Wednesday, January 31, 2007

DreamWorks and Aardman Finalize Divorce

You have probably seen or read about this already, but in case it's otherwise:

LOS ANGELES - DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. said Tuesday it had ended an exclusive production arrangement with the British maker of the award-winning claymation series "Wallace & Gromit," which won critical acclaim but failed at the box office.

The decision regarding Aardman Animations came after DreamWorks said last year it would take a writedown in the fourth quarter to account for losses from the latest Aardman film, the computer-animated "Flushed Away."

DreamWorks has not revealed the size of the writedown, but analysts have suggested it could be more than $100 million.

This parting of the ways has been a while in coming, but now it's official. Apparently if you don't come forth with a $200 million domestic grosser, relations become, ah, strained.

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Retirement Living

Last night TAG members got a presentation from Arlene Glassner and Andrea Dzuris of the Motion Picture and Television Fund about the Fund's big retirement community in Woodland Hills. Board member Bronwen Barry was the moderator:

The Motion Picture and Television Fund has been around for 85 years. It started (literally) when Mary Pickford set out a collection box at a Hollywood Boulevard store for actors who were down on their luck.

The fund grew from there.

Today, of course, the Fund collects millions of dollars to run five health clinics, a hospital, and a twenty-acre retirement community. A long journey from a box on Hollywood Boulevard.

Chuck Jones weighed in with a videotaped anecdote about how he got involved with the Fund back in 1933. When an animator named Fon Scribner came down with tuberculosis, couldn't work, and the Fund paid his mortage and gave him "an element of hope." Per Mr. Jones: "The thing I feel about the fund is, you don't owe it anything. It's there to help..."

For me, the talk blew away some of the myths I'd had about the Woodland Hills retirement home: Like, you don't give the Retirement Home all your assets when you move in, although the rent isn't low (it's $3000 per month for a single -- activities, meals, cleaning and laundry included; $6500/month for a couple). But if you exhaust your savings after living there x number of years, the home doesn't displace you; the Fund will keep you on, subsidizing your rent and living expenses until you depart for greener pastures. (You need to have worked 7 out of the last ten years of employment in the movie or t.v. business, and earned at least $10,000 in each of those years.)

There are four levels of retirement housing: 1) Independent living, 2) Assisted living, 3) skilled nursing unit, and 4) the Alzheimers/Dementia unit. Individuals can go on a waiting list for residency at the age of 70.

The MPTF owns forty acres of Woodland Hills real estate, and only twenty of those acres have been developed. Which means the fund can double the capacity of its retirement community and have plenty of room for me when I todder through the main entrance.

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Larry E.'s Portfolio: Les Kaluza

Larry Eikleberry drew Leszek (Les) Kaluza near the end of his eleven-year stint as a layout supervisor at Filmation.

Les Kaluza

Les was born in Poland and emigrated to the U.S. in 1960 with his Austrian-born wife Erna. He worked for Famous Studios in NYC on "Popeye", "Casper", "Beetle Bailey", "Snuffy Smith" and other series. At Hanna-Barbera he worked on "The Flintstones", "The Jetsons", "Yogi Bear", "Johnny Quest", "Space Ghost", "The Impossibles" and the feature A Man Called Flintstone. His series at Filmation included "Tarzan", "Superman", "Star Trek", "Batman", "Aquaman", "Lassie", "Tom & Jerry", "Fat Albert", "Droopy", "The Archies", "The Lone Ranger" and "Sabrina And The Groovie Ghoolies", "and the Return To Oz, Flash Gordon, Oliver and Treasure Island features.

He and Erna moved to Oregon, and in the last twenty years he has produced and animated his own animated shorts such as "Potpourri", "The Owl And The Pussycat", "Why", "Oh La La", "Boogie Woogie Cat", "Tiger", "Heaven Or Hell", "Gold", "How Man Was Born" and "America". Samples of their artwork can be found on their website.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Nickelodeon Walk-Through

This afternoon (meaning Monday afternoon) I wandered around Nickelodeon, the Viacom Studio on Oliver Avenue in Burbank...

The studio is bringing back staff to the main building after a slow patch; I'm informed that three series will be announced in the next month or two, but nobody wants to give me titles yet. But it's good news that people who've had lengthy layoffs are beginning to filter back.

The question: "How did Nick get signed to a contract?" came up in a comment yesterday. I answer below:

(One of TAG's picket lines in front of Nick , a long time ago. Way back then, it got us nothing.)

Nickelodeon Cartoon Studios actually goes back a ways. In the early nineties, Nick was housed in The Motion Picture Industry Health and Pension Plan building on Ventura Boulevard. They were non-union then, and I complained about the union pension plan renting Nick space. The Health and Pension Plans paid me no attention (some things never change.)

A while later, Nick expanded, eventually settling into a large facility in Burbank. TAG mounted a large picket party on the night the studio moved into their building. They paid us little attention. We then had a few daytime pickets. They continued to pay us little attention. (This "paying attention" thing is a continuing theme...)

We next collected a mess of representation cards but not enough to give TAG a majority of the employees.

Time passed. Nick continued to be a non-signator studio. And then one day the Writers Guild of America west called and said it was working to organize writers and board artists, and would we like to partner up and organize the other artists. Since nothing much was happening from our end, we said "sure, why not?" ANd we went out with the Writers Guild to leaflet and hand out cards in front of the studio.

More time passed. The new organizing drive with the WGAw seemed to be going to the same destination our earlier effort had gone: Nowhere. The WGAw took out ads, filed Labor Board charges against Nick/Viacom which the company reciprocated, and held a mock election in front of the studio. The WGAw won the mock election, but was not getting far with a real election. And a short time later, the head organizer for the WGAW told me: "We're dead in the water with this Nickelodeon thing. We're going to walk away from it."

As the WGAw walked, so did TAG. We moved on to other things. And eight months later, we were successful in organizing a small studio named Frederator (owned and operated by Fred Seibert, the former topkick of Hanna-Barbera.) At the time, Frederator was headquartered in Studio City on Ventura Boulevard, but two months after we negotiated a contract, it moved to 231 W. Olive Ave. in Burbank.

Which happened to be the address of Nickelodeon Cartoon Studios. (Mr. Seibert, it turned out, had a distribution deal with Viacom.)

I began visiting Nickelodeon, walking in past the reception desk, strolling to the rear corner of the building where Frederator's unit was housed. And strolling out again. Artists employed by Nick who I knew were surprised to see me inside a "non-union" company. (I was a little surprised to find myself there.) But over the next few weeks, they and I got used to it.

By and by, I started collecting representation cards. When I collected a pretty good pile of them, I called the IATSE -- TAG's mother international -- and told them what I was doing and that I intended to call the WGAw to clue it in to our new organizing attempt. The IA instructed me not to.

More time passed. We were closing in on a majority of rep cards when the head organizer of the WGAw called and asked why we were organizing everybody behind their backs. I reminded him of our eight-month-old conversation about the WGAw "walking away" from its organizing attempt. I said: "When does the statute of limitations run out?" He replied that the WGAw still had some legal actions pending.

TAG kept collecting cards. When we had a majority, Nick and the Animation Guild struck an agreement to have an outside arbitrator count them. When the aribtrator determined that TAG had a majority of rep cards, lawyers from Nick and Your Truly sat down and hammered out a collective bargaining agreement.

This happened in the Fall of 2002. There have been other Nick negotiations since. The most recent agreement was negotiated and ratified by the membership this past year.

The thing about organizing studios and negotiating collective bargaining agreements is, it's always sort of nerve-wracking. But you develop a thick skin over time, and a small ability to know where the kabuki theatre of negotiations is probably going. But it's never particularly easy.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

A Different Kind of Union?

Interesting article in the New York Times over the weekend. It detailed the efforts of labor lawyer Sara Horowitz to form a work organization for a group of workers not always covered by a traditional labor union. But what this "Freelance Union" isn't is an actual labor union in the traditional sense ...

Ms. Horowitz has founded the Freelancers Union, offering members lower-cost health coverage and other benefits that many freelancers often have a hard time getting.

