Monday, August 31, 2009

Happier Artists

I trundled around to a couple of studios today, and hey. There are animation artists working at studios who are actually content.

"A lot of us are going to be working on Sponge Bob Square Pants until October 2011. Last month when we heard there was a big sigh of relief. We're doing the shows at the same pace as before, just moving along, and it's a nice feeling when you know work is going to be there awhile." ... "This is the best place I've ever worked ..."

The deal about animation studios is, one of its shows on the first floor can be an unadulterated pleasure on which to work, while the production upstairs might be a grinder with insane deadlines, uncompensated overtime, and a production manager who's a first cousin of Atilla the Hun. The difference usually comes down to budgets and who's running the show. You get somebody fairly enlightened who knows how to design and schedule show episodes, you get a crew that gets to have a life nights and weekends, and is happy.

And when not, the fifth circle of hell is often the result.

... Then there's Film Roman, the second studio I drove to.

"It's been tough on The Simpsons crew the past year. Fox has cut budgets and we've lost artists. The time we have to do each show is less, and everybody is more stressed. But you know, the new producer Tom Klein is talking to people and really trying to make things better. I mean, we know there's only so much he can do because Fox and Gracie are squeezing the budget, but a lot of us appreciate he's communicating and trying to make things better."

I'm pretty much a freak about communication myself (proven by all these posts), so I think it's a good thing when a studio honcho wants to talk to the people working for him.

Transparency, short term, is often a pain for management. Long term, however, it's a fine way to improve the workplace environment.

Add On: This is the sort of video various artists were watching at their desks today.

It's probably related to the fact that it's hard to breathe when you walk outside and get enveloped by the hundred degree heat. That could have something to do with it.

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Snow White and Spidey

What a concept.

Disney said in a statement that it would pay a combination of about 60 percent cash and 40 percent stock to acquire Marvel, which has a stable of some 5,000 characters that includes the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor ...

It's not hard to see why the House of Mouse wants to do this deal:

Marvel’s intellectual property tends to be more popular with boys — an area where Disney could use the help. While the likes of “Hannah Montana” and the blockbuster Princesses merchandising line have solidified Disney’s hold on little girls, franchises for boys have recently been harder to come by ...

When you're a hungry conglomerate, it's about finding ways to strengthen and shore up your brands. Increasing cash flow and market share are now and forever the prime motivators.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mo Cap Puppetry

Variety details the Henson Company's real-time c.g. facility:

Whereas a lot of animation companies use motion capture to capture precisely what an actor does, we’re somewhere in the middle," explains Brian Henson, co-CEO of the Jim Henson Co. and son of the famed Muppets creator. "We’re always working through some kind of technical interface."

... [T]he Henson Digital Puppetry Studio ... allows the company’s pros to translate their performances into broadcast-quality 3-D animation in real-time, resulting in shows such as "Sid the Science Kid."

At Henson’s Hollywood-based HQ, tucked behind the Kermit statue, the team has transformed a soundstage into a 40-foot-by-60-foot motion capture performance space or "volume." It takes two puppeteers acting in synch to create a character’s "live performance"; one dons a custom exoskeleton and acts out body movements onstage, while the second controls the CG head and face from a separate booth on the sidelines ...

Close to thirty years ago, the early Disney Channel was cranking out Winnie the Pooh half-hours with actors in cloth suits in front of chroma key sets on a small stage in Hollywood. They produced a show every two or three days, and they were extremely cost effective (read "cheap.").

The Henson mo-cap studio is, I think, a descendant and cousin of that long ago operation: a streamlined method to get a type of animated children's show to the marketplace at a relatively low cost.

Motion capture has a place in theatrical features and television. It's proven, over the years, that it's a viable sub-set of the movie industry, but I would disagree with Variety about this:

Motion capture technology may still be new enough to intimidate actors and animators (with both groups terrified such technology could eventually render them obsolete) ...

Mo cap is what it's always been: digital rotoscope, the computerized grandchild of Out of the Inkwell and Gulliver's Travels.

Rotoscope didn't replace animators in 1939, and Motion Capture won't replace animators in 2009. Both technologies are tools, not art forms. Animation is an art form.

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One Hundred Directors

Also Life Like provides a list of its favorite directors of cartoons of the seven-minute variety:.

The “100 Important Directors of Animated Short Films” list is not intended to be comprehensive. These are simply 100 directors whom we feel are important and deserving of increased recognition by film lovers.

But it's still pretty thorough. There are a lot of directors here who are known for their longer work: Lasseter, Wlfred Jackson, Frank Tashlin. But it's a fine compendium of artists who made their mark in an important corner of the movie business.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Marty Murphy, RIP

Bob Foster passes on sad news:

Marty Murphy passed away Wednesday evening, August 26, at his home.

Marty was a master cartoonist who contributed regularly to Playboy and is probably best known for that work. But to animation fans his credentials are equally impressive.

Marty was a Production Designer on Mister Magoo in 1960, a Layout Artist on Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, Character Designer on Wait Till Your Father Gets Home 1972 - 1974, and Hong Kong Phooey 1974. He was a Storyboard Artist on DuckTales, Garfield and Friends, Tom and Jerry: The Movie, and a whole lot of other stuff which can be found at the IMDb site.

Every once in awhile the cartoonist community suffers a great loss, and this is one of them.

There will be a memorial service on Monday evening, August 31 at Hollywood Forever Cemetery from 6 to 8 pm. There will be a funeral mass on Tuesday morning, Sept. 1, at St Brendan's Church, 310 S. Van Ness Ave. in Los Angeles (contact the church at 323-936-4656 for the time.

Here is more from Roy Delgado, Mike Lynch and Bill Riling.

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End of August Steeple Chase

Now with imitation butter Add On!

Going into the final turn of summer, blood and mayhem hold sway at the box office.

1. The Final Destination 3-D (New Line/WB) NEW, Fri $10.9M, Estimated Wkd $26M

2. Halloween II (Weinstein Co) NEW, Fri $7M, Est Wkd $17.5M

3. Inglourious Basterds (Weinstein/Uni) WEEK 2, Fri $5.8M (-60%), Est Wkd $17.5M

4. District 9 (Sony) WEEK 3, Fri $3M, Est Wkd $10M

5. Julie & Julia (Sony) WEEK 4, Fri $2.1M, Est Wkd $7M

6. G.I. Joe (Paramount) WEEK 5, Fri $2.1M, Est Wkd $7M

7. Time Traveler's Wife (WB) WEEK 3, Fri $2.1M, Est Wkd $6.5M

8. Shorts (WB) WEEK 2, Fri $1.2M, Est Wkd $4M

9. Taking Woodstock (Focus) NEW, Fri $1.1M, Est Wkd $3.7M

10. G-Force (Disney) Week 6, Fri $710K, Est Wkd $2.5M

In the animation department, G-Force clings to the tenth position, with $109 million in the Disney ruck sack, while Ponyo closes in on $10 million at #15. (And will probably edge past the $11 million cume of Miyazaki 's previous top domestic grosser.)

Add On: Oh. Mein. Gott. Horror flicks rule.

Weekend's ticket sales were horrifyingly good, up as much as 38% over the same weekend a year ago. Summer 2009 is now tied with 2007 as the best summer ever at the domestic B.O., with revenues approximately matching last summer's total of $4.16 billion. And with Labor Day weekend yet to come, revenues will easily zoom pass that mark ...

The animated G-Force takes in $2.8 million at the weekend box office to run its total to $112 million. Go, guinea pigs, go!

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Overseas Toonage ...

... is percolating along quite nicely.

Disney is having a noteworthy late-summer stretch, with three films hitting the top 10 chart. The studio's 3-D guinea pig-themed toon "G-Force" placed No. 3 for the frame, grossing $9.1 million from 2,508 runs in 22 territories for an international cume of $54.4 million and worldwide total of $161.6 million.

Mouse House and Pixar's "Up," which rolled out slowly over the summer and now begins to expand in a major way, came in No. 4. The stereoscopic 3-D toon grossed $8.7 million from 2,237 playdates in 19 territories for an international cume of $142.3 million and a worldwide haul of $431.1 million. (The film is at the end of its domestic run.) ...

"Up" hopes to follow the pattern of 20th Century Fox's stereo 3-D toon "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," which has grossed a boffo $616.4 million this summer, surpassing Disney-Pixar's "Finding Nemo" to become the top grossing animated film of all time internationally. Worldwide total is now $809 million.

