Friday, February 29, 2008

Linkage of Toons

DreamWorks rides the big green ogre to a profitable fourth quarter:

DreamWorks Animation SKG returned to a profit in the fourth quarter on strong home video sales of "Shrek the Third" and the absence of the year earlier's big write-down.

The animation studio reported net income of $94.1 million, or 98 cents a share, compared with a net loss of $21.3 million, or 20 cents a share, a year earlier.

We've touched on this before, but Ultimate Disney has a fine, comprehensive review of Academy Award Winning Shorts and Nominees (of the non-Disney variety) through the ages:

...While Disney would earn every one of the [1930's] Cartoon Short Subjects Academy Awards, other animation departments would eventually taste glory and, before that, regularly received nominations. More importantly, they offered something different and well-liked in its own right.

Bugs Bunny may a look a little different than usual, but he acts the same smart-alecky way in "A Wild Hare", his very first cartoon. Here, he addresses the viewer directly with some thoughts on Elmer Fudd. Jerry has nowhere to run as Tom grabs him by the tail. The Oscar-nominated "Puss Gets the Boot" marks the pair's debut (when Jerry was being called Jasper). It is one of thirteen Tom and Jerry shorts on this new DVD collection.

For Paramount Pictures, Max Fleischer and his brother Dave scored hits with Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and later Superman. Warner Bros. began rising the ranks with their concurrent series Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, initially under the direction of Disney emigrants Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. Beginning in 1940, MGM had the popular line of Tom and Jerry cartoons, made by future TV animation titans William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Columbia Pictures' Screen Gems division had Charles Mintz, while Universal had Walter Lantz, who would go on to develop Woody Woodpecker ...

While we're on the subject of new DVD releases, Disney has a new edition of their '61 mega-hit 101 Dalmations:

This is the 11th Disney animated film to be released as a “Platinum Edition.” It is a very impressive 2-disc set that presents the film beautifully and provides all the extras needed to enhance the experience. Some filler does exist, but it’s limited and some of it even has its own charms ...

Despite the lousy quality of the games, the rest of the DVD is terrific. It presents the movie in a clear, ageless picture with good sound quality. The extras enhance your watching experience and are fairly easy to navigate, even for younger kids ...

To nobody's surprise, there was a lot of money changing hands in the recent battle of high def formats:

Dreamworks Animation Confirms: Payoffs Pressured Format War ...

Dreamwork’s humble claim about “compensation” for the support was rumoured to be as high as $150 million, which HD DVD promotional group provided to Paramount Pictures and Viacom.

But the Blu-ray camp may also not be totally fair. Various rumours around the Internet claimed that the Blu-ray disc Association provided “incentives” worth $500 - $620 million to Time Warner, the parent company or several studios, including Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema, but Time Warner denied those allegations. Another rumour suggests that Warner’s Blu-ray exclusivity would only last till Q1 2009 and that the company got $450 million for that.

And DreamWorks contractual commitment with Toshiba raises a few complications in the high definition area of DVD land:

"We have a partnership with Toshiba and have an obligation to see this through," DreamWorks Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg said on Tuesday.

"As you know, we have been well-compensated for our support. It really is in their court at this point to really declare what the next step will be. We're poised either way to jump into the marketplace when the conditions are right to do so ..."

"We said, we have a release coming up on 'Bee Movie.' What would you like us to do?" ...

The Animation Biz circa 1942 ... as told by BOY COMICS. (A week old ASIFA post, but I link anyway) ...

The L.A. Times reviews a USC film festival that highlights features from southern and eastern Europe this weekend, including this:

"We have an animated ghetto movie full of hip-hop, and that's something very new coming out of Eastern Europe," Imre says.

She's referring to the Hungarian feature "The District," a senses-scorcher that starts like a rap-infused "West Side Story" set among teen gangs before it transforms into a time-travel satire of globalization involving woolly mammoths, inner-city oil derricks and prostitute spies controlled by Vladimir Putin. If a society's confusion ever dictated a cinematic style, it's here: Old and new technologies -- including the cutout and the computer-generated -- combine for a psychotically textured urban cartoon. (Want more animated fare? There's also a program of Eastern European shorts from pre- and post-Soviet years.)

While on the subject of European film fests, Animation Magazine highlights the big animation showcase happening in Potsdam and Babelsberg March 5th through the 7th:

If you happen to be in Germany next week and would like to take a sneak peek of what the European animated feature film community has to offer, you should definitely check out the tenth edition of Cartoon Movie (March 5-7) in Potsdam/Babelsberg


Kicking off this year’s lineup is a special presentation of Futurikon/Luxanimation’s Dragon Hunters, the CG feature spin off of the animated series, directed by Guillaume Ivernel and Arthur Qwak ...

Lastly. Disney Pixar unveils the first Wall*E Poster to a waiting world:

THE SKINNY: Ain't It Cool News got the scoop on the Pixar/Disney animated robot film, WALL*E, releasing a poster for the summer 2008 film.

Have a productive and healthful weekend.

Click here to read entire post

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Over at Starz

I spent a chunk of the afternoon at Starz Media. As of last week, somewhere around 75% of the Simpsons crew was on furlough. But there's some good news ...

On Monday, fourteen Simpsons artists were rehired because the pipeline is slowly refilling and (I'm told) that Fox is intent on getting rewritten scripts recorded before a possible actors' strike in July.

A number of partially-completed shows are being earmarked for next season. Though nobody is certain there's going to be a next season, an artist said to me:

"I hear that they're budgeting for 22 new episodes for next year. And there's talk that Fox is going to make two more Simpsons features back to back."

Of course, there might be the small issue of re-signing the voice actors for additional seasons ... as well as extra features beyond the one to which they're reputedly commited.

Click here to read entire post

At Fox Animation

Some days I don't know what I use for brains. I drove to Fox Animation on Wilshire (where Family Guy and American Dad are created), for some reason expecting to find lots of people back after the writers' strike.

Stupid me. I knew from last time that artists were cycling off to extended hiatuses as the work ran out. But there was no way they were going to be back yet, since writers have only returned a few weeks ago and there's no backlog of work yet ...

Both the FG and AD units are still semi-deserted, the large rooms filled with empty cubicles. There's some directors and designers around, a sprinkling of board artists, but most everybody else is still on extended hiatus.

A few artists still have layoff dates staring them in the face, but they're okay with a little time off. One said:

The last four months I've been stressed out. And sick a lot. I haven't been on layoff, but the waiting and non-stop worrying about what was going to happen got to me ...

The question most asked was: "So, are the actors going out?"

I said I didn't know. If it isn't one thing, it's another.

Click here to read entire post

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Who Framed Donald and Daffy? -- Shot Flow II

Kevin continues with his second post regarding Donald and Daffy's dueling pianos:

In the last post, I broke down the primarily live-action shots in Who Framed Roger Rabbit that lead into the the piano duel between Daffy and Donald. Those shots demonstrated straight-forward film-making and clear shot flow, at least among the shots where human actors were the focus. Here I’ll break down the subsequent animated portion of the piano duel, where the usual rules of good film-making are tossed out the window ...

[N]otice how this sequence is very carefully told from Eddie Valiant’s point of view, except for the main sequence of the piano duel. We follow him into the speakeasy, looking over his shoulder, seeing what he sees; we note the stage and then the bar from his point of view; we later see Jessica Rabbit’s ‘reveal’ through his eyes. Yet the piano duel violates his POV at every turn ...

Read both posts at the links above.

Click here to read entire post

And ... Where Are People Working?

Here's the breakdown, studio by studio, of where people are turning out animation (our sequel to yesterday's post):

As of January '08, you can see that Disney and DreamWorks are running neck and neck for the honor of being "largest employer". But keep in mind that "Disney" encompasses not only the Disney Animation Studio (features), but Disney Toons (direct-to-video features) and Disney Television Animation (episodic television).

Newer studios on the list are Imagi and IM Digital (Robert Zemeckis's animation shop). Click here to read entire post

The Simple Art of Organizing

A few days ago, I strolled into a studio and got braced up by an artist about organizing animation studios. He told me the following:

I spent six months last year working at a non-union place that paid okay wages but terrible benefits. Me and a few other artists wanted to send in rep cards and unionize the show, but we couldn't get enough artists to go along with us. They were scared they would get fired and wouldn't find other work. What are the chances they'd get fired? What are the chances we'd organize the place? I really, really needed my benefits ...

Here's the answer (paraphrased) that I blathered out:

Organizing comes down to one thing: leverage.

