Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Long Answer To a Short Question

A commenter asks:

... Say, the next time you have the ears of studio executives do you think you could use the time to impart upon them that they're killing their board artists with insanely long scripts, unreasonable deadlines and moronic "leadership"? Just a thought.

And I respond ...

Insanely long scripts come about because of incompetence and/or indifference on the part of studio management.

Anybody who's been working in animation for ... oh ... eight months or more knows how many script pages it takes to create a twenty-two minute production board. But writers, show runners and producers don't care that scripts are too long because they can always cut them after boarding in the animatic. (Many show-runners, you see, don't want to make a decision about what to cut until their prose is visualized and they can see the gags and dialogue on screen.)

And the companies humor them because production board artists have the same schedules and deadlines whether the script is twenty-two minutes or forty-two minutes. Whether there are six characters or six hundred. And if the artists kill themselves to get the boards in on time, who really gives a fuck? Certainly not the guys at the top. And certainly not the studio accountants. They're paying the same money for a low-character script that is twenty-two minutes as they do for something with a cast of thousands and running time slightly shorter than Gone With the Wind.

So where is Your Faithful Servant in all this?

I'm out there in the studios listening to the complaints, telling people I'm happy to file grievances if they are working uncompensated overtime and not getting paid. (Few want to rock the boat because fear -- sometimes justified and sometimes not -- is rampant.)

To the board artists who work "On Call," (no additional compensation Monday through Friday, time and a half on Saturday or Sunday) I say don't agree to work On Call, because the contract requires agreement.

And for those who have to work On Call because it's a requirement for getting the gig in the first place, I say, "Work at nine percent over the minimum rate, because OC is triggered at ten percent."

(There are few takers for that strategy either, since whether a board artist is On Call or not, the schedule is the schedule and there's always a production manager snarling: "We need it by next Tuesday and there's no money in the budget for overtime.")

So where does that leave overworked artists? Sadly, right where they were twenty years ago when I was a young biz rep and the exact same problems came up on Tiny Toons. (My, but how times haven't changed, except now everybody is overworked on Cintiqs.)

The solutions are the same as they've always been. It's important for artists to communicate with management when the schedule is ridiculous; it's important for artists to know their rights and not violate the contract by working uncompensated o.t.; it's important to allow the union rep to file grievances when and where necessary. For those who say "Well, I'll get my butt fired if I push back," I will again relate this Warner Bros. Animation story from twenty years ago:

A young Tiny Toons production manager was running around telling artists "We gotta ship tomorrow! Can you help us out?" (Meaning no o.t., just work for free.)

All the young artists agreed to do it and in fact did it. Then the production manager came to Glenn Vilppu, (then as now talented and amiable). And he when asked to "help out," Glenn said:

"Sure, I'd be happy to. You're paying overtime, right?"

The production manager, caught off guard, stammered no, they weren't. And Glenn shook his head sadly and replied that since that was the case, he couldn't do the work to help out, so sorry.

Remarkably enough, Glenn continued working at Warner Bros. Animation, and even continued in the industry. ...

The moral to this story: We all have to find our own way along the footpaths of this wretched, fallen world. As Your Faithful Servant, I make it my job to right what wrongs I can, and light a few small candles along the way.

Hopefully I won't drip too much wax.

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July 31-August 1 Derby

Now with sugar-frosted Add On.

The dog days of summer are upon us, and the biggest box office guns have been fired. We now get presented with the product that didn't want to launch against the big, CGI spectaculars. And the Nikkster supplies us with her insider hoo hah, as well as the Friday numbers.

1. Dinner For Schmucks (Paramount) NEW [2,911 Dates] --Friday $8.3M, Estimated Weekend $24M

2. Inception (Warner Bros) Week 3 [3,545 Dates] -- Friday $8.1M (-38%), Estimated Weekend $25M, Estimated Cume $190.3M

3. Salt (Sony) Week 2 [3,612 dates] -- Friday $5.9M (-53%), Estimated Weekend $17M, Estimated Cume $68.5M

4. Charlie St Cloud (Universal) NEW [2,720 Dates] -- Friday $5.6M, Estimated Weekend $15M

5. Despicable Me (Universal) Week 4 [3,602 Dates] -- Friday $4.6M, Estimated Weekend $15M, Estimated cume $189.8M ...

Toy Story 3, in seventh place, looks on track to collect another $5 million as it closes in on a $400 million domestic gross.

All in all, It's been a banner year for animation, with two DreamWorks Animation hits, another Pixar biggie, and Illumination Entertainment's maiden release. Megamind and Tangled will be rolling out in the Fall, so we have the distinct possibility of of six big animated performers in 2010.

Add On: And the Nik gives us the finals:

1. Inception (Warner Bros) Week 3 [3,545 Dates] -- Friday $8.1M, Saturday $10M, Weekend $26M (-39%), Cume $191.8M

2. Dinner For Schmucks (Paramount) NEW [2,911 Dates] -- Friday $8.3M, Saturday $8.4M, Weekend $23M

3. Salt (Sony) Week 2 [3,612 dates] -- Friday $5.9M, Saturday $7.6M, Weekend $19M (-47%), Cume $70.5M

4. Despicable Me 3D (Universal) Week 4 [3,602 Dates] -- Friday $4.6M, Saturday $6M, Weekend $15M, Cume $190M

5. Cats & Dogs 3D: Kitty Galore (Warner Bros) NEW [3,705 Dates] -- Friday $4.2M, Saturday $4.6M, Weekend $12.5M

6. Charlie St Cloud (Universal) NEW [2,720 Dates] -- Friday $5.6M, Saturday $3.8M, Weekend $12M

7. Toy Story 3D (Disney) Week 7 [2,107 Dates] -- Friday $1.4M, Saturday $2.3M, Weekend $5.5M, Cume $390.1M

8. Grown Ups (Sony) Week 6 [2,269 Dates] -- Friday $1.3M, Saturday $1.8M, Weekend $4.5M, Est Cume $150.7

9. Sorcerer's Apprentice (Disney) Week 3 [2,524 dates] -- Friday $1.3M, Saturday $1.7M, Weekend $4.2M, Cume $51.8M

10. Ramona and Beezus (Fox) Week 2 [2,719 Dates] -- Friday $1.2M, Saturday $1.3M, Weekend $3.5M, Cume $16.1M

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Friday, July 30, 2010

The End-of-Week Linkage

And the start of muscular animated news and commentary.

We start with a bit of corporate tub-thumping: The Mouse puts one of its "behind the scenes" snippets about Tangled on the intertubes.

(This short documentary has been playing inside the Hat Building's entrance for a while now ....)

Exciting news for remake fans of old Arnold movies:

Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1990 film Total Recall is set for a remake, with director Len Wiseman in line to take control. ... The script is being written by Kurt Wimmer, who wrote the screenplay for the ... Angelina Jolie film Salt. ... The remake is being described as "computerized animation". ...

Hmmm. Computerized animation. Must be something like cgi, yes?

VFX Soldier writes of the wonderful world of film subsidies.

... [G]overnment subsidies only artificialize the price of vfx and they ultimately lead to negative returns and little economic spillover. When countries like the UK are dealing with huge debts, the first thing politicians love to target is any funding for the arts. It’s sad but Hollywood is a favorite target for conservatives. For VFX facilities in the UK that depend on clients looking to cash in on government rebates, it could be very painful if the subsidy is abolished. ..

It doesn't do our fine entertainment conglomerates much good to build a studio in a subsidy-rich locale only to see those subsidies taken away, now does it? But that's the price corporations pay for trusting the damn guvmint.

Bugs Bunny's first cartoon short appeared seventy years ago this week:

... There was little fanfare to mark the anniversary of the cartoon that’s considered the rabbit’s official debut: “A Wild Hare,” which premiered July 27, 1940. The lack of a celebration is a shame, but not startling given Bug’s slide down the rabbit hole of obscurity in recent years. ...

Universal and Illumination Entertainment are keen on a certain monkey:

Illumination Entertainment ... is developing a new version of "Curious George." ... The Illumination film is ... getting a script from Larry Stuckey, who wrote the upcoming "Little Fockers," the third installment in the "Meet the Parents" franchise, for Universal. Universal is very keen on Illumination, which with "Despicable" gave the studio a long-awaited family-friendly animation hit. ...

I'm not overwhelmingly timely with this, but it's a worthwhile link anyway. Mark Kennedy remembers Pres R.

