Monday, March 31, 2008

Disney TVA

Part of the afternoon was consumed traipsing around the third floor of the Frank Wells Building, where Inspector Oso is being readied for a full launch, The Replacements is wrapping up its current season, and Phineas and Ferb is poised and ready to embark on its second season. Oh, and Yin Yang Yo is still thumping along. Sayet the artists:

"I'm supposed to swing over to the second season of Phineas and Ferb... "The producer says it's 99.9% certain to be picked up, but the Channel hasn't green lit it yet" ... "It looks like The Replacements isn't going to go beyond its current order, but I've heard from a couple people it might be renewed" ...

The corporate flow chart of which Disney TVA is a part has changed over the years. Back in the eighties, the place was a stand-alone, with the t.v. division reporting to Jeffrey Katzenberg (who headed up the whole studio operation, feature animation included.) Today, Diz Television Animation nestles beneath the sheltering wings of The Disney Channel, and that corportate subsidiary calls the shots for new and returning cartoon series.

The newest seasons of Mickey's Clubhouse and My Friends Tigger and Pooh have been in work for awhile; last week the Channel finally got around to making its public announcement:

Disney Channel has renewed Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and My Friends Tigger & Pooh for additional 35-episode seasons ... "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and My Friends Tigger & Pooh have captivated preschoolers and their parents around the globe," [said Nancy Kanter, the senior VP of Playhouse Disney Worldwide]. "Both have proven to be ratings winners from day one, and we are looking forward to successful third seasons filled with more exciting Clubhouse and Hundred Acre Wood adventures with Mickey, Pooh and all the gang."

And so on and forth.

For some artists up on the third floor of the Frank Wells Building, things are a little less upbeat, as some Replacements crew members have gotten notice that the gig is ending. "Where's the work out there?" one said to me.

"More hiring in features than television right now," I answered.

He nodded stoically. "Guess I'll just start making phone calls" ...

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Horton Climbs to the Top in Foreign Markets

Horton might have declined to the second spot domestically, but it's Numero Uno overseas:

"Horton Hears a Who" heard the jangling of the most overseas coin over the weekend, topping a moderate frame with $13.2 million at 5,743 playdates in 52 markets and edging "10,000 BC."

The weekend win lifted the toon's foreign cume to $77 million, with "Horton" midway through its international run. Dr. Seuss' big-hearted pachyderm -- a new character to most foreign markets -- has shown solid holdover traction, underlining the generally strong appeal of animated fare in offshore markets ...

The next several months looks to be bright ones for animated features. Horton pretty much has a clear field until Kung Fu Panda (considered by Those In The Know to be a strong entry) rolls out in eight or nine weeks, followed by Wall*E a month later.

The more success for animated features, the more employment making animated features.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

A SAG-AFTRA Bargaining Divorce? Another Strike?

The problems between SAG and AFTRA have been percolating for a considerable while. In the last couple of days, the trouble has boiled over:

... the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists voted today to suspend the guild's 27-year joint bargaining agreement with the Screen Actors Guild, leaving the two unions to negotiate separately on new contracts with the major studios ...

For months, I've heard from entertainment union officials that the blood was bad between the unions and the partnership wouldn't end well. I pretty much believed it until the Screen Actors Guild backed off some of its grab for more votes inside the joint-bargaining committee, and SAG and AFTRA reached joint proposals for their upcoming talks with the producers (the AMPTP) last week. Then I thought: "Well, bully for them, they patched things up," and breathed a sigh of relief that we were (perhaps) past the threat of another industry strike.

But maybe I was thinking too ... ahm ... wishfully:

A rift between the two unions could now undermine SAG's leverage to wring the best possible concessions from the studios in its new contract as AFTRA pursues its own agenda on behalf of its members, who work mostly in television.

The move ends a longstanding partnership between the two unions, known as Phase One, under which they had jointly bargained film and prime-time TV contracts for nearly three decades ...

Months ago, at our mother International's executive board meeting in Florida, I was told by an IATSE muckety-muck:

"SAG seems to be on this suicide mission. AFTRA is organizing cable work and that's where the growth is. SAG is going to find itself out in the cold if it's not careful. The studios aren't going to give the Screen Actors Guild more than they give to everybody else, it just frigging won't happen. They AMPTP will negotiate a deal with AFTRA and do a lot more business with them.

"Entertainment workers, actors and everybody else, follow the work, not the union. SAG better figure that out or it's going to be in deep trouble."

What's interesting to me is that SAG and AFTRA were, a few years back, within an eye-blink of merging into One Big Actor's Union. AFTRA wanted the marriage, but SAG voted it down. At the time, I thought "This is an idiotic move for the actors to make," but what did I know, a silly little labor rep sitting off in Animation Land?

Now, however, the short-sightedness of that rejection could be coming back to bite the Actors Guild hard. I only hope that there isn't one more months-long strike that takes a bite out of the Pension and Health plan.

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Weekend Linkage

Ed Catmull

Pixar topkick comes to praise Utah's new animation training center:

University of Utah graduate Ed Catmull believes Utah has one of the finest computer animation programs in the country. But it's not at his alma mater, the University of Utah. Nope, Utah's finest is at rival Brigham Young University, and Catmull should know.

A graduate of the U.'s legendary computer science program of the late '60s and '70s, Catmull is president of the wildly successful Pixar Animation, which produced "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo." During a visit Thursday to BYU, Catmull complimented the school for producing students with savvy filmmaking know-how.

"All of a sudden in the last few years, BYU has risen to the top," Catmull said. "They're smart about what they do, and the students that come out of it are really good" ...

There's a nasty tax-break war going on between the Brits and a former colony over the traditional animation biz's younger sibling, the video game industry:

For months, British companies have been decrying the exodus of European game developers to Ontario, Quebec and B.C., where tax incentives are helping to attract multimillion-dollar investments and thousands of highly skilled foreign workers -- their talents fuelling the Canadian industry's exponential growth.

"The Canadians have driven a tank over the French Citroen and have now parked on our lawn," Paul Jackson, head of the main industry organization representing British games producers, complained to the Financial Times earlier this week. "It is becoming very challenging to keep core development studios here."

Like it or not, the animation industry encricles the globe. I get reminded of that on a weekly basis when I see the importation of foreign talent to work in the older part of Animationland here in Southern California. (The New York Times profiles the stateside battle for movie production -- including Blue Sky Animation -- here.)

Imagi, one of the newer 'toon studios in L.A., is cranking up its marketing department:

Imagi Studios has established a comprehensive Marketing , it was a Department, based at its Sherman Oaks facility announced by Co‐CEO Douglas Glen.

Headed by Erin Corbett, recently appointed Senior VP of Marketing, the Department will encompass all areas of worldwide marketing, advertising, sales promotions, licensing, tie‐in programs, publicity, public relations and corporate communications.

... In her new position, she will work closely with Imagi’s partners as the studio develops its marketing campaigns, promotions and licensing. Before coming to irketing.Imagi, Gutierrez worked in retal maImagi Studios’ next two films are Astro Boy and Gatchaman, both of which are slated for worldwide distribution in 2009 ...

Actor-director David Schwimmer talks about DreamWorks Animation's other animation franchise:

“There’s a little love story between the giraffe, my character, and the hippo [voiced by Jada Pinkett Smith],” Schwimmer laughed. “That image of them dating – it’s disturbing.”

Last of all. Jenny Lerew of BlankWing Diaries writes about her husband Pete Bateman, who passed away February 13th after a long fight with cancer. (I had no idea until I read her post this weekend.)

Jenny has my deepest condolences. To say the last year and a half has been difficult for her and Pete would be a monumental understatement.

Use what's left of the weekend wisely and well.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Box Office Derby

The Friday turnstile totals are in, and Horton drops to #2, even as it crosses the $100 million threshhold with a $105,000,000 accumulation and a $5,250,000 end-of-week box office ...

21, the card shark epic from Sony, takes #1, with Craig Mazin's Superhero Movie spoof claims the third position with $3.4 million ...

If we use Kevin Koch's Domestic Box Office Total Calculator (pat. pending), we find that Horton will most likely end it's U.S./Canada run with $140-$180 million in the kitty ...

Update: And Horton keeps on trucking. The big guy ends up in the #2 position behind 21 (which collects $23.7 on more screens), but grabs a bigger per-screen average, dropping only 29.1% for the frame.

Superheroes Movie comes in #3, with $9.5 million in the hopper.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Star Voices and Mainstream Movie-Makers

Big, A-list star? Then what was he doing making all those cheapie Sherlock Holmes pictures at Universal-International?

