Monday, April 30, 2007

Boarding, animation and live action

There are two labor organizations that represent storyboard artists. One is this one, The Animation Guild, Local 839 IATSE. The other is Illustrators and Matte Artists, Local 790 IATSE.

The Animation Guild covers board artists who do continuity boards for animation shorts and features. The Illustrators and Matte Artists cover similar work for live action features.

There are a number of board artists who work in both live action and animation. (Dave Jonas, a longtime Disney artist, was adept at both. For live action, he boarded continuity for Mary Poppins and Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future films. In animation, he boarded The Black Cauldron. Dave is also a talented watercolorist.)

Thing is, to be a live-action board artist on a union show you have to gain entrance to Local 790's experience roster before you can work. For animation, all you have to do is get yourself hired. There is no experience roster.

This gripes many animation board artists who would like to transition into live-action, and I'm often asked how people can make the jump. (Which is why I'm posting this. I think it's useful to get the answer out.)

There are pretty much two ways to get on 790's experience roster: 1) You work on a live-action movie that starts "non-union" and then gets unionized. After thirty days, you have the recquisite amount of time to get yourself placed on the roster. 2) You get hired on a permit that 790 issues when all other qualified members of Local 790 are engaged. After thirty days, you're placed on-roster.

Over the years I've gotten complaints from animation board artists about how the Illustrators' roster requirement has prevented them from getting a job. I empathize, but the Illustrators' rules are the Illustrators' rules, and what the various studios agree to with another IA local is out of TAG's control.

One bright spot: on a number of live-action films that have had sections of animation in them, Local 839 and Local 790 have (sometimes) shared jurisdiction. It's always a good idea for an animation stry board artist not on 790's roster to check to find out if the live-action feature you have an inside track on can hire you or not.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Late Weekend Links -- John Carter and Bruce Wayne

Let's throw up a few more animation links here on a Sunday afternoon. You know, to complement yesterday's batch.

First up is the Brad Bird live-actioner (suggested in comments below). Brad will -- apparently -- tackle the Edgar Rice Burroughs epic John Carter of Mars.

As for that live-action film (possibly an entry from the "John Carter of Mars" series?), Bird says it's next, and it will be for Pixar.

The company is evolving into a place where all kinds of movies, not just animated ones, can come out," Bird says.

But Brad Bird isn't the only longtime artist who's moving over to the live action director's chair. There's also comic book master Frank Miller:

Now there's a sweet satisfaction in the fact that the new Hollywood approach is to hire fan-boy directors and show fawning respect for the source material. "Sin City's" Robert Rodriguez even insisted on sharing director credits with Miller on those films (a maverick stand that cost Rodriguez his membership in the Directors Guild), and that led directly to a somewhat shocking development: Miller has now been tapped to write and direct his own film based on Will Eisner's classic noir hero "The Spirit."

Addendum: What's interesting about the above is, Brad Bird spent a lo-ong time developing Spirit as an animated project (as he noted here):

Barrier: You mentioned "The Spirit," and I wanted to ask you about Will Eisner.

Bird: "The Spirit" is only comic-book crime fighter I would say I know well. I got interested in that because I was interested in movies. I read an interview somewhere with a film director that I liked [who] talked about "The Spirit" being "cinematic." So I started to read it, and I thought, wow! It was cinematic. I loved the angles, the use of shadow, and the fact that its characters were expressive; they didn't have the rigid facial expressions normally associated with superhero comics. It was kind of cartoony, especially in the years 1946, '47, '48. Eisner also had all the draftsmanship chops. They were like short stories; often the Spirit only came in at the beginning or the end. I liked that; I felt like it was weird and unpredictable and interesting. So I got all the reprints of "The Spirit" I could lay my hands on.

Barrier: You said you'd tried to develop a feature of "The Spirit" some time ago and couldn't make it fly. Is that the sort of thing that would be conceivable now that The Incredibles has broken the ground for it? Bird: I don't know. I think they're developing a live-action version of "The Spirit." For me, it almost seems like it's past. I blew a lot of energy and time on it, and I kind of think in my mind it should always be a hand-drawn thing, and right now, Hollywood idiocy being what it is, that's considered the kiss of death. I don't think you could get any money for a big animated feature if you insisted on it being hand-drawn. For whatever reasons, people perceive CG as being the magic thing that will turn any bad idea good. Maybe five years from now they'll realize that any medium is fine if the characters draw you in and the story is well told. But right now, I think it's probably very difficult to find financing for an ambitious hand-drawn film...

Lastly, The Hollywood Reporter publishes a short piece on the costs and complications of creating three dimensional films:

The holy grail for the cost of converting a feature to stereoscopic 3-D appears to be $50,000-$75,000 per minute, according to Buzz Hays, senior producer of 3-D stereoscopic feature films at Sony Pictures Imageworks.

This range, he said, looks like the point where companies are willing to invest in 3-D, though he emphasized that production needs to be made more efficient to meet this goal.

Costs, time and technology were among the topics during a frank discussion about the 2-D-to-3-D stereoscopic conversion process, presented Thursday by the Visual Effects Society Education/Technology Committee. The standing-room-only event was staged for members of the VES, DGA and Producers Guild of America.

Don't wear yourself out at work next week. Save something for yourself.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Weekend B.O.

Meet the Robinsons, the only animated feature in the Top Ten, continues to decelerate. As of Friday, it had collected $84,764,000 at the American box office.

Disturbia (from Paramount/DreamWorks) remains at the top of the heap with a $46,336,000 total.

Blades of Glory (#5 -- and another DreamWorks production) is the only Top Ten flick that has cracked a 100 million. It's cume is now $104.5 million.

Update: For the weekend, Robinsons drops a notch to #6 (declining 30.5%) taking $4,0842,000 and a current total of $88,356,000.

Disturbia (the homage to Alfred Hitchcock) remains at number one for a third week, raking in $9.1 million for a cume of $52,186,000.

Re MTR, our bet is that Disney will keep the feature out there in play until it crosses the $100 million marker. (What the hey. It's closing in, right?)

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Hulett's Bunker Hill

Ralph Hulett house
(c) by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

Another oil from Ralph Hulett's Bunker Hill series. Not a landscape this time, but a study of one of the old mansions that covered Bunker Hill for over seventy years -- until urban renewal swept them all away for apartment high-rises and the music center.

This study show one of the old relics in late afternoon (circa 1965), with the Los Angeles City hall in the distant background.

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A Few More Weekend Animation Links

Whoops. There goes a tie-in:

A children's advocacy group wants the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to remove Shrek, the animated ogre, from his role as spokesman for an anti-obesity drive.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood says the upcoming film Shrek the Third has too many promotional ties with unhealthy foods to justify using Shrek as a health advocate.

"There is an inherent conflict of interest between marketing junk food and promoting public health," Susan Linn, the national group's director, wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt.

"Surely Health and Human Services can find a better spokesperson for healthy living than a character who is a walking advertisement for McDonald's, sugary cereals, cookies and candy," said Linn.

So is the CCFC saying the big green ogre's obesity campaign is like Don Imus fronting "Black history month"? If so, it hardly seems fair. Shrek is a cartoon, after all.

Since we're on Shrek, over at Rotten Tomatoes, Antonio Banderas discusses the cornucopia of Shrek features to come:

Banderas told Coming Soon, his own character Puss will eventually get his own starring vehicle: "Now in between 4 and 5, Puss is going to have his own movie. It's going to be called "Puss In Boots: The Story of an Ogre Killer." I don't know if you realize but Donkey doesn't have a movie, himself. [Laughs]. And that will be it, from what Jeffery Katzenberg is communicating to us, but I don't know, if the character -- probably some place in the future they may take the character and do it again, and things like that -- but so far, there were going to be four, but they discovered the novel game [sic] them the opportunity to do five."

One day, no doubt, there will be more Shrek movies than there are James Bond films.