All of which explains this.

... [N]ervous Hollywood studio executives are trying a little bit of everything in an effort to weather, and maybe rise a little bit above, these uncertain economic times ...

[A] bevy of animated projects, including "9," "Astroboy," ... "Planet 51" and 3D re-releases of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2"; and stars including George Clooney ("Men Who Stare at Goats"), Charlize Theron ("The Road"), John Travolta and Robin Williams ("Old Dogs") and Sandra Bullock ("The Blind Side") ... [also] Wes Anderson ("Fantastic Mr. Fox"), Robert Zemeckis ("A Christmas Carol"), even rookie Drew Barrymore ("Whip It") ...

Among the more anticipated offerings are the post-apocalyptic hero tale "9" (Sept. 9); a re-imagination of the pioneering Japanese anime series "Astro Boy" (Oct. 23), with Freddie Highmore as the world's most powerful pre-adolescent robot and Nicolas Cage as his creator/father, Dr. Tenma; and "Planet 51" (Nov. 20), set on a planet where a visiting astronaut discovers little green men leading a pretty nice life.

Not to mention Cloudy with Meatballs from Sony, coming along September 19, and two animated features for Christmas: The Princess and the Frog, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: the Squeaquel.

Maybe when nervous Hollywood execs are releasing more 'toons thn live-action, the genre will get respect.

Nah. Never gonna happen.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

New Disney Contract

The IATSE and the Disney Co. have reached agreement on a new three-year deal covering animation employees at Disney Animation Studios and elsewhere. (This was the negotiation discussed at a recent meeting of Disney Animation employees.)

The 2009-2012 contract is similar to the increases recently negotiated in the Animation Guild agreement, with 2% annual wage hikes coupled with 1 1/2% yearly contribution bumps to the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan ...

A ratification vote for the new contract is scheduled for September 11 at the Disney Animation Studio.

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The Friday Links

Now with tangy Add On,

Another weekend, so let the linkage commence.

J. Lasseter gives the secret for making quality animated features (again).

He is adamant that teams not be allowed to sequester themselves or work too long without sharing their progress with others. No matter what state a project is in, every three months, directors are required to put their film up on reels and test how it screens. That way, Lasseter and his fellow leaders can identify problems early.

Lasseter doesn't believe in mandatory notes, introducing instead what he calls the "creative brain trust" at Pixar, a peer-support strategy in which all the directors and key story people from around the company get together and selflessly help on one another's films. "It doesn't matter whose idea it is, the best idea gets used," he explains.

"Animation is the most collaborative art form there is in the whole world," continues Lasseter, who says his goal at both Pixar and Disney Animation has been "to build a studio where everyone's working for the same thing, to make the best movie you can, and then to be open enough to let people put their two cents into it. The next thing you know, you're seeing stuff you would never have thought of yourself."

See? The method worked real well at the Disney Hyperion studio in the 1930s, and it works fine today up in Emeryville ...

Screenwriter Stan Berkowitz tells of the fun of writing a memorable cartoon villain.

[T]his is Luthor’s story. Luthor has more dialogue than either Batman or Superman. And frankly, I actually gave him even more dialogue in those long speeches because I was hoping Clancy Brown would get the part, which he did. It’s so pleasurable to watch – and hear – Clancy do those Luthor lines, to watch Clancy’s descent into madness. It just brought me back to the days when I got into this medium in the first place. Suddenly, I was just a 13-year-old with a movie camera having fun with my friends and doing these little movies ...

Elijah Wood discusses voice work in Toonland:

With animated features, you work on one project over the course of several years, so there's time to really develop the character and the story. For my character's specific arc [in 9], he started out quite innocent and naive to his world and who he is, but then we started to make him more heroic and more assertive ...

The students and profs of San Jose State have created a feature length animated feature:

Bye-Bye Bin Laden, the first film of its kind to be produced at a university, was created by students and faculty at San Jose State University. Writer-director Scott Sublett describes the film as South Park meets The Daily Show ...

The Guardian weighs in with snark regarding James Cameron's new epic:

Avatar trailer: Get your flashy 3D stick out of my face, Mr Cameron.

If James Cameron's 3D space epic is so revolutionary, why does it remind me of Ferngully? ...

Hey now. I liked Ferngully ...

Singer Paul Simon is getting into the animation game:

Paul Simon, of Simon & Garfunkel ... will be voicing the role of Yankee great Thurman Munson in Henry and Me, an animated film set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival next year ...

ASIFA's archives puts up some dandy Looney Tunes artwork from the late 1930s:

Plac-emat art, no less.

The Hollywood Reporter posts that Indian animation growth rate will decline:

India's animation industry will see slower growth according to the annual report by the National Association of Software and Services Companies.

“The Animation and Gaming Report 2008-09” has revised its forecast for the sector, expecting a dip in growth rates for two years before becoming a billion-dollar industry by 2012 ...

Slow growth of domestic box-office for animation movies, absence of adequate proof of concept or intellectual property creation, and lack of availability of skills for the animation industry are other factors that have led Nasscom to revise its earlier forecast.

Add On: The L.A. Times reviews an anthology on the thoughts on Japanese culture, animation and Hayao Miyzaki:

... [R]are insights into one of the greatest talents the art of animation has produced make "Starting Point" essential reading for anyone interested in Japanese -- or Western -- animation. However, the anthology covers only to 1996, before Miyazaki made his most mature films: "Princess Mononoke" (1997), "Spirited Away" (2001) and "Howl's Moving Castle" (2004). Readers and viewers can only hope a second volume is already in the works.

Have a restful weekend. And don't inhale any more smoke and ash than you need to.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

End of Week Studio Rambles

Cartoon Network has had an uptick in viewership the past few months (whether this helps its animated shows long-term, or accelerates its shift to live action, remains to be seen.) But it's got a half dozen 'toon shows in various stages of work, and a few more in development ...

The newer version of Ben 10 is in production. and Sym-Bionic Titan (produced at the Orphanage and top-kicked by Genndy Tartakovsky) has recorded its first show.

The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack has six newer episodes in work and The Regular Show also has a six episode order. But as a CN veteran told me:

"These shorter episode orders cause problems, because by the time we assemble a decent crew to make them and everyone is starting to mesh creatively, the six shows are finished and everyone goes off to other studios. Then management decides to order more shows, but can't get the people who made the first ones because the artists are now working elsewhere. Not good ..."

Meanwhile, the last episodes of Chowder are getting thesmelves animated overseas and moved through post-production. (Pre-production has long been ended and most of the Chowder staff picked up by Disney TVA.)

Fox Animation, where I spent my morning hours, is a small empire of continuity. Artists are working on new seasons of Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show, and nobody seems worried about getting laid off when a show shuts down, since all three are continuing into the foreseeable future. Said a board artist:

"I'm not saying things are perfect around here, but when you know you've got a gig that continues on for a year or two, you relax a little ..."

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Ratification Time

SAG has just ratified a new live-action cable agreement with a 93% "yes" vote, and a new animation contract has been approved by the guilds national executive committee.

And as I write, ballots for the new TAG agreement are being delivered by snail mail ...

We encourage, exhort, and hereby ask TAG members reading this to mark their ballot, put it in the inner envelope and then in the orange envelope with prepaid postage, and mail it to the American Arbitration Association for counting on September 9th. (And please don't tear of the little white tag with you name on it. That invalidates the ballot.)

(Results of that contract vote will be posted here on that same September 9th.)

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Maybe Cartoon Recession is an Asian Thing

It isn't just Japan where animation lags.

Despite government support for Chinese animation, private capital has been slow to fund the domestic sector, leaving it lagging in the wake of 2008's imported "Kung Fu Panda" success.

So far in 2009, just four Chinese animation and animation-related merchandise producers have received capital injections, according to a report released Wednesday by investment analysts at JLM Pacific Epoch ...

While Disney's "Mulan," based on Chinese legend, spawned a sequel and DreamWorks is considering a follow-up to "Kung Fu Panda" -- which raked in $560 million in global ticket sales -- China's animation industry lacks talent, originality and creativity, [JLM's Ely] Yan said ....

I'm picking up a trend here.