This article from down under complains about celebrities and their vocal cords taking over the sweet, pristine world of animation:

Horton is a shining example of the "all-audience animated comedy", in which celebrity voices spearhead a teflon-coated combination of pop culture references for the adults (Horton, for instance, loves "the smell of bananas in the morning") and kiddie-friendly cute critters, manic slapstick and soft-serve moralising.

Anyone looking for a culprit can blame Robin Williams. The whole celebrity voiceover thing reached critical mass after the comic voiced the genie in Aladdin to worldwide success in the 1992 Disney film ... The elevation of celebrities to the sine qua non of animation is reaching its logical endgame in influencing the appearance of the films. Remember Shark Tale, in which the shark voiced by Robert De Niro had his trademark mole and Angelina Jolie's fish her puffy lips? ...

Actually, the die was cast for celebrity voices in animated films decades ago, when mainstream Hollywood execs ripped animated features from the hands of Disney old-timers and stopped making them the way Uncle Walt did.

The new posse in town wanted full-blown scripts instead of storyboards ("I don't get these drawings on cork board at all. I gotta see a screenplay!"). And they wanted writers with full WGA credentials to write them.


They also desired 24-karat movie stars to voice the words in the script. Sometimes it worked -- as with Mr. Williams in Aladdin. And sometimes it didn't -- as with Brad Pitt in Sinbad.

The Aussie scribe misses one major point: It's not about celebrity voices per-se, or scripted animated films, or anything else. It's about dragging animated features out of the sleepy backwater they occupied at Disney for decades, where a bunch of middle-aged story artists nobody had ever heard of holed up in second-floor rooms in the old Animation Building turning out features like Bambi, Peter Pan, 101 Dalmations, Jungle Book and the like.

Face it. Mainstream Hollywood execs have held sway over animated features since the 1980s, and they're going to make them pretty close to the live action model they know and are comfortable with. (John Lasseter and Brad Bird deviate somewhat from this norm.)

The new way isn't bad, necessarily. But it's certainly different from the old Disney model.

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Employees Who Eat It

So I walk into this studio a few days ago and a chunk of the crew starts griping:

"The production exec here had us all into his office and handed out employment contracts" ... "He said how things are going well and they wanted to offer new personal service agreements" ...

"And he said 'If these aren't signed by the end of the day,' you can clean out your desks and leave'" ... "We kinda got ticked." ... "I don't know if I can keep working here" ...

It's been a little while since I've heard the "my way or the highway" routine rolled out for use, but it (sigh) happens. Along with other things.

Here are some of my favorite corporate maneuvers over the years:

* Companies demanding that salaries be kept confidential (which violates law).

* Companies that make animators salaried employees (which violates Federal regulations that say "animators" are non-exempt -- meaning they have to receive overtime wages).

* Companies that argue "at will" personal service contracts (where an employee can depart at any time) are really "term" contracts (where an employee can't).

That companies misstate, intimidate and sometimes blackmail people who work for them is nothing new. Executives and employees alike have been caught up in a system where budgets and bottom-lines have huge influence and impact for, like, ever. But as we move deeper into the current corporatist age, abuses have gotten worse. Government regulations are ignored with increasing impunity, labor unions regarded with growing contempt.

When I entered the business, studios paid overtime rates of double and triple time and seldom batted an eyelash. Now the watchword is: "There's no budget for overtime" even though premium pay is computed at time-and-a-half and double-time, even though employees are performing o.t. weekday nights and weekends.

As a union rep, I've had execs tell me it didn't matter if they bent or broke the law as long as "nobody takes us to court." I've seen willful violations of state laws, federal laws, and union contracts.

There are, of course, reasons that are given for violating law. Years ago outside Klasky-Csupo -- where we were conducting an organizing campaign and threatening to sponsor lawsuits for unpaid o.t. -- an angry production manager confronted me on the sidewalk:

"These people you say we're not paying premiums to! They wander around the studio all day visiting their buddies!" We're not going to pay them overtime for that! So they have to stay 'til midnight and get their freaking work done! It's their problem!"

My argument that it was the exec's responsibility to manage wandering employees and make them work during business hours fell on deaf ears. Ultimately we had four employees sign onto a suit for nonpayment of o.t. Ultimately we settled for seven thousand dollars. We never got close to a union contract, and Klasky-Csupo was just as non-union the day it went out of business as the day it started.

So what can animation employees do to protect themselves in 2008? For one, it's imperative you know your rights, because if you don't know rules and laws are being breached, there's minimal chance you'll do anything about it.

Keep track of work-hours. Document conversations. Keep files of memos and e-mails that flow back and forth. You might not ever have cause to use them, but it's hard to predict the future. As a discharged animator told me:

"When the studio cut me loose in the middle of my show, I had a strong work record and could prove it. They offered to give me a few months of severance, I wanted double what they were offering. I was polite about it at first, but they kept saying 'no way.'

Finally I had a meeting with a senior exec and detailed the notes and documents I'd kept over the years (I'd been there a long time). Some of the stuff was pretty unflattering to corporate management.

The executive wasn't pleased about the material I had, but the company's attitude changed. In the end, we reached a money settlement I was a lot happier with. After the check had been cut, they told me I should have been nicer about the negotiations. I told them "Yeah, I tried that at first. It got me nowhere.'"

In today's America, it's about money and leverage (have I mentioned this fifteen times before?). If you have more of the second thing you'll get more of the first. I tell people new to the business: "You don't have a lot of power when you start, that comes with time, when the perceived value of your skill sets rise. Don't expect to drive a hard bargain when your leverage is weak."

And those disgruntled crew members up at the top of this post? They didn't like the verbal gun that was pointed at their heads by the supervisor, but after I explained the clauses of the contract being forced on them; most decided it wasn't as awful as they'd orignally thought.

But the attitude of management still irritated them, and therein lies a lesson: In the movie business, people skills are important, especially when dealing with talent needed to create viable product. Companies that don't acquire that skill -- and some never catch on -- tend to be in existence for shorter periods than companies that do.

Sooner or later, bad business practices -- whatever they are -- bring coeporations down. Even in a corporatist age.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Studio 401(k) Meets

Half the week has been spent with 401(k) enrollment meetings -- Disney, DreamWorks, Disney Television Animation and Nick. The drill is, do the meeting, then run from cubicle to cubicle, catching people who blanked out on the confab in the nearby conference room.

"Was that meeting today? I planned to go ... those things just creep up, don't they?"

The format is always the same: Pension Plan overview. How to fill out the forms. How to invest ("Allocate assets between stocks and bonds" ... "Diversify.")

The movie production front: At DreamWorks, crew is swinging off of Kung Fu Panda as the last few departments wrap up their work ...

At Disney, the lighting and surfacing departments on Bolt have cranked into high gear on the trailer, and have gotten word that the work flow is going to be ramping way up in the weeks ahead.

I got a bunch of questions today about overtime ...

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Midweek Linksfest

So many articles, so little time. (And I'm running around to studios the next few days, so a mid-week mini-festival of links is in order. I don't have time just now for a pithy think-piece.)

Director Kevin Lima expounds on his dreams and career:

[Re: Enchanted]: “How does a Disney animated film balance all of these [different] genres?” Because very, very often in those films, especially in the Renaissance of Disney animation with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, they tended to balance a lot of different genres. You know, this movie is a romantic comedy, it’s a musical, it has action-adventure elements and it’s a 2D and 3D animated film, all in one. So, I looked back to what we had done with those classic films and used that in my structure.

(Variety details Lima's latest film project here).

Runaway production to Iowa (not just to the arid Middle East) ... where the corn is as high as a pachyderm's eye.

A family-owned animation company servicing the entertainment industry has moved to Winfield from Los Angeles after Iowa legislators created new tax incentives for film companies locating in the state.

The Iowa Film, Television and Video Project Promotion Program was passed in 2007 to provide tax incentives to attract the film industry, job diversity, and talent to the state. The Iowa Film Office of the Iowa Department of Economic Development operates the program.

“It created fertile ground for companies to relocate to Iowa,” said Stephen M. Jennings, founder and co-president of Grasshorse Technologies Inc. “It was the deciding factor in our transition to Iowa.”