New cgi 'toon studio Animation Lab is ramping up its first feature:

New Israeli toon studio Animation Lab has greenlit its first feature, "The Wild Bunch."

Script by "Mulan" and "Pocahontas" writer Philip LaZebnik centers on a group of genetically modified cornstalks who attack a group of common wildflowers.

CGI toon will be directed by Alex Williams, an industry vet who has worked on animated features including "Open Season," "Robots" and "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas." "Wild Bunch" will be his debut as a director.

The ever-popular Annecy film festival (nestled in the French Alps) has a big line-up this year:

Feature films will be in the spotlight when the 2007 Annecy International Animation Festival kicks off its 31st edition, organizers said Tuesday.

Initiatives to promote the full-length cartoon medium at the fest, which runs June 1-16, include a greater number of feature films in competition, new special distinction and audience awards, daily meetings for film executives and the addition of an out-of-competition category within the "official selection."

After sorting through a record 1,882 entries, the fest's selection committee has chosen 233 films from 35 countries -- 182 of which are part of the official competition, which includes nine feature films, 51 shorts, 43 telefilms, 28 publicity clips and 51 student films.

The Orlando Sentinental (the paper in the Disney Company's Florida backyard) gets a trifle snarky about Ratatouille:

Maybe this tale of a French rat with a taste for the finer things will be amazing, but I have to say, the trailers haven't been promising. The voices (The lead especially, comic-turned-actor Patton Oswalt? Sounds like Paul Giamatti. A cut-rate Paul Giamatti) don't do it.

And Fox-News Corp. is getting serious (a decade later) about this "synergy" thing. In addition to toys, games, the tv show and now a forthcoming film, trade papers and other news organizations report that Homer, Bart, et al will shortly be a ride at Universal Theme Parks:

Orlando, FL and Universal City, CA — “Woo Hoo!” Universal’s theme parks add animated fun and excitement to their roster as FOX’s blockbuster hit series, The Simpsons, becomes the inspiration for the world’s most highly anticipated new theme park ride.

The Associated Press publishes an overview of the stampede of sequels and "tent poles" that will be charging our way in the coming weeks and months:

The animation masters at Pixar, whose films include "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo," were immediately hooked when a colleague came up with the idea for "Ratatouille," about a rat who dreams of being a chef in a fine French restaurant, where the discovery of a rodent would spell business disaster.

"If a rat is death to a gourmet restaurant, and a gourmet restaurant is death to a rat, it automatically creates the kind of enormous obstacles that movies thrive on," said "Ratatouille" director Brad Bird, who won an Academy Award for Pixar's "The Incredibles."

Bird chuckled over the irony that a rat would be one of the summer standard-bearers for Disney, home of Mickey Mouse.

Have a splendiferous weekend.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Sexism and Racism

We've learned a lot about racism and sexism in the entertainment biz the last few years, and it isn't just the unfortunate Don Imus who's taught us. Since I started in the business, I have seen the "acceptability" bar raised higher and higher.

Yesterday in The Hollywood Reporter there was this:

The IATSE has accused an executive producer of "Law & Order: SVU" of repeatedly making racist and sexist remarks, claiming studio inaction on the situation is traceable to attitudes displayed in the recent Don Imus fracas.

The union, which through IA Locals 52 and 600 represents various stage and camera crew professionals on the show, said it has complained to NBC Universal Television in three instances involving allegations against exec producer Ted Kotcheff over the past three years. Kotcheff is accused of referring to a black crewmember as Stepin Fetchit.

When I came into the biz in the mid-seventies, boundaries were a lot wider and wilder than they are today. Suggestive cartoons were pinned on walls and doors. Photographs of scantily clad women, prominently displayed, were commonplace. A Playboy Playmate (wthout staples) was visible in the window of a New York skyscraper as Bernard and Bianca flew past.

In the late seventies, Ward Kimball recounted to me the leering antics of Disney animation director Clyde "Gerry" Geronomi:

Gerry was a crude man. I had a woman assistant named (blank) who was very well constructed. She drove Jerry crazy and finally he couldn't stand it. And one day he came up behind her and he went "Rhhhrr!"... I heard this scream and the chair flew back and the desk got knocked over. And I went running in there and said "What the hell?" I knew Gerry had just left my room... Vince said that Gerry had grabbed Mary... I mean, that's terrible. That's not a class act.

Geronomi was ultimately fired from Disney, but it was decades later. And it wasn't for assaulting women. It was because none of the lead animators would work with him.

Would any of that kind of crapola slide by today? Most likely not. In the last decade, companies have become sensitized to sexual harrassment in the workplace. As a business rep, I've been pulled into meetings where charges of sexual harrassment have been filed by one employee against another, and I can tell you that companies take the allegations real seriously. Company lawyers are always present. Notes are taken and consequences meted out.

Drawings that could be construed as sexually harassing aren't tolerated on doors and in hallways anymore, although I still see the occasional Sports Illustrated Swimsuit calendar in discreet locations.

But it wasn't always this way. Ten-plus years ago, I wandered into a work area of one of our larger animation studios to find naughty drawings plastered to various walls, and R-rated mobiles hanging from the ceiling. (An executive called one of the supervising artists who was responsible "a lawsuit waiting to happen." Happily, no lawsuits did.)

I seriously doubt that companies would tolerate those types of visuals today, even for an hour. Because the legal and career risks -- as Mr. Imus recently discovered -- get greater all the time.

Which isn't to say that all employees are dealt with in the same manner or that we've reached some egalitarian, harrassment-free nervana. Star employees and powerful execs can still get away with lots more than ordinary mortals. I found this paragraph of the HR piece telling:

"The latest accusation comes from a member of the show's crew, who has reluctantly refused to file charges against Kotcheff for fear it will be career-ending," the IA said.

All farm animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

A 3-D Glut?

Meet the Robinsons is cleaning up at the neighborhood Imax, Jeffrey Katzenberg is going to make all of DreamWorks future animated films in eye-popping 3-D, James Cameron is going to spend gazillions of dollars on his movies -- all done in 3-D.

Which seems to be leading to a multi-vehicle pileup of triple dimensioned entertainment:

Both 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. have chosen [Memorial Day 2009] to release what each hopes will be its first 3-D blockbuster. DreamWorks' "Monsters vs. Aliens" will be up against a potentially scarier creature: "Avatar," a science-fiction thriller from James Cameron, the director of Hollywood's biggest blockbuster, "Titanic."

The nation's largest exhibitors, however, say they won't have room for both. As many as 5,000 screens are expected to be equipped to show 3-D movies by 2009, up from 700 today. But DreamWorks and Fox each want all of them. DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has been campaigning to get theater operators to accelerate the conversion to 3-D, has told people that he needs 6,000 screens for "Monsters vs. Aliens."

In late 1952, Bwana Devil, an independent feature filmed through dual lenses in the Santa Monica mountains, initiated the three-dee craze of the 'fifties. It was quickly followed by House of Wax, Charge at Feather River, Creature From the Black Lagoon and a host of others.

The craze died out by late 1954, the victim of falling box office and Cinemascope (the 20th-Century Fox widescreen format). By that time, although big-budget pictures were getting the 3-D treatment, a number of them -- such as John Wayne's Hondo and Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder* (illustrated above) were mainly released as traditional, 2-D features.

And here we are, almost six decades later, with the craze taking root all over again: a new spate of 3-D films and a rapidly expanding array of theatres in which to show them. Will it be different this time? Probably depends on the quality (and type) of film. Three dimensions certainly helped Polar Express, but did little to salvage The Aunt Bully (although many of Bully's 3-D screens did okay business.) Meet the Robinsons has -- to date -- a $115 million worldwide gross. 3-D has helped it, but hasn't turned it into a Titanic-sized success.

If Wall Street is any indicator, 3-D features are going to be a more permanent part of the entertainment landscape than they were in the early 1950s. I'm just not sure it's going to be sure-fire steroid for box office weaklings.

