Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Largest Animation Studio (in 1985)

Twenty-one years ago, the largest 'toon studio in Los Angeles -- and probably anywhere -- wasn't Disney, wasn't Hanna-Barbera. Care to guess what it was? Filmation Through most of the eighties, Filmation Associates was headquartered in Reseda, but when I went to work there in mid-1988, Filmation was out in the far western end of the San Fernando Valley, housed in a large brick building at the corner of Victory and Canoga. There was no pretense about Filmation. Lou Scheimer was the chief. Arthur Nadel, who had been a live-action television director and also helmed the Elvis Presly feature "Clambake," was the creative Vice-President and story editor. Tom Tataranowicz was the lead director. Production was straight-forward and without frills. You wrote the script, you got it boarded, you put the result into production. And production, because Lou wanted it that way, was done entirely in Los Angeles. I was assigned an office up on the third floor, down the hall from Arthur Nadel, turning out scripts for a series entitled "Bugzburg." Filmation was kind of a cultural shock after Disney, but I found the work invigorating. I would pitch a story to Arthur, he'd grunt "Fine, go do it," and I'd pad off down the hall to my small quarters to pound out a draft. (No endless story meetings like at Diz Feature Animation. Speed was of the essence.) Four days into the script, Arthur would enter my office and the following conversation would take place: Nadel: So. How far through this thing are you? Hulett: (Short pause). Oh, two-thirds of the way. This was a lie. We both knew it was a lie. I was actually at the forty-percent-of-the-way mark. Arthur would then frown. Hulett: (continuing nervously) When do you need the script done? Nadel: Yesterday. Hulett: Oh. Well, I should have it finished, ahm, Monday? Nadel: (sighing) Then I guess that's when I'll get it... I wrote five "Bugzburg" scripts like boomity-boomity-boom, and Arthur and I had five variations of the above scene. Filmation did not like staff writers to linger over animation scenarios. Time was money. If you spent three weeks on a half-hour screenplay, you were a laggard. And that included the freelance script Arthur would invariably drop on your desk to cut, rewrite or otherwise punch up while you were laboring over your own little masterpiece. In January of 1989, another writer and I were assigned the tasks of developing new series ideas. Don Heckman, the other writer, exulted to me, "This is going to be great. There'll at least a year of development work for both of us. I've heard that the new corporate owner wants a lot of new product..." That turned out to be 180 degrees from reality. What the new corporate owner -- the French company L'Oreal -- wanted was to get its hands on the library of Filmation's OLD product and shut the studio down. In early February dark rumors started circulating that the company was on thin ice; two days later Lou Scheimer called the staff into the projection room and tearfully announced that after twenty-six years of production, Filmation was closing. The end of the week. The final forty-eight hours of Filmation's corporate life was funereal. Studio employees went out for gloomy lunches that were, for the first time, longer than an hour. Employees clustered in hallways, talking softly. On that last Friday, I filled a cardboard box with personal possessions and took it down to my car. In the next parking slot, my boss Arthur Nadel was putting his own cardboard box into the trunk of his Jag. He looked at me. "Steve. Any plans about what you're going to be doing next?" I told him I had a teaching credential and would probably teach high school for awhile. (Which turned out to be true.) I asked him what he intended to do. He shrugged and sighed. "Just go home and quietly starve." (Which turned out not to be true.) And so ended Filmation's quarter century of active life. I learned a great deal working there, not least of which was that nothing is permanent. When a company goes from the largest animation studio to non-existence in four years, that lesson is driven home. But I still had a hell of a good time working there. Click here to read entire post

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Weekend Box Office Track -- Films with Fuzzy Animals

The next animated feature populated by furred beasties isn't out until May 19th, when "Over The Hedge" debuts. In the meantime, here's how the current duo is performing... "Ice Age: The Meltdown" still has the third highest number of screens (3,122) of any film in release. "The Wild" is on 2,605 screens for 7th highest. Both film remain in the top ten. "IA2" has collected $172,243,000 in domestic receipts, while "The Wild" scores $24,691,000. (Well, there's always the dvd release...) Overseas, "Ice Age 2" continues to delight Rupert & Associates. Update: Per Box Office Mojo, "Ice Age 2" gathered in $7 million this weekend (the flick is at 7th position in its 5th week, with a total of $177.7 million domestic). "The Wild" clung to number 9 with $4.7 million in the kitty (in its 3rd week; for a total of $28,430,000.) Update (Monday, May 1): Per Daily Variety: "Ice Age: The Meltdown" is still red hot overseas, rapidly closing in on $400 million. "The Wild," by contrast, is raking in a small, non-threatenig pile of chips in foreign markets. To date its garnered $22.5 million. Click here to read entire post

Friday, April 28, 2006

Disney Animation's FIRST Sub-Contracted Cartoon*

It's old hat now, but back in the early eighties Walt Disney Productions had never sub-contracted an outside company to produce animated product... (* Wait. That's not precisely true. In the early thirties, Disney had the cartoon studio Harmon-Ising do an outside short under the Disney banner. But outside of THAT...) In 1982-83, after a lengthy contract strike, rising Disney story artist Peter B. Young spearheaded the first new "Pooh" featurette in a decade. Pete found two stories in the A.A. Milne books that were very Pooh-like, also charming, graceful and with neat beginnings, middles and ends. He sold studio head Ron Miller on green-lighting the project. Frankly, I don't know how Pete managed to find good material, since I had assumed that all the best Winnie the Pooh stoires had been used up in the three featurettes that had preceded this newer one back in the sixties and seventies. (There's been bajillions of Winnie the Pooh projects since, of course. TV shows, features, educationals, you name it. Almost all of them have been produced overseas. But "Eeyore" was Number Four in the Pooh Pantheon. And actually based on episodes out of the books.) Pete got me, Ron Clements, and animation writer Tony Marino to work with him on story and boards. I had, by this time, been friends with Pete for some years, and I knew his personality and work habits real well. He tended to lay back and wait for the right moment to spring a new story idea on a director or supervisor. ("You give it to them too soon, they'll reject it," he told me. "And if you wait until everything is cast in stone, you're too late. It's like catching a wave. You've got to get out front and paddle at just the right moment." Pete had been a surfer in his youth.) This time, however, he worked with focus and energy and got the storyboards up in a couple of months, which was pretty much a record for a Disney featurette, and he intertwined the two Milne tales like a master weaver. I was amazed, but I shouldn't have been. Pete wasn't reporting to anyone; he was the boss, and it was his butt that was on the line. At the end, it was just Pete and Ron Clements fine tuning the story and finishing the boards, but there was a problem looming. "Mickey's Christmas Carol," then wrapping up, had cost a LOT of money, and management informed us that, to cut costs, they were farming out the animation, backgrounds and ink-and-paint to Rick Reinert Productions. This caused unhappiness and consternation with a lot of young animators. The studio had never farmed out a project before (I mean, who remembered the Harmon-Ising thing from 1932?) and damnit, such a thing just wasn't DONE. Pete didn't like it, but he swallowed hard and accepted management's edict. Better a completed project done by an outside entity than no completed project at all. But Ron Clements was wildly unhappy about the turn of events, thought the idea of subcontracting abhorrent, and took his name off the credits. Your Truly wasn't thrilled either. But Yours Truly was a credit whore, and if a credit was due him, he wanted it. No matter what the quality of the picture was. In due course, the new Pooh featurette came out, and no doubt has made Disney a tidy sum during the last twenty-five years. It doesn't have the gloss and subleties of its older, more expensive siblings, but it's an entertaining enough half hour. But I'm also pretty sure that Ron Clements still has no regrets about taking his name off the credits. Click here to read entire post

Thursday, April 27, 2006

At Warner Bros. Animation

The studio still has two dvd feature projects and two television series in work, with perhaps another Super Hero opus for DVD coming into production mid-summer. But the bigger news around WBA is that the studio should be pulling up roots from Sherman Oaks the latter part of the year...and moving to a building at the Warner Bros. ranch (formerly the Columbia ranch) in Beautiful Burbank. Warner Bros. Animation has been in Sherman Oaks (the middle of the San Fernando Valley) for seventeen years. So this would be a a major move, yes? The East Valley is, heck, seven or eight miles away. Click here to read entire post

Great Moments In Animation -- Employer-Employee Relations (Part II)

While we're on the subject of shaftings (and we are -- see below), here is another alleged misuse of animation artists. A few days ago we received complaints from employees at Fat Cat Animation in Arizona (this group was initially composed of former Fox Animation employees out of Phoenix). Allegedly, some or all of the employees down there haven't been paid wages in some weeks. And some or all of the employees are apparently starting to get steamed about it. The reports from workers on site are that the company is using the"you want to get paid, you better stay loyal and stick around" ploy, so people to keep their noses to the grindstones in hope that cash will eventually be received. We've tried to contact the company both by phone and e-mail, trying to find out if these representations are true. Thus far, all we've received is blank silence. We think that, if indeed employees aren't getting paid, they should put down their pencils and computer mouses NOW, and walk off the premises NOW. Just our opinion, of course. We're old fashioned that way. Click here to read entire post

Great Moments In Animation -- Employer-Employee Relations (Part I)