Nick is trailing the Disney Channel into the wonderful world of live-action:

Nickelodeon will follow the Disney Channel into the live-action family-movie business in August with "Gym Teacher," a comedy starring Christopher Meloni ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit") as Dave Stewie, a humiliated Olympian turned "Rambo in polyester shorts and a whistle,"

On the other hand, a new cartoon series arrives on Nick in late April:

"The Mighty B!" [launches April 26], Amy Poehler's new cartoon series about Bessie Higgenbottom, an "aspirational superheroine who's kind of intense and gets advice from her index finger ..."

Disney is getting into the anime game, adapting some of its animation titles to the Japanese market:

US entertainment giant Walt Disney on Thursday unveiled pilot versions of television animation series it is producing in first-of-a-kind tie-ups with Japanese animation studios.

The move, first announced earlier this month, marks a change of strategy for Disney, which has traditionally distributed US-made characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck around the world.

A Japanese adaptation of the popular US "Lilo and Stitch" series will start in late 2008 as "the first Disney animation made in Japan and set in Japan," an official at the Japanese arm of Walt Disney said.

Okay, we're over the middle-of-the-week hump. I want everybody to sprint to the finish.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Runaway to Abu Dhabi

Runaway production is often on animation employees' minds because it often impacts the munber of jobs in So Cal. We just, you know, never envisioned that the United Arab Republics and Dubai would figure in it so prominently:

MGM has inked a massive deal with Abu Dhabi-based real estate developer Sorouh and Jordanian animation shingle Rubicon to create an entertainment destination using MGM and Rubicon franchises ...

The U.S. is a prominent mid-east presence these days. What with the improvement projects now costing $12 billion per month in nearby Mesopatamia, money seems to be flying out the window. So it's nice to see moolah flowing the other way.

The multifaceted strategic alliance, which could be worth up to $1 billion once all the projects are completed, will include retail, leisure and entertainment facilities.

Execs are also looking into creating a dedicated film and TV production fund, as well as exploring the possibility of building an animation studio in oil-rich Abu Dhabi.

"We'll be working together to develop unique content for the region," said Rubicon chief exec Randa Ayoubi. "We will be bringing together East and West to get the best out of both worlds. We have so many stories to tell the rest of the world and actually make money out of it."

Scooby Doo produced in the UAR? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Studio Roundabout

I spent the morning at Imagi, satellite studio of the Hong Kong c.g.i. animation company. They've got newer, larger quarters at the Galleria which are wonderfully decked out.

Astroboy is moving through pre-production. With the story more-or-less locked down, a c.g. crew is visualizing the characters and various environments.

"On other c.g. pictures I've worked on, 2-D designers drew up characters and handed off to the computer graphics crew. On this one, 2-D and 3-D artists are paired up and working together. It makes things go a lot smoother ..."

While Astroboy moves down its track, Gatchaman -- the other feature that's been in work -- is going through continuity and boarding changes.

Over at Nick, Madagascar Penguins is going full steam while El Tigre ends production after two years and 26 episodes.

Penguins is doing a lot of c.g. modelling and visualization work at the Burbank Studio. Animation will be done overseas.

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Health Plan Caps

This question was posted down below:

Is it true there is a 2 million dollar lifetime cap on union member's health care?

Good question. The plan book states: "Each participant or dependent is subject to a lifetime maximum of $2 million paid by the Active Health Plan for benefits ...(p. 44, Active Motion Picture Industry Health Plan Summary Plan Description, July 2007).

There's a few additional wrinkles to this, which anyone who's a participant in the Motion Picture Industry Health Plan should know about ...

Wrinkle One: The lifetime maximum will be reduced to the extent such type of benefits have been paid by the Writers' Guild-Industry Health Fund, Directors Guild of American-Producer Health Plan, Screen Actors Guild-Producers Health Plan, AFTRA Health Fund or successor plans.

Wrinkle Two: The Plan office informs me that once an Active Health Plan participant becomes a Retired Health Plan participant, the Retiree health benefit cap starts at zero, and a retiree is good for another $2 million worth of benefits ...

Lastly: I'm giving you general info here, not holy writ. For the complete Summary Plan document, you need only click here, and all the glorious details of the (Active) Motion Picture Health Plan will be revealed to you.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

At Will Employment? Term Agreements?

Employment of animation artists, writers and technicians go two directions at the bigger studios these days.

Route #1: People are hired "at will", meaning somebody gets employed at the start of a project and laid off at the end, no muss, no fuss and (mostly) no personal service contracts. (This is the road Disney Animation Studios and most television cartoon shops currently travel.)

Route #2: People are employed after signing a Personal Service Contract.

These contracts are either "term" (guaranteeing the employee a defined period of employment, say "June 1, 2008 to May 31, 2009") ...

Or "at will" (meaning no defined period of employment, just the phrase "employed until such time as services are no longer required" embedded somewhere in the document).

Now. Why am I going through this tedious, legalistic crapola? Because, from recent evidence, studios using Personal Service Contracts have undergone a sea change. They are now paying closer attention to which employees are "at will" and which not because of a 2006 California Supreme Court ruling:

... [I]n Dore v. Arnold Worldwide, Inc. ... an employment contract containing an "at will" clause and without a definite term for employment means that either an employer or an employee can terminate that contract without cause and without explanation. The particular contract in issue in this case included a provision that the termination could occur "at any time" ...

What we were seeing a year and a half back were PSCs (Personal Service Contracts) that had mushy language about artists being employed for "run of picture", but without any guarantee of long-term employment.

The animation guild kept saying: "Hey, this is an at will contract, you can lay your employee off when you want, so your employee can leave when she wants."

But some studios kept telling us: "Oh no! These are term deals. These folks have to stay until the end of their assignment. Forget that there are no hard end dates."

Now, however, "run of picture" PSCs are giving way to contracts that are actual term deals ("May 1, 2008 to May 2, 2009").

It took the California Supreme Court to do this. When it was just little us, some 'toon factories maintained that "at will" agreements were really "term." Interesting what a few well-placed judges can do.

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Our long nightmare is over ...

The blog glitch is fixed, and clicking on "Click here to read entire post" will no longer open a separate window.

leonsooi and fabianv had it right on the money, there was indeed a target='_blank' tag hiding in the template code ... we haven't done anything to the template since the format change, so why it took so long to behave that way I have no idea.

Anyway, resume your normal activities.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Animation Overseas

Horton and other animated/live-action features prosper abroad as well as at home:

As in the U.S., school holidays drove international markets during the weekend, with "10,000 BC" maintaining its No. 1 overseas spot for the third consecutive stanza ...

Placing a close No. 2 was 20th Century Fox International's "Dr. Suess' Horton Hears A Who!" The Blue Sky Studios animation title drew an estimated $25.2 million from 6,600 screens in 49 territories, and at least 10 of those were new, including the U.K. (with $6.1 million including previews from 508 screens) and Australia ($2.5 million from about 350 sites). The overseas cume is $50 million, with $136.5 million worldwide.

Capitalizing on the holiday season, Paramount opened "The Spiderwick Chronicles" in 29 markets, nabbing an estimated $15.6 million on the weekend overall from 3,642 screens in 51 territories and grabbing the No. 3 spot. The film's overseas cume stands at $30.1 million.

Other international cume updates: New Line's "The Golden Compass," $276.6 ... and Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks," $138 million.

Not too shabby. Alvin, Horton, 10k, Spiderwick, Golden Compass and probably a couple I've left off are all doing swimmingly at foreign and/or domestic box offices.

So we can see that there is a poop-load of animation doing well around the world.

The point to be made: the success of animation in the marketplace leads directly to more animation jobs. Which explains why the number of those jobs worldwide is at an all time high.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Technical Glitch

For some reason or other, everytime someone clicks on Click here to read entire post, they get the entire post, but in an entirely new window.

Which drives some people crazy. It sort of drives me crazy.

We're rummaging around, trying to discover what causes this strange phenomenon, but until we do, you're probably going to get a new window to read entire post.

One more thing. There's no need to Click there to read entire post, because this is the entire post.

You may now return to your normal pursuits.

Text below the break goes here.

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Easter Box Office

For Friday, Horton Hears a Who remains on top of the heap with $10.5 million and a $71,870,000 total after eight days ...

Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns ends up a strong second with $8,200,000.

And Drillbit Taylor, Mr. Apatow's latest, arrives at #4 with $4,000,000.

Update: Horton stays on top, racking up another $25 million in its second weekend (44% decline). It now owns $86,470,000 of the nation's theater-going coin.

Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns (at #2) is the only other feature to break into the charmed $20+ million circle.