If you have enough leverage, the company will sign a union contract, if you don't, they won't. Here are varying degrees of leverage employees have:

Signing rep cards and forcing the company to "lawyer up" for a National Labor Relations Board hearing and election. Companies don't like to spend money on this kind of stuff.

People refusing to work for a company because it isn't "union" with "union benefits". When a company can't get the people it needs to work on its film, it goes and signs a contract. (This is why the screen Actors Guild often gets companies to sign its contract. A company that can't get SAG actors can't get its film made ... or sold in most markets.)

A crew walking off the project right before sequences need to be shipped or put into full production when there's a deadline staring the company in the face.

The artist wanted to know how much leverage was needed to organize his particular shop, since he figures he'll be working there again. I told him it boils down to money.

* If the cash outlay is way higher than their present "low wage, minimal benefits" business model, they'll fight.

* If they have to spend more money doing legal battle than the union contract costs them, they'll sign the contract.

* If the head of the company is rabidly against "going union", then more leverage will be needed, if -- on the other hand -- the head of the company doesn't have a bee in his bonnet, then less leverage will be needed.

I'm a classical cynic on this subject. Union organizing is like lots of other things in life. "Fair" and "unfair" is a useful rhetorical device, and often worth using, but what counts in the end is what you have the power and ability to get. (The recent DGA and WGA contract negotiations are excellent cases in point.) Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In '07, How Many Worked ...

... at union shops? (We've got answers below) ...

Above, 2007 employment stats at union animation shops. (Click on the image for a full-sized view.)

Artists around town ask all the time: "How many people are working?" ... "What studios are hiring?" ... "Who's got the most work? ..."

The chart above gives totals for the year just past, but totals can be a teensy bit misleading. For instance, TAG and the IATSE have organized artists at newer studios over the past eight months, and those new-minted "union workers" go into the overall numbers. So, in addition to older union shops, newer ones plunge into the mix as well. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of animation employees are from long-time studios.

So what's driving employment increases now? I'd have to say feature animation work. Television animation, long a locomotive for job creation, has lagged over the past ten months. Cartoon Network has fewer people on fewer shows, as does Warner Bros. Animation, as does Universal Cartoon Studios. Disney Television Animation has a half-dozen series in various stages of work, but the number of episodes for a given series are way below the go-go nineties. (This is true for most of the studios.)

Where fifty or sixty-plus half-hours used to get produced, today the congloms make them in batches of 6, 9, or 13. Thirty-nine total episodes is now often the template for a series, a huge difference from fourteen or fifteen years ago.

In features, Disney and DreamWorks are the big employers, as you will see from the pie chart that we trundle out tomorrow. DreamWorks has been adding staff for a while now, and tends to swing employees from one show to another, holding on to its artists and technicians. (this was Mr. Katzenberg's business model when at Disney Feature Animation in the 1990s.) Disney, by contrast, hires newer people for production and lays them off when production winds down. Core staff works year-round.

Recently, the question I've been asked the most is: "When is TV animation going to pick up?". My stock answer used to be, "In a couple of months." Lately I've had no stock answer. I still think television work is going to expand again, I just don't know when.

Click here to read entire post

An afternoon of remembrance

This Saturday afternoon, March 1, the Animation Guild, ASIFA-Hollywood and Women In Animation will be hosting the annual Afternoon of Remembrance at the Hollywood Heritage Museum/Lasky-DeMille Barn, 2100 N. Highland (across from the Hollywood Bowl) in Hollywood.

The Afternoon of Remembrance is a non-denominational celebration of forty-seven friends from our animation community who passed away in 2007. We've been holding these services since 1995, when the first "Afternoon of Remembrance" was held down the street at the large Presbyterian Church located on the corner of Highland and Franklin. As in years past, the event is free of charge and open to all with no RSVPs necessary. It starts with drinks and refreshments at 1 pm followed by remembrances starting at 2 pm.

This year's list ranges from Strawberry Shortcake voice actor James Street who died at the age of thirteen after a skateboarding accident, to Jack Zander, veteran director and producer and the first president of the Screen Cartoonists Guild, who passed away just shy of his one-hundredth birthday. Below, we list ... and take a brief look at ... the folks who departed in 2007:

  • Renee Alcazar
  • Roger Armstrong
  • Dick Arnall
  • Warren Batchelder
  • Max Becraft
  • Paul Boyd
  • Sheila Brown
  • Erica Cassetti
  • Harvey Cohen
  • Alberto De Mello
  • Greg Drolette
  • Walker Edmiston
  • Ray Erlenborn
  • Natatcha Estebanez
  • Becky Fallberg
  • Mary Lou Ferguson
  • Ben Ferrer
  • Lu Guarnier
  • Ed Hansen
  • Terry Harrison
  • Florence Heintz
  • Dave Hilberman
  • Dick Hoffman
  • Steve Krantz
  • Ryan Larkin
  • Carol Lundberg
  • Celine Miles Marcus
  • John Marshall
  • Roberta Gruetert Marshall
  • Tom O'Loughlin
  • Henry Ortiz
  • Brant Parker
  • Nicole Pascal
  • Charles Nelson Reilly
  • Will Schaefer
  • Charlene Singleton
  • Ken Southworth
  • Connie Spongberg
  • Art Stevens
  • James Street
  • Iwao Takamoto
  • Aleksandr Tatarskiy
  • Caren Terry
  • Jim Thurman
  • Elbert Tuganov
  • Al Wilson
  • Jack Zander
  • Click here to read entire post

    Monday, February 25, 2008

    Great Animation and Bad Shot Flow in Who Framed Roger Rabbit

    Kevin writes:

    I remember seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit and being excited by the Daffy/Donald piano duel ... I was excited because it featured the early, lunatic version of Daffy (before he became an annoying jerk) blowing poor Donald off the screen (well, at least figuratively, since Donald is the one who uses the cannon) ...

    ... I loved the sequence, but I recall have the thought at the time, “I wish I could see that again in slow motion, because I missed most of it.” Frankly, that is not a thought anyone in the audience should be having about the action on the screen. I felt like I was just catching glimpses of wonderful animation, despite having a good seat in the theater and trying hard to soak it all in. I still had to strain to follow the action when I watched it later on videotape, despite seeing it on a much smaller screen compared to a theater, and despite being able to replay it repeatedly.

    In retrospect, it’s easy to see why this sequence was so frustrating. Just about every rule of good camera work, shot composition, staging, and hooking up shots was violated repeatedly. The result is that the sequence simply doesn’t read. I have to guess that not enough care was taken in setting up and shooting the live-action plates, and once that was done the animators were stuck and had to animate their scenes without regard for how each shot would work as part of the whole. ...

    Read the whole post via the link at the top.

    Click here to read entire post

    Warner Bros. Animation

    My second studio-visit post of the day (and equally exciting and edifying).

    Warners, now on the Warners north lot (formerly known as "The Columbia Ranch") doesn't have a huge number of people working, but currently staff is working on a new Scooby Doo dvd feature (Empires may fall and the sun may reach its "red star" phase, but the Scoob will go on forever). Work on it continues into the Spring.

    As mentioned previously, an order for 13 half-hours of new Batmans will commence shortly. And as not announced previously, a Wonder Woman dvd feature will soon be in development.

    Batman, of course, is an ever-green (as in moolah) franchise, and Warner Bros. has just put out this press release about its latest offering:

    DC Comics, Warner Premiere, Warner Home Video and Warner Bros. Animation have collaborated to create a unique Batman experience in Batman: Gotham Knight. The all-new, original movie will arrive July 8, 2008 on DVD and Blu-ray Disc ...

    Batman: Gotham Knight was headed by an impressive list of directors who have brought their distinctly different anime styles to the classic Batman character. The production was divided among three renowned studios – Studio 4ÂșC, Production I.G and Madhouse – and included the truly inimitable visions of directors Shojiro Nishimi, Futoshi Higashide, Hiroshi Morioka, Yasuhiro Aoki and Toshiyuki Kubooka. With stories written by several of the most talented writers of film, comic books, and animation, including Academy Award®-nominated screenwriter Josh Olson (A History of Violence), David S. Goyer (Batman Begins), Emmy®-winner Alan Burnett (Batman: The Animated Series), Jordan Goldberg (Associate Producer, The Dark Knight), and award-winning comics writers Greg Rucka and Brian Azzarello ...

    And so on. Hopefully, Warners will be reasserting itself as the year goes on.

