Monday, July 09, 2007

Pro Duck Tivity

Rubber ducky

The title above means a lot for the iPods, iPhones and Roombas that are being stamped out. The higher the productivity, the lower the unit cost. Therefore the higher the profit for Apple, Dell or whomever.

On the other hand, "unit cost" means less in the making of animated entertainments. If you turn out animated product at a cheap price, the resulting ninety minutes of Technicolor hilarity via Mumbai doesn't do the company that financed it much good if it's not particularly funny and nobody goes to see it.

In other words, if you spent a mere four million dollars on the feature about the Wacky Wombat, but it's unreleasable, that's four million dollars down the mongoose hole.

So we see that in Movieland, productivity takes on a different meaning and dynamic than it does in manufacturing. A director and production crew who turns out a smash hit is more "productive" -- in the sense that their product makes lots of money -- than the crew that does it cheap but creates a turkey. Even if they burn through ninety or a hundred million getting that product out.

This is why, despite lower costs elsewhere, so much animated feature production has remained in California. And it's why a business model that keeps production "in house" has prevailed: Its the approach that's produced the most hits, and creating something that will attract as many eyeballs as possible on the all-important opening weekend is, first and always, priority number one. Staying under budget is farther down the list.

It explains why, in the early nineties, a Disney Animation honcho bragged how the blockbuster features the studio was then turning out required lots of overtime "but it only added two or three million dollars to the budget," so who cared? Two or three million bucks was, in those golden times, a drop in the budgetary bucket, and the o.t. money was microscopic compared to what the pictures were pulling in.

Television animation, of course, is a different animal. In TV, time is of the essence but quality isn't, so the feature model doesn't come into play. These days, with budgets for half hour-shows smaller than they were in the frenetic nineties, studios find new and creative ways to economize: scripts get free-lanced, boards get free-lanced, and the animation is shipped overseas.

Then the stateside studio fights with the sub-contracting studio over who has to pay for retakes.

But even in television, the talent pool still matters. Few studios are willing to ship everything out. Even with all the runaway production, Los Angeles has more animation employment in 2007 than it did in 1967, when 100% of American television and feature animation was done domestically. There's more product, and more need for artists that can design and produce winners for the U.S. and world markets.

Shanghai might be cheaper, but California has a leg up on inspiration.

This applies to more than traditional animation. Not for nothing did gaming company Electronic Arts set up a big studio in Playa Vista. Costs might count, but so does talent, education and depth of expertise. The Hong Kong studio Imagi has a development studio in the San Fernando Valley because it knows what its competitors know: In creative enterprises, having the right talent working for you is the most productive move you can make, even it if costs more.

In the final analysis, Pinocchio and Little Mermaid, Toy Story and Ratatouille are not iPhones or computers that can be stamped out anywhere. They are fragments of time that require a specific and peculiar type of talent to produce well. And producing features well (and television shows well enough) is ninety percent of the struggle.

The big animation companies, despite all their faults, understand this. So the gadgets and toys that are tied to animated tent poles are produced in Asia. And the tent poles themselves are made here.


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