A former labor lawyer, Ms. Horowitz intends to form a forceful advocacy group for freelancers and independent contractors, the most mobile members of an increasingly mobile work force. In addition, she is trying to adapt unions to a world far different from yesteryear, when workers often remained with one employer for two or three decades.

Last April we blogged about a non-union studio in New York that wasn't paying its freelancers. A Google search revealed that the studio had been given an award as one of the "Ten Best Companies to Freelance for in NYC" ... by none other than this same Freelancers Union.

Nevertheless, Ms. Horowitz is on to a little something here, because independent contractors and "freelancers" (a term that is increasingly applied to bona fide employees working away from the premises and not just sub-contracting free agents) certainly need access to lower-cost health care and pension benefits, assuming there is no traditionally-structured union available to supply those services.

By creating a new type of union for nontraditional workers, Ms. Horowitz hopes to help revive the labor movement. Its membership has slipped to just 7.4 percent of the private-sector work force, down from one-third in 1960.

Unlike traditional unions, the Freelancers Union has no intention of bargaining with employers...

This new Freelancers Union (which makes an interesting acronym, F.U.) is something that obviously fills a need since a heck of a lot of freelancers are signing on. But unless it actually begins repping its members more aggressively -- like negotiating pay and working conditions -- the organization will pretty quickly bump up against its own self-imposed limits.

Most -- check that, ALL -- entertainment unions and guilds have dealt with the freelance issue for years, and will continue to deal with it. The IATSE in particular has thrived organizing freelance workers. Sometimes they have the leverage and clout to deal with it well, and sometimes not, but the industry in which we work is a business of temporary employment.

In the 21st century, almost nobody is going to work for a single company from the start to the finish of their career. That business model, comforting as it might have been, is now as extinct as the passenger pigeon.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Afternoon at Starz Media

Friday, I ended up spending a long afternoon at Starz Media/Film Roman next to the Bob Hope Airport. Usually I breeze in and out of cubicles with a quick "hi how ya doin'?", pass out 401(k) booklets and move on, but I ended up spending long stretches of time actually talking to people.

At the moment, Starz Media is developing fewer original theatrical productions, pursuing more contract work, cutting its overhead (having fewer production execs). The theatrical toon Sheepish has completed most development of the pictures and now moves into full-bore production. My guess is: that Starz will decided where it wants its feature division to go after Sheepish frolics into theatres.

Several board artists at Starz who weren't around when TAG organized it during the time of IDT Entertainment's ownership, asked me how the company came to be "union" after so many years not. I told them the following tale:

One bright summer day two years and eight months ago, a Simpson's artist came into my shabby little office and said Film Roman's artists wanted to "go union" because their pension and health benefits had been cut, many were't happy with what they were making, and people were all around, ahm, pissed off.

I looked at him and said: "I've been up to Roman's a bunch of times and never gotten much of anyplace. I'm not sure I want to go up there now and go nowhere again. So tell you what? Here's a stack of union representation cards. You get them signed, then we'll talk."

The artist took the cards and went away. Two weeks later he came back with a pile of them signed. "Now will you help? Like, can we have a meeting?"

This time I said yes, and set up a meeting for Film Roman employees. And then, because I'm a brilliant organizer and strategist, I forgot all about the meeting, came within a whisker of missing it altogether, and showed up a half-hour late.

But nobody had left, because they were motivated to change the studio's status to a TAG-type company. (I didn't know this yet.) And when the meeting broke up, TAG had a lot more representation cards and was well on its way to having a majority.

Two months later, we filed a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. The company campaigned energetically to get its employees to vote "no" in the NLRB election. Happily, it made a number of mistakes that made its employees want to be unionized more than they already did. And when the election was held and the votes were counted, the animation guild won the balloting by 89%.

A month after that, Film Roman (now Starz Media) had its first Animation Guild contract.

The newbie Starz employees told me all of this was news to them.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Box Office Rhumba

No animated flicks are currently within hailing distance of the box office Top Ten, but there are some pretenders.

The ever-popular Night at the Museum now occupies the fourth slot, collecting $2,290,000 on Friday. Pan's Labyrinth, expanding to 823 theatres, rakes in $1.3 million and a $13 million total (at #8).

And what's at Number One? The laugher Epic Movie ($6,820,000 on 2801 screens), followed by Smokin' Aces and Catch and Release.

Sunday Update: Third Place Night now totals $216.7 million, while Pan's Labyrinth adds screens and gross ($16.2 million to date) and comes in at #8 (down a notch).

Arthur and the Invisibles plunges 46% for a total of $11.5 million and a mid-list slot at #18. Happy Feet continues to decelerate, taking in $900,000 for a total of $192 million as it clings to #24.

And remember Happily N'Ever After? (Nobody else does, either.) It's now almost gone, standing at #30 with a lacklustre $14.8 million.

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Hollywood Memo II

As memo-writer/producer Hal Wallis reamed Michael Curtiz during Captain Blood, so David O. Selznick reamed his employer MGM on his way out the door to independent production (and Gone With the Wind). The reaming started in late 1935, as Selznick was wrapping up A Tale of Two Cities and his employment contract. It went like this:

October 3, 1935

Mr. Nicholas Schenk, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.

We sneak-previewed A Tale of Two Cities, vastly overlength, before an audience of sailors and had a sensational success...

I think it a crying outrage that there has been not a word in either the trade or lay press about A Tale of Two Cities for months and months and I regard this as typical of the entire company's attitude. I hate to make my valedictory to the company a bitter complaint, and I assume that many of the excutives, including the very able men who run the Publicity Departments, will be very annoyed with me. But I feel I owe it to the company to see that it gets its rewards for what looks like a very successful investment...

And so on and so forth (from the Rudy Behlmer book Memo from David O. Selznick. )Apparently some of MGM's publicists were annoyed with young David, particularly because Mr. Selznick copied almost every exec at MGM.

It prompted this reply from Howard Dietz (MGM publicist and Broadway lyricist), who -- naturally -- copied all the same executives:

Thank you for the copy of the letter...complaining about the publicity treatment you've received while at MGM...I have tried to figure out why you've been so ignored and decided it was that shy, shrinking personality of yours...No one knew your name very much in the early days and now they are even conscious of your middle initial. Rest assured that I will never reveal that the "O" stands for just -- "O." You remind me of the bisexual Marquis who, when asked which he preferred -- men or women, replied, "I like them both but there ought to be something better."*

Selznick was furious with Howard D's cheek. But then Nicholas Schenk -- the head of the whole MGM shebang and the recipient of the original gripe-fest -- weighed in:

I do not understand how you could write such a have been spoiled by too easy accessibility to money and people for production...had your road been a little harder you would be less quick to make these selfish and egotistical observations...Your parting remarks to MGM should be of gratitude for the success we helped you to achieve...*

Ain't the 1930s great? Everybody put all their bilious thoughts down in writing for people like you and me to enjoy seventy-nine years later. Of course, everyone is a lot more enlightened here in the 21st century, and these kinds of horrid things never go on anymore.

* The second two missives are from David O. Selznick's Hollywood.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Larry E.'s Portfolio: Dave West

Still more from the talented hand of Larry Eikleberry: At the time of Larry's 1980 portrait, Dave West had been a layout artist at Filmation for eight years, working on Fat Albert, New Adventures of Batman, The Secret Lives of Waldo Kitty and other shows.

Dae West

By 1985 he was supervisor on She-Ra, and remained at the studio until its shutdown in 1989. More recently he worked for Warner Bros. on Tiny Toons Adventures and Animaniacs and for Cartoon Network on My Freaky Family.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Joe Barbera Day

Eric S., Dennis V. and Willie I.Left: Eric Semones, Dennis Venizelos and Willie Ito. Photos by Bob Foster.

Last night at Warners in Burbank, a big memorial for the recently departed Joe Barbera unfolded in the big theatre on the lot...

The place was filled with hundreds of Joe's former employees, gathered together to see Mr. Barbera off.

Carleton Clay, who'd been Joe's personal assistant for the last several years, was master of ceremonies of the proceedings, and L.A County Supervisor Mike Antonovich was on hand to proclaim January 24th as "Joe Barbera Day" in L.A. County.