    Click here to read entire post

    End of Week Studio Journeys

    It dawns on me that I never got around to saying anything about my trips to DreamWorks and Disney Animation Studios, so here it is:

    * People are still catching up with the fact that the 401(k) Plan now has monthly enrollments instead of quarterly ...

    * The DW crew is putting the final touches on Kung Fu Panda (like it was pretty much done on Friday, "pretty much" being the operative words) ...

    * At Disney, Bolt production continues to accelerate.

    Remarkably enough, most people at both studios were fairly chatty. (They tolerate me! They really tolerate me!)

    Click here to read entire post

    Sunday, February 24, 2008

    Move Over, Box Office Mojo

    The New York Times has ridden into town with a colorful, interactive graphic, titled "The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986-2007".

    And actually, Box Office Mojo doesn't have to step aside, since BOM was involved with this. Slide your mouse around on the linked graphic, and commence clicking. You'll get movie titles, reviews, and a whole lot of other stats.

    (h/t to the Big Picture for pointing this baby out.)

    Click here to read entire post

    The Worldwide Triumph of Phineas and Ferb

    Several months ago, P and F artists told me how Diz Channel execs were pulling the series in one direction, while the crew tugged in another. Glad to see that even with the pulling (or because of ... ??) it all worked out:

    The show, which bowed Feb. 1, has proved a huge international hit after its simultaneous launch in some 150 territories, including the U.S., the U.K. and Australia -- a first for Disney Channel. The show has reached 23.5 million viewers worldwide -- at least in territories for which the net was able to gather data. The launch involved a 10-day rollout of consecutive original episodes.

    Of course, staffers told me things like this:

    ...[There's a] SUFFOCATING amount of executive notes and executive meddling on the show. A lot of P&Fs best storyboarders left the show for other projects, and the typical Disney mountain of notes was a big reason they chose to move to other places ... [T]he stories of Disney execs with their hands messing all over that show are crazy ...

    Old news, really. I had Disney TVA staff writers complaining about the layers of executive notes on their scripts in 1993 ...

    Click here to read entire post

    Saturday, February 23, 2008

    Weekend B.O.

    Friday's box office results offer few surprises.

    Vantage Point, despite some rancid reviews, leaps to the top of a weak field ...

    Jumper slides to second place, while Step Up 2 the Streets and Spiderwick Chronicles race neck-and-neck for #3 and #4 ... and animation titles are in scant supply.

    Late Addendum: The weekend totals saw Vantage Point atop the proverbial heap with $24 million. Not bad for a film that got few critical hossanahs, but not a barn burner.

    In animation land, Alvin at #21 has collected $213 million, Persepolis (#27) gets a bump of 7.6% nd now totals $3.5 million, and the hapless Pirates Who Don't Do Anything at #28 has now raked in a whopping $12.5 million.

    Click here to read entire post

    "Oh. That's a UNION issue ..."

    Excuse me for being repetitive, but a corporate talking point that came up last week (and has ticked me off for years) is this one:

    "Oh, we would looove to give you more vacation ... sick days ... holidays off ... (choose one) but that's a UNION issue. You have to take that up with your UNION ..."

    In other words, what's preventing the company from giving union employees the same number of sick days or vacation or holidays as employees on the corporate side is that pesky union contract. Like, ten business days of time off in a year is the best they can do because "that's what the contract says ..."

    I pull this subject out of my bag of gripes because it's patent horse shit. A company can choose to bestow any number of benefits not in a union contract because it's done all the time.

    * Companies give union employees stock options.

    * Companies give union employees bonuses.

    * Companies give union employees extra time off at Christmas

    * Companies give union employees free amusement park tickets.

    And on and on. The reality is, animation studios, meat-packing plants or whomever can choose to bestow -- or not bestow -- a wide range of extra-contractual goodies. It's not union contracts that prevent this from happening, because union contracts are silent on the subject. (And in the few cases where they're not silent, they are -- usually -- laying out minimums.)

    What stops it is company policy, but companies often find it useful to lay that bad news at the feet of the stupid old union because it, you know, makes the union the object of hate rather than the corporate decision-makers.

    But there's another wrinkle to all this. In certain cases where benefits are given to one group and not another, a company could be breaking the law. In AMF Bowling Co, Inc. vs. the National Labor Relations Board in the mid-nineties*, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found that excluding union-represented employees from the company's severance pay plan was "inherently destructive."

    Illegal or not, my main point here is that it's within the company's discretion to grant or take away benefits not in a Collective Bargaining Agreement. And it would be nice if more companies had the stones to admit this.

    * AMF Bowling Co., Inc. v. NLRB, 977 F.2d 141, 145 (4th Cir. 1992)

    Click here to read entire post

    Friday, February 22, 2008

    VARIETY on Robert Iger

    Peter Bart has just put up a think-piece on Robert Iger's first couple of years at the helm of the Disney Co.:

    ... How did the bastion of Mickey Mouse suddenly morph into the home of "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical"?

    I don't really believe in the efficacy of corporate makeovers, but the radical re-invention of the Disney empire will surely inspire a myriad of business school case studies. It seemed only a couple of years ago that Disney was becoming the ultimate in bland brands. Even the core animation business, the plaything of old Walt himself, was mired in mediocrity ...

    Robet Iger hasn't "re-invented" Disney so much as he's taken a less rigid and dogmatic approach to CEOing than his predecessor did. One prominent example: Michael Eisner was happy to go to war with Pixar, Robert Iger made nice with Jobs, Lasseter and Catmull and bought Pixar.

    Iger's been flexible and willing to try new approaches. (Maybe he just wants to be the "un-Eisner" ... or maybe he just is a different style of Chief Executive Officer. I tend to think it's the latter.) Bart continues:

    ...Iger's behind-the-scenes style has lately been in evidence during the tense negotiations to end the writers' strike. When most Hollywood CEOs seemed to duck for cover, it was Iger and Peter Chernin, the chief operating officer of Fox, who took on personal stewardship of the talks even as the prospect of a protracted stalemate loomed darkly.

    "Bob Iger was personally appalled by the possibility that thousands of Hollywood artisans could face unemployment for months," says the top executive of a rival company. "He saw that the industry lacked focus and he invested more of his time and energy than anyone else in settling this mess."

    Welll. I think that Mr. Iger wanted to get the WGA strike settled, but I don't think it's because he's a saintly corporate officer who's focus is on Hollywood's suffering, unemployed workers. Mr Iger is an exec with his eye on the bottom line, and he was well aware that ABC stood to take a bath on its Academy Award coverage if the job action wasn't settled.

    Click here to read entire post

    End of Week Linkage

    Still more links to Toon News ... only of the highest quality, naturally.

    Usually it's been animation directors moving into live action -- Frank Tashlin being an early example. But now we see a little reverse migration:

    "Pirates of the Caribbean" helmer Gore Verbinski will direct his first animated feature and team with filmmaker Graham King to produce the project.

    The action-adventure film, based on an undisclosed idea developed by Verbinski's Blind Wink Prods. and producer John B. Carls, has a projected budget in the $100 million range and a targeted 2010 release ....

    And while we're on the subject of traffic between animation and live-action, there is also this:

    Anime classic "Akira" is getting the live-action big screen treatment courtesy of Leonardo DiCaprio and Warner Bros.

    Ruairi Robinson has been hired to direct what would ideally be a two-part epic. Gary Whitta is writing the adaptation, which DiCaprio will produce via his Appian Way shingle ...

    "Akira" originated in 1988 as a manga and then as an animated film co-written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. The story was set in a neon-lit futuristic post-nuclear war "New Tokyo" in 2019 where a teen biker gang member is subjected to a government experiment which unleashes his latent powers ...

    Arggh. Some snark from Time Out Chicago over the Oscar race for Best Animated Feature:

    [Best Animate Feature is] a category that can’t seem to muster five contenders, which is the traditional number of nominees in most categories (the magic number five for most categories stabilized as early as the 1928-1929 season). Those short lists in Animated Feature have led some to suggest that the Animated Feature is basically a vanity prize, thrown out there to keep Pixar and Disney happy ...

    So it's a sop?! A vanity prize!? The Daily Trojan thinks not:

    ...the Academy created the Best Animated Feature award in 2001, with "Shrek" taking the prize by beating out Pixar's "Monsters, Inc."

    While this act is mildly commendable, doing so practically prevents any animated film from garnering an actual nomination for Best Picture, no matter how well-deserved it is.