All these spokespeople for overseas cartoon industries keep saying their domestic studios are missing something, and that's why they don't keep up with, you know, those Stateside cartoons.

I'm not convinced that this will forever be the case. I'm not sure it's completely the reality now, since there is quality work coming out of various countries beyond the Pacific and Atlantic.

The U.S. doesn't have a monopoly on animation talent; it's just taking awhile for overseas cartoon makers to get it together, one reason being that a lot of their high-end artists keep jumping ship to go work in America. (I know this because their immigration visas come across my desk with a metronomic regularity.)

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Animation Up, Animation Down

Ice Age 3 and Up are chasing the record books as they unfold in movie theaters around the world. Cartoon Network is 19% higher in viewership. Family Guy is vying for multiple Emmys and The Simpsons is working on their 21st season. Dven hand-drawn animation is making a comeback.

But apparently animation is not quite as robust in another country that has always loved itself the cartoons.

Japan's domestic toon market, including pics, TV shows and DVDs, has declined for the second year in a row, according to a study by private media think tank the Media Development Research Institute.

After taking a record $2.54 billion in 2006, the local toon market fell to $2.24 billion in 2008. This number includes both domestic and foreign toons.

The drop occurred despite the 2008 release of Hayao Miyazaki's smash hit "Ponyo," which earned $163 million domestically, making it the year's top box office earner. But the number of toon releases that exceeded 1 billion yen ($10.5 million) -- the traditional mark of a hit in Japan -- fell, while foreign toons failed to take up the slack.

The one constant of the animation market around the world is its up and down nature -- much like a roller coaster. Cartoons are a commodity that rise and fall based on their perceived quality.

The American cartoon biz has always been boom and bust. The early promise of animated features (1938-1941) quickly gave way to a long fallow period that lasted into the fifties. The roaring success of television animation (1958-1961) faded into the up-and-down nature of the seasonal Saturday morning market powered by the broadcast networks until the 1980s and syndication, the 1990s and cable, the turn of the century and the big money earned by animation on video cassettes and disks. (Family Guy was reborn when millions of DVDs got sold.)

What Japan is going through is its own version of the American cartoon marketplace, where good times follow bad ... and vice versa.

I would wager that when the world economy repairs itself, Japanese animation will hit new records. (Of course, product will need to be created that people want to see, but sooner or later somebody will do that. Japanese artists haven't lost their talent, after all. Just their hot streak.)

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cheery Times

I've been in three studios in as many days, and the theme that echoes back to me as I stumble around the halls is: "Our morale is crappy". Which is understandable given the staff reductions and salary rollbacks, not to mention the general good times in which we now live.

The plunging morale issue isn't news to anybody paying attention, but a new report highlights part of the problem.

A report called "Talent Tightrope: Managing the Workplace through the Downturn", has found that employers are unaware of their employees’ stress levels.

Hudson executive general manager Marc Burrage says that 44 percent of the 2394 employees surveyed indicted that worker morale has plummeted.

“In contrast, only 26 percent of the 247 employers interviewed acknowledge that workplace morale has dropped.”

He adds that local companies have responded to the global recession by slashing workforce costs through restructures and staff cuts ...

Almost a third of employees are concerned about losing their jobs. This is a very different scenario to only one year ago. Nearly half [42 percent] said they feel their job is less secure than the same time last year ...

I think the general cluelessness of employers referenced in the report is reflected in the actions of various animation studios (They are, after all, employers too.)

I could think of a bunch of examples, but let me give you one: During the recent contract negotiations, a studio rep came to us during the contract-talk equivalent of the ninth inning and proposed getting rid of his company's sick days. I told him I thought the proposal was on the late side, and also a bad idea. I then told the employees, and an already bad morale situation got worse.

In fact, the employees went sort of ape shit.

The studio, after due consideration, decided getting rid of sick days was maybe not such a swift idea after all and withdrew the proposal.

But here's my point: I think the idea was put forward in the first place because the company's management didn't have a clear grasp of how ticked off employees already were.

(Management, in my experience, often gets caught up in an echo chamber of its own design where it hears what it wants to hear, and tunes out bad news that gets in the way of preconceived notions. Let's stipulate here that it's often difficult to burrow down to cold, hard reality; a lot of union members tell me what they think I want to hear. So I'm not always the recipient of clear, shining truth either.)

The lesson in this story, I think, is that it's a good idea for corporate administrators to communicate with A) each other and B) the employees whose benefits they feel compelled to take away. "Talking things out" beforehand isn't necessarily going to solve the problem and it probably won't make people perform jigs in the hallways, but it will go a considerable distance in avoiding bigger mistakes and cushioning some of the blows that now fall on the folks who have to work for a living.

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Tale of Summer Linkfest

When the summer winds toward a close and you can't think of anything worthwhile to pontificate about, hold a linkage carnival.

The teevee 'toon series you've been waiting for: a half-hour of interactive merriment.

Reality production company RDF aims to launch the first interactive animated series in the United States.

The firm behind such shows as Fox's "Don't Forget the Lyrics" and ABC's "Wife Swap" is teaming with new-media company Artificial Life to design a TV series in which viewers can participate in the onscreen action.

In the proposed series, "Sleuths," viewers would customize their own avatars, which will appear onscreen during the show's live telecast ...

Apparently filmmaker Terry Gilliam is looking to do janitorial work:

After praising Pixar for their films, noting how they are clearly a studio run by “creative people” and not suits, and commenting on how much of the bold political cinema he’s seen recently has been in animated family films, Gilliam also let on that he wants to work for the studio ... Gilliam went so far as to claim he’d “sweep the floors” at Pixar ...

Let's see. We had the Texas film student who was willing to fetch coffee at Pixar, now Terry G. is saying he'll sweep up, so where does it end?

For a studio that's moving away from animation, Cartoon Network is doing all right in the awards department.

Cartoon Network is taking an early lead in this year's Primetime Emmy race, picking up five of seven juried awards announced Monday.

... Among the animation winners are character animators Elizabeth Harvatine, for Cartoon Network's "Moral Orel," and Joshua Jennings, for the channel's "Robot Chicken." Also picking up the Emmy will be background painters Joe Binggeli, for Cartoon Network's "Chowder," and Chris Roszak ...

Disney aims to goose Up's overseas box office.

Pixar's latest film release already has overperformed in the U.S. and Canada, proving wrong predictions its star-free voice cast and adult-oriented tone would hamper appeal ... Up" was slotted to open during a span of several months in different territories ...

So far, "Up" sits at $142 million and counting internationally. Eventually, it should fetch upward of $400 million abroad as Pixar pics tend to overperform internationally ... The international appetite for animated features would seem high at the moment judging from the global appetite for Fox's summer opener "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs." The 3D threequel has more than tripled its domestic tally with a stunning $616 million in foreign lucre ...

Happy Feet 2 rears up far off in the Land Down Under.

George Miller has decided to do a sequel to his 2006 animated film Happy Feet ... [and] Robin Williams has apparently agreed to reprise two of his voice roles from the first film ...

DreamWorks Animation doesn't have a new film out until next year, but its stock doesn't seem to be impacted by the lack of product.

Dreamworks Animation (NasdaqNM: DWA) closed yesterday at $31.71. So far the stock has hit a 52-week low of $17.32 and 52-week high of $32.73. Dreamworks Animation stock has been showing support around 31.33 and resistance in the 32.19 range ...

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Monday, August 24, 2009

The Free Animation Express

What a wild surprise. It isn't just American cartoon producers who want to climb aboard the gratis cartoon choo-choo and get something for nothing.

Digital kids network CBBC is expanding its online portal Cartoon Works to become a destination to premiere shortform content ...

[T]he portal will showcase new animation from budding under-18 amateurs through to established professionals. Anyone can submit animation, the best of which will be selected and showcased on and then transmitted on the CBBC channel ...

Somebody please tell me that the British Broadcasting Corporation is going to compensate the creators of the work that they use, that there will be deals struck and royalties paid to the makers of the content which the BBC is happy to use on air.

That's all going to happen, right?

Meanwhile, CBBC has commissioned a new animated series, Muddle Earth, based on the books by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. It has also ordered another season of Aardman Animation-produced series Shaun the Sheep ,,,

Lemme guess. Aardman is getting paid. Stewart and Riddel and their adaptors are getting paid.

Interesting concept, this pay for work thingie.