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One more load of linkage, starting with the return and restoration of Disney artwork left in a museum closet for a few decades:

Disney said that the art — cels, backgrounds, preliminary paintings and storyboard sketches — was part of a collection that was handpicked by Walt Disney himself. It was sent to Japan in 1960 for a touring exhibition timed to the opening of the film “Sleeping Beauty.” The exhibition opened at Mitsukoshi Department Store in Tokyo in May of that year and traveled to 16 other stores throughout Japan.

“Walt wanted to explain every element of the animation process, so he chose artwork from all phases of production and a number of films,” said Lella Smith, creative director of the Disney Animation Research Library in Burbank, Calif., which preserves the studio’s artwork. “But the primary focus was ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ ”

Although most of the art is from that film, the collection also includes rare set-ups (cel and background combinations) from two Oscar-winning Silly Symphony cartoons: “Flowers and Trees” (1932), the first Technicolor cartoon and the first film to win the Academy Award for animated short film, and the landmark short “Three Little Pigs” (1933).

The Indian animation company Toonz is apparently kicking into a higher gear:

Toonz started out in 1999 as an animation subcontractor doing the unglamorous legwork for companies that controlled the creative process from the U.S. or elsewhere in Asia. But three years later it made a conscious decision to quit the service sector and take control of its own destiny. The gamble paid off, and Toonz is now courted by potential partners and negotiates its own deals with intellectual property owners and distributors. "We are no longer beggars," says founder and chairman Prabhakaran Jayakumar.

Proof of that is evident from Toonz's slate. Company is partnered with Hallmark on 78-episode kids serial "Finley, the Fire Truck," is hitched with Ashok Amritraj's Hyde Park on "The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus," and with Marvel on the $10 million "Wolverine and the X-Men" series. It recently delivered a direct-to-video feature, "Dragonlance," for Paramount Pictures.

"We went and licensed 'Wolverine' from Marvel, we are doing the production and the packaging," says Jayakumar. "On 'Dragonlance,' we went to Hasbro and it was us who approached Paramount."

Company also develops its own content for the Indian market, notably India's first homegrown animated series, "The Adventures of Tenali Raman," and "Geet Mahabarat." ...

DreamWorks Animation has gone and hired itself a new topkick for development:

DreamWorks Animation SKG has named Alex Schwartz head of development, responsible for overseeing the development of all projects at the toon factory. She fills the position vacated by Kristine Belson, who will produce the studio's upcoming feature film, Crood Awakening [This is Chris Sanders' project.].

“As we see the line between live action and animation continue to blur, we are eager to broaden our slate and bring new talent into the studio,” says Bill Damaschke, co-president of production at DreamWorks Animation.

The New Wall*E trailer (like, if you haven't seen it) is here.

Starz Media is producing an animated version of Electronic Arts's Dead Space.:

EA will partner with Starz Media which will produce an animated film for TV and DVDs which will appear at the same time that Dead Space launches this Halloween. The game is akin a third-person shooting game where a crew aboard a mining ship has to deal with the discovery of a strange artifact and the aliens that come with it.

This move is part of a clear strategy by Electronic Arts to turn its video games into cross-media entertainment franchises. EA realizes that movie and book licenses are becoming increasingly expensive. It also sees that Hollywood studios such as Warner Bros. are investing heavily in their own video game divisions ...

Actually this baby is already well into work. Board artists were working away on it when I ambled through the studio last week. But now that it's been announced on the internets, I can unsipper my big mouth.

The L.A. Times profiles a tribute to two of animation's finest:

[Tex Avery and Michael Maltese], who worked briefly together at Warner Bros. in the 1930s and remained good friends, were both born in 1908 -- which is why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is presenting a double centennial tribute, "Putting Looney in the Toons," on Monday at the Linwood Dunn Theater.

"We're showing about a dozen cartoons in their entirety that will reflect their individual accomplishments," programmer Randy Haberkamp says. "And we're running sound clips and a couple of other pieces that will serve to give them a little bit of voice as far as them talking about their own work." (Avery died in 1980; Maltese, in 1981.)

Maltese's daughter, Brenda, is also scheduled to talk about her dad. "He was always funny . . . he had charisma," she says. "He would walk in a room and take over." ...

Her father, she says, used his home environment for his art. "He took a lot of [his ideas] from our animals. We had dogs and cats, and he would pick up on anything."

The dvd for Enchanted is now out, and visual references in the flick to various Disney animated features have been flogged until the bones show. Even so, Rope of Silicon has taken the time to line a lot of them up:

The Academy Awards and Annies aren't the only animation awards out there. Far across the sea, India also holds an awards contest:

... Tech 2 and Arena Animation in association with Aptech and CNBC 18 held the Golden Cursor Animation Awards on 20 March, 2008 in Mumbai.

The event saw a massive turnout in terms of the who's who in the Indian Animation Industry. These awards were awarded in 21 categories including best Indian and international feature film (animation). The guests of honor included Speedy comic strip creator Tim Mostert and Spark Unlimited Animation director and co-founder Sunil Thankamushy.

Percept Studios won two awards for Return of Hanuman for Best Animated Film (Abhishek Nayyar) and Best Animated Background Score (Tapas Reliya) ...

An exhibit of the works of one Carl Barks is now up for viewing at a Geppi's Entertainment Museum in Baltimore:

... Born to Oregon farmers in 1901, Barks spent years as a laborer and struggling cartoonist before joining Walt Disney's animation team in 1935. In 1942, he left the studio, due to health reasons, and tried farming. But he soon began writing and drawing comic books, anonymously, for Western (aka Dell and Whitman), the publisher of Disney comics. After a time drawing all sorts of characters, he settled on Donald Duck comics, and over the next quarter century ... created Duckburg, Uncle Scrooge, Gyro Gearloose, and other familiar characters and settings and cartooned hundreds of duck tales in titles such as Walt Disney's Comics and Stories.

...The chance to see a full original story is an opportunity that can't be passed up for anyone interested in Barks or comic-book history in general. To connect with an artist, to reflect on his life and work, there may be no better way to do so than seeing his actual pencil and ink lines, to see the whiteout and other corrections. Despite the somewhat clumsy gallery configuration and Barks' too-slick line work on "Yukon," his skills still shine. He sweeps his characters along in this story of Uncle Scrooge, Donald, and his nephews heading to Alaska to prevent some chiseler from taking Scrooge's fortune ...

Have a productive yet restful Easter weekend. And please, don't over indulge in chocolate eggs and rabbits.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Competition in Toonland?

And as the Hollywood Reporter writes about television animation, so Daily Variety analyzes the theatrical version:

The world of feature animation -- once thought to be the exclusive domain of Disney and DreamWorks -- is getting increasingly competitive, as studios left outside the gates of the toon kingdom are employing aggressive tactics to break in.

With the successful bow of "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who," Fox Animation reaffirms its place in the top tier, thanks to a string of hits from its Blue Sky CGI studio, capped by "Horton."

Word out and about -- and I've only got a couple of sources so label this "rumor" -- is that Chris Wedge, the founding father of Blue Sky and the man who led the first Ice Age, is not super happy with Fox execs and might move on at some point.

Then, of course, Fox is allegedly pretty tight-fisted in the money department with its Blue Sky unit. (Like, they're not real keen on high salaries for the production crew.) Maybe the complaints I've heard from animators extend to Mr. Wedge?

The other studios are jockeying to join that select crowd.

Universal successfully courted former Fox toon topper Chris Meledandri, who oversaw development on "Horton" and the "Ice Age" franchise, by helping him establish his own independent family entertainment company. The studio's exclusive deal with Meledandri includes partial ownership of his production house, Illumination.

I've called the Universal/Meledandri shop on behalf of artists who've asked me what's going on there. When I checked a couple of months ago, they were still setting up the studio and had little to tell me. By now, of course, things have no doubt changed.

Though it has struggled with its two first releases, Sony recently put new execs atop its animation unit and claims to be re-committing to the space.

We posted about the exec reshuffling at Sony a little while back. I know that long-time employees at SPA were worried that Amy Pascal (head of Sony) was going to sell the Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Picture Imageworks "if the right offer came along."

Selling those two Sony subsidiaries is now, happily, off the table. I have no idea why there was a change of corporate heart, but I'd wager it was a combination of wanting to make Sony's animated franchise work (what with all the successes other studios are having) and few credible offers for the purchase of SPI and SPA.

But I'm glad Sony Pictures Animation is going to soldier on; they've got some topflight people down there in Culver City, and certainly Imageworks/Animation has the creative muscle to make things work. Many people in the cartoon biz had warm feelings for Surf's Up, it just never caught fire at the box office. (More than one artist said to me: "Kinda sucks to be the fifth or sixth penguin movie out there ...")