*Two decades ago I saw Dial M in glorious 3-D. Unlike the garish House of Wax, which hurt my eyeballs with balloons falling in the foreground and objects and hands lurching out at you, Hitchcock's approach was subtle, subdued...and effective.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Monument Falls

Errgh. For fans of Uncle Walt's fifty-year-old distribution arm, this is awful news:

Walt Disney Co., the second-largest U.S. media company, will change the name of its Buena Vista entertainment divisions to Disney within weeks, people involved in the plans said.

Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger is seeking to simplify the company's marketing and reduce costs by narrowing most brand names to Disney, ABC and ESPN. In February, Iger changed Touchstone Television production company to ABC Television Studio and Buena Vista Games became Disney Interactive Studios.

``They are trying to leverage the Disney brand as much as possible and not having all these disparate names,'' said Tuna Amobi, a New York-based analyst with Standard & Poor's...

A little history on the name Buena Vista: (It is, of course, the street on which the Disney studio has resided since late 1939.) In 1953, Disney left the warm embrace of RKO pictures -- owned by Howard Hughes but still dying a slow death -- which had distributed Disney shorts and features since 1936.

And before that, Disney product had been distributed by United Artists... until Walt and Roy got into a tiff with Doug Fairbanks', Mary Pickford's and Charlie Chaplin's movie company over television rights.

Prior to UA (we're talking 1928-29), Disney was distributed by Columbia Pictures, then run by the bull-necked Harry Cohn. But the Columbia-Disney distribution partnership was short-lived:

Disney and Cohn the vulgarian spoke different languages. Cohn mistook [Disney's] sensitivity for weakness. Curdely, and stupidly, he badgered and bulldozed until he lost Hollywood's richest gold mine. [Disney] took his enchanting films to RKO for distribution. And later, as all true geiuses must, Walt established his own production and distribution set-up...

Frank Capra, Frank Capra, the Name Above the Title, pp. 104-105.

So goodbye, Buena Vista Distribution. It was swell knowing you.

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Mammoth Mountain

Ralph Hulett Mammoth mountain
(c) by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

Here's the new mid-week Hulett: this time a large oil of Mammoth Mountain, complete with all its runs...

This is a little different than Ralph's usual type of painting (although when I think about it, I don't think he had a "usual type of painting.") This piece was done on commission (late sixties) for a family friend who had a place in Mammoth. It hung in their condo at the bottom of one of Mammoth Mountain's runs for years.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Oncoming Job Action?

Yesterday I had a lunch-time conversation with studio labor relations executives and a fellow union business rep. The rep told us how most of the members of his local were employed because the pace of production has picked up in anticipation of a possible labor stoppage by the WGA, SAG, or both. Which is what this LA TIMES article is about...

Anticipating a possible walkout, networks and studio executives are starting to take steps to keep production pipelines flowing. The contingency plans include pushing up shooting schedules, ordering more reality TV programs and renegotiating with writers to turn in their film scripts earlier than usual.

"They're protecting their long-range business interests," said chief studio negotiator J. Nicholas Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

I've been an observer and participant in these things for a long time now, and the speed ups in production -- which occur at the end of every contract cycle where there aren't early negotiations and agreements -- serve dual purposes.

The obvious one (as stated above) is to offer corporations some ah, corporate insurance. Stockpile extra scripts. Shoot additional shows. But it's also a small piece of the psychological warfare that goes on before, during and after any negotiation. The message that says: "You're better off making a deal than hitting the bricks. Because we're ready and willing to wait you out and grind you down."

Guild leaders have alleged that studios are trying to scare writers by suggesting they are stockpiling scripts and shows. There has been little evidence of a large-scale stockpiling like there was in 2001, when fear of strikes by actors and writers caused a major acceleration of production.

"We've never seen stockpiling to be a significant negotiating strategy," said Chuck Slocum, assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West. "We don't see any reason a deal cannot be reached and we look forward to negotiating to that end."

Bet your backside the producers are trying to "scare writers." They're also trying to make sure they have product to carry them through a strike. If production hasn't sped up to 2001 levels, there's still plenty of time.

And of course the WGAw is working to buck their troops up, being dismissive and optimistic at the same time. Like I say. The usual mind battles prior to negotiations.

Senior executives from the major studios met with Counter last week to discuss their strategies for negotiations, which will begin July 16. The current contract expires Oct. 31.

Rival networks and studio executives have been keeping their contingency plans under wraps not only from writers but also one another.

Although none would publicly discuss their plans, several Hollywood executives privately acknowledged that they were preparing for what could be the first writers' strike since 1988.

So we've got studio execs chatting to the L.A. TIMES about the preparations they're making. But "not for attribution," of course. More for the purpose of sending veiled messages.

But let's not be opaque here. What's going on right now, and will go on until a new contract agreement is reached, is an intricate game of chicken. The WGA and SAG will be marshalling their members and working to get them pumped up. The various conglomerates will be striving to dampen the rank-and-file's enthusiasm for striking.

And the members of the various Hollywood unions will get more work until either a real or defacto strike kicks in around April or May of 2008.

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The Midweek Studio Roundabout

A few quick snapshots from studios I've recently rambled through:

At Disney Television Animation, board and design crew are on board for the new season of The Replacements, even as more scripts are written...

And DisneyToons (the Mouse House's home screen feature arm) is busy with its new Tinker Bell story line. A draft of the newer tale is finished and fresh boards are being drawn as I write.

Over at Starz Media/Film Roman, the Simpson feature comes into the clubhouse turn; artists say that over half of the flick is now in color, and they don't think there will be any major changes at this point (but what with the writers on the other side of the hill doing their own thing, who knows?)

The crew got to see the picture over the weekend; people I talked to -- who have seen it more than once over the past eight or nine months -- think it's really coming together. As one of them said: "I laughed all the way through. It's a lot funnier than the last time I saw it." (We're told that plot buttons from the feature will work their way into future television episodes.)

Last week there was a test screening of the picture in Tempe, Arizona which apparently went off resoundingly well. Other parts of the internet have talked about the movie shown at the screening, the reactions to it appear to be ecstatic.

Whether Fox likes the "early reviews", we do not know. But it's a truism of the modern era that once your movie is shown to a ravenous public in a public place, somebody is going to blat about it on the internets.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Employment ups and downs

Employment Chart, 2005-2007

Click on thumbnails for a full-size image

The numbers are in, and they show that the recent Disney layoffs have had only a temporary effect on overall employment under the Guild's jurisdiction.

The dip caused by the Disney feature layoffs in March has been offset by new hiring at other studios, particularly DreamWorks and Sony Pictures Animation.

With a combined total of 24.9% of all the Guild jobs, the members working under the two Disney contracts (the TAG CBA and the IATSE CBA) remain the Guild's largest employer bloc, but DreamWorks and Starz Media (formerly known as IDT or Film Roman) are closing in. Guild employment is the most employer-diverse it has been in decades, which means that an event such as the recent Disney cutbacks has less of an impact on the big picture.

Employment by studio, April 2007

Keep in mind that hiring and employment patterns change over time.

In 1956, for instance, Walt Disney Productions was the largest employer in animation. Four years later, Hanna-Barbera was the big gorilla on the block. And H-B hadn't even existed in 1956. Bill and Joe were still directing at M-G-M.

Let's take another year, 1985. Twenty-two years ago the largest animation employer was Filmation, a studio that started in 1962, four-and-a-half years after H-B.

By the Spring of 1989, Filmation was gone.

There has been only one studio that was in existence in 1952 -- the year of TAG's birth -- that's around now. That studio, of course, is Disney.