... [Pres] was a rough inbetweener for Glen Keane and he enabled Glen to crank out massive amounts of footage of Aladdin. Glen would do the key poses and Pres would fill in the breakdown and "inbetween" drawings to flesh out the acting and motion and Glen could move onto the next scene. I remember Pres telling me that Glen was able to do 50 feet in a week once (an unbelievable amount for Disney - most animators dream of being able to do 5 feet a week consistently) because of Pres's help. ...

Goodbye, Mr. Callahan.

John Callahan, the quadriplegic cartoonist whose famously politically incorrect humor generated both praise and criticism, has died. He was 59. ... Paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident in 1972 at age 21 and a recovering alcoholic since he was 27, Callahan began selling cartoons in the early 1980s and went on to be internationally syndicated in newspapers and magazines ...

I thought what was refreshing about him was, in an age of political correctness, he was bucking the system," said Bill Plympton, a two-time Oscar-nominated animator who first met Callahan in the late '70s when he showed up in his wheelchair at a cartoon class Plympton was teaching at Portland State University.

"He showed me his portfolio, and every cartoon was genius, a very wacky, crazy humor," Plympton said.

Among his better-known efforts: Two Ku Klux Klansmen heading out at night in their white sheets. Says one: "Don't you love it when they're still warm from the dryer?"

A beggar in the street wearing a sign that reads, "Please help me. I am blind and black, but not musical."

Turns out the Russian cartoon business isn't as healthy as Russians would like it to be.

The cartoon “Smeshariki” is known by most Russian children. It has survived Russia’s troubled animation industry, which is mostly dominated by western cartoons. But today most Russian children watch western cartoons of the past, and a few modern ones. ... Russian animators say the industry desperately needs government support. It should incorporate the promotion of animation on television and update media technology.

Add On: I couldn't resist this, via Tom Sito and Henry Mayo:

Have a worthwhile weekend.

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Visit to Bento Box

A quick trip to Bento Box (a new signatory studio in Burbank) brought this from a story artist.

"The Bob's Burger panel at Comic-Con went real well. The room was full, and when we ran part of the pilot, the laughs were constant ..."

Meaning there was a lot of yuks in the hall. The artists working on the series think upcoming episodes are funny, a good sign. There are people who don't like the look of it, but my view is: If the comedy works, it plays on Fox. (Anybody think The Simpsons or Family Guy are designed in the high falutin' Disney manner? I think not. Has this hurt their ratings? Don't think so.)

Another staffer informed me that studio management is pitching the studio to Fox and other fine conglomerates as a production facility. The thinking is they will land some upcoming series. I'm guessing we'll find out soon enough ...

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Lunchtime Conversation

Yesterday I dined with some executives from one of our fine entertainment conglomerates.

During the course of business talk and small talk, I mentioned the strangest thing that happened to me in my official union rep career ...

It was when Hanna-Barbera called me up, told me they were having trouble with one of the employees (who also happened to be a TAG member) and said the guy was so unpleasant and difficult to deal with that they really didn't want to talk to him.

So they asked me if I would talk to him.

And if, while I talked, I would tell the person he was fired.

After I lifted my face off the floor I told them "No."

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Thursday, July 29, 2010


Going to SIGGRAPH when its here in our fair city means wandering the halls of the Convention Center and gawking at the latest and greatest in the computer graphics world. This year was no less impressive with the amount of people in attendance, the companies that showed their wares and the panels and discussions that were available.

Below the fold are some of the highlights and photos of my two days spent soaking in the computer graphics world's most influential conference.

Wandering around the exhibition hall is always a day-long task because its really easy to be swept up in a demonstration of a piece of software or tech that catches your eye. This was certainly the case at the Intel booth where multiple companies were sharing the cost of floor space and showing their stuff using Intel's latest and greatest. Adobe was there showing off After Effects CS5 and the brand new Roto Brush as well as the built in Mocha tracker. Luxology was also there showing off v4.0 SP5 of Modo.

Autodesk's booth was always busy with their constant stream of speakers and imagery from last years accolades using their enhanced line-up of products. Maya was heavily featured (as the photo below shows) as examples of work and processes were shown on the big screen every hour that the doors were open. It also helps that their booth was right *AT* the door too!

Pixologic's booth was just as busy with the constant stream of top-end ZBrush users and their tips and tricks. They also were taking pre-orders for ZBrush 10 which included a nifty hat!

The amount of Mocap rigs on display was eye-catching as companies showing one to three people at a time in the black suits with the markers driving the animation of a sick figure in the monitor (as shown in the pics below):

NewTek's presentations using the latest version of Lightwave 10 showed promise and technical achievements over the last year with Lightwave: Core. According to what was told, it will be available in Q4 of this year.

Cannon had a VR camera similar that made you see things in a different light when looking through their VR-enabled goggles or the monitor they had rigged to show what the goggles saw:

Walt Disney Animation Studios was a huge draw upstairs at Rm410 with the constant activity they were providing. Glen Keane talked Tangled, software tools were demonstrated, and resumes and portfolios were reviewed.

West Hall B was a popular place to hang out and see how some of the stunning visuals were achieved for recent popular films by the artists who worked on them. Films that were highlighted (and the studios that presented) were Avatar: The Last Airbender (ILM), Alice in Wonderland (Sony Pictures Imageworks), Tron: Legacy (tease clips presented by Director Joseph Kosinski, producer Jeffrey Silver, vfx supe Eric Barba, and animation supe Steve Preeg), How to Train Your Dragon (Dreamworks Animation), Iron Man 2 (ILM), and Avatar (Weta).

This year's SIGGRAPH, as most SIGGRAPH's are wont to do, left one amazed at the leap technology has taken for our industry and with an appetite for some, if not all, of the new developments in hardware and software that was on display. It was also easy to be inspired not only by the work of the studios that came to show their latest and greatest, but of the individuals who submitted to the animation festival and by the work of those making strides towards the next technological advancements who submitted papers and presented to the conference. One leaves looking forward to 2012 where not only do we get a chance to disprove another "The End is Nigh!" scare, but the conference returns to our neck of the woods and we get to do it all over again.

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401(k) Costs

Apparently there have been some problems with 401(k) fees.

Employees of Edison International won a big victory this month when a federal judge ruled that the company's 401(k) fees were excessive and said employees were entitled to recover an as-yet-undetermined amount of overcharges.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson said in an 82-page decision that Rosemead-based Edison did "substantial" harm by failing to negotiate lower prices with the outside firm running the 401(k). A large company such as Edison easily could have gotten a better deal on three of the mutual funds in its plan, but simply didn't try, the judge said.

The Edison case is one of more than two dozen lawsuits filed against U.S. employers in recent years. The suits allege that companies allowed 401(k) providers to stuff the plans with high-cost investments in exchange for reducing the administrative costs paid by the employers themselves ...

TAG's 401(k) Plan has a wide range of investments, the least expensive being Vanguard's Target Retirement series with .19% in fees, the most expensive Gabelli Small Cap Growth at 1.45%. (We have twenty-one different funds in all.)

Our goal from the start was to keep the Plan's costs as low as possible; that's why we pushed to get the Vanguard funds into the mix. (They are far and away the most cost-effective offerings out there, and we knew they would be a good addition to our other jams and jellies.)

For those of you in the TAG Plan, give us a call if you have questions about any of the funds being offered.

For those of you in other 401(k) Plans, be sure you check administrative fees for the investments in which you're participating, and ask questions if the dollar costs seem high and you don't have other options.

It's your dough, after all, so invest the greenbacks wisely.

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What the Biz Rep Has Learned (#3)

In the human realm, everything is arbitrary ….

Think about it. Laws are arbitrary. Promotions and firings are arbitrary (Yeah, some you can see coming a mile away, but still …)

Success and failure don’t happen according to some immutable law of the universe. (John Lasseter would probably have been far less successful if he hadn't been let go from Disney.) ...

Definitions of beauty, good manners and personal hygiene morph from century to century and continent to continent. (Dukes and Earls in Louis XIV's court didn't take a lot of baths. We probably wouldn't like hanging out with them.)

And as for “fair” and “unfair”, those labels change with the public whim.

… And everything is temporary.

Nothing lasts forever. Not civilizations, not nations, certainly not you and me.

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It's About Building Brands

... and Bloomberg lays it out:

Behind Disney's Digital Shopping Spree The purchase of game maker Playdom may help Disney's brands with the Facebook generation

Four years ago, Bob Iger, the chief executive officer of Walt Disney (DIS), tried to build a cell-phone business. Disney created a family-oriented mobile service that included a global positioning system so parents could track their kids. Too few consumers signed up, and the company killed the operation after 15 months. Disney Interactive, the division that ran the ill-fated cell service, is still unprofitable ...

