Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Who Needs Sleep?

Haskell Wexler is one of the more renowned cinematographers of the past half century. He's also one feisty human being... He never shrinks from a cause and he isn't afraid to risk getting on producers' shit lists (which he's been on in the course of his long career. Back in the fifties it was called a "blacklist") Kevin and I met him at an IATSE convention a few years back, and got to know him a little. During the convention, Mr. Wexler jousted with Tom Short about the treatment of camera crews and the crushing amounts of overtime they had to endure. The two of them got into a shouting match -- Haskell on the convention floor, President Short up at the podium. Tom had control of the microphones, but Mr. Wexler got his points across. (We'll call the exchange a draw.) And now Haskell Wexler has finished a documentary entitled "Who Needs Sleep?" that details the travails of long hours in the movie workplace. National Public Radio's "Marketplace" recently ran a story on the film, and The Hollywood Reporter and the L.A. TIMES have done stories on the problem. Even in Toon Town, long hours are accepted and expected. As I've written elsewhere, the early nineties saw fourteen-hour days, six and seven days a week during the making of "Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin." I know because I walked through studios and witnessed it, heard the complaints, then came home and raised my then-small children while Mrs. Hulett worked insane hours at Disney Feature Animation. And trust me, they were insane. ARE insane. No matter how much overtime you're making. No matter how big your weekly checks turn out to be. Europeans, on this issue, have their priorities right. They refuse to work long hours day after day. It's whacko. Life's short enough as it is. Why tether yourself to a movie set...or a computer, working twelve and fourteen hour days to make it shorter? Long live Haskell Wexler. Click here to read entire post

The Studio Junket

And once more I've been traipsing to the studios. Yesterday was DreamWorks and Nickelodeon... At DreamWorks, the Seinfeld feature "Bee Movie" continues to chug along, and "Flushed Away" (that's the DreamWorks/Aardman collaboration) is back in full production mode after a pause for retooling. Staff is a little deflated that "Hedge" didn't open a trifle higher, and wonder if the picture will do big enough numbers so that employee bonuses kick in. (Nobody seems to doubt the film will turn a tidy profit...) At Nick, the shows currently in work include "Sponge Bob" (season five), "Tak" (season one -- and the show is looking for a qualified person in a director position), "El Tigre" (season one), the ever-popular "Danny Phantom" (season four), "Go Diego Go!" (season four - and hoping to pick up some storyboard artists), "Avatar" (season two, with a search on for board artists and director), and season one of "Downard Doghouse" (that has a need for storybook artist, animation director and storyboard artist.) (One small point: the job postings listed above come to us via Nick's career opportunities job postings. Nickelodeon tends to promote and hire from within, so even though they're always looking at candidates, they don't always hire from the outside talent pool.) Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Pseudonyms and Personal Service Contracts

I keep hearing that the Catmull-Lasseter team at Disney Feature Animation intends to phase out Personal Service Contracts. Pixar doesn't have them, I'm told, so why should Disney Feature Animation? It hasn't happened yet, and maybe it won't ever happen, but I remember when the Mouse House had almost no Personal Service Contracts. It was the early and mid eighties. They could cut you loose on forty hours notice; you could depart under the same arrangement. That, of course, was before Jeffrey K. and Michael E. rode into Toon Town and rewrote the old, sleepy way of doing business. Disney animated features started raking in huge stacks of money, and Disney management decided to tie up animation talent. If you were a director, if you were an animator, you got offered a long-term employment contract with escalation clauses. You worked "exclusively" for Disney for three or five or seven years. After "Aladdin" came out, other studios got into the act, and by and by EVERY company had personal service contracts. And things began to get ludicrous. Trainees got long-term contracts. In-betweeners got long-term contracts. And everybody was prohibited from working for any animation competitors. But somewhere along in here (we're talking now about the middle 1990s) all pretense of enforcing these contracts dissolved into gray vapor. As the Animation Guild business rep who consulted on a lot of personal service contracts, and saw much of what was going on, it was apparent that LOTS of people were free-lancing on the side. And one day I got a call from Chuck Jones' Warner Bros. studio. I don't remember if it was Linda Jones -- Chuck's daughter -- that I talked to, or the company production manager. But the conversation that ensued remains vivid: I was asked if the Animation Guild had any objection to a half-dozen Disney animators taking pseudonyms (phoney names) on the credits of a short that Chuck was doing. Warners, it seems, was a little nervous about the guild contract, which stipulated that animators had to be given screen credit. Was the guild going to get nasty if they put fake names on the credits? At the animators request? No slouch about adding up two and two, I asked: "These animators. They're exclusive to Disney, right? And they don't want Disney to know that they're, ahm, moonlighting for somebody else, right?" After some hemming and hawing, I was told that yes, that was exactly the problem. I responded: "It's okay with us if it's okay with your animators. But I suggest you get letters from each of them to that affect, so they can't change their minds later." I guess that Jones' little company took my advice, because I never hear another word about it. But some time later I had occasion to ask a Disney executive if he knew that some of Disney's top animators were violating their contracts by working for the competition. I got a small, tight smile. "We know." "And you're not going to do anything about it?" "Like what? Fire them?" I said I saw his point. So if Personal Service Contracts go away in the next year or two, it's okay by me. I mean, why bother to draw them up in the first place if they don't mean much of anything? Click here to read entire post

Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day Weekend Box Office

The four-day weekend numbers are in and Hedge is credited with $35.3 million, an 8% drop from the opening (3-day) weekend . . . X-Men crushed everything with a $122.8 million opening, though it's numbers got worse each day from Friday through Monday. Da Vinci Code dropped 45% from it's opening weekend, to $42.4 million this lap (for a $144.9 million total). Hedge is now up to $84.4 million and looks headed for a domestic cume of $140-150 million. Which very likely means no bonus at the end of this year for the DreamWorkers. What will be interesting to see is if OTH will have anything like the overseas response of Ice Age: The Meltdown, which has easily more than doubled its domestic take in foreign revenues. Even without that, OTH should make a handy profit, though not the insane money generated by some other CG 'toons. And now for your viewing pleasure, the truth behind RJ, Verne, and Hammy: Click here to read entire post

Animators at War, 1945

As we celebrate Memorial Day, I thought it'd be interesting to take a look back at what was happening in the Los Angeles animation world in May 1945 . . . This page is from the May 1945 issue of the Screen Cartoonists Guild's newsletter, The Animator. During the war they sometimes ran a page, called Khaki Shorts, giving news about animators involved in the war effort, both at home and on the fronts. I'm a pretty poor animation historian, but even I can spot quite a few notables in these pages. Here's the front page of the April, 1945 issue. I love Bill Hanna's tie! And here's the Khaki Shorts page from that issue. Be sure to check out the letter from Jim Carmichael for some choice gallows humor (love the "kwaint little karakter"), and the harrowing story of Tony Bujnowski. Finally, here's a page from the June 1945 issue: Click here to read entire post

Sunday, May 28, 2006

That Seventies Diz -- Frank Thomas

Right: Frank Thomas by Frank Thomas, courtesy Bob Foster. Animator Frank Thomas has the deserved reputation as one of the greatest Disney animators who ever drew breath. (That was certainly true on The Fox and the Hound, where Frank built scenes of the young title characters meeting from non-storyboarded voice tracks. All of them overflowed with character and life) ... Frank was also known as "the velvet needle," the master of the subtle put-down and damn-with-faint-praise ripost. But I've got to tell you, in the time I worked with him, I never saw any of that. Frank was always friendly and supportive, quick with a smile or self-deprecating remark. I never saw a glint of the legendary Thomas needle. Except once. I was coming out of a third-floor screening room after watching Dumbo (under instructions from Woolie Reitherman, as I remember). Frank was walking toward me down the hall. He smiled when he saw me, and asked what I'd been watching. "Dumbo", I said. "Woolie wanted me to look at it. Man, it's a great movie." Frank's smile got wider. "There's a mistake in every scene." I nodded blankly. Said "Oh." Frank walked on down the hall. Six months later, I was interviewing Ward Kimball at his San Gabriel house and mentioned my brief exchange with Frank about Dumbo and his "mistake" comment. "It seemed kind of strange to me," I said. "Why do you think Frank would say say something like that?" Ward beamed at me from behind his big round glasses. "Because Frank didn't work on it." Click here to read entire post

Saturday, May 27, 2006

"Over the Hedge" -- The Second Lap of the Box Office Derby

All right then. We move to the second weekend of "OTH's" national release, and get to see how it fares. In a rash moment, I said it would pass "Da Vinci" and climb to number one. I was obviously delusional, since there are OTHER new releases (like "X-Men") and the parade keeps moving... Still in all, "Over the Hedge" appears to be holding up well (here are Box Office Mojo's weekend predictions). We'll just have to wait and see how it performs over the course of the three-day holiday, won't we? UPDATE 1: "X-Men 3" is estimated to have had the second biggest opening day ever, at $44.1 million. Wow! Maybe DreamWorks should have advertised that talking animals are mutants, too? "Da Vinci Code" was second, with $10.2 mill, and "Hedge" third at $7.6. Note that that's a 65% drop from last Friday for "DVC," and a 30% drop from last Friday for "OTH." Since "Hedge" improved both Saturday and Sunday last weekend, while "DVC" weakened each day, "OTH" still has an excellent chance of ending up second for the full weekend. UPDATE 2: The 3-day estimates are in (Fri.-Sun.). It's a huge one for "X-Men 3" ($107 million), and a solid one for "Hedge" (a 29% drop from last weekend, for $27.3 million and a cume of $76.3 million). "Da Vinci Code" dumped by 56% but is still second with an estimate of $33.5 million and $136 million so far. If you take a look at the list, note places 4 and 5: "M:I III" and "Poseidon," both massive underperformers. Funny how those live-action duds haven't sparked the same angst about Warners and Paramount that "Hedge's" lack of super-blockbuster status has trigger in recent financial articles about DreamWorks. Click here to read entire post