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A Hanna-Barbera Reunion

On Saturday night, the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills was the site of a panel discussion, exhibition opening and employee reunion, all focused on the seventieth anniversary of Hanna-Barbera Productions.

Above: The H-B panel consisting of Ken Spears, Willie Ito, Butch Hartman, Jerry Eisenberg and moderator Garry Owens taking questions from the audience.

Enjoy the rest of the photographic smorgasbord. You'll probably recognize numerous faces.

The crowd enjoyed the exhibits of vintage Hanna-Barbera art, photos and home movies on display in the lobby.

Joanna Romersa enjoys a laugh with Don Jurwich.

Mark Evanier and Scott Shaw!

Bob Tyler and Kirk Hanson.

John Tucker, Mark Kirkland, Tim Walker and Bob Foster.

Marianne Tucker and Sue (Crossley) Walker.

Thanks to Bob Foster for the photos.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009


Here's an example of a film worker in animation who has the leverage for a nice pay day.

FUNNYMAN John Cleese is laughing all the way to the bank - after netting $1MILLION for just 23 minutes' work ...for the fourth instalment of hit movie "Shrek."

He picked up a whopping pay cheque of £604,000 for his troubles - which works out at a cool £26,000 a minute or £437 a second ...

On the other hand, Mr. Cleese probably needs the dough.

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Three Deee!

There's been discussions here and elsewhere about whether movies in three dimesions are just a flash on the silver screen, as in the 1950s, or will have staying power. Personally, I think the question has already been answered, what with all the 3-D features already in the pipeline and marketplace.

Until now, of course, those pictures have mainly been animation and mo cap. But I think the question is about to be answered as regards live action:

Screenings of 16 minutes of footage from "Avatar" were held across the country in 102 Imax locations and in 238 additional theaters overseas ...

The reason behind Fox's decision to mount "Avatar Day" was two-fold: To whip up a fan base among moviegoers and encourage theater owners to install more 3-D screens before "Avatar" opens Dec. 28 ...

Fox's 3-D toon "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" has grossed $615 million at the international B.O., the most of any film this year and surpassing "Titanic" in a handful of Latin American markets. On "Ice Age 3's" opening weekend, the 3-D screens repped only 18% of the total theater count, but made up more than 35% of the gross, at least ...

21st century Three Dee has already lasted way longer than the dimensional movie splurge of 55 years ago. And the box office returns are now way too pronounced for any of the conglomerates to ignore the technology.

It won't be long before 3-D features are the rule instead of the exception. (I'm not sure this is necessarily a good thing; the three dee product I've seen hasn't bothered me, but it seems a tad ... I donno ... gimmicky. Of course, it doesn't really matter what old fuds -- of which I'm a member in good standing -- think is good. It's all about what the prime movie-going audience likes, and it appears to like 3-D quite a lot.)

Last week I talked to some of the crew that is working on the dimensional reboot of Beauty and the Beast at Disney. When I mentioned semi-facetiously that I couldn't wait for the 3-D versions of Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz and Casablanca to roll out, one of the artists said to me:

"After working on Beauty and seeing what's being done with it, I think it would be kind of neat to work on those old pictures and make them into 3-D. The process is getting easier and more powerful all the time, and I think maybe it will happen."

If the studios sniff money to be made in reconfiguring old productions ... and the cost for doing it is low enough ... I have few doubts that at some point we'll see Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion and the rest of the Oz posse prancing down the yellow brick road in glorious Three Dee.

The quest for increasing cash flow and profit margins, after all, is eternal.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

International Toonage

It wasn't the young wizard that took the overseas crown.

Most had expected Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" or Par's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" to be the top grossing pics at the international B.O.

Instead, it was 20th Century Fox's "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" that stole the crown, thanks to the franchise's enduring popularity and the added boost of 3-D.

Through Aug. 16, the 3-D toon had cumed $601.7 million at the international B.O. for a worldwide tally of $792.6 million.

As regards the other major 'toon release:.

"Up," Disney-Pixar's summer 3-D toon, also continues its strong run. While "Dawn of the Dinosaurs" largely opened day and date, "Up" is rolling out more slowly and into the fall.

During the Aug. 14-16 frame, "Up" grossed an estimated $10.1 million from 2,162 playdates in 22 markets for a foreign cume of $126.9 million and worldwide tally of $415.1 million. "Up" remained No. 1 in France for a third consecutive frame, bringing the cume to $21.2 million.

And the White Doggie? He's still in release in Japan, pushing Bolt's worldwide cume higher. The canine is now, per Box Office Mojo, sitting at $305.5 million, which places it one notch above Polar Express and two about Mulan.

No doubt this will change ...

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WGA Animation Levies

An old conundrum bubbles back to the surface:

Writers Guild's foreign levies pool is bigger, annual report shows

The guild's West Coast union as of March 31 had amassed about $30 million in funds that have yet to be paid to writers whose movies or TV shows were viewed overseas.

The guild's West Coast union had amassed about $30 million in funds that have yet to be paid to writers as of March 31, according to its recently released annual report. That's up from $20 million in 2007.

Most of the funds belong to hundreds of writers, or their estates, whose movies or TV shows were viewed in foreign countries that levy special taxes to compensate authors for the reuse and copying of their work.

The guild receives money, held in trust, from foreign collection societies and is responsible for disbursing the proceeds to writers ...

If you're thinking: "Heey. Is the WGA holding money that belongs to animation creators?" you're firing on all eight cylinders . The WGA does indeed hold money for animation writers ... and others ... that it doesn't represent.

Back when I was young and frisky, Brian Walton was the head of the WGAw, and the Writers Guild repped zero animation writers (even while collecting European levies for them), I took issue with this cozy little racket. My gripe was that the WGA not only held money for animation writers, but that it told the union that did rep them absolutely nothing about the amount of funds held.

At the time, I was informed by the WGA that I could shove it. Walton's response to my objections was: "We (the WGA) should get gratitude we're doing all this work, instead of these brickbats being thrown at us."

Uh, no.

The WGA holds $30,000,000 that hasn't been distributed to the people who earned the thirty mill, and the problem, if the Writers Guild's report is accurate, is now worse rather than better. Year before last the amount was $20,000,000.

Think about those figures for a minute. Assuming interest is being earned on the dough, the Guild is picking up a nice chunk of change, on top of which, it's collecting almost $540,000 annually to administer the money (Does this include interest? Or is it an add on? Inquiring minds want to know.)

Either way, it sounds like lucrative work if you can get it. Especially when you're the Lucky Ducky sitting on the millions. (Maybe it's not a giant surprise that the WGA is being sued over the issue. And maybe I'm a little bit correct believing the set-up stinks.)

My issue is the same as it was in the 1990s. A labor organization that represents more animation writers and board artists than the Writers Guild of American (west) ever has, is shut out completely on administering foreign levies for animation writers. We are given no reports or updates, allowed no input. The only communication that flows between our two organizations is when the WGAw asks us for contact information for one of the people they don't represent but TAG does.

So they can, you know, mail out a check and have an address to send it to. Neato jet.

No doubt by next year, the WGA will be sitting on $40,000,000 that doesn't belong to it, and earning $700,000 for the privilege.

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The IA-Disney Meet

On Friday, the IATSE and TAG held an informational meeting in Disney Feature Animation's first-floor theater, explaining about the oncoming negotiations for the Disney-IA contract. (The agreement ends in October, so now seems like a fortuitous time to commence talks on the next three-year deal.)

We spent a lot of time talking about the mechanics of negotiations, the state of the industry, and the studios' current attitudes about negotiations with labor organizations. (Can you say "hard line"? I knew you could ...) There were complaints about Disney's recent wage rollbacks. We explained how unions don't deal with overscale salary cuts but only pay minimums; that didn't make anybody feel happier about the corporate belt-tightening now being done at their expense.

There was concern about changes to the health plan ("The MPIPHP had to fill a big deficit" was the answer), and relief that the pension accumulations and benefits are the same as before. One attendee button-holed me to talk about her struggle getting enough hours to hang on to health coverage: "I just made the number of hours I need, but I'm being laid off in a week or two, and don't know when I'm coming back ..."

The joys of project-to-project employment are never-ending ....

Before we started our meeting in the big theater, the crew of The Princess and the Frog had one there. As everyone filed out, people told me that:

* There a few weeks left on cleanup and ink and paint, then the visuals are done.

