Tuesday, July 31, 2007

It's the Animation, Stupid

Yet another Simpsons Movie post.

Fox, we're informed, was expecting a $45 million gross on opening weekend (and yes, this could be retroactive spin. But there's probably a kernel of truth to it.) To their delighted surprise, the flick raked in $74 million, and lo and behold, Fox-News Corp has another tent pole on their hands.

But why is this? Is the writing a big cut above the teevee version? The story? I think, probably, it is. To a degree. But here's a film critic who gets a major reason:

The answer lies in the animation. Unlike the TV show, the characters have shadows and the color scheme is larger – which makes it a truly different visual experience. As a cartoon, The Simpsons’ animation has always been very crude. “It’s deliberately imperfect,” said creator Matt Groening, and “a tribute to the art of hand-drawn animation, which is basically disappearing.”

While the film producers kept the animation similar to the show, there was a subtle upgrade in its quality that gave it a far more professional feel. I was very lucky to watch the film in a large multiplex theatre, and got a seat in the very back row. While I didn’t feel that the storyline was all that special, the animation quality was really what kept my interest captivated for 90 minutes.

So I'm guessing that Fox this morning is clapping itself on the back about keeping the "money animation" for the picture here in town. That they're aware that "quality paid off."

Which is why the next Simpsons feature (and there will be a next, bank on it), will be done in the same manner as the one that is now burning up the box office.

And there's the other bit of conventional wisdom that has been upended by The Simpsons Movie: "Nobody wants to look at hand-drawn animation anymore."

The new meme should be: "Nobody wants to look at hand-drawn animation anymore. Except when they do."

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Your health and pension questions answered tomorrow night

Union meeting!!!

On Tuesday night, July 31, at Local 44's meeting hall (located at 12021 Riverside Drive in North Hollywood, across from Gelson's), Greg Mason from the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan will be holding forth on what you can expect when you reach retirement, and he will answer questions about the Health Plan.

There will be cards at the back table for you to put your questions anonymously in writing, or you can ask questions from the floor.

Pizza and refreshments will be served at 6:30 pm and the meeting will be starting at 7 p.m., so bring your questions for Mr. Mason and be prepared for useful information.

Here is an interactive map to the Local 44 meeting hall (parking is behind the building or across the street in the lot west of Agnes).
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The Simpsons Worldwide

So let's see. The Simpsons Movie cost something around $75 million, with much of the work being done in Glendale and Burbank, California. And in its first three days of release it's collected a tidy sum:

The Simpsons family has taken over the worldwide box office with their first movie, raking in $84 million in the United States and more than $112 million in other countries.

20th Century Fox's massive publicity blitz paid off for the studio as "The Simpsons Movie" set an opening-day record for an animated film in Australia, Argentina, Chile and Colombia.

What interests us is that a movie raking in bucks of this bigness will beget more movies of the same type that will also get made in the eastern San Fernando Valley.

Woo Hoo!

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Con Has Been On

A few words about Comic-Con (since it's ubiquitous on the intertubes and in San Diego...)

I've attended one Comic-Con. It was in the late 1970s, and it was held at ... (drum roll) ... the El Cortez Hotel high on a hill in mid-town San Diego.

There were a lot of people (then as now) wandering around in Star Wars costumes.

There were a lot of folks sitting at tables selling comic books.

It was way, way smaller.

But TAG veep Earl Kress attended the festivities this year, and reports:

Last night was “Preview Night”, which was a preview of the huge and unwieldy crowds that have descended on San Diego. There were people walking around with cardboard shields with the movie logo of 300 on them. That doesn’t begin to estimate the crowd. Add up the figures on all those shields and you might be close.

But Wednesday was all about Master Replicas Muppet Photo Puppets for me. First up, here is the final version of Animal, that growling drummer from the Electric Mayhem.

Animal is currently available for pre-order and while there are no firm promises, Travis of Master Replicas expects Animal to begin shipping this fall...

I get the idea that Comic-con isn't the small, friendly little convention for comic book geeks anymore. 1977 is a looong ways away...

More about CC here, here and here. Oh, and also here.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Box Office D'Oh

The Simpsons Movie opens at #1 in a big,big way.

The Yellow Family's $29,100,000 Friday take places it at #15 on the one-day opening list, and second only to Shrek the Third in the animated feature category.

All this and hand-drawn too. Who would have thunk it? (I believed the flick would open in the $50-70 million range. Just a trifle low.)

Congratulations to the hard-working animation crews that made this all happen!

Update: Well whattayaknow? The Simpsons Movie comes in above my most wildly optimistic estimate of $70 million:

“The Simpsons Movie” turned doughnuts into dollars over the weekend, raking in $71.9 million to debut as the top movie this week.

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” from Warner Bros., fell to third place with $17.1 million, a 48 percent drop from last week. The film has grossed $242 million domestically after three weeks in theaters.

And as the dust settles, the Yellow Family has itself bragging rights to the third biggest animation opening (U.S.) of all time.

Meanwhile, Ratatouille falls from #5 to #7 as it takes in another $7.2 million and climbs to a shade under $180 million domestic gross.

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A Brief History of the Roman Empire

When TAG organized Film Roman a few years back, the studio was in a large but run-down building on Chandler.

When I walked around inside the place, the low ceilings and dim lights always made me feel like I was in some weird, wide-bodied submarine. The work spaces were funky but strangely functional. One animator told me, "You get used to it after awhile, and make it work..."

So now Film Roman/Starz Media is over next to the Bob Hope airport, in a way nicer building with way higher ceilings. But the vibe is much the same (at least to me) because the same artists -- for the most part -- work there.

The LA TIMES has a nice piece in the morning paper about Film Roman's beginnings and recent history. Which is fitting since the studio was heavily involved in Fox's weekend blockbuster:

For 15 years, Film Roman has produced most of the [The Simpsons] animation under the direction of 20th Century Fox Television and Gracie Films Inc. That led to work on "The Simpsons Movie," which cost about $75 million to make and is Film Roman's biggest project to date.

Over the last 18 months, the company has hired about 130 animators on top of its regular staff of 400 to simultaneously work on the film and the 18th and 19th seasons of the series. Some of the animation work was farmed out to two studios in South Korea, Rough Draft and Akom. Although largely drawn by hand, the film used various digital tools to speed up the process and incorporated some 3-D scenes.

The Times doesn't go into it, but studio founder Phil Roman was a director for Bill Melendez's studio for fifteen years and the director of that studio's first Garfield special.

When Charles Schulz let Bill M. know that there wasn't room at the studio for both the Peanuts and Garfield francises, Phil went off to set up his own studio (orignally on Riverside Drive in Toluca Lake) and produce the show with Lee Mendelsohn (Bill M.'s Peanuts producer.)

And the rest, as they say, is Hollywood history.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

The Friday Links Roundup

Another weekend, another linkfest, starting with the big animated flick that is today hitting a multiplex near you: The Simpsons Movie!!.

Rotten Tomatoes tracks the Simpson reviews, and finds that most of them are favorable:

Early reviews for The Simpsons Movie indicate that good things come to those who wait. The movie is currently at 92 percent on the Tomatometer;Brian Lowry of Variety quickly puts to rest any doubt that the Simpsons clan can entertain in a feature length film. "Put simply, if somebody had to make a Simpsons movie, this is pretty much what it should be -- clever, irreverent, satirical and outfitted with a larger-than-22-minutes plot."

France, that European country with universal health care and a distaste for freedom's march in Iraq, is now apparently one of the leading centers for computer animation:

A strange thing happened on the way to SIGGRAPH 2007. Its prestigious Computer Animation Festival, which, since 1999, has been an official qualifying festival for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Best Animated Short Film award, announced their 2007 awards, and two of the top three films come from students—and all of them from Europe.