But even Disney has gone through a half-dozen transformations in five-plus decades. Like, no animators have worked in the studio's animation building in twenty-one years.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

The TAGblog's Weekend Compendium of Links

Brant Parker, the co-creator of The Wizard of Id, died on April 15 after a long illness. Parker worked at Walt Disney Productions before and after World War II, contributing to Mickey and the Beanstalk and other shorts before moving on to the world of comic strips.

And Jim Thurman, writer and voice actor for Roger Ramjet passed away in Massachussets on April 14.

Moving away from obituaries, the Hollywood Reporters informs us that "BVI's animation title "Meet the Robinsons" grossed an estimated $3.7 million from 3,800 locations in 39 territories for an overseas cume of $42 million..." in its new article on overseas boxoffice.

Then there's this review of old Disneyland episodes featuring Walt Disney. Now, all the Disneyland/World of Color episodes of the long-running anthology show featured Walt Disney during the years he was alive (1955-1966). But these episodes have extended appearances of Walt. And at least one of them (probably more) were written by my boss/mentor Larry Clemmons.

Larry had written the Babes in Toyland episode for World of Color, in 1961, and when I mentioned to Larry in 1977 that I'd seen the episode the day before, he got excited thinking the show was airing someplace and he'd soon be getting a fresh residual check. Alas, I had to tell him that I'd watched his handiwork in a third-floor projection booth and no licensed re-broadcast was involved.

His shoulders, as I remember, sagged with disappointment.

Come July, Warners Home Video will be releasing a restored package of classic Popeye cartoons:

"Popeye is the only major theatrical franchise in film history that never received a legitimate home video release..." Jeff Brown, Warner senior vice president and general manager of Television and Franchise, commented. "For years Warner Bros. had been inundated by consumer letters demanding the release of Popeye, an underdog, a hero, a character who always represents good, and WHV is proud to bring this illustrious collection to DVD."

For years Popeye has cropped up in bargain basement video releases, as a lot of this material fell out of copyright and so made an easy target for cheap video packages.

The San Jose Mercury News reports that Disney's largest shareholder will probably NOT be charged by the SEC for back-dating stock options...

The Wall Street Journal has this April 22 article about the threat to the entertainment industry posed by guerrilla video sites. (Long-term, this could impact everybody's livelihood):

As media companies fight to keep control over distribution of their shows, they have focused their guns on big sites like the YouTube unit of Google Inc. But little sites like this one in New Mexico collectively represent an equally thorny challenge. They are like guerrilla squadrons that are constantly shifting tactics to defy big media and keep offering consumers free programs.

Lastly, the Sonoma Index-Tribune has an informative piece on last weekend's tribute at the Sonoma Valley Film Festival for local resident John Lasseter:

On Saturday night, the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building was jammed with people attending a tribute to Sonoma resident and Pixar legend, John Lasseter. The lobby was appropriately filled with toys, movie posters and artist renderings from Pixar favorites such as “Toy Story,” “Monsters Inc” and “Cars.”

The tribute, hosted by John Ratzenberger, featured speeches from some of Lasseter’s close friends and colleagues, including Bonnie Hunt, Glen Keane, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Andrew Stanton and Robin Williams.

Have yourself a productive workweek, and don't let anybody grind you down.

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Downtown Los Angeles

Ralph Hulett buildings
© by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

This is an oil of downtown L.A. Specifically, old Bunker Hill in the final stages of decay at the Second Street tunnel. It was done in the mid-sixties when urban renewal had started and the old, turn-of-the-19th-century mansions that had decorated the hill were being torn down or removed.

This was one of a series of oil paintings Hulett created for a large art exhibit at the Occidental Building in downtown Los Angeles. His day job at this time was painting backgrounds for Jungle Book.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Another Weekend Box Office

...and Meet the Robinsons still grooves along in the #3 position. ($75.1 million and counting).

Will Ferrell still skates at #2, and the Disturbed People still sit atop the heap.

The Turtles have carved out $51.3 million at the fifteenth position.

Update One: Friday results are in, and a raft of new entries have pushed old entries further downstream.

While Disturbia remained on top with $4.7 million, newcomers Fracture, Vacancy, Hot Fuzz and In the Land of Women nicked the box office returns of Blades of Glory and Meet the Robinsons.

Blades fell to the fourth position and a $2.5 million Friday gross, while Robinsons declined to #7 and a $1.8 million take.

Update Two: The final weekend tally is in, and holdovers Disturbia, Blades of Glory and Meet the Robinsons finish at #1, #3, and #5.

Blades glided over the $100 million marker this weekend, and now totals $101 million. (Weekend take: $7.8 million).

Robinsons stands at $82.2 million (and 7.1 million for the three days.)

TMNT, still at the #15, now totals $52.3 million.

(Interesting side note: DreamWorks -- live action division -- currently has the #1 Disturbia and #3 Blades of Glory. That half of DreamWorks, of course, is owned by Paramount/Viacom, while DreamWorks Animation continues on as an independent company that releases through Paramount.)

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Stop-Mo Expo!

Our friends at ASIFA-Hollywood are putting on a cool and unusual event tomorrow at Woodbury University in Burbank -- a one-day expo devoted to stop motion animation . . .

Here's a blurb from the ASIFA site:

The expo will be comprised of two distinct events: beginning at 9 a.m. panel discussions and seminars with animation professionals and at 6 p.m. a film festival that will showcase classic and current stop-motion animated films, including rare 16 mm stop-motion films from the collection of animation director Mark Kausler. Running concurrently with these two events will be a stop-motion animation jam, a unique feature where professionals, students and members of Movies By Kids will combine their talents to create a stop-motion film.

My sense is that there's a lot of interest in stop-mo animation these days. Given that Los Angeles isn't exactly a stop-motion center, and the quality of the panelists and guests, I'll bet this is a big hit.

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A "Kiddie Medium"?

This is the kind of observation that drives me up a tree:

“CGI is getting hampered by being defined as a ‘kiddie’ medium,” said “TMNT” writer/director Kevin Munroe in an interview with Adam Fendelman.

Rather than solely because their kids lugged them to the movies, he envisions adults also flocking to engage the high-tech, highly immersive medium for themselves.

“In this small step with the [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles], you start to show that there’s a broader audience for it than just kids – when it’s done right,” Munroe said. “I’d love to be in the position where eventually we’d have an R-rated CGI horror or fantasy film.”

Just a question, Mr. Munroe. Who the hell is defining CGI -- or any other kind of animation -- as a "kiddie medium"? Not John Lasseter. Not Walt Disney when he was alive. Not any self-respecting animation artist that I know. Only you. In that interview.

Apparently you missed the "immersive" qualities of smaller, more modest productions like Finding Nemo, Shrek II and in an earlier, simpler time, Beauty and the Beast and Snow White.

You know what makes animation a "kiddie medium?" It's myopic directors and/or executives who think of animated film and describe it as a "kiddie medium." And are idiotic enough to wave off one of the more powerful forms of filmed entertainment over the, oh, last seventy years as "stuff to babysit the eight-year-olds with."

I've heard this sort of dim-bulb mantra from various execs for as long as I've been in the industry: "We've only got the pre-schoolers..." "We're just baby-sitters," "We're catering to elementary school kids..." But that kind of thinking is as wrong-headed now as when I started. When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released and became the highest grossing film in American film history, I seriously doubt that anybody at Walt's Hyperion studio was walking around muttering: "This is a kiddie medium..."

When "Beauty and the Beast" grosses $145 million domestic, when Shrek II earns over $400 million at the American box office, or Finding Nemo collects $350 million, then I'm sorry, but those flicks aren't "kiddie films" or designed for infants, or whatever. They're created to entertain and enrich everybody. To immerse, if you will, both young and old.

They couldn't make hundreds of millions of dollars if they didn't.

So. Contrary to Kevin Munroe's claim, nobody who's got any brains is calling animated features (or shorts) a "kiddie medium." Munroe is just setting up a straw man that he can heroically knock down with totally new and exciting blockbusters like TMNT.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Total Value of a Blog

My blog is worth $65,486.64.