Coming off the success of "Happy Feet," Warner Bros. has thrown a multitude of projects into development and is hoping to become a destination for live-action filmmakers interested in toons, and for independent animation studios.

Warners, back in the go-go nineties, set up its own feature animation group in Glendale, and didn't have a lot of luck with most of its releases (Quest for Camelot, Iron Giant, Osmosis Jones). Warners Feature Animation is a distant memory. This time around, WB looks to be partnering up with outside players as it gets deeper into the feature animation game.

The big difference with animated features in the 21st century is, Disney isn't the sole colossus anymore. Unlike the early 1990s, when every feature anmation producer crashed and burned trying to emulate the Mouse House's hand-drawn blockbusters, this time around there are a multitude of studios enjoying success and big bucks in cartoon land.

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Video Reference II

Kevin writes:.

... If you’re shooting reference to copy from, rather than to learn from, then you won’t advance as an animator. Just copying will help you produce a particular shot with more nuance and better biomechanics, but you risk becoming an overfed mo-cap machine. In fact, one of the things that makes most mo-cap look unsatisfactory is that there’s no discrimination to what’s captured. A mo-cap system captures as much data as it can, without judgment. The key, distinctive elements of a behavior are given the same weight as random, irrelevant movements (while some key information is completely missed).

As an animator using any kind of reference, we have to have the intelligence and artistic judgment to edit out the ‘noise’ and exaggerate the good stuff. Ah, yes, exaggeration. One of Frank and Ollie’s 12 principles, and one which many people consider the very soul of animation ...

We want to go far beyond any form of rotoscoping or roto-lite. As I’ve said, I’m a crap actor. The last thing I want is animation that’s a little bit better than what I can do as an actual actor. I want animation that’s a million times more interesting than any performance I could ever do.

So, should we avoid shooting our own reference if we aren’t great actors? I don’t think so. Reference is a chance to go beyond the ‘rules of thumb’ that have been handed down. It’s a chance to avoid using the lore we’ve learned from other animators, and observe for ourselves how something really works ... .

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

The TV 'Toon Marketplace

I've had lots of conversations with directors and execs about how the television cartoon space is doing. Disney, Cartoon Network, Nick and others have had their ups and downs, and lately many have been in the Drop Zone ... down in the dumps.

Which of course hurts animation employment big time, because when the cartoon marketplace is crappy, the number of artists working is also crappy. So I was happy to see this on the front page of the Hollywood Reporter:

A 13-year winning streak on the ratings front and a roster of franchise hits like "SpongeBob SquarePants," "The Fairly OddParents" and the new live-action series "iCarly" -- which drew 21.7 million viewers during the course of its Sept. 9-10 premiere weekend, averaging 3.92 million viewers per showing -- have planted Nick squarely in the driver's seat in ad-supported cable.

"It's quickly becoming a one-horse race with the lead we have and the momentum we've sustained," Perry said. "But we're never going to rest on our laurels. All it takes is one hit and someone's back on their feet." In this case, that "someone" refers to second-place Cartoon Network.

When the Turner network unveils its upfront slate on April 3, the centerpiece of the presentation will focus on a new project from Star Wars creator George Lucas. Cartoon has ordered 22 episodes of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," a CGI-animated series ...

You don't have to be psychic to know that the t.v. side of animation has been hurting. The Disney Channel has filled timeslots with live-action, squeezing out animated shows, and other cable networks have cut back on animation because ratings have been lacklustre. As a Cartoon Network exec said to me some months back (and I reported here earlier): "We've been hurting in the ratings. And lately we've been #3 ... a distant #3 ..."

Maybe I'm being Pollyannish about this, but in the last few weeks t.v. employment has picked up a bit. It's not just that artists are returning to the Fox prime time shows after a three-month writers' strike, it's the daytime stuff as well. Chowder is doing well for Cartoon Network and its staff is now back at work; Nick has greenlit new episodes of Fairly Odd Parents and Sponge Bob Square Pants; even long-hibernating Warners Animation has a Scooby Doo feature and series order.

Maybe it will be nothing more than a short-lived expansion. Maybe the bloom still has not returned to the small-screen animation rose. But the lede in the Hollywood Reporter fills me with hope:

Early reports on the ill health of the kids upfront [ads for teevee cartoons] have been greatly exaggerated, according to network ad sales executives, who hope to swap out Chicken Little projections of a flat to down market in favor of a more blustery Foghorn Leghorn outlook.

Let us pray that it is so.

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Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan and the WGA Strike

The MPIPHP has crunched numbers regarding what impact the recently ended Writers Guild strike had on the cash flow and overall numbers of the Industry Plan (which covers 120,000 participants).

The hit, as it turns out, wasn't as bad as it could have been ... but there was a hit.

According to Plan accountants, contributions declined sharply over the length of the strike.

In November 2007, after the strike had started but before television production shut down, Plan Contributions increased 12% over the same time frame in November 2006.

In December 2007, as television production gradually went dark, Plan contributions decreased 8.5% from the same period in December 2006.

In January 2008, when almost all t.v. production was down, Plan contributions decreased 20% from January 2007.

And in February 2008, Plan contributions decreased 25% from February 2007.

During the writers' action, one of the questions I got asked a lot was: "So what happens to our health coverage if this goes on for eight months to a year?"

And I said: "Nothing good, but we've got a cushion to carry us for awhile."

The size of that cushion dropped slightly December to December, but as of December 31, 2007, we were still in pretty good shape. We went from 15.7 months of reserves* for active participants at the end of 2006 to 14.7 months of reserves at the end of 2007.

Happily, the strike lasted only 3 months. That helped decrease long-term damage.

* A month of reserves means if NO money comes into the Health Plan for thirty days, then the Plan has enough money to keep paying benefits for thirty days (one month).

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Video Reference

Once more Kevin writes:

When I first started working in animation in the late 1990’s, video reference was looked down upon, like some kind of unworthy crutch. I remember during Quest for Camelot another assistant whispering to me that he’d seen one of the animators enlarging frames of live-action reference at the photocopy machine. The animator looked embarrassed and quickly went back to his office. At DreamWorks every now and then I’d get a glimpse of an animator doing a bit of reference photography or videography, and I noticed it was usually done at a time and place where it wouldn’t get too much attention. Even using self-produced reference as a general tool, without taking individual images and registering and pegging them up, was seen as cheating. Plus it was a big hassle for a variety of reasons, even after video camcorders became commonplace ...

Somehow the shift to CG animation has taken the curse off using video reference. Maybe, with everything digital, it’s just much easier to shoot and use your own reference at your desk. Maybe it’s that CG animation tends to require more realistic movement to not look wonky. I think a big part of it is that CG animation is less spontaneous than hand-drawn - there’s no CG equivalent of a scribble test (at least not yet), and few CG animators (even those who started in 2D) do extensive thumbnails. Shooting a few passes of video reference can go a long way towards organizing one’s thoughts about basic timing and posing, while also revealing bits of nuance that CG animation is particularly good at capturing.

That said, many animators still never use video reference. Jeff Gabor [seen above] clearly enjoys being in front of the camera and performing. Most animators are a lot more shy. One of my old office-mates, Kevin MacLean, is one of the best animators I know, but he’s shy enough that I had to take his place in a DreamWorks improv class. The class would have been torture to him. I know he never shot reference for his scenes, yet he turned in some of the most sensitive and expressive acting shots in "Over the Hedge". On the same film, my pal Sean McLaughlin did some beautiful, dead-on video reference of himself, sometimes playing multiple parts, with great results ...

The full post is, of course, at Synchrolux ...

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At Studios

A short week doesn't mean I don't make the usual rounds. It's me and my trusty bag of 401(k) books, shuttling from studio to studio.

Starz Media is rehiring Simpson crews bit by bit. Every time I drop by there are more artists back at work. On King of the Hill, various leads expect the show to get renewed for another season, but there's nothing offical ... and no Hill personnel rehired yet from hiatus ...

And there's a medium-sized crew working on a direct-to-video feature on a tight budget and schedule, but the artists are happy to be pulling checks.

Over the Santa Monica Mountains at Fox Animation, the same kind of rehiring is going on: every week, artists who've been off of Family Guy or American Dad for one month, two months or longer are being pulled back from unemployment to board and design new scripts. Artists told me:

"It's great to be back but we don't have any new voice tracks, so there's only so far we can go" ... "Seth [McFarlane] is still negotiating a new contract and until it's done he's not recording new shows" ... "It's a pretty big topic of conversation around here." ...