This has been a rare couple of days. Not one amazing ream job courtesy of an animation studio, but two...into the backsides of a few chosen animation artists... Specimen Number One: We give you Curious Pictures in New York. This company has the following on its web site: "March 2006 - Curious Pictures ranks as one of the "Ten Best Companies to Freelance for in NYC," according to a survey released by The Freelances Union. Other top 10 companies include Conde Nast, Time Warner, BBC..." Etcetera and etcetera. Remarkably enough, this "Top 10 Company" sent the following message to a California freelance employee, who represents to us that he hasn't been paid by Curious Pictures for work performed for the better part of, oh, two months. A few days back she e-mailed politely: "So, when am I going to get paid?" Their response: Hello _____, We are also trying to collect alot of receivable(sic) from our client. As soon as we receive the payments, I will have it approved for payment, and will contact you. Or for your convenience, you can contact me. We apologize for the inconvenience. Regards, Khaleda In other words, they (allegedly) squeeze work from freelancers, then(allegedly) fail to pay them using the lame excuse "hey, we haven't been paid, so you ain't gonna get paid..." A fine way to run a company, no? But at least they're "one of the 10 best companies to freelance for in NYC." We'd hate to see the worst. Click here to read entire post

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Hollywood Bows Down to Feature Animation

Since I'm going on about what's in the news, please note this Hollywood Reporter article that was on the front page of yesterday's HR... The "Ice Age" grosses are getting noticed, wouldn't you say? It's probably why the trade press puts animation front and center on Page Uno. It's probably why there will be around a half dozen digital animated features rolling down the box office pike over the next seven months. At a time when a lot of live action features are faltering, the fact that Feature Animation continues to make heavy coin perks entertainment conglomerates' interest. Click here to read entire post

Electronic Arts Coughs Up Money For Overtime

In case you haven't seen this mornings news articles, the game company EA has settled its overtime lawsuits... People working down at EA's Playa Vista studio told me that they get reeaal tired of schlepping in on a weekend so that they're "on hand" if a lead or supervisor needs them. I've got no idea if this crapola has now totally and finally ended, but maybe managers will at last get it through their heads that working people eighty or a hundred hours a week is, like, counterproductive. Overtime rates are there as much to enable people to work a 40-hour week and have a life as it is to pour extra money into employees' pockets... Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Age of Personal Service Contracts

In Hollywood animation's sleepy, long-ago past, hardly anybody had Personal Service Contracts -- those three-to-thirty page agreements that spell out salary and other terms of employment for individual employees. But in the late eighties all that started to change... Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had rolled into Walt Disney Productions in the mid-eighties, and after "The Little Mermaid" hit big, the executive decision was made to start tying up talent with Personal Service Contracts. In 1990 I noticed that more and more Disney artists were getting PSCs, spelling out salaries, what movies they were to work on, what jobs they were doing. There was language warning to keep everything "confidential," and I started squawking about how the studio couldn't, shouldn't restrict the sharing of wage info because it was, like, against the law (see previous post.) After some foot dragging, Disney finally saw things TAG's way. In the early days of PSCs, they were heavily lopsided; some new employees were tied to contracts at scale, and without any employment guarantees. If they wanted to get rid of you a week from Tuesday, they got rid of you. The Animation Guild was able to get those kinds of contracts to go away. By 1992-3, PSCs were ubiquitous. Everybody had one, from trainees to veterans. And there was a happy moment from 1995 to early 1997 when the battle between Warner Bros., DreamWorks and Disney drove wages through the roof and PSCs became really WORTH something. I knew at least one lead key assistant animator that was making a salary that would have made Frank and Ollie swoon with envy. Personal Service Contracts changed as the grosses for hand-drawn animated features declined. Salaries fell. Terms of contracts got shorter. As the century turned, "run of picture" clauses pushed old-fashion three-year guarantees to the edge of extinction. The Animation Guild took the position that "run of picture" contracts were actually "at will" contracts; the studios could lay employees off when the studios determined there was no further work available, and employees could leave on a week's notice. (Some studios say they disagree with our legal position, but no studio we know about has stopped an employee from leaving.) Yesterday at Disney Feature Animation, an employee told me he thought Disney was phasing out Personal Service Contracts altogether. "They've laid off some of their contracts people. Pixar, I hear, doesn't have PSCs. Word's going around that Disney Feature is going to be the same. No PSCs." I don't know if this change will take place or not. But if it does, the move will return Disney Features to the way it was pre-1990, when artists all worked week-to-week, and stayed or left because they wanted to...or because a supervisor put a lay-off slip on their desks. It's anybody's guess if the other studios will follow suit. Click here to read entire post

The Studio Trifecta

I galloped around to various studios yesterday and today, spreading the word about Monday's contract ratification. Not much of moment is going on at Cartoon Network, Nick, or Disney Feature, but there are a few things... Patrick Verrone -- the Prez of the WGA(w) -- is writing on "Class of 3000"... Nick has wrapped two series and has others in development.... Work on "Meet the Robinsons" slows down as story changes ripple through the production. Half of the Circle 7 crew -- which was set to work on "Toy Story III" has been placed in jobs on other shows. This is a good thing; hopefully the rest will be reassigned soon. Click here to read entire post

SAG Board Approves Animation Contract - Three Cheers

The Screen Actors Guild Board approved a new animation contract on April 21, and the rest of us should rejoice... Any time the production process gets slowed, it slows jobs (and job creation) everywhere else. And bad things can happen therefrom. I'll give you a specific, mini example: A couple of years back, the voice actors on "The Simpsons" staged a de facto strike for higher wages. Fox had dug in its heels on big bump ups, and the actors stopped recording shows. There wasn't a SAG job action at the time, but the small, wild-cat version of one with "The Simpsons" resulted in longer layoffs than normal for the animation crew. (And members of "The Simpsons" staff were blocked from going to work on other Fox shows by a Fox exec. I'd tell you his name, but Mr. Raynis wouldn't like it.) Ultimately the dispute between the voice actors and Fox was resolved, and everyone -- including the animation artists -- went back to work. But the long mini strike was damaging to a lot of pocket books, so it's a good thing that the broader population of voice actors aren't poised to strike now. It wouldn't be healthy financially for animation artists. Click here to read entire post

Monday, April 24, 2006

Time Cards

Back when I started working in animation, around the time Jerry Ford was our Commander in Chief, most of the artists in the studios punched a time clock.... There was a time shack at each entrance, and you took your rectangular punch card out of a metal rack and pushed it into the top of a gray box with a clock on it. Each time unit was six minutes and there was ten of them in each hour. So if you arrived seven minutes after start time, you'd register as being one unit late. After awhile, I hated the time card and the gray box it went into. I was usually a unit or two late. The whole thing seemed oppressive. Six years into my tenure, I asked Ed Hansen, the animation division's second in command, if I could go "off the clock." He leaned back in his chair and smiled at me. "You have to be overscale to be off clock, Steve." But Ed. I am overscale." (I was a whopping fifty bucks a week above minimum at the time.) "Ah. But you're not enough overscale." "How much would enough be?" "More than you are." I stomped out of his office. And up on the second floor, I ran into my boss Joe Hale, who was the producer of "The Black Cauldron," the animated feature then in production. He saw the sour look on my face and asked what the problem was. I told him I'd just asked Ed Hansen to take me off the time-clock and he had refused. "Ed told me I didn't make enough." "Let me see what I can do," Joe said. And he strode off down the hall. Twenty minutes later my phone rang. It was Ed Hansen, asking to see me in his office. I beelined down there. Ed was all smiles as I came through the door. "I've got good news, Steve. I've decided to take you off the clock." "Great, Ed. Thanks very much." "You're welcome." From that day twenty-five years ago to this one, I have never punched another time clock. Three or four years after I stopped running into the time shack and thrusting my little rectangular card into the gray box, the studio stopped having anyone punch one. At the time, I felt liberated. No more mechanical tyranny hanging over me. No more rushing from car to time shack, praying I wasn't a unit late. I could never understand how Vance Gerry, one of the best story artists at the studio, never asked to be taken off clock and in fact WANTED to punch one. He said he had no problem punching a time clock, that it made things easier for him. I never quite figured out why he was okay with the time card thing. He was an artist, godd*mnit, and he was supposed to love and savor freedom and being unfettered. But two decades further on I finally get it: Time cards and their clocks are a pain in the backside, it's true, but they keep everyone honest. Employees have to get to work sort of on time. Employers have a clear, unambiguous record of when people were there and when they weren't. It's easy to falsify a time card when all that's required is coming around to some poor wretch's cubicle and saying: "We're not authorizing any o.t. Write in 8 hours." But it's hard to falsify the time somebody put in at the job when the frigging time card is STAMPED. So I guess I've come around to Vance Gerry's way of thinking. Time cards are aggravating, but they help keep managers honest. Click here to read entire post

Animation Guild Contract (2006-2009 Edition) Ratified

In early March, the Animation Guild negotiated its new three-year agreement with a dozen (more or less) animation studios.... And today, the American Arbitration Association counted up the ratification ballots that we sent out three weeks ago. The final tally: 94% in favor, 6% against. 27.8% of the eligible membership participated in the guild-wide vote -- 441 to 27, out of 1682 eligibles. (There were another 73 votes invalidated due to bad standing and/or an unmarked ballot. Unmarked ballot? Is it that hard to check YES or NO?) We spent a chunk of time prepping for these negotiations; then they came and went in a couple of winks. Swear to God, I was amazed we got as much as we did. (A 48.9% increase in benefits for freelance animation writers is pretty astounding in this day and age. The International reps who were there in the room aiding and abetting our efforts didn't think we'd pull it off. But we did.) Anyway, we don't have to go through the process again for three years. Praise be. Click here to read entire post