Friday, May 26, 2006

The High Price of Selling Out

I've been musing on why Over the Hedge didn't quite blow the doors off the theaters last weekend, and I don't think it can all be blamed on the massive success of The Da Vinci Code. . . I worked on Hedge, and knew it was one of the best films DW has produced. Funny, well executed, with a story that pays off. Even the critics, biased as they seem to be towards DreamWorks' animated films, gave it good reviews. Yet, before it opened, I didn't have a good feeling in my gut about the film's prospects. And it just dawned on me why I felt that way. Here you have a film with a playfully anti-consumerist theme, and yet the vast majority of the television marketing I saw portrayed the Hedge characters happily shilling for the world's biggest retailer, Wal-Mart! We're all accustomed to some marketing tie-ins. We've also gotten used to seeing our favorite characters selling crap. But I don't recall ever seeing this happening before the movie is released, at least not to this extent. Maybe my TV viewing habits are atypical, but I saw at least three or four Wal-Mart/Hedge spots for every vanilla ad selling the movie itself. As I think about it, I don't think I saw more than a couple of regular TV spots for Hedge. I know I've already seen far more ads for Cars. My impression (and I'll be happy to post info to the contrary) is that the studio made a strategic decision to save some of the massive marketing costs (I believe a typical marketing budget for a theatrical release is now around $50 million) by having Wal-Mart carry a big part of the marketing load. But then they're ads for Wal-Mart, not ads for the film, and that's not the same thing at all. Some might say any publicity is good publicity, but those Wal-Mart ads made me nauseous. Having the public's first associations of those characters as pimps for a corporate behemoth, in ads that aren't particularly entertaining, can't have helped at the box office. I said to a friend before the film opened that, based on the advertising, I wouldn't have wanted to see the film. And I was put in the place of trying to convince skeptical friends that it was worth a look. I know we in the animation biz love to blame the marketing departments of our studios when are films aren't presented well, but this time the problem's been racheted up to a whole new level. After thinking about this, I did a web search to see if anyone else had the same thoughts. I found this posting (from which I stole my title), from before the film's opening, that touches on some of the problem. I also see that some of the critics, despite liking the film, noted the disconnect between the film's theme and the marketing. Maybe I'm wrong -- maybe the Wal-Mart marketing of the film was only a tiny part of the whole, but it didn't seem that way to me, and I can't help but wonder that it hurt the film. Click here to read entire post

The Bob and Michael Show

Michael Eisner doesn't, like, give a ringing endorsement of the Pixar deal... But he doesn't totally trash it, either. I didn't see the Eisner cable show, but I think the L.A. TIMES article throws light on Eisner's and Iger's respective characters. I've got to say, Iger has seemed pretty dynamic to me since I saw him at the Disney stockholders' meeting. He's not afraid to throw the long ball... Click here to read entire post

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Story Changes - Part II

* The story supervisor of "Aladdin" recently told me: "After an early screening of the picture [that didn't go too well], Jeffrey Katzenberg said, 'Even Steven Spielberg has an occasional flop.'"... * Walter Elias Disney reworked "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" dropping almost-completed sequences because the film wasn't working the way he wanted. And "Snow White" -- as we all know -- was a horrid disaster, causing the Disney studio to go bankrupt. (In an alternate universe. In our reality, it was the highest grossing film in 1938. Or in all of film history to that time.) * "Shrek" changed directors, changed story supervisors, and had the lead voice-actor die. Chaos, total chaos. (Here are other examples...and reduncancies.) (Just to be fair and balanced, "The Black Cauldron" -- less than a huge hit -- also had it's story revamped a couple of times before release. Sometimes, change is bad.) And word reaches us that "Simpsons, the Movie" is also going through reworkings after a screening. Just like "Meet the Robinsons," "American Dog," "Flushed Away," and probably two or three other features I don't know much of anything about. The only difference -- and it's slight -- is that "The Simpsons" theatrical is the first animated feature where story is being done under the auspices of the WGA(w). Click here to read entire post

Happenings at Cartoon Network

Ricocheting around the studio next to the Burbank Police Department, this is some of what's going on... The "Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends" crew looks like it will be on a lengthy hiatus later this summer. They're wrapping their fourth season of 13 episodes, with another beyond it. ("Foster's" animates some of the shows in L.A. -- there's something different -- and some overseas.) "Billy and Mandy" is in its fifth season, still going strong. "Camp Lazlo" is in season #3. Other shows bubbling along include "Juniper Lee" and "Ben 10," among others. Cartoon Network, for those of you taking notes, was born out of the shorts program started by Fred Seibert when he headed up Hanna-Barbera. There's a shorts program now under way at Nick, and Cartoon Network has its own program as well. Rob Renzetti and Craig McCracken are heading up CN's shorts. The plan is to do 15 new shorts a year, and see which of the new 'toon candidates rise to the top of the class... Click here to read entire post

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Warners Ramble

Out at Warners' studio, they have a number of projects percolating... In the way of series, there is "Scooby and Shaggy Get a Clue, "Batman," "Loonatics," "Legion of Superheroes," and -- in the possibly near future -- a bunch of half-hours with "Plasticman." There are also the DVD features for "Superman," "Tom & Jerry," and everybody's favorite pup "Scooby" in various stages of work. And new DVD long-forms with various super heroes might be happening in '07. A decade ago, Warners Animation retained most of its staff between series. Talent was at a premium, and WB didn't want to risk losing key artists to other studios. Now, however, when an assignment ends, they hand you your pink slip and wave you goodbye. (Pretty much like every other studio in town does.) Click here to read entire post

65 Years Ago: The Disney Strike

On May 28, 1941, Disney artists voted to strike for their first union contract. The following day, they hit the bricks ... (Guild President Emeritus Tom Sito, whose history of animation unions, Drawing The Line, will be published later this year, writes about the Disney strike here.) My father, Disney background artist Ralph Hulett, was one of the employees who crossed the line and kept working during the two-month strike. Years later he told me that he had been threatened by strikers when he crossed; he was an anti-union stalwart for the rest of his life. (No doubt if he knew what his oldest son was doing for a living, he wouldn't be thrilled. But he died shortly after I was discharged from the Navy... and long before I worked at Disney.) Year by year, the participants who carried a picket sign in that 1941 job action become fewer. In fact, the only artist I know about who's still active and working is Bill Melendez, now well into his eighties. (There are, of course, a few hearty survivors who are retired.) But it's important to remember what those Disney artists and technicians did all those decades ago. If not for them, salaries would be far lower, and health and pension benefits much more paltry. It's seldom discussed in histories of Hollywood, but Disney assistants, breakdown artists, and painters saw their weekly salaries almost double after the strike ended. In fact, I sometimes theorize that I owe my existence to that 1941 strike. Why? Because my father finally made enough money -- after the picket signs were put away -- to marry and support a wife. Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"OTH"? A Bloombergian Disappointment?