* A lot of the music has been laid down in scoring sessions and sounds great, and that there will be a few more sessions in September.

A large part of the P and F crew is gone ... and waiting for Winnie the Pooh to be written and boarded so they can come back to work.

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Late Summer Box Office Derby

The Nikkster has the big list of winners for the Friday steeple chase.

1. Inglourious Basterds (TWC/Uni) NEW $14M Fri [3,165], $35M Wkd

2. District 9 (Sony) Week 2 $5.8M Fri [3,050], $17M Wkd

3. GI Joe (Paramount) Week 3 $3.6M Fri [3,953], $12M Wkd

4. Time Traveler's Wife (NL/WB) Week 2 $3.3M Fri [2,988], $10M Wkd

5. Julie & Julia (Sony) Week 3 $2.7M Fri [2,463], $9M Wkd

6. Shorts (WB) NEW $2.3M Fri [3,105], $6.5M Wkd

7. G-Force (Disney) Week 5 $1.9M Fri [2,561], $6M Wkd

8. Post Grad (Fox) NEW $1.2M Fri [1,959], $3.3 Wkd

9. Harry Potter/Half Prince (WB) Week 6 $1M Fri [1,971], $3.5M Wkd

10. Ugly Truth (Sony) Week 5 $850K Fri [1,936], $3M Wkd

The features with large chunks of animation in them perch at #2, #7, and #9. There are no purebreds at the current time, but that could change as the season progresses.

Add On: Final estimates for the weekend festivities are in, Inglorious Basterds ends up at $37.6 million, and the Weinstein brothers breathe a sigh of relief.

District 9 falls by half, ending up with $18.9 million in the Place position, while the animated G-Force (#7) runs its total to $107.3 million.

Outside the Top Ten, Transformers is now $1.5 million shy of the $400 million mark, and Ice Age 3 stands at $192.4 million, and will probably end its domestic run within spitting distance of Monsters vs. Aliens domestic total of $198.3 million. (But it's done a whole lot better overseas.)

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Cartoon Gagsters at Screen Gems*

Ye Old Animation Studio Photo circa the F.D.R. Administration.

Left image, back row: Art Davis, Al Rose, Harry Love.

Left image, front row: Unidentified, (but if someone said it was Bob Givens**, some would believe them), Sid Glenar, Judge Whitaker, Rudy Zamora.

Right image: Same guys, different positions.

The photo is pre-digital photoshop trickery that falls a little short in this combination of two photos featuring the same guys. Harry Love gave a lot of photos to board artist Bob Foster back in the 70s at Hanna-Barbera, and he provides one of them to TAG blog. Says Bob:

I touched the picture up a little in Photoshop, but some of the overlapping images were just too complex to mess with. I added the "split."

* To most Boomers "Screen Gems" means Columbia Pictures' old television production division. But before Screen Gems T.V., there was Screen Gems the animation studio. The division didn't last long, but it employed a number of animation heavyweights in its brief lifespan.

** Most likely not Givens, as it seems that B.G. never worked at Screen Gems.

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Friday Linkorama

One more week, another dollop of linkage.

Stan Lee is working with the Big Mouse on a demi-animation project:

... [I]t has sound, it has music, it has some motion, although it isn't fully-animated".

Stan Lee's new project with Disney is an animated comic book to be made available online and on mobile phones ...

Lee, 86, will voice a character called Lee Excelsior, "the head of an organisation that the hero works for".

Seth McFarlane holds forth on a variety of subjects:

“Shrek, not funny. The thing that drives me nuts about those Pixar movies, those DreamWorks CGI movies, is they’re gorgeous to look at, impressive beyond belief, but not incredibly nutritious. A lot of the jokes are obvious and kind of tired … With all this money you have and all this access to writing talent, surprise me.”

Important news for hellfire fans. Dante's Inferno, the Movie now has a release date:

EA’s adaptation of Dante’s Inferno is ... being made into a six-issue comic book series in a partnership with DC Comics/Wildstorm, the first of which will be released on December 9th, 2009. An animated feature which is being co-produced by EA and Starz Media will be available the same day as the videogame. Dante’s Inferno has not yet been rated by PEGI, but Electronic Theatre will keep you updated.

There will soon be another shiny trophy in the hands of Mr. Lasseter:

George Lucas has been recruited by the Venice Film Festival to present the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement to John Lasseter and the directors of the Disney/Pixar team ....

And The Phillipine Inquirer profiles two Phillipinos working at J.L.'s home studio:

They call themselves Pixnoys – Pinoys who work at the Pixar Animation Studios.

Ricky Nierva and Ronnie Del Carmen ... remembered the wrap party of “Ratatouille” where the Pixnoys –and there’s quite a number of them – decided to come in their barong Tagalog ...

Ricky, born in the United States to Filipino parents from Camarines Sur, has been with Pixar the longest at 11 years. A graduate of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, California, Ricky worked on “Monsters Inc.,” “Toy Story 2” and “Finding Nemo.” As production designer of “Up,” his responsibility was to “uphold the vision of co-director Pete Docter.”

... “Ricky is this amazing caricature artist. He can do these really bitingly accurate caricatures of you once he gets to know you. He approaches design the same way that he really wants to know and internalize the characters and then he draws who he feels those characters are ...”

Ronnie, born and raised in Cavite, explained his responsibilities as story supervisor: “I lead a team of story artists. We tell and dramatize the story from beginning to end ...

Another story about Indian animation, this one more optimistic than the last.

The Mumbai studio of Crest Animation is abuzz with activity. A 250-strong team is putting the final touches on the animated feature film Alpha and Omega, ... In another few months, the Crest team will hand over the movie to their colleagues at the firm’s U.S. subsidiary for post-production work. When Alpha and Omega hits the screens in April 2010, it will be a turning point not only for Crest Animation, but for the entire Indian animation industry as well. The box-office fate of the first animated Hollywood film to be produced by an Indian company could well define how the world looks at Indian animators ...

Ashok Rajgopal, partner in Ernst & Young’s media and entertainment practice, adds a note of caution, however. The Indian animation industry is very fragmented, he says, and for the most part the skill sets are at the lower end of the value chain ...

Videoconferencing is getting more and more elaborate. It's not just teevee screens anymore, but huge wall panels that make you feel like those people in New York are standing in the same room (and DreamWorks Animation uses them big time):

... The top-end systems, which can link multiple sites around the world into one video conference, don't come cheap. HP's Halo ranges from $120,000, plus a $9,900-a-month service fee, to $349,000 with a monthly fee of $18,000. Cisco's TelePresence video conferencing technology costs $34,000 to $340,000, with no service fees ....

"If you whisper in a Halo room, the person on the other side can hear it," Starr said of HP's system, which was designed with Hollywood's DreamWorks Animation. She once attended a meeting in which one participant tried to shake hands with other video conference participants -- who were on the other side of the country.

That is not good news for the travel industry, reeling from a recession some experts call the worst in aviation history. Airlines have seen as much as 30 percent drops in the number of business passengers, said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly ...

Have yourself a healthful weekend.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

H and B

The Paley Center will be honoring the Dynamic Duo.

Hanna-Barbera, says [Mike] Henry, [co-creator of The Cleveland Show] "laid the foundation for people being fans of animation. . . . All the people, I am sure, who have created all the current animated shows grew up watching these shows. Our shows wouldn't be there without them kind of pioneering the medium."

The closest I got to Hanna-Barbera in the company's glory days was picketing outside its walls during the '82 TAG strike. But I visited the studio a lot during the Seibert era, when it was still humming along on Cahuenga Boulevard. The linoleum halls resonated with history, even as the production pace slowed a bit.

Although BIll and Joe weren't the first cartoonists to create television-style animation, they were the team that made it viable and profitable. H & B were the guys who built an empire on original teevee animation, and molded the brains of several generations of American youngsters, some of whom now make cartoons themselves.

The studio and its founders are gone, but their creations continue to resonate across various 21st century distribution platforms. In our present Corporatist age, we won't see their like again, but Hanna and Barbera hammered together most of the animation signposts which others now follow.

All in all, a pretty decent legacy.

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Sony Pictures Animation

An interesting morning spent at Sony Pictures Animation, which is intermingled with Sony Pictures Imageworks in sun-drenched Culver City. The first thing that greeted me as I walked into SPA's elegant building were stand-up posters for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, out in a cineplex near you the middle of September. A couple of artists who worked on it said:

"It's really funny. We worked on it a long time, but it ended up being an entertaining, funny picture."