...Francois-Xavier Goby, Edouard Jouret and Matthieu Landour — all students from Supinfocom in Valenciennes in France — won the show’s Award of Excellence for “En Tus Brazos”...for exemplary use of computer-generated imagery, animation and storytelling.

CNN's The Screening Room turns its eye to feature animation, and gives us a superficial summary of what's been going on in animation land. (All you need to know about how far behind the curve Screening Room is might be this title: To Disney and Beyond: the rise of animation.)

Apparently the Simpsons teevee show isn't the only animated television franchise that will find its way to the Big Screen:

ReBoot, the 1990s animated TV series that kick-started Vancouver's animation industry, will have a second life in feature films and online.

Rainmaker Animation this week announced plans to make a feature-film trilogy based on the popular TV series, which was the first computer-animated series in the world and pre-dated the computer-animated feature Toy Story by a year. The show, produced by Vancouver's Mainframe Entertainment, ran for four seasons on YTV in Canada, and ABC and Cartoon Network in the U.S.

Variety.com and its Thompson on Hollywood blog have a compilation of news items from Comic-Con and other interesting places...

Then there is this review of the DVD of the most popular cartoon character of the 1930s, and the one I grew up with on the teevee:

Popeye the Sailor has the distinction of starring in the longest running animated short subject series in the history of animation. The sailor�s library of theatrical shorts is 234 while approximately 500 cartoons were produced for television.

This first volume [of the new Popeye DVD release] contains the Fleischer Studios Popeye films produced from 1933 to 1938 (though not all of the cartoons produced in 1938 are included). The Popeye shorts begin with his first appearance in a Betty Boop cartoon titled, Popeye the Sailor (1933) and concludes with With Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh (1938). By watching the entire set of B&W films you can see the Fleischers experimenting with the first few films and settling into a pattern...

But wait! That's not all! There's also this new Woody Woodpecker digital disk release:

Cackling Woody Woodpecker, created by Walter Lantz, made his first appearance in the 1940 animated short "Knock Knock." Over the decades, he's headlined 200 shorts, received eight Academy Award nominations — even the hit "The Woody Woodpecker Song" from 1948's "Wet Blanket Policy" was nominated for best original song — and become the mascot for the Universal Studio theme parks. "The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection" features 75 digitally remastered and uncut cartoons starring the famous bird along with his friends Chilly Willy, Andy Panda, Wally Walrus and Buzz Buzzard...

Daily Variety has the specifics about three new "performance capture" films that are in the works at Sony Pictures Imageworks...

Producer Avi Arad has optioned film rights to James Patterson's young-adult bestseller "Maximum Ride" with hopes of turning the property into a major franchise...

Two other projects are being developed for Sony Pictures Animation. Director Jon Favreau and Jay Redd are developing the caveman comedy "Neanderthals," while Jerome Chen, the visual effects supervisor of "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf," is creating an untitled feature inspired by Japanese mythology. According to Landau, Chen's project will fall into the classic action realm of a film like "300."

Unlike Jim Hill, Sheldon Liber at blogging stocks.com thinks that Disney's purchase of Pixar might have been pretty astute:

Disney's acquisition of Pixar was a very expensive and in some ways risky proposition, but top talent does not come cheap...I am not an advocate of overpaying for a company's stock, but I do believe there are times when a company might be forced to over pay for unique talent to create value. It appears Disney has done so with Pixar.

And we'll end as we began, with the Simpsons, and how the financial hopes are high for the Yellow Family over at Fox/News Corp.:

``[The Simpsons Movie] be huge,'' said Oscar Trevino, a 29-year-old graphics designer who drove from San Diego to Los Angeles to shop in one of a dozen U.S. 7-Eleven stores that have been converted to Simpsons-like Kwik-E-Marts.

News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox film studio is counting on fans like Trevino. The studio is in fifth place at the U.S. box office this year, with sales down 38 percent from 2006, according to researcher Box Office Mojo LLC. Total U.S. box- office sales are up 4.4 percent this year as of July 22.

``The film is important to News Corp. because they did so well last year,'' said Michael Morris, an analyst at UBS AG in New York. ``It's difficult for them to compete this summer.''

Have a happy and lucrative weekend

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The Constant Painter

Ralph Hulett painting a landscape

Here's background artist Ralph Hulett painting fine art in the mid-sixties at his home studio (converted from a carport). The studio was too hot in summer and too cold in winter. There was always a small, electric floor heater glowing at his feet during the winter months as he worked on various paintings.

Ralph Hulett painting backgrounds

And here he is in the more comfortable 2-F wing of the Disney animation building a dozen years earlier, painting backgrounds for Lady and the Tramp.

(R.H. painted all the freaking time, which probably explains his facility with paint and brush. It's been my observation that when you play a lot of tennis, or lead guitar, or piano, you get better doing all those things...)

Lasy and the Tramp bg

(An actual Lady and the Tramp background from an actual image grab on the internets.)

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Contract Rate Increases Kick in Sunday

Next week we enter the second year of our three-year collective bargaining agreement, and effective this Sunday (July 29) the wage minimums at Guild shops will increase by three percent.

Remember: the increase in minimums doesn't affect your actual rate of pay unless you are being paid at scale or at less than the new rate.

If you have been in your job category for more than a year and you are paid at less than these rates, your Guild shop employer should raise your rate of pay automatically. If they do not, contact the Guild.

Here are a few of the new journey minimums.

(For a complete list of the new rates, check TAG's contract book or the Guild's website, or call the Guild office at (818) 766-7151.)

Production Board [staff]

Weekly: $1,713.45

Animator, Background, Layout, Model Designer, Animation Writer, Visual Development, CGI Animator/Modeler, Production Technical Director [I]:

Hourly: $37.249

Weekly: $1,489.96

Key Assistant Animator, Key Assistant CGI Animator/Modeler [II], Production Technical Director [II]:

Hourly: $35.697

Weekly: $1,427.88

Assistant Animator, Assistant Background, Assistant Layout, Assistant Model Designer, Animation Checker, Color Key, Assistant CGI Animator/Modeler [III], Production Technical Director [III], Digital Check:

Hourly: $31.877

Weekly: $1,275.08

4-7 minutes:

Synopsis and Outline:

Unit rate: $810.74

Health and pension hours: 22

Storyboard Only:

Unit rate: $1,124.29

Health and pension hours: 30

Teleplay or Screenplay:

Unit rate: $1,936.81

Health and pension hours: 50

7-15 minutes:

Synopsis and Outline:

Unit rate: $818.10

Health and pension hours: 35

Storyboard Only:

Unit rate: $1,361.47

Health and pension hours: 38

Teleplay or Screenplay:

Unit rate: $2,668.34

Health and pension hours: 115

Half-hour subjects:

Synopsis and Outline:

Unit rate: $1,455.35

Health and pension hours: 68

Storyboard Only:

Unit rate: $2,585.38

Health and pension hours: 75

Teleplay or Screenplay:

Unit rate: $5,114.23

Health and pension hours: 232

One hour or more:

Synopsis and Outline:

Unit rate: $2,165.83

Health and pension hours: 70

Storyboard Only:

Unit rate: $3,856.27

Health and pension hours: 113

Teleplay or Screenplay:

Unit rate: $7,693.31

Health and pension hours: 230

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mid-Week Studio Visits

Today I was supposed to hop over to Imagi Studios for TAG's first 401(k) enrollment meeting, but the meeting got scrubbed because many artists were already headed to the Comic-con in sun-kissed San Diego.

So I figured I'd be staying in the office clearing some of the perpetual rubble off my desk...