Bloomberg News reports that one analyst cut DreamWorks profit estimates because "Over the Hedge" posted "lower-than-expected" weekend sales in U.S./Canadian theatres... Apparently, "some analysts" were expecting box office in the $40-50 million range. But wait. Didn't box office mojo predict $35.5 million? And didn't "Hedge" actually deliver $38.5 million? (Sure it did. See below.) But we're to believe that a $1.5 million shortfall is a disappointment, and that Paramount's strategy of counter-programming "The Da Vinci Code" didn't pan out, more's the pity. Let's face it. The media is always looking for a story to wrap a theme-line around, and this is the song-and-dance of the moment. "Hedge" has a solid first weekend, will no doubt have a solid second weekend -- which has yet to happen -- but somehow it doesn't measure up to expectations. I'm always intrigued to know what those expectations are, and how the collective body of wisdom arrived at them. When a film that debuts at #2 against a live-action juggernaut that was ALWAYS going to open #1, and when it earns just over a million shy of $40 mill during its first two and a half days in general gets dubbed an under-performer...well, the expectations must have been sky-high to start with, no? And pretty well-hidden, yes? Click here to read entire post

Monday, May 22, 2006

The WDFA Monday Romp

Part of the afternoon was spent by Yours Truly in the Mouse House's hat building, where all is calm, all is upbeat... Crew is being shifted about some; some crew on "American Dog" have been shifted to "Robinsons" as the new animation chiefs work with Chris Sanders to retool the U.S. Canine. Around the studio, word circulates that directors Ron Clements and John Musker (again residing on the third floor) will be directing a hand-drawn short on the way up the ramp to a new, hand-drawn feature. How long it will take to implement short and feature, I donno. Click here to read entire post

The Day Vance Gerry Erupted

This is actually another "Disney early development" story, but I'm focusing on something else here. The moment when one of Disney's finest -- and most even-tempererd -- story artists lost it... 'Round about 1983, a small group of story artists spent a couple of months developing Beauty and the Beast. This early development had nothing to do with the B & B that was a monster hit at Disney eight years later. This story-work was just part of the usual "maybe there's something to this, go see what you can cook up" routine that was part of the ebb and flow around the Mouse House's story department at the time. Somebody got approval to explore the story possibilities of a classic fairy tale, it got explored, interest waned and the parade moved on. In this instance, there were about four of us working on it: Pete Young, Vance Gerry, me, and a veteran story artist named Patrick (not his real name - for reasons that will become evident as this tale unfolds.) Patrick had been in the animation business a long time and was a solid artist. But he'd only been at Disney Feature Animation a year or two, having arrived to work on The Black Cauldron. Just then he had a little free time and so joined the other story artists who had left Cauldron earlier. And therefore had more free time on their hands. I don't remember who pushed for Beauty and the Beast's development, but we did the usual kind of research: looked at books and drawing, viewed the 1946 Cocteau film, did exploratory character sketches. I wrote up a short treatment. Twenty-two years later I have no memory of whether the treatment was good, bad or indifferent. I know I got input from Pete and the others. What I do have a memory of is when we all sat down in a second-floor story room to discuss it, Patrick tapped the pages with a forefinger and said: "I read this thing, and...and...I don't know. What's going on?" I wasn't sure what he meant, but I explained what was going on. The enchanted castle. The animals outside on the castle grounds (no teapots and utensils in this version). The beast inside. The girl from town. Patrick shrugged, smiled, twitched. "Yeah, but I just...I don't understand it. You think this is...I don't know... going somewhere? Because I just don't get it..." I explained some more. Patrick cut me off. "I guess...I don't know...It just isn't very good. doesn't do anything for me. I don't know..." Vance Gerry, who had been sitting silently, turned bright red. "G*ddamnit Pat! You do this EVERY F*cking time! And I'm SICK of it. You have a problem with something, give us something BETTER! But don't sit there and tell us you don't get it and you don't understand and it isn't any good! You do that kind of crap over and over! And I'm f*cking SICK of it!" We all stared at Vance with our mouths hanging open. And the reason our mouths were ajar was because this was a country mile away from the normal Mr. Gerry. You have to understand that Vance G. never complained. Never griped about anything. Never blew up angrily, even when he was justified. When his boards were changed for the worse, he never argued about it. When a director or layout supervisor loused up one of his delicate color studies of a character or landscape, he never protested. In fact, in all the years I knew him, I never saw him erupt over anything. Except this one time. This one afternoon. Vance's face remained bright red. His eyes remained wide. Patrick goggled at him and stammered: "Va..Vance. I didn't mean...I didn't think I...I wasn't..." "You never MEAN anything, Pat! But you just pull this all the TIME! And I can't stand it anymore! So just SHUT THE F*CK UP!" Two decades later, I still don't know what exactly set Vance off. I don't think it was to defend my sterling prose, but more like really bad chemistry. Everybody stared at the pages in their laps. Patrick made a feeble effort to get a sentence out, stopped at the second word, fell silent. I finally cleared my throat and said: "Ah, let me go through this." And I did. We worked our way through the treatment, looked at early sketches that had been drawn, and ended the meeting. There was a little more development work that was done, but not a lot. Treatment and drawings went off to the morgue (later known as "Animation Research.") Patrick went back to The Black Cauldron and everyone else forged ahead on Basil of Baker Street, (later released as The Great Mouse Detective.) Very little stays in my mind about the project. The only memory shard that remains vivid and twinkly is the afternoon that Vance Gerry erupted. Click here to read entire post