Iger retains his enthusiasm for digital business and has switched strategies to buying rather than building. ... Since paying $350 million for the kids' social network Club Penguin three years ago, Disney has purchased Wideload Games ... Early last month, the entertainment giant acquired Tapulous, a publisher of music-related games for Apple's (AAPL) iPhone. On July 27, Disney made its biggest video game bet yet, agreeing to pay $563 million for privately held Playdom, the Mountain View (Calif.) maker of Sorority Life and Mobsters, which are played on Facebook, MySpace, and mobile phones. ...

You can see why existing divisions have to cut salaries and staffs wherever possible. There are new operations to purchase, new employees to integrate and then lay off. Our fine entertainment conglomerates are much like sharks. If they don't keep moving and devouring new acquisitions, they sicken and die.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Down at Sony Pictures Animation

It's always fun to drive through rush-hour traffic to Culver City, but I made the trek over the Santa Monicas to the Sony Pictures Animation-ImageWorks campus this morning, where I discovered that things have moved around at SPA ....

The story crew is working away on Hotel Transylvania pushing toward a September story-reel presentation for SPA execs. "The usual bumps and story challenges, but we're moving along ..."

In another part of the building, the Sony-Aardman production Arthur Christmas appears to be making quicker headway. A staffer related:

"We've got the first act locked, and the other two well in hand. At the last screening, we didn't have any major notes. We'll probably be done with story by Fall and moving into production."

A few months back, the building that houses the SPA contingent had a lot of Imageworks people, but the SPI production crew has moved back to Imageworks Central to make room for more Sony Pictures Animation board artists and designers. One of the more seasoned and sardonic board artists noted how it's registered on management that they need story people who have been through the production maw a few times, know how to stage and choreograph and hook up. "They figured out they need old timers because they know what they're doing, that newbies, even ones who draw well, aren't enough."

(Sony is currently recruiting for animation production staff for Christmas and other shows in work, including The Smurfs and Hotel T. I'm also informed that SPA is doing development work on another Open Season, which will probably be animated at Reel Effx, as was its older siblings.)

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Beauty in 3-D Bad?

James Sims of the Great White Way has an issue with rejiggering Beauty and the Beast in 3-D.

... [W]hy would the [Disney] studio now decide to re-release Beauty and the Beast in 3D? Sure, Disney's theatrical history is built on the concept of re-releasing an animated classic into the movie houses every few years. However, 3D is already overused, and has some analysts speculating that the visual technology is losing steam, fast. ...

Perhaps Pixar is to blame ...

Uh, no, Mr. Sims. I wouldn't point an accusatory finger at Pixar. I would blame good old American lust for the buck.

Sure, 3-D is a gimmick, in the same way that CGI or over-saturated color or (God help us) black-and-white motion pictures are a gimmick. I mean, nobody views daily reality in three-strip Technicolor or grays, white and blacks or through View-Master lenses. But through ninety-plus years of film-making, Hollywood has found that using all these different technologies have put people in theater seats with their tubs of over-priced popcorn.

It's all about the smooth buck, first, last and always. Three Dee works well sometimes and not so well others. I'm not particularly crazy about it, but I concede its commercial power. (By the by, I've seen twenty minutes of the 3-D Beast, and it works just fine. Almost as if it were made that way.)

One last thing, Mr. Sims. Your assertion that "Walt was working towards perfection, not adopting the latest trend ..."? It might be pretty to think that, but sadly it's not actually true. You see, Uncle Walt retrofitted sound to the silent shorts Plane Crazy and Gallopin' Gaucho, made prior to the sound cartoon Steamboat Willie.

If that isn't chasing a trend, I don't know what is.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jeffrey's Shop Goes Higher

DreamWorks Animation reports its earnings.

DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc.'s (DWA) second-quarter profit slid 6.2% on lower margins, although the computer-animation studio posted revenue gains and said it is on track for its biggest year at the box office and the biggest year for any computer-generated animation studio.

The results topped Wall Street's expectations. Shares rose 1.8% after-hours to $32.65 as the company also announced a $150 million stock-buyback effort. DreamWorks Animation's market value is about $2.3 billion, and the company joins a host of others that have been launching new repurchase efforts.

Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg said the results were driven primarily by blockbuster performances of "Shrek Forever After" and "How to Train Your Dragon," two of the top-10-grossing films so far in 2010.

DWA is the only stand-alone cartoon studio out there. I've had my doubts about the business model ("Turn out lots of Big Screen hits, over and over ...") but DreamWorks makes it work. So who cares about my doubts?

But I continue to believe that sooner or later the place gets swallowed up by one of our fine conglomerates. Moguls? Listen up. Just show up at DreamWorks' Flower Street entrance with a few billion in unmarked bills, and the DWA's corporate chieftan will set the wheels turning.

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Around the Mouse

Now with a movie-appropriate image.

Inside the Hat Building, the animators on Tangled are on their last couple weeks of work.

"We're near the end of the seven-day workweeks. We've been really kicking it for the last six months, but I'm on my last shot ..."

"I got my notice of layoff. I'm out of here in August. I don't know, maybe it's time to move on. It's like Kubler Ross's five stages of grief, only without the denial since we all knew the layoffs were coming..."

"What everybody around here knows is that this [Tangled] is a really good movie. We've all worked our butts off and we're proud of what we've done." ...

In short, there was resignation and bitter-sweet emotions as I walked the hat's halls this afternoon. Lots of people are fairly worn out from working so hard for so many months, but as one animator shrugged "It's the way the business is, you know? You work when there's work."

One long-time staffer told me the morale is down not from the quality of the pictures they've all worked on, but from the uncertainty and insecurity of not knowing how long people have before getting let go.

"I just don't get why there's been so little stuff in development, why there are such big gaps in the pipeline. You'd think they'd want to keep more of a talented group of animators, layout artsts and tech directors around. Not a high priority for them, I guess."

I've listened to Disney management talk about how they want to build up staff and keep people on, etc., etc. But as my sweet old grandmother related years ago: "Don't listen to what people say, dear. Watch what they do."

So okay. Enough of the sour, let's move on to the sweet.

At the same time the crew was lamenting upcoming departures, it was also telling me Tangled is "Amazing," "Kick-ass," and "Very good." That the visuals and art direction are outstanding. (I agree with this last; what I've seen of finaled shots are top notch. But I've said this before, no?)

Last thing: One of the Disney crew members did me a kindness by unspooling two animated song sequences of the upcoming Winnie the Pooh, one featuring WP frolicking inside a dream sequence. The other was a sprightly number boarded and choreographed by Eric Goldberg in a fresh and very imaginative way. The songs were serviceable, the visuals and animation super fine.

Based on what I've seen, I think the Pooh picture will be well-received when it comes out and make a nice amount of cash. (I'm told that it's on schedule on still holding to its $35 million budget. Rough animation will be completed in September.)

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What the Biz Rep Has Learned (#2)

Play politics well.

I’m not talking about state, national or foreign. Who the hell has any control over that crap? (You want to contribute to your favorite party or candidate, by all means do so. And certainly vote and be active. But don’t kid yourself you’re going to have huge or decisive impact, because you’re not.)

I’m talking about office politics. Here's a selection of the lessons I’ve absorbed about same as I’ve crawled along Life’s Highway ...

Minimize whining and back-stabbing. (You will probably do some of these things anyway, since most of us do. But keep it under control.)

Don’t make it personal (you’re working with these people, not marrying them.)

If you have a toxic personality, strive to hide it behind a fake, pleasant personality. Make work-time a popularity contest. You can go home and pull the wings off flies after hours.

Don’t rub your supervisor’s nose in his bad decisions. (“I told you so ...”) He'll make it his job to get you off his crew.

Stay in your damn chair, do your damn work, and don’t shoot off your damn mouth.

Understand that most of the office crises you encounter, the ones you thought were really huge deals at the moment they happened, will turn out to be pretty small bumps in your long-term career path.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

The DreamWorks

The bulk of my afternoon was spent on another floor of the Lakeside building. Lots of people are devoting their full attention to Megamind ...

Have we started working more hours on the picture? Oh yeah. I'm coming in Saturdays. The workload's increased ....