Only that didn't pan out either, as staffers at a signator studio wanted me to come over and "do something" about the tight schedules that compel many of them to work uncompensated overtime to meet deadline.

I motored over there and talked to a show producer (who's a very nice guy, by the way). I explained the situation ... and the gripes, after which I went back to some of the staffers and synopsized my conversation with him. We batted ideas back and forth, but the gist of my solution to the ongoing problem they laid out to me went as follows:

"If the company doesn't want to authorize you to work overtime, don't work overtime. Do as much of the assigned work (production boards, design work, whatever) as you can get done in forty hours. If the work isn't complete, then the work isn't complete.

"And if the company is adament that you adhere to the schedule, then work the overtime, don't take the work home, and put the hours you actually worked on the time card (to do otherwise is breaking the law). And hit the deadline.

"If everybody does those things, the company will get an idea of how long the assigned work actually takes, and you'll get paid for work performed.

"And if employees don't want to be honest about the time that's required for the job, and keep their heads down and just suck up the extra work for fear of negative repercussions, then that's the way it will be.

"Because no union can prevent people from working uncompensated hours if they're determined to do it."

And yesterday, I spent a piece of the afternoon at Disney Animation Studios. A couple of new story rooms are being put in up on the third floor, Bolt story reels were unspooled for the crew to favorable reaction, and people were getting ready to go to Comic-con.

What is it about this Comic-con thing?

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Animation, Chinese Style

Mainland China is waking up to the idea that animation in all its forms is maybe a business they want to be in. But it's been slow:

Many of China's young people have been obsessed with cartoons and other forms of animation from Japan and South Korea for more than a decade. The authorities have tended to view the cartoons as a troublesome counterculture—too violent and lacking in any positive social message.

Apparently the Chinese government wants to control what gets made (who would have imagined?)

The Chinese government has begun a deliberate campaign to move the genre away from the foreign and sometimes nihilistic values of the past and use it to stress the continuing relevance of the Communist Party to a young generation. It also hopes to promote what authorities perceive as "Chinese" values...

Okay, that's the domestic model. But what about the Middle Kingdom's international business model?

The Chinese authorities are now trying to promote original creations, with the ultimate goal of challenging the United States and Japan in the global market...

Beijing's embrace of animation has so far been heavy-handed. Last year it announced a ban on foreign cartoons during prime-time television hours. "Some say giving our industry a five- or 10-year protection period is the only way to help it get going in the face of the power of the U.S. and Japan," says Zhang Xin of the Center of International Cultural Exchange at China's Ministry of Culture. But some fans have noticed a drop in quality...

...It doesn't help that government approval is required to make a five-minute short, which some experts say discourages talent.

There's the ongoing threat of "China the giant 'toon sub-contractor", but that's been around for twenty years. The other question of "Will Chinese cartoons be catching on here?" is fairly easy to answer.

Not any time soon.

(h/t Kathleen Milnes)

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Magical $100,000,000

In the top half of Daily Variety's Box Office 50, there are ten features over the $100 million mark.

Obviously a $100 million domestic gross ain't what it used to be, but the current list isn't too shabby. Among the 25, there are three films (Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean 3.0, and Spider-Man 3) up at the rarified $300 million level.

Two features (Transformers, Harry Potter) hover above the $200 million sign post.

And five films (Ratatouille, Live Free or Die Hard, Knocked up, Ocean's Thirteen and Fantastic Four) live on various ledges over the $100 million marker.

In the bottom part of the list, only Wild Hogs at $168,0005,066 is still alive and kicking.

But the most interesting activity in our current domestic box office (at least to me) is what's going on with Meet the Robinsons.

Robinsons, you see, is still in release. And last week it jumped from #52 in last week's box office hit parade to...(drum roll)... #25.

Its domestic gross increased 1,268%. So it now has a grand total of $97,002,175.

You think there's the teensiest chance that Disney is trying to get their previous CGI release up over the magical $100 million? You know, for bragging rights?

Just a thought.

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Starz Media and Cartoon Network

The studios on my "to do" list for Monday-Tuesday were Starz Media and Cartoon Network.

At Starz, lots of the crew have now seen The Simpsons Movie and think it works well. (A couple of them said: "I was wondering how it would come together. It's funny! And it's not too long." The thumbs up is apparently shared by most of the world's film critics.)

Many of the people who've been on lay-off are now back from hiatus and working madly on the half-hour shows once more.

And I'm told that one of the other shows produced in the building -- Wow Wow Wubbzy -- will be coming back for a new season.

Over at Cartoon Network, things are somewhat quiet, as staff waits for the new topkick of CN to settle into place and decide on what shows the studio will next make.

The high point for me this afternoon was looking at animation for Class of 3000, now in its second season. The crew is creating some amazing images for the musical sections of the show.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Negotiation Watch

Not dead, merely sleeping.

The WGA and AMPTP negotiations are on hiatus while the AMPTP turns its attention to the Teamsters and Basic Crafts...

And a reporter I've known forever calls me today and asks about the WGA-Producer wrestling match:

"What's up with management's proposals?"

Like I know. But I give a long answer that attempts to cover up the fact I haven't a clue what's up.

But of this I'm sure: the companies are either trying to pick a fight with the writers...or they're trying to pick a fight with the writers.

But this from WGA negotiator John Bowman's opening remarks at the first day of negotiations keeps ricocheting around my head:

As collective authors of a work, we are entitled to a portion of the revenue generated by that work. But you have publicly stated that you no longer want to pay us residuals on shows that are not in profit...

"[For management] to claim that intellectual property has lesser rights than physical property is a dangerous argument for anyone in our business to make. You are making the same argument to us that digital pirates make to you.

So...I guess this means that if management is okay with paying for work once and then reusing and repurposing it and getting more money without paying the creators again, then...

...they're okay with consumers buying the Snow White DVD and repurposing it for extra bucks on the internet.

I'm not missing something, am I? Fair's fair. That guy in Detroit paid his $16 for the little silver disk and the material on it, didn't he? So shouldn't the dude be free to do with it as he likes? The flick's seventy years old, after all. It's earned its cost back long since...

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Lowering Investment Risk

And you are tucking a little something away for retirement, yes?*

A few years ago, the investment firm of Neuberger and Berman did a study of investments and the money they made between the Standard & Poor 500 Index (This is an index mutual fund that tracks the top 500 largest "blue chip" American companies. Household names like Microsoft, General Motors, IBM, GE, and others); the other 50% went into five-year Treasury Notes. What they found out was highly interesting, and highly important to your investment future.

N & B discovered that, between 1960 and 1996, an investor that had 50% of his assets invested in the S & P 500 and 50% in five-year Treasury Notes earned an annual compound rate of return of 9.75% for the whole period. This was 84% of the total return of 11.1% for the S & P 500 by itself.

Now, you could have gone for a 100% stock exposure and earned yourself a percent and a fraction more than with this fifty/fifty deal. But you would have been like a kid in the front car of a roller coaster, climbing up up UP and then rocketing back down again as stocks rose and fell over that period (and trust me. They DID rise and fall from the pay out of the S & P 500 and protect your downside with U.S. Treasuries, shouldn't you think about doing it?


I think the answer is maybe "yes".

*(This has been another short break from the usual 'toon postings. Artists do not live by animation alone...)

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Son of Links -- Simpson Mania Edition

End of the weekend, and still more animation links, all centered around the Yellow Family's big screen debut:

Like, New Englanders name their favorite Simpsons characters:

JAMES LYNCH, Dropkick Murphys guitarist Milhouse Van Houten:

’’Just hearing his name mentioned by any other character will set me off. The classic goofy sidekick, whose mere presence can change a scene, Milhouse is one of many secondary characters who give the Simpson family a chance to shine. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me, but a glimpse into the crippling emotional pain that runs his life always brings a smile to my face.’’