Sunday, April 23, 2006

"Ice Age" Keeps on Giving

"Ice Age: The Meltdown" is the gift that just keeps on showering doubloons on Uncle Rupert (click above. The flick is down a mere 36% for the week)... (c) 20th -Century Fox Now in its fourth week of domestic release, "Ice Age 2" has climbed to almost $168 million in domestic grosses, and per VARIETY, has snared $291 million overseas: "Talk about global warming. Three weeks of better-than-expected performance by Fox International's "Ice Age: The Meltdown" has revived what had been a lackluster 2006 at the international box office. For the first three months of the year, the only consistently strong entry had been BVI's 2005 holdover "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." As of April 19, "Ice Age: The Meltdown" had grossed $291 to nearly double the Stateside take... The CGI sequel exerted a powerful pull over audience outside its core family demo in virtually every market and appeared likely -- with openings in Italy, Japan and South Korea -- to become only the 20th pic ever to top $400 million in offshore grosses..." (-Dave McNary, Weekly Variety) Our estimate: this pup will gross north of $600 million before it's through. And then of course, the dvd release will help it double that number. With cash flow like that, it's small wonder that every major entertainment conglomerate now has its own cgi feature animation studio in place. And that some indies are also establishing beach heads. (It also explains why the Animation Guild's membership numbers keep climbing...) Click here to read entire post

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Knowing What Your Peers Make

Some years back, when hand-drawn animation was peaking, an animator called me and said: "I met with two execs yesterday about getting a raise. They told me I was making as much as anyone here. Any way you can tell me if that's true?" I said that there was, and pulled out a fat printout of all animation employees salaries sent to the Guild by the Motion Picture Pension and Health Plan each quarter. Scanning rows of figures, I informed him that he wasn't even in the top 50% of wages for his classification. After some heavy breathing, he muttered thanks and hung up. Two days later he called again, this time informing me: "I told the executives what you told me. They got agitated, asked where I got the info. I said that you gave it to me." "Oh great." "They got really angry. Said you shouldn't have given it to me. Said it was unethical." "Fine. Did you point out to them that they lied about how much everybody else is making compared to you?" "Ahm, no. I got kind of flustered, they were beating me up so bad about getting wage information from you." "They give you a raise?" Long pause. "No." A couple of years before this conversation, I got into a beef with a Vice President at a large animation studio. The beef was that the studio's many personal service contracts (then around 70% of the entire staff) required employees holding the contracts to keep everything in the contract confidential. And the ONLY thing different in each contract was...(drum roll)...individual salaries. This triggered the following dialogue between me and the Veep: Me: You like, know that the reason the confidentiality clause is in there is to keep people from telling other people what they make, right? Veep: (After hemming and hawing) Yeah, pretty much. Me: You know there's a state law prohibiting a company from stopping an employee from sharing wage information? Veep: Hm hm. But the lawyers tell me as long as nobody takes us to court about it, we're okay. Me: (thoughtful pause) So why don't we just agree that, regarding salaries, the company will take the confidentiality clause out? Veep: I don't think we want to do that. Eventually the company DID take the clause out (after more whining about it from me); soon thereafter we published the following item in the Guild's newsletter: Section 232(a) of the California Labor Code prohibits an employer from requiring as a condition of employment that any employee refrain from disclosing the amount of their wages. Section 232(b) prohibits an employer from requiring an employee to sign a waiver of their right to disclose their wages. Section 232(c) prohibits an employer from discharging, formally disciplining, or otherwise discriminating against an employee who discloses the amount of their wages. When young, most people are taught that it's impolite to ask or tell other people what you make. Maybe that's dandy etiquette, but think a minute. If everyone is ignorant about what the guy in the next cubicle or office is making, the only entity that's helped by that ignorance is your employer, who knows what everyone is making. The language of the state code can be found here. Click here to read entire post

Diz in the 70's -- Picking Voice Tracks With Woolie

Woolfgang Reitherman, producer and uncredited director of "The Fox and the Hound," who wore you out with his energy. * * * * * * * * * * "I just got a call from Woolie to go down and pick takes from the last recording session!" I said excitedly to board artist Vance Gerry. "You going?" "Nope," Vance said. "I've got work to do. But I'm sure you'll have fun..." I bounded down to Woolie's big second-floor office. There were fifteen people there: Mel Shaw, Frank Thomas, Larry Clemmons, Earl Kress, Ollie Johnston, Story artist Dave Michener, and a host of others. Everyone was sitting in chairs; Woolie Reitherman, our leader and the producer on "The Fox and the Hound," was sitting behind his big desk. We were all gathered to pick voice tracks from the most recent recording sessions with Jack Albertson, the actor playing the hunter Amos Slade in the feature. This was the first time I'd been invited to join the group, and I was revved up. Big Time show biz. Jeff Patch, the assistant director, handed me a long sheet of transcribed takes for the dialogue and I plunked down in a chair. Woolie got up from his desk, waving his pages. "Okay, we've got a lot of takes here, a lot of different ways to go, so let's get to it. Jeff, start from the top." Jeff Patch was poised over an old record player, the kind you used to see in various school classrooms. A large black disk sat on the turntable -- a quick-pressed "acetate" of all the dialogue recordings (this was a while before the digital age). He dropped the arm of the player down on the first groove. Albertson's voice came out through the tinny speaker. He bellowed "Copper! Get over here!" We all listened intently. "I don't think that was one that grabbed me," Woolie said. "Let's hear the next." We went on to the next take, then the next. They all seemed pretty similar to me. Albertson threw in the occasional chuckle, then muttered the line, then tried hissing, but most of them began to blur together. Woolie said to Jeff: "Go back to take 2241." Jeff put the needle on the fourth track, and we listened to Jack Albertson yell again. Woolie looked around the room. "How many liked that one?" A half dozen hands went up. "Okay. Now let's hear take 2243." Another drop. Another listen. Woolie asked for a new vote, and there were less hands this time. We jumped around from take to take. I was starting to get woozy. Finally Woolie said: "You know, I think I like the way Albertson yells "Copper! on take 2246, but the way he says 'Get over here!' on 2241. Jeff? Think we could cut those two takes together?" Jeff said sure, and we plowed on. There were pages and pages of other lines, hundreds of various takes. On and on we went, voting for our favorites like a small, demented Parliament, slowly narrowing the list of candidates down. Midway through the second hour, Ollie Johnston stood up and announced: "I've got to get downstairs and do some animating." Thirty minutes after that, Frank Thomas smiled, said he had to go, and departed. The rest of us soldiered on, picking, voting, arguing. Late in the afternoon, Woolie dismissed us for the day, and I trudged out to the animation building's central hallway. On a whim, I detoured to Vance Gerry's room. As I entered, he looked up from his pad of paper and smiled at me. "Woolie and everybody finish choosing dialogue?" I shook my head. "We got through two thirds of it. He wants us to come back tomorrow morning to finish." Vance kept smiling. I looked at him. "You didn't want to go to the session, did you?" Vance shrugged. "There was a time I fought to go to Woolie's meetings. But he wears you out, turns you into a limp rag. Now I fight not to go." Six months later, I was up in my office banging away on a sequence script. Woolie's secretary Larraine called and said Woolie was having yet another dialogue picking session after lunch, and could I come. I took a breath and said: "I better not. I have a bunch of work to do." Larraine said she understood. Click here to read entire post

Friday, April 21, 2006

My Afternoon at IDT Entertainment

The third floor of 2950 N. Hollywood Way houses DPS-Film Roman (formerly Film Roman) and IDT Entertainment (formerly IDT Entertainment) and a whale of a lot of animation artists. IDTE and DPS-FR combined make up one of the busier animation studios in L.A. County... ...what with work for Stan Lee, work for Fred Seibert (former head of Hanna-Barbera and current major player over at Nickelodeon on Olive Avenue), various feature film projects and direct-to-video projects, new episodes of "The Simpsons" and a "Simpsons" feature scheduled for July 2007 release, also new episodes of "King of the Hill," (after an earlier cancellation) the studios' plates are full. I've said much of the above previously. What's new is, IDTE is prepping several CGI features, one of which revolves around some edgy computer generated animals and an edgier premise. (Former staffers from Disney Feature and Disney Toons are among those working on it, but since IDTE doesn't appear to have announced the flick to the public, I'll keep my beak shut about specifics.) The company looks to be ramping up to compete with Disney, DreamWorks, Pixar, Fox and Sony in the red-hot CGI feature market. It's got a distribution deal with Twentieth-Century Fox, a Canadian CGI production studio, and story and pre-production departments in Burbank. What more does an up-and-comer need? Click here to read entire post

IDT and Animation Guild Reach Agreement

IDT Entertainment and the Animation Guild have reached agreement on a new contract... And now you're saying: "Whaaa? Didn't these people have a negotiation for a new agreement a frigging MONTH ago? What's up?" IDTE is another company -- currently producing feature animation projects in Burbank -- that is NOT in the "Animation Bargaining Unit," and therefore we negotiated with them separately. But as of today, we have the same deal with them that we secured last month in the wider negotiations. So you can all sleep better now. Click here to read entire post

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Fyn Stec Benefit Art Auction at Cartoon Network

