Friday, September 30, 2011

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rough Draft: One Year Later

A little over a year ago, we posted about the organization effort and resulting NLRB election held at Rough Draft Studios, Inc. in Glendale. Artists working at RD at the time attempted to organize and see the entire studio under a union contract. A counter-organizing campaign was waged and both sides butted heads until the resulting NLRB election showed an overwhelming majority of artists were not interested in union representation.

The National Labor Relations Act clearly states in Section 9, Sub-Paragraph E:

(2) No election shall be conducted pursuant to this subsection in any bargaining unit or any subdivision within which, in the preceding twelve- month period, a valid election shall have been held.

That one-year period ended at the end of June, 2011.

My tenure as TAG's organizer didn't begin until shortly after this election was held. Therefore, my first-hand experience in this matter lacks significant substance. However, discussions with artists and members who shared their experiences with the matter inferred that the owners and management at RD were not neutral on unionization and could possibly have been against. These discussions even went as far as to imply that said company leaders fueled anti-union sentiment and may have influenced employees into voting against union representation.

Shocking, I know.

It was therefore with some measure of trepidation that I joined Steve H. on a brisk morning in August of this year outside the studio to hand out flyers and representation cards to artists as they walked to work. We were met with pleasant discussion as well as a few sneers from some of the non-artistic staff.

The reality of organizing at Rough Draft is mirrored across all fields and unions today. As Steve mentioned a year ago, employers aren't lining up at union offices eager to put their names to a contract that hands over a significant amounts their power and leverage inside their personal corners of American capitalism. It has always fallen upon the workers (artists) to band together and weather the onslaught of anti-union rhetoric when choosing to organize. Unions are only capable of enforcing the collective leverage of the artists if and when the artists decide to use that leverage in their favor.

The discussions we had with artists at RD pointed to a staff that is happy to have been working for the past year, and enjoying the chance to work for another. Many of the artists were happy to see their union representatives there, but felt that we would have a tough battle again in establishing a majority interest inside the studio. One discussion we had informed us of a meeting where RD Management openly stated the methods to which they would resist signing a union contract. We're convinced these cards returned to us were notes from management sharing their love of our attention.

We wish the artists at Rough Draft continued success in their endeavors. We also remind them that we are always here to answer questions or explain the benefits (both tangible and not) of union membership as well as the steps to achieve that goal.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Studio Arts announces fall semester

Below the fold is the schedule of the fall semester of CG classes held at Studio Arts in downtown L.A. All of the following classes are eligible for two-thirds reimbursement for qualified members through the CSATTF skills training grants.

Grant applications must be submitted before the first class session. For class information or to register, call Eric Huelsman at (323) 227-8776; for grant applications and requirements go to

Unless otherwise indicated, all classes are held once a week.

After Effects 101 starts October 26

Avid Media Composer 1 starts October 22

Cinema 4D – 201 starts October 22

Corel Painter starts October 26

Digital Design and Illustration starts October 23

Digital Set Decoration starts October 23

Digital Storyboarding starts October 22

Flash 101 starts October 28

Illustrator 1 starts October 23 * One-week intensive class starts October 24

Lighting 1 starts October 28

luxology modo level 1 starts November 19

Maya 101 starts October 27 * One-week intensive class starts December 5

Nuke 101 starts October 25

Painting with Photoshop starts October 24

Photoshop 1 – Basics starts October 23 * One-week intensive class starts October 3

Photoshop for Art Dept. starts October 22

Previs 101 starts October 24

SketchUp Pro 101 starts November 13

SketchUp Pro 201 starts October 24

Toon Boom 1 starts October 27

VectorWorks 101 starts October 25

ZBrush 101 starts October 22

Click here to read entire post

The Biz Rep's Report

I'm off on the high seas (unless the ship goes down; then I'm under it), but here is my pre-prepared Business Representative's report from last night's General Membership meeting. ...

Wish I could be at the meeting tonight, but I'm on a long-planned vacation so this will be read.

The biggest (and saddest) news is the passing of TAG's long-time Vice-President Earl Kress. Earl had been battling cancer most of this year. We were all hoping for a recovery, but the cancer, unfortunately, had spread too far.

Earl enjoyed a long career in animation. He came out to L.A. from the east coast in the middle 1970s, and his first job (two months after he got here) was working as a writer for DePatie-Freleng. After D-F, there was feature work at Disney, and beyond that decades of script work at almost every animation studio in town. Earl wrote award-winning scripts for "Pinky and the Brain" and "Animaniacs," picking up two Emmys for his work. He was still writing at his death, having penned a direct-to-video "Tom and Jerry" feature last year, one of Warners biggest sellers in the Tom and Jerry series.

But around here we'll remember Mr. Kress as an ardent union man. Earl served on a long string of TAG negotiating committees, and pushed strenuously for more respect and better wages and benefits for writers in animation. Because of Earl, writers under TAG contracts can now write ONE half-hour script and outline and maintain their health coverage, as well as secure a qualified pension year. This is no small accomplishment, because it improves a LOT of lives. And Earl Kress is the individual most responsible for that.

One more thing about Earl's activism in labor. He wasn't just a TAG officer for sixteen years. He was also a founder of the Animation Writers Caucus inside the Writers Guild. He pushed for the betterment of writers on a lot of fronts.

On other subjects, employment at union shops is up over the last three years as television animation work continues to expand. TAG has signed contracts with APU, a subsidiary of Wildbrain Animation, and we have just signed an agreement with a new animation company, the name of which must remain secret until the company rolls out its press announcement. We are repping animators under an IA-Disney contract on a stop-motion show called "Cinder Biter," directed by Henry Selick (I think) and produced by Tim Burton.

On the feature front, Disney has hired a number of new employees for "Wreck It Ralph" and has expanded its development of new feature properties. DreamWorks Animation has done some lay offs and restructuring, mostly due to story hiccups with "The Croods" Their next feature "Puss in Boots" will be out in November.

Re grievances, TAG successfully pushed a grievance over screen credits on [*] ... securing a monetary settlement and screen credits for story artists on the Blu Ray, DVD and video releases. Last month we won an extra month's salary for a terminated employee at [*].

On studio issues, we've received complaints about lack of sick days at a studio that has none, and will discuss the issue with management. (I attempted to contact a studio exec before leaving on vacation, but he was out.) We have language in the contract regarding sick days, but it is only to require that sick-day policies continue through the term of the contract. It does not require that a studio has any set number of days, and a few have none. ...

We've received questions about upcoming negotiations. We estimate that our next contract negotiation will occur in the Spring, after the IA completes talks on a renewal of the Basic Agreement. Currently, the IA is holding information meetings about the Health Plan, which will possibly be re-designed in the next round of negotiations, so we encourage you to participate and make your voice heard at the meetings. I will be attending the Basic Negotiations when they take place, but TAG is not part of the bargaining unit, so our input is limited.

Lastly, the TAG 401(k) Plan remains viable and growing, although it's taken hits in the latest market downturn. Assets now stand at $136 million, down slightly from last Spring. I will be holding new enrollment meetings at all participating studios in October and November, and as always, I carry a bag of enrollment books with me during all studio visits. Despite the choppy stock market, I know a number of folks who now have (between the Motion Picture Pension Plan's IAP and the TAG 401(k) Plan) four hundred to six hundred thousand dollars in retirement assets.

* Grievance settlements are confidential, which is why we've removed some details here.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A New Social Media Experiement

Award winning Pixar director Lee Unkrich tweeted yesterday that he has started work on a new feature. This time, we are invited to follow his progress through a blog he created to document the process.


Today is day one on my next project. Every day I'll post a new photo chronicling the journey. #UnkADay

Mr. Unkrich received blessings from the powers-that-be to create a Tumblr blog where he'll share a single photograph daily for the next few years on the creation of a Pixar feature. This will not be the interactive powerhouse the likes this blog offers the animation community. Rather, this is a unique and interesting way to offer the audience a view into the process of building an animated movie that will, by any account, be another winner for Pixar.

