstone © Hanna-Barbera
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Friday, May 08, 2009

A Mill

Not in money, but in site visits.

A few years ago, a prolific cartoon producer said to me: "So you're blogging, hunh?"

I allowed as how we were, adding: "I have no idea what I'm doing, or where this is going ..."

He said: "Well, keep doing it. See what develops."

And here we are, three-plus years further along. And what's developed is history, art, current events, and day-to-day unionism, most of it relating to animation.

Also a large helping of my cynical snark.

And now we've reached a million pairs of eyeballs. This is very small potatoes for any piddling viral You Tube video that you click on, but quite handsome for us.

It's been fun, but I've found blogger Duncan Black words to be very true:

"Blogging is easy. Blogging a long time is hard."

So. Happy million to us. (This first post? It seems like a long time ago. We didn't believe in paragraph tags then.)

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Potty Mouths

Click on the image for a larger view

Ah. Now we know why Disney wanted all the women sequestered in Ink-and Paint back in the day.

All those nasty in-betweeners who swore like stevedores and carried on like sailors on shore leave were causing delicate ears to burn.

From the January 1939 memo:

Attention has been called to the rather gross language that is being used by some members of the IBT Department in the presence of some of our female employees.


It has always been Walt's hope that the Studio could be a place where girls can be employed without fear of embarrassment or humiliation.

Your cooperation in this matter will be appreciated.

The Diz administrators were looking out for the girls ... and wanted everyone to know it. That's a good thing, yes?

But we've traveled a long way. I didn't really learn to swear with piquancy and punch until my wife taught me how.

She was, of course, a long-time Disney employee.

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Friday Links

Now with life-affirming Add On.

Now that we're at the end of another slog through a workweek, we offer links for your perusal ... beginning with the power of Seth McFarlane.

In a dazzling, audacious stunt that hasn't been tried on TV since, well, the last time Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was rerun in the wee hours of the morning, an animated character is about to cross over to a live-action show.

Baby Stewie, the foul-tempered, homicidal baby from Family Guy, appears on tonight's episode of the police procedural Bones. Suddenly, Izzie's ghostly hallucinations in Grey's Anatomy and Dr. House's spectral visitations by the dead Amber in House don't look so out-there ...

It must be sweeps, correct? Because they know the producers know a ratings booster when they stumble across one ...

M-G-M, once a behometh and now a shingle, is getting into the theatrical animation game:

'Bunyan and Babe' will go out through MGM in North America. MGM has pacted with Exodus Film Group to release the animated pic "Bunyan and Babe" in North America.

Film, which features the voices of John Goodman and Kelsey Grammer, is a modern take on the folk story of legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox ...

Of course, the Bunyan legend has cropped up in an animated before.

CXO Today reviews the current state of Indian animation:

The Indian animation industry has matured on the technical expertise since last five years (sic). However the industry now needs to focus on creativity and build its own IP content based on indigenous story themes to become more credible in the world market -- say industry experts.

(It gives a fine account of what's going on the sub-continent ... even if some of the article's sentences are ... a little tortured.

Variety profiles Luc Breson and his budding career in animation with Arthur and the Invisibles:

The idea for "Arthur" came out of a meeting Besson had with writer Patrice Garcia, who had shown him a drawing of the character.

"'Arthur' was financed like a studio film and showcased an enormous pool of French talents," says Sparx's former head of production, Thomas Schober. The sequel, "Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard," is set to bow next November in Germany.

The Disney Co. will be setting up a new animation studio in Vancouver ... again:

To accommodate a growing slate of nonfeature projects, Disney and Pixar will launch an animation studio in the fall in Vancouver.

The focus will be on Pixar's legacy characters, including Buzz and Woody from the "Toy Story" films and Lightning McQueen and Mater from "Cars."

"The operation will be small in size and dedicated to producing short-form quality computer animation for theme parks, DVDs, television and theatrical exhibition ... for several different divisions of the Walt Disney Co.," Disney/Pixar president Ed Catmull said.

For those of you keeping a scorecard (and who have been around awhile), you might recall that Disney set up an animation studio in Vancouver during the go-go nineties. At that time, the concentration was on hand-drawn sequels for VHS and DVD. TAG assisted a Canadian union in its efforts to organize the studio. They came close, but ultimately failed. The artists working there were fearful that if they "brought in the union," that Disney would close the studio.

So the studio remained non-union. And Disney closed it a year-and-a-half later. (Ah well ...)

Add On: And as roll-out approaches, the L.A. Times again profiles the late and early stages of Up.

... As soon as the screening ended, Docter, Rivera, composer Michael Giacchino, executive producer John Lasseter and a dozen members of Pixar's brain trust met over lunch in a Skywalker conference room to discuss what they had just seen. By the time the team finished dessert, they had decided "Up" needed a new piece of music, and the choice they made with Giacchino revealed much about the film's creative ambitions ...

Have a glorious Friday and productive weekend.

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