How much is your blog worth?

The TAG blog in particular. And how was the figure above arrived at?

This link to The Big Picture explains things a little.

Many thanks to Hedge Fund manager and investment guru Barry Ritholtz for contributing to this post. It couldn't have been done without him.

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Meanwhile At DreamWorks

Yesterday was my day to while away an afternoon at DreamWorks. First there was lunch with studio reps discussing business, then my usual walk around ("new 401K books for o-old! New 401K books for o-old!")

I encountered a new DW artist who's working on the upcoming Kung-Fu Panda. He showed me a clip he was animating and opined: "I saw the whole picture a few weeks ago. Story reels, finished scenes, rough animation. I think it's the best feature DreamWorks has done..."

Now that's a pretty sweeping statement, but I haven't seen Panda, so what do I know? The film comes out a year from now, and a large percentage of it is animated. And animators I've talked to are happy to be working on it. The flick has a top-flight cast including Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Black, and Angeline Jolie.

Thus far, DW hasn't put out a lot of info on the feature (and I go out of my way to avoid knowledge about continuity; life is simpler that way.) But there's this on Rotten Tomatoes (and this from Movie Insider):

"Kung Fu Panda" features Jack Black as Po the Panda, a lowly waiter in a noodle restaurant, who is a kung fu fanatic but whose shape doesn't exactly lend itself to kung fu fighting. In fact, Po's defining characteristic appears to be that he is the laziest of all the animals in ancient China. That's a problem because powerful enemies are at the gates, and all hopes have been pinned on a prophesy naming Po as the "Chosen One" to save the day. A group of martial arts masters are going to need a black belt in patience if they are going to turn this slacker panda into a kung fu fighter before it's too late. --

One more thing: a story artist and I got into a long discussion about the history of the industry -- which we're both interested in. I related how during my short span I have learned not to take a lot of negative crapola personally since it sort of goes with the job, and it helps (a lot) to save my sanity.

And that tied into a talk about the new Michael Barrier book about Uncle Walt and the '41 Disney strike, and how a lot of employees -- including Walt -- took a whole lot of the things that happened at that turbulent time personally. (Like Mr. Disney feeling betrayed by his employees. Like Art Babbit not working at Disney's no more. Like a rupture in the friendship between Ward Kimball and Walt Kelly.)

What I've learned during my time in the 'toon biz: enjoy what you're doing, take the part that's about doing a good job seriously, but take none of the political and negative effluvia that sails past you personally. (And yes. This is often hard to do when your emotions are wrapped up in something you've deemed "important." A few years further on, you'll be amazed at how much less important it turns out to be.)

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Entretien avec l'auteur Steve Hulett

Rox et Rouky

As the animation union rep I get hit up for interviews from time to time, mostly from reporters but once in a while from film aficionados asking about my time at Disney.

An interview with me has been posted on this site. The interview was conducted in English and translated into French. We ran the interview through the Google translator to put it back into English, resulting in the following, extremely eloquent bon mots:

How did you become author for Disney?

I have an English control and another in history and I took courses of writing, because that always interested me. However, after my studies, the government requisitioned me for two years in Navy. On my return, with the autumn 1976, I postulated at Disney because my father, deceased two years had worked before, there of many years as a decorator. I thus returned as an apprentice to the department “history” and I spent ten years there ...

I started to write under the supervision of Larry Clemmons until it leaves to the retirement of 1978. It was the principal author of Disney since Livre of the Jungle and it marked me much. After its departure, we kept the contact until its disappearance a dozen years later ...

With what the history did resemble it at the beginning?

At the time of Rox & Rouky, the basic history was only one skeleton and the things changed perpetually. At the end, Rox and Vixy were to have the small ones. It was also questions of babies and a rescue. That came owing to the fact that Woolie arrived with always different tracks which remained during a certain time while the remainder of the history also developed him, and one realized that such scene did not go any more and one removed it ...

Other scenes were removed in the course of production. Can you speak to us about it?

There was of it not badly. As I said it to you, Frank Thomas worked with considerable scenes implying Rox and Rouky babies. As for Ollie Johnston, it animated a whole sequenced with Chef sauntering around the house with his broken leg. In general, one can allow oneself to cut crayonées sequences whereas one removes only a few seconds when they are painted. Many crayonées sequences were removed at the beginning production because they cover an experimental side more, in order to define the characters ...

Another major event with the studio was the departure of Gift Bluth.

Absolutely. It left about to the three quarters the production Rox & Rouky, which shifted the film exit about the one year old. Its departure to carry out Brisby & the Secrecy of Nimh put the department animation smell above below because it took along approximately a third of the team with him, and in particular John Pomeroy and Linda Miller, which were organizers of great talent. All had worked with Don on short-measuring The Small One in 1978.

... It was a very collaboratif process insofar as, when that functioned well, that did not come strictly from a linear scenario but rather from a skeleton supplied with the ideas of all kinds of people. And it is a process which one finds today. That it is Disney or Pixar, they are from now on the branches of the same tree of which the roots go up again to Walt.

I think I (and Google translator) come off very well, don't you?

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Ralph Hulett Seascape #2

Ralph Hulett wash
(c) by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

Hey hey! It's Wednesday, and time for another watercolor! This is the second in a series of Hulett seascapes; considerably different than earlier 'scapes. These were more impressionistic, done in the late sixties

I'm sprinkling these in amongst other posts. By and by, there will be more watercolor washes along the same lines. (Ralph H. won a national watercolor award for a different painting -- yet to come -- in this series.)

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Over at Nick

I spent yesterday afternoon at Nickelodeon, in the "animation capital of the nation" (per the New York Times), wandering around and handing out the usual business cards and 401(k) booklets. (Always the 401k booklets).

Upstairs in the loft, Avatar is moving through what looks like its final season. And new episodes of Sponge Bob Square Pants keeps trundling along. But of course the big story -- the one that the Gray Lady of New York was interested in -- is Ni Hao, Kai-lan!:

HERE in the animation capital of the nation, computer artists dressed in Cali-casual are ensconced in a converted warehouse that could rightly be called the House That Slime Built: Nickelodeon Studios, a hothouse of toon talent. Walk through the lobby, past the basketball court-theater, past the gratis cappuccino bar, and soon enough a visitor comes upon an area where the walls are awash in apricot, sunny yellow and fuchsia. Lines of tasseled red lanterns hang overhead, the lighting is subdued, and, in a corner office, stands Karen Chao.

She’s the creator of “Ni Hao, Kai-lan!,” an animated series for preschoolers based on her memories of growing up in a bicultural household with two overachieving brothers, a doting immigrant grandfather and a father with one foot in the Old World and one in the New. Ms. Chao and her mother, Hai-lan (Helen), were outnumbered but unbowed, honoring some gender traditions that dated to Confucian times while questioning others. “Ni hao” means “Hi” in mandarin, and Kai-lan is the Chinese name Ms. Chao was given at birth, later Anglicized to Karen...

Ms. Chao said she wanted Kai-lan “to be a Chinese-American role model, to be independent, to have a voice, to take the initiative and to not always have to follow others.” Ms. Harrington, the executive producer, said she hoped the series would have a special resonance for the estimated 60,000 girls in the United States who have been adopted from Chinese orphanages.

One such child is Jade-Lianna Peters, who voices the title character. Abandoned at a shrine in infancy, she was taken to an orphanage and put up for adoption at 8 months old. John and Kathleen Peters, a childless couple from Milwaukee, flew to China holding a photograph of her the size of a postage stamp. “When they placed her in my arms, she stared at me for about five minutes, and I stared back,” Mrs. Peters said. “Then, all of a sudden, she let out this big sigh, as if she were saying, ‘If this is what I’m stuck with, it will at least be interesting.’ ”

Now 10, Jade-Lianna, who is being tutored in Mandarin, reads lines from a studio in suburban Milwaukee, linked by high-speed cable to the Nickelodeon center in Burbank, her sandpapery voice adding nuance and energy to a story about a backyard safari.