Most DWA artists think MM is in good shape (not the universal opinion I heard, oh, a year ago.) Whether it's gonna end up DreamWorks Animation's third hit of the year? Look at the newer Comic-Con trailer and judge for yourself.

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Success Spawns Success

Now with Add On.

We're informed that Mac Guff Ligne, the production house for Despicable Me, is on a roll.

Universal’s decision to extend the partnership with Mac Guff is a big boost for the French audiovisual industry. With domestic film and television production in the doldrums, Paris-based animation and visual effects studios like Mac Guff are looking to Hollywood for new business.

As Mac Guff gets to work on “The Lorax” and a third, undisclosed feature film with Illumination, another French studio, Buf Compagnie, is developing visual effects for “Thor,” a live-action film based on a comic-book superhero, with Walt Disney’s Marvel Studios. Other French rivals, like Mikros Image, which have largely focused on domestic production in the past, are trying to drum up business in Hollywood, too. ...

Who would have thunk it? Those Socialist wine sippers, where the workers work 35-hour weeks and suffer under the yoke of Socialized Medicine, making all those American films in and around Pa-ree.

What we want to know is, how could this happen? After we saved the French from the Huns. (Twice.) And after they refused to support our invasion of Iraq. How could our fine American conglomerates stab us in the back this way? And where is Bill O'Reilly when you need him?

Add On: Some of the reasons Illumination Entertainment went to French animation studios for the creation of its maiden effort? Possibly these:

France is the number-one producer of animated film in Europe, and the third in the world. The Gobelins school in Paris nurtures a lot of that talent.

... As an applied arts school, Gobelins trains people in a variety of image-related fields but its world-wide reputation for excellence comes from its animation and film-making courses. Graduates are regularly sought out by the big animation studios like Pixar, Sony Pictures and Dreamworks.

“I’ve been following the Gobelins work for years; shorts like California Love and Cocotte Minute really stayed in my mind,” says Chico Bela, a Brazilian animator working mostly in TV commercials and series. ... Christophe Serrand, former Gobelins student, now supervis[es] animation [at] Dreamworks in Hollywood. He enjoys coming back to Gobelins to share his knowledge, and experience, of working on big productions ....

Walking through DreamWorks Animation and some of the other studios in the east San Fernando Valley, you figure out that a goodly number of French nationals are animating and drawing for American cartoon companies.

Apparently France is training and employing a lot of artists to work in its cartoon studios, and a lot of those folks find their way to other points of the globe.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Later July Foreign Derby

The animation, it continues to do real good beyond the seas.

Returning to the foreign theatrical circuit's No. 1 boxoffice perch after three stanzas of also-ran status, Pixar/Disney's "Toy Story 3" drew $62 million on the weekend from 3,897 screens in 43 markets, pushing its overseas gross total to $351 million. ...

"Toy Story 3's" foreign cume qualifies the title as Disney's sixth biggest-grossing animation title ever offshore. Worldwide gross total, $730.5 million, makes it the seventh biggest-grossing animation title of all time from any distributor. Openings in German-speaking European territories, plus Portugal, are on tap this week.

Finishing No. 3 on the weekend (down from No. 1 last round) and helping to push Paramount's 2010 foreign boxoffice to about $1.25 billion currently was DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek Forever After" in 3D, which continues to generate substantial business in its graduated overseas rollout. ...

Universal's "Despicable Me" opened nicely in Taiwan (estimated $500,000 from 54 sites for a per-screen average of $9,259) and garnered $3.2 million overall on the weekend from 597 spots in nine markets. The family oriented, 3D animation title featuring the voice of Steve Carell has grossed $17.4 million overseas so far. ...

The Reporter headlines TS3'S big success, but it's good to remember that Shrek Forever After, the "disappointment" of the ogre's franchise, has now put $596 million on the big scoreboard. While it's domestic total of $235 million has topped out, the overseas grosses continue to roll in.

And Despicable Me now has a worldwide total of $179.1 million.

So all in all, the cartoon business is being quite lucrative for our fine, multi-national conglomerates. (Cameron Diaz has been doing better with her voice and an ogre than with her whole self and Tom Cruise.)

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So .... No Teamsters Strike

Happily, the gloom and doom have lifted.

In a surprising reversal, Teamsters members have agreed to the last offer from studios, averting a strike by Hollywood transportation workers. ...

And it looks to me as though 2% wage-minimum bump-ups are going to be the new normal, at least for the foreseeable future*.

* Defined as the next round (SAG, AFTRA, WGA, DGA) contract negotiations.

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What the Biz Rep Has Learned*

It’s good to stay focused on what’s in front of you.

The job at hand, the person you’re talking to, whatever ....

... because over time, it makes you a more efficient and useful human being.

I knew a person at the studio I worked for who spent most of his time watching the little television on his desk. Work was kind of an after-thought. The supervisor let him get away with this behavior (I guess it was the era) but others in the department resented it, and it made morale kind of crappy.

And while a business representative, I dealt with an official from another guild who, when speaking to you, never gave eye contact. During almost every back-and-forth, he would look over your shoulder, scouting for more important people in the room. (Sadly, there usually were more important people in the room.)

This was irritating.

Basic rule: If you pay no attention when engaged in one-on-one conversations, at least master the art of pretending to listen.

(* The first of a now-and-again series.)

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"Simpsons" Panel at the Con

So the "Comic-Con "stabbing" turned out to be a pen scratch between friends. And before it happened, the Gracie Films contingent for the Yellow Family appeared with the obligatory clips of upcoming product.

... The Simpsons” showrunner Al Jean let the the news slip during a panel for the animated favorite Saturday afternoon.

In a panel that also included creator Matt Groening, executive producer Matt Selman and supervising director Mike Anderson, Jean announced that in an episode in the show's upcoming record-breaking 22nd season this fall, the town of Springfield will be greeted by the animated likenesses of our favorite “Glee” club. There was no word on if they are going to sketch up a yellow-hued version of Sue Sylvester.

... Fans who packed the convention hall were treated to a sneak peek of the upcoming “Treehouse of Horror” episode ...

Many of the board and layout artists, designers, and directors I talk to think that the show will go beyond the 22nd season. I agree, provided the voice-actors don't demand $500,000 per episode.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Oncoming "Interesting Times"

As expected, the Teamsters-AMPTP negotiations went nowhere yesterday.

Talks between the studios and Hollywood Teamsters Local 399 ended late Friday night with no movement and no new negotiating sessions scheduled.

The union meets in Burbank early Sunday morning, where the leadership is expected to seek -- and obtain -- a strike authorization vote from members.

That authorization would, in turn, allow union leaders to call a strike at any time after the July 31 expiration of the contract between the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, representing the studios and independent producers. ...

This could have ramifications for everybody else working in the movie industry.

Live-action television work could come to a halt, and movie shoots impacted. (As I said earlier, I doubt it will affect animation very much.) The biggest longer-term hit, if a Teamsters' strike last awhile, might well be the cash flows into union and guild pension and health plans.

The great irony here is, this hair ball isn't really about large dollar amounts. The difference between the parties is 1% in wage minimums, a relative pittance as these things go. So it ain't really the money.

What it's about is keeping the line drawn at 2% wage boosts -- the norm over the past eighteen months -- for the next round of labor agreements. (It's also about who has the biggest genitalia. Leo Reed, head of the drivers, insists that his folks get the same deal that the IA and the above-the-line guilds got in their last deals, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are saying "That train has pulled out, Mr. Reed. The new normal is 2%.")

So here we are. I guess we will shortly see who blinks first.

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On Cynicism

Story artist Mark Kennedy has some important and useful observations about working in animation.

... Everywhere I've ever worked, certain things have always been the same. Our jobs are very difficult and there are a lot of long hours. In the Feature Animation world, you can work for years on a picture and never really know if the film you're working on will get finished, be released, and if so, will ever really be any good. The story process of making a Feature is filled with experimentation, blind alleys and false starts. People in every department tend to get nervous about the amount of work ahead and they have to have a lot of faith in order to believe that the ultimate product will be worth all the long hours and effort.

It takes a lot more energy to stay positive and have faith in the process. It can be easier to give in to the temptation to become bitter and cynical. Working long hours and seeing screenings of the movie that don't quite work can easily lead to complaining behind closed doors and becoming cynical about the whole thing ...

If a cynic can be described as somebody operating under the philosophy: "Everything is crap, so what's the point of striving to do your best or even participating? ..." then I would say, yep, being a cynical person is a toxic, loser's game.