But the heart of the evening was the talent that came together to celebrate Joe Barbera's life: writers, inkers and painters, actors, designers, animators, designers, board artists. They jammed the front lobby and told stories about the old days. Then inside the theater, in person and on video tape, they remembered who Joe was and what he meant to the industry. His loyalties, his passions, his love of just getting up every morning and being able to do what he loved.

It's why he kept vital for so long," one exec remembered. Warner Animation head Sander Schwartz noted how the first Tom and Jerry came out in 1940 (with a nomination for an Academy Award the same year), and that Joe worked on his last T & J last year.

Animation executive Margaret Loesch told how she first met Joe in 1975 when she was a television executive. Joe was at the network to pitch new shows. She was young and nervous, and told a lame joke. And Joe gave her a look and said: "Let me tell the jokes, kid." Thereafter she did.

Stan Freberg recalled the direction he got from Barbera at MGM, when Freberg's assignment was to vocalize oil swirling around an engine block. Two of his directors related how he was personable but made clear he had the last word on their work. Casey Kasem got up and said that the biggest deal in his life was playing the "countdown, but being Shaggy on Scooby Doo was number two "and rising."

But I think what impressed me the most was the advice Joe gave Margaret L. when she asked him: "What can I learn from you?" and he replied:

"The ability to handle disappointment."

That, in a nutshell, is what anyone in Hollywood who claims a grip on sanity has to learn.

Thanks, Joe. For everything.

Below: Mrs. Eisenberg, Donna Zeller and Jerry Eisenberg.

Jerry Eisenberg and two others
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Forty Seven Years Ago TODAY...

I didn't realize this until I opened up President Emeritus's Tom Sito's blog today, but Sleeping Beauty was released on this date in 1959...

1959 - Disney's " SLEEPING BEAUTY" opened. Despite earning the fifth highest box office for that year,it finished $5 million behind what it cost to make. The animation staff had swollen to it's largest to finish the production. It’s disappointing box office soured Walt Disney on feature animation. His low budget films like the Shaggy Dog and his TV shows were doing much better. Walt confessed to animator Eric Larson:" I don't know if we can do this anymore, it's just too expensive." After the film was finished the studio had a massive layoff, dropping from 551 to just 75. Artists employed since "Bambi" and earlier found pink dismissal slips on their drawing tables when they came to work. Staff level will not return to these same levels until 1990.

I'm not sure of all of Tom's numbers here, but they seem pretty right. My then ten-year-old brain vaguely remembers the brouhaha that surrounded the launching of SB: the hour-long promo on the t.v. show, the merchandising, the books (Walt gave employees autographed copies of The Art of Animation.)

And I remember Dad coming home and talking about the big layoffs right after the picture wrapped up (he was among the survivors).

As Mr. Sito notes elsewhere, it was a somber time in animation: Disney downsized, MGM closed, lots of commercial animation houses went out of business. But the animation business is nothing if not cyclical, and within a year Hanna-Barbera was roaring and employment was going up again.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

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Larry E.'s Portfolio: Larry Miller

Today we bring you Larry Eikleberry's portrait of Larry Miller (1931-1996), who started as an inbetweener at Disney in 1956.

Larry Miller

Miller was yet another victim of the 1958 post-Sleeping Beauty layoffs, after which he freelanced and did various jobs until he went to Filmation as an assistant in 1967. At the time this was drawn in 1980 he had just been promoted to animator, then went back to assisting for the rest of his career.

Miller stayed at Filmation until its shutdown in early 1989, then freelanced for a few years for Hanna-Barbera and Hyperion before retiring.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Dialogue with the Digital Gypsy

A few days back, the Digital Gypsy put up a think piece about visual effx unions, to wit:

I'm interested to hear from folks within a union circle, and how it might have affected you. I also wonder about visual effects artists outside of North America, in the UK and Asia and the South Pacific. Are there local visual effects unions there, and how do you think your local vfx scene might change if one were formed?
VFX Unions

I've been thinking about this topic while I wait for some frames to render on the farm, and I'm unsure as to what the qualifications of a visual effects union might be. What are your thoughts on visual effects unionization? Would they help or hinder the visual effects industry? What sort of standards are required? Would the marketplace become more competitive or less?

Here's the definition of a union.

Unions are mass organisations of the working class whose primary role is to achieve the common demands of their members. They are fundamentally defensive organizations. A good union can not only improve workers' lives, win more leisure time and a better standard of living, they can also change governments and make very significant changes across society.

Are vfx artists working class? Do we need a defensive organization in a field of work that we are voluntarily a part of? Personally, I think not. If I don't like a company, I leave. There are many studios out there, all wiling to pay for top talent, or even talent as it is. If a bunch of artists decide to stop working because of unfair practices (10 hours is too much! There's no sun in here!), there are a bunch of others that want to take our place. Would I love an eight hour day like before? Sure I would. And of course, I don't need to work 10 hours to get something done. It's all about the organization of the beast. Given the resources, one could work 4 days a week and still get work done. We're not doctors or nurses, we're in entertainment. We're not saving lives here, and our work is forgotten almost the moment after you see it. We live pretty swank lives compared to some, save for the hours some of us put in near the end of a show, but they are far and few between.

In case you are wondering about the VES, it's a guild. We pay annual dues, but there are no distinct advantages that automatically come with enrollment. We have an option for healthcare, and we receive screeners and opportunities to attend Academy (AMPAS) events. But there's no minimum wage, no maximum number of hours to be worked per week, no pension.

I responded as follows:

I'm the business representative of the Animation Guild, a labor organization repping cgi artists and TDs at various L.A. animation houses (also board artists, designers, and animation writers.)

First point: In my experience, a large part of the CGI culture is libertarian and anti-collective bargaining. Many don't see the need for a union or guild and consider themselves free agents.

I understand the view, but consider this: Federal labor regulations stipulate that an "animator" is non-exempt from overtime law. If you're an "animator" (cgi or hand-drawn) there's a strong argument to be made that you must receive overtime after forty hours worked in a week.

Do animators in CGI generally get overtime? To my knowledge, no. (Obviously it varies company to company). And this isn't a philosophical argument we're having here ("Wouldn't it be nice if..."), it's a matter of law.

I've been business repping a long time, and for the most part, people don't like to rock the boat in which they're floating. Abuses go on all the time: illegal immigrant workers, overtime abuses, violation of wage laws. Mostly people ignore it, and God knows the Feds and state aren't energetic enforcing the law. So then, what's somebody working in games or viz effects of feature animation to do?

One way to help level the playing field is to organize the studio in which you're working, (by organizing, I mean getting a union or guild contract) because it's good to have someone, anyone helping to enforce the rules. And that's what unions and guilds do.

Once upon a time, the movie industry was similar to how the cgi industry is today: Wide open, wild and wooly, pay rates all over the map. An old-timer who worked on live-action sets in the 1920s said: We came in at 8 or 9 in the morning and worked until 3 in the morning or until we fell down. That's just the way it was...

Sound familiar? Nothing ever changes. Human nature is pretty much a constant. But this old gent went on to say: "Thank God the unions finally came in, because it was really out of hand."

I'll be the first to tell you that unions and guilds are not the end-all or the be-all. They don't solve every problem, they are often led by silly, craven, unserious people. But consider this:

If you stack up the wages and benefits in the unionized part of cgi-land, I think you'll discover that the union part of the biz makes more money overall than the non-union segment.

That, to my mind, trumps the arguments about being a free agent and making your own deals. Because in the end, money is a large part of what working for a living is about: It's how we keep score. And you want a higher score when you reach the age of sixty-five and have to (want to?) hang it up and smell the roses.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Inside Frank Wells (the building that is)

Popped over to the Frank Wells Building on the Disney lot, where chunks of Disney Television Animation and Disney Toons are housed. (The Glendale facility on Sonora is being prepared to house all of DisneyToons up on the second floor, but some of Disney TVA -- I'm told -- will remain at the FWB.)

Phineas and Ferb is in full creative flower, having been picked up for an additional 13 episodes beyond the original 13. And The Replacements, exec produced by the talented and affable Jack Thomas, has been picked up for a second season of eighteen episodes (this will bring the total count to 39 half-hours when they're done...)