It's wonderfully reassuring to know that Burbank is the animation capital of the nation (don't tell Glendale). Here's wishing Ms. Chao much success with the show. Thanks to Steve Marmel for pointing out this article in the first place...

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The Clock Keeps Ticking Down

(Patrick Verrone, WGAw Prez)

During the IATSE-AMPTP Co-op Meeting in Cathedral City last week, one topic of discussion was the coming negotiations with the Writers Guild of America.

It's not a big secret that IA topkicks and studio reps are like kind of pessimistic about how the talks will go. (Maybe even a teensy bit angry on the IA side? Since if SAG and the WGA go out on strike, everyone working on film sets will go out with them? Whether there's a contract or not?)

The New York Times had a background piece on the same subject a few days ago:

Hollywood labor talks have often boiled down to issues of leadership. This time around, [Patrick] Verrone — a retro-styled 47-year-old who has a background in both comedy and the law, and a taste for crisp white shirts that seem more Benchley than Bochco — has helped set a tone of wariness, if not outright anxiety, with his insistence on big solutions....

Since assuming the Writers Guild presidency 18 months ago, Mr. Verrone has made clear to the industry that he means to reverse trends that have weakened its traditionally strong union structure. He has replaced key members of his union’s professional staff, allied with fellow guilds and laid groundwork for a series of labor-management talks as the writers’ contract nears an end in October, followed eight months later by the industry’s agreements with the Directors Guild of America and the much larger Actors Guild.

Hollywood’s last extended shutdown occurred in 1988, when the writers began a five-month walkout over residual payments for the foreign sale of television shows, among other issues. The sides now face a potentially deeper dispute. The main areas of contention are the expansion of nonunion work by units of large media conglomerates like Viacom and News Corporation, and the way artists will be compensated for their work for the Web, mobile devices and other technologies still falling into place.

Company executives have argued that it is impossible to devise pay formulas for systems that are still in flux. “What the costs are going to be, what the revenues are going to be, we just don’t know,” said J. Nicholas Counter III, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

But Mr. Verrone is clearly intent on pinning down as much as possible now — and on avoiding the kind of arrangements (like the one regarding home video) that many in Hollywood’s creative world believe deprived them of rightful gains in the past.

There's a number of Hollywood players who talk as if a WGA/SAG strike is inevitable. Though a strike would impact everybody, it would hurt animation employees less than other film workers (voice tracks can be stock-piled, animation scripts are mostly under TAG rather than the WGAw, and so forth and so on.)

Me, I look on the bright side of the oncoming talks. If, end the end, SAG and the WGA can hammer out favorable new terms with the producers, the improved pattern of wages and benefits would ricochet back to every other Hollywood union -- Teamsters, the IATSE, and the Directors Guild of America. And if there's a strike?

Hopefully it will be short, with a favorable result after the picket signs come down.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

News to Peruse

(To the left: Bob and Harvey W.)

Our weekend lassoing together of (mostly) 'toon news:

A New York Times article about the Weinstein Co.'s early struggles for financial viability contains at least one upbeat paragraph:

...[Bob Weinstein] also pointed to bright spots in the box-office record, which, by his tally, added up to $311 million in ticket sales last year. “Scary Movie 4,” split with Disney, took in nearly $180 million in worldwide ticket sales last year. And “Hoodwinked,” he noted, cost the company less than $10 million, and far exceeded expectations when it took in $100 million at the global box office, showing a path toward success in animation, where the brothers had never been a presence.

Trust us, the W. Brothers are a presence in animation now. They co-financed TMNT and have a cluster of other animated projects waiting in the wings...

Universal-NBC-General Electric is finally getting around to mining the old Universal cartoon library; come July 24, a cavalcade of Woody Woodpecker cartoons hits the marketplace:

The three-disc collection priced at $39.98 features 75 zany adventures, including eight Academy Award-nominated shorts, and offers more than an one hour of vintage bonus materials, such as the doc "Walter, Woody and the World of Animation," behind-the-scenes footage and a full episode of THE WOODY WOODPECKER SHOW.

Older news: Vincent, one of Tim Burton's early animated efforts will get the 3-D treatment, the better to play with the 3-D version of Nightmare Before Christmas

Ben Stiller, according to the Hollywood Reporter, will move from simple DreamWorks Animation voice-actor to DreamWorks Animation 'toon producer:

DreamWorks Animation has acquired Alan Schoolcraft & Brent Simons' superhero sendup spec "Master Mind," with Ben Stiller and Stuart Cornfeld producing through their Red Hour Films banner.

Newer news: Variety reports on various Disney conundrums, from stock option repairs where Disney tells the Security and Exchange commision "it would issue newly priced options to those[Pixar] employees and pay as much as $34 million to those with backdated options..." to the seemingly unending Winnie the Pooh lawsuit:

Rhetoric between the Slesinger family and Disney heated up again Monday after reps for the Slesingers issued a statement that Disney had "cancel(ed) a mediation conference in federal court" in the Slesingers' suit over Winnie the Pooh royalties.

The Mouse House immediately responded by declaring that, like any party in a lawsuit, it had no legal obligation to settle or attend a settlement meeting.

Although not about animation, this article in today's LA TIMES regarding the big-budget Sahara throws a bright light on how pictures run up large budgets and gather in cash. And why a lot of them end up in the loss column:

Unlike most financial failures, "Sahara" performed reasonably well, ranking No. 1 after its opening weekend and generating $122 million in gross box-office sales. But the movie was saddled with exorbitant costs, including a $160-million production and $81.1 million in distribution expenses.

The financial documents obtained by The Times were submitted as "confidential" exhibits in an ongoing Los Angeles jury trial.

Wouldn't it be fun to have detailed budget breakdowns and ledger sheets of gross film revenues for every live-action and animated feature? (For us it would be fun. But probably not so much merriment for the studios.)

Have a fine and productive workweek. And try not to do too much unpaid overtime...

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Animation Writers at Blogspot

So I've just perused the new animation writers blog across the way, and enjoyed it...

Steve Marmel (its founder), raises some good issues about animation wordsmiths (of which I used to be one) and why there isn't more community between them, and how writers and board artists can learn a lot from each other, and should interact and intermingle. Which triggers this anecdote from Yours Truly:

My last animation writing job -- before taking on the present assignment -- was working on staff at the late, lamented Filmation Animation studio. I wrote for a story editor named Arthur Nadel, a quiet, soft-spoken film veteran whose highest peak in a lengthy entertainment career was probably directing Elvis Presley in Clambake.

Arthur was a very nice man, but territorial. Ferociously territorial. One day I broached the subject of consulting with some board artists and directors on a script I was working on, to get some constructive criticism and hopefully make it better. Arthur looked at me as if I had squeezed off a hot fart under his nose.

"We don't do that, Steve," he said. "Scripts stay here in the story department. When we finish them, we'll give them to a board artist and he or she will draw them up. But we won't have any artists or directors interfering with our work, telling us how to do them."

I said "okay Arthur, whatever you say," and snuck downstairs to get feedback from a few artists and directors anyway. After a time, Arthur caught wind of my consultations and called me in for a talk. Again I got the stink eye.

"I've heard something that troubles me, Steve. Word's come back to me that you were talking to one of the directors about the script."

I stammered that I hadn't. (A blatant lie.) He nodded.

"Alright then. And make sure that you continue not to talk to them."

I said absolutely, you bet. And I never did again.

In the studio. After Arthur's second lecture, I snuck off to the Mexican restuarant next door and talked to the director there. Way in the back. In hushed tones.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Big B.O.

A new animated entry debuts at #11 on the box office charts: The immortal Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters, picking up $1.5 million on opening night. Not bad for a film costing next to nothing...