    It's about time the Academy and the rest of the United States takes a lesson from the rest of the world: Animation can be a force to be reckoned with ...

    With which we agree whole heartedly.

    There there is this item from Animation Magazine, the news that America has been waiting for: Images and details about the new Smurf Movie!

    The toon’s producer Jordan Kerner (The Mighty Ducks, George of the Jungle, Charlotte’s Web) was quoted extensively, saying that he saw the feature as an “animated Lord of the Rings—through the world of these idiots. Because they’re sweet characters but they’re goofs. It’s a comic version, but still very heartfelt, version of Lord of the Rings—though not literally Lord of the Rings, but an epic story like that.” ...

    (And has more images here.)

    The James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and John Ford of anime will each be releasing new features:

    In coming months, anime's three most prominent directors will release major films in the US. Oshii's Innocence will hit theaters in September. Soon afterward, Katsuhiro Otomo will debut Steamboy, an Indiana Jones-style adventure that takes place in an alternative Victorian age where turbo unicycles and pressure-powered jetpacks battle for supremacy. Then Hayao Miyazaki will deliver Howl's Moving Castle, about a teenage girl who flees a curse by hiding in a gigantic mechanical castle that prowls about on insectlike legs. In addition, Disney will issue three older Miyazaki films on DVD early next year ... (Note: This is an old article that got past filters and my dim eyes. See comments.)

    Finally, Andy Klein reviews a new 3-DVD release from WB on Oscar-nominated-winning shorts from Warner Bros., MGM, Fleischer and others across the years:

    The main attraction among the extras ... is a new hour-long documentary called Drawn for Glory: Animation’s Triumph at the Oscars ... [that] explains how the animation category was invented in the early ’30s essentially as a way to honor industry powerhouse Walt Disney, whose influential output didn’t otherwise fit in. We also learn how much of Hollywood animation was driven by the frustrations of artists working under Disney, who bolted to form their own units elsewhere ...

    Addendum: Since one story above is ancient, we'll add another. Yesterday's Hollywood Reporter noted that Paramount/DreamWorks Animation have climbed back aboard Blu-ray after disembarking for Toshiba's HD-DVD last August. So why did they abandon Blu-ray six months ago?

    ... Paramount and DreamWorks switched to HD DVD-only in August, reportedly after receiving a $150 million payment from the format's supporters for "promotional consideration." ...

    President Koch pointed this wrinkle out a couple of weeks ago; now HR gives us a figure. As always in the Town of Tinsel, it's about the long green ...

    Addendum Deux: Variety (also Animation Magazine) reports that Sponge Bob Square Pants and friends won't be as readily available to eager young eyes in the Middle Kingdom:

    ... [China's] State Administration of Radio, Film and TV (SARFT) is cracking down harder on imported toons, extending its prime-time ban on foreign shows by an hour: The block is now extended from 5 to 9 p.m. The officials are also demanding that local TV stations obtain the censor's approval before airing hugely popular toon such as SpongeBob SquarePants and favorite manga imports from Japan ...

    Have a most spiffy weekend.

    Click here to read entire post

    Thursday, February 21, 2008

    Kevin Koch on Animation -- James Baxter

    Kevin writes about tyro animator James Baxter's work on the last DWA hand-drawn feature:

    While we’re on the subject of James Baxter (and if you’re not listening to Clay Kaytis’s first podcast with James, go do it now), I found a beat up old video tape with some early animation tests for Sinbad - Legend of the Seven Seas that James did. He did a test each for Sinbad, Marina, and Proteus. I’ve done a quick and dirty digital transfer, which retains some of the quirks of the video/pencil-test machine interface, but they’re still watchable enough ...

    (Click the link up top for the full post ... and the pencil tests.)

    JB's studio created the dazzling animated sequences that bookend Enchanted. He's a guy in demand, for obvious reasons ...

    Click here to read entire post

    Animation Wage Surveys

    We're at the tail end of the submission period for TAG's Wage Survey for '08.

    What we mean by that is, there's only a couple of days left to get the form back to us for inclusion in the 2008 survey. Anyone who's been an active TAG member at any point in the last eighteen months is eligible to participate. A brief look back at the 2007 survey (here's the complete survey in PDF format):

    Wage Survey Median Salaries - 2007

    Directors (theatrical features) -- $2,951.38

    Directors (television) -- $2,200

    Timing Directors -- $1,900

    Story artists (feature) -- $2,020

    Production board artists (television) -- $1,900

    Staff Story Editors -- $3,225

    Staff Writers -- $2,300

    These and all survey numbers are based on a forty-hour week, and should be adjusted from "on-call" deals (that is, the so-called "prepaid OT" weeks of fifty or fifty-six hours).

    Why is sending in this wage thing important? It helps level the playing field. The studios know what they're paying animators and everyone else. But members are often in the dark, which is a shame, since California Labor Code 232(a)(b) and (c) protects employees' rights to share salary info (have we mentioned this before?)

    So. If you've been an active member any time since mid-2006 and you haven't gotten the survey back to us, contact Jeff Massie by e-mail or phone him at (818) 766-7151 ext. 104 for a survey form, and be sure to get the survey back to us in the next few days (and phone if you're going to be later than say, Monday.) We'll post the results here as soon as they're compiled.

    Click here to read entire post

    Wednesday, February 20, 2008

    The Teacup Tempest

    Since the thread is getting long, let me put up this from below:

    I am not suggesting that you used your studio connections to reveal any new or inside information. I am saying that your studio connections give credence to what previously were just internet rumors and speculation. No one is going to believe what they read on, but they are going to believe you.

    Well ...maybe, maybe not.

    But let me do (even though most people could give a care) a quick chronology here:

    Way back at the dawn of time -- the beginning of the week -- I was casting around for something to post and thought: "Ah. I haven't done a 'What's Going On Around Town' piece in a while, so why not one now?"

    We've been doing these things in pretty much the same way for decades. I call around, collect information, write it up. publish it.


    In this case, I followed standard procedures. I called around, collected info, typed it into the computer. In all the years I've been doing the "Around Town" thing, the biggest complaints I've gotten is when somebody's left out. My contacts for Disney didn't think it was a problem or big deal with the development titles they gave me, and neither did I. They were all out there already. And I typed them in and went on building the post.

    My larger focus, to tell the truth, was getting stuff from some of the smaller houses. Took me awhile to collect some of the information. Then I hit the "Publish".

    Now. I censor myself a lot. This site isn't Gossip Central, it focuses on animation and labor (just look at the header). I have said to various studios ... including Disney ... that, if something bothers you or is, in your opinion, over the line, call me.

    I'll be honest here. Over the last two years I've gotten a few calls from studios about posts; each time I've addressed them. But I've never gotten a call from Disney.

    And just so we're clear, I'm happy to address any issue any person or studio has. It's just, you know, difficult to address issues from an anonymous troll. Especially when you are vague in your own mind about what all the hoo-hah is.

    Addendum: Oh Gawd, the deluge has begun. I've now received this e-mail from a retired, millionaire movie-animation producer with the header, You're a Bad Boy:

    Shame on you for blogging those critical, eyes-only, copyright forever WDC, secret development projects to the people who make them.

    All I can say is I'm sorry. Really, really sorry.

    Click here to read entire post

    Rocket to Starz Media

    Spent a piece of the afternoon at Starz-Film Roman-Media. The King of the Hill crew has hope for a 13th season, though there is no official pickup as yet ...

    Simpsons artists have a little different dynamic, because they've got two different mountains to climb:.

    1) They need to complete work on The Simpsons's ride in the next month of so.

    2) They need to hustle on the uncompleted shows, which includes dialogue and gag revisions, revised artwork and of course voice retakes in case there's a SAG strike.

    Spirits are up because people will be coming back to work, but spirits are also jittery at the prospect of another labor action.

    Click here to read entire post

    Tuesday, February 19, 2008

    Freelance World

    A few weeks ago I got a call from a member who hadn't gotten paid dismissal pay -- part of TAG's contract -- by his employer. "Can you help?" he said.

    Being an elected union rep, I said: "Of course," and picked up the phone to find out what the problem was. The person in H.R. who I talked to said: "Oh, we didn't pay that because he's freelance."

    I pointed out (politely) that an employee is an employee under the collective bargaining agreement; the company had taken out taxes and treated the artist as an employee, so he was due the money.*

    Sadly, across most of the nation, that's not how designated "freelancers" get treated:

    Temporary workers and independent contractors make up nearly a third of the U.S. workforce, and represent a growing asset to companies who rely on freelance flexibility. But corporations are using the designation "freelancer" to avoid paying health care and other benefits, even though many of these workers put in the same hours as their covered counterparts. NOW looks at the effect of this tactic on the lives and personal economy of freelance workers.