Tinker Bell is now being reworked in script form. New boards will take shape (so I'm told) over the next few months. As Jim Hill queried back in December:

"Well, if it's so crucial that 'The Tinkerbell Movie' has to be great, then why don't the folks at Disney Consumer Products just ask John Lasseter & the guys from Pixar to come over & consult on their 'Disney Fairies' movie?," ...

Of course, the above was done (prescient, that Mr. Hill). And here we are.

Folks over at FWB seem more upbeat than the last time I cruised through. Series pickups (with steady work lasting for months) will do that to people.

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And the Nominees Are....

Happy Feet, Cars, and Monster House.

If I were a betting man, I would say Cars is the odds-on favorite to win, but I wouldn't rule out Feet. Monster House, to my mind, is definitely a dark horse in this mix.

But what do I know? I'm just a thick-witted union stiff.

Update: And while we're at it, let's consider the Animated Shorts, shall we?

For the first time in a while, most are from the U.S. of A.:

Lifted - Pixar - Gary Rydstrom

The Little Matchgril - Disney - Roger Allers and Don Hahn

To Time for Nuts - 20th Century Fox/Blue Sky - Chris Renaud and Michael Thurmier

The Danish Poet - National Film Board of Canada - (A Mikrofilm and National Film Board of Canada Production) - Torill Kove

Maestro - Szimplafilm - A Kedd Production -- Geza M. Toth

Interesting to see that the majors are into the shorts category in a big way. Usually that isn't the case...

LATE Update: Tom Sito has some nice insights into the nominees. Better to link it late than never.

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Larry E.'s Portfolio: Carol Lundberg

Here's Larry Eikleberry's portrait of Carol Lundberg, who started as a layout artist at Filmation in 1969 and worked there until 1981. She spent time at Marvel, Hanna-Barbera and Hyperion before taking a withdrawal from active TAG membership in 1997.

Carol Lundberg

In case you're wondering (and probably you're not), most of the featured Eikleberry portraits that will crop up here over the next few weeks are studies of Filmation employees from the 1970s and 1980s, when Filmation was one of the most going 'toon studios in L.A. (and, in 1985, the biggest.)

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Daily Rates

Time once again some for a little narrow-casting, this time on the riveting subject of "Daily Rates."

And what might those be? Why, they're the minimum wage somebody gets if that somebody is hired on a day-to-day basis rather than, say, a weekly one...

From the ever-popular TAG Collective Bargaining Agreement:

Article 5.B.1. - Daily Employment:...All time worked up to eight (8) hours per day shall be paid at 117.719% (which rate is inclusive of vacation and holiday pay) of the minimum basic hourly rate provided herein for such employee's classification. All time worked in excess of eight (8) hours per day shall be paid at one and one half (1 1/2) times the applicable hourly rate provided herein for such employee's classification.

2. Employees employed on a daily basis shall receive written confirmation from Producer prior to commencement of employment that employment is on a daily basis.

Let's cut through the thicket of legalese with a couple of examples. One of the standard minimum rates in the contract covers animators, layout artists and model designers. Here are the wages now in force:

Weekly rate (40 hours): $1,446.56 ($36.164 per hour)

Daily rate (40 hours): $1,702.80 ($42.57 per hour)

The Daily rate has built into it 4% for vacation and 3.719% for holidays, also a 10% overscale premium (which gets you to the 117.719% daily rate noted above.)

Here's one more example, this time for color stylist/animation checker:

Weekly rate (40 hours: $1,237.69 ($30.949 per hour)

Daily rate (40 hours): $1,457.20 ($36.43 per hour)

Now. Why would a studio pay the 17.719% premium for the daily rate? Because they don't have to offer an employee a weekly guarantee. Somebody can work two days, three days, and be laid off by the employer without any obligation to pay for the final two or three days of the week (which the "weekly rate" requires).

Here's another wrinkle: If an employer is paying overscale anyway, they occasionally use the daily rate to avoid paying vacation and holiday. The problem is, often times an employer never tells its employee in writing that she's on the "daily rate." More than once I've called to ask a studio why Betty the Layout Artist never got any vacation/holiday pay when she was laid off. The answer I get is:

"Ah, Betty was working daily. And, uhm, vacation and daily are built into the rate."

"Fine. Got it. Can you fax me a copy of the written notice you gave to Betty before she started work? As required by the contract? Because Betty doesn't recall receiving it."

"Uh. We'll get back to you..."

The halcyon days of big overscale pay rates are far behind us, and studios today are looking for ways to cut ballooning budgets. Some production managers have glommed onto the "daily" classification as a way to rein in expenses. By and large, the daily rate doesn't do that, but I guess it's pretty for the studios to think that it does.*

*It's mostly television producers who use the daily rate.

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Remembering (III)

Still more about recently departed artists. (One note here: A few, as you have probably read, passed away in 2005. We list them now because we didn't learn of their deaths until '06)...

Terry Smith: Terry worked as a Xerox processor at DePatie-Freleng and Disney from 1974 to 1977, died May 26th.

Helen Soule: an inker at Warners, Disney, Lantz and DePatie-Freleng from 1946 to 19789, died on February 10th at the age of ninety.

Jan Svochak: Jan started at Famous Studios on the east coast after World War II. He was an assistant to Marty Taras on Baby Huey, Little Audrey and Herman and Katnip. Mr. Svochak was also known for his animation on the thirty-year Hawaiian Punch commercial campaign (still memorable for the tykes who viewed it -- one of those tykes being me -- decades later.) Mr. Svochak was a long-time officer of New York's Cartoonists Local 841. He passed on September 6th at the age of eighty.

Alex Toth: Alex was a comic book artist and designer, best remember for his character disigns at Hanna-Barbera for Superfriends, Space Ghost and other action heroes of the '60s and '70s. He made his reputation drawing Green Lantern and Dr. Mid-Nite for DC Comics, becoming "the finest artist comics ever had," in the words of Gil Kane. Alex died at his drawing table on May 27, aged seventy-seven years.

Myron Waldman: Myron was likely the last surviving animator of the Fleischer studio's crew that created the Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. Waldman started at Fleischer as an inker in 1930 and within four years had climbed to head animator. Besides the Popeyes and Boops, he animated on Fleischer's iconic Superman cartoon series. Waldman received TAG's Golden Award in 1986, and ASIFA's Winsor McCay Award in 1998. He died February 4, 2006 at the age of ninety-seven.

Robert "Tiger" West "Tiger" was an assistant animator, animation checker and supervisor in the business for 45 years. Starting at Disney in 1944, he worked as an animation checker and scene planner under Ub Iwerks. Thereafter, he was a character assistant under Bob Carlson and and effects assistant under Josh Meador.. He also worked as an assistant on Tom and Jerry at MGM, and later a supervisor of the Xerox department at Hanna-Barbera. Retiring in 1989, he received TAG's Gold Award in 2005.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Prophet's Grandson Gets An Animated Feature

I bring this up because a) it's interesting and b)it might help shine a little light on a dark and violent world...

A Beirut-based production company has produced ARD AL-TAFF, a 3D animated film chronicling the story of the death of the Prophet Mohammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, whose fall during the battle of Kerbala in Iraq in AD 680 is a key historical point for Shi'ite Muslims, according to REUTERS.

What's interesting about this to me is, Islamic animated films aren't new. A few years ago, one of the smaller signator studios here in L.A. did a series of Islamic animated videos.

There's a big market out there. It's smart that some corporate entity is tapping it.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Larry E.'s Portfolio: Wes Herschensohn

We've previously shared board artist/portraitist Larry Eikleberry's artwork, here, here and here.

Wes Herschensohn

This 1979 portrait is of Wes Herschensohn (1929-1985), who thanks to John Sparey's many portraits (here, here and here) may be the most popular subject on the TAG Blog.

Wes started as an inbetweener at Disney in 1953, and worked in animation and layout for Sutherland, Patin, Format, Eagle, Detiege, Hanna-Barbera and Filmation, passing away "in harness" in 1985. He was the brother of Bruce Herschensohn, conservative commentator and activist.

Wes also produced and "conceived" The Picasso Summer, a live action feature based on a Ray Bradbury story, directed by Serge Bourguignon and starring Albert Finney and Yvette Mimieux, with photography by Vilmos Zsigmond and Picasso's art animated by John and Faith Hubley.