Meanwhile, development on the prospective Cleveland Brown spin-off continues apace, so it looks like Fox Animation is going to be around awhile ... after the new Seth McFarlane employment contract is tied up with a bow (this will happen soon, right?) ... and the SAG negotiations are successfully wrapped up. (This will occur in the near future, yes? No long strike?)

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Production Costs, Union Costs

Some hours ago, I had an enlightening talk with a Wise Old Animation Director who works Everywhere (union and non-union) and knows Everyone (union and non-union).

Among other things, we talked about budget overruns we've seen over the years. I told him about some of the doozies I'd encountered (thinking of a daytime series a decade ago that ran up a tab of a million dollars an episode ... when a mill was real money; one 22-minute piece hitting the $ 2.5 million mark.) The W.O.D. said:

"I know a production exec at one of the studios who's in deep doo-doo. She keeps choosing inexperienced show-runners who keep having big cost overruns with their projects. She thinks hiring "new blood" is what her bosses want. But the newbies keep lousing up because they don't know how to run a production, where to put the dollars, what's important and what's not. They're not stupid, they've just never been in charge of a show and budget before.

"And now the production exec is uptight that she's going to be let go because she's hired all these smart but green artists who don't know how to keep things on an even keel."

What I've found over the years is that production costs aren't determined by the crew being "union", or the expense of the benefits package, or richness of the wage rates.

They're determined by the staffing decisions made before production begins.

If the right story artists are hired (you know, ones that can do the job?), the correct writers signed, and a savvy, experienced director who knows how to orchestrate the proceedings and personnel is put under contract, then the show (feature or t.v.) is probably going to come in at close to budgeted costs.

Oh. And be pretty good.

Wandering around as I do, I see lots of waste. There have been shows where directors come and go, characters get redesigned, storylines revamped. Some of this is unavoidable, but a lot of it is plain old waste predicated on lousy choices up front:

Hey! Let's get some new recruits! They're young, they're enthusiastic! They can draw real good! And they're really, really cheap!"

Except they're not. Because they've got no clue about the requirements of a professional production, so they make lots of mistakes. Expensive mistakes. And then some old pro is brought aboard to salvage the smoldering wreckage, and the exec who made the original decision to hire the newbie (who will end up being quite good when he/she gets a little seasoning) tries to fob the responsiblity for the debacle off on somebody else.

This all seems obvious and elementary, but it's not. Because over thirty-plus years, I've seen the same dumb choices being made again ... and again ... and again.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Network of Cartoons

Today was my Cartoon Network day.

The Chowder crew returned from hiatus this Monday, and plans are afoot for a new wave of short subjects to be produced ...

A well-placed studio person told me:

"We'll have six supervisors doing three shorts each, and overseeing a bunch more. We're gonna be doing a lot of animation here next summer ..."

Here's hoping. The cupboards been relatively bare in teevee animationland the last several months.

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The Eyes Have It (Deux)

Kevin writes:

The subject of eye movements is doubly important in animation because the physiology and psychology that applies to our character’s eye movements applies equally to what our actual audience is doing when they watch our animation.

In other words, understanding eye direction and eye movement tells us not only how to animate our characters, but also how to understand (and manipulate) the viewer’s visual experience. It’s two sides of the same coin.

So where do people look when they’re looking at a face? ...

...Tom Sito talks about the Triangle of Interest - a triangle formed by viewer’s gaze pattern as they scan between the eyes and the mouth ...

... [W]hen we’re ‘reading’ a face, most of the time is spent scanning the eyes. We attend to the nose and mouth much less, and other parts of the face get short shrift. Another nice example of eye scanning a photo of a human face is here.

There is soooo much vital information in the region of the eyes, yet this region has gotten relatively little attention in most animation reference works. I spent a few hours over the weekend going though my many stacks of notes from various animation talks and lectures, and I could barely find anything on animating eyes and eye movements and eye lids. Richard Williams’ The Animator’s Survival Kit gives it a single page at the very end of several hundred pages of how to animate humans. From that book you’d assume that funny walks are about 1000 times more important that good animation of the eyes. Preston Blair’s two wonderful animation books for Walter Foster (Animation and Advanced Animation, combined into Cartoon Animation) don’t explicitly touch the subject at all. Frank and Ollie’s The Illusion of Life has a rather good 7 pages or so on the subject, though much of that material relates to how to draw the eyes, or photos of kittens. Other books don’t even mention this vital subject at all ...

(Click here or above for Kevin's full post ...)

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Hooray for Fox

While people were fixated on Pixar, here comes Fox News Corp., raking in the cash:

On the heels of a ubiquitous ad campaign and positive reviews, Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! enjoyed the biggest debut of the year by taking in $45.1 million, according to studio estimates from box office trackers Nielsen EDI.

The haul was about $5 million more than projected and broke Disney's stranglehold on the top five openings for animated movies. 20th Century Fox's Horton took fifth place, behind Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Cars and Ratatouille ...

The effete snobs among us will sneer at anything not produced in Emeryville, but I'm telling you, the more studios that produce hits, the more work there is for everybody in animation.

Fox now has a string animated blockbusters behind it: Ice Age, Ice Age the Meltdown, The Simpsons Movie, Alvin and the Chipmunks. And now, Horton Hears a Who. Quite good for a company not called DreamWorks, Disney, or Pixar. And more power to it.

Somewhere in Beverly Hills tonight, Rupert is smiling.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Word About the 'Hard Times'

(Some of the voice actors for Horton Hears a Who.)

Down yonder, a commenter mentioned how Carrey, Carrell and Burnett had negative things to say about their participation in Horton Hears a Who in today's L.A. Times. That they didn't give it "a ringing endorsement."

I hadn't read the piece, so I was like, concerned. And so I went and perused the article. When I finished I thought, "Yeah? They acted in isolation? Without the other actors? They floundered around with their interpretations because the picture kept changing ... morphing ... and the directors were remolding things as they went?"

Gee. Welcome to the creative cauldron of the animated feature. Like since the beginning of time.

See, what these actors might not know is that the process they found so painful is the way every feature gets made. It was exactly the same drill drill in 1937 ... 1940 ...1980 ... 2008.

Story concepts change, so six months of previously-recorded dialogue is thrown overboard.

Somebody -- maybe the director, maybe one of the story crew -- gets a hot idea for a new sequence. Everybody loves it and the new stuff gets put in. But suddenly the guy working off in isolation on sequence eight, who's been away from those particular trees and therefore has a better view of the whole forest, sees the new direction in a pitch meeting or in a screening of the latest version and says: "Wait! That new thing changes the characters and relationships in the opening! And in Sequence Four! We gotta change those other things!"

And everybody on the crew, everyone who lives with this writhing, evolving snake called an animated feature, sees that he's right. And suddenly everything gets reexammined and story points and dialogue change yet again.

Oh. And that "isolation" thing? Actors have never recorded together in features (and sure, there's exceptions, always are ...). The reason they don't (mostly) record as an ensemble is so that directors, animators and editors have clean, single-actor takes they can cut together, without other actors' voices overlapping.

But for the unfortunate thespian, who comes in for a strenuous January recording session all alone, and puts himself through the wringer trying to give the cirector up in the booth what he wants, it's frustrating and maddening. Because all that torture from January, all the brilliant emoting, is out the frigging window and these animation yutzes are now doing something different.

Little wonder that the media interviews aren't "upbeat." But I'm telling you, as a guy who once went through the process, who knew the guys who originated the process, this is the way it always effing is.

Because making an animated feature can be creative torture. There's no "script, shoot and edit" process like there is in much of live action. Never has been, never will be. The mold was formed in 1936-1937, and it's never been broken.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Horton Thunders In

Horton Hears a Who enjoys an energetic Friday, gathering in $13.3 million at the Friday box office.

As Variety tells us:

"Horton" posted the third best opening day for both a pre-summer animated pic and a Twentieth Century Fox-Blue Sky Studios production, ranking behind 2006's "Ice Age: Meltdown" ($21.8 million) and 2002's "Ice Age" ($13.5 million).

"Horton" will likely follow a similar B.O. path to the first "Ice Age" this weekend, which bowed to $46.3 million during the third three-day frame of March 2002.

The other c.g.i. animated film (okay, it's only partial) 10k B.C. falls into second place with $4.9 million. It's now collected $49.7 million.

But certainly this is fine news for animation employees, yes?

Update: And Horton enjoys a fine weekend:

"Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears A Who!" trampled its rivals at the North American box office on Sunday with weekend sales of $45.1 million, the biggest opening of the year...