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Coming Animation Deluge

You realize how much animated product is in the pipeline when you go to "Over the Hedge" and see wall-to-wall feature animation trailers in the coming attractions... I mean, not just one or two offerings, but twice that (why "Open Season" and "Cars" didn't make it into the mix, I'll never know.) There was "Barnyard" trailer, a "Monster House" trailer, a "Garfield" trailer, a "Flushed Away" trailer. In a span of nine minutes you got a fine sampling of bargain-basement CGI, motion capture CGI, computer animation combined with live action, and CGI mimicking stop motion. You got farm animals and kids in jeopardy and English vermin and transposed comic strip characters. And you can't help thinking as you sit there: "Some of these are going to go down in flames. They can't ALL end up hits, can they?" Well, maybe they can. If you count DVD rentals and sales and overseas markets. If you count the roll that CGI animated features have been on (no fair counting "Final Fantasy.") "Barnyard" looks to be the weakest of the bunch, what with its cheesy graphics and low-brow humor and the kinds of whacky animals that we've seen too may times before. The 15-year-old key male demographic that I was sitting next to at the AMC didn't think much of it. On the other hand, the epic was produced by a Nickelodeon company on a not super-high budget, so who knows? Maybe it will creep into the black. The most interesting trailer of the group was "Monster House." This one is a motion capture CGI feature produced by Stephen Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis (brought over to Sony/Columbia from DreamWorks). And while I don't like motion capture a bit (and didn't like it here), the 15-year-old demographic person informed me: "Looks pretty interesting. I want to see it." The spooky house/kids in danger thing works well in the preview, perhaps a triumph of substance over execution. Certainly Zemeckis's last outing in this specialty ("Polar Express") was a money spinner. "Garfield" is a second installment of the fat cat in a live action world (J.L. Hewitt et al). The first go-'round made money, so they're doing it again, taking "The Prince and the Pauper" and letting the Big Cat run with it. (This will be a mid-level box office type flick, I think.) "Flushed Away" got a "maybe it's okay" verdict from the fifteen-year-old, but that came with a "they revealed too much" caveat. The middle-aged judgement (mine) is that DreamWorks-Aardman is going to have the same challenge marketing this specimen that they had with "Wallace & Gromit" last year: the Brit humor might not translate well across the fruited plain. Update: What an effing moron. I blanked out on "Happy Feet," an epic about penquins that had an amazing trailer, was also in the cycle of Coming Attractions. The feature has a November release, and was mentioned in the trades today as one of Warner Bros.'s Great Sparkling Hopes. And I have no idea -- based on the trailer -- how it will do. Maybe great, maybe less than great. Sony also has an upcoming feature about Penguins ("Surf's Up") Casting key teen-aged demos aside, a member of the older faction posits that THESE two will be the next hot CGI pictures... Click here to read entire post

Saturday, May 20, 2006

End of Week Drive Around...

Warner Bros. Animation in Sherman Oaks I dropped in on Disney Toons, Disney TVA and Cartoon Network. Disney Toons is reputedly going to 100% digital storyboards, although good old paper is still being used by some artists now... And at Cartoon Network, an animation director told me that Warner Bros. Animation is getting a lot fewer calls from freelance timers looking for work. One WB supervisor, who last year at this time got thirty inquiries, has this year gotten exactly one. So how do I know that employment in L.A. Animation is up? I look at the hiring trends we get at the office (our new member lunches never stop), and I listen to what artists around town are telling me. Click here to read entire post

"Over the Hedge" Weekend Derby

"Box Office Mojo" is predicting that "OTH" grosses $35.5 million to take the "Place" slot behind "The Da Vinci Code"... I'm wagering it does better than that. Having seen "OTH" at my neighborhood AMC late of a Friday evening, it's easily the best feature DreamWorks has produced in some time. The theatre was full for the 8:10 screening. And the protestors were out with banners denouncing "Code." [More later...] Update: As I suspected, "Mojo" was low in its Friday estimate for "Over the Hedge." The Sunday estimate (and this could change by Monday) was $37,228,000. (Sadly, I didn't hit the number I needed in the DW betting pool...) Final Update: Okaay. The official, real tally for "Hedge's" fist weekend is $38.5 million. This is "below" some analysts' estimates (about which there will be more above), but $3 million more than Box Office Mojo's Saturday estimate. So was Paramount's counter-programming against "Da Vinci" a smart move or not? Who the hell knows. DreamWorks got a solid number for a solid picture. The next question: How does it hold up first to second weekend? Unsurprisingly, "Ice Age 2" took a major hit (dropping 71%) with "Hedge" entering the marketplace. DreamWorks now has a clear field for a few weeks...until "Cars" pulls in. I'm still thinking that DreamWorks is ripe for a purchase by Viacom or some other conglomerate. And what better time than now, when the latest franchise is safely launched? Click here to read entire post