But that's the current understanding of cynicism. Here is the classical meaning:

Cynicism (Greek: κυνισμός), in its original form, refers to the beliefs of an ancient school of Greek philosophers known as the Cynics (Greek: Κυνικοί, Latin: Cynici).

Their philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a simple life free from all possessions. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans.

Some little distance from "everything is crap", don't you think?

In my present mind-set, I think of myself as a "Classical Cynic", someone who sees the way things actual reality of existence yet still holds onto and acts on his beliefs.

But face it, my definition of a CC isn't quite right either. Because I'm definitely not some guy who's interested in "rejecting all desire for wealth, health, fame" and the rest of it.

So where do I come down? Just here: I think it's counter-productive to be a total cynic in the modern definition of the term, because you get trapped in your own sneering negativity. Modern cynicism stops you from acting in positive ways toward positive ends. On the other hand, you do need to be a clear-eyed realist about the way the world actually works. Otherwise, you'll waste a lot of time floundering around, tilting at wind-mills that are going to remain wind-mills no matter how long you attack them.

So maybe the words I'm looking for are "active, clear-thinking realist" instead of classical cynic, since the c word has been pretty thoroughly corrupted by its modern usage.

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The Weekend Derby Romps Again

Now with cheese-flavored Add On.

The Nikkster bolts from the starting gate:

1. Chris Nolan's Inception for Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures will still be the No. 1 movie for its 2nd weekend in release. It went into today having made $100+M in the U.S. and Canada in just 7 days. ... Inception made a big $14.4M Friday for a Superglue-like hold of 34% compared to a week ago for what's expected to be a $43M weekend and a new cume of $143M.

2. Salt -- Jolie did ... a $13.8M Friday [with an] expected $37M weekend that could climb to $40M if there's a Saturday bump ....

And box office guru has some ideas of its own how the weekend races will go:


Ramona should not be too much of a threat to Despicable Me's audience so a healthy 35% decline could be in order for the third mission. That would give Universal about $21M for the weekend and a 17-day tally of $158M. Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice didn't impress too many with its high-priced hijinks last weekend. A 45% drop to $8M may result for a disappointing 12-day cume of $42M.

Threequels The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Toy Story 3 continue to climb up the all-time blockbusters list. The vampire saga should fall by half and bring in roughly $6M for $278M to date. Pixar's 3D toon will hold up better with possibly a 40% dip to around $7M. The sum will soar to $377M. ...

Add On: Box Office Mojo supplies us with the preliminary figures:

1) Inception -- $13.2 million

2) Salt -- $12.7 million

3) Despicable Me -- $7.3 million

4) Ramona and Beezus -- $3 million

5) The Sorcerer's Apprentice -- $2.9 million

6) Toy Story 3 -- $2.6 million

Add On Too: Crossing the final wire, animation takes only small hits:

1) Inception -- $143.7 million

2) Salt -- $36.5 million

3) Despicable Me -- $161.7 million

4) The Sorcer's Apprentice -- $42.6 million

5) Toy Story 3 -- $379.5 million

And on we go ...

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Your End-of Week Linkorama

High art.

News bits for your perusal. (With a heavy Comic-Con flavor, I wonder why?) And we'll start with:

The L.A. Times touting the age of digital (animated?) comix:

... Technology, which has already upended the music, television and movie businesses, is now gripping the comic book world. Publishers are unleashing a torrent of digital comic books across smart phones, tablet devices, game consoles and digital book readers, portending major changes in how comics are made and marketed.

These new comics ... in some cases come with choreographed presentations that zoom or pan across panels, full-color animated characters, audio from professional voice actors, heart-thumping soundtracks and even the ability for readers to leave comments on the pages ...

Shriley Silvey, Rest in Peace:

Shirley Silvey, one of the first women to work in animation beyond the ink-and-paint department, died Saturday in Fresno, California of heart failure. She was 82.

Born in Los Angeles, she started her career in storyboard, layout and character design at UPA in the late 1950s, at a time when usually, only men would be hired for those jobs.

For most of her career, from 1959 to 1973, she was a Jay Ward Productions studio. There, she was a layout artist for Rocky and His Friends, as well as a designer for George of the Jungle and Hoppity Hooper. She also worked on the Dudley Do-Right and Fractured Fairy Tales, as well as the studio's Captain Crunch commercials. ...

Hasbro Studios displays a first snippet of animation:

During its Transformers: Prime panel this afternoon at Comic-Con International, Hasbro Studios debuted an animation test sequence from the new series, which will debut this fall. ... This first footage shows Bumblebee attacking a couple of Cylon-looking Decepticons on what appears to be a futuristic Earth. ...

Bizarre, but probably true if it had actually happened:

Comic-Con: 1910

... Edison Studios arrived with a huge, splashy panel hosted by Thomas Edison ... including an impressive light show. Some of the works he promoted and screened were Edwin Porter‘s version of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the first ever film adaptation of “Frankenstein.” There was also a sneak peek at the upcoming movie of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” ...

(They wouldn't have had much of a meeting hall in Sand Diego in 1910. Just saying ...)

Horror Meister Wes Craven moves to a new venue:

Liquid Comics has formed a publishing partnership with filmmaker Wes Craven and producer Arnold Rifkin. It will lead to the first original graphic novel created by Craven, the man responsible for fright films like Scream, The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street. ...

For the modern media mogul, it's about having your products on multiple platforms, is it not?

Today at the International Comic-Con 2010, Visceral Games(TM) will announce two all-new products in the Dead Space(TM) franchise; Dead Space Aftermath and Dead Space Salvage. These two brand extensions will be revealed during a panel discussion entitled, 'Building a Horror Entertainment Franchise: Dead Space 2' featuring Dead Space Producer Rich Briggs, Dead Space Salvage Artist Christopher Shy, Dead Space Martyr Writer Brian Evenson

... Dead Space Aftermath is an animated feature that explains what happened during the first-responder mission to Aegis VII. Dead Space Salvage is a graphic novel that tells the story of a rogue group of miners who come across the dilapidated USG Ishimura. Aftermath and Salvage will be available in winter 2010

Jerry Beck cuts me to the quick by belittling one of my childhood pleasures (no, not that) ...

"You can get some hilarious examples of what people would do to pass off something as a cartoon," he said, pointing to the late 1950s series "Clutch Cargo," which superimposes human mouths over animated faces in order to cut down the expense of animating mouth movements. ...

Lastly, Nickelodeon joins the parade:

Nickelodeon has greenlit a live-action television movie adaptation of one of its most popular animated series, The Fairly OddParents, it was announced today ... A Fairly Odd Movie: Grow Up, Timmy Turner!, based on the hit series from creator Butch Hartman, will combine live-action with CG animation and follow the adventures of a now 23-year-old Timmy Turner ... who refuses to grow up in order to keep his fairy godparents.

Have a life-enhancing weekend.

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The Share Bar, a wonderful new* idea

* snark alert

Until organizer Steve Kaplan recently joined our ranks, the techie expertise of the staffers posting to this blog has been ... spotty.

Which is as good an excuse as any as to why it's taken so long for us to put up a Share Bar, which allows readers to conveniently take the contents of any post and either e-mail it or send it to Blogger, Twitter, Facebook or something called Google Buzz (which I have never heard of before and will likely never hear of again). You will find the Share Bar under the posters' names at the bottom of each post.

You will also note that we've done away with the list of feed links to various RSS resources such as iGoogle, My Yahoo! or Bloglines, in favor of a single generic RSS link. Most browsers nowadays can be formatted to post your RSS link choices to the home-page/RSS-feed-list resource of your choice; eliminating the list of separate resources unclutters our page and eliminates links to sites that no longer exist. (If you have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about, there's an outside chance you might be interested in this.)

And speaking of links, if you have one (that is, if you're a Guild member — active or inactive — with a blog or webpage of your own), don't forget to send us the link and ask to post it on this blog's "blogroll" (which is towards the bottom of the right-hand column of this page.)

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

In and Around Cartoon Network

Going through the main CN building on Third Street, I got to see a segment of Cartoon Network's first c.g. feature.

Firebreather: Cartoon Network’s first original all-CG animation adventure presents Duncan Rosenblatt, a rather typical, awkward high school kid, except that his dad is a fire-breathing dragon and he is destined to protect the earth. Created and co-executive-produced by Phil Hester (The Wretch), Firebreather is executive-produced by Julia Pistor (Lemony Snicket) and co-executive-produced by Andy Kuhn (Freedom Ring)—Jim Kreig (Ben 10: Alien Force) joins as writer. Peter Chung (Aeon Flux) is attached to direct.