Which could sound self-serving (Movie crews are sometimes the best judges of how well the movie they've been part of works ... and sometimes not.) Sony has made some credible animated features; its problem, I think, has been timing. Open Season came later in the funny animal cycle, and Surf's Up arrived late in the penguin era.

How Cloudy fares at the box office is anyone's guess (I won't venture one.) Sony Picture Animation/ImageWorks has gone through hard times lately. SPA is on its third wave of execs, and SPI has recently bid adieu to long-time honchos Tim Sarnoff and Barry Weiss.

Happily, various projects are in development. Hotel Transylvania is moving forward again, and Open Season 3 is also in work (OS 2 -- a direct-to-video offering -- was animated in Texas; I'm told that the third installment will also be done in Texas.)

There is also the Smurfs live-action/animation project, and I'm delighted to say that the Blue Crew look a lot like the H-B Smurfs of yore, and won't be morphing into Gollumesque live-action characters. (They've got a little muscle tone, but hey. That's the price of c.g.i.)

But on a less happy note, one of the SPA artists whispered to me:

"The Sony Imageworks staffers are regretting they didn't vote for that union contract when they got the chance. A lot of them have come up to me and said what a big mistake they made ..."

For those of you just tuning in, Sony ImageWorks was voted on a union contract five years ago. The permanent employees, then blessed with profit-sharing, a lush 401(k), dandy health coverage, and they decided if they voted in favor of the union package (Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health benefits, wage minimums, overtime requirements) some of the benefits they liked would go away.

Well, they voted against the deal, and all the spiffy benefits departed anyway. Funny how that happens. (President Kevin Koch and I talked to a number of SPI employees about this unfortunate possibility at the time. I remember telling a couple of skeptical animators: "The company could take all this stuff back at any time. There's no guarantees." I don't think I swayed anybody. Then.)

Now, of course, some SPI survivors have their regrets. So do I. I wish the IATSE and TAG had run the organizing campaign better, I wish we'd answered questions better, I wish we'd countered some of the hostility from the permanent staff more gracefully. Wouldn't have changed the electoral result, I don't think, but the final tally wouldn't have been quite as lopsided.

Ah well. Life is a learning experience.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Labor Peace

I'm a day late with this, but SAG has agreed to a new voice actor deal:.

The Screen Actors Guild has reached agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers on a pair of two-year contracts covering voice actors working in TV animation and basic animation.

The contracts go into effect immediately and are retroactive to June 10. They replace pacts that expired over a year ago and had been extended until last Jan. 15.

It's hard to know what all the wrinkles of this deal are, but if you calculate SAG's package over a three-year span, it got zip in the first year (due to a stall-out in reaching an overall agreement), 3% in the second year, and 3.5% in the third year. There's also a .5% pension kick-in that looks as though the total deal over 3 years is worth about 7%.

A 3% wage boost that would have happened in the first year of the contract became a black hole with zero salary increases when no agreement was reached and the studios wouldn't retroactively bump wages.

So, if you're scoring at home:

SAG's Voice Actor Agreement raises its wages 6.5% over three years, and gets a .5% pension kick-in.

TAG raises its wages 6% over three years, with a pension-health kick in of 4.5% over three years.

IA national contract for area standards (repping IA unions across the country), 6% wage boost over three years, with 1.5% annual pension improvements.

IA Basic Agreement (negotiated last Fall): 3% annual wage increases, 4.5% health-pension increases over three years.

TAG-Nick contract (negotiated last Fall): same as IA Basic Agreement above.

DGA and WGA Agreements (negotiated nineteen months ago): 3% annual wage boosts.

It's pretty clear how the landscape has changed as the economy has crumbled. Labor contracts are less rich now than a year ago. (There's a surprise.)

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The Features of Disney

I spent half the day at Disney Animation Studios, where the finishing touches are going onto The Princess and the Frog and work for Rapunzel continues to ramp up ...

Plus a staffer told me about Disney's next hand-drawn feature project:

"We're doing a new Winnie the Pooh feature at high speed, boarding it like mad. We've taken some of the gems out of the Milne books and strung them together. Marketing says that the the featurette compilation from the sixties (The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) sells steadily every time it has a new video release, but the television stuff of "Winnie the Pooh" doesn't much sell at all."

"This project is going to be an all-new feature. There was talk of having one of the original featurettes up at the front, but now it's going to be original stuff from front to back. I think the studio has figured out that going with feature quality animation will be more profitable in the long run, since the original featurettes are still selling well ..."

I talked to another artist, and we fell into a discussion about all the features DreamWorks has in development ("a lot .... especially compared to here ..."). On the other hand, Disney might have fewer things cooking at each of its different divisions, but it has a lot of divisions.

There's Pixar.

There's Disney Animation Studio (with DisneyToons producing direct-to-video features).

And there's Image Movers Digital, Robert Z.'s animation shop in Novato, California. that has various projects in the development hopper.

Disney and director Robert Zemeckis are negotiating to remake “Yellow Submarine,” the 1968 psychedelic animated film based on the music of The Beatles.

The studio has been quietly brokering a complicated rights deal that would give Zemeckis access to 16 original Beatles songs for a movie he will direct in the performance-capture 3-D digital production format he employed for “A Christmas Carol.” ...

Not long ago I did some rough addition in my head and decided that Disney, if you add up all their different divisions and subsidiaries, has a wide and deep development slate, probably a few more than DreamWorks, when all the different features are put onto the tote board.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Double Diz at Sonora

Upstairs at Disney Toons in sun-kissed Glendale, there are more people than previously. (Or so it seems to me.)

"We're halfway through production on Tink 3, and doing pre-production work on T4. Tinkerbell 2 is done and ready to be released ..."

Compared to other studios, Toons is an island of stability. Said a board artist: "My assignment was over, and the studio found me work on another project to work on..."

The "find work for the valued employee" thing used to happen all the time, but in the 21st century it occurs less and less. Now, artists rolling over to a studio's newer project is pretty much the exception to the rule of "her'es your pink slip, thanks for being with us." A couple of other Toons artists complained about the current project-to-project environment in Toonland, the mad scrambles after the next job, the creeping agism. Everybody gets that long-term employment is as extinct as the wooly mammoth ...

Downstairs at Disney Television Animation, they are slooowly ramping up for a new season of Inspector Oso. Crew will be returning over the next several weeks.

Also slated for production in the next few months is the new series about pirates (mentioned here earlier) that has had a title change, and involves some well-loved Disney characters. (Since I don't spy any details for the project out on the internets, -- and let's stipulate that I may just have overlooked it -- I won't break detailed news about it here. I have problems enough without getting huffy corporate phone calls as it is.)

Crew will be coming to work on it after lengthy hiatuses on another completed series, and the Disney TVA section of the Sonora building (seen below) will be filling up after being as vacant as a Mojave housing development. (The long-term employment once enjoyed by Disney TVA artists -- back when they occupied buildings in North Hollywood -- is long gone.)

Nobody much likes these on-again, off-again engagements, but it's the reality of the 2009 workplace.

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Voice Actors

So DreamWorks Animation hired some high-profile voice actors, and the L.A. Biz Journal seems astounded that DWA stock didn't shoot up.

Not even the celebrity lineup could help company stock on a day when new worries on the economy overshadowed the markets. Shares of Glendale-based DreamWorks (NYSE: DWA) closed down 0.95, 3.04 percent, to $30.30. ...

Here's the thing about big-name, celebrity voices: Sometimes they work out wonderfully well, and they are often useful in promoting a high profile animated feature.

But are they necessary? Do they add to the bottom line?

Only marginally.

Ed Asner was a fine choice for Up, but face it. Pixar didn't choose him because he's tabloid catnip or a marquee name like Mr. Pitt. They chose him because he was right for the role. (And Disney seems to be doing okay in the big grosses department as regards Up.)

I'm not saying using mega stars is necessarily a bad way to go, but Ms. Jolie's Main Squeeze didn't provide a lot of added value the last time he performed a voice role for DreamWorks Animation. This time, I'm sure, will be different.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

The Power of Ice Age Dissected

The LA Times examines the Fox money machine:

"Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," the third installment of 20th Century Fox's movie series about prehistoric animals, has become an international phenomenon, earning more than $600 million in overseas ticket sales and making it the most popular animated film ever abroad ...