Read between the lines, however, and witness an interesting social media experiment. Does offering the public a glimpse over the shoulder of the director translate into feeling more a part of the movie and therefore .. more ticket sales?

A wise man once said to me:

"It don't mean a thing .. if it don't go KA-CHING."

The decision to green-light the creation of this blog had to be given with the understanding that this could be a new way to ingratiate and involve the viewing public. With an "intimate knowledge" of the evolution the film took, the public could very well feel personally involved and more likely to see the movie once it hits our nearest theater complex.

Be a part of the experiment and ask yourself if you went to see the film because you'll see anything Pixar, or because you watched it be created. Bookmark and visit Mr. Unkrich's blog at this address:

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Moneyball on the MPTF

For those on our email list*, this is old news. For the rest, the MPTF held a private screening of Moneyball for contributors to the MPTF Every Member Campaign yesterday at the Sony Pictures Entertainment lot in beautiful Culver City.

I was able to attend the event through a donation I offered when the program first launched. Sony Pictures was overly generous in providing the feature to view, and in the luxurious Cary Grant Theater. MPTF provided a wonderful spread of baseball stadium fare to enjoy before the showing.

It was nice to be surrounded by IATSE members and employees who understood the value this important organization offers the members of the entertainment industry. While seeing the movie was an enjoyable experience, seeing people openly support the organization that has given back to the community was the real pleasure.

The MPTF is a charitable organization that was started ninety years ago to provide assistance and support to members of the entertainment industry. The Fund provides assistance through programs like Child Care, Retirement Care through the Residential Retirement Community and crisis support programs to name a select few. Anyone who has visited one of the now nine health clinics (these seven, the health center on the campus at DreamWorks, and the HealthWheels mobile clinic) has benefited from the efforts of the Fund.

There are few industries in our country that provide for their own the way the Motion Picture and Television Fund does for our community. Please visit the webpage we've designed to provide information about the campaign and the various ways you can participate:

TAG Every Member Campaign page

*If you're a member of the Guild and not on our email list, you're missing out on important messages and notifications we send out regularly. Send an email to Steve Kaplan from your personal email address and request to be added.

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IATSE Healthcare Benefits Town Hall Meetings

I was fortunate to attend the first IATSE Health Benefits Town Hall Meeting on Saturday at IATSE Local 80 in Burbank. These unprecedented meetings are essential for all active IATSE members who participate in the Motion Picture Industry Health Plans to attend.

The meetings are designed to give insight to the membership about the decisions that have been made, and will need to be made regarding our Health Care benefits in the upcoming IATSE and AMPTP negotiations. Presentations were given by:

John C. Garner, group healthcare expert and consultant, on the state of healthcare costs in the USA

David Westcoe, MPIPHP Executive Administrative Director, with a detailed history of plan's costs and projections

IATSE President Mathew Loeb who presented the plan to involve the membership through these meetings, focus groups and the upcoming survey as well as taking questions from the floor at the end of the meeting

IATSE contracts are coming to the end of their three-year term at a time when health care costs are skyrocketing and union health plans across the country are cutting back and reorganizing. It is apparent that our health benefits are going to have to be examined from the ground up to meet the needs of the future and ensure comprehensive and cost-effective benefits for all.

From what I heard from others who attended, this level of interactivity from the senior leadership of the IATSE has never been attempted before. Facts were presented by experts, Executive Directors and our President. After the presentations, the floor was opened to answer questions and take feedback. In the face of upcoming changes, this opportunity to avail yourself of the facts and the opportunity to learn about the choices you'll be making is not to be missed.

The Town Hall meetings are open to all active IATSE members. TAG has 18 seats available at each meeting with plenty open for reservation. The meetings will be held at the following times and locations:

Sunday, November 13 - 10am to 2pm

IATSE Local 80, 2520 W Olive Ave, Burbank

* Monday, November 14 - 7pm to 9pm

California Ballroom, Four Points Sheraton - LAX

9750 Airport Blvd. 90045

Tuesday, November 15 - 7pm to 9pm

IATSE Local 80, 2520 W Olive Ave, Burbank

If you are interested in reserving a seat for one of these meetings, we have plenty left available. Call us at (818) 845-7500 or send Steve Kaplan an email at and let us know which meeting you're interested in attending.

The next contract is guaranteed to have changes in health benefits that will impact the lives of every working person in the motion picture industry. Attend one of these town hall meetings and have a say in your future.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Weekly Foreign Numbers

With Mr. Hulett away for the next week, Jeff and I will strive to keep his regular posts running, while adding a few of our own flavor. We hope you understand Steve H's are big shoes to fill, and show kindness to our attempts. Having said that ..

Sony Pictures Animation Smurfed the foreign weekend numbers for a seventh weekend in a row.

This is the seventh consecutive stanza that the Sony Animation coproduction finished on top overseas. No other title this year has won the top foreign box office spot more often than has The Smurfs.

Since it opened foreign on July 27, the 3D live action/computer animation hybrid about lovable blue creatures in New York City has grossed $364.4 million – more than 2.6 times its domestic tally -- enabling its worldwide box office to exceed the half-billion mark ($502.8 million).

We firmly believe box office performance drives behavior at the upper floors and executive offices of our fine entertainment congloms. The better a film does, the higher the chance of a sequel or genre spree. Seeing as nine of the top ten films of this year have all outperformed in ticket sales outside our grand old USA, its important to factor foreign ticket sales when calculating budgets for upcoming features.

As if *that* is an easy process ..

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Mean It This Time

I know I've said I'm on vacation, but this time I mean it ...

Getting on a big fat boat in the Pacific Northwest. No internet connections. So I'm gone.

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Puss's Ad Campaign

SO the question is, does the latest internet ad for Puss in Boots plus the movie's box office six weeks hence? ....

You could argue that it's spoofing a commercial that's already been satirized and kidded to death already, but if it helps put fannies in the seat November 4th, it's all good, isn't it?

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The Autumn Derby

Simba and Company seem to be an enduring group.

Sony’s Brad Pitt baseball drama Moneyball topped the Friday box office with an estimated $6.8 million ... The big surprise continued to be Disney’s 3D re-release of Lion King, which took No. 2 with an estimated gross of $6 million ...

The lesson here is, I think, when you have a movie out in theaters that people want to see, they'll go see it. I think we'll see the two-week release window expand a bit: "Held over by popular demand!" (etc.) Or maybe the public has been flooding the Mouse's headquarters in Burbank with petitions pleading for an extra week, who knows?

And the Nikkster points out something I've thought about a little:

... Why is it that in all the promotional hype I’ve been sent by the [Disney] studio about this pic, no one at Disney is thanking Jeffrey Katzenberg for micro-managing the original? C’mon, Mouse House, give credit where credit is due. ...

Teacher! Teacher! I know! Because Jeffrey doesn't work at Diz Co. no more! Our fine entertainment conglomerates are much like authoritarian regimes. When you are gone, you are a non-person. It doesn't serve present management to hype that leader of the competition, even if that leader molded the new regime's present victory in the first place. (Ego is still a major force in Hollywood, yes?)

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Animated Dinosaurs

20th Century-Fox's big-budget television bet Terra Nova rolls out next week. And it has got lots of animation:

... In visual effects for television, [viz effx supervisor Kevin) Blank says, it’s much more common for effects shots to be created by individuals referred to as “generalists,” who have skills in all of those areas. “Rather than having experts in 10 fields working on one shot over four to six months, you might have one person taking it all the way through, over a course of two to three weeks. ...

T.V. is going in various directions these days. Cheap-jack reality shows. More expensive sitcoms (live-action and animated). Cop shows. Doctor shows. Then there are the ultra expensive "event" series that sometimes work but often don't. (Time Magazine's review is titled Dino-Snore -- arrgh.)