    (The embedded video is particularly interesting.)

    This "temp" thing has been a cold, hard reality in Tinsel Town a lot longer than most other places in the U.S. of A. When the studios started disintegrating as long-term employers during the 1950s, the entertainment unions stepped into the breach and negotiated portable health and pension benefits for their members.

    I've long believed that if the studios and their conglomerate parents didn't have Hollywood labor unions negotiating a seamless cloak of benefits that followed people from three-month gig to six-month gig, they would have to jerry-rig some other system that did the same thing.

    * To get dismissal pay, W-2 workers (employees) need to have worked the requisite number of days and weeks to receive it. This particular studio agreed that the money was due.

    Click here to read entire post

    Toon Studio Overviews

    A brief ... and semi-comprehensive ... look at what's going on at various studios TAG reps -- and a few we don't -- here in the L.A. area (since we haven't done this for awhile):

    Adelaide Productions is producing its new run of Spiderman half-hours.

    Car Talk -- Director Tom Sito has wrapped the initial order of Car Talk half-hours for PBS.

    Cartoon Network doing episodes of Chowder, Flapjack and a new order of Ben 10. Foxter's Home for Imaginary Friends is nearing the end of its latest season.

    Disney Animation Studios has Bolt scheduled for a November 2008 release, and a sizable animation and tech crew as story and character revisions give way to pedal-to-the-metal production. Early animation has commenced on Princess and the Frog as story work goes on, with Rapunzel also in story. (Joe Jump and King of the Elves are two features in early development...)

    Disney Television Animation winding down The Replacements, continuing on Phineas and Ferb, Inspector Oso Yin Yang Yoh!. My Friends Tigger and Pooh Mickey Mouse Clubhouse striding on to new seasons (in other words, still going.)

    Disney Toons continuing with Tinkerbells 2 & 3

    DreamWorks Animation has Shrek IV, Monsters and Aliens, How to Train Your Dragon and Crude Awakenings (Chris Sanders' new project) in various phases of work. Madagascar II and Kung Fu Panda are pretty close to done.

    Fox TV Animation, now that the Writers Guild strike is over, will be pushing ahead with new episodes of Family Guy and American Dad.

    Imagi Studios is retooling Gatchaman and speeding ahead with Astroboy. (Of late, Imagi has expanded the square footage of its Sherman Oaks studio).

    Nickelodeon has nine series in various stages of work.

    Sony Pictures Animation is still working on Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Open Season II, and another feature in early development.

    Starz Media will be welcoming back crews now on hiatus to complete episodes of The Simpsons now that the WGA is back to work. Two other series, Bufu and Wow Wow Wubsie continue in work. (King of the Hill, though a WGA show, was able to complete its full order of shows.)

    Tom T. Animation working on feature The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.

    Universal Cartoon Studios doing the third-season order of Curious George.

    Warner Bros. Animation working on series Batman Anime (13 episodes) and a direct-to-video Scooby Doo feature.

    And a few tidbits about a few L.A. studios not under our wing: Many Things Productions doing the sci-fi feature Terra, Rough Draft Studios doing direct-to-video Futurama(s). Whatever is going on at Rhythm and Hues is beyond the scope of my knowledge.

    Click here to read entire post

    Monday, February 18, 2008

    At Sony Pictures Animation

    The end of last week, I spent time wandering around SPA (Sony Pictures Animation) in Culver City. Despite the studio's announced plan to sell half of it, there is still a full complement of artists working on various projects ...

    Cloudy with Meatballs is still in development, as are a couple of other feature projects. Some artists have been put on short hiatuses as Sony head Amy Pascal and the division's management decide where the unit goes over the next year or three. One artist who's been there from almost the beginning said to me:

    "This place has some of the most accomplished professionals in the business working for it. They just need the right material to get green-lighted ...

    Click here to read entire post

    Sunday, February 17, 2008

    Kevin Koch on Animation

    Kevin considers an aspect of animation from the long ago, hand-drawn days:

    ... I was lucky to come into animation when features were drawn, and to work my way up step by step. I got to spend a lot of time absorbing the importance of arcs and spacing before I had to struggle with larger issues like performance. On each film I worked my way up, through clean-up, into ruff inbetweening, then animating assistant, then animator. There really aren’t any analogs for those preliminary positions in the CG world, which is a shame. Not everyone who did clean-up or even ruff inbetweening had the makings of an animator, but if you did, it was a great place to learn some key technical issues ...

    One of the techniques I learned there was to systematically place each rough on the pegs, then lay a clean sheet of animation paper on top and, using a variety of colored pencils, mark each key part of the figure (eye, hands, elbows, knees, feet, etc.). Then you’d take the first drawing off, place the second drawing, lay that same sheet back on top, and continue. You’d end up with a single sheet on which you’d plotted all the sequential positions of each part of the body. It was an overall spacing chart ...

    Read the full post at the link.

    Click here to read entire post

    The 4-Hour Workweek

    No, it's not the Animation Guild's lead proposal for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

    It's the name of a small book (linked above) that I stumbled across at Barnes and Noble a couple weekends ago. The author, a thirty-year-old Princeston grad named Timothy Ferris, maintains that anyone can become part of the "New Rich" by following his game plan -- which Tim helpfully lays out in 297 rapid-fire pages. (Without a lot of heavy advertising, Mr. Ferris and Crown Publishers got themselves a best seller with this pup a year ago) ...

    Ferris's central thesis is: find yourself a hot/useful/niche product to market, set up your automated distribution channels, and then travel the world while putting in 4 hours of concentrated work per week, and use the resulting flow of cash and your now-copious free time to go out and live life to the fullest.

    Swell advice, but not everyone has the aptitude or desire to be an entrepreneur. Timothy has that covered, too. He game plans how employees can wheedle their way into working at home, and without all the usual office meetings and regular distractions, do more work in less time. And have more time for yourself. He puts his central tenet right up front with a quote from Robert Frost:

    "By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be a boss and work twelve hours a day."

    That's pretty much the nub of where Timothy Ferris comes from. And some people can make it actually work for them, while lots of others won't. From my four-dollar seat in the grandstand of life, most people -- particularly in the animation business -- are not going to work part-time while drawing a large, full-time salary. The problem is unpaid overtime, not extra free hours and money with which you can sightsee. On the other hand:

    * Ward Kimball told me thirty years ago that, in his forty years at Disney, he never worked more than four hours in a day.

    * I witnessed, with my own eyes, a talented animator who was almost never at his desk, rise up through the ranks to become a feature animation director. (And he still does damn well, having long-since become a millionaire.)

    * I knew an artist who drew a check simultaneously from DreamWorks and Disney while working only at Disney (this was basically a scam with a finite amount of time to work. Eventually -- although it was months -- DreamWorks caught on. And fired him.)

    The larger point here (and it's one worth remembering and re-remembering) is that there is little relationship between the hours you work and the amount of money you make during one of those hours. The hardest I ever labored -- this includes stints with Disney, Filmation, and the U.S. Navy -- was when I was a teacher in a private school prepping and grading four different grade levels of English. I put in 60-80 hour weeks for a year. And all for the princely wage of $350 per week. (This was in 1988. It works out to something between $4.37 and $5.89 per hour, awful even then.)

    Many things in Ferris's book would never pan out for most people, but his minimalist credos of "Time is short, focus on the essentials while filling your days and nights with the things important to you, and get rid of the superfluous" was as wise in Buddha's and Christ's times as it is now.

    Stripped of all the razmatazz, Ferris's book reminds me of nothing so much as a volume I discovered two decades ago by Paul Terhorst: Cashing in on the American Dream: How to Retire at 35.

    You'll note I'm still working, so maybe the lessons didn't take. But all these years later, I still firmly believe:

    Existence is fleeting, so make the most of it.

    Click here to read entire post

    Sunday Papers

    There was a lot of animation news in the Sunday papers, starting with:

    Russia's animation industry looks set for a boost with TV station Channel One announcing it will be putting major funds into the sector -- starting with distinctive arthouse fare ...

    "One of the targets of Channel One's cinema producing policy will be support of full-length feature 3-D animation blockbusters oriented at a wide family audience ..."