JOHN UPDIKE, Author and "Simpsons" guest voice:

‘‘I’m partial to the skinny guy who owns the power plant, Mr. Burns. I like Mr. Burns because he’s a man of drive. You can identify with his desires: to control things and get richer.’’

Matt Groenig reveals the secrets of Marge Simpson's luxuriant coif:

The “Simpsons” matriarch’s impressive hair was inspired by “The Bride of Frankenstein” and by his own mother’s hairdo from the 1960s, the series’ creator told The New York Times Magazine in an interview published Sunday.

The London Times breaks the embargo with a Simpsons Movie review (four stars out of five, and "spoiler alert" at the top. Commenters' condemnations at the bottom).

Other Brit commentators are dizzy with eager anticipation of the Big Movie opening next week:

...[T]he arrival of The Simpsons movie has left me in the condition of a child in the week before Christmas, willingly wishing my life away the sooner to usher in its arrival. I simply can't wait.

The thought of spending 90 minutes watching the king of all numbskulls inflated to giant size, bumbling and fumbling across the cinema screen is almost overwhelming. Homer, here I come...

Lastly. DreamWorks and Pixar have their tentpole projects, and Rupert's marauders' have theirs:

The team behind Fox's hit animated show Family Guy has been looking at possibly working on a Family Guy movie down the line, creator Seth McFarlane told the Hollywood Reporter...

McFarlane...said he would like to find a small story about the Griffin family that can be explored ina feature-length film. "I don't want to do 'The Griffins must save the world'"...

Have a joyous workweek (if at all possible).

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Weekend Box Office Take

New entries starring Adam Sandler and John Travolta in a wig and fat suit knock old favorites farther down the box office list.

Ratatouille comes in at #5 for Friday...

...as Brad Bird's second Pixar film collects $3,440,000 and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry reaps a robust $12,400,000. Hairspray chalks up $11,200,000.

Harry Potter -- perhaps propelled by the media frenzy for the final book in the series -- collects $10,125,000.

In third place, Michael Bay and his giant robots have to make do with $5,980,00 (and a $248,444,000 total.)

Update: Weekend totals end up about where one would have expected them to end up...

The new "Adam Sandler Movie" lands at #1, just like every other "Adam Sandler Movie" of the last eight years. (Note that movies with Adam Sandler in them but aren't "Adam Sandler Movies" (tm) often don't land at #1). A $34,775,000 total. Sandler is the one movie star who is critic proof.

Harry Potter drops 58% to #2, collects $32,185,000 (a total of $207.5 million).

Hairspray racks up $27.8 million.

Transformers takes in $20.5 million after a 44.6% decline. The big robots now stand just under $263 million.

Ratatouille drops 39%, collects $11 million, now stands at $165.2 million. My bet is it crosses $200 million threshhold.

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The Links of Animation

The release date is now mere days away, so The Simpsons Movie tub-thumping reaches a louder and mover feverish pitch. And Entertainment Weekly weighs in with multiple stories. There's a Q and A, plus a history of the film's lengthy gestation:

JAMES L. BROOKS: There's nothing where we do really basic exposition on who Homer is. I mean, if you're gonna be surprised that he strangles his son a few minutes in, we're gonna have a rough go with you...

More on the Writers Guild negotiations (which we link because they impact every other union in the entertainment biz). WGA negotiator John Bowman states (via "The Artful Writer") the case for creators:

As collective authors of a work, we are entitled to a portion of the revenue generated by that work. But you have publicly stated that you no longer want to pay us residuals on shows that are not in profit...

To claim that intellectual property has lesser rights than physical property is a dangerous argument for anyone in our business to make. You are making the same argument to us that digital pirates make to you...

According to Hollywood accounting, The Simpsons is not in profits. How can we trust that kind of bookkeeping? What other business but ours has the accounting term, “monkey points?”

The L.A. Times finally gets around to memorializing Dave Hilberman, who passed away July 5:

A native of Cleveland, Hilberman came to Los Angeles to work at Disney in July 1936 as one of 40 young artists who had been recruited in a national talent search. Within 18 months, he advanced from trainee to layout artist. He worked on numerous animated shorts, including "Farmyard Symphony" (1938) and "Ugly Duckling" (1939), as well as the features "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937) and "Bambi" (1942).

Hilberman said he had "no complaints" about Disney until the 1940s, when the studio was dealing with rising production costs and the wartime loss of the European market that had provided nearly 45% of its income. He became one of the leaders of the union movement, which climaxed in the bitterly fought animators' strike of 1941.

The Associated Press has a nice piece on the essence of Pixar:

"People in Hollywood, the press always fixates on technology because it's easier to quantify," Brad Bird, director of "Ratatouille" and 2004's "The Incredibles," recently told The Associated Press. "The truth of the matter is the technology has never been the answer. The same answers to making a good movie are the answers that were around 80 years ago."

..."What they're really trying to get at in Pixar films is: technology is simply the tool," Higgins says. "What they're really all about is classic storytelling."

When the superhero family of "The Incredibles" finally embraces its powers and triumphs in a battle against the robot Omnidroid, an elderly bystander gawks with delight.

"That's the way to do it," he says. "That's old-school."

BusinessWeek (of all places) publishes an article on animation that goes beyond the usual suspects (Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, etcetera.):

[T]hose who love their super heroes and lovelorn rats would do well to look beyond Pixar to the industry and artistry beyond. There’s a wealth of innovation and creativity and wonderful design to be found which doesn’t get the airplay or attention it deserves. Not least, an amazing Japanese feature I saw the other day, Tekkonkinkreet.

Televisionpoint.com -- out of India -- analyzes the global animation's impact on India's Bollywood:

"Whoever says animation is still a child's domain in India can take a walk," feels trade analyst Taran Adarsh, who admits to clapping unabashedly like a child at the climax scene of Hanuman.

Take this year, animation and computer graphics films like Happy Feet, Shrek 3, Penguins – A Love Story, Meet the Robinsons, Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean – At World's End brazenly took on big-starrers, totally overshadowing the latter.

In fact, the craze for animation feature films edged quite a lot of Bollywood biggies like Don II, Eklavya, Salam-e-Ishq, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, Nishabd, and many others out in the cold. This goes to prove that from cartoon avatars in the online world to characters in video games, adults are embracing animation like never before.

"We used to hear that animation for adults wouldn't work, but now all our competitors are doing the same," says Pritish Nandy, whose production house Pritish Nandy Communications has recently signed a five-film deal with a Florida-based company for five animated full-length Bollywood feature films with all the trappings of a Bollywood blockbuster – the latka-jhatkas, songs, kissing and love-making scenes.

(Here's a second piece on Indian animation, focussing on mocap...)

I had heard that Sander Schwartz had left Warners, but AWN confirms it:

Former Warner Bros. Animation president Sander Schwartz returns to familiar territory, but in a bigger capacity as president, international production of Sony Pictures Television International (SPTI), and becomes head of SPTI's global production group...

Last (and perhaps least), we celebrate the oncoming Underdog live-action feature with this review of UD's animated adventures, now on DVD!

how does this childhood favorite stand the test of time? Not that well actually. While I couldn't wait to watch the show as a child, but now the thing that strikes me is how much repetition there is in the program. With each story broken up into four chapters, the creators are able to eat up a lot time by recapping what happened twelve minutes ago....

The main problem is that the show isn't that exciting or funny.

Ah. That explains why they made the live-action remake. Disney wanted to right a great wrong.

Have a joyous weekend.

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Making Your Breaks

Most of us (and I'm here excluding royal families and the inheritors of limitless wealth) have to break our own pathways through the forest.