Pixomondo is doing the animation for this new epic from Fox and Steven Spielberg (a long-time deliverer of Dinosaur epics.) They're not the low-cost provider, but they're headquartered in Burbank, California* close to the producers and Fox (the live-action gets shot in Australia.)

More animated visual effects will likely be migrating to television. Costs keep coming down and requirements for thrills and chills keep going up, and network execs decide that, despite the miserly licensing fees, the gamble is worth it.

And there you are. Explains why a lot of animators and compositors are working. Also explains why they often get chewed up by frantic schedules and unpaid overtime. Hopefully the Burbank crew has time off and a decent quality of life.

* Pixomondo has studios around the globe. You'll note that much of the c.g. work here is being done stateside.

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DOL takes firm stand on Employment Classification

Earlier this week, Department of Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis announced an inter-agency coordinated effort targeting the illegal practice of employee misclassification. In the statement, the DOL announced an agreement with the IRS and state labor commissioners and agency leaders to:

"improve departmental efforts to end the business practice of misclassifying employees in order to avoid providing employment protections.

The memorandums will enable the sharing of information and coordination of law enforcement in order to ensure that employees receive the protections to which they are entitled under federal and state law. According to DOL attorney Patricia Smith:

"There's more of an incentive to be in compliance because the cost of what we consider to be illegal activity has increased.

This is a big win for artists in the animation and visual effects industries. Its been noted numerous times how common the misclassification of employees has become as companies look to cut any corner in order to increase profit margins. Essentially, classifying an employee as a freelance contractor is wage theft, as they are not being paid due overtime (working for flat or weekly rates without hourly considerations).

Anyone who is under such an agreement should contact their local Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division Office, or call the toll-free help line at (866) 4-US-WAGE (866-487-9243). Now, with the sharing of information between state and federal agencies, penalties for this will be increased as multiple fines will be levied.

Of course, said artist is also free to sign a Representation Card, and encourage their peers to do likewise. With a majority interest, we can bring the offending company under a collectively bargained contract that stipulates adherence to labor laws as well as steps we can take to rectify any unfortunate transgressions.

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Animator Letters Project

With discussions here focused mostly on studio activities, animation news and even the occasional political commentary, its easy to forget the reason we're all drawn to the craft. As a labor union blog, we try to highlight reasons why unionization is so important. This can lead to lengthy and repeated posts about how artists are being mistreated or are suffering labor abuses in order to remain employed. Our discussions can leave one questioning the choices that led to employment in our field. It was awfully nice to find something this morning in stark contrast to those discussions.

A tweet from animator Tim Borrelli pointed to a website worthy of note. The Animator Letters Project began from what can be assumed is a common turning point in all of our lives. Young Willie Downs faced the realization that his interests and goals pointed him towards animation, and how was he to justify that in the face of parental and/or societal expectations. For some guidance, he wrote two letters.

In his words:

Seeking for advise and encouragement, I wrote a letter to a Pixar and DreamWorks animator and they were such a blessing to me. Both of them wrote me back and the encouragement they gave me helped me make the decision to tell my parents that I wanted to change majors and become an animator, because that was my dream job. Thankfully, they supported my decision and told me they wanted me to do what would make me happy.

Now, an animation student with Animation Mentor, Willie is taking the attention the posting of his encouragement letters garnered and turning it into an altruistic project with the goal of helping and encouraging future generations of artists. Take a few minutes and visit his site. If you have a story to share, take a break from your routine and share it with him. Recalling the artistic seed of your endeavors can help make today a bit brighter.

At least, we hope it will.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Batman: Year Uno

The "Batman: Year One" the '87 graphic novel finally has its feature adaptation:

Super hero stories gain popularity every year (although maybe we've reached a saturation point with some of the under-powered live action offerings out earlier this year.)

On the animated side, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett and all the other talents at Warner Bros. Animation have re-invigorated the genre. There's a reason that the Mouse bought the other stable of super heroes by purchasing Marvel. There's gold in all them capes.

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More Union Elections

Hmmm. The WGA membership didn't return hard-liner Patric Verrone to the Guild's Presidency. And now SAG has re-elected its moderate incumbent running for a second term:

Screen Actors Guild President Ken Howard was easily re-elected to a second term as president of the 125,000-member union.

Howard, who did not face serious opposition, defeated three other lesser known candidates in the presidential contest.

His victory is likely to add further momentum toward merging SAG with its smaller sister union, the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists ...

There seems to be a trend here. Hollywood guilds are voting for candidates who likely won't be leading their labor organizations into strikes.

People are still getting hammered financially (look at today's stock market), still worried about being employed, still anxious about keeping a cash flow going and hanging onto their houses.

In recent years union militancy -- particularly the Hollywood variety -- has played better when markets were going up and employees were earning fat paychecks. I have serious doubts the last Writers Guild strike would have happened if the contract had expired in 2009 instead of the first half of 2008. The Screen Actors Guild strongly supported the writers then, and seemed headed for a strike of its own. But a year later, the militant SAG president Alan Rosenberg couldn't get his own membership to support a job action.

And a year after that, the moderate Howard had replaced firebrand Rosenberg. The Big Wheel, as it were, had rolled on. And now Howard is in for a second term.

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The Stereo Cat Makes More Press

The success of the stereo release of Lion King has been much lauded in the press. Even our esteemed Biz Rep has written twice on the subject. We've just found another article featuring a TAG member that further adds to the praise.

Visual effects resource site FX Guide interviewed TAG member Robert Neuman about his work on the stereo conversion of the Disney hit feature. The article goes in depth* on the process of retrieving a film created in 1994 and wrestling it into the latest technology.

Enjoy the well written Ian Failes article by clicking this link.

*Pun intended

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Out of the Loop

To reiterate.

I'll be out of the reach of computers for much of the next week and a half, on the highways and byways of a vacation. I'll pop up here when I get within reach of a keyboard, but otherwise ...

... Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Massie will be in the blog wheelhouse, putting up the posts.

So see you later.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Moonscoop (formerly Mike Young Productions) has a new project:

... On Wednesday Archie Comics, which created the character [Sabrina the Teenage Witch], announced a partnership with MoonScoop Entertainment and plans to create a new, half-hour animated TV series.

The new show will feature a more “current” interpretation of the character, according to Archie Comics Chief Executive Jon Goldwater. Think skinny jeans, spiky hair and a tattoo.

The title character in the planned new "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" animated TV series and her cat, Salem. ...

Moonscoop, out in Warners Center in the West Valley, has been around for a long time. Years back, TAG organized the feature Clifford the Big Red Dog at Mike Young Productions. One artist pushed and shoved and collected cards. One artist. And TAG ended up with a contract.

So here we are, X number of years later, and the company once known as Mike Young Productions is producing Sabrina. And we're looking for artists who would like to get their Motion picture Industry Pension and Health Plan hours.

Takers? *

* Contact Steve Kaplan (e-mail: or 818-845-7500 .

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The Visual Effects Industry Bill of Rights

A few months ago, the Visual Effects Society called for all members of the VFX community, artist and studio executive alike, to send them concerns and wishes about the industry to be used as reference for a Visual Effects Industry Bill of Rights. Today, the VES released that document to the industry.

A few of the finer points:

A Visual Effects Artist or Practitioner has the right to:

• A clear understanding of the work he/she is being hired to perform, including knowing what they are being paid per hour, per week or per job, as well as the duration of the assignment, with strict adherence to all local labor laws and tax codes regarding overtime, sick time, vacation time, working conditions, safety and other aspects of a professional work environment. This would include a minimum of an industry-standard turnaround between work shifts;

• Negotiate a modification in the terms of employment should the realities of the position change in any material way, or decline work that is outside the terms of the employment agreement;

• Quality health care coverage no matter where in the world he/she may be working;

• Be paid on time;

• Work under conditions conducive to the work they are expected to perform and the creative process it entails;

• Be given a reasonable amount of notice when being asked to work overtime. If asked, to be able to turn down such requests without reprisals;

• An appropriate and certifiable credit;

• Show their work after the project is commercially released for the purpose of securing more work.