I just got back from the art auction to benefit Fyn Stec, son of animation pros Paul Stec and Dayla Corcoran . . . It was a great event. Almost 250 pieces were donated, including original paintings, drawings, ceramics, glassware, textiles, photos, t-shirts, a chance to be a character in a Family Guy episode (!), and lots more. Cartoon Network put out a nice spread, and the place was so packed with people it was hard to see the artwork at times. Despite that, bidding was spirited, and it was clearly a huge success. I was out bid on a couple of small items, but I did manage to win a nice Cate Dodge landscape painting. Paul related that Fyn is doing great and is about to come home. I've seen first hand in my previous career how a child's serious illness can devastate a family, and the support of friends and family is vital. It was impressive to see the animation community coming together to support its own, and this clearly meant a lot to Paul. This is exactly the kind of event that, as soon as the union is in our new building in Burbank, I'd like to see us hosting on a regular basis. Click here to read entire post

Palm Springs Quarterly Meetings -- The IATSE Hobnobs WIth the AMPTP

Once or twice a year, our Mother International has a "quarterly meeting" with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to "discuss items of mutual interest." What this means is: the Producers try to pry something out of us (the International's unions and guilds), and we push back... The meeting, was held as per usual at the Riviera Hotel, which I think has a nice ambience but has, sadly, grown seedy with age (it closes for good next month). I motored out in the early morning. The union caucus started at 10:30. President Short made it clear that he didn't want the substance of what was discussed there to show up in the trades Friday or Monday, so I won't blog about it here. (Few reading this would care anyway; it was mostly live action stuff. And who cares about that? In the afternoon, the main topics in the Big Room -- our meeting with all the studio reps -- centered around how the health and pension plans were doing, and what the future holds for them. Since we've blogged about this before, I'll recap but briefly: * The Plans are in strong shape. The health plan for Actives now has a 16-month reserve (that means if NO money comes in for the next year and four months, the Plan can still keep going.) The retirees' plan has a 20-month reserve. * There are an estimated 110,00 recpipients of Health Plan benefits (including families of participants, of which there are 40,000.) * There were $347 million in residuals in 2005. 92% of this money went to the health plan; 8% went to the pension plan. * There is $2.3 billion in the Defined Benefit Plan (this is the pension where you get a monthly check). $1.9 billion in the Individual Account Plan (Fun fact: 2500 participants have more than $100,000 in their Individual Account Plans). * Health Plan outlays totalled $400 million in 2005. It's expected to double in eight years. (One More Fun Fact: Average Annual cost per eligible participant: $7,920 - in 2005.) There were brief discussions about how lengthy industry strikes next year (WGA? SAG?) could impact the Plans. Happily, the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans are in better shape than just about any other multi-employer plan to weather a cash flow problem. It was a lovely drive out to the desert and back. I'm glad I've got CDs to listen to. Click here to read entire post

DPS-Film Roman Agreement Finalized

Yes, the new Animation Guild Collective Bargaining Agreement was negotiated last month. And yes, the ratification vote ends April 24th, but that was for studios that were in what's known as "The Animation Bargaining Unit." Film Roman isn't -- yet -- a member of that select group... But as of yesterday, the studio agreed to the August 1, 2006 Memorandum of Agreement. Which means that the DPS-FR contract becomes part of the same ratification process. Which means that most studios in L.A. County will be parties to the ratification occuring next Monday. (Disney Feature Animation, Disney Toons, and Sony Pictures are represented by the Animation Guild under separate IATSE contracts.) Click here to read entire post

Walkaround at James Baxter Animation

I popped in to James Baxter Animation today in Pasadena and heard multiple complaints from the folks there . . . One said the donuts were stale. Another complained they didn't have Aeron chairs. The suffering was unimaginable. Seriously, it wasn't a walkaround at all, but a visit with old friends. The place is buzzing with focused activity, and it was fantastic to just stand there and enjoy the sound of flipping paper. Much as I enjoy CG animation, there is nothing like standing there watching someone skilled create animation on paper as you watch. The environment was invigorating. And I learned the secret to why Seward Street went silent. Tragic, but I'll leave that for Jim to tell. Click here to read entire post

Whither Cartoon Network?

Cartoon Brew has been discussing Cartoon Network's move into live action programming. . . CN has been a mainstay of original animation programming, and the source of some of the best TV animation of the last few decades. Some of my favorites have been Dexter's Lab, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, and my all-time favorite Samurai Jack. A Variety article has CN execs emphasizing that cartoons will remain their mainstay, but they are clearly looking to move into both live-action TV series and even features. I suppose being third behind Disney and Nick is forcing them to these extreme measures, but it would be a real shame if they became Cartoon Network in name only. There's an online petition here if you want to voice your feelings on this. You can also tell CN directly. There's also some interesting discussion about the possible fate of Adult Swim here. Thanks to posters on Animation Nation for those last two links. Click here to read entire post

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

El Disney Toons at Sonora

There's a half acre of empty cubicles on the second floor of Disney's Sonora Building... Because there's not a lot of productions going on at the present time. A board artist I encountered pinning up story boards said: "They're probably only ten board people up here now..." "Mermaid III" has some people working on it. Also "Disney's Princess Stories" (this is a direct-to-video with a compilation of new half-hour featurettes starring Mulan and other Disney heroines.) The crews wondered aloud what Toons Prez Sharon Morril's future was -- since there are many rumors but no hard info -- and what shows were going to be going into work next (etc.) I was pleased to answer promptly: I told them I didn't know. Click here to read entire post

What we're doing, what we're not...

Now that we've been up for almost two months, we have a pretty good idea of what we're trying to do here... We're striving to foster discussion and communication. We're working to have fun with the foibles of the industry, do some water cooler stuff. We're doing history at various studios, profiles of animation veterans, old pictures, old cartoons. We're posting about the shape and direction of the animation industry from a business and labor perspective, as well as what's happening in a general way at different studios. What we're NOT doing: Detailing the ups and downs of every project at every studio. We'll put stuff we see going on in a context and occasionally comment on it, but jabbering about what character has been eliminated from what feature-length cartoon this week bores us. Talking about proprietary information (we'll leave that to "Ain't It Cool News" and its various cousins). trafficking in falsehoods. (If we write something that's incorrect, we'll correct it.) This is an evolving effort, and we'll rely on your feedback, both positive and negative, to keep this useful and interesting. Your hosts, Steve and Kevin Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Digital Age of Storyboards

A year ago, story artist Mark Zoeller noted in the Peg-Board that digital storyboards seemed to be catching on slowly in the animation biz... Of late, however, I see more and more pixelated boards across toonland. The digital storyboard package Mirage is used at Cartoon Network, Photoshop at DreamWorks. Today at DW, I got a look at Photoshop combined with After Effex. Coupled together, the two pieces of software created a vivid scene of insects moving through a forest of cattails -- sort of a Technicolor multiplane camera in a box. A board artist can now create elaborate computerized boards at her desk, then with a few mouse clicks edit the result into a story reel. Editorial departments aren't happy, but hey. Technology marches on. Click here to read entire post

At the Studio Next to Circle Seven Animation...

Meanwhile at DreamWorks... Animation is well under way on "Bees," (two sequences in work) with Mr. Seinfeld reviewing dailies... Hopes are positive for the oncoming release of "Over the Hedge." (As one animator said to me, "one of the best pictures we've done...") The "Flushed Away" crew poised to plunge back into animating the rest of the feature. An animtor on it remarked: "We still have an August deadline on the picture. We're going to have to moooove." Click here to read entire post

Want to know what your boss makes?

If so, the Security and Exchanges Commission is trying to help. The SEC has proposed new rules that will require companies to disclose the pay of division heads and even top stars... The SEC proposal would require that companies disclose the pay packages of some top employees (only the pay of corporate officers is required to be disclosed now). Not surprisingly, the entertainment companies are against it. Variety has a summary, and Defamer has the down and dirty version. Both quote from Jeffrey Katzenberg's comments to the SEC: "It is inevitable that some employees will take issue with their respective rankings and create unnecessary and counterproductive strife with their fellow employees and the company." Now, I have an idea. If somebody is so underpaid that they won't be able to effectively do their job, maybe they deserve a raise. Conversely, if you've so overpaid somebody that the rest of your top people will freak out, then maybe that somebody needs an adjustment down. Personally, I'm all for transparency. If I'm going to buy the stocks of some of these companies (not to mention as someone working at these places), I'd like to have a little better idea about what's going on at the top. Click here to read entire post

Monday, April 17, 2006

April 17th Disney TVA Walkaround

Disney Television Animation, under the command of the Disney Channel and not Disney Feature (Ed Catmull & John Lasseter) has a considerable amount of projects bubbling in the pot... Work on is ongoing on “The Replacements,” a new series headquartered in the Frank G. Wells Building on the main lot. (Disney TVA has staff split between Frank Wells and a large building on Sonora Street in Glendale.) “My Friends Tigger and Pooh” (56 11-minute episodes) recently launched, is also housed in the Frank G. Wells Building. Word is that many of the artists -- transferees from "Mickey's Club House" -- look back wistfully at the relaxed work environment and review process on "Mick", when Rob LaDouca went over boards and handed out the changes and eveyone got on with it. On "T and P," by contrast, supervisors check the work way more frequently and "redos" are the order of the day. So the "T & P" working conditions, with all the extra hoops artists have to jump through, are not...ah...quite as conducive to a jolly good time. Other series going on? “Ying Yang Yo,” (about which I know almost nothing); also perennial favorite “Kim Possible,” which is finishing up its new order of 26 ½ hours. (A "Kim" long-form may be in the offing.) “Mickey’s Clubhouse's” 1st season is in post-production. “Emperor’s New School,” -- the tv spinoff from "Emperor's New Groove" (with most voice talent returning) is also in post. (I caught a little of it at home over my younger son's shoulder and it looks pretty good.) And “American Dragon” is most of the way through its new order of 33 ½ hours. The show has been redesigned and is now much more “American Anime,” which the crew likes. There's probably other items that I've overlooked, but that's the beauty of a blog. You can go back and amend the post later... Click here to read entire post