    Channel One plans to deepen its relationship with Petrov and other gifted Russian animators, knowing that that even though their works aren't likely to be blockbusters, the Russian animation biz will stagnate without them.

    "Nothing happens in this business without talented artists-animators, and we'll be doing our best to support them, too." ...

    More players in the game. Is the field getting too crowded, or am I paranoid?

    If anyone looks like "Mr. Inevitability" for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, it's the often-interviewed Brad Bird:

    "[He] is singularly one of the finest and rarest filmmakers working today," [Disney Studios Chairman Dick] Cook says. "This guy writes, he directs, he does everything. He's incredibly smart and it shows up in all of his work."

    Oh sure. Disney execs slobber all over Brad now. I can remember when Disney execs were firing his butt.

    However. Is the Big Mouse laying it on too thick? Because there are a couple of dark horses in the Oscar race, one of them being a surfing epic:

    Oscar prognosticators expressed surprise, even shock, when "Surf's Up" received a nomination alongside Sony Pictures Classics' "Persepolis" and Pixar Animation's "Ratatouille," the favorite to win. It trumped two Golden Globe nominees, "The Simpsons Movie" and "Bee Movie" with Jerry Seinfeld. But the arched eyebrows had less to do with the movie's merits than with its apparent invisibility among industry insiders.

    "I don't know anyone who's seen it," says one Academy Award consultant for a rival studio.

    But I do. A veteran director -- a very talented guy -- came up to me a month ago and raved about the picture. "It was really good. Funny, and I liked the characters. I took way too long to go watch it."

    Click here to read entire post

    Saturday, February 16, 2008

    Production Maw Compression

    Last week I got to talking with a long-time teevee animation vet about how the production pipeline tends to compress everything toward "the middle."

    I noticed this years ago when I worked in game. I notice it now.

    Like, if you have a script that's way worse than the normal half-hour in the 39 episode order, by the time the script is boarded, designed, sent overseas and returned in color to post, the finished product is closer to the average.

    That's because everybody along the way (assuming they're hard-working professionals who care, and for our purposes we do) is striving to the utmost to create a silk purse no matter what the condition of the piggy's ear.

    Board artists work hard to make the incoherent have a beginning, middle and end. To punch up gags. To restructure where necessary (and where they're allowed to).

    Designers do their usual professional jobs. As will b.g. artists, checkers, everybody else.

    And film editors will struggle to the max pulling the whole enterprise together. Like always.

    In the other direction, a script that's better than the usual specimen will get the board artist saying: "Heey. This one works! I don't have to spend an extra twenty hours beating my head against a wall!"

    And (s)he will spend less time and effort reworking and polishing because there will be less need to. So the resulting board will be as good ... but likely no better ... than the original script.

    And the designers, b.g. artist, checkers and editors will do their usual sterling work. The animation crew overseas will put the characters through their paces in the regular way. (Another day, another Yuan.)

    So the final result will be that the "good" script gets closer to the average because nobody is forced to work extra hard to make it shine, and the "bad" script will rise to the mean because it will be improved by each set of hands through which it passes.

    Am I neglecting anything?

    Click here to read entire post

    Valentine Box Office

    "Doing anything later tonight?"

    The three new arrivals to your neighborhood AMC have bumped Kate and Matt down three notches.

    Fool's Gold took a 50% hit Friday as Jumper, Step Up 2 the Streets and The Spiderwick Chronicles shoved past it to 1st, 2nd and 3rd on YMHP*

    Meanwhile, the almost-gone Alvin and the Cees reached $210,460,191 on its 64th day of release ...

    Update: The weekend finals were hardly surprising. Jumper, despite near-universal pans, ended with $27,225,000. Step Up 2 the Street and Spiderwick Chronicles came in 2 and 3, and both at the $19 mill opening weekend level.

    Among animation in the marketplace, Alvin is at #19 and dragging $211.3 million in bullion behind him; Persepolis stands at #24 with a $2.9 million total, and the hapless Pirates Who Don't do Anything resides at the 28th domicile with a cume of $12.1 million.

    * Your Movie Hit Parade

    Click here to read entire post


    TAG Prez Kevin Koch discusses some of the terms ... and intricacies ... of the art of animation:

    There are some terms that I find students struggle with, some of which come from traditional animation but tend to get mangled on the CG side of the fence. First, let’s start with one that isn’t a word: animations. I can’t tell you how much this grates on the ears of anyone who comes from traditional animation, be it hand-drawn or stop motion ...

    What amuses me about terms that came into wide usage in the 1930s was how the spelling shortened and changed: roughs = ruffs, effects = effx. One of my favorites is how the storied feature animation director Wilfred Jackson's name morphed into Jaxson on memos and model sheets.

    Click here to read entire post

    Friday, February 15, 2008

    If They Want To Get Rid of You ...

    ... it's sometimes tough to stop them.

    I bring this up because a while ago ... and also at various times over the years ... I've seen artists railroaded out of a job not because their work was sub-par but because:

    1) The boss was out for them. (There'd been some argument, and despite apologies, the head guy still held a grudge.)

    2) The boss had a pet or pets he wanted to bring in to the artist's job-slot, and the artist was in the way ("Nothing personal, but my buddy takes precedence over you.")

    3) The boss is told by a higher up that (s)he must make room for somebody else on her or his crew ... so the employee is handed a layoff slip, or written up.

    You can probably think of variations to the above, but you catch my drift.

    The shoals and eddies of the workplace are often treacherous. As an employee, new or old, you deal with over-sized egos, overactive paranoia, territoriality. These realities are always there to a greater or lesser degree, and an employee always has to be aware of them ... or suffer the consequences.

    Many times, despite being endlessly pleasant and hard-working, artists suffer bad consequences anyway, because many things are simply outside their control.

    How does a labor union enter into all this? Over the years I've found that the most effective way to counter these kinds of problems is to strategize remedies:

    That could mean making "nice" to a supervisor who, frankly, doesn't deserve to be made nice to, but that's the best political move to make. It could mean recruiting allies who will vouch for the quality of the employee's work. And in certain situations it means filing -- or threatening to file -- a grievance.

    The grievance route -- a step-by-step process between union and company that starts with a letter from the union laying out the problem and ends with a binding judgment by an outside arbitrator -- can be either effective or counter-productive.

    I always tell a potential grievant the prospects I see for winning and losing a grievance. And I go over the ramifications a grievance will have. It seldom makes the company happy (it's a pain in the backside, it takes up time, etc.) And it can often (though not always) get the grievant pegged as a "trouble maker," which hurts the grievant's future employment with the company. But I've had studios tell me after a grievance, "that person is never coming back here!" And twelve months later, the person is back.

    And sometimes push-back is helpful; in fact the only logical thing to do. We've had a number of grievances through the years where individuals have walked away with cash settlements because studios messed up the contractually-required discharge procedure (one write-up warning of a problem, followed by a second write-up). Occasionally the company backs off because it doesn't want to hassle the time and expense of full arbitration, and so compromises.

    One point I emphasize to employees who are hot to file a grievance: You can be the finest artist this side of Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci, and no arbitrator will go near the question of whether your storyboards or design work are "good" or "not good." The only thing an arbitrator will consider is, Were the contract provisions followed or not?

    This is sometimes tough for aggrieved artists to process. "I was screwed over! My work is great! Why can't I bring that fact into the arbitration?" Because arbitrators aren't experts in line quality and artistic ability, and they always flat-out refuse to become one for the purposes of a job dispute with a conglom.

    The cold reality: If Fat Cat Productions wants you gone badly enough, you'll be gone. Often the best solution is to walk away and get on with your career and life. But there are sometimes ways to soften the blow of an abrupt departure.

    Click here to read entire post

    Behind the Scenes of the WGA Strike

    I've already credited the WGA with pulling off a credible strike and new agreement. The Artful Writer has good information about what was going on back channel over the recent 101 days of the Writers Guild job action:

    One of the stranger moments to occur in the waning days of the strike was a reference by John Bowman to the “Dirty Thirty.” The urban myth says that a meeting took place, awful things were threatened, but the Guild stood firm!

    It sounded fishy to me when I first heard about it, because, well, it sounded fishy.

    Howard Michael Gould, a member of [the WGA's] Negotiating Committee, sets the record straight, and does so importantly ....

    Reading Gould's insider report, it confirms a lot of things I thought might be going on at the time.

    What's interesting (amazing?) to me is how many studio and union people I bumped into over the last few months who were wrong about how events were unfolding ... and how the strike and negotiations would ultimately play out.