The Hollywood Reporter quotes VES Chair Eric Roth on how the Bill was created:

We have taken significant steps to make this a collaborative process throughout the industry .. At this time we have engaged in a vigorous dialog with key stakeholders at all levels and believe our Bill of Rights lays out the vital concerns of each segment of the industry. Our next step is to focus on bringing all parties together to seek solutions.

The cries from the industry for positive and lasting change are getting louder and more frequent. The new document from the VES is another step toward preserving the art of Visual Effects while allowing those who call it their profession the ability to lead healthy, productive and satisfying lives.

Of course, the best way any visual effects artist can help with that change, would be to start a conversation with Jim Goodman about organizing the artists at the studio for which you work. Achieving a Collective Bargaining Agreement that offers portable health and pension benefits to the artists of visual effects would be a strong, positive step towards making those changes.

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Services for Earl Kress

Services for the late Earl Kress have been scheduled:

DATE: Friday, September 23
TIME: 12:00 pm noon
Forest Lawn Memorial Park - Old North Church
6300 Forest Lawn Drive, Hollywood
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Two High Flyers' 70th Birthdays

It's late, and I'm punchy, so I'm at a mental place where I magically discover patterns where they're aren't any. Nevertheless, it's the 70th anniversary of one cartoon character that marked the end of one famous animation studio. ...

... Sept. 26 marks the 70th anniversary of the first — and arguably the best — screen version of the Man of Steel: Max and Dave Fleischer’s animated shorts.

... Dave Fleischer recalled: “I didn’t want to make ‘Superman.’ Paramount wanted it. I told them because it was too expensive, they wouldn’t make any money back on it. The average short cost nine or ten thousand dollars, some ran up to fifteen. I couldn’t figure how to make ‘Superman’ look right without spending a lot of money. I told them they’d have to spend $90,000 on each one … [and] they spent the $90,000. But they were great.” ...

Unfortunately, the feature Mr. Bug Goes to Town, made at the same studio at the same time, crashed and burned at the box office a couple of months later. And that, sadly, was finito for the Fleischers' Miami facility.

... But happily, at almost the same moment on the other side of the continent, a second flying cartoon character had the opposite effect on Mr. Disney's Burbank studio:

... Dumbo was the most financially successful Disney film of the 1940s. After its October 23, [1941] release, Dumbo proved to be a financial miracle compared to other Disney films. The simple film only cost $813,000 to produce, half the cost of Snow White, less than a third of the cost of Pinocchio, and certainly less than the expensive Fantasia. Dumbo eventually grossed $1.6 million during its original release; it and Snow White were the only two pre-1943 Disney features to turn a profit. ....

Unlike Supe and the Fleischer Brothers, the small flying elephant saved Disney from extinction. (All the war contracts that soon followed were also a help in keeping Walt's studio gates open.) And today, of course, Diz Co. is one of our finest entertainment conglomerates*, right up there with Time-Warner and News Corp.

Sometimes the right cartoon character at an opportune time does make a difference.

* Like any good conglomerate, Diz Co. knows how to maximize the money streams on its copyrighted products. The Mouse is now releasing the little elephant in a splendid new Blu Ray presentation. You'll want to purchase your silver disk today! Or most certainly tomorrow.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011


As Indiana Jones ended up at Disneyland, so will the Tall Blue People touch down at Disney World.

... Disney reached a long-term, exclusive licensing agreement with "Avatar" director James Cameron and his producing partner Jon Landau, as well as the film's financier and distributor, 20th Century Fox, to develop theme park rides and attractions based on the 2009 hit and its two planned sequels.

The first "Avatar"-inspired land is planned for Disney's Animal Kingdom, the newest of four theme parks at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Groundbreaking is planned for 2013, with an expected opening three years later. Executives estimate the cost of the project to be about $500 million. ...

Five hundred million bucks here, five hundred million there, and before you know it you're into serious money.

By contrast, the Anaheim Park cost $17 million to build.

But forget costs. This is one more example of how our fine entertainment conglomerates join together to make bigger, more profitable entertainments, yes? Maximizing profits of the Big Properties, extending brands, and increasing cash flows are what it's about, after all.

In union, there is strength.

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A Graphic Novel ..

We thought it would be fun to share the latest musings from TAG members Rafael Rosado (Artist) and Jorge Aguirre (Writer). The fruit of their collaboration (pictured above) will be available next April through First Second Books.

Dive into it more deeply at:

Giants Beware!

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Larry Eikleberry Interview -- Part II

Portrait of the artist by the artist ...

Larry considers Winnie the Pooh the most satisfying cartoon series on which he labored. He's also fond of the work he created at Disney consumer products -- where he focused on both old classic features and new animation releases ....

TAG Interview with Larry Eikleberry

Find all TAG Interviews on the TAG website at this link

Mr. Eikleberry also paints portraits, and considers his time with canvas and brush as time well spent. (Note the self-portrait directly above.)

For your viewing pleasure, the interview in video:

A quick note: Steve Hulett will be on vacation next week; TAG blog interviews will be vacationing with him.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Earl Kress, 1951-2011

Earl Kress, animation writer and historian and Vice-President of the Animation Guild, passed away September 19 of liver cancer, a month past his sixtieth birthday.

Since 1975 he worked for DePatie-Freleng, Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Marvel, Filmation, Universal and Warners Bros.

Earl was a true Renaissance man of animation. He won two Emmy Awards and an Annie Award for writing episodes of Pinky and the Brain for Warner Bros., and was nominated for an episode of Animaniacs. He wrote the last Road Runner short, Little Go Beep. He produced several DVDs of Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. classic cartoons, and wrote comic books for The Simpsons and Looney Tunes.

Among the series for which he wrote were Transformers, Pound Puppies, Taz-Mania and Baby Looney Tunes. He collaborated with Mark Evanier on June Foray’s autobiography, and contributed to the special features of many DVDs such as thr recent Top Cat. He also worked as a voice actor and as a puppeteer for the Muppets.

Earl joined the TAG Executive Board in 1995 and was elected Vice-President in 2004. As a union officer he was known as a tireless champion of animation writers’ rights. In the 2006 contract negotiations, Earl championed a proposal to guarantee health benefits for any writer who wrote at least one half-hour script in a coverage period, thus greatly increasing benefit coverage for freelance animation writers,

Services are pending; we will post when they are announced.

Earl Kress was the guy I knew longest in the animation business.

When I started at Disney, he was already on staff, working on “The Fox and the Hound.” For the first year I was there, his office was next to mine on the third floor of the old animation building. I was in a space the size of a broom closet. Since Earl was the senior guy, he occupied the office with the square footage of one-and-a-half broom closets.

Years later, Mr. Kress and I were both freelancing for Warner Bros. Animation at the same time when the studio was launching "Tiny Toon Adventures." Shortly thereafter, I abandoned the writing game and became Business Representative for Local 839, but Earl stuck with his first love of creating animated cartoons. It wasn’t long before he was on the WBA staff full-time, writing "Pinky and the Brain" and winning Emmys.

And it wasn’t long after that Earl became a board member of The Animation Guild, and then Vice-President. He was on the TAG negotiating committee every time negotiations rolled around, adding his passion and expertise. (As noted above, the fact that animation writers under TAG can write two half-hour shows and qualify for health benefits AND a qualified pension year is largely due to Mr. Kress, who pushed for improvements in writers’ benefits and wages tenaciously and energetically.)

Earl kept writing almost to the very end of his life. His devoted wife Denise told me that even after he fell ill, he was still in the game, waiting to hear back from producers on an outline he’d completed. He left us way too soon, but the fact that he continued as a professional writer from his entry into the business in 1975 to 2011 is cause for celebration. Very few talents stay employed for thirty-five years in a field they love, particularly when the field is the movie business. But Earl made it happen.