The Wild tames

The weekend estimates for The Wild indicate a fourth place finish and less than $10 million (half of what Ice Age 2 made in it's third weekend). This is well below the forecasts I saw, and likely indicates a final domestic tally in the $30-40 million range... What does that mean for us in the animation industry? First, a digression. I divide feature animation into three production categories. There are the high-end domestic productions (mostly in California, but Blue Sky fits here, too), the super-cheap, primarily outsourced productions (Hoodwinked is the prototype), and the films in no-mans-land trying to straddle those two realms. We all know the films in the first category (by Pixar, DreamWorks/PDI, Disney Feature, Blue Sky, and soon Sony Pictures Animation) have a near-perfect record of success. No matter how films by smaller studios perform, these major players are going to stay the course. The second category is relatively new, and might have some promise, but clearly has tremendous risk. If you want to make a feature very, very cheaply, you'll need a lot of up-front time, energy, talent, and luck. And even then you'll need some decent financing to get to the point of attracting a distributor. The Wild falls into the third category. It was initiated as part of Eisner's shotgun approach to try to find a replacement for Disney's Pixar deal. Films in this category have fairly substantial budgets, and attract some good talent, but they clearly aren't in the big leagues (examples include Valiant, Jimmy Neutron, the upcoming Everyone's Hero, The Barnyard, The Ant Bully). The Wild falls in this category. I don't mean this to be insulting to these films or the people who make them -- I just think it's undeniable that these films don't have the same resources available. And I think this is the category that's going to suffer the most from the market shakeout that we're all expecting. The public won't say, "Hey this film only cost $40-60 million, not the $80-100+ million the majors spend, so let's give it a chance." They will simply continue to go to films that look really appealing, and ignore films that aren't. And making animated features is so labor intensive, and fraught with difficulty, that it's hard to cut the budget by tens of millions and not end up with something that looks bargain basement. So I think we're coming into a feature market that's close to all or nothing. Either make a film for a song, so your risk is minimal, or commit to spending a fortune on your infrastructure and your talent, so you can get every element right. The bar has been set too high, and these productions are just too expensive, to go part way and have a chance with an audience. Click here to read entire post

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Happy Income Tax Deadline!

Okay, it's got nothing to do with animation or labor unions, but today (assuming your reading this April 17) is the deadline for filing income taxes. Both state and federal... Our taxes -- particularly Federal -- are lower than they have been in a bunch of years. However, the lowness is an optical illusion. The Feds are collecting taxes at 16% of GDP, and spending at 22% of GDP, which means that we are "tax shifting," not actually tax cutting. Somewhere, somehow, some way, we...or our grandkids...will pay. Trust me on this. Click here to read entire post

New Disney Logo

I'm told there is a new Disney Features logo... created by Mike Gabriel. Those who've claimed to see it, claim it's terrific. I think that a good logo is a joy forever. I've always been partial to the old WB shield, also the 20th Century-Fox block letters, searchlights, and fanfare. But leave us to face it. A logo is only half of what a film studio needs at the front of a film. The other fifty percent is music that knocks you out of your theatre seat. Where's Max Steiner or Alfred Newman when you need them? Click here to read entire post

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Six Years Ago NOW -- the KCET picket

In the Spring of 2000, Local 839 organized a picket of PBS -- specifically, Channel 28 KCET in Hollywood, California... It turned out to be a HUGE demonstration, with lots of signs and 350 picketers. The issue -- which isn't really addressed in the article above -- was American taxpayers financing run-away production. PBS, funded by you and me, was spending heavy coin for animation done in Canada. Now, I've got nothing against Canada. The country is bright, friendly, forward-looking, and it doesn't fight a lot of wars of preemption like some other democracies I know. But I don't like paying tax money to have cartoon work sent there. If Disney or Warners or Nickelodeon want to spend corporate money to subcontract beyond our borders, that's one thing. But using tax dollars to help kill local jobs? Naah, I don't think so. At any rate, the guild spent a lot of time, effort and money putting the picket party together, and we got a monster turnout from just about every signator studio. Animators, background artists, board artists, I mean like everybody. We engaged a high-powered public relations agency to get the whole demo on t.v., radio, and into newspapers. I did an interview on KCET the night before the picket; Sito did a lot of radio while it was going on. We got lots of press covering the event, and we were elated. Trouble was, Justice for Janitors had a violent demonstration at Los Angeles International Airport the same day, and the media was all over that extravaganza like a heavy woolen blanket. So none of the radio or television standups we did that day got on the air. But I memorialize the day here because, by God, it was uplifting and exhilerating and I was damn glad we did it. Click here to read entire post

Friday, April 14, 2006

Collective Bargaining Agreements: Not Always UP

The general feeling of many Hollywood workers is that, when union contracts are negotiated, wages and benefits always go up. But it ain't always so... Take this snippet from tomorrow's Wall Street Journal: DELTA REACHED a tentative contract agreement with its pilots union that averts a strike and could accelerate the airline's bankruptcy restructuring. Pilots agreed to roughly $280 million to $290 million in annual concessions, including a 14% pay cut. The airline pilots made a billion dollars worth of concessions in 2004. And now more concessions in '06. When an entire industry is in a tail spin (which, let's be clear, the entertainment business clearly isn't), the unions in that industry twirl down with it. Market forces -- both good and bad -- always prevail. Click here to read entire post

Who Owns "Superboy"?

The last couple of weeks, the internet (also newspapers) have had pieces about the fight between Jerry Siegel's heirs and Time-Warner -- which owns the rights to Superman but not Superboy... There are angry critics on both sides of the equation: "The Seigels are greedy sh*ts! They're gonna louse up "Smallville"! How dare they!" or "These big, greedy corporations just beat down the little guy..." But then there's another, basic issue: Should corporations OR individuals hold a copyright for the better part of a century? This is now the case, thanks to new federal laws. Copyright protection -- which lasted all of 28 years when the Constitution was written -- now extends back eighty-three years to 1923 (that's for copyright holders who didn't let copyrights lapse.) So Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid," a feature from 1921, would now be in the public domain. But Chaplin's "Gold Rush" (1925) would be copyright protected. And of course, Mickey Mouse, born in 1927 with "Plan Crazy," is still copyrighted. Me, I have a basic problem with corporations owning copyrights as if they were the authors of the works the (c) protects, but that's the way it is in this corporatist age. On the other hand, I have an issue with copyrights going on for a hundred years and more. As Kevin Koch remarked when we were jawing about this yesterday: "Shakespeare couldn't have written "Hamlet" or a lot of his other plays under current copyright law. The owners of the plays he was basing his work on would have sued him..." Click here to read entire post

Disney's "The Wild" Launches Today...

And Kevin and I will track it here through the weekend.... This is the Mouse House's second sub-contract job in feature animation (the first being the ill-fated "Valiant") "TW" was produced in Toronto, not London, and it will be interesting to see how it performs. The LA TIMES sends it off with a solid review, so we'll soon see how much it cuts in to "Ice Age 2's" reign at the top of the charts. Animation Magazine thinks its propsects might be kind of "iffy." Addendum One: Box Office Mojo now has its Friday Estimates up. "Ice Age 2" clocks in with over $8 million, while "The Wild rakes in $4,140,000. "Wild's" got a smaller number of screens, also a smaller per screen average. Of course, "Scary Movie 4" blows both animated features away by collecting over $19 million in b.s. receipts. Addendum Two: Box Office Mojo now has its weekend estimates up, and "The Wild" sets no box office fires -- coming in 4th for the weekend at $9,559,000 (less than half of "IA2's" third weekend gross. "The Wild" and "Valiant" were two projects initated by Michael Eisner. We doubt that Robert Iger has any huge desire to see either succeed, since he just bet the farm by purchasing Pixar. And it doesn't look as though either entry will be a big performer. Our prediction: outsourcing of theatrical feature animation is dead at Disney for the foreseeable future. Click here to read entire post

Gnomio and Juliet live again

A few weeks ago Steve broke the news that Disney was canning the Elton John-driven Gnomio and Juliet. now reports that the project will be done by Miramax . . . The project will now be done in London, with Baker Bloodworth (a name familiar to many of you long-time Disney folks) producing. I'd heard that, because it was Elton John's baby, many people didn't expect it to ever be nixed in the first place. I guess those people were correct in a sense. My question is, given the lack of success of the last animation project Sir Elton was involved in, and the feeling that animated musicals are still a trifle passe, who is the intended audience? Click here to read entire post

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The April 13 Cartoon Network Walk-around