Mr. Chung was kind enough to show me finished and unfinished work, and I was pleased to watch an action set-piece that snapped right along. The sequence didn't have a completed track, and some of the animation wasn't finalled, but it worked real well all the same. The director told me that the animation was created in South Korea on a tight budget, but I think it does the job. ComicConners will get to make up their own minds when pieces of the feature get put on display this Sunday ...

Elsewhere in the building, two new television series are moving ahead with their six-episode orders. One of the shows is Secret Mountain, Fort Awesome (the title of which makes me tingle) and another project that hasn't been announced yet.

They were clearing out cubes in anticipation of doing some in-house flash animation. I asked if this meant CN was turning away from icky reality shows. The artist said he didn't know. Back at the office, I got my answer on the intertubes.

How's this for an unexpected announcement: Cartoon Network is reviving Fox's short-lived reality show "Hole in the Wall."

The network has given a 10-episode order to the FremantleMedia series, a "human Tetris" game show where contestants contort themselves to fit through odd shapes. ... Here's a hint to producers: Ditch the lame slick bodysuits. ...


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T.V. Animation and C.G.I.

Nick is doing a new animated series.

... Nickelodeon, the network behind the original show, today announced that it will air the “Avatar” spinoff series “The Legend of Korra” (a working title) starting next year. ...

The creators of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” say that the new spinoff series “The Legend of Korra” will be more mature than the original show, but will still have the same sense of fun and adventure.

Nothing particularly fresh or startling about a cartoon studio announcing it's latest animated project, but what's news to me is, Nick's doing the project as a hand-drawn series ....

Because in case you haven't noticed, most of Nickelodeon's newer efforts are of the computer-generated variety: Penguins of Madagascar. Fanboy & Chum Chum. The upcoming Kung Fu Panda and Monsters and Robots among others. As a Nick staffer said to me:

"Nickelodeon thinks that c.g. is the way to go, and that's the format it plans to make most of its new stuff in" ...

There have been, of course, computer generated t.v. cartoons for years. Jimmy Neutron was big in the nineties, and there was the short-lived Starship Troopers along with a smattering of others.

But over the past decade, more hand-drawn product was trundled out for television than c.g. product. Kids, it turned out, watched the old-fashioned product in the same or greater numbers as c.g. cartoons, so there was small incentive for studios to spend more dollars to run whacky characters through computers.

The winds, however, seem to be shifting. Nick sees c.g.i. as its shining future, and Disney has Mickey's Clubhouse, Winnie the Pooh and Friends and its direct-to-video features. Others will no doubt follow.

One day c.g. toonage on your gargantuan flat-screen monitor could well be the default cartoon at which everyone stares, but right now there is still a wide variety of hand-drawn offerings. The cost-benefit ratio for computer-generated images doesn't seem to be there yet for other major animation producers, but isn't it just a matter of time before that magical day arrives?

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010


.... Or what we call "utilizing all corporate assets."

... Principals involved with Disney's upcoming live-action [Muppet] pic toplining Jason Segel flew to Pixar headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., on Wednesday for a table read of the project with the animation powerhouse.

The involvement comes just months after Pixar helped shape reshoots for Disney's upcoming sci-fi tentpole "Tron Legacy."

In other words, this is the second recent example of the animation house assisting parent Disney with a live-action feature.

Some of the members of the so-called "Pixar Brain Trust" -- filmmakers John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Michael Arndt, Bob Peterson and president Ed Catmull -- were there for the consultations. ...

... The exchanges during the sessions have been described as "very honest" by some, "nerve-racking" by others. "You're in the presence of people who have never had a misfire," one "Tron" attendee said.

It makes good sense to have the A-team of animation punch live-action properties up.

Disney has had top-flight story minds in its cartoon departments all the way back to the 1930s. I was always puzzled why they weren't used more in other areas of the company. But then, animation has long been considered the idiot cousin of the movie world, so why would anyone bother?

Amazing how eleven hits in a row can reduce the contempt. Big box office grosses does help to change stubborn minds, doesn't it?

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Scott Ross is against unions .. yet wants to Organize

Scott Ross, for those who don't know him, is one of the visual effects industry's giants. He was a director at Industrial Light and Magic and one of the founders and directors at Digital Domain. During his tenure in these studios, the visual effects for films have created, set and then raised the standard for visual effects today. Perusing his IMDB page, one finds the films that set the standard for effects over and over again. His opinions are highly sought out as an expert in visual effects as well as the former CEO of DD and a Manager at ILM.

He was recently interviewed by Jeff Heusser for an FX Guide podcast where he shows his stance on organizing the workforce by stating:

"I think a Union situation exacerbates the conditions we already have and will force companies to go out of business".

At the same time, he also professes his wish to get all the visual effects studios together as a collective in order to standardize contracts with the film studios, business practices, salaries and their payments as well as lesser matters like screen credits.

Funny, but that rings an awful lot like Labor Organization to me ....

As stated above, Scott has a long history of visual effects management. His statements against any union and for the visual effects industry and visual effects studios certainly fall in line with someone of his pedigree. Scott has been a director and manager of large visual effects businesses most of his successful career. His passions and experiences lie in the upper offices and boardrooms of these facilities and is intimately familiar with the operations and intricacies that go into making these organizations work.

What makes his argument ironic is that his goals fall directly in line with any labor organization and specifically my goals to organize the visual effects artists here in Los Angeles and beyond. The difference is, Scott is interested in bringing the effects studios together as a collective and bargaining with the film studios for better pay, conditions and to balance out the current distribution of power. In his interview, he explains that this will bring a "good work environment" to the artists who he admits are the backbone of the industry.

As much as I want to believe Scott in his wish to see the visual effects worker happy and provided for, I have to believe that his obvious disdain for unions points to an intention to keep the studio executives happy and comfortable while the visual effects artists are chained to their desks, quietly toiling away, too frightened to speak out lest they lose employment.

Scott closes his interview by contradicting himself again by saying that the large to mid-sized effects studios need to "[take action] or get off the pot" and show their commitment by dipping into the razor-thin margins an organized work force would break, and pony up to form this Viz Efx Trade Organization he has envisioned.

The final bit of irony in all of this? I agree with Mr. Ross. I also believe that the effects studios need organization. With organization, their margins will increase and ultimately the workplace for artists will improve. However, I would add that in that organization process, the artists be represented by an organization with the strength to enforce local and federal labor laws, provide health and pension benefits and balance the decision-making power of the workplace by giving that workforce a voice in the decisions that affect their daily lives.

In tandem, this kind of organization can bring effective, immediate and long lasting change to the industry that we are all interested in seeing.

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Low Overhead

Claudia Eller examines the secrets of Chris Meladandri's Illumination Entertainment.

... Meledandri's business plan ... differs from other studios'. He keeps overhead low by employing only 35 people at an office on an industrial block in Santa Monica. By contrast, DreamWorks and Pixar employ staffs of more than 2,000 and 1,200, respectively, who work at lavish, sprawling campuses.

"We believe that small is more efficient," said Meledandri, who contracted with an animation house in Paris to produce "Despicable Me" and other projects. Hands-on, Meledandri embedded his producing associates and key executives to manage the productions — and pays the salaries of some 200 people working on his movies — to maintain control.

With a production budget of $69 million, "Despicable Me" cost less than half of other major digitally animated films, in part because Illumination saves money by working with first-time directors and teaming experienced artists with younger, less costly talent. ...

Allow me to repeat an old story: When I was but a lad, a grizzled old animation director named Woolfgang Reitherman came into a Disney story room one day and said:

"Guys? We just can't go on this way. This last picture cost seven and a half million dollars. We've got to find a way to make them cheaper."

Seven and a half mill. To make The Rescuers (the first one.) The picture went on to make several bagloads of money, becoming the highest grossing animated film of its time. The Bureau of Labor statistics would have us believe that $7.5 million circa 1977 is equal to $27 million today, except I think that's crap, because the Consumer Price Index is way understated. My guesstimate would be closer to $40 million.

But think for a minute. What mainstream animated film now is being made for $40 million? (There's only one, and its title is Winnie the Pooh, with much of the work sub-contracted.)

The difference in the cost of cartoon-making, then to now, isn't just inflation or a more expensive technology. It's the mushrooming of studio bureaucracies and studio overheads. In 1977, there were two production people working in Disney's animation department, which was around 2% of total staff.