    Click here to read entire post

    Another Linkfest

    Star Wars? There's never enough (just ask my teenager) ...

    The saga is set to continue with the release of Star Wars: The Clone Wars – a 3-D animated film hitting theaters in August before making its way to television in the fall.

    This film won’t be distributed by Fox, but will feature a new partnership with Lucasfilm, Warner Bros. Pictures and Turner Broadcasting.

    Variety reports the August 15th release of the film will premiere the new animated series which will make its way to Cartoon Network and airings on TNT. The release dates for international theaters and television series are still being set.

    The Animation Archives puts up some excellent artwork by Gustaf Tenggren, one of the top-drawer artists who found a home Disney's Hyperion studio in the thirties:

    While at Disney, Tenggren chaffed under the bit of anonymity. It's said that Walt instructed his artists, "If you're going to sign a name to your artwork, spell it 'Walt Disney'." But Tenggren defiantly maintained his individuality, signing many of his key paintings for Pinocchio. He left the studio under unhappy circumstances, and was bitter about the whole episode. But he had learned one thing from Walt... the power of branding one's self.

    UPA's icon Mr. Magoo is returning to the big and small screen ... via Mexico:

    Toon factory Anima Studios will produce "Kung Fu Magoo" for Classic Media, in a major deal for the budding Mexican shingle ... "Magoo" will go straight to video worldwide, but it's being produced in 35mm and Anima will likely engineer a theatrical release in Mexico via Videocine ...

    N.Y. Daily News film reviewer Jack Mathews lists his "Five greatest animated films of all time."

    “Aladdin” (1992). Maybe it should be titled “Robin Williams’ Aladdin.” His voice work as the Genie inspired the greatest animated movie of the hand-drawn era.

    Personally I think it's silly to have "Best" lists. They just set off arguments and debates (which maybe is the point ...)

    DreamWorks Animation got a downgrade from BMO Capital Markets and lost a little ground in the stock derby:

    [BMO Capital Markets Analyst] Jeffrey Logsdon cut his rating to "Market Perform," or "Neutral," from "Outperform," or "Buy." He said the company's results vary with the success or failure of its movies, which is hard to predict, rather than showing dependable growth.

    I think Jeffrey K. and Co. have done a helluva job at DWA, but it's definitely a high-wire act when your business model is "Make every feature release a hit." (This was also Pixar's model, but Pixar is now a division of a conglomerate with a well-loved name.)

    And New Line Cinema (owned by Warner Bros.) is now in the animated feature business ... and they got the voices cast!

    ...[T]he CG-animated sci-fi film "Planet 51" ... revolves around a group of residents on the eponymous planet who fear an alien invasion. Johnson will play astronaut Capt. Charles "Chuck" Baker, who arrives from Earth and confirms their worst fears. He's forced to avoid capture so he can find his spaceship and return home ...

    Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Jessica Biel, Seann William Scott and Justin Long will voice lead characters in the [film] ... It marks the studio's first animated feature in its 40-year history.

    The sad part is, it's gonna be produced in Spain.

    To wrap up, The New York Times reviews the animated shorts up for an Acadamy Award and discovers there isn't a lot of domestic content:

    ... Academy Award Short Nominees: Among the animated films nothing resembles a traditional Disney cartoon. Sophisticated illustration, puppetry, stop-motion animation and digital wizardry are the order of the day. And what does it mean for American cinema that among the nominated shorts, not one was made in Hollywood or even in the United States?

    Especially in the animated category, advancing technology has sparked an astonishing creative revolution ...

    Have a fine and lively weekend ...

    Click here to read entire post

    Thursday, February 14, 2008

    Hi Def Wars Over? Or Not Over?

    USA Today says that the battle over HD continues (so what do I know?):

    During the last six weeks, Hollywood studios, consumer electronics companies and retailers have given Sony's (SNE) Blu-ray format a seemingly insurmountable edge over its rival high-definition DVD format: Toshiba's HD DVD...

    "Warner's jump was the last straw to break the camel's back," says Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment President Bob Chapek. "The format war's over."

    Well, maybe. The HD DVD camp — which includes Universal, Paramount, DreamWorks Animation and Microsoft (MSFT)— hasn't raised a white flag yet.

    But it also isn't predicting victory ...

    Well. That's clear enough. HD has lost out to Blu Ray. Unless it hasn't. Got it.

    "There are a lot of other product areas where different formats coexist," says Jodi Sally, vice president of marketing for Toshiba's digital AV group. "Look at gaming (where Nintendo and Microsoft compete with Sony). There are discs that won't play in each other's machines. Apparently that is the current scenario" for high-def DVDs.

    Don't think so. How long did Betamax co-exist with VHS? A couple of years? Then it was over.

    I think there's minimal chance that two semi-identical but incompatible formats will be flourishing side by side. Just doesn't make sense. Sooner rather than later, the marketplace will sort out a winner, and this time, Sony will probably win.

    If two formats are going to be duking it out over a long period of time, it will probably be high-def downloads vs. a single disk format. Not Blu-Ray vs. HD.

    Update: Okay, we can say with certainty that USA Today has its head up the old large intestine. Because now this has happened:

    HD DVD, the beloved format of Toshiba and three Hollywood studios, died Friday after a brief illness. The cause of death was determined to be the decision by Wal-Mart to stock only high-definition DVDs and players using the Blu-ray format.

    The format war confounded and frustrated consumers in Tokyo, above, and elsewhere. There are no funeral plans, but retailers and industry analysts are already writing the obituary for HD DVD.

    So it's downloads (out there in the future, maybe) and Blu-ray. Roger on that.

    Click here to read entire post

    The Disney Background Department! During Jungle Book!

    Here are three pillars of the Disney background department, circa the middle sixties, admiring their collective handiwork on some feature or other.

    Kneeling on the left is Al Dempster, head of the department and a crackerjack artist. Standing is Bill Layne. Kneeling on the right is background veteran Art Riley ...

    The Disney background department had a rep for professionalsm and hard work. And longevity. Art Riley and Al Dempster both started in the department before World War II, working on the early features. Bill came aboard in 1942, around the same time my father worked his way into the department (he'd been in effects before that.)

    The background department was up on the second floor of the original animation building, Wing 2-F as I remember. All the artists' rooms had deep sinks and lots of windows with plenty of light. They had a quota of backgrounds to do each week and they all hit their marks.

    Al and Bill departed the studio in the mid-seventies for retirement and more time to paint on their own. Art left in the mid-sixties to care for his aging and ailing mother.

    Art Riley would probably have been considered the most eccentric of the group. Lived frugally. Invested some of each paycheck in blue-chip stocks. Lived with his mother. Also didn't get out much.

    Story artist Vance Gerry told me the story of how Art drove a Disney artist home one day because the guy had car trouble. And the artist asked Art to stop "at the store" so he could pick up a couple of groceries.

    Art got out of the car with the guy and accompanied him into the market. When they got through the double doors, Art looked up at the fluorescent lights and the long rows of shelves with baked goods and breakfast cereal, all the bins of fresh vegetables and said:

    "This place is amazing. What do they call this place?"

    The artist looked at him and said, "It's a supermarket, Art."

    Apparently Riley didn't do much food shopping. He'd never been in one.

    Bill Layne at work on the second floor ...

    And thanks to Ann Guenther for the use of the pictures.

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    Wednesday, February 13, 2008

    Studios ... Round and About

    Nick nick nick-o-lodeon ...

    Wandering through Starz Media/Film Roman a few days back, the place was two thirds deserted.

    This was just before the writers of the WGA gathered at the Shrine Auditorium and declared victory ... and an end to the strike. But the few Simpsons artists who were still in the building were upbeat about full production coming back soon. (Some artists have been off since November and early December, and if the e-mail I received this morning is indicative, anxiety has increased:

    "I need to get back to work soon!"

    Over at Nickelodeon, I fell into a conversation with a studio higher up about whether they would be doing more scripted shows now that Brown Johnson was the new Nick top-kick. She told me:

    "We're already doing a lot of scripted shows. I don't think there'll be big changes."

    And that let to a question from me about more collaboration between writers and board artists, maybe gag crews to punch up stories and scripts. The exec said she'd tried to get that kind of stuff going, get more interaction, but there was some, ahm, resistance.

    "Egos. Territoriality," I said.

    "Ah. You know about that."

    "I used to work in animation story departments. I'm old, but I remember."