Friday, May 19, 2006

The "Hey, Let's Find A Job!" game, by Tina Kugler

(click the thumbnail for the full-sized version)
While we worked through the nineties... ...the animation biz became a lot more like the live-action biz. Long-term employment is down, short-term employment is up. This (semi) tongue-in-cheek board game by Tina Kugler (from the May Peg-Board) hits the issue on the top of its pointy head. More and more, artists are out pounding the sidewalks and working the phones, looking for their next paying gig. (Mrs. Hulett laughed knowingly when she read: "stay up all night trying out fonts for your resumé." Since she does this a lot.) Click here to read entire post

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The "Over the Hedge" Betting Pool

By now, there are plenty of projections on the web and elsewhere about how much loot "OTH" will rake in during its opening weekend.... But then there are the artists at DreamWorks, and their estimates. This afternoon I kicked money into the betting pool at DW. I guessed opening domestic weekend would be just under $50 million. And I thought the six-month domestic haul would be about $205 mill. But keep in mind I haven't seen the film, so I am pulling these figures out of my...backside. The employees in the pool bet all over the map. The LOW domestic weekend take was $32 million. The HIGH was $86 million. All other bets were scattered in between. The LOW domestic 6-month total was $195 million; the HIGH domestic 6-montyh total was $315 million. (Keep in mind that "Ice Age 2" is now nearing $200 million domestic, with about double that overseas.) A couple of people were speculating about where "OTH" would rank opening weekend. I speculated it would come in number two behind "Da Vinci Code," then rise to number one during its second weekend. (I'm using my massive psychic powers here, since I haven't seen "Da Vinci" or "Hedge," and therefore have no reality-based projections.) We will, of course, track the new DreamWorks epic as it rolls out Firday, Saturday and Sunday. Click here to read entire post

The Fred Screening

Fred Seibert I spent yesterday afternoon at Nickelodeon. Little did I know I would be sitting in a screening for Nick/Frederator's "Random Cartoons"... Nick and Frederator are rolling out thirty-nine new shorts over the next few months. Animation top-kick Mark Taylor told me that when all of them are completed, the companies will make some decisions about which ones get expanded into series. Culling the herd, as it were. (Fred S. started this system of artists creating new cartoons while running Hanna Barbera with the "What a Cartoon" program. Everybody and his cousin was invited to pitch shorts ideas, a bunch of 'toons were made, and out of that emerged Cartoon Network.) Yesterday Nick/Frederator unspooled four of the new shorts: "The Finster Finster Show" by Jeff DeGrandis involves some hyper-active toddlers and their mellow, oblivious mother, "Call me Bessie" by Dana Galin and Diane Kredensor features a moo-cow and an elephant, "Krunch & the Kid" has a grade-school boy who's pals with a large beastie that seems to be an ogre/alligator hybrid. This one was created by Adam Henry. The last short was "Adventure Time" by Cal Artser Pen Ward. While every 'toon had strong points -- edgy characters, bright colors, an unending stream of visual and verbal gags -- "Adventure Time," a loopy tale about a twelve-year-old and his magical dog battling an evil sorcerer, got the biggest reaction. ("AT" doesn't sound like anything super special, but trust me. The designs and humor were out of the usual cartoon mainstream.) Fred Seibert told me a year or two back that he likes cartoons with a small number of characters who ping off each other. These shorts stay within those parameters, but each one has a different sensibility. Some real different. Click here to read entire post

"HoodWinked" Enters at #1

A little late with this, but "Hoodwinked" entered the DVD sales charts at Numero Uno... Per The Hollywood Reporter: "Hoodwinked," the animated retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, scored an upset victory on the DVD sales chart for the week ending May 7, narrowly beating 20th Century Fox's "The Family Stone." Although it's theatrical legs were not great, the flick is selling a lot of little metal discs, and I'm sure the Weinstein brothers are delighted. "Hoodwinked" borrowed some riffs from "Shrek" and cashed in. (And proves, I think, that John Musker's "Red Riding Hood" pitch to Eisner and Katzenberg twenty-one years ago was chock-full of commercial possibilities, had it been pursued. Mark Dindal was also kicking around a similar idea prior to "Chicken Little.") "Hoodwinked" demonstrates (yet again) why CGI animation continues to expand. There are baskets of greenbacks in it. Click here to read entire post