Wherever you are now, Mr. Kress, I expect you’re doing funny voices for the other angels, and writing funny dialogue. And telling the winged denizens about the history of the cartoon business that you had such a hand in shaping.

-- Steve Hulett

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The Larry Eikleberry Interview -- Part I

It's not often that a teen-aged kid from Arkansas runs into Walt Disney on the street. But in this case, the street was inside a large amusement park in Anaheim, so it's not entirely surprising ...

TAG Interview with Larry Eikleberry

Find all TAG Interviews on the TAG website at this link

Larry Eikleberry had a love of art from a tender age, and pursued the love in art school, focusing on painting. He came to California a decade after college, and quickly found work at a succession of animation studios, working at Filmation, Bill Melendez and Disney Television Animation (among others) before settling into a long gig at Disney consumer products, where he focused on classic and current Disney animated features. ...

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Animation's Global Growth

Over the past three years, production of television animation in the U.S. has expanded steadily. Apparently much the same thing is going on in other parts of the globe.

The Animation Market Analysis Project of Japan's Media Development Research Institute (MDRI) reported on September 9 that the market for domestic and foreign animation in Japan grew 5.8% to 229.0 billion yen (about US$2.55 billion) in 2010. This was the second annual increase in a row ...

These figures cover both Japanese animated works and foreign animated works that were sold or distributed within Japan. ... MRI noted that the data reflects the significant contributions that hit animated films have made to the overall market in recent years. Titles such as the Japanese anime film Arrietty (9.25 billion yen) and the American animated film Toy Story 2 [I think they mean "3"] (10.8 billion yen) lifted the overall box office total higher in 2010. ...

Meanwhile, in Europe, cartoon creation thrives with co-productions across the continent. Variety reported that major animation producers in the United Kingdom, Spain and France are getting fresh competition from Poland and Russia as markets expand. (There's more to it than American product, in other words.)

I think what global cartoon makers have (long-since) discovered is that animation has 1) A long shelf life, 2) Travels well across international borders, and 3) Is not ungodly expensive. Those things make for a magical combination, and help explain the continued growth of the art form.

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Animation's Foreign Derby

Hard as it might be for some to believe, the small blue people are behaving like the tall blue people:

... The Smurfs has now finished No. 1 on the foreign theatrical circuit for the last six consecutive weekends ... lifting its total offshore box office haul to $344.5 million accumulated since July 27. ...

Adding in the domestic take, The Smurfs has now raked in close to half a billion dollars, much (I'm sure) to Sony's amazed delight.

Elsewhere on the animated front:

... The Lion King's foreign re-release eked $700,000 out of 17 offshore markets ... Rise of the Planet of the Apes ... pushed its foreign gross total to $221.2 million after a $7.8 million weekend ... Pixar/Disney’s Cars 2, $360.4 million versus $189.7 million domestic ... DreamWorks Animation/Paramount’s Kung Fu Panda 2, $494 million ...

Worldwide, KFP2 has now collected more than $659 million, which no doubt still counts as a disappointment in the fever dreams of the trade and mainstream press.

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Remembering Kevyn Wallace

We just received word from a TAG member:

It is with a very heavy heart that we regretfully inform friends and colleagues of the passing of Kevyn Wallace.

On September 14th, at 3am, Kevyn succumbed to the injuries he sustained after being hit by a drunk driver on August 9th, 2011.

Kevyn was 48.

Kevyn was an accomplished Feature Animation Layout Artist having quietly spent much of his formidable career at Disney, Universal and Film Roman. At the time of his death, he was working on his own documentary chronicling the history of African-American Artists in Animation and their invaluable contributions to the industry.

Kevyn's family would like to extend their gratitude for all of the love, the well-wishes, the cards and the positive thoughts sent to Kevyn - and to them - during this very difficult time.

We cordially invite you to join us in honoring Kevyn on his birthday...

A Life Celebration of Kevyn Wallace

Friday, September 23, 2011 at 7pm

Art Center College of Design

1700 Lida Street

Pasadena, CA 91103-1999

We also understand that donations to the LAC+USC Burn Center would be welcome in lieu of flowers...

We are also planning a fundraiser/art auction as a gift from our community to Kevyn's family, to help with costs incurred ...

(Please continue to check back for further updates...)

Going through studios like I do, I was used to seeing Kevyn in office and cubicle, working on this feature and that. He was always cheerful, always upbeat.

Forty-eight is way too young to leave the Parade, but none of us know when the band will stop playing and our time will arrive to move on. Here's to you, Mr. Wallace.

(Cartoon Brew also put up a notice of Kevyn's death)

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

WGA Elections

The Nikkster, bellowing from the grandstands, is not super happy with the outcome of this year's Writers Guild elections.

Strike Leader Patric Verrone Sidelined

Hollywood will be strike-free for at least another 2 years. The Writers Guild of America, West, just announced its 2011 Officers and Board of Directors after a surprisingly not-even-close election that turned a bit nasty towards the end. Newcomer Chris Keyser as President will continue outgoing John Wells’ moderate leadership of the once hardline Writers Guild West. ...

Today’s loss by Verrone shows an unwillingness by the WGA membership to pursue a tough stance with the Big Media studios and networks anytime soon. ... Hey, the Hollywood guilds get the leadership they deserve.

What this indicates to me is that above-the-line union membership (SAG, DGA, WGA) is as wary of militancy and threats of strikes right now as many TAG members who I encounter.

Over the past three years, one of the refrains I've heard from artists at studios is: "Hey, I'm working near scale, but I'm working. I'm just glad to have a job." Three years ago, the economy went down. Unemployment nationwide is still up there, and it's only been in the last fifteen months that television animation has come back in a major way. (Television work for live-action writers has yet to come back.)

Everybody is uncomfortably aware that we live in corporatist times. And that to stand up to large corporations at this moment in history is a brave, daring and often risky act. The eagerness for risk-taking is not, just now, as high as even a baby elephant's eye.

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Lion King Over Performance

Now with Charterrific Add On.

From El Mojo.

... The Lion King (in 3D) earned its $8.8 million from 2,330 locations, nearly all of which were playing the movie in 3D. That's more than twice as much as the Toy Story/Toy Story 2 (3D) double-feature re-release grossed on its first day two years ago ($3.3 million), and it's also slightly better than September 2009's animated hit Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs ($8.1 million). ...

So now we'll get a scramble of executives saying: "Wait a minute. What was the gross again?! And it wasn't CGI? Or new? We gotta categorize this as a Non-recurring Phenomenon, right gang?".

Add On: So how many seventeen-year-old movies open at the top of the movie charts a second time? Not many.

"The Lion King" reigned supreme at the box office this weekend, nearly two decades after the classic animated movie was first released in theaters.

[LK 3D] began its limited, two-week engagement this weekend and collected a surprisingly strong $29.3 million domestically, according to an estimate from Walt Disney Pictures.

Lastly, the Animation Charts:

1) Lion King -- $29.3 million

9) Rise of the ... Apes -- $2.6 million ($171.6 million total)

15) The Smurfs -- $1.2 million ($137.5 million total)

Add On Too: The perspective from TIME:

... The Lion King's numinous numbers — which registered the best weekend haul since Rise of the Planet of the Apes opened six weeks ago — underline the enormous, enduring power of the Disney brand's top-of-the-line items. Five of Box Office Mojo's 25 all-time top moneymakers, in real dollars, are Mouse House movies: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at No. 10, 101 Dalmatians at 11, Fantasia at 21, The Lion King at 22 and the live-action-plus-animation Mary Poppins at 25. Since The Lion King was released, only three films (Titanic, Avatar and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) have earned more at the domestic box office, again in real dollars. ...

Seventeen years ago at Disney Feature Animation was an amazing era. The staff was cloud-walking and energized, at the crest of an incredible wave of animated features. Morale was high, Jeffrey and the division were invincible, and people thought it would go on and on ...