Fox ... said "Horton" ranks as the fifth-biggest G-rated opening ever; the top honor is held by 2003's "Finding Nemo" with $70.2 million. The studio expected Easter school vacations to boost the film's midweek performance ...

Fox has had a string of animated smashes the last couple of years. And as a Fox exec told me recently, the company is adept at getting more bang from its advertising dollar than many of its rivals. "They spend less money than Disney or DreamWorks," the exec said.

Be that as it may, Fox is definitely on a roll. The media sometimes overlooks it, but Pixar/Disney and DreamWorks aren't the only hevy hitters in Animationland.

The other Top Ten flicks with animation in them: 10k B.C. at #2 ($61.2 million); The Spiderwick Chronicles at #10 ($65.4 million).

(You can find the rest of the weekend box office here.)

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Sony Changes Its Mind?

There've been changes down at Sony's digital group over the last week and year. First Penny Finkelman Coxe departed her Sony Pictures Animation executive position, then last week Yair Landau left for ostensibly greener pastures.

And now, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Sony exec Bob Osher's stepping into the slot Laundau is leaving:

Osher joined Sony Pictures in 2004, and has been serving as COO of the Columbia Pictures Motion Picture Group; he will continue to have oversight over his current areas of responsibility within that group.

Sounds to me like Mr. Osher's responsiblities are expanding, and that Sony has effectively eliminated one executive slot (or two, if Sandra Rabins move to producer is counted).

But, for me, that wasn't the most interesting facet of the article. This was:

In 2007, SPE generated attention when it retained an investment bank to place a value on Imageworks and Sony Pictures Animation. "There were discussions about selling Imageworks. Strategically, we made a decision to take that off the table," Osher said. "We think it is a terrific business to be in."

Over the last few months, I've heard Sony animation employees speculate darkly that the whole joint was going to be sold off. It's good to know -- assuming that the Reporter's story is accurate -- that won't be happening.

One less animation shop means one less group of artists and technicians earning a paycheck. And that's not something anyone wants.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

The 'Toon Linkomatic

And now, the links of mid-March.

USA Today previews DreamWorks' 3-D spectacular Monsters and Aliens:

... [T]he DreamsWorks sci-fi spoof, landing March 27, 2009, also transforms a once-tacky Ike-era gimmick into an eye-popping 21st-century experience as the first computer-animated feature to be shot in 3-D.

Studios such as Disney have dimensionalized CGI films, but only after a non-3-D version was made.

DreamWorks, which will preview Monsters for ShoWest exhibitors in Las Vegas today, is commit- ted to doing all its animated releases directly in 3-D from now on. "This isn't our father's 3-D," says the studio's animation chief, Jeffrey Katzenberg ...

While we're on the subject of 3-D, the LA Times covered Jeffrey Katzenberg (Dreamworks Animation's dollar-a-year CEO) and his speech about the glorious new world of three dimensions at ShowWest ... as well as lots of other items. (And Hollywood Reporter columnist Greg Kilday points out it's still nice for 3-D movies to have compelling stories).

Brad Bird departs animation to journey back to Warner Bros. and live action:

Brad Bird has signed on to make his live-action feature directorial debut with "1906," a co-production between Warner Bros. and Disney/Pixar, with the historical San Francisco earthquake as its backdrop ...

"1906" will mark a return for Bird to the studio that released his 1999 2-D-animated film "The Iron Giant." The movie was critically acclaimed though failed to muster much muscle at the boxoffice, causing some to suggest that Warner Bros. had failed to market the film aggressively enough ...

We posted Mark Evanier's obituary of Dave Stevens. Here's the L.A. TIMES obit and a longer bio on Dave's work and career (courtesy of Mr. Evanier).

Animation Magazine profiles Nicktoons present and near-future product:

Currently in its sixth season, SpongeBob SquarePants has been given another 26-episode order ... The Fairly OddParents was renewed for an additional 20 episodes ... The network has committed to at least 20 new installments of its latest hit toon, Back at the Barnyard ...

And while Sony Pictures Animation is having less than stellar results with its theatrical releases, Sony Adelaide (the teevee toon arm) has itself a hit:

"The Spectacular Spider-Man" swung to new heights for Kids' WB! on The CW for Saturday, March 8, scoring season high household numbers in its timeslots and raising ratings by significant percentages during the series' premiere weekend for the No. 1 rated broadcast network kids lineup, according to Nielsen Research Media ...

Later today, Horton comes to a theatre near you. Rottentomatoes rating (as of the moment I write) is solidly positive on the flick. The Orlando Sentinental is downright enthusiastic:

"Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" is the best cartoon ever to come out of Blue Sky Studios, the animation house that produced the "Ice Age" blockbusters. And for that, Fox and Blue Sky have Dr. Seuss to thank ...

We just came across this disheartening story: the Russian Guvmint isn't happy with some of Mother Russia's television cartoons ...

The cartoon channel 2x2 has yanked two animated programs from its rotation after being warned by the federal media watchdog that the shows promote a "cult of violence and brutality."

The Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency issued an official warning to 2x2 over the cartoons "Happy Tree Friends" and "The Adventures of Big Jeff" because it is "absolutely against the law to promote cruelty," agency spokesman Yevgeny Strelchik said Wednesday ...

Thank God the shows aren't being produced by one of TAG's contract studios.

Yair Landau of Sony Pictures Imageworks and Animation, one of their digital kingpins, is leaving the company to strike out on his own:

After 17 years at the studio and nearly a decade as president of its digital division, Yair Landau is preparing to leave Sony Pictures Entertainment in April ...

Sony Pictures Imageworks blossomed under Landau and president Tim Sarnoff. In 2003, its first animated short, "The Chubb Chubbs!" won an Academy Award for best animated short film. Two years later, Imageworks' work on "Spider-Man 2" won an Oscar for achievement in visual effects.

Landau established Sony Pictures Animation in 2002. Along with Penney Finkelman Cox and Sandra Rabins, they assembled a team of filmmakers that have produced 2006's "Open Season" and 2007's Oscar-nominated "Surf's Up" ...

So, is this departure entirely voluntary? Or was there a gentle nudge?

Finally, the Oregonian tells us that Henry Selick's new stop-motion film will debut before the year is done:

"Coraline," the keenly anticipated debut animated feature from Laika, the Portland-based studio owned by Phil Knight, is still being filmed in our fair city. But it will make its first appearance in limited release in December, 2008 (no doubt to qualify for Academy Award consideration), and open in general release on Feb. 6, 2009 ...

Directed by Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas"), "Coraline" is a dark fairy tale from Neil Gaiman. A young girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning), finds a door in her house that leads to an alternate version of her life. It seems too good to be true -- and sure enough, it is ...

Addendum: The British Animation Awards have showered trophies on Aardman animation:

Shaun The Sheep: Still Life, which is broadcast on CBBC, won best children's series and the children's choice award.

The Pearce Sisters, a short film that also won a Bafta this year, won the best craft award.

Aardman was also awarded the gong for best commissioned new media animation for The Peculiar Adventures of Hector at London's National Film Theatre.

Nice to know Aardman is still going strong, even without the DreamWorks partnership ...

Continue your memorable weekend.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

It Ain't Just U.S. Animation ...

There are other areas of the globe facing outsourcing and workplace issues; author Aaron Bynum brings the reality into focus:

...[T]he Japanese animation industry--which occupies 62% of the world market, according to China Daily--has become apprehensive over money matters. The quality of employment for animators has not improved in several years, and for many reasons; while the expanding work load for the overwhelmingly predominant array of small animation studios has become burdensome, forcing producers and financiers to look toward external markets for grunt work ....

Naturally enough, Japanese companies making good money from current quality product are nervous this newer trend could maybe kill the golden goose:

... "Unless something is done, Japanese anime will be ruined," Koichi Murata, the President of animation production group Oh Production, stated recently ...

But it's not just corporate execs who have worries about the state of Japanese animation. The artists also get stressed:

With constant on-the-job training and relentless television schedules that call for twelve-hour workdays, for every day of the week, these new graduates and others of the Japan cartoon market are finding themselves vastly outpaced by the demands of wealthy broadcast and satellite television stations (who in turn, contract studios for a fraction of the animated property's estimated worth) ...

The problem in Japan, of course, is the problem any "high wage" country faces: at some point, companies figure out moving some of the work to a low-wage area of the globe saves them money. And the home-grown artists find themselves trapped in jobs with stagnant/declining wages.