We start out with a certain amount of intelligence and environmental advantage (like we were't born in a small mud shack in, say, Darfur.) And we take those things and use them to fuel our journey through life.

Some of us end up rich and famous. Or merely rich.

Some of us end up middle class with a comfortable pension, a circle of friends, a pleasant but unexceptionable family.

And some of us finish in a small room at a YMCA in an inner city ghetto, a bottle of Jack Daniels under one withered hand, and a small Social Security check.

But whatever our final destination, we get there via the things described above and the amount of talent, energy and luck that we possess. As I've said before, if you've got more of one of those things (t, e or l), you probably need less of the other two.

I bring this up here because of the observations that came up in comments on Career Arcs down below:

...if there hadn't been a non-artist advocating for Tim [Burton] to Wilhite, what was the likelihood that he would have been able to actually produce Vincent and Frankenweenie at Disney? Slim to none.

I understand what the commenter is saying, but tend to disagree.

If Tim hadn't broken through the way he did, he very well might have climbed the ladder via another route. He had, obviously, plenty of talent. (And just as obviously, we'll never know the answer for sure. There's only what happened, not what might have happened if...)

Everyone, to a greater or lesser degree, makes their opportunities. And sometimes getting a strategic boost helps, and sometimes it hurts or is irrelevant. Here's what I mean:

The first Katzenberg/Eisner group pitch meeting at Disney happened in 1985. Fifteen artists sat around a conference table in the Disney commissary and pitched animated feature ideas. I pitched "The Man Who Would be King," got to first base, then flamed out at the treatment stage a month later.

Here's what my "flaming out" was: I wrote a treatment, Jeffrey read it, didn't like it much, and said "no, I don't want to do this."

And I gave up.

There was another person at the table that day who Jeffrey and Michael said "no" to:

Ron Clements.

You might have heard of him. He's written and directed a mess of animated features with another guy named John Musker.

Ron pitched a Hans C. Anderson story titled "The Little Mermaid." Jeffrey and Michael thought a moment, then shook their heads.

"Unh unh. Too much like Splash. Next."

Think about that a minute. Right there on the spot, Ron Clements got N-O from the two new kingpins at Disney. No helping hand, no back rub, just a negative response.

So what did Ron do?

He went off and wrote a treatment of "The Little Mermaid" detailing what he wanted to make, and sent it off to Eisner and Katzenberg without anyone asking. They read it. And Jeffrey and Michael then said:

"Hmm. Well, maybe. Show us more."

And so on and so forth.

But note what happened to Mr. Clements. Rejection.

So let's speculate. What would have happened if the two new bosses had said, "Heeey now. You're onto something. Write us a treatment."

Maybe, filled with hope and confidence, Ron would have written the treatment, and because he thought he was halfway home, he would have rushed it a little, put a little less effort into it. And then Jeffrey and Michael Eisner might have read it, been less than enchanted, and said "Forget it."

The whole history of animation might have changed, yes?

Sorry. All we've got is what actually happened.

Tim Burton received a leg up from a Disney executive when he needed a leg up, and became a success. And Ron Clements got slapped down, wouldn't take no for an answer, and became a success. (And yeah, they've both had failures in their careers, as everyone does. Steven Spielberg will not be remembered for 1941, trust me.)

My point is, they both carved pathways through the forest using the elements Fate or God (or whatever you care to call Her) gave them. And it's impossible to know if X had happened at a strategic moment rather than Y, where their life-paths would have taken them. Just as it's impossible to know where you and I would be if we'd been born someplace else.

Because there's only, in the end, what is.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

TAG's Newest Family Member

Imagi, as you may or may not know, is a tyro cgi studio in Hong Kong. Founded in 2000, about a year ago it set up a branch office in Sherman Oaks that focuses on story and visual development for the mother ship back on the other side of the Pacific.

Today, the Animation Guild finalized a deal with Imagi.

It's been a while in coming. I first found out they were doing business in the middle of the San Fernando Valley some months ago, when members started telling me they had arrived in town and were hiring. (I already knew that Imagi was the studio that had done DreamWorks Animation's production work for Father of the Pride.) We started collecting representation cards, and a while later, I had a brief meeting with one of their execs.

I've had sporadic contact with Imagi since. The company, I'm delighted to say, wasn't hostile about becoming part of our little animation family of signator studios.

And today I rolled over to Sherman Oaks to meet with the crew and corporate execs, answer questions, and sign documents. I had a long, question-and-answer with the staff where I gave my lecture about the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan, the Animation Guild 401(k) Plan, and the joys of becoming one of the United States' most noble minorities (a union worker.)

Most everyone seemed generally upbeat, and I departed in the early afternoon wishing a long and happy corporate life for Imagi.

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The Family Guy and American Dad Junket

Yesterday was my time to amble about the Fox Animation studio, located on Wilshire Boulevard in what used to be the heart of the slick and chic section of Los Angeles. (The tar pits and Museum are just a stone's throw away.)...

American Dad has been picked up for its fourth season, with designers, board artists and revisionists rolling onto it over the next month or so. One staffer said to me: "I think the writing on the shows is getting stronger. "American Dad" is finding its own identity, and the dvd sales are good. Fox is happy. And I'm happy we've been picked up."

The AD unit used to be way the hell and gone on the other side of the building from Family Guy. Now, however, it's right next door, so that probably is a useful thing.

The WGAw has a deal with Fox for the writing of its prime-time animation shows that includes AD and FG. So there's understandable concern among the artists at Fox Animation about how the WGA/AMPTP negotiations are going. If there's a strike, particularly a lengthy one, they know it's going to impact their jobs, and not in a a good way.

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Seaside Shanty

house on stilts

Here's an interesting painting from the 1960s: a ramshackle shanty at sunset, overlooking the calm Pacific...

Model of stilt house

The real life model for this painting was a metal sculpure, twelve or fifteen inches high, of a multi-level shack that sat on a coffee table at the casa for years and years. I've no idea where that sculpture is now.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

In Praise of the Disney Sequels

Sharon Morrill should draw comfort from this.

Dan Kois rhapsodizes about the artistic quality and the lilting story notes of some recent sequels to older Disney classics:

[H]ave you ever actually watched one of Disney's DVD sequels? If you're expecting half-assed hack-work, you're in for a surprise. Lady and the Tramp II (2001), Bambi II (2006), and Cinderella III (2007), to take three recent examples, are certainly not perfect, but they're worthy successors to the originals, carrying the well-worn stories forward with care and charm. What's more, the movies tell their stories in the classic animation mode, using hand-drawn images, winning songs, and an energetic but not hyperactive style that has entertained children since Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

I haven't seen any of the films listed above, but I've walked often enough through the studio where they were being crafted, and I can tell you that what Mr. Kois says about the care taken with layout, characters and the quality of drawings is true. Disney spent one hell of a lot of time and expense getting the films to look good, as the clips that I've seen certainly do.

I spent a couple of afternoons with background artist Bob Schaefer, who walked me through the backgrounds he was doing for Lady and the Tramp II, and though they were created with Photo Shop rather than paint, they were (are) gorgeous. And Bob went down to the Disney Australia studio (since shuttered) to make sure the crew down there got the backgrounds just right.

And I thought art director Carol Police did a great job on the art direction I saw on Bambi II.

How were the stories of these films? I don't really have much of a clue, since I haven't seen them, although a DisneyToons staffer who worked on Little Mermaid III told me: "The film is a prequel, and I thought they did a great job of tying things together from the original movie. It's a cute movie."

You want a review of Bambi III, Cinderella III, and Lady and the Tramp II, you'll have to delve into Dan Kois's article. The only Disney sequel I have a strong opinion about (because I've actually seen it) is Jungle Book II. The visuals on that feature I found to be top notch, the characters wonderfully drawn and the animation quite good, the backgrounds rich and colorful.