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

One Diz Feature Before It Was a Diz Feature

Over the Mouse House's long history, lots of feature projects have been started, stopped, then started again... Like, story artists did some development work on "The Little Mermaid" way back in 1940, but nothing came of it. Obviously the drawings that survive of that early "Little Mermaid" have not very much to do with the 1989 version. In the seventies, I pitched (tepidly) the idea of doing "Aladdin" with Mickey-Donald-Goofy. In 1985 I pitched "The Man Who Would be King" with Mickey-Donald-Goofy (are we detecting a theme here?). Neither of these projects went much of anywhere. But in 1982, Pete Young and I pitched "The Three Musketeers" with Mickey-Donald-Goofy, and there was enough interest upstairs for us to open a production number and actually collect our salaries while developing it. I remember thinking at the time, "hey, this should be easy. There's already two jillion film versions of 'The Three Musketeers,' so there's obviously a STORY there..." (This actually is incorrect. There aren't that many. It only seems that way. The various "Three Musketeers" I can think of off the top of my head are the 1921 version with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., a 1935 limp biscuit, a Gene Kelly version, and a Richard Lester version from 1974. God knows there have been others since...) My point here is that there were a lot of "Three Musketeers" movies, and we looked at most of them. Burny Mattinson, who was assigned to oversee the project, looked at a lot of the films with us. And he got really excited when one day I brought in THIS "Three Musketeers" from 1939. It was a version of the Dumas classic that used less of the book's plot. But it had music. And comedy. Also Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers (a comic trio that was very popular in the late thirties). Burny thought the film provided a great template for our new version of "The Three Musketeers," and told us to go with its main story and character points as we developed our new one. This made Pete Young unhappy, because he wanted to follow the book. In the Ameche movie, the Ritz brothers weren't even real Musketeers, but inept busboys who pretended to be Musketeers. Every time Pete tried to go back to Dumas' original, Burny steered him to the '39 adaptation again. By and by, Pete decided I was the one who was to blame for the impasse. "If you hadn't brought that godd*mn Ameche movie in, we wouldn't be in this fix!" he railed at me one day. "I didn't know the movie existed! Burny didn't know it existed! And now it's all he's got on his mind!" We moved along with the "Musketeers" development, Pete fuming, me apologizing, and Burny focused on the Ritz brothers. Eventually management lost interest in the project, development came to an end, and we moved on to other things. Pete continued to blame me for screwing things up by bringing the '39 version to everyone's attention in the first place. I continued to apologize. And twenty years later, Disney developed the property yet again, releasing it as a DVD feature in 2004. I don't know if any of Pete's early boards were looked at, but Mickey-Donald-Goofy aren't actual Musketeers in the new one. They're janitors. Burny Mattinson, it turns out, was prescient. Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Lasseter in his own words

I thought I knew John Lasseter's story pretty well, but I learned some interesting things in this article . . . I had no idea John was fired from Disney! I was thinking of Steve Hulett's post about workplace politics as I read that, though in John's case it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. Because the article is mostly in John's own words, I think it gives some nice insights into what the man is about, and is more revealing than when I've heard him speak in person. It's well worth a read, and also features a nifty Pixar timeline. Click here to read entire post

The Disney bullpen, 1954, by John Sparey

Courtesy of the artist, John Sparey, the above view of the Disney bullpen ... ... hangs in the hallway of our Guild headquarters building. John writes:
The time period is fairly specific. We returned from the end of [the] Lady and the Tramp layoff [and] were settling in to work on the new Disneyland TV show. It would have been mid-1954. The setting is the first-floot bullpen in B wing of the Animation Building. All the furnishings are accurate. It's morning coffee break. The lineup from the left is Clyde Horak, Gary Mooney, Dick Hoffman, John Sparey, Bill Mahood, Bob Carr in the corner, Jack Fergus on the desk, and Wes Herschenson (brother of one-time U.S. Senate candidate Bruce) in the foreground. Jack and Chuck were the "old timers" -- they had started before the rest of us. Clyde was the "new kid" coming in some time after us. All the rest [of us] started in two training classes a few weeks apart in early 1953. Gary was the only occupant of the bullpen at this point in time. He had once been a child extra and could now be thought of as a "pre-hippie." Jack wore moccasins and hus crewcut just barely cleared the tops of doorways. But I never saw him duck or cringe. I later came up with a title for this picture: "You think THAT'S funny ... wait until you hear this one!"
-- John Sparey Go here for an index of our posts of John Sparey art. Click here to read entire post

Up At Film Roman/IDT

"The Simpsons" feature unit has now migrated from floor three of the IDT building to floor one... Some crew members admitted that there is a lot of work to do between now and the July release date for Bart, Marge et famille. I said that with the narrow time frame they're facing, lots of people will have some lengthy work weeks ("The Simpsons" schedule reminds me of the one Warners' "Space Jam" enjoyed a decade ago. That flick had something like eight and a half months to crank out its animation, and if you wandered through the studio day, nights or weekends, you could find artists laboring away on it. "Space Jam," if you don't remember, was one of Warner Bros.'s few successes in feature animation...) Upstairs, the two "HellBoy" DVD features (with John Hurt recreating his live-action role) steam closer to their ship dates, and everyone is real focused. (Of course, there are also the occasional melt-downs, but those are sort of a by-product of being focused.) Here's producer Tad Stones' production diary of "HellBoy." It's worth checking out. Click here to read entire post