Today's studio visit by Yours Truly was at Cartoon Network, high in the sunlit uplands of Burbank, California... CN has enjoyed a red-hot run of late. After a stretch where the studio was relying on a lot of old stalwarts ("Power Puff Girls", "Johnny Bravo," etc.), the Network is on a tear. Shows currently in production include "Squirrel Boy," "Ben 10" (#1 in its time slot), "My Gym Partner's a Monkey," "Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy," "Camp Lazlo," "Class of 3000," "Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends," and "The Life & Times of Juniper Lee." "Juniper Lee" is wrapping its third season, but its prospects for a fourth are currently up in the air. "Lee's" creator Judd Winick recently returned from Atlanta headquarters and told the crew that the execs in Georgia want to wait and look at rating numbers before ordering a new batch of shows -- which means that the board artists, designers, layout and background artists will most likely be looking for new work as they roll off the final episodes. "Nobody," one of the artists told me, "can hang around and wait until the big boys decide. They won't okay new shows before August, and I don't think many of us can wait that long..." Elsewhere in the CN universe, a shorts program is being launched under the watchful eye of Craig McCracken. The plan is to do theatrical shorts and pieces for cell phones (isn't everybody?). Some of the shorts on tap are "Korgoth the Barbarian," "Flapjack," and "Life in Wackamo." If the results are slam-bang, some or all of it will likely end up as CN series. Click here to read entire post

Dismissal pay for Toy Story 3 folks

Today Steve and I had another new-member lunch, this time with a group of Disney recent hires, all from Circle 7. When Toy Story 3 was canned, most were given two-month's notice, during which time they hope to find permanent positions at the company. Talking to them reminded me that the dismissal pay provisions of our contract differs for most people at Disney . . . For anyone under the "TSL" contract at Disney (which is pretty much everyone recently hired at Feature or Circle Seven), the dismissal pay provisions differ from the standard TAG local 839 collective bargaining agreement (which might still apply for people who have been at Disney long-term, or at DTS or DTV). So the first thing is to know what contract you're under. Any new union member at Circle 7 will almost certainly be under the TSL contract. The dismissal provisions for TSL are as follows: once you've been laid off for 90 days and you had been with the company for at least three months, you're entitled to 1 1/4 days pay. If you'd been there at least six months and less than a year, you get a weeks pay. After working a year or more, you're entitled to two weeks pay. You're entitled to the dismissal pay even if you get a job at another studio during that 90 days (union or non-union). The key with the TSL contract is that you must request your dismissal pay in writing when the 90 days is up. If during that 90 days Disney offers you a new contract, and you decline it, then no dismissal pay. Same if you're fired "for cause." But simply having your contract run out is the same as a lay off or dismissal, and in that case you're entitled to the pay. Further, for the TSL contract, you're entitled to your full pay (i.e., what you negotiated in your personal service agreement), not union minimum. The reason I'm emphasizing this is because in the TAG 839 contract (and in the Sony Pictures Animation* contract), the dismissal pay provisions are different. In the regular 839 contract, dismissal pay is now automatic (i.e., you should not have to request it), but the waiting period is 110 days, and the rate is capped at 150% of scale (so someone who had been paid at, say, 200% of scale for a year with their company wouldn't receive a full two weeks of their regular salary, but two weeks of 150% of scale). Dismissal pay is one of the few ways the TSL and 839 contracts differ. In either case, I always encourage people to mark a calendar when they leave a union studio, and follow up at the appropriate time. I have heard of cases at TAG studios where dismissal pay wasn't paid automatically as it should have been, and the studio had to be prodded to pay their obligation. Call the office if this may have happened to you. *At SPA, it's called severance pay (probably a more accurate term), and one isn't entitled to it until two years of work. On the other hand, the amount of severance pay keeps going up until one is entitled to five weeks pay after 10 years. Click here to read entire post

President Emeritus Sito's New Book

Tom Sito, who was the grand pooh-bah around the Animation Guild for nine years, has a tome coming out entitled "Drawing the Line"... It focuses on labor struggles in the 'toon biz going back to Steamboat Willie. I know Tom has been working on this book a long time -- I've seen him toting chapters around to work on at lunch since he was at Warner Bros. -- and it should be a dandy. It's out around October. Watch for it. Click here to read entire post

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Day I REALLY Hated Piecework

Animation paid by the foot, or storyboards, backgrounds and layouts paid by the piece have been with us since Disney was doing "Oswald the Rabbit." But there are days when it gets way out of hand... Something around a year and a half ago, I got tipped off that Disney Television Animation was having cleanup artists (who were desperate for work) do production board cleanups for five dollars a panel. Now, that doesn't sound too awful, right? If you have a passing familiarity with production boards, then you know that the drawings in those three little squares on the storyboard sheet are pretty small. And how long would it actually take to redraw the lines and tighten those little pictures inside the squares up, anway? Welll, for some of the drawings, it took artists most of an hour, because the drawings were detailed and complex, the producer was picky, and some of the drawing required multiple levels. Which meant multiple drawings on one panel. But ALL of the above is irrelevant, because The Animation Guild's contract requires that artists doing this kind of work get $28 per hour (plus benefits.) And that wasn't happening. Artists were making five bucks, ten bucks, twenty-five bucks an hour, depending on how many cleanup drawings they produced in sixty minutes. But that is ALSO irrelevant, because Federal labor regulations require that for this kind of "non-exempt" work, employees (and these were employees) must be "hourly." And if they work more than eight hours in a day, they go to time-and-a-half. Disney lawyers knew all this, but Disney production managers did what they damn well pleased. When I walked in on this small, sweet racket at Disney TV Animation's studio in Glendale, I had already gotten a production manager to confirm that the studio was indeed paying five bucks a panel. The artists I found doing it also confirmed the practice, but they pleaded with me to "let it go" because the production manager was "nice." For once in my demented little life I didn't let it go. I filed a grievance, bullied the artists into corroborating what was going on, and got Disney labor relations to cough up extra money and benefit hours. But it didn't happen without a struggle. Disney first denied they were paying "piece work." I told them it would be an interesting stance to cling to when we got to arbitration, since I would call multiple witnesses -- including the Disney production manager who had confessed to me in a weak moment -- that they WERE paying five bucks a panel. After a little more half-hearted stone-walling, a Disney rep took me to lunch and asked "what will it take to settle this?" I told him. Three weeks later, I handed the piece work artists extra checks for $500 to $3500. Mickey Mouse was printed up in the left-hand corner of each one. Click here to read entire post

What's Happening at Film Roman (IDT Entertainment)

I spent a large chunk of the afternoon at IDT Entertainment (aka Film Roman), cruising through their new studio in Burbank. Lots of things are popping... There are a bunch of old Disney hands who've been hired for "Simpsons: the Movie" (or whatever it's being called.) We talking animators. Layout artists. Background painters. I'm informed that the crew will be animating some scenes here, and doing more posing than is usually done on the television show. To that end, the staff will have several traditional animators cranking footage. One Disney vet -- who departed the Mouse House during the 2001-2002 bloodletting of traditional artists -- said he's happy to be back at the light board flipping animation paper; he's been doing production boards the last few years but hand-drawn animation is his first love. Other projects at IDTE include two direct-to-video features of Hellboy, the feature "El Super Beasto," a PG-13 feature which looks like it could be a hoot, plus a lot of t.v. series that includes two additional seasons of "The Simpsons," and twenty new episodes of "King of the Hill" produced off-site at the old building in North Hollywood. There's also non prime-time series in work and several other features in development. In terms of total number of projects, IDT might be the busiest shop in town. Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

"Ice Age 2" - The Overseas Boodle

While "Ice Age - The Meltdown" has climbed well above 100 million dollars during its second weekend of release, it hasn't done too shabbily overseas, either... To date, it's reaked in over $157 million in foreign territories. Don't anticipate a slow-down in the production of cgi animated features anytime soon... Click here to read entire post

The April 11 Walkaround at Disney Feature

I cruised around Feature Animation late this morning. At the moment, things are pretty quiet. "Meet the Robinsons" continues to occupy the work hours of a lot of folks, but those folks tell me they know "a lot of changes in the second act" are rolling down the pike... Word is that Ed Catmull has been less than thrilled by the "leaks" from Disney employees about recent personnel hirings and firings. Good luck plugging them up, Ed. There are lots of flapping mouths at the feature animation building... (Re Bob Bacon's recent departure: Management pointed out that Bacon wasn't "let go," but chose to leave. This is, technically, true. Bacon was offered a low-level accounting job and turned it down. I mean, anyone really expect the man to stay for a terrific offer like that after being a Disney Veep?) Although the Local 839 agreement is now in the process of being ratified, Disney Feature Animation's IA agreement is coming up for renegotiation within the next few months. Employees are starting to come forward with ideas for proposals... Like I said, mostly a quiet day at the Mouse House. Click here to read entire post

How to Organize the Video Game Industry

Damned if I know. But some of us who work for the IATSE gathered for lunch with a video game veteran to kick around ideas... If you don't have children or have been sleeping through big chunks of the last few years, you might have missed that video games (X-box, Sony Play Station, computers, i-pods, cell phones...) have become a monster big business. Way bigger than the movie industry. And unlike the movie industry, pretty much non-union. Which explains the lesser benefits at many video game studios, as well as the uncompensated over-time hours. I and my union brethren picked the brains of the vid game person, learning about staffing and job categories. The game vet is pretty sure that portable health and pension benefits would be an attractive benefit for most artists and tech heads working at Electronic Arts and other game places in and around Los Angeles. The problem is, the honchos at the top of the game studio hierarchy aren't much interested in better working conditions and benefits that travel with employees from game studio to game studio. Costs money, you know. Plus, the added problem for unions like the IA is that organized labor swims against a culture that is ignorant of and often hostile to, unions. Even Hollywood unions. Nevertheless, The Animation Guild and other labor organizations in the IATSE are working on it. Slooowly. Click here to read entire post