And the story of JB II? Sadly, it's a pale copy of the original and pretty thin gruel.

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Gamesmanship and Negotiations

In the last edition of the Big Contract Talks (WGA and AMPTP), the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers had two offers on the table: one was for a total revamping of the residual system, the other was the "status quo" proposal, which would keep the current system of residuals in place, and institute a study to see what sorts of residuals should happen for all the new delivery systems (iphones, ipods, itelevisions, etc.).

That was Monday. On Wednesday, this happened:

Producers unexpectedly pulled their proposal for a three-year study off the table Wednesday -- meaning the companies' remaining take-it or leave-it proposal amounts to a revolutionary revamp of residuals with payments coming only when costs are recouped.

WGA leaders took an assertive tack of their own on Wednesday, insisting that a residuals revamp is out of the question since companies can't be trusted to tell the truth about production costs.

Two members of the Guild negotiating committee accused studios and networks of practicing fuzzy math on net profit participants on hit TV shows such as "The Simpsons" and successful features such as "Chicago."

Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers prexy Nick Counter blasted Guild leaders for passing up the study option, which would have retained the current residuals system during the three years.

"While we believe the WGA's rejection of a study is short-sighted and self-destructive, we did give them that option," he said. "The study would not only give us valuable insight into the new world and its impact on traditional media, but also would give us insight on how to deal with the challenges and opportunities, while continuing to compensate writers under the current provisions and side-letters to their 2004 contract."

So. What's going on here?

Nick Counter, the lead negotiator for the producers, has to build consensus in the crowd of studios and t.v. networks that he represents. If they're not all on board the Alliance's proposals, they don't have a package to present to whatever guild or union with which they're negotiating.

It's like herding cats. (And not much different for the union side, with getting factions to agree, satisfying hardline officers, and things like that.)

So lead negotiators -- for guilds and companies -- get the exciting challenge of threading needles that are constantly moving, shifting, changing. There are the various parties that have demands and bottom lines on your side of the table. And the parties that have demands and bottom lines on the other side of the table.

It's not generally the norm to offer multiple proposals right out of the box, but my guess (and it's only a guess) is that the two-track approach put forward on Monday by the AMPTP was meant to satisfy different constituencies. And pulling off one of the proposals was done for similar reasons.

The Alliance performed its version of the "we'll be conciliatory" dance, and now that the WGA has "rejected" the conciliation, it's snuggled up to the set of demands that are its starting blocks in the negotiations: roll back residuals.

This isn't about finding a "new way" and "new structure" that will, when the dust and entrails settle back onto the ground, make the studios pay more money. It's all about paying less.

Because this isn't about "fairness". It's got little to do with a new structure or fresh paradigm. It's about money.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Career Arcs

The frustrated artist who drew Nightmare Before Christmas on the side while working on "Fox and the Hound."

In the very recent past, during my afternoon stumble through one of our fine animation studios, I plunked down and talked to an artist/director who's worked in the business for twenty years (and I've known almost that long), who told me a story I hadn't heard before.

Like a lot of people in the biz, he had his share of scrabbling around getting a toe-hold. Today he is a pillar at one of the larger animation studios, doing well, with a fine career rolling out ahead of him. But he related how when he was in art school and had done a student film, some Disney mucky-mucks viewed his reel and tartly informed him, "you'll have a hard time getting work in the business with that."

He related how he was pretty stung by their critique, but persevered...and today is thriving. More than thriving.

As he talked, I flashed on some animation artists -- starting out around the same time this dude did -- who also got doused with cold water.

Like young, mouthy Brad Bird, getting fired from Disney for complaining about product (even though the complaints had merit).

Like Tim Burton, working on Fox and the Hound but developing Nightmare Before Christmas on the side and getting nowhere with Disney animation management...until a live-action exec took him under his wing and helped him take the first small steps into live action.

And young John Lasseter getting bounced out of the Disney Animation department in early '84 when management became disenchanted with him.

Or even --further back -- war veteran David Swift who returned from World War II, realized he wasn't going to go much of anywhere at Disney, and struck out into television.

I guess my only point here is that having passion and perseverence often overcomes early brusque rejections by studios who don't recognize genius when it comes knocking.

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At Nick Nick Nickelodeon...

Today was Nickelodeon day, and I spent the afternoon wandering through the various nooks and crannies of the Olive Avenue facility...

Nick is one of the busier television animation studios these days. Just about every board artist and designer over there now works on Cintiques (those big, tilted lcd screens that artists draw on) and a lot of episodics are in production.

In addition to the shows detailed here and here, there are six episodes of Making Fiends, a total of twenty new interations of Fairly Odd Parents, and 26 episodes of El Tigre.

The main question I was asked is "how is the rest of the industry doing?" I replied that hiring is picking up in teevee land, and that there will probably be more hiring in the feature area at the end of the year.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Off and Running -- First of Show Biz Union Talks Begin

The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers sat down for their first round of talks on Monday. They'll meet again on Wednesday.

And here's a surprise. They're not real close to a deal:

...[T]he guild is pushing hard to expand residuals for TV and film content that is reused on the Internet and other digital media platforms, such as cell phones and iPods.

Industry executives insist that wireless and Web-based entertainment still consist largely of experimental ventures whose business models are unproven.

The producers also argue that the old system of calculating residuals of all types as a percentage of gross revenues is outdated in the fast-changing, fragmented world of the Internet and other new media.

They want a new system that withholds residual payments to writers and other creative talent until studios recoup costs for development, production, distribution and marketing....

"The producers argue that the old system of calculating residuals...as a percentage of gross revenues is outdated..."

You bet it's outdated. The producers are paying more money than they want to. And they want to pay less. That there current system sounds way outdated to me.

I mean, if there's anything I know for certain, it's that the top tier of money earners in the U.S. just isn't isn't getting enough dollars put into its threadbare pockets.

(More stories and position statements here, here and here.)

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Sony Adelaide in Culver City

Culver Studios in 1920. Mansion look familiar? It's in the front title of Gone With The Wind. Sony Adelaide used to be across the street from it, then four blocks south of it. The big house is still there, looking pretty much the same...

A few years ago, Sony Adelaide was the largest television animation studio in Los Angeles. It was housed in a large concrete building below the Culver Studios, a hundred yards from Ballona Creek -- a concrete-lined waterway that courses like an arrow to Marina Del Rey. A half-century ago, the property was part of the "Forty Acre" backlot (actually 28 acres) where King Kong, Gone With the Wind and The Andy Griffth Show was filmed.

SA was roaring at the time, producing Jackie Chan, Men in Black, Spider Man and a host of other half-hour episodics. Now Adelaide is quieter, headquartered on the second floor of a warehouse on Fairfax near Washington Boulevard. Just outside of the Culver City boundaries.

It's among the most interesting studios that I visit...

The upstairs space is a series of linoleumed hallways and low-ceilinged offices in which I usually get lost. Adelaide has, hands down, the most unique breakroom I've seen: a big room with an orange floor, white and red walls, two long black couches and copper lamps. The animation crews work in cubicles and offices arrayed oaround other large rooms.

Just now The Boondocks latest season is in post, the new incarnation of Spiderman is in full bore production, and several pilots (including a new iteration of American Dragon) are in development.

Always fun to wander around down there. What's not fun is driving to Culver City and back on the 405 freeway.

Addendum: Oops. I have a mistake here. It's Dragon Tales that might be put back into production (74 episodes so far). American Dragon is a Disney show. My bad.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

The Southern Mexico Hulett

This painting is pretty much what it looks like: Southern, tropical Mexico...