And today?

There are production assistants. Production coordinators. Production supervisors. Production managers. I don't walk through a facility anywhere that isn't thick with administrative personnel, all of them busily calling meetings, pushing data around, and building new empires.

But if you go back to the era of Woolie Reitherman, the Chris Meladandri model looks entirely normal. Nobody was making a huge salary then, or feathering his/her professional nest. Nobody was calling endless meetings. The cartoons just got made, haltingly and somewhat inefficiently, and cost $7.5 million.

Maybe I'm delusional, but I would submit that animated features could be made in Southern California for between $65 and $80 million. It would take planning, focus and some creative thinking, but it could be done without stress fractures or broken families.

Because if Woolfgang could do it in 1977, somebody else could do it now.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Plotting My Course Through DWA

El Lakeside building ...

As I've noted previously, DreamWorks Animation has expanded the Lakeside Building on its Glendale campus, almost doubling the square footage. A goodly portion of the campus's animation production is now inside Lakeside, and it's a challenge to navigate all of the hallways, cubicles and offices without getting hopelessly lost (at least for me.)

So yesterday I concocted a plan ...

Instead of strolling through the front entrance and blundering aimlessly between cubes and office spaces in my usual stumble bum way ("Wasn't I here fifteen minutes ago? I knew your face and table lamp looked familiar ...") I stepped off the elevator and made a conscious effort to turn hard right, then work my way counter-clockwise through the maze of work areas until I got back to where I started.

It worked. (Kind of.) I saw a lot more people than during earlier visits and even ran across a bunch of former Disney Feature Animation employees -- all of whom, for some strange reason, were down on their previous employer:

"I was there three years and didn't have a good experience. Everybody in production gets treated like temporary hires."

"When the new management came in, they wanted to the studio to do Princess movies, hand-drawn movies, have everything styled like Disney features from the late forties and early fifties. The Princess movies didn't go over too well ..."

"They got rid of the Personal Service Contracts, and everything got worse. Nobody knew how long they'd be there. I have friends there now who have gotten their layoff notices. And nobody else knows how long they'll be staying. There's not much in the production pipeline."

Like I say, disgruntled folks.

As I've mentioned before, one of the differences between Walt Disney Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation over the last few years is the level and depth of development. DreamWorks Animation just has a lot of project development going on with a lot of story artists, while WDAS has relatively little. (This, I'm happy to report, is changing a bit. More Disney development appears to be going on, but the Mouse still has a big gap between current projects -- Tangled, Winnie the Pooh -- and the next set of features that will roll into the production chute.)

Meanwhile, Disney/Pixar's and DreamWorks Animation's current releases churn through the World Box Office:

Toy Story 3 grossed more in four days [in Hong Kong] than its main competitor, Dreamworks Animation’s “Shrek Forever After”, did in more than two weeks. The green ogre’s fourth and final appearance at multiplexes managed to take HK$3.5 million in its third weekend and came in third in the top 10, with a combined gross of HK$25.1 million. ...

Disney's Pixar subsidiary makes profitable features; Jeffrey K.'s DreamWorks Animation makes profitable features. The challenge going forward is getting Walt Disney Animation Studios back into the profits game.

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A Labor Strike?

Not by us. But others.

In two weeks, Hollywood might be stranded by the side of the road.

A labor drama playing out behind closed doors could lead to an Aug. 1 strike by thousands of transportation workers, which could shut down most television and film productions in Los Angeles and possibly elsewhere.

... The Teamsters' contract with the studios expires at the end of July, and negotiations appear to be at an impasse. Sources close to both the union and the producers say neither side will budge.

"If they're counting on the producers caving, that's the wrong strategy," a studio-side source said. "A strike is entirely possible."

The low-profile Teamsters Local 399 represents several thousand drivers who move everything from production equipment to star trailers and electrical generators. No drivers means no equipment, and no equipment means no film or TV production.

... Another negotiating session is scheduled for Friday, and two days later comes the union's meeting to either ratify the deal or vote for a strike authorization. ...

The good news for Animation Guild employees: A Teamsters' strike would slam live-action crews and production, but would have no or minimal impact on animation work.

The bad news for Animation Guild employees: A Teamsters' strike, particularly a lengthy one, could hurt the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan in a major way. A whole lot fewer contributions would be flowing into the Plan, and this could have long-term consequences to funding levels for pensions and health coverage.

The reason this fustercluck is happening? Stripped of minor side issues, it's because some recent labor contracts have gotten 3% wage bumps and some have gotten 2%, but the current Teamsters' leadership is under pressure to get 3%. Otherwise, they might not be in office very much longer.

I was aware that these talks and these issues were bubbling along under the placid surface of the Tinsel Town lake, but now the whole thing has hit the trade press and might soon explode into our fields of vision in a major way.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Disney TVA Crew Will Keep Working

... Because, as we mentioned here earlier, the Jake and the Neverland Pirates production boarders will get to swing onto an old standby and favorite that has recently been hibernating:

Disney has ordered a fourth season of its #1 series for preschoolers, “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.” Consisting of 13 new episodes and nine extended specials, Season Four will premiere on the recently announced Disney Junior, a new television and online brand and, ultimately, a re-branded 24-hour basic cable/satellite channel devoted to preschool-age children around the world. ...

Toonage for three-year-olds (also fours and fivers) is one of the hot areas of t.v. animation. Nickelodeon has done nicely with it, and Disney has a wealth of sellable characters, a cable outlet or three, and a lot of small eyeballs ready to drink in the product and then look pleadingly at Mom and Dad as tykes ask for dolls, games, and various plastic nick knacks. (Nick knacks, after all, are what the game is about.)

But what we're happy about is that as Miley Cyrus grows to adulthood and high school musicals lose their allure, Disney broadcast and cable companies are rediscovering the magic of cartoons. And more artists get hired to create them.

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Cartoons Win, News Loses

It's certainly good to know that America's most important age-group still has its priorities right.

CBS' "60 Minutes" was Sunday night's most watched program overall, but the veteran newsmagazine performed so poorly with younger viewers that FOX's regular Sunday animation repeats were able to claim the win in the key demographic.

Among adults 18-49, FOX averaged a 1.5 rating for the night, beating the 1.3 rating for CBS in the all-important demographic ...

Our spirits always rise when Stewie, Peter and the rest tromp on the geriatric news gatherers at the Columbia Broadcasting System. Because it encourages FOX to renew the animated bloc for another season.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

DreamWorks Animation Soon on Block?

I have no earthly idea. But the New York Times seems to be speculating:

... “Jeffrey Katzenberg is the rare instance of someone who actually should be running a bigger company,” said Roger Smith, a former film executive and the New York editor for Global Media Intelligence.

That’s not the way Mr. Katzenberg sees it. “I can see why we would be valuable to other people,” he said. “The challenge for me is to see why we need them. I’m not convinced at all that we need to be part of a larger company to be successful.”

Currently, most stand-alone movie outfits are openly for sale (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), looking for new money (Creative Artists Agency) or angling for an alliance (Lions Gate Entertainment). But Mr. Katzenberg insists that his company, with no debt and a powerful track record, has all it needs to thrive. ...

The days of Disney doing animated features while every other major stands around and watches is twenty years behind us. Maybe DWA's Megamind will be another solid hit (the crew is certainly hopeful), but the competitive ups and downs of the cartoon business just now have got to make existence a little queasy for the moguls.

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Pres Romanillos, RIP

Pres (on the left) one month ago.

When a good friend of Pres Romanillos's called from the City of Hope late last week to say Pres was going home, I knew it wasn't a good sign. Pres had been tenaciously fighting a recurrence of leukemia, and lately he'd had setbacks. On Saturday night, the fight ended ...

Priscillano A. Romanillos came into the animation industry in the late 1980s, at a time the cartoon business was undergoing a Renaissance. Starting as a trainee at Disney Feature Animation on The Little Mermaid, his career grew like a Sequoia. Within a few years he became one of the top animators in the biz, animating on a string of Disney and DreamWorks Animation hits, swinging from hand-drawn to digital production with relative ease. His last feature film, completed this Spring, was Shrek Forever After.

Pres was always kind, always enthusiastic, always willing to reach out. (He and his wife Jeannine were "parents" to a large menagerie of dogs and cats that they had rescued from various shelters.) If there was anyone in this whacky business who deserved another twenty or thirty years of artistic success, Pres was at or near the top of the list.

He was 47. And one more reason I don't believe in the word "fair" when I contemplate this mist of tears.

