The Journal's story (forwarded to us by a faithful correspondent) here observes some things about animation production correctly, but also the inverse. Par example:
Illumination [Entertainment] ... relied on young, less-expensive animators and first-time directors, who can cost less than half that of a more experienced hand.
The trouble with the equation above is, less-expensive animators and novice directors often need an older pro close by to clean up sub-par animation or straighten out sequences and storylines that don't come quite together, because otherwise you end up with flat and bo-ring. (Of course, I have no way of knowing because I wasn't there, but I would wager that among the novices and trainees who were getting their feet wet at MacGuff/Paris were experienced professionals who held things together.)
Then there's the reality of a seasoned hand knowing how to do the shot right the first time instead of the fourth or fifth. On a dollar for dollar basis, the artist who knows the rig and the shortcuts produces more usable footage. Besides, longevity and experience don't always mean premium wages anyway. Just ask the "experienced hands" who commanded five thousand dollars a week in the booming '90s and have seen their wages cut by 50% and more (if they are collecting wages at all.)
One other major cost driver of late has been operating your own production shop. The big players out there -- Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Chris Meladandri's alma mater Fox/Blue Sky -- all have permanent studios. As noted here earlier, Illumination Arts has gotten away from that particular business model. (Can we say "studio overhead?" I knew we could.) MacGuff, IE's animation sub-contractor in France, no doubt secured the gig on the basis of quality and cost.
And yet, despite recent media attention to "the new business model," I would submit that a well-run studio can do its own productions and deliver high-end work at a competitive price. That was the case with Cloudy With Meatballs (production budget $100 million in Culver City) and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (production cost $90 million in the Tri-State area) or the upcoming Winnie the Pooh ($35 million in Burbank, with a chunk of the feature outsourced.)
But what counts more than anything else? Savvy and efficient planning, from script to rough animation to final color. "Doing it right the first time" is the big money-saver.
The animation team put in about 50 weeks of work, about two-thirds the number that often goes into animated features.
The Journal hasn't gotten the memo, but a lot of recent features have been turned out in under a year. (Bolt is one recent example of which I have first-hand knowledge.)
But the phenomenon of a fast production schedule isn't exactly new. From start to finish, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs took twenty-six months to produce. Dumbo moved along even faster, costing all of $900,000. (By contrast, Pinocchio cost $3.75 million -- the most expensive film of its era on a per-minute basis.)
After the creative dust settles, what really pares the cost of movie-making is good decision-making. It strokes a lot of egos to have ten administrators in the room protecting turf, throwing out dime-store ideas and signing off on the latest story pitch, but what it mostly does is gum up the works. Nobody, in the end, cares if all the highly-placed bureaucrats had their say, of if a character's hair strands fluttered around just right or if the soft, ambient light in that nighttime exterior came from the correct source.
What audiences care about is having a a rollicking good time in a darkened auditorium. If Chris Meladandri, Jeffrey K. or John Lasseter can pull that magical feat off, it won't matter a whit how much the picture costs. (But if it occurs on a $69 million budget, so much the better.).