This interpretive rendering shows Wes a little older, and a little less caricatured than Mr. Sparey's versions.

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El Box Office: Arthur Sinks and Pan Rises

Arthur and the Invisibles, to nobody's surprise, has slid down a notch in the Top Ten, and still hasn't quite hit $10 million. But Pan's Labyrinth, another cgi hybrid, has climbed into the top ten...

Night at the Museum clings to the second position and has now collected close to $200 million in domestic box office receipts (Ben Stiller is clearly the Clark Gable of our era, with smash after smash). Pan has been in release since December, but is only now going into wider release, riding along on some stellar reviews.

Update: Ho hey. Weekend estimates are in and Arthur and the Invisibles managed to decline only 28% to #10. Picture has collected $9,296,000 after a $3.1 million weekend.

Happily'N Ever After dropped 51.7% to 21st place and a $13.8 million total. Happy Feet is right behind at #22, with $190.7 million in ticket sales.

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Remembering (II)

We continue to memorialize animation people who departed over the past year ....

Gloria (Frakes) Estrada: Gloria Estrada worked as a cel painter and final checker for Screen Gems, Walter Lantz, Warners, Sutherland, Kling, Snowball and Hanna-Barbera among several others. She retired in 1983 after a thirty-seven year career, and was eight-one at the time of her death.

Edward Herskovitz: Mr. Herkovitz was born in Egypt in 1921, joined a traveling circus as a teenager, and eventurally settled down in Japan, where -- in the 1970s -- he became an animation producer. He died in Israel on May 21, 2006.

Thomas Hickson: Layout artist and model designer Thomas Hickson, who worked for Filmation, Ruby-Spears and Hanna-Barbera thorughout the 1980s, died March 14th at eighty-five.

Libby Hilberman: Mrs. Hilberman was an animation artist at UPA, Tempo and Disney whose husband Dave was named by Walt Disney in testimony before the House of Representative's HUAC committe in 1947. It's largely because of Libby and her husband Dave Hilberman that Los Angeles-based animation artists now enjoy some of the best conditions for work in the world.

Rin Inumaru: Ms. Inumaru was a Japanese artist who created the long-running Japanese children cartoon series Ojarumaru, the story of a five-year-old boy from 1,000 years in the past who finds himself transported to present-day Japan. Rin Inumaru died September 10 at the age of 48.

Patrick Kenney: Patrick died in Hollywood. An animation artist, Patrick worked at Disney, PDI, Sony Pictures Imageworks as well as others.

Bill Lorencz: Bill was a background artist who worked in the business for over forty years at most of the studios that existed during that four decade span. They included Bluth, Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Film Roman, MGM and Warner Bros Animation among a host of others.

Dennis Marks: Animation writer Dennis Marks died on January 10, 2006. In addition to running his own company, he wrote for a plethora of animated projects, including The Beatles, Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Pace as well as Tom and Jerry: The Movie and Jetsons: The Movie.

Norm McCabe: Norm was one of the grand old men of animation, with a career longer than almost anybody's. From 1934 until 1999 he worked for every animation studio in town this side of Disney. He retired from Warners in '99, and died January 17, 2006 -- four weeks shy of his 95th birthday. Norman was the last of the "Golden Age" Warners cartoon directors to depart this veil of three-strip technicolor.

Norm in crewcut days. I knew him when he had more of a Beatles look. (from Cartoon Brew.)

Donna Paiker: Donna was a painter who worked in the biz from 1938 to 1978 at studios ranging from Screen Gems to Fleischer to Hanna Barbera. The widow of animator Frank Paiker, she died February 12 at 91 years of age.

Lloyd Rees: Lloyd was an assistant animator who worked over forty years in the business, hanging his hat at Calvert, Ruby-Spears, Disney Warner Bros. and Kroyer FIlms among other studios. He died in Oceanside June 1 at the age of 85.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Why Companies Will Keep Making Animated Features

If you want to know how employment will hold up for CGI artists, technical directors and board artists over the next few years, here's all you need to know:

In a report released Thursday, Kagan Research called "Ice Age: The Meltdown" the most profitable widely released movie of last year, estimating its cost at $256.4 million and revenue for all release windows at $1.1 billion. When the latter is divided by the former, the result is 4.11, which Kagan calls its Kagan Profitability Index...


You will note that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest had the highest grosses of the year, but its costs were way more, so its overall profits were way less.

What this means is, our big hungry conglomerates will be looking for a money spigot: an animated feature that will do for them what wooly mammoths did for 20th Century Fox in '06. This kind of explains why Universal is now getting into the act (see below), even though the field is already pretty full.

And what that means is, artists will continue to find employment.

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Homer Works Overtime

When I started this job, I used to visit Disney Feature Animation and find artists bent over their light tables working six and seven-day weeks as they created Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Lion King. (My wife -- one of the Disney worker bees -- seemed to live there in those days; for a while I became the primary care-giver raising our four-year-old)...

Fifteen years later, I'm once again encountering artists bent over their light tables working six and seven-day weeks on The Simpsons feature. The Fox flick steams inexorably toward its mid-summer release date, and nobody at Rough Draft or Film Roman -- the two L.A. studios working on the film -- is dogging it. (I think I've hinted at this before, yes?)

But nobody is complaining. "I'm just f-i-i-n-e," one artist at Rough Draft told me yesterday afternoon. "I'm getting plenty of overtime money and I'm enjoying it while it lasts."

With production deadlines looming up, everyone knows the work won't last forever. And for artists who love hand-drawn animation, the gigs where they can put pencil to paper are few and far between. (Curious George was the last one. Frog Princess will, a year from now, probably be the next.)

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

A New Animation Studio!

Daily Variety tells us on today's front page that Chris Meledandri, the longtime head of 20th Century Fox Animation and the man in charge of recent Fox animated hits like Ice Age and Robots, has decamped from Rupert Murdoch's conglomerate to set up a new production unit at Universal Pictures (owned by another conglomerate named General Electric). There he will oversee new animated and live-action pics of the G-rated type, and this should result in another L.A. animation studio. Which is a good thing...

Years ago, I had drinks with Mr. Meledandri at a watering hole near Fox, where he picked my brain about different artists I knew at Fox's then-fresh animation facility in Phoenix. (As I recall, my answers were less than totally brilliant.)

A decade and a half later, I'm the one with questions about Chris Meladandri's new unit that's soon to take shape in Universal City. Like for instance, will it be a full production studio like Disney or DreamWorks? Or will it do pre-production development and ship the production work someplace else?

I'm not sure that Universal or Mr. Meledandri have formulated all the answers yet, and they might not for a while. It's an expensive and daunting task to set up, staff and equip a full-blown animation studio from the ground up, so maybe G.E. would rather purchase an existing facility that's already running. Or maybe the bean-counters at Universal want to recruit a high-powered development staff in Los Angeles, then ship the production work out of the country. (The trouble with this model, of course, is that so far it hasn't worked very well. All the big toon producers have been loath to be the first in the water with a production strategy -- outsourcing high-end animation -- that has thus far shown only mediocre results.)

So. If I were to prioritize my predictions about what Meledandri and Co. may do over the next few months, I would put Universal building a development staff and studio from scratch at #1, Universal building a development staff and purchasing an existing animation studio at #2, and building a development staff and sub-contracting the production work elsewhere at #3.

But there's also a good chance that I'm 180 degrees off on what's actually going to happen. We should never underestimate General Electric's enthusiasm for clinging tightly to every dollar.

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Remembering (I)

On February 3, TAG will host its Afternoon of Remembrance for animation veterans who passed during '06. We've been doing this at the Lasky barn in Hollywood for a decade now, and every year I'm moved (as well as educated) at the wide swath of talent who've worked in our business.

Because many of these folks are unknown to the wider, outside world, I'll devote a little time and space here over the next few days, remembering some of the artists who've played a part in entertaining planet earth over the last fifty or seventy years...

Dawn Benedict: Dawn passed away June 30, 2006 at the age of ninetey-one. From 1935 until 1981 she worked as a painter and final checker for Harman-Ising, Universal, Warners, MGM, Snowball, Hanna-Barbera, DePatie-Freleng, Kurtz and Friends, Filmation among others.