In 1952, Ralph, his wife and his mother-in-law loaded up the family's wood-panelled station wagon and drove from Los Angeles...all the way down the west coast of Mexico...to Guatemala. With Mr. Hulett, of course, painting all the way.

The trip ended in Guatamala, where a traffic mishap led to Mrs. Hulett and her mother being thrown in the clink for an afternoon. (Mr. Hulett was off on a painting assignment for Ford Times -- you think he ever did anything else? -- and so didn't get carted off to jail.)

The woody station wagon got impounded, never to be seen again. The three travelers boarded a plane back to L.A. (The car was never returned, ending up a business write-off.)

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The Monday Studio Rotation

Ordinarily I try to visit one signator studio per day in a normal week, walking around and chatting people up, scarfing up gossip and gripes.

Today was a twofer day; I got a call from artists who wanted to have a meeting about uncompensated overtime (They've been doing it, but they're tired of doing it. Especially since it's uncompensated.) The meeting lasted lunchtime, after which I went off to Cartoon Network Studio in sun-kissed Burbank, where the birds always sing and hearts are always light. And no artists wanted to meet with me...

At CN, I got into a conversation with one of the flash animators on Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends -- now finishing its fifth season and starting Season #6 -- who told me about the abundance of flash animation around town and how most of his friends were working and the business looked great. (Sad part for Yours Truly: a chunk of that work is at non-signator studios, but at least it's in town rather than on an island off the south coast of China.)

Cartoon Network has been doing a good bit of hiring lately, and TAG will hold a new member lunch for a bunch of the newbies this week. Among the projects now bubbling along at the studio:

* Class of 3000 is wrapping up its second season.

* CN has done several dozen 2-minute shorts slated for the internet, theatres near you, and various phone-type devices. And more shorts are in work.

* The Powerpuff Girls returns to the teevee with a new 1/2 hour special now in work.

* Two new pilots are being done by the creator of Billy and Mandy.

* Camp Lazlo is wrapping up its fourth season.

* Chowder is wrapping its first 13 episodes and commecning its second 13.

* Several pilots are in various stages of development.

Outside of the usual office work, that was pretty much Monday. (Aren't you glad you asked?)

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Simpsons Movie Tub Thumping Grows Louder

The Shrek, Surf's Up and Ratatouille launches are behind us. The next big animation offering is The Simpsons Movie coming to a multiplex near you at the end of July.

Fox got a nice promotional bump from the Kwik E Mart rollout a few weeks back, and now interviews with the film's creators begin to roll out:

David Silverman, director of The Simpsons Movie, is confident that audiences will love the film... But he's not pretending it has been an easy project, what with the expectations of a fanatical fan base plus the job of corralling the 400-odd animators, writers, producers, actors and assistants who worked on the film.

"Yes, there was a lot of pressure," said the 50-year-old director the morning after the film finally wrapped up at the end of last month. "We were working right down to the wire — I think we even animated a small detail last Thursday and were making negatives over the weekend. But I actually feel very confident now that we're done. And I think it looks really beautiful."

I'd concur. The bits and pieces that I've seen on various computer monitors at the studio look terrific, and the wide-screen format is used to good effect.

"We were working at an incredibly fast pace," says Silverman. "Most animated features are not produced this quickly. We decided we didn't want to overdo the animation, because if you have too much of that Disney-like nuance, it doesn't feel like our characters."

Large parts of the film were animated by Rough Draft Animation in Korea, but there was a number of Disney-experienced animators working on the flick stateside. (Actually, a lot of old Disney hands worked on it.) The Simpsons Movie had at least three different animation crews in different geographic locations turning out footage.

The bulk of production on the film took about a year, which is fast but not unprecedented. Space Jam and it's sixty minutes of animation was done in ten or eleven months; the Fleischers got most of Gulliver's Travels cranked out in less than twelve months. And the grandmother of all animated features -- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs -- completed the majority of the film in a little over a year (and yeah, they had SW in story way longer than that...).

I'm betting that The Simpsons Movie's opening weekend numbers are as good or better than Ratatouille's.. In two weeks we'll get to see if I'm a prophet or an ignorant moron.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

B.O. Plenty

At the height of summer, the box office derby sizzles as the latest Harry Potter collects $26.2 million on his first Friday of release. The boy wiz has already taken in $88.8 million in the U.S. and Canada...

In second place, the big robots collect $10.9 million as Transformers closes in on a $200 million gross.

And Ratatouille -- in the show position -- spoons up $5,340,000 and a $130.3 million domestic total.

Update: The weekend stats are in, and there are few surprises.

* Harry Potter and the Whatever It Is harnesses $77.4 million and a total of $140 million after its first weekend...

* Transformers drops 49% but still collects $36 million for its second weekend (and a cume of $223 million).

* Ratatouille declines 38% for an $18 million weekend and a $143 million running total. (And here's a dandy chart showing how the latest Pixar feature has done compared to other Pixar features. Be sure to scroll down through the whole thing.)

* Surf's Up appears to have vanished from the rankings, but I know it's out there someplace.

* Shrek the Third has pretty much run its course, declining three slots -- number 13 to number 16 -- while collecting $615,000. Its domestic Grand Total stands at $318 million, making it the third highest animated film (U.S. and Canada).

* Out of eleven top-ranked features, seven have collected more than $100 million.

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Falsifying Documents

Between Links and Box Office, I post this short observation:

Over the past week, I've received a number of gripes regarding too-short schedules and artists working unpaid overtime to keep up. Most of the uncompensated o.t. is taken home. Most is on production boards, but not all...

Everybody knows the drill: they get three weeks for roughing, three weeks for cleaned up and revised final. And sometimes this 3/3 deal is 3/2 or 2/3. And yes, depending on the production and the budget, basic mileage can vary.

Some shows are more sane about scheduling than other shows. And some artists figure out how to get the work done without pulling all nighters or long weekends by simplifying, or doing their first pass as clean as possible and hoping the revision notes aren't killers.

But many just suck it up and keep nose to the grindstone until ten or eleven at night; others resign themselves to working weekends; still others figure if they miss their finish date by a day or two, the production manager will agree it's no big deal.

Naturally there's a lot of time-card falsification. Everybody writes down 40 hours because it's part of the "get along, go along" ethos.

But just so we're clear: time cards are official documents, and falsifying time cards ain't legal.

Just so we're clear.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Toonistic Links

Another weekend, another round of hot, summery 'toon links, starting with:

Where's my Springfield? And will the real hometown of Homer pleeaase stand up!

A tiny New England hamlet called Springfield has won a competition to host the premiere of The Simpsons Movie, seeing off bids from 13 other Springfields in the US which share the name with Homer Simpson’s cartoon hometown.

The 100-seat cinema in Springfield, Vermont, will host the premiere of the new film on July 21 – six days before it opens to the general public – after winning a competition against Springfields from Oregon on the west coast to Massachusetts in the east...

DreamWorks Animation's Shrek the Third continues to tear up the wickets in overseas venues:

In France, Gallic distribbers are among the only folks happy about the sodden, chilly weather across most of the country...

"Shrek the Third," in its fourth frame, remains a colossal hit nationwide, still on as many screens (850) as its first week and to date cuming some $35 million for Paramount.

Indeed, "Shrek the Third" has continued its stellar box office performance around the globe...

And Ratatouille is also doing well in foreign markets:

"Ratatouille" cooked up a respectable $9.3 million at 1,835 from a dozen markets, led by a solid Mexican opening of $4.2 million -- more than the combined grosses of the next three pics -- and a Russian soph sesh of $1.7 million, down 51% for a cume of $6.6 million for the top Pixar gross in that market. BVI opted to wait for "Shrek the Third" and "Order of the Phoenix" to play out and won't launch "Ratatouille" elsewhere until late July with openings in South Korea and Japan.