Monday, April 10, 2006

Uncompensated Overtime

The close blood relative of "unreasonable amounts of o.t." in animation is "uncompensated overtime." I ran across some of it today... I was at a large, high-profile studio that's part of a large entertainment conglomerate. I was going cubicle to cubicle in a production unit that turns out one of America's best-loved animated shows. A supervisor gestured me into his office. I knew from his expression he wanted to talk about something he didn't want broadcast, so I shut the door. "They've cut the schedule for the new season," he said, "and I'm working sixty to eighty hours a week to keep up. The studio told me I'm on salary and won't get any overtime. Can they do that?" I told him he had to be either "on-call" or "hourly" under the Guild contract, and that I assumed he was working "on-call." He said he didn't know, but I explained on-call ato him anyway. "You're far enough over contract minimums that they can put you in that category," I said, "and I'm guessing that they did. It means they can work you extra hours Monday through Friday without paying you extra money. But if you work on Saturday or Sunday, you get time and a half." He squinted his eyes, shook his head. "No overtime." "So they're cheating on the contract," I replied. "Want me to file a grievance?" I got another head shake. "Not really. I don't want to rock the boat." "Okay. Let me know if you change your mind." I departed his office and went on about my rounds. I have this type of encounter more often than I like. Studios have employees falsify time cards, or not report time spent working at home, or remove hours worked from an invoice. I first rubbed up against this phenomena at Warner Bros. A decade and a half ago. I've seen it lots of other places since. Most times, employees refuse to file a grievance because of fears of retribution. But I always offer to file grievances. Once in a while, somebody takes me up on it. Click here to read entire post

Sunday, April 09, 2006

"Ice Age 2" - The Second Weekend

We now have "Ice Age: The Meltdown's" second weekend grosses, and they remain buoyant... "IC2" remained at the top of the box office heap with $33.8 million. Although that's a 50% drop in box office, the flick still had the highest per-screen average of any wide release with $8,522. What this portends, IMO, is that production and employment in CGI feature animation is going to stay robust and continue to expand. I mean, "Cars" is going to have a strong opening, what with all of Lasseter's skill and Disney's marketing muscle. "Over the Hedge" from DreamWorks is testing well. And "Open Season" -- Sony Picture Animation's debut feature slated to open next Fall -- is getting good buzz. All in all -- to steal a line from Claude Raines in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" -- "there are golden days ahead..." Click here to read entire post

Saturday, April 08, 2006

And Then There Was Ken...

Ken Anderson after his retirement from Disney. He was one of the animation department's most talented artists for four decades. Ken Anderson retired from Disney at the end of the seventies. Ken was a pillar of the animation department for over thirty years, doing layouts, storyboards, character designs, and whatever else needed to be done.... Ken was a master with pen and paper. He was the art director responsible for the ground-breaking look of "101 Dalmations," where layouts and backgrounds were seamlessly integrated with the then-new Xerox system transferring animators' original drawings directly on to cels. And nobody worked harder than Ken. Pete Young and Vance Gerry worked with Ken on boarding sequences of "Pete's Dragon," and told me the story about how Ken went home sick one day with a bad cold. They said he could barely keep his head up, and was out the entire week. But two days after Ken went home, story drawings of Elliot the dragon began arriving from Ken's house. Vance and Pete would dutifully pin them to a storyboard, and the next day more drawings would arrive. And the following day still more drawings. This went on the rest of the week. And when Ken Anderson returned to work the following Tuesday, Vance and Pete realized he had done more work than either of them. While home sick. If you were a visitor to the studio, Ken always had time to show you his boards and drawings, to sit and chat about his latest projects. One of my closest friends once gushed to me how, when he visited the studio one day, Ken spent an hour ushering him around his large office, warm and avuncular, pointing out all the different properties Ken was working on. But if you were a studio staffer who had to work with Ken Anderson, it was a little different. Ken could to say this?...unpleasant. In the same way Herman Goering could be unpleasant. A year after starting at Disney's, I was pulled off "The Fox and the Hound" to work with Ken on developing a project called "Catfish Bend," which was a series of children's books about animals living on the banks of the Mississippi. They were a lot like the characters -- Bre'r Fox, Bre'r Rabbit -- in "Song of the South." Ken was enthusiastic about the book's potential when he sat me down in his big office my first day of work on the project. "Steve," he said, piercing me with his bright blue eyes, "we're going to make a feature here that's so rich, so full of unique characters, that the studio will have to make it..." I told him I was excited to work with him. He beamed at me. "I think this will work out well, Steve. But there's one thing. We can't let anything we're doing get back to Woolie Reitherman. Woolie's always trying to steal everything..." I thought that sounded a little strange, since everything was owned by Disney anyway, but I said sure, of course, whatever he wanted. Ken proceeded to show me what he had already cobbled together. There was a rough continuity on storyboards that covered the walls of his office. He had taken bits and pieces of three different "Catfish Bend" books and strung them together. Lots of it was terrific: adventure, comedy, and pathos, all drawn up in Ken's expressive drawing style, but there were a couple of problems. "Catfish Bend" was episodic to start with, and Ken's version of it meandered all over the place. Plus Ken had three sets of villains that were essentially the same: weasels in a hunting club, country river rats, and city wharf rats. They all had long snouts, ropey bodies and small, sinister eyes. And they all performed pretty much the same function. They were the bad guys. I suggested to him that we drop two sets of villains and concentrate on one. Just use, say, the weasels with their shotguns, make them the antagonists who threaten our heroes from beginning to end. Ken frowned and said: "No, Steve. I don't think that would be a good idea. We need all those characters." So I tried to work with Ken's three sets of villains. I gave Ken ideas, some of which he used, many of which he didn't. My main task became writing up a long treatment of Ken's story. I quickly learned that Ken didn't want me to deviate from what he'd already concocted. I also learned that Ken was happiest when I told him how wonderful his drawings were. Time slogged along. I finished a treatment I knew didn't work very well. A few elements were smoothed out, but there were still those three sets of almost-identical baddies. Frustrated, I asked Ken if I could write a second treatment; he reluctantly said yes. I stayed late three nights running to rework everything, keeping most of Ken's best set-pieces. I gave Ken the new draft on a Thursday afternoon. Friday morning he summoned me to his office. His blue eyes were frosty as he paced. "I read...your new treatment, Steve, and..." He searched for the right words. I sat in a chair, waiting, looking up at him. Listening to my heart thump in both ears. Finally he turned and bent down to me. "You must have something against me, Steve. Because I know I have something against you. You took out important characters." I stammered that I just wanted to run a different approach by him, but I could put it back just the way he wanted. His breathing settled down a little. "Fine, okay. You do that." He straightened up and I fled his office. I steamed back to my desk and typewriter and banged out a new treatment exactly the way he ordered. But the cement was already hardening around my ankles. A couple of days later, Don Duckwall, the administrative head of the animation department, asked me to come to his office. "It's not working out with you and Ken," Don said. "I'm going to put you back on "The Fox and the Hound." I think that will be best for everybody." And so I returned to work for Woolie Reitherman on his project. But it didn't surprise me. I had discovered in my months with Ken that he was a tough guy to work for. So I was surprised when, week later, I ran into Ken in the hallway and he looked downright distressed. "Steve. I don't know why they did that, taking you away from me. I really need help with the treatment." I was flattered that he still wanted to work together, but I told Ken I didn't think that the department would authorize me to split my time, since I was assigned to Woolie's unit five days a week. Ken sighed. "Well, do you think you could write on "Catfish Bend" after work? Until it's shaped up and finished? I'd really appreciate it." I said sure, no problem, happy to help out one of the pillars of the studio. And I plunged back into "Catfish Bend" after regular working hours, helping Ken Anderson achieve his vision. For no additional money, since the studio wasn't authorizing it. This went on for a few weeks, until the afternoon that story artist Pete Young -- who was generally plugged into every rumor circulating through the department -- asked why I was still working for Ken. "Because he asked me to," I said. "I'm helping him with the "Catfish Bend" treatment at night." Pete smiled and shook his head. "You're an idiot. Ken went up to Don Duckwall a few weeks ago and tried to get you fired, said you weren't helping him at all. So Don moved you back to Woolie's group. Ken just wants a flunkie to work for him for free." In shock, I went to see Don Duckwall. Don confirmed what Pete had said. I returned to my office feeling nauseous. I picked up my stack of "Catfish Bend" treatment pages and carried them back downstairs to Ken, saying I didn't think it was a good idea for me to work on the project without official authorization. Ken seemed genuinely surprised. "Gee, it was going pretty well, Steve. I'm sorry you won't be helping me anymore." I shrugged and grunted and climbed the stairs back to my office. Beyond saying "hi, how are you," I never talked to him again. Click here to read entire post