Of the some 440 animation production companies in the country of Japan, sources report 70% are small, with only thirty or fewer workers. About 80% of the country's animation production offices are located in and around the Tokyo metropolitan area, where escalating property values even seem to conspire against struggling animators.

"Sometimes I want to give up," an animator with roughly a year's experience, 26-years-old, employed at Oh Production, is quoted stating. "I never imagined it would be like this.''

The relentless push for "more ... faster ... and cheaper" is a phenomenon stretching around the world.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Eyes Have It

Kevin Koch writes:

I’ve been thinking a lot about eyes and eye movements, probably because I’ve done a lot of close-up acting shots on Terra, and some of the characters have HUGE eyes. I’ve found that some of the ‘rules’ and clich├ęs I’ve been taught about how to do eye movements don’t really hold up, or don’t go far enough. In particular, I’ve been spending time really watching people’s eyes, and looking closely at what actors do with their eyes, and looking at some good reference ...

The 1930’s and early 1940’s were probably the key period when animator’s systematically figured out the major principles of animation (only a small subset of which are summarized in the famous 12 Principles of The Illusion of Life). A lot of what was figured out then related to acting, and to the use of eye direction, blinks, eye movements, and so on to convey thought and feeling. It’s these areas that I want to explore here, without necessarily accepting what’s been written in animation books or what gets passed on from animator to animator. I think the usual rules pertaining to eye’s and blinks and saccades are generally fine for hand-drawn animation, but this is one area where CG animation can, and should, go further.

That said, one rule that we hear again and again is that the audience pays particular attention to the eyes of our characters. This is most certainly true, probably more true than many of us keep in mind ...

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Breaking Into Golden Circles

What's most interesting to me about this L.A. Times article about the marble citadel in Emeryville is how much it sounds like the structure I saw ... and the stories I heard ... at Disney three decades ago. First, consider these article snippets:

For all the success ... there's very little room atop Pixar's food chain ... Pixar director slots are few and far between ...

[Jan] Pinkava [original director of Ratatouille] speaks highly of Pixar. "It's a tremendous environment, a company based on everybody wanting to do great animation." But after "Ratatouille" he decided it was time to go. "I was never quite on the inside of Pixar -- I was on the edge of the inner circle. But I have no complaints, really. None."

Pinkava doesn't think Pixar has a glass ceiling: "I'm not sure it's a ceiling as much as it's a runway congestion problem."

For decades at Disney, it took the equivalent of an act of Congress to break into the Mouse House's version of the Golden Circle. Grizzled veterans told me: "Until they started retiring, nobody around here got to be a directing animator except the Nine Old Men.". The Disney story department had their long-time stalwarts and that was pretty much the ball game.

It's a truism with many successful organizations that old-timers defend their turf ferociously, and take few prisoners. (Niven Busch, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, told me how fellow writer Gene Fowler tried to sabotage him in story conferences with Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck.)

I've observed this kind of thing for so long in so many workplaces that I finally came up with my own internal rule:

The more valuable the perceived reward, the more strenuous the infighting.

So, if that's the case, how does anyone break in or get ahead?

1) Your work is too gloriously fabulous to be ignored.

2) You have an "in" with the Guy/Gal Who Counts.

3) The organization has had a series of failures and as a result the pecking order has been shaken up. So it's now (out of desperation) receptive to your new ideas.

4) The organization is wildly successful, growing by leaps and bounds, and needs fresh blood (and ideas.)

5) The old-timers are retiring (or moving on) and a bunch of new slots have opened up.

You can probably think of scenarios that I haven't mentioned here, but you catch my drift: When a workplace has a well-established caste system, it's often hard to break in.

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Dave Stevens, RIP

Mark Evanier writes at "News From Me":

Illustrator Dave Stevens, best known for his "good girl" art and The Rocketeer, died yesterday following a long, wrenching battle with Leukemia. Dave was born July 29, 1955 in Lynwood, California. He was raised in Portland, Oregon, then his family relocated to San Diego, where he attended San Diego City College and became involved in the early days of the San Diego Comic Book Convention, now known as the Comic-Con International. His skills as an artist were instantly evident to all, and he was encouraged by darn near every professional artist who attended the early cons, but especially by Jack Kirby and Russ Manning. In 1975, when Manning began editing a line of Tarzan comic books to be published in Europe, Dave got his first professional assignment, working on those comics and also assisting Russ with the Tarzan newspaper strip. Soon after, he worked on a few projects for Marvel (including the Star Wars comic book) and a number of underground comics. Later, he also worked with Russ on the Star Wars newspaper strip.

In 1977, Dave went to work for Hanna-Barbera where he drew storyboards and layouts, many of them for the Super Friends and Godzilla cartoon shows and bonded with veteran artist Doug Wildey, who produced the latter. Wildey and Stevens became close friends and in 1982, when Dave created his popular character, The Rocketeer, he modelled the character's sidekick, Peevy, on photos of Doug. Dave himself was Cliff Secord, who donned the mask of The Rocketeer, and other friends appeared in other guises ...

(You can click on the header for Mark's full post.)

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

2008 Wage Survey!

TAG has completed its 2008 wage survey (the link for which you will find below the break).

Our total percentage of returned forms was 27.1%, 2.5% below last year. We wish mightily that the returns had been higher, since bigger percentages beget more accuracy, but they are what they are. (Returned forms would have equaled or surpassed last year's survey if not for the lower participation rates for a couple of new studios.)

Without further ado, some of the numbers:

What follows are classifications followed by median wages (based on a forty-hour week):

Directors (theatrical) $3,005

Directors (television) $2,400

Story Artists (feature) $2,250

Staff Writers $2,344

Production Board (television) $1,900

Visual Development $2,125

Background Layout/Design $1,800

Technical Directors $1,885

3-D Animators $1,745

For the most part, wage numbers didn't move very much from last year's survey. We always get questions like: "How come wages are so high when people are out of work?". The answer is, unemployment rates and the money people make don't necessarily track in parallel arcs.

Here's the link to the complete 2008 wage survey, in Adobe Acrobat PDF format.

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The Big New Feature Releases ... and Accompanying Risks

Yesterday at DreamWorks, an animator who's trying to work his way into a supervisor's slot asked whether he was better off staying with the company or going someplace else for career advancement. Since I don't have a good idea in what esteem the company holds him (or what his specific prospects for a promotion are), I gave him my semi-generic answer:

"The studio might like you a lot and want to boost you up the ladder, but I think a lot depends on how they're doing at the box office. If Kung Fu Panda does well, and Madagascar II knocks it out of the park, then there will be lots of production being done around here and they'll probably consider you for a higher position. Animation is a market-driven industry. The product does great, and employees usually do fine making more of it.

While we're on the subject of the industry booming or not booming, there are a cluster of upcoming animated projects forPixar/Disney, DreamWorks, and Fox, none of them sequels and all of them creative departures. And Daily Variety speculates on how each will do at the box office (and is being promoted):

Fox's "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!," DreamWorks' "Kung Fu Panda" and Pixar's "Wall-E" signify major departures for their respective studios. As such, marketing efforts have been under way since last summer to message each film's unique qualities to audiences.

"Horton," which opens Friday, marks the first adaptation from Blue Sky Animation, the team behind the "Ice Age" franchise. Since kids aren't likely to make this connection, Fox is pushing the fact that this beloved Dr. Seuss story boasts two A-list comedians, Jim Carrey and Steve Carell ...

[As regards DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda] with Jack Black voicing the title role, laughs would come naturally, but not at the expense of the epic feel [the directors] were trying to create: In a version of ancient China where humans never existed, five critters invent kung fu's key styles according to their unique animal qualities ... "We asked ourselves the question, 'What if Akira Kurosawa shot a Jerry Lewis movie?'"

Pixar's nearly dialogue-free "Wall-E" (June 27), a trash-compacting droid left behind on an uninhabitable Earth falls for a newer model beamed down from space. In the robot romance that ensues, the characters communicate primarily in a language hatched by Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt (the brains behind R2-D2)...

I don't think there's ever been a time when the health of the animation business didn't depend on animated television shows/features/commercials doing gangbuster business. The animation explosion in the early and mid-nineties was pretty much predicated on Disney's string of monster hits, the television renaissance occurred when prime time cartoon series and daytime animated blocks (Duck Tales, The Disney Afternoon) made buckets of money.

So, in your morning and evening prayers, express the fervent home that Horton, Panda and Wall*E set the box office turnstiles to spinning so fast that they burst into effing flames.

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