This weekend's grosses were a reminder of how things were in 1994. ...

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Lion King 3D! And Attendant Tub Thumping!

Box office prognosticators think an old cartoon might end up at the pinnacle of box office charts:

... [Lion King 3D's] advanced ticket sales have been very strong, and it seems likely to climb to the top ... over the Friday-to-Sunday period. ...

It's not often that a seventeen-year-old feature gets a theatrical re-release. But never under-estimate the power of three dimensions and the marketing muscle of a big, international conglomerate.

And Disney's publicity machine is churning with full force. Among the articles heralding the relaunch ...

Mark Henn and Tony Bancroft recount "Lion King's" production.

As Lion King Goes 3D, cast and crew recall its making.

Rob [Minkoff] talks about the movie's new 3D theatrical release, the process of making the movie, and moving into live action.

‘The Lion King’ Has a New Life.

I've only seen 3-D images of Lion King on various computer monitors inside the hat images. It's genuinely dimensional, in the same way that Beauty and the Beast 3-D was dimensional. (That one I have seen.)

In the end, it's a personal choice. If you dig moving View Master, if you like goggles and elements floating out there in front of the silver screen, by all means rush to your AMC and treat yourself to the music and spectacle one more time. Maybe you'll have an experience to share, years from now, with your grandchildren.

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Movie Costs

From time to time, commenters get caught up in the fun game of what animated feature has made money, and which not. Here's a fine example about why the conjecture is a silly and fruitless enterprise.

... The actor who played Darth Vader still has not received residuals from the 1983 film "Return of the Jedi" because the movie, which ranks 15th in U.S. box office history, still has no technical profits to distribute. ...

Most corporations try to make a profit by limiting costs. Movies corporations manage to record a loss by maximizing costs. ...

Our fine entertainment conglomerates deep-fry the books almost from reflex. It's a long-standing movie tradition. And when I mean long-standing, read this example, a letter from one movie exec to another discussing a big-budget, exotic-location feature:

As the ... production will be put out as a special it will be necessary to have from you at an early date an estimate of its cost. This should be just as high as you can possibly make it and every item that you can possibly think of which can reasonably be charged to this negative should be added ...

The film above? It was a HUGE hit in its time, earning over 28 times its production cost.

And it was made ninety-nine years ago.

The more time passes, the more the same sh*t comes up, over and over.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Renovations and Relocations

I journeyed to Disney TVA Sonora today, and discovered that the place was a noisy construction zone. Staffers told me:

"The construction crews have picked up their pace around here. All the Disney Television Animation artists and directors at the Frank Wells Building on the lot move over to Sonora early next week. The noise is pretty disruptive ..."

They're completely remaking the second floor of Sonora. It was configured for two or three direct-to video features, now they'll be making two series up there." ... "Cement has been falling off the first-floor ceiling where theyre jack-hammering the second floor. ..."

"Richard Ross wanted all the units who report to him on the Burbank lot. Disney TVA reports to the Channel, not Ross, so they're vacating their third floor space in Frank Wells ..."

While I was there, the noise and foot-traffic was intense. A Glendale fire marshal was going around with the hard-hat guys, checking things off his list. And as I left, artists told me that management had told them they could go home, since the work environment was ... not really optimum.

The Sonora remodel is the second in four years. (Might be more than that, depending on how you count. Each floor has gone through one or two renovations prior to this one.)

So Disney is moving along, expanding its animation production for the small screen. But unlike DreamWorks Animation, its going in a different direction overseas:

... Disney backed away from its strategy of producing local language films with local actors and made the decision to close the small Burbank office overseeing the effort in June.

... When Ross saw big box office returns on Pirates 4 ($65M in Russia) and Cars 2 in those same countries, he decided it made more sense to spend the money on marketing and distributing the studios’ franchise films than to bank on local talent. ...

Apparently no more Roadside Romeos for Diz Co. (Or maybe this applies only to live-action?)

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The TAG 401(k), the MPIPHP and Retirement Calculations

Once again, I am out with 401(k) Enrollment Meetings. And once again I get questions about how everything fits together.

Among the questions I get are (Surprise!) "What kind of pension(s) do I have?" and "How much money will I need when I retire?" ...

The answer to the first query is, under the Animation Guild, employees at most studios have three plans. The two pensions from the Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan are automatic. (That is, the employer makes contributions on your behalf to both of them from the first day of your employment.) The third pension, courtesy of The Animation Guild 401(k) Plan, is optional. (That one you have to sign up for. Those contributions come out of your weekly wages.)

You'll find more details about all the Pension Plans here and here. (Pay particular attention to the comment threads.)

As it stands right now, you can defer up to $16,500 into the TAG 401(k) Plan each year. (That goes up to $22,500 when you hit age fifty.) The 401(k) Plan has been in existence for sixteen years, and we now have participants who, between the TAG 401(k) and the Individual Account Plan, have $400 to $600 thousand dollars in their combined retirement accounts.

This money, along with Social Security (generally in the $1200-$2200/month range) and the Defined Monthly Benefit from the Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan, (anywhere from $230 to $5000 per month, depending on a participant's total hours and total number of qualified pension years), means that animation retirees should have a pretty good cash flow to see them through their non-working years.

As to how much money a person should take from their money stash one year to the next, the traditional view is that most people can draw 3% or 4% for thirty years, without running savings (investments, retirement accounts) down to zero.

But of course, everybody's circumstances are different, and so it might be a good idea to check out one or more of these Retirement Calculators found in the Bogleheads Wiki. They may not provide you with all the answers, but they'll give a good general idea of how much you'll need to finance those years you're going to spend on the beach at Key Largo.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The China Connection

One more studio dives into the Middle Kingdom.

[DreamWorks Animation] is to open a new Shanghai operation to make films specifically for China's booming market, a recruitment firm told AFP on Wednesday. ...

DWA is (apparently) going to leap into the "Develop local content" game.

They aren't the first, of course. Disney partnered with Indian an animation studio to create Roadside Romeo, one of the box office non-starters of 2008.

Which might explain why there haven't been a cavalcade of newer animated features coming out of sub-continent.

But now, if the reports are accurate, Jeffrey's place is going to try its hand at production in China. It hasn't worked like gangbusters in India, but maybe China will be better. Or otherwise. Because as a wise and seasoned animator related half a month ago:

"India still has quality issues regarding theatrical features, and China is ten years behind India. China's approached animation like it hascars and computers. They reverse-engineer hardware, and they do the same with animation. They take existing scenes and duplicate them, move for move, gesture for gesture. Not the way to push animation to a higher level ..."

The problem with developing viable (and quality) animation studios abroad is, you have to build a talent pool and infrastructure equal to the task, and current economics and business models make that difficult. To date, top talents inside foreign facilities have exited for better gigs in the U.S. and elsewhere when their talents and ambitions collided with home companies' low glass ceilings. So until overseas studios develop more innovative and creative mind-sets, they'll be working at a disadvantage.

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Drinking and Drawing: In LA

Fred Seibert was kind enough to bring to our attention a fun gathering geared towards animation veterans and fans. From the description on its website:

It ends up being a high-paced musical chairs way of doing an animation (think Exquisite Corpse, or Anijam), and it’s loads of fun! Plus, by the end of the night, we have a short film (about 1 - 2 minutes long), created by dozens of animators!

The event will take place next Wednesday, September 21st, at Dillon's Irish Pub in Hollywood from 7-10pm. Its free to attend and participate and the resulting short will be posted on the Drinking and Drawing website for everyone to enjoy.

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NLRB Poster now available!

As we wrote about earlier, the NLRB has passed a rule requiring private sector employers to display a poster outlining the right to organize as defined by the Wagner Act of 1935.

That poster is now available for download in PDF format. If your employer doesn't already have one, feel free to share the link with them for their convenience.