More on animation writing jurisdiction

Mark Evanier has posted some thoughts on the LA Times article about the "turf battle" between the IA and the WGA on his excellent blog, news from me. I enjoy reading Mark because, besides being a bright, clear thinker, he gives good reasons for his views. Unfortunately, in this case I think he's a little mistaken . . . Referring to the Animation Guild having writers under its jurisdiction, Mark writes that "I couldn't see that the Screen Cartoonists Guild (as 839 was then called) wanted us for any reasons other than we paid the most dues and that when you threaten a strike, having the writers walk out is the first step in halting production." This is wrong on several counts. First, writers are in the same dues category as animation, layout, story art, backgrounds, production boards, model design, and the technical director positions (modeling, lighting, rigging, etc.). Our top dues are just under $400 a year. The idea that we maintain jurisdiction over writers because we profit off their backs is, well, silly. As for striking, if we did call a strike, having the writers strike would only affect those productions not yet in production. If you want a real strike, you have everyone in every job category strike. The writers would be no more, or less, crucial in an animation strike than any of the dozens of other job categories we cover. The piece also perpetuates a couple of other ideas that are, I think, off base. It is not some "fluke" that TAG represents animation writers. It's true that, when local 839 was first formed, there were few people in animation doing only writing, since most stories were created through outlines, story sketches, and storyboards. But for decades animation productions have used scripts, and until about 8 years ago the WGA didn't attempt to cover any of it. I have yet to see any evidence that writers of animation scripts in the '60's, '70's, or '80's had the slightest notice of the WGA. Animation has long been the bastard step-child of the entertainment world (at least until very recently), and for most of our 50+ year history we've been the only union that gave a damn. The other idea, which is only implied in Mark's piece, is that if TAG 839 would just get out of the way, and "release" animation writers from their jurisdiction, that everything would suddenly be roses and honey. I've had several writers insist that if the IA, our patent union, disavowed the writer jurisdiction, then the WGA would quickly take over that jurisdiction, and they'd be treated on a par with live-action and some prime-time animation writers. Oh really? There are two major problems with this fantasy. First, it's not up to TAG or the IA to give up the jurisdiction. We cannot make a unilateral decision to no longer cover writers. At our next Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiation in three years, we could propose exactly that. But the rub is that the producers would have to agree. These are the same producers who haven't given an inch to the WGA in years and years, and somehow they're going to go along with this plan? Secondly, let's imagine an alternate universe, just like ours, but where animation writers are suddenly out of the jurisdiction of TAG 839. What would then happen? Of course, membership in the WGA wouldn't be automatic, would it? No, the writers would have to sign cards, the WGA would have to get the studios to recognize those cards, and then the WGA have to negotiate the contracts. Simple, right? But if it's so simple, then why is it that the WGA reportedly has over a thousand rep cards from reality show writers and editors, and to my knowledge they haven't got any studios to recognize them or sign contracts? Why is it that the WGA had rep cards from writers and board artists at Nick and, after making a big show of things, walked away without ever even getting the cards officially recognized? Perhaps here's the reason: I understand that in the past DIC writers tried to organize under the WGA. To avoid the possibility that the writers would unionize, DIC simply made all the writers freelance. The case went to the National Labor Relations Board, and DIC prevailed. So the NLRB has already ruled that writers can be treated as independent contractors, which means that if a studio chooses to hire writers in that way, those writers have no right to organize. We've been told by a Warner's exec that, if the day ever came that WB no longer had a TAG contract that covered animation writers, they would do exactly the same thing. Which, given the budgets of most animation productions these days, sounds pretty realistic. There's a well known principle in labor contract negotiations that you can get too much from management. I was reading an article that SAG went though that not so long ago with animation voice work. They got a contract that was a little too sweet, and suddenly massive amounts of voice work was going to Canada. So this really isn't a battle between the WGA and TAG at all. It is not an "either/or" situation regarding two unions. It's actually a choice of having minimums/pensions/health, or not having them. This focus on "TAG v. WGA" is a straw-man argument that ultimately distracts from the real work of organizing the unorganized. That real work involves negotiating contracts that get people decent pay and benefits without driving work underground or out of town. That is where we have decided to focus our efforts. Oh, one last quibble with Mark's post. Referring to TAG, he says that "...the writers seem to not get much attention and too many of their needs go unaddressed." Two CBA negotiations ago our negotiating committee was made up primarily of writers, and they set the agenda for those negotiations. At the next negotiations, we had two writers on the committee, and we put forth more writer-specific proposals than any other job category. In the last negotiations, our vice president Earl Kress championed, very successfully, several writer's issues, resulting in major bump-ups for writer's pay and benefits. In those last three contracts, while our overall contract got nice gains, the writers got the biggest gains. Ours is a "polyglot" union. The idea that we represent two mutually exclusive groups, artists and writers, is nonsense. Anyone with even a superficial knowledge of animation production knows that the needs and skillsets vary dramatically among the many job categories we represent. We cover theatrical, cable TV, and network TV, and shorts. We cover CG, hand-drawn, and Flash. Look through a list of our job classifications, and the only real commonality you will see is that each group is creative in their own way, and together we all create animation. I'm proud of TAG's contribution to the field. If there are things we are doing, or not doing, that could be improved, then get involved and help make things better. But lets keep those efforts rooted in reality, and not in fantasy. Click here to read entire post

Disney's "Nine Old Men" -- The Last Hurrah That Wasn't

(Woolie R., Milt K., Les C,. Marc D., Ward K., Eric L., Frant T. John L. and Ollie J.) Somewhere around a decade ago, Disney Features called me up at The Animation Guild and asked for a favor. The surviving "Nine Old Men" (Frank Thomas, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball) were going to animate scenes for the upcoming "Fantasia" sequel. The studio thought it would be a wonderful thing if the animators who had worked on the original came back for a kind of valediction, and worked on the new one. But the company wanted a waiver from dues for the group, since they were only working on one scene each... After pondering the proposal for fifteen seconds, I said "fine," and wrote the Walt Disney Company a confirming letter that nobody would have to pay any new dues. I thought no more about the deal for several months, but then one day I had occasion to talk to Ward Kimball. I asked how the plan for him and his fellow animators to do work on the new "Fantasia" was going. "Oh that?" Ward said. "That thing was a disaster. They called us all in to look at storyboards for "Pomp and Circmustance." Awful piece of music, but Eisner wants it in the new picture. So we all come in to look at these boards, and it's storks delivering babies of all the old characters from the films we did like Snow White and the Prince, Cinderella and the Prince and some others. One stork after another, delivering babies. With their parents watching." "And the boards are terrible. We all just sit there -- Frank, Ollie, Marc and me -- while the director's telling them. And "Pomp and Circumstance" is playing. And Eisner's hovering around. Nobody says anything. And the presentation ends and all of us get up, making small talk, trying not to make eye contact with the studio people. Marc Davis is over at the side of the room at this buffet table, and I go over to him. I say, "Well Marc. What do you think?" He sees the smirk on my face and he says, "I think we need to get out of here." So we both leave. Without telling anybody anything." More months went by. One day I asked a Disney exec what was going on with the Nine Old Men animating on "Fantasia." He told me: "Oh, that didn't work out. They really weren't up to doing the animation." I replied what a shame that was. Click here to read entire post

Friday, April 07, 2006

Turf battle with the WGA?

Today's LA Times has an article by Richard Verrier for which I was interviewed about a week ago. I think it's a solid, straightforward article, and there isn't much I'll quibble with (I do think it's a stretch to call us "blue collar workers"). But as with all such articles, only a fraction of what I have to say on the subject ended up being printed. . . My major point (which I think pretty much does come through) is that, from our standpoint, there is no battle. We think everyone working in animation deserves representation and benefits, and we wish the WGAw every success in organizing animation writers who are currently not working under any labor contract. In fact, in the past Steve and I met with organizers for the WGAw, and for a time we coordinated efforts and shared some information. Since then the Writers Guild took a more aggressive approach towards animation, and chose to end that cooperation. The article reports that TAG and the WGAw "clashed" over organizing Nickelodeon. In fact, when Nick was still nonunion and the Writers Guild made a run at organizing Nick's writers and story artists, the WGA called for an informational picket in front of the studio. We encouraged our members to march in their support, and Steve and I were among the TAG members who carried WGA signs that day. For whatever reason, the WGA never took their case to the National Labor Relations Board, never called for an official vote of the Nick unit, and later walked away from the organizing effort. TAG later got rep cards from Nick employees, took the cards to the NLRB, and negotiated a contract. The employees at Nick spoke, and we listened. The article also mentions a clash over organizing writers on DreamWorks' "Father of the Pride." Again, not really much of a clash. The Animation Guild has had a contract with DreamWorks pretty much from the start of that studio, a contract that covers writers and story artists, so we were surprised when the WGAw leadership at the time tried (unsuccessfully) to steal some of that jurisdiction. There was never any doubt who really had the jurisdiction, so it was really more of a tempest in a teapot. Last year the WGAw elected more activist officers, and their new president (Patric Verrone, a writer who has done extensive work in animation) has made organizing animation writers a top priority. So I guess in some quarters, based on pronouncements by WGAw leaders, it sounds like we're at war with them. Or, rather, that they're at war with us. Whatever. All I can say is that we continue to do the best we can to take care of everyone we represent, that we'll continue to try to organize studios that aren't organized, and we wish our sister unions the best in their efforts. Click here to read entire post
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