Elsewhere in movieland, new entry Disturbia bumps Blades of Glory to #2, while freshman Perfect Stranger lands in the third position, shoving Meet the Robinsons down to #4.

And TMNT stalls at #15, with a $49 million cumulative take.

Update: As Variety points out, Disturbia took the frame with $23 million, but Robinsons and Blades held up nicely.

Will Ferrell drops only 37.6% to #2 and a $14 million weekend haul, and little Wilbur Robinson declines only 27.6% (the weekend's smallest drop) to gather in $12.1 million. Will and Wilbur now stand -- respectively -- at $90.2 million and $72 million.

Meanwhile, further downlist Aqua Teen Hunger Force (etc.) (#13) and TMNT (#15) have sucked up $3 million and $50.6 million. The Ninjas, however, had a big drop week-to-week, losing almost a thousand theaters as they plunge 56.4%.


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No Studio Scuttlebutt?

As I traipse through studios week after week, year after year, I find that momentous happenings -- and accompanying gossip -- ebbs and flows.

Right now it's kind of ebbed. At least for me...

At Disney Toons they're done with Mermaid III and reworking Tinker Bell (the eternal dvd feature), and still doing design work on the Fairies projects that follow Tink. At Disney TV Animation, the same series are still in their pre-production cycles. WDFA is developing its previously-announced features (Frog Princess, American Dog, Rapunzel with nothing huge (just yet) in the production pipeline...

DreamWorks is ready to launch Shrek the Third and the tub-thumping has begun. The Bee Movie and Kung Fu Panda are humping along at full production tilt.

Starz Media/Film Roman still has a full plate with Over the Hill, The Simpsons and The Simpsons Feature (which has caused some of the yellow family's half-hour episodes to be put on hold.) New owner Starz also has a few other projects percolating along:

Starz Media has unveiled its slate for MIPTV, headlined by the hit Nick Jr. animated pre-school property Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, among other diverse offerings such as the anthologies Masters of Science Fiction and Masters of Horror 2.

Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! features the daily adventures of Wubbzy and his friends Widget and Walden. The series is generating more than 40 million game plays on Nickelodeon’s website.

Two 70-minute animated features under the Stan Lee Presents banner will also be offered: Stan Lee Presents: The Condor, with Wilmer Valderamma (That ‘70s Show), and Stan Lee: Presents: Mosaic, featuring Anna Paquin (X-Men). The animated series Eloise, which airs in the U.S. on Starz Kids & Family, and Garfield & Friends, which is based on Jim Davis’ hit comic strip, will also be highlighted.

Warner Bros. Animation is underway with a new Scooby DVD feature and four series (thirteen episodes each), after or during which they are slated to move back to Burbank. Universal has got the same as before: Curious George and Land Before Time.

As for The Animation Guild, we're working at organizing a few non-signator studios, hassling with a couple of signator studios over grievances, and I'm chatting people up as I make my daily rounds. As previously stated, things are relatively quiet (which isn't to say that there aren't gripes or individual crises playing out. But I ain't going into those here.)

Enjoy this sun-washed weekend.

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The Windmills of Ralph Hulett's Mind

Ralph Hulett windmills
© by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

In late 1962, a television director and documentarian named Gunther Von Fritsch came to artist Ralph Hulett's door and introduced himself. Besides being the original director on The Curse of the Cat People and the helmer of various t.v. shows, Gunther made travel films for SwissAir. He wanted to use Ralph as the subject of a film he was scheduled to make in Greece and Israel under the sponsorship of the airline.

Swiss Air would pay all travel and lodging expenses, Ralph would paint, and Von Fritsch would film him doing it...

Artist Hulett, always game for a new adventure (especially if he could tote his easel and paint brushes with him) accepted the proposal. And off he and Gunther Von Fritsch went to the Mediterranean.

For the next three months, Ralph Hulett painted landscapes the length and breadth of Greece and Israel (the painting above -- from one of the Greek islands -- is an oil rendered later back in California from a field study.) Fourteen hours of 16mm color footage was shot, then cut down to a half-hour documentary titled Shalom Yassu. Somewhere, in some cupboard or other, lies a print of the epic. I haven't seen it in years, but I remember it fondly.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Animation Gluts and Thirty Day Windows

As I write, Meet the Robinsons is tracking along in second place at $60 million. (Uncle Will Ferrell owns the top spot and $76 million with Blades of Glory). And TMNT, the other CGI film in the marketplace, collects $48.5 million at #10, while it does the long fade...

But let us face it: There is only Meet the Robinsons out there making generous coin. Realistically, the Disney time-travel adventure has the center lane of the animation thruway all to itself.

For the next month. Then Shrek the Third happens, and that will be the end of Robinsons. Whatever money the Mouse House is still collecting in box office rentals will disappear as Shrek III sucks all oxygen and most carbon dioxide from the film distribution eco-system.

And that will last until Ratoutille appears on the scene on June 29. At that point the green ogre's trend line will drop more steeply, and we get to see if the latest Pixar entry can compete with a DreamWorks' tentpole.

The next animation glut. With floor-to-ceiling thirty-day windows.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan

Narrowcast time. I spent the day in Cathedral City attending a meeting between IATSE (that's the international union to which TAG belongs) and the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.) We got a long report on the health of the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan, and here's a few factoids you should know:

* The Pension Plan sends monthly checks to over 11,000 retirees.

* The Plan has over 2500 participants who have more than $100,000 in their Individual Account Plans.

* Investment income for the Plan totalled $516 million in 2006.

* The "Defined Benefit" part of the Industry Pension Plan (the part that spits out monthly checks to retirees year after year) has had annual earning of 9.8% over the past two decades.

* The Individual Account Plan (this is the part of the plan that is an investment account for each participant) has earned 9.2% for the last twenty years.

* Plan actuaries project that a plan participant who started in the Plan in 1997 and works 2000 per year over twenty years will have $250,000 in her/his Individual Account Plan account at the time or retirement.

* Over thirty "2000 hour" years, money in a participant's I.A.P. account will grow to $500,000*.

* This assumes no further increases in IAP contributions and a 3% cost-of-living wage increase over that twenty (or thirty) year span.

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Homage to C. Northcote Parkinson

Over the past week, I've had occasion to talk to former and current employees of one of our larger, more prestigious animation studios. They all complained about all the damn meetings they had to attend, and all the damn production assistants, unit production managers and administrative aides they had to go through to get a meeting with their artistic superior(s). And how this slowed down their work output and generally gummed things up.

As they talked, I thought about C. Northcote Parkinson and Parkinson's Law...

C. Northcote Parkinson was a deep-thinking Brit who closely observed government bureaucracies and how they work. And he came to some pithy conclusions about bureaucracies in general, not only the government kind but the corporate versions as well. And Parkinson had some choice observations:

"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

"The smaller the function, the greater the management."

"A committee is organic rather than mechanical in its nature: it is not a structure but a plant. It takes root and grows, it flowers, wilts, and dies, scattering the seed from which other committees will bloom in their turn."

"Delay is the deadliest form of denial."

"Expenditures rise to meet income."

"When any organizational entity expands beyond 21 members, the real power will be in some smaller body."

There are many other Parkinsonisms, but you get the idea. Old C. Northcote cast a classically cynical eye on the institutions in which he worked, and came to enlightened conclusions. I read PL years ago, and as I age I marvel at how true his masterwork continues to be:

A decade back, I watched the artists at the newly-formed Warner Bros. Feature Animation in Glendale grow more and more demoralized as WB honcho Bob Daley kept putting off a decision regarding what animated project he wanted the new division to make.

Parkinson, of course, knew the source of the crew's demoralization: "Delay is the deadliest form of denial."

I watched another large studio grow more and more successful, and watched its (once-small) bureaucracy metastasize like an out-of-control cancer. Naturally I thought of another Parkinson maxim:

"An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals." Unsurprisingly, when given half a chance, officials do exactly that.