40% of the box-office revenue has come from premium-priced theaters showing "Dawn of the Dinosaurs" in 3-D ...

... [T]he movie's family theme is playing particularly well in Latin America, and top local stars around the world hired to voice the characters tailored the jokes to their cultures ... In Germany, Sid the sloth is voiced by one of the country's most popular comedians, Otto Waalkes, who has been plugging the movie nonstop on talk shows and on stage during his own stand-up routines ... In Latin America, Fox released two versions, in Spanish and Portuguese, which were dubbed by popular telenovela actors and comedians ...

For Fox, the "Ice Age" movies have turned into a multibillion-dollar franchise ... With each of the two "Ice Age" sequels, the film series' overseas appeal has grown. International box-office sales accounted for 45% of the first movie's total ticket sales; the figure was 70% for the 2006 sequel and 75% for the current installment ...

What this kind of franchse building does is: 1) Keep the studio producing more features, and 2) Cause other corporate entities to jump into the Great Animation Race, in hopes of replicating News Corp's (or Pixar's, or DreamWorks's) money machines.

Animation, more than any other part of the movie business, is market-sensitive and market-driven. When cartoon features roll up huge grosses, the number of animated features increase geometrically. But when audiences stay away from ninety-minute cartoons in droves, animation production dives off a cliff. You have only to look at 'toons' history over the past ... oh ... twenty years to see how true this is.

When Disney had four animated blockbusters almost back-to-back (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King) studios that had never done feature animation in their existence jumped in with both feet, and for the most part failed spectacularly.

They failed with hand-drawn animation (Quest for Camelot, Titan A.E., Cats Don't Dance ), but with c.g. animation, not so much.   Today, thirteen years after Toy Story, Fox, Disney, DreamWorks and on occasion Warner Bros. (Happy Feet) have found big money with domestically-produced animation. Universal-G.E. is now going in a different direction with Chris Meladondri's Illumination Entertainment and its quixotic business model of farming out most of the work to someplace else as it charges into the animated feature wars. (Universal has made a lot of bad filmic bets lately. We'll see how this cartoon thing works out for them when Despicable Me is released next year.)

Fox, happily, has created its own private Fort Knox, and it's currently headquartered in Connecticut. I have little doubt that Blue Sky Animation will continue to prosper, and even less doubt that there will shortly be Ice Ages IV, V, and VI.

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Virginia Davis, RIP

Another link to American animation's now-distant beginnings has passed.

Virginia Davis, who appeared in Walt Disney's pioneering "Alice" films, has died at age 90 ...

Davis was hired by Disney in 1923 when he was a struggling filmmaker in Kansas City, Mo., and later worked with him in Hollywood. She was the first of several girls to have the title role in the series of "Alice" comedies that ran from 1923 to 1927. Her moving image was photographed and combined with animated cartoons, predating Mickey Mouse.

We now have one less eye-witness who was there at Walt Disney's professional beginnings, one less individual who can tell us how it actually was when a skinny guy from Kansas City joined his brother in California and began making films.

And the river of history rolls on.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Cartoon Network's Troubled Times

Things are tough all over, but the LA Times relates:

Since launching several live-action reality shows in June and moving away from its animation roots, Cartoon Network ... has been playing a game of hide-and-seek with its audience. Few of its new shows -- which include "Survive This," a knockoff for kids of CBS' "Survivor"; "The Othersiders," about a bunch of paranormal-obsessed ghost-hunting teens; and "Brain Rush," a quiz show with contestants on roller coasters -- are catching on with viewers, and none are among the network's top 10 series. Only one -- "Destroy Build Destroy," whose title is self-explanatory -- is gaining any traction ...

The trouble, I think, is that you've got to have some profile you cut that your audience identifies with. And some of the fan base, apparently, is getting ticked off at CN's brave new programming.

Ashley Rosario went looking for her favorite Cartoon Network shows such as "Chowder" and "The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack" and instead found reality programs, she did what any normal teenager does these days. She made a video complaining about it and posted it on YouTube ...

Me, I don't think networks succeed by aping other channels and lurching away from their core audience. Trying something other than animation from the nineties is well and good, but it's got to be based on something identifiable with the heritage that's gone before.

Of course, if CN has some edgy, live-action breakout hit, management personnel will become geniuses in the wink of an eye. (I recall when Disney TVA went over budget with Duck Tales and the execs on the Buena Vista lot were livid ... until the show turned into a gargantuan hit, at which point the cost overruns were forgotten.)

Nothing succeeds like success. (And don't cry too much for the staff of the cancelled Chowder. Last week a CN artist told me: "Almost all the artists and production staff got hired away by Disney. The only part of the crew that didn't get job offers were timing directors. I guess Disney has plenty of those already.")

I still think CN would do well with some new and fresher 'toons, but they've decided -- for the moment -- to plunge ahead with the live-action strategy.

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Target Retirement Funds

A question I often get asked at 401(k) enrollment meetings: "So where do I put my money, because I know I should start saving. But I knowzip about investing." ...

There are long-winded answers and short answers, and I've given both. But often I tell people: "You don't know anything, then go find somebody who does ... or do some self-education ... or put your money in a Target Retirement Fund and let somebody who claims to be good at asset allocation (where you put your money) do the allocating."

There are no perfect answers. Most of the financial experts missed the melt-down of last fall because the phenomenon causing it -- hyper-leveraging -- hadn't happened in a long time, and few people are psychic.

Added to which, all or most asset allocation funds took a hit because almost every type of financial asset ... with the exception of Federal bonds ... took a hit ....

Late last year the TAG 401(k) Pension Savings Plan pushed to get Vanguard Target Funds into its list of investment options because what we had was way underperforming. Another reason was because the costs were much lower, around .2% of assets. Vanguard keeps it simple and inexpensive by bundling a lot of its low-cost index funds together.

The lineups of its various Target Funds include all or most of the following:

* Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund

* Vanguard Total Bond Market Index II Fund

* Vanguard Inflation Protected Security Fund

* Vanguard European Stock Index Fund

* Vanguard Pacific Stock Index Fund

* Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index Fund

* Vanguard Prime Money Market Account Fund

Happily, whatever Vanguard is doing seems to be reasonably effective. Consumer Reports recently ran a comparison of a number of different retirement funds, and Vanguard was highly competitive in CR's rankings.

I've got one basic rule: It's important to tuck money away for later, and contributing to a 401(k) Plan is a relatively painless way to do it. Where you stick the money is something to decide based on your risk tolerance. (If you burst into tears and throw up a lot when you lose money in the stock market, maybe its a good idea not to put a lot of money in the stock market. But please put it somewhere.)

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

'Toons Progress Abroad

American animation continues its profitable march through foreign lands:

... [C]ontinuing to make headlines were Disney-Pixar's 3-D toon "Up" and 20th Century Fox's "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs." Both are overperforming, underscoring the added value of a higher-priced 3-D ticket ...

"Up," which continues its staggered overseas rollout, placed No. 3 for the weekend, grossing $17.5 million from 2,442 playdates in 21 markets for a foreign cume of $112.9 million overseas. Toon has grossed $287.4 million domestically for a worldwide tally of $400.3 million.

"Dawn of the Dinosaurs" grossed $14.7 million in its sixth sesh to place No. 4 for the weekend. Overseas cume is at $579.7 million, the best of any film this year. Domestic cume is $188.8 million for a worldwide cume of $786.5 million.

"Up" kept the top spot in Gaul in its second frame for a cume of $16.2 million on 718 for Disney. Meanwhile, the hit of the summer in Gaul -- "Dawn of the Dinosaurs" -- dropped only 26% after six frames on 750 for Fox, cuming a whopping $58.5 million.

In Spain, BVI's "Up" took top honors for the second weekend in a row, reaching a high $16.9 million cume. "Up" fell 42%. Copies in 3-D dropped 5% less, suggesting once again that the format has stronger legs. With "Up" still counting strongly, it looks on pace to pass Spain's current numero dos for 2009, "Angels and Demons."

"Dawn of the Dinosaurs" added $2.11 million to its $70.8 million cume in Germany ...


I find that big grosses for animated features are important, since they tend to make companies produce more of the same.