Various comic book titles have a worldwide audience. It's not just American super heroes travelling overseas, but foreign titles gaining footholds in the U.S. of A.:

Animation and comics have gone truly global. Just look at Spider-Man 3's global box office sales as an example. Last month, the wall crawling superhero broke box office records in India, earning the most that any Hollywood movie has in that country to date...

The fact that an idea stemming from a 1960s superhero thought up by two American writers holds such strong appeal cross-culturally is simply testimony to the extent to which vastly different cultures are increasingly intermingling with one another. Within this context, acknowledging that anime and manga have gained significant ground with comic book and animation aficionados far beyond the geographical confines of Japan lacks the element of surprise that it might have engendered some years ago.

"If you told parents ten years ago in America that their children would know characters named Yu Gi Oh! and Pokemon as well as they would Spider-Man, those parents would have thought you were crazy — yet in America today an estimated 30% of major children's animated programming is now Japanese animation," states Sharad Devarajan, CEO of the New York headquartered Virgin Comics and Animation.

As we have featured various Virgil Partch cartoons, so the ASIFA Animation Archive today features the puckish artwork of Vip in its virtual display cases.

Almost all of Ratouille's reviews have been strongly positive. But here's a piece from Atlantic Online that carps about the picture and...all the positive reviews:

...the script is not superbly witty, the human leads are frankly unappealing (Owen Gleiberman called Linguine, the kitchen boy, "a one-note stumblebum," which I think is too kind by half) and the villain is cardboard and lamer-than-lame. Technically, Ratatouille is a great advance on The Incredibles. As a complete work of art, though, it's nowhere close.

(To be fair and balanced, here is Jenny's BlackWing Diaries take...)

DreamWorks sees its stock rise as analysts smile kindly upon it:

Shares of DreamWorks Animation SKG, the animation film studio behind "Shrek," rose on Friday after an analyst began coverage of the company with a "Buy" rating, predicting gains from upcoming films.

The stock gained 96 cents, or 3.3 percent, to $30 in afternoon trading.

In a note to clients, Stifel Nicolaus & Co. analyst Drew E. Crum said DeamWorks has produced some of the most successful animated features in motion picture history.

Being a blogmaster has it's many rewards. Did you know (I'll bet you didn't) that this year of 2007 marks a momentous anniversary for animation?

Georgia (the Georgia that was formerly part of the U.S.S.R.) has its own date to celebrate: this year, Georgian animation turns 75...

It was Georgian animator Vladimer Mujiri who brought the first Georgian animated films to life at the start of 20th century. His 1936 short animation “The Argonauts” was the first notable breakthrough...

By the mid-fifties, Georgian animators were taking their cue from Disney’s productions. The style is exemplified in Arkadi Khintibidze’s 25-minute animated film “The Wedding of the Jays,” released in 1957. Based on the story by prominent Georgian writer Vazha-Pshavela, this film and Khintibidze’s other major works—“Tsuna and Tsrustuna” and “Hostility”—were acclaimed as Georgian animation classics.

Speaking of all the converging media (as we were), the Brits are rolling out their first masters program in video game development:

The UK’s first ‘game academy’ has been created by some of the country’s top video games developers and universities for computer games training.

The University of Bradford has teamed up with the University of Hull and Sheffield Hallam University to create the Game Republic Academy (GRA) in collaboration with games industry leaders including Rockstar (famed for the hugely popular Grand Theft Auto series), Team17 and Sumo.

“We are exceptionally placed to offer students the kind of training the industry is crying out for," [said Peter Cowling, professor of computer science.] "With high profile industry figures pointing towards AI (Artificial Intelligence) as the next big thing for commercial games, we are able to offer our new AI for Games Masters programme - the first of its kind in the world..."

Then there is this review from Variety about a new animated docu-tragicomedy:

Colonialism, capitalism and the West's abrasive association with Islam are densely compressed into a partially animated, mostly satisfying history lesson in satirical fable cum docu-essay "Global Haywire: A Short History of Planet Malfunction." Directed, drawn and conceived by Oz political cartoonist and 1976 Oscar-winning animator ("Leisure") Bruce Petty, ambitious pic occasionally creaks under the weight of strained metaphors, but intelligent talking heads and engagingly shambolic cartoons conquer unwieldy narrative and sporadic glibness.

Lastly, we'll conclude with political 'toonists who have turned to the wonderous world of animation:

Known for his quick wit and even sharper pen, nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist Walt Handelsman took home his second Pulitzer Prize in a decade this spring, but the win is not notable for its frequency, but for the technology used to produce his winning submissions.

In late 2005, when faced with gloomy forecasts for the future of his craft, the Newsday editorial columnist and several of his cartoonist colleagues...decided to try their hand at something a little different.

Handelsman began experimenting with new material and a new medium, locking himself in his home office for hours on end, giving up golf for a year, and exchanging his pen for a mouse...

"Animated editorial cartoons are completely different from static editorial cartoons," Handelsman said in an interview with ABC News. "With a standard editorial cartoon, you're taking tons of information and synthesizing it down to a single bite -- a single moment in time. With animated editorial cartoons, it's more storytelling..."

Addendum: So call me obsessive, label me compulsive. It's late but here's a fine Vanity Fair piece on The Yellow Family, offered kaliedescopically through various participants:

Barry Diller: I remember when we screened the first episode, for a number of Fox executives, we all went down to their bungalows over at The Simpsons, and not a single person in the room was laughing, except for me and Jim Brooks. No one had done an animated sitcom since The Flintstones, and it was just like, "What is this?" But we put it on, and it became more and more successful every week.

Have a fabulous weekend.

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The Friday Outhouse

Ralth Hulett outhouse painting

Around and about the mid 1940s, when Ralph Hulett was drawing his $60 weekly paycheck from Walt Disney Productions, he used to paint small watercolor paintings of the scene above. And give them away as gifts...

My mother tells me that he painted them before they got married, painted them after they got married, painted them depicting a variety of seasons (this one is, obviously, Spring.)

In the great long ago, my grandmother had this particular painting hanging in the hallway outside her bathroom. As a kid, I always liked it (particularly the sprinter coming out of the house. No big question about where he's headed...)

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Media Convergence!

Electronic Arts topkick Neil Young

When you talk animation today, you need to talk about a much wider universe than the world of Disney features, Huckleberry Hound and Bugs Bunny that existed forty-five or fifty years ago.

In 2007, animation means digital visual effects, television graphics, internet shorts, television episodics, theatrical features.

It also means the huge world of video games -- which today far outstrips the traditional entertainment media we know as films and television. Electronic Arts honcho Neil Young talks about the convergence of games and the other media platforms in an interview with Game Daily:

"We've evolved from an industry that licensed Hollywood IP for games to one that now works with creators like Steven Spielberg to create original IP that can translate across multiple interactive and traditional media," said Young, who's overseeing the three original games Spielberg is developing for EA. "That journey is accelerating as musicians, writers, actors and directors are all getting involved in video games. The lines are being blurred between a great IP that comes from the imagination of a game designer and one that comes from a Hollywood creative."

Young believes the blurring of which came first, the movie or the game, will become a moot point inside of three years.

(A longer interview with Young on this subject is here.)

I know a number of animators and TDs who shift back and forth from video games to animated features. Electronic Arts has a big facility in Playa Vista, and competes with visual effects houses and animation studios for digital artists coming out of Cal Arts, UCLA, and elsewhere.

I'm told that base salaries are often similar, but benefit packages and overtime rules are not.

(h.t. Kathleen A. Milnes)

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