Ed Benedict: Ed was memorialized on various animation websites before and after he died on August 28 at age ninety-four. Ed started at Disney in 1930 and went on to a long animation career at a number of studios including Walter Lantz, Charles Mintz, and Hanna-Barbera. If you were an elementary school kid in the late fifties, early sixties and you watched one of Hanna-Barbera's productions (and what elementary school kid didn't?), you were probably looking at Ed's designs, because he was instrumental in creating the looks of most of H-B's early characters.

Nicolette Bonnell: Nicolette, who worked as a cel painter, Xerox checker and animation checker at H-B, Bakshi and Disney for thirty-six years, passed away on November 1.

Walerian Borowczyk: Walerian was an internationally known surrealist filmmaker trained as a painter and graphic artist at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, Poland. He served as an illustrator of film posters, and also worked extensively in live-action and animation. His animated works include Dom House (1958), Les Astronautes (1959) and the feature Mr. and Mrs. Kabal's Theater (1967). In the '50s and '60s, Borowczyk was considered one of the most eminent animators in the world. His techniques included manipulating cutout geometric shapes and painting directly onto lengths of film. He died February 3 in Paris at the age of 82. (from Animation World Network).

Harvey Bullock: Harvey was a prolific comedy writer who wrote on The Flintstones, The Jestsons, Top Cat, Welcome To It and Wait 'Til Your Father Gets Home. A veteran of World War II, Harvey began his writing career on The Real McCoys moving on to The Andy Griffith Show in the early sixties. Harvey passed away on April 23 in Laguna Beach, California. He was 84.

Marline Burkhart: Marlene worked as a Xerox processor and Xerox checker for 23 years at Disney, Grantray-Lawrence and Hanna-Barbera. She died on September 1, age 76.

Kimie Calvert: Kimie died December 23, 2005. An assistant animator, she worked for both commercial studios and major film companies, including Disney, Filmfair, Hanna-Barbera, Fred Calvert, Rich Animation, Warner Bros. and Baer Animation among many others.

Brad Case: Veteran animator and director Brad Case died March 19 at the age of 91. In a career that began in 1934 and ended with his retirement in 1999, Mr. Case worked for Iwerks, Disney, MGM, Walter Lantz, Hanna-Barbera, UPA DePatie-Freleng and Marvel Productions among others.

Elizabeth Case Zwicker: Elizabeth was one of the pioneers in the Disney Animation Department, and by pioneer we mean one of the first female artists (outside of Mary Blair) who wasn't in the ink-and-paint department. Elizabeth worked on Sleeping Beauty on the forest birds and the court jester. On the day Beauty finished, Elizabeth was laid off. "I was crushed. I couldn't imagine life without animation. I didn't want any other work there, even for more money..." Becoming a poet and a painter, Zwicker illustraed children's books and pointed murals. She died in April at the age of seventy-six. (Elizabeth is the one in the plaid dress -- artwork by J. Sparey...)

Suzi Dalton: From 1934 until retirement in 1973, Ms. Dalton worked as an inker, drybrush artist and finacl checker and Mintz, Warners, Iwerks, MRM, Lantz, Snowball and Hanna-Barbera (among many others.) She died April 10 at the age of ninety-five.

Barbara Dayyan: Barbara worked as a cel painter from 1960 until retirement in 1977. Some of the companies she worked for included Trans-Artists, Snowball, Crston, Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Filmation and Disney. She was 93 when she passed away on May 13th.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Animation? Going Away?

This is a (sort of) followup to the Wages post down below which bears scrutiny. We noted that wages have stayed relatively level the past few years (they did decline in the late nineties after the 'toon boom of hand-drawn animation ran its course. A commenter said:

The more we ask, the more likely they will take the business overseas eventually. It is already happening, the problem is you can never compete against the people who are willing to work with 1:5th of your salary no matter how good you are!

There's truth to the observation that animation work has shifted overseas. If you see new episodes of The Flintstones or a Daffy Duck feature-length cartoon, the odds are good that some or all of the production work was done in the Phillipines, Korea, maybe mainland China. But this is far from the whole story.

As I've said before, when all animation production work was done in Los Angeles start to finish, there were about 1500 TAG members doing the work (and kindly note that almost all L.A. cartoon studios were unionized at the time.)

Forty-five years later, with union contracts covering 85% of t.v. and movie animation work in L.A., with 80% of television production work (animation, background, and layout) being shipped out of county), there are 2200 TAG members doing the work.

How can this be? Because the animation pie has gotten bigger. Way bigger. Forty-five years ago there was television animation (all done here), feature animation (i.e. Disney), and some commercials. Today there are games, the internet, t.v. animation, feature animation, visual effects, broadcast graphics, and so on and so forth. Where once there were a couple of thousand people employed in Southern California in animation, today there's five or six times as many (and newer media is mostly not unionized.)

Make no mistake. Southern California is one of the high-rent areas on the planet in which to produce animation. It can be done a number of places for less money. But as more than one producer has said to me and/or TAG's members:

"L.A. is where the big animation talent is..."

So animation producers are faced with a choice. They can go to India, or China, or Bangladesh, and they can get a project done more cheaply. But they lose quality and they lose quality-control, and if those things are important -- as often they are -- then hey. They don't do it there.

There's another wrinkle, told me by an animation software executive this very day: Sub-contracting studios on the Pacific rim are now faced with skyrocketing labor costs as their employees move into the middle class. So American studios have much bigger cash outlays going to their (previously) inexpensive foreign sub-contractors. One solution, of course, is to simply chase after the latest low-cost provider in Kurdistan or wherever, and in many cases this is being done. But then the old issue of "quality" once again rears its ugly head.

Many studios are going (or will go) a different route: The L.A. talent pool, combined with newer, more powerful animation software, is a strong magnet for many producers, and makes production in Los Angeles feasible in ways it hasn't been in decades. Television animation hasn't been created in L.A. in years, yet Cartoon Network and Renegade Animation (and probably studios I don't know about) are doing it for television.

There are three feature animation studios in town, as well as four large visual effects houses. Game studio Electronic Arts has a new, not inexpensive facility in Playa Del Rey.

And how many of these places are here because L.A. County offers the most bang for the employment buck? None. Nada. But L.A. is where the creative action is, where the deepest pool of talent is, where the infrastructure is. This isn't to say that the talent magnet will be here forever, or that other centers can't grow and develop (obviously many have...can we spell E-M-E-R-Y-V-I-L-L-E?), but it is to say that the demise of L.A. based animation has always been overblown.

Walt didn't grow his animation studio in L.A. rather than low-cost Kansas City for no reason.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Wages in 'Toonland

Today, your friendly neighborhood Animation Guild sent out its annual wage survey questionnaire to members who have been active over the past twelve months. We've done this for years now.

One of the reasons we do it is that years ago, an animator called to ask if I knew the wages of some or all of his fellow studio animators. As it happened I did, and I told him. (He wanted the information because he was in negotiations with company managers for a new, higher salary. And they had told him, assured him, that no animator had wages higher than his.)

After I gave this animator the wage figures I happened to possess, he realized that the assurances he'd received from management were, ahm, incorrect. The guy discovered that he was among the lowest salaried animators at the company. The managers weren't happy when he revealed that he'd gotten the info from little old me, but it did give him fresh leverage in his negotiations (new information sometimes does that).

And he ended up with a better salary. . .

Shortly afterwards, a background artist at Warners suggested that maybe TAG could send out a wage survey to TAG members, to let them know what kind of salaries were being paid in the animation business.

When I heard this suggestion, the first thought out of my pin head was: "Why the hell didn't I think of that?"

From that day to this, The Animation Guild has sent out yearly wage questionnaires and compiled the results into a survey. This is important because every studio knows what all of its employees makes, but employees are (mostly) in the dark. Many companies, in my experience, like things that way. And several over the years have worked to discourage their artists from knowing what peers make, even though there's a California law that prohibits companies from "disciplining or discharging" employees who share wage info.

You can go here for more detailed stats, but we'll give you a sampling of where wages have been in the last couple of years (all figures based on a forty-hour week):

  • Animation art directors (with 38% returning surveys) earned a median average of $2,545.45 in 2006. This was up from $2,000 in 2005.