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    Marc Davis at Disneyland

    A month before Marc Davis's passing on January 12, 2000, he and Ann Guenther were guest speakers at the Fantasy Fun Club at the Disneyland Hotel. Their mission: To talk about "the old days" at the Disney Studio.

    For Marc, that meant the 1930s and Hyperion:

    ... [T]he first job I had at the studio was "Snow White". I don’t like the term particularly, but I got stuck with the human characters ... One of the things Milt Kahl and I suffered from was that we could both draw so much better than some of the others. We both had a better understanding of the human figure, and there simply weren’t that many people who could handle them. After a while these things just became automatic: “OK, Milt does the Godmother and Marc does the Princess.” We both really wanted the opportunity to do some of the things we would have loved to have done and were quite capable of doing ...

    For Annie, that was the Burbank Studios in the 1950s, when she rolled into California, a fresh-faced teenager from Pennsylvania, and broke into animation ...

    She discovered there was some, ah, regimentation:

    In the fifties, men wore white shirts and ties. The women wore dresses. One woman, Renee Henning in the ink and paint department, decided to wear a stylish pantsuit to work. She was called in by Supervisor Grace Turner and told if she wore it again she would be fired. Well, she wore it again and was fired.

    The photo above was taken by Alice Davis, Marc's wife. Ann Guenther believes it was one of the last photographs of Marc taken.

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    Tuesday, February 12, 2008

    Chinese Animation

    Kevin Geiger, a longtime TAG shop steward at Disney and now captain of his own ship, sent me this article a few days back. Slug that I am, I'm just getting to it now. Kevin gives us a short primer (via o-meon) in Chinese animation, past and present:

    The history of Chinese animation dates all the way back to 180 A.D., when inventor Ting Huan created the first zoetrope. Ting Huan's automated contraption hung over a lamp: rising hot air turned vanes that spun sheets of paper on which sequential images magically “came alive” ... With ambitious animated films such as the Wan brothers' Princess Iron Fan (released within two years of Disney's Snow White, during the Second Sino-Japanese War no less), China's fledgling animation industry was technically and artistically on par with the rest of the world. At the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, remarkable animated features, such as the vividly colored “Havoc In Heaven”, were created with the active support of the central government ...

    China has done sub-contracting work for American animation for decades. (A Shanghai studio inked bubbles for Disney's The Little Mermaid back in the late eighties.) As Kevin points out, China is now in the process of building its own domestic animation industry.

    The question comes up again and again: "Is U.S. animation going to be sub-contracted away?" My answer is the same now as it was a half-dozen years ago. The world gets more inter-connected by trade and high-speed internet minute by minute. Work will be "going away" at the same time work grows by a factor of three.

    Labor costs are only one part of the equation. There's also the concern of quality control and cultural differences, also this: American producers have discovered over the years that some types of out-sourcing work better than others.

    American animated features outsourced to the Pacific rim have never made it big at the box office. Doesn't mean that it won't someday happen, but it hasn't happened yet. And that plays into production calculations by American Animation Studios. Ice Age: The Meldown was created in White Plains New, York, not Beijing ... or Dubai ... or Monaco. There's a reason for that. Hoodwinked -- out of Manila -- made money, but it wasn't a $700 million worldwide blockbuster.

    Which isn't to say that the majors won't produce a big-budget feature in China or India at some point in the future. World economics are ever-changing. But global animation has grown steadily for years, and I have a tough time envisioning the United State and Southern California not being major players in it far into the future.

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    Son of Linkorama

    Still early in the week, but let's redirect some traffic to subjects we've been dealing with around here.

    Walt Disney Productions from a while ago: Disney veteran Floyd Norman talks about when The Rescuers was going to be a nice, simple, inexpensive movie. This wasn't in the seventies, but the early sixties ...

    The first "B" [animated feature] was underway. Writer/artist Bill Berg began developing "The Rescuers" as a feature film ... Bill quickly had his boards completed, and ready to show to Walt Disney ...

    I was close enough to hear the pitch through the closed story room door. Over an hour had passed and all appeared to be going well until the door opened, and the old guys walked out into the hallway. I moved toward the story room just in time to see the Old Maestro himself walk past me and down the hallway. The look on Walt's face, and his overall attitude told me all I needed to know ...

    When I got to Disney's in 1976, a different version of The Rescuers was being completed. Artists who were working on it told me this second version had also been considered a "B" movie (originally boarded by story artist Fred Lucky) but then turned into an "A" production ...

    The Writers Guild Strike: Patrick Goldstein at the L.A. Times has a nice compendium of Winners and Losers:


    * The WGA leadership: Whenever I spoke to studio chiefs, they heaped abuse on Patric Verrone and David Young, dismissing them as naive, hapless militants with no clue about how to negotiate a showbiz contract. All wrong. Despite some missteps along the way, the WGA leaders kept their fractious membership together, courted the powerful TV show runners, thrashed the studios in the PR wars and stayed cool under fire. For all the concessions they had to make, they got the guild perhaps the best deal it's had in decades. If that's not saying much, that's more a reflection on the perilous state of unions and Hollywood than on the WGA ...

    * Nikki Finke: As much as I hate complimenting someone who has consistently belittled my newspaper's coverage of the strike, not to mention trashed my own work, it's impossible to ignore the fact that Finke turned her Deadline Hollywood Daily blog into a must-read for timely strike coverage. While many of my writer pals scoffed at the accuracy of some of her "scoops," she racked up an eye-popping amount of traffic, proving again that the Web is a great leveler, allowing one dogged reporter to successfully compete with far bigger news organizations ....

    Lastly. Toon Zone interviews Nickelodeon Veep Teri Weiss about Nick's debuting cartoon series Ni Hao Kai-Lan:

    [NHKL] began as a series of shorts that we did ... [O]nce those shorts were complete and we saw this little girl come to life, we just thought there was something there that we wanted to explore in a much deeper way. We just felt like the designs were so beautiful and unique, we thought that the spirit of the character was infectious, and we wanted to see what else we could do with it ...

    And so on and so forth.

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    Monday, February 11, 2008

    WGA Organizing Writers in Animation

    An interesting comment down below regarding the WGA's organizing ... and negotiating for ... writers working in animation:

    ... WGA members waved the flag that "everything has to be written first." For animation, such a statement directly devalues the art created in the animation process.

    If Verrone were serious about organizing animation, he would have included artists in his dialogue - would have really reached out to TAG for public dialogue. Even leading up to the negotiations ...

    So that everyone knows, there have been occasions when the WGA has attempted to organize animation board artists. (Not many, but it's been tried. Without success.) ...

    This afternoon I was talking to an animation writer at one of the congloms who asked me: "What does it take to get animation writers into the WGA?" Here's more or less how I answered him:

    A lot.

    The pie got divvied up around 1940. Animation writers and board artists went into the Screen Cartoonists Guild, live-action writers into the Screenwriters Guild. It's been pretty much the same since.

    The Writers Guild has made runs at animation writers over the decades. The Guild's first notable success was with The Simpsons in 1997 when it negotiated an agreement with Fox for prime-time animation. A few agents told me at the time that the other studios hated this deal, but Fox does what it consider to be best for Fox (just like every other big company in Hollywood. And everywhere else.)

    Outside of prime-time, the WGA has negotiated some other concessionary agreements with animation producers that exclude residual payments. WGA Prez Patric Verrone worked under one of these agreements on Class of 3000.

    But what would it take to get animation writers out of The Animation Guild and into the WGA?

    1) The IA President would have to agree that the IATSE would no longer represent writers in its traditional jurisdiction (animation.) The animation representative (me) doesn't have the authority.

    2) It would then take the various companies who have collective bargaining agreements with the IATSE/Animation Guild to agree that animation writers would be excluded from those contracts.

    3) After those things happened, the WGA would have to organize the non-represented writers and successfully negotiate collective bargaining agreements with those companies that included animation writers.

    Since the WGA just failed to get jurisdiction of animation scribes via the AMPTP, I would say the odds against most writers in animation migrating to the WGA anytime soon are high. I'll be honest here. I'm the IA/TAG rep, so I have a dog in the hunt, but the canine is small.

    There are many animation writers that don't think it's fair that they don't receive residuals. I believe that everyone should make as much money as possible, but I don't have much of an opinion on the fairness thing, because I don't believe in "fair" or "unfair." I'm a union guy. I know from long, hard experience that you only get what you have the leverage to get.

    Anyone who's followed the WGA-AMPTP negotiations know this too. The scales of justice have little to do with it.

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