The company bureaucracy didn't stop growing until the cash flow did.

Parkinson also had another ready explanation for why artists at the same studio often found themselves at endless meetings scheduled by company managers: "Officials make work for each other." (and also, sadly, the people under their control.)

Please don't think I'm trying to be snarky about any particular studio (well, besides Warner Bros. Feature Animation, circa 1995). I'm simply using some animation industry examples to get to some universal truths: Humans are territorial, and like to build empires, and want to believe they're smarter and more trail-blazing than they actually are.

But don't take my word for it. Go dip into Parkinson's Law and draw your own conclusions.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Swiss Sojourn

Ralph Hulett Swiss painting
© by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

In 1956, Disney background artist Ralph Hulett took a leave of absence from the studio, leased his newly-built house, and packed his family off to Europe for a year to paint...and paint...and paint.

He returned to California in mid 1957 and plunged into production work for Sleeping Beauty.

The specimen above is a mountain village scene, created in Switzerland. Dad painted all over Europe in 1956 and 1957, but for several months he was headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, and moved around the country painting scenes that grabbed him.

This particular painting has always grabbed me, so I put it up here. (I shot the original through glass, so there is a teensy bit of reflection, for which apologies.)

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Animation to Live Action

News reports inform us that Brad Bird will be directing a live-action feature soon after Ratatouille is locked down and released. That will make Mr. Bird the latest in a long line of animation artists and directors who have departed animation for the glories of live actors, sound stages and the big bucks that often accompany flicks that contain actual people...

This afternoon, I got to musing about how many cartoon tyros have abandoned the cramped confines of a Termite Terrace or a warehouse in Glendale to spread their wings in what much of Hollywood considers the "real" movie industry: Tom Cruise and Clint Eastwood and Nicholas Cage. Wide screens and casts of thousands. It's been going on like, forever:

Leon Schlesinger animator and director Frank Tashlin found a bigger, brighter career directing Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis and Jayne Mansfield instead of Porky Pig.

Disney traffic boy and story man Stirling Silliphant left animation -- and then a publicity job at Disney -- to write for the Mickey Mouse Club, television series like Route 66 and finally movies and novels, copping an Oscar for Best Screenplay for In the Heat of the Night.

Animator David Swift worked in Ward Kimball's unit at Disney until World War II came along. Swift then went off to war in the South Pacific and returned as a decorate pilot. Thereafter, he wrote for television (most famously Mr. Peepers and then directed a string of motion pictures. (most famously The Parent Trap.)

Tim Burton, frustrated in his lower-level animation job at the Mouse House, found his way into live-action shorts and then full-length features. Seems to have made a career of it.

Animation director Jerry Rees (The Brave Little Toaster) directed The Marrying Man with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger for Disney.

Animator Rob Minkoff, after hitting a grand slam with the animated feature Lion King, turned his attention to several live-action features (Of course, he's now returning to his roots with an animated project -- Mr. Peabody and Sherman -- at DreamWorks.

Mark Dindal (Chicken Little, Emperor's New Groove, Cats Don't Dance) has left Disney and animated features for a run at live action projects.

I'm sure there are others I'm missing, (many board artists, for instance, have moved from animation to live-action and back again) but those are the names that jump out at me. Brad B. is just the latest in a long line of 'toon creators who have climbed over the fence to the green pastures of real-life movies.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Blog Code of Conduct?

Kevin and I have been plowing our respective furrows in this small, quiet corner of blogdom for thirteen months now, and from time to time we have a discussion about comments posted here. Should we moderate them? Should we ban anonymous comments?

The answers to these questions have pretty much been "no." Kevin is busy animating and storyboarding. I am business-repping, writing, and spending way more time than I like helping with a certain high-schooler's homework (a story not worth going into.)

So we don't hassle with comments around here much, except to chime in once in a while. But yesterday the New York Times ran a piece on "blogger ethics", and so we wonder:

Is it too late to bring civility to the Web?

The conversational free-for-all on the Internet known as the blogosphere can be a prickly and unpleasant place. Now, a few high-profile figures in high-tech are proposing a blogger code of conduct to clean up the quality of online discourse.

Last week, Tim O’Reilly, a conference promoter and book publisher who is credited with coining the term Web 2.0, began working with Jimmy Wales, creator of the communal online encyclopedia Wikipedia, to create a set of guidelines to shape online discussion and debate.

Chief among the recommendations is that bloggers consider banning anonymous comments left by visitors to their pages and be able to delete threatening or libelous comments without facing cries of censorship.

We delete damn few comments (mostly those plugging stuff we don't want to plug). Very occasionally somebody's comment gets a tad too, ah, flame-like. But as for "anonymous" or not-anonymous? I have no idea who Rat Boy or other nicknames are, so I don't see what the big deal with anonymous is. Of course, my opinion could always change.

But as for censoring comments? Only once in a while. As needed. But it's good to know others are so concerned about it. Helps me sleep better at night.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Johnny Hart RIP

I meant to note Mr. Hart's passing yesterday. Just let me say he was one of the better comic strip artists of the past fifty years, and had the grace to depart this veil of anguish the same way that Disney veteran Joe Grant did: Working at his drawing table...

Cartoonist Johnny Hart, who created the popular Stone Age comic strip BC...died Saturday, aged 76.

Hart, who also collaborated with Brant Parker on the medieval comic strip The Wizard of Id, died of a stroke, his wife said.

BC, a sparely drawn cartoon featuring prehistoric men, women and animals, has been syndicated since 1958.

It is distributed to more than 1,300 newspapers worldwide, according to Creators Syndicate, and has an audience of more than 100 million.

Mr. Hart certainly left a legacy. From the age of ten on, I looked forward to my daily dose of B.C. most every day. (Here is a profile of Hart from The Presbyterian Layman.

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Ralph Hulett wash #1

Ralph Hulett wash
(c) by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

A Ralph Hulett seascape from 1967. We get an explosion of ocean, and a squadron of seabirds arriving on the rocks. As you can see, his technique and approach changed over the years.

Ralph painted a series of seascapes -- most using watercolor but a few in oil -- during this time. I'll be throwing some of them up over the next few weeks, particularly when I have nothing pithy to say. My goal here will be to display a variety of subjects as time floats by.

And Christmas cards? Next holiday season.

Update: Now that I look at the link, the colors of this could be better. Sorry they're not closer to the painting...

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Week's Animation Links

This article about Frank Nissen and Disney Toons is worth perusing (if you haven't already)...

I met Frank when he came to work for Disney Features to work on Dinosaur, and he's been with the company ever since, moving from boarding with features to directing with DisneyToon Studios. A nice, nice guy.

And let me get in line and put in a plug for Nancy Beiman's storyboarding book Prepare to Board. I've known Nancy a long while. We both worked on Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore when Calvin Coolidge was President, and she served as a TAG labor delegate a few years back. Nancy has been a crackerjack animator and board artist like forever...

And while different studios get behind different high-def dvd formats, Jeffrey Katzen berg opines that:

...both formats are unlikely to appeal to anyone beyond videophiles.

"Blu-Ray and HD DVD are a niche business. They're not going to become the next platform," he said. "I think for the general consumer, there is not a big enough delta between the standard DVD in terms of where it is today and the next generation."

I'm sure the execs over at Sony were thrilled with Mr. K.'s comments. But he calls them like he sees them...

And great news from our former arch-enemy, the state formerly known as the U.S.S.R.:

Since the beginning of April the first in Russia round-the-clock animated cartoon TV channel "2õ2" has started working.

The viewers of "2õ2" will have an opportunity to get acquainted with cartoon films from England, France, Italy, Czechia and Japan, yet the majority of air-time will be given to American animated cartoons. Russian films will take two hours per day.

The audience of the TV channel will consist of people aged from 11 to 34.

Apparently the 35-year-olds (and their parents) are out of luck

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