I guess it's a labor rep thing. Artistic triumphs are delightful, but without the big bucks to go along with them, jobs tend to dry up over time.

For some reason, multi-national entertainment conglomerates don't behave like Florentine art studios. No cash, no carry.

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The Derby of Box Office

Now with chocolate-coated Add On.

Sci Fi rules the domestic box office as District 9 finishes at #1 with $14.2 million on Friday and The Time Traveler's Wife achieves second place and $7,745,000 ....

District 9, of course, has animated aliens in it, as Jerry Bruckheimer's fifth place G-Force squirms with animated Guinea pigs, and is now approaching the $100 million mark.

In the hand-drawn department, Ponyo debuts on 927 screens and gather in $1,170,000, while the veteran Ice Age 3 now hovers in the 19th position and has taken in almost $190 million, while the animatin hybrid Transformers nears the end of its run at #16 and now owns $395,599,000.

Add On: Final estimates for the weekend are in, and the totals look like this:

1. "District 9," $37 million.

2. "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," $22.5 million.

3. "The Time Traveler's Wife," $19.2 million.

4. "Julie & Julia," $12.4 million.

5. "G-Force," $6.9 million.

6. "The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard," $5.4 million.

7. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," $5.2 million.

8. "The Ugly Truth," $4.5 million.

9. "Ponyo," $3.5 million.

10. "500 Days of Summer," $3 million.

Kindly note that five of the top ten movies have large chunks of animation in them. and in categories 10-20, there are another three.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Linkfest

Another batch of linkage to brighten your weekend.

Seth Green holds forth on his stop motion teevee show:

Q: Why don't we see more stop motion being used on television?

Seth: I don't think it's the fault of the medium. I think it's the content. Stop motion serves certain content very well, and other content not so well. Typically, it's used as a very artistic medium for Oscar-nominated shorts or films like Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Typically, it's not really used for comedy ...

I don't much like to get into the articles about new animation DVDs that pepper the intertubes. There's just too many of them, and who cares anyway? But sometimes there's a DVD that is just so heart-stoppingly big, so stunningly important to lovers of animation, that the rule must be waived. And now is such a time.

Super Friends: The Lost Episodes DVD Review

Wonder Twin powers, activate! Form of a collector's edition DVD.

... [B]ad, low-level animation, cheesy voice acting and goofy stories ... Quality here isn't all that great, but that's to be expected. I'm sure restoration folks at Warner did their best cleaning up each print, but there's only so much one can do to a print before things get really expensive. Dust, dirt, scratches and white specks plague each print. Colors are soft and murky. Details and depth are flattened by the degraded quality.

Cabler FX is wading into the cartoon biz:

"Archer" is a half-hour animated show that will premiere on FX sometime in the fall. It's more satiric drama than sitcom, and it's about the people who work in a spy agency.

They don't do much spying, based on the pilot episode. They mostly hang around, pull guns on each other and deal with their dysfunctional lives.

So it's more like, you know, a relationship show.

The bottom has just fallen out of my life:

Seth MacFarlane: master of the obvious. According to the Advocate (from and interview with Playboy), the Family Guy creator has outed the youngest member of the animated Griffin family, "he will be gay or a very unhappy repressed homosexual." ...

One small step -- however symbolic -- for artists who actually create the work:

Warner Bros. and DC Comics have lost a little more control over the Man of Steel.

In an ongoing Federal court battle over Superman, Judge Stephen Larson ruled Wednesday that the family of the superhero's co-creator, Jerry Siegel, has "successfully recaptured" rights to additional works, including the first two weeks of the daily Superman newspaper comic-strips, as well as portions of early Action Comics and Superman comic-books.

The ruling is based on the court's finding that these were not "works-made-for-hire" under the Copyright Act.

In our charming corporatist state, once in a while a person actually catches a break ...

ASIFA's Animation Archive has details of Disney veteran Clair Weeks lengthy stint in India, where he provided an early leg up to the sub-continent's animation industry.

Clair Weeks was born in India, the son of a Methodist missionary- a source of humor for his co-workers at Disney. (See caricature, right.) He spent 16 years at the Disney Studios, working on Snow White, Bambi and Peter Pan. In 1956, Weeks travelled to Bombay, India on the invitation of Information Films of India to set up and train the country's first animation studio as part of the American Technical Co-Operation Mission.

Have a rejuvenating weekend. And don't do any heavy lifting.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cartoon Network Does Cartoons

CN slows its slide into the live-action abyss and makes some new 'toons.

Cartoon Network announced greenlights for two new original comedy animated series, Regular Show and Horrorbots, in addition to a picking up more episodes of The Marvelous MisAdventures of Flapjack and additional writing for Adventure Time.

Regular Show is created by J. G. Quintel and was developed as a short for Cartoon Network's Cartoonstitute ... Two bored groundskeepers, Mordecai ... and Rigby ... are best friends who spend their days trying to entertain themselves by any means necessary ...

Horrorbots tells the story of Thrasher and Blastus, two outsider teenage droids who are only slightly less horrific than the ultra-powerful robots that populate their planet, Killglobe. Now they face their greatest challenge yet: high school ...

Back before I flew off to Florida, a Cartoon Network employee told me: "One of the top Turner execs told some people here 'Gee, animation has a long shelf life and is cheaper to do than most of our live action stuff. Maybe CN should be doing more of it.'"

That's why Turner and Time-Warner pays the big bucks to their execs. You smack them in the head with the obvious, and sooner or later they pick up on it. With any luck ... and a few more live action shows going belly up in the ratings ... Cartoon Network might get back to its roots.

I'm informed some other series might sprout from the Cartoonstitute. This would be a good thing, because frankly, CN morphing itself into an under-powered imitation of the Disney Channel is a short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating business model.

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DreamWorks Animation Walkthrough

If I were running a contest regarding which animation facility to which I have access enjoys the best morale, I would probably say it's DreamWorks Animation in sun-kissed Glendale ...

It's not that people working inside the Italianate Plaza in Glendale are ecstatic from nine to five, only that relatively speaking, the gripes and general displeasure vibes which I pick up are are less than elsewhere. Hulett's Rule for Studio Personnel?

Cartoon Staffs at Cartoon Studios fall into three broad categories: The Happy, the Mildly Disgruntled, the Chronically Disgruntled ...

You can tell the temperature of a studio, morale-wise, by the size of each of the above groups. If the biggest contingent is "Happy," then the studio is doing better than okay. If the largest is "Chronically Disgruntled", then there are problems, likely big problems. (Please keep in mind: because of the present miserable condition of the overarching economy, the roster of the Chronically Disgruntled has been greatly reduced. People are delighted just to be freaking employed.)

Another reason DreamWorks Animation crews aren't complaining is, the artists I have talked to are, by and large, pleased with the films they're working on. The consensus on the new Shrek -- out the middle of next year -- is that "It's funnier and better than #3" ... "works well" ... (etc.).

The staff on How to Train Your Dragon has picked up its already brisk pace because "Production's wrapping in February and there's a bunch left to do." (Like when is there not? Dragon has -- I'm told -- a schedule of about 10-12 months. And Disney staffers inform me the bulk or Rapunzel has a nine to ten-month production schedule. "Do it with alacrity" is the order of the present age.)

And DreamWorks Animation has a lot of projects* in development, more than any other studio I can think of. Its track record has been solid for the last couple of years, and whether or not How to Train Your Dragon is a chart buster early in 2010, I'm reasonably certain that Shrek Forever After will make enough coin mid-year so that the company will be able to open its own mint.

No wonder Jeffrey has a bright, shiny 2010 Prius.

* Projects I've seen in work or know about: How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek 4, Puss in Boots, Oobermind, Kung Fu Panda, The Guardians of Childhood, Shrek 5, Madgascar 3, The Croods, Trucker, Ghost Project ... and four half-hour teevee specials, some of which are being done in India. (DWA has a staff of 120 on the sub-continent.)

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cartoons Lift France

So even with the global recession, the French have flocked to their local cinemas ... but not to see the local product:

Ticket sales jumped 51.6% compared with July 2008 thanks to popular animated hits "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" and Disney/Pixar's 3D "Up," plus Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince." .

It's been 2 1/2 animated movies that have made all the difference in overall box office.

Good to see the sons and daughter of Napoleon appreciate the finer things.

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