  • CGI 3-D animators (29% reporting) earned an average of $1,809 in 2006, down from $2,011 in 2005. But supervising animators earned $3,025 per week, up from $2,700 in '05.

  • Feature story artists (35% reporting) averaged $2,188.49 in 2006, up from $2,000 in '05.

Median wages, year to year, have been up and down in different categories, but overall they've been reasonably stable.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

So...Cars Wins the Oscar?

Tonight John Lasseter picked up a Golden Globe for Cars in the Globes first-ever animated feature category.

So does this mean Cars has a lock on the Oscar?

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We're Living and Working in France

Since I'm on an investing/saving/econ 101 kick today, the map below fits right in...

It shows the equivalent GDP of different countries to various states of the union. And California -- from where I type -- is France. I guess we're not a blue state for nothing.

(From Carl Stormer's blog via The Big Picture.)

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The Saga of Anne Scheiber

Once more, I swerve away from animation to tell a tale every animation employee faces: earning a living and saving for retirement.

I relate the following story because a) it's a good one, and b) I've had too many people call or come through TAG's office over the years and say (more or less) that they were 63 years old and flat broke, without job prospects, and without any pension except for the piddly amount they were getting from Social Security. So listen up:

Ever heard of a woman named Anne Scheiber? Probably not, but Anne is the poster woman for "It's never too late to start investing."

Anne was an IRS examiner back in the 'forties. And thirties. Along about 1944, Anne reached retirement age and decided it was time to hang it up. And so she took retirement…on a queenly $3,150 annual government pension.

For the next fifty-four years, Anne lived quietly and simply in her small, rent-controlled apartment in New York City. She clipped coupons, shopped for discounts at the local stores, ate home a lot.

As far as anyone could tell, Anne was just one more Big Apple pensioner, squeaking by on a small and miserable fixed income. But lo and behold, when Anne passed away in 1995 at 101, her will was opened and the larger world found out that the little woman in the tiny apartment had left a $22 million dollar estate to Yeshiva University. And that her stock investments were earning around $1 million per annum, most of which she didn't spend.

So what the hell was going on? Actually something relatively simple. Back when Anne retired, she took the $5000 in savings that she had scraped together and began investing it herself.

Anne, you see, had been burned by various stock brokers during the 1930s, and had resolved to never depend on them again. She did her own research, chose her own stocks, and by the time she passed away 53 years later, her stock choices had grown at the rate of around 12.5% per year. And the paltry five grand had mushroomed to $22,000,000 and counting. (Ah, the magic of compoudning.)

Anne's strategy was simple. She did her homework. She bought quality stocks. And held them. And held them. And held them. When she died, she had 60% of her assets in stocks, 30% in bonds, and 10% in cash. The classic asset-allocation fund.

The moral of this story is not: make big run-ups on your investments every year, nor is it to live like a church mouse while you have millions tucked away. The point of the story is, no matter how old you are, no matter how far down you think you might be, you always have the ability to put money into an investment and commence building a nest egg.

If Anne Scheiber was able to do it after retirement on a three-thousand dollar a year pension, you and I and everyone else in this on-and-off business can do it.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Animation's World Grosses

Variety has listed the winners at the international box office for '06 (but not on its website), and animated features scored big. Factor in the animation/live-action hybrids, and animation scored even bigger (we could maybe consider Garfield, A Tale of Two Kitties in this category)...

Of the top ten theatrical films from January 2006 to December 2006, three were animated features (and #1 -- The Pirates of the Caribbean -- had lots of animation in it.)

The third highest grosser of the year was Ice Age: The Meltdown, which took in $647 million worldwide.

Cars had the fifth position, with $462 million...

And Over the Hedge raked in $334 million to take the ninth slot.

Beyond the Top Ten, animated features took #11 (Happy Feet, still in release but garnering $292 million in '06); Open Season was at #19 with a $180 million gross ($96 million overseas, $84 million here); Flushed Away appeared at #29 ($139 million); Monster House held down the 31st slot with $136 million; Hoodwinked landed at position #42 with $108 million, and Barnyard came in 45th with $105 million.

Chicken Little, an '05 release, would have tied with Nacho Libre if it had been counted for '06, since the $99 million it took in last year would have tied with with the Jack Black flick at #50.

As for the rest of the animated features in the top 100 for 2006, most were considered "failures:"

For instance, The Wild was #49 with a $99 million world gross and touted as a loser, and The Ant Bully was considered to be a non-starter for Tom Hanks' Playtone pictures, collecting $55 million for an 88th place finish.

The animated feature in the bottom half of the list to escape the "loser" label was the hand-drawn Curious George, probably because expectations were never sky-high, so its $70 million gross and 69th place finish was viewed as a qualified victory by NBC-Universal.

And the hybrid Garfield II? That ended up at #28, with $140 million world gross. (It tanked domestically, taking in $28,000,000, but achieved $112,000,000 overseas. Fox undoubtedly breathed easier after foreign gross was counted.)

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

"Arthur and the Invisibles: D.O.A.?

It appears that Arthur and the Invisibles has plunged into the land of Doogal rather than Hoodwinked for the Weinstein brothers. As goes the Academy of Motion Picture arts and sciences, so goes the U.S. of A.


The Friday box office charts have Arthur at #10 with a per-screen average of $414, and $930,000 in total revenues. Ouch.

That other live-action/animation hybrid, the ever-popular Night at the Museum, was displaced from numero uno by Stomp the Yard. It now resides at #2 and a $172,781,000 box office total.

Update: Night at the Museum declined 28% to the place position (#2), taking in $17.1 million and a total of $185,756,000.

Arthur and the Invisibles ended up at #9 and a $4.3 million take in its opening weekend. Using Dr. Koch's Box Office Calculator (tm), Arthur will pull down somewhere between twelve and twenty million dollars by the end of its run (a far cry from its box office in France.)

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The Day's Disney Brief

Friday's studio visit was to the hat building, with me toting my usual bag of 401(k) books from floor to floor...

Weeks ago, I looked at the list of departing staffers the Mouse House had sent over, so I knew that some board artists were leaving along with animators and tech directors. And if I'd spent more time studying it, I would have known the areas of story development that were being cut. But when I saw the empty cubes on the third floor, it hit me that Joe Jump's the picture being trimmed back the most. An artist in the building said because Jump is the film farthest back on the production tarmac, that some of the staff on it were being released.

Elsewhere, a Disneyite told me that contrary to various rumors, Rapunzel remains a CGI feature in three dimensions, not a hand-drawn specimen. And yet another employee said the development crew is steadily boarding sequences on Frog Princess. So maybe the whole flick will be up on reels in the not overly distant future.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Arthur Dead To The Academy, But Maybe Not to America

The Weinstein Co. rolls out Arthur and the Invisibles this weekend in its American debut (the picture is already cleaning up in France). For the Weinsteins, this is their latest foray into animated features, Hoodwinked being the first. We'll see if America welcomes this French production with open arms. As Kevin posted a few days ago, and Daily Variety reports today, the Motion Picture Academy won't be:

It seems that Luc Besson's "Arthur and the Invisibles" will be invisible to the Acadmey of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' list of eligible pics for the animation film Oscar.

In a rare reverse decision, the Acad has disqualified the Weinstein Co. entry because of a disproportionate percentage of live action to animation. Academy rules state that for a film to be eligible in the animation category, no less than 75% of its running time must be animated.

Decision will have widespread ramifications, as the number of eligible animated films drops from 16 to 15, meaning only three pics can be nominated...

So with the trade press catching up to this story, I'm wondering if the Weinsteins (shy and retiring moguls that they are) will take this affront lying down?
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A Brief History of Disney TVA

Disney Television Animation was the brainchild of Michael Eisner.

When Eisner became chairman in 1984, he wondered why the company wasn't doing television animation and quickly started the division. Michael couldn't sleep one night and came up with the idea for Disney Television Animation's first show: a series built around the chewy, animal-shaped candy called "Gummi Bears." Things mushroomed from there...

Gary Krisel, head of Disneyland Records, was put in charge and pretty quickly the new division was turning out a variety of animated tv shows. The early work included shows like The Wuzzles, The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, House of Mouse, and dozens of others.