Employee Rights Notice Poster

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Apparently lots of collateral damage has taken place in the Democratic Party Embezzlement Bamboozle.

Hollywood donors are high on the list of political donors whose money is presumed lost in an alleged embezzlement scheme that led to the arrest last week of a longtime Democratic operative.

Hollywood donors are high on the list of political donors whose money is presumed lost in an alleged embezzlement scheme that led to the arrest last week of a longtime Democratic operative.

Sony, Disney, News Corp., labor group IATSE and the Motion Picture Assn. of America are among the top donors whose funds have been lost, along with several million dollars in the campaign war chest of California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein (left), according to ...

I'm sure that donors ... including all the IA union representatives that contribute to the IATSE's PAC ... just tingle all over at the Great Swindle.

Ms. Durkee has now been charged with mail fraud.

... [Kinde Durkee] is in settlement negotiations with federal prosecutors, a law enforcement source said Tuesday. ...

In an interview with the FBI on September 1, "Ms. Durkee admitted that she had been misappropriating her clients' money for years, and that forms she filed with the state were false ..."

Gee. The embezzle went on for years. Wonder how that could have happened?

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Wacom wants to be on your Wish List

Those who practice the crafts of visual arts are very familiar with Wacom. They have been providing artistic alternatives to human-computer interfacing that have benefited many in our field.

From the Bamboo and Intuos tablets that started the pen to computer interface, Wacom have taken their technology to new levels in the last few weeks with the introduction of the Inkling and the upgrade to the Cintiq. While we are all waiting to see more of what the Inkling can do, the mark Cintiq has made on traditional animation is undeniable. In their latest upgrade, the Cintiq 24HD brings a bigger screen now with HD aspect, more flexible positioning, a wider viewing angle and better color depth and calibration capabilities.

While this blog leans more towards Guild specific studios and issues, we would be remiss if we didn't mention the latest offerings from the company that has become synonymous with the creation of our craft. After the fold, videos for your viewing pleasure.

The Wacom Inkling

The Wacom Cintiq 24HD

... which is an upgrade from the 21ux

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The Larry Leker Interview -- Part II

(C) 1991, the Walt Disney Co.

Larry spent a long apprenticeship with Don Bluth before moving to Disney Feature Animation where he worked on Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King in rapid succession ...

TAG Interview with Larry Leker

Find all TAG Interviews on the TAG website at this link

Larry served as Art Director on The Goofy Movie, a feature created out of Disney's Paris studio, then worked as director on All Dogs Go To Heaven 2 before moving over to DreamWorks Animation for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

Today, Mr. Leker works on a variety of projects, in both features and television. (Like most animation professionals in today's cartoon labor market, he goes where the work is.)

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Funding for Independents

When a Mother Ship goes down (Disney Feature Animation Florida, Fox Animation Phoenix, to name but two) there are usually small studios full of ex-employees that spring up near the smoldering crater, willing, able and anxious to take on new work. The issue isn't mastery of craft, but ability to finance projects. For instance:

Artists at [Secret Legion Studios in Orlando] want to produce what they hope will be an Oscar-worthy, animated short film, “Combover for Dinner.” The light-hearted tale is about a middle-age man who invites the “girl of his dreams” over for dinner as he tries to win her heart while hiding a not-so-hiddensecret: his combover. ... Before they can do that, though, they will need more than $150,000.

The company is selling smart-phone apps to raise the money. To date, it's sold 7,00 applications, which means only 146,000 to go before financing is assured.

We wish them the best of luck.

The problem for small animation studios dependent on bringing jobs through the door and executing them well to remain alive is, even if you have a facility filled with gifted, hard-working people, you are still at the mercy of our fine, entertainment conglomerates for projects. They will either like your work or not. They will either give you new assignments or not. And if they don't, you will soon be out of business.

Not an easy road, bidding jobs for regional commercials and public service announcements, waiting for the Big Break. Hopefully Secret Legion will get its short made, be nominated for a Little Gold Man, and climb from there. (All the while keeping artists employed.)

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The Larry Leker Interview -- Part I

Mr. Larry Leker a few years prior to the start of his animation career ...

Animation veteran Larry Leker has pretty much covered all the bases on the cartoon ballfield in a career spanning thirty-plus years ...

TAG Interview with Larry Leker

Find all TAG Interviews on the TAG website at this link

Getting his start with Ralph Bakshi in the 1970s, Larry has done the assistant animator/ animator thing as well as supervised layout. He has also directed and storyboarded while working on a wide variety of features, everything from Secret of NIMH to Beauty and the Beast to DWA's Spirit.

In this week's TAG Interview, Larry tells us how a Phoenix, Arizona teenager without formal art training found his way into a long and successful career in the world of animation.

(Just like last week, we offer audio and video versions of the interview. So take your pick.)

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

And the Foreign Horse Race

Much to many citizens' amazement, The Smurfs take the #1 spot yet again.

Those lovable blue creatures narrowly maintained their hold on the No. 1 weekend box office perch on the foreign theatrical circuit as The Smurfs grossed $14.9 at 7,610 overseas locations in 73 markets.

This elevates the total foreign gross accumulated so far by the 3D Sony Animation co-production to $321 million ...

And the latest DreamWorks Animation release continues to gather up cash.

... Kung Fu Panda 2 has grossed $491 million since it opened on the foreign circuit on May 26. Weekend take was $2.6 million from 1,183 venues


(But no doubt still a disappointment as far as the American media is concerned.)

Meantime, Pixar Disney’s Cars 2 has raked in $358 million and $547 million globally.

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40% Flat Tax?

Now with fact-check Add On from another Wise Old Economist ...

I plan to do more research on this, but according to a couple of Boston economists, most everybody in America has a 40% tax rate (give or take):

... In a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Boston University economists Laurence J. Kotlikoff and David Rapson have found that our all-in marginal tax rate is 40%, give or take a bit. Yes, you read that right: 40%.

Most workers will pay about that much on each dollar of income when all taxes -- federal and state income taxes, sales taxes, taxes for benefit programs, etc. -- are considered.

As a consequence, a 30-year-old couple earning only $20,000 a year has a marginal tax rate of 42.5%, while a 45-year-old couple earning $500,000 pays at 43.2%. There are some exceptions: A 30-year-old couple earning $50,000 a year, for instance, pays 24.4%, and a 60-year-old couple making $150,000 a year faces a tax rate of 47.7%.

The average marginal tax rate on incomes between $20,000 and $500,000 is 40.3%, the median tax rate is 41.8%, and the standard deviation of all of those rates is 5.3 percentage points. Basically, most of us pay about 40%, plus or minus 5.3 percentage points. ...

In the linked piece above, there's a dandy chart detailing the levels of taxes that different income brackets pay.

Anecdotally, I know people who shell out way below 40%. And of course Warren Buffett claims he pays a rate of 16.5%.

But for most of us mortals, maybe I'm not calculating property taxes, sales taxes, and all the other nicks and cuts everybody gets year after year. (I recently paid a large fine on a "red light camera" ticket that I was subsequently told I didn't have to pay because citations from red light cameras are -- as of January 2011 -- unenforceable in California. Live and learn. So I guess I ended up making a generous donation to the city of San Bernadino. Yippee.)

But I thought the article, although a few years old, was interesting enough to throw up here, even though it's somewhat off our usual track. (But everybody pays taxes, right? So it's not that far off.)

Add On: John Hagens, PhD, weighs in:

Kotlikoff is reliable and I suspect that his conclusion is broadly correct for most, but not for the super rich such as Buffett.

I was wondering why 30-yr-olds with $50k of income have a tax rate of 24%, which is so much lower than every other cell. ... Maybe he is including employer payroll taxes. ...

That 5% is the standard deviation, meaning that 2/3 of people pay between 35% and 45%. 95% of people pay +/- 2x5%, meaning 30% and 50%.