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The Summertime Derby in Foreign Lands

Our friends at the Reporter keep us abreast of the box office scorecard around the globe:

DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek Forever After" in 3D supplanted the latest "Twilight Saga" installment as the top-grossing weekend title on the foreign theatrical circuit, snaring $52.2 million from 8,063 locations in 57 markets.

The weekend was the first to find "Shrek" occupying the No. 1 spot. Opening on the foreign circuit on May 20, the animation film has been pursuing since then a graduated overseas rollout via Paramount. "Shrek's" foreign gross total now stands at $292.5 million ....

Shrek 4's performance abroad is $60 million more than its domestic performance, and it's still rolling out and rolling along. Make's me wonder if the picture ends up like Ice Age 3: okay grosses stateside ($234 million to date), huge numbers everyplace else ....

Then there's the other two animated features now in general release ...

Third on the weekend was "Toy Story 3" in 3D, which captured $32.9 million from 3,452 screens in 41 markets. After playing about 60% of the foreign territories, the Pixar/Disney animation title has rolled up a cume of $267.5 million, making it the tenth biggest Disney hit overseas. Worldwide, "Toy Story 3" has grossed $630.2 million, the tenth biggest-grossing animation title ever released. ...

Still in early international release, Universal's "Despicable Me" drew $4 million on the weekend from 503 locations in seven territories. ...

Too soon to know how DM ends up performing, but my estimate for TS3 is pretty straightforward. It's got a ways to run here in the States, and 35-40% more of its overseas total to accumulate, so we're looking at a worldwide gross of $800-$900 million before all the theatrical runs tail off. This will put it firmly in the last Ice Age 3's territory.

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401(k) Statements .. and Advice

Now a few words about the TAG 401(k) Plan in particular and investing in general.

TAG 401(k) Quarterly Statements have been mailed out; if you're a Plan participant, you should have gotten one ... or should get one soon.


I talk a lot about the animation workplace, but here's the other side of the cartoon career (or any career): If you're between 21 and 75 years of age and still working, you should think seriously about putting money away for retirement ...

I'm not a licensed financial advisor, but because of the TAG 401(k) Plan I have taken on the task of boning up on investment information. Here, in ludicrously broad brushstrokes, are some basic chunks of same:

The more money you put away and get working toward building wealth now, the more money you will have twenty or thirty years hence.

There are not, short of a monster salary or monetary windfall, any quick and sure-fire shortcuts to accumulating wealth.

Almost all the information you will ever need to make intelligent investment decisions is available on the worldwide web for free.

Intelligent investing is not complicated or hard. What's hard is initiating an investment plan and sticking to that investment plan.

Any investment strategy that you use should be broadly diversified in a wide selection of asset classes (cash, stocks both foreign and domestic, bonds, real estate, etc.)

When you are younger, you should be investing in more stocks and fewer bonds. When older, you should be doing the reverse. (But if you are, say, twenty-eight-years-old and putting money away yet cannot keep solid food down when the stock market declines, you should probably stick more to bonds. In other words, know your risk tolerance.)

So, where to go for basic investment advice? We featured the hard-headed Jane Bryant Quinn here six months ago, and two months back we highlighted William J. Bernstein's Coward Portfolio, seen above.

The main thing to do is start a savings program, figure out where you want to divvy up the dollars, then be disciplined about it. (I know I beat this bass drum a lot, but I made many idiotic mistakes back in my reckless youth. I'm trying to atone for the errors by haranguing others to practice better behavior via blog posts.)

Enough already. Go save, go invest. Fifty years from now you can visit my gravesite and thank me.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Mid-July Derby

Now with caramel-crunch Add On.

The Nikkster, as per usual, early out of the gate with commentary and numbers.

1. [Inception] with Friday's $21 million including $3M midnight shows in 1,600 locations. Audiences rated it an overall "B+" Cinemascore, with the under-25 crowd giving it an "A". ...

2. Despicable Me (Universal) Week 2 [3,501 Theaters] -- Friday $11.5M with an impressive -46% hold from a week ago.

3. Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Week 3) [4,001 Theaters] -- Friday $5M with a still strong -54% hold ...

4. Sorcerer's Apprentice only made $5.2M Friday from 3,504 theaters for what should be a paltry $17.5M for the 3-day weekend.

5. Toy Story 3 (Disney) Week 5 [3,177 Theaters] -- Friday $3.5M for an amazingly strong -45% hold this long in release.

It appears that the Cage-Bruckheimer magic has been fading of late. (Ah well. Nothing is forever ...)

But it won't escape your notice that there are two animated features in the Top Five. Animation Domination (theatrical division) seems to occur with greater frequency as time goes on.

Add On: At the wire, Inception collects $60.4 million, Despicable Me adds 25 theaters, declines 42%, and now owns $118,365,000 in domestic greenbacks.

In the fifth slot, Toy Story 3 gathers up $11.7 million and now stands with a total of $362.7 million after five weeks.

Farther down the list, Shrek Forever After has made $234,373,000 after nine weeks of release.

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The End of Week Linkfest

Animal Logic and Warner Bros. head to the home stretch with their new animated epic.

... The movie comes out Sept. 24 and the studio has already conducted some tinkering on the project, changing the title from “Guardians of Ga’Hoole” to the more friendly, if more generic, “Legend of the Guardians.” In March, it rushed out a teaser trailer that was a bit on the cheesy side; it didn’t indicate that Snyder, who made zombies and horror remakes respectable with “Dawn of the Dead” and comic book adaptations just plain cool with “300,” was behind the family adventure. ...

And now for something different: Let us sample a few internet sites of TAG members/merry-workers:

Peck n Paw And the Black Mirror (Disney Feature artists' book of personal art pieces -- paintings, comic, line-drawings, you name it -- all of the pieces good and all of the pieces available for viewing and/or purchase at ComicCon and on-line.)

Animation veteran Tom Ruegger has launched Cartoonatics, a blog of comics, paintings and prose you might find worth your while.

Ace animation artist Victoria Ying has a scintillating blog of artwork (a visual from same just above) and commentary.

The power of animation is such that cartoon features can now raise defunct movie companies from the dead.

MY DOG TULIP, an animated feature film based on the acclaimed best-selling memoir by author J.R. Ackerley, featuring the voices of Christopher Plummer, the late Lynn Redgrave, and Isabella Rossellini, is the first acquisition of the newly reopened New Yorker Films ....

A little over a year after New Yorker Films was forced to close its doors, the pioneering distributor of foreign language and independent films has reopened. New Yorker Films is committed to continue releasing quality art and independent films from around the world. ...

Fifty-five years young.

In 1956, when it was decided that live animals were too messy and unpredictable, the area was refurbished and the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train came into existence, complete with a colorful finale inside Rainbow Mountain (among the highlights was a spectacular fluorescent waterfall designed by Disney Legend Claude Coats). Rainbow Caverns was replaced by the Nature’s Wonderland train ride in 1960, which featured scenic vistas and an abundance of 204 lifelike inhabitants. Again, Walt Disney designed the layout of this attraction. ...

Disneyland’s original marquee was purchased by actor John Stamos for $30,700 in 2000 on eBay.

(We banged the same gong last year, when Disneyland was 54 years old. We are nothing if not redundant.)

It can now be (officially) revealed that Beavis and his close friend are returning to television.

The move to resurrect the hugely popular 1990s animated anti-heroes [Beavis and Butthead] has been rumored for several days. But yesterday, sources at MTV confirmed that a new batch of "Beavis and Butt-head" episodes are in the works.

The new series would keep Beavis and Butt-head in their perpetual high-school state, but it would be updated so that the pals -- who obsessively watch music videos on a battered TV set -- could lob their snarky comments at more current targets like Lady Gaga. ...

Our pal the Nikkster relates that Jeffrey Katzenberg wants to move onward and upward.

To overhear Jeffrey Katzenberg's private conversations these days, Comcast supposedly wants to buy DreamWorks Animation and make him head of NBC Universal. But at last week's Camp Allen -- Sun Valley's annual Alllen & Co investment conference attended by the Who's Who of tech, Internet, entertainment, and media industries -- Comcast's Brian Roberts and Steve Burke were telling a very different story. They mentioned to several power players that Katzenberg has been pursuing them to buy DreamWorks Animation and lobbying them to make him head of NBCU ...

(We've said for a few years that DreamWorks will ultimately be sold. Someday we might even be right.)

Have a fine weekend. Try and find a pool and cool off.

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