A major turning point was Duck Tales, top-kicked by Fred Wolf (of Teenage Mutant Ninja Shelled Creatures fame). The show was costing a large sum of money for Television Animation to produce, the main lot was nervous, and everyone at the time was sweating major bullets over whether it would succeed or not.

But Tales turned out to be a major hit, delivering audience numbers far beyond expectations and becoming a cornerstone for what became the syndicated block called Disney Afternoon. Through the early and mid-nineties, the division turned out hit after hit, generating major revenue and making execs on the main lot deliriously happy.

Another fortuitous event at this time was taking the first three episodes of the spin-off series Alladin and turning them into a direct-to-video, feature-length sequel. Return of Jafar sold millions upon millions of video-cassettes, and the result was kind of inevitable: direct-to-video sequels to the Disney animated library became de riguer, and to this day remain major generators of big bucks for the Walt Disney Company. (They're no longer made by Disney TVA. Now it's DisneyToons that produces them.)

Twenty-two years and fifty-plus shows later, Disney TVA remains a major cash cow for its parent company. The picture below captures a moment in time when Disney TVA was headquartered at the corner of Magnolia and Lankershim Boulevards in the Television Academy complex and was near the peak of its power and profitability. The lucrative tv syndication market was only beginning to wither away under the onslaught of cable television and its universe of 150 channels, and Diz TVA was still years away from becoming a part of that universe as a subset of the Disney Channel.

Most of the smiling faces below are still in the 'toon business, but they are now scattered to Nickelodeon, to Cartoon Network, to Starz Media and a half dozen other places. In the world of animation, nothing is permanent...

101 Dalmatians crew

This is a picture of Skip Jones's "101 Dalmatians" crew at Disney TV Animation in 1997. (Skip Jones isn't in the picture, and it's late and I'm going to mangle some names and not have all the names, but I'm giving it a valiant shot. Feel free to identify the non-identified subjects in comments.)

Back row, left to right: Wendell Washer, Louis Tate, unknown-to-me, Rossen Varbanev, Enrique May, Bob Miller. Second row: Chris Headrick, (the guy being held up), Gordon Kent (the guy holding Chris up), Barbara Donatelli, Mike Svayko, John Ahern. Kneeling is David Courtland, Sharon her-name's-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue, Michelle Pneiwiski (with baby), Bob Gannoway behind Michelle, Tony Craig on the end, with a girl named Angela beside him.

Addendum:Skip Jones is in the photo. He's the man in the glasses standing underneath the open beak of the chicken. That's definitely Garrett Ho, the third man from the left, top row.

Corrections are better late than never, don't you think?

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

El Studio Roundabout

Last week was slow, what with the short workweek and lots of artists electing to extend the New Year's holiday. This week, I've padded through three studios to find projects at less than a full boil...

At Warner Bros. Animation, a direct-to-video feature entitled The New Frontier is in progress, a Troop-of-Superheroes type thing, but don't ask me who the Superheroes are, since I don't keep up with who's who in the pantheon of caped crusaders. WBA is waiting for greenlights on various series projects.

(A topic of conversation was Iwao Takomoto being at the studio last week, and what a shock it was when people found out that he died this past Monday...)

At DisneyToons, work continues on Mermaid III, much of which is shipped, and the Fairies Trilogy (which is undergoing shifts as Tinkerbell goes through changes....)

At Cartoon Nework, the studio has a goodly number of 11-minute shorts in work; there's a good chance that some of these will end up series.

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Swiftian Kimball?

Click the thumbnail for a larger image

These caricatures of Ward Kimball can be found in Frank and Ollie's book "The Illusion of Life." (p. 124). There, Thomas and Johnston give the impression that they were drawn by Ward in 1939. But if the credit above is accurate, Kimball's assistant David "Bud" Swift drew them in 1940. (Original artwork from the James Walker collection)...

Assuming the artist is David Swift, it should be known that David was a Minnesotan who journeyed to Southern California, the Chouinard Art Institute, and Walt Disney Productions in that order. He started at the Mouse House as a teenager, left WDP for World War II in his early twenties, and returned a decorated pilot (Ward told me that when Swift came into the Disney commissary right after the war -- in a dress uniform decorated with a chest full of ribbons -- Walt looked up from lunch and said: "Bud! I haven't seen you lately! What've you been doing?" Like some other Ward stories, this one could have been, ahm, apocryphal.)

David S. didn't hang around Disney's for long after the war. He left animation and became a writer in television. (Here's an IMBD snapshot of his post-animation career.) And after television, there was a string of successful movies as writer and director, the most notable of which is The Parent Trap:

I don't think we could have hoped for a better director for the picture than David Swift...His direction was significant in maintaining the rhythm of the comedy. He claimed to have "just hired the best actores and then kept out of the way," but he did much more than that...

It was very much to Swift's credit that he cast Brian Keith to play the part of my ex-husband. Brian had never done comedy before and it was a real change for him. He had always played tough and gruff characters before that, which made him my kind of leading man. He was big and strong and burly, and Swift always called him "Mr. Masculine" on the set."

Brian was a natural at comedy.... We see this best in the sequence between Brian and me where we quarrel, and I eventurally punch him in the eye. Instead of this big and tough man showing her who's boss, he falls to pieces like a little boy crying for his mommy and the audience falls in love with him...

Maureen O'Hara "'Tis Herself" (pp. 217-18)

Swift died on the last day of 2001 at age 82. He never forgot his animation roots. One of the last things he did was a reminiscence with Ward Kimball at Ward's San Gabriel house. If memory serves, the interview can be found as an extra on Disney's special edition DVD of The Parent Trap.

Addendum: Here's a short squib on Mr. Swift from a 1937 trade paper:

David E. "Bud" Swift, Jr., son of Dave Swift, Minneapolis magician, has the distinction of being the youngest artist to enter any studio in Hollywood. At 18 he is a memberof the Walt Disney staff and is now working on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first full length film to be made by Disney.

When "Bud" was 17 he was selected from Chouinard Art School in Hollywood to join the Disney organization. In Minneapolis he attended West high school. His parents live at 2921 Sunset Boulevard.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Of Budgets, Unions and Corporate Decision-Making

As long as I've been doing this, I've heard the complaint -- mostly from corporate types: "the damn unions cost too much money."

It's a fine old whine, but mostly, ah, incorrect. Unions, particularly IATSE unions, aren't budget-busting cost drivers. Let me give you a few examples of what is:

Fourteen years ago, TAG organized a show that a large conglomerate was financing. The director-producer, knowing the company had deep pockets, was hiring everybody who walked through the door and met his approval $200 to $400 above market rates (which, in turn, were then $200-$400 above scale.) The company that was paying these big bucks had no idea what normal wage rates were, and apparently didn't ask.

They were somewhat amazed when they found out (much later) what the market rates were. # # # # # # #

Seven years ago, a couple of corporate execs told me over lunch that of course companies could afford to pay residuals -- if they wanted to. But they didn't want to. (No duh.) # # # # # # # # #

In the early nineties, when television and theatrical animation were roaring along and salaries were climbing and budgets got bigger every year, it was the practice of one large tv animation studio to nickel and dime every expenditure in the pre-production phase: cut time for scripts, speed up boards, ship incomplete shows. Then, of course, the company would spend any amount of money on the back end to salvage the screwups at the front. When an editor I know questioned these skewed priorities, an exec explained to her: "Oh, pre-production comes out of a different budget and charge number, and we have to really watch it. But we have plenty of money to fix things when we're facing a deadline."

# # # # # # # # #

President emeritus Tom Sito told me a long while ago how Peter Schneider -- then the head of Disney Feature Animation -- bragged about all the overtime Disney paid on features (this was the early nineties) and how the o.t. was just a tiny fraction of the budget and hardly made any difference in overall costs.

# # # # # # # # #

I've seen studios where projects were in development for a year and nothing got greenlighted. And 150 people were yearning for something concrete to do, and quietly gnawing their way across the carpet in abject boredom. (That studio was shut down after three years.) And I've seen studios where everything ran like a Swiss watch and people worked happily for half a decade and more.

# # # # # # # # # #

The point? Union wages and work rules aren't the biggest drivers of costs. What makes the major difference -- time after time -- is how well management does its job.

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