I just noticed one other thing in the table: these are marginal tax rates, not average tax rates. ... Marginal tax rates drop when income goes above the payroll tax ceiling, and then rise when the income tax bracket jumps to 35% for incomes above $200k.

The people who get whacked are the two-earner couples, both with incomes below the payroll tax ceiling – the $150k joint income range for 30 and 45 yr olds. This is the real news in this table! It's the great middle class that is getting the shaft. Did you know that day care for these two-earner families is about $1300 per kid per month? And then, they have to pay back seriously large college loans as well, since many of their folks have stagnant incomes or didn’t save.

So there you have it. Who's getting screwed here in the Land of the Free, and who is not, from three different economists. (Note that there is still, according to the Wise Old Economists, a considerable range: from 30% to 50% for 95% of tax-payers, and 35% to 45% for 67% of tax-payers.)

Click here to read entire post

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Viral Cat

Yesterday I was at DWA talking to some story people about this feature...

A couple of them said to me:

"We hadn't seen the movie, since we're deep into the one that we're working on elsewhere in the building. But we were having arguments about some of our own sequences, and we were told it would be good idea to see Puss in Boots as an example of how everything can really work. Because the buzz about the feature around here is highly positive, and it's held up as a movie that's done right.

"Puss is good, but we had some problems with parts of it. We left the screening room saying, 'That's the greatest thing ever?' But the issues we had with chunks of it are being addressed. In fact, the problems we thought were there have already been changed.

"When you go in to watch something after being told that it's super great, you're almost always let down. ..."

All I know about Puss in Boots are the trailers that I've seen, the articles I have read, and the back-and-forth I've heard from staff in DWA's Lakeside Building. And, as noted above, the scuttlebutt is solidly positive.

But here's what I have figured out after working on features and listening to the gossip and gripes that get expressed about features as they move through the production process: Full-length cartoons almost always improve as they get closer to completion. Sequences are tightened up; the third act is reworked for the eighteenth time and finally clicks; the color, animation, surfacing, lighting, music and effects put a bright, fresh sheen on the Cintiq sketches that everyone thought were, well, a little flat.

And suddenly things are magical.

As I told somebody at DWA yesterday, I heard bad-mouthing about Tangled during the course of its looong development, and it ended up good. Animators pissed and moaned to me about Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron for like ever until the final three months of production when everyone allowed how it had really come together.

So what I've learned is, wait until you actually see the damn movie, then make up your own damn mind. Because listening to the impressions and opinions of others, especially when they're working furiously down in the trees and can't see the whole forest, can often be real misleading.

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The Derby of Early September

Mojo provides the Friday numbers, with The Help getting pushed to #2 as Contagion climbs into the top spot.

1) Contagion -- $8,030,000

2) The Help -- $2,672,000

6) Rise of Apes -- $1,100,000

14) The Smurfs -- $350,000

The Smurfs is now Sony Pictures Animation's biggest hit, surpassing Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by a comfortable margin. Domestically it has rolled up a gross of $134.5 million, and peformed even more strongly overseas.

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California Film Tax Incentives -- Thumbs Up for One Year

The I.A.T.S.E. worked hard on getting the state tax incentive renewed for another five years, with a lot of union reps flying to Sacramento to tub-thump for it. But they ended up with only a slice of the layer cake:

... The California legislature extended the film production tax incentive program for one year early Saturday morning during the intense final minutes of the annual legislative session ... The bill had originally gone through the legislative process as a five year program, but two weeks ago was cut to one year as part of a budget compromise.

Then two days ago it was restored to five years as part of compromise tied to the tax plan pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown. That passed the state Assembly but stalled in the Senate, and died last night. So the tax incentives were cut back to one year and approved ...

The program has worked pretty well over its five-year span, but money is tight. So there will be, over the next several months, a lot more pushing and shoving to get an extension.

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Friday, September 09, 2011

Mouse Mines the Library

The Reporter notes that a well-loved animated feature is being repurposed.

... ABC is developing an hour-long drama based on Beauty and the Beast. ... ABC's Beauty and the Beast update comes as the network prepares for the Oct. 23 launch of Once Upon a Time, the dual universe drama revolving around Snow White ... and her long-lost daughter ...

Imagination and originality are sky high in Hollywood, as per usual.

I, myself, have long envisioned the Seven Dwarfs as a short version of The A-Team, leaving the mine and fighting criminals, righting wrongs throughout the forest. I can see Doc now with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, charging through the underbrush: "Cover me boys! I'm going in!"

Television at its finest.

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Where are we working?

UPDATE: IM Digital and Imagi added, and math corrected.

The number of people employed at Animation Guild shops has increased by 7.2% in the last three years.

Overall, a modest if not huge increase. The biggest gain has been at DreamWorks whose TAG workforce has increased by 35%; for the first time in over twenty years, a studio other than Disney is our largest employer.

As noted below, Warner Bros. has nearly tripled its staff since 2008. Modest increases at Nickelodeon and Fox were offset by modest declines at Disney, Film Roman, Cartoon Network and Universal.

Over a hundred jobs are to be found at smaller studios. Three new employers - Robin Red Breast, Hasbro and Bento Box - are responsible for almost two hundred new jobs. Thanks to our organizing efforts, the union workforce is not only increasing but diversifying.

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Thursday, September 08, 2011

Warner Bros. Animation - The ReAwakening

History does appear to move in cycles.

Twenty-two years ago, after being in a lingering coma, Warner Bros. Animation came back to life with a full-throated roar when it partnered with Steven Spielberg to create Tiny Toon Adventures:

... The series was conceived during the late-80s, post-Muppet Babies boomlet for younger versions of beloved cartoon characters, and the series could never match up to the original Looney Tunes animation. At the same time, Tiny Toon only rarely achieved the full-scale madcap insanity of Warner’s later cartoon Animaniacs. ...

Warner Bros. Animation is (and was) an interesting animal. During my time at Disney, it was mostly a small, re-issue house that cobbled its old cartoon catalogue together with new interstitials. (A telling description for the place at the time would have been "half dead.") In 1982, during Local 839's long strike, animation veteran Tom Yakutis said to me, "Let's go picket Warner Bros. Animation," and I ended up going with him to a small, non-descript building on Riverside Drive that housed doctors ... and a few Warners cartoonists. While Tom and I were marching up and down, an old man in a fishing hat came out of the building. Tom waved and yelled: "Hey Friz!"

The old guy grunted and nodded. It was the first and only time I laid eyes on Friz Freleng.

In early 1989, Warner Bros. Animation roused from its coffin and began expanding with a vengeance as it geared up to produce Tiny Toon Adventures. I wrote one unproduced story treatment for the show before running off to the House of Labor, but then came back to the new studio in Sherman Oaks to observe a beehive of activity as WBA made Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Freakazoids, Sylvester Tweety and a bunch of others through the 1990s.

During that time, Warners Animation had a reputation as being a fine place to work. There was even a period, as animation employment crested, that WBA retained its entire staff for eight or nine months during a down period. They didn't want to lose any talent, so they kept the talent on payroll, with nothing to do. (This is a rare industry occurence, trust me.)

As the nineties faded, so did red-hot employment in the cartoon business. Disney laid off many long-time artists, and jobs at various t.v. houses disappeared. When things picked up again, WBA was, sadly, a laggard, with twenty-five or thirty artists on staff. (Shades of the doctors' building on Riverside Drive!) As recently as two years ago, the studio was still a shadow of its former self, but today it is again in high gear, producing direct-to-video features, action-adventure series, and comedy extravaganzas with tried-and-true Warner Bros. stalwarts Daffy Duck, Poky Pig, and Bugs Bunny. The studio is also in the middle of creating a long series of well-received theatrical shorts.

When you think about it, Warners is the polar opposite of Disney. Not only are their long-time characters considerably different, but unlike the House of Mouse, which has continued as a major animation entity decade after decade, WBA has been buried and returned from the dead numerous times.

With luck, this time its life-span will be long and healthy.

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