IDT sold to Liberty Media

Buying fever seems to be spreading -- Liberty Media has just bought IDT Entertainment . . . A few years ago IDT Entertainment came out of nowhere and jumped into the animation game. They bought Film Roman (among other acquisitions) and moved aggressively into a variety of animation ventures. Their first theatrical feature, Everyone's Hero debuts in a few months. My understanding is that the owner of IDT made his bank in prepaid calling cards (IDT stands for something like International Digital Telephone -- somebody please correct me), and that he had a personal interest in animation that drove his move into the industry. Liberty Media, formerly a part of ATT, owns major stakes in QVC, Starz, and News Corp., among others. This buyout follows the pattern of giant media conglomerates buying smaller studios. I suppose it means that IDT has even deeper pockets to draw from, but I really have no idea what it really means for the future of the company. Addendum: Here's part of the press release that employees of IDT Entertainment in Burbank got this morning: Starz's Top Premimum Television Service to Join with IDT'S Animation and Live Action Production and Home Entertainment and Distribution Business Combined Company Will Produce Content for All Distribution Platforms. Englewood, CO and Newark, N.J. -- May 16, 2006 -- Liberty Media Corporation and IDT Corporation announced today that they have entered into a binding term sheet for the sale of IDT Entertainment to Liberty Media for all of Liberty Media's interests in IDT, $186 million in cash and the assumption of existing indebtedness. With this acquisition, Liberty Media's Starz Entertainment Group will have the capability to create a wide array of CG animated and live action programming for domestic and international distribution in all major channels, including broadcast syndication, premimum television, theatrical and home video/DVD. Click here to read entire post

Michael Bay (and others) buy Digital Domain

At a time when conventional wisdom around town sez the visual effects business operates at too low a margin, and is too vulnerable to the Indian animation expansion, an investment group that includes director Michael Bay has bought Digital Domain. . . Digital Domain was formed in 1993 by James Cameron, Stan Winston, and Scott Ross (former head of ILM), along with a big investment by IBM. DD went on to do major effects work on an impressive list of films and commercials, while also developing a reputation as something of a sweatshop. A recent online poll of vfx workers ranked it as the worst place in town to work. On the other hand, I spoke to a friend at the Over the Hedge wrap party who's been at DD for a few months who said it's been a pleasure to work there. As a side note, Scott Ross, the outgoing DD CEO, once publicly debated Tom Sito on the merits of unionization in animation. As far as I know, he's the only nonunion studio head to ever have the guts to do that. It'll be interesting to see if the new owners/managers have larger plans. It's always seemed to me that the work-for-hire effects biz is a high-risk, low-reward proposition. Click here to read entire post

Monday, May 15, 2006

Meet the WDFA

Monday was spent at Disney Feature Animation, where I spent some time talking to tech directors who want improved family leave benefits... Specifically, matching company funds for women who are away from work having babies. The company match is designed to improve state disability and/or unemployment benefits so that they equal the employee's Disney salary. This benefit is now offered to the Mouse House's non-union employees, but not those working under a union contract. I was asked why that is. I answered "because the company chooses not to. Disney can grant benefits to whoever it wants. Like it used to give stock options to most of its animation staff, but options for artists stopped in the mid-eighties, when Michael Eisner took the helm..." (Lucky for the "Nine Old Men" and other first-generation artists that Walt felt differently.) Word floats hither and yon that "Rapunzel" might be made as a hand-drawn feature (I know that was Glen Keane's desire a couple of years back. And I know that, if hand-drawn, Glen wanted to animate on it.) I saw, with my very own eyes, artists drawing actual "Rapunzel" characters on paper and with light boards. (Addendum to the above: The Rapunzel paragraph -- about it being hand-drawn -- is...ahm...not accurate. I should have checked with one of the leads on "R" who I talk to all the time. But was Hulett remembering this info at the time his fingers hit the keys? Noooo. Should Hulett have checked further? Yeeess. I Hulett occasionally lazy? No comment.) Up on the third floor, there's some nifty artwork being done for "Joe Jump." (Mr. Jump appears to be on track as a CGI character in a CGI 'toon.) Lots of story artists are prepping pitches for the shorts program. Staffers continue to marvel at how open and straight-forward Ed Catmull is compared to..well, the previous President of WDFA. Click here to read entire post

My visit to Grizzly Flats

This weekend I was honored to be invited to ride the Grizzly Flats Railroad, the famed hobby train of Ward Kimball . . . Note the depot in the above photo -- it was from the Disney movie So Dear To My Heart and built out from what was essentially a movie facade. Grizzly Flats isn't quite the place it once was, with the big steam engine and several train cars having been donated to a train museum in Paris, California, but what's still there is amazing. Ward must have been one hell of a guy if this was his idea of a hobby! Here are John Kimball and Nathan Lord at the controls of 'Chloe,' upholding the legacy of Kimball trainmen. Here's a view of the "First Class" car (it's covered, you see -- all the comforts of home). The very antique car at the end of the driveway belongs to Brian McEntee, who knows how to arrive in style for such an event. The appropriately named fire house: A view from out of the train barn (I'm sure there's a proper name for the structure, but what the hell do I know): I think they were taking on more water here. It's a wood-burning engine, and just in front of the train is the woodpile. We were warned when we helped load some wood to watch for black widows. I promptly found the two fattest black widows I've ever seen. I was enjoying myself too much to go around getting names, so I missed the names of these gentlemen. But their music was excellent, and perfect for an afternoon spent playing on a full-sized train. The young man in the red shirt was making flavored snow-cones, perfect on what seemed to be the hottest day of the spring. Steaming through the orange grove. I'm sitting in the "Second Class" car (it has no roof, like first class) looking at Nathan and family and friends in the "Third Class" car. It's third class because one of the car's wheels is 'square,' making for a lumpy ride (the brake, controlled by that wheel in the middle of the picture, was left on while it was running a few years ago). A good time was had by all (the guy on the far right only appears to be motion sick -- I'm pretty sure he was watching the track between the cars. Thanks again for the invite, Nathan, I really enjoyed it. Click here to read entire post
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