Saturday, May 31, 2008

Nick ... Nick ... Nick


End of the week found me wandering around Nick's Burbank cartoon studio. The crew for The Mighty B is coming to the end of the initial order of episodes, but an artist showed me the ratings for the show, pinned to a wall, and they were up there.

"For most of us, we're on hiatus in the next week or two, but hopefully the next batch of episodes gets greenlit quick and our time off won't be long"...

(A sentiment often expressed.)

The solid ratings are good news for the animation artists, since Nick, like every other kids cable network, eyes the Disney Channel's success with live action and thinks "why not us?"

Nickelodeon is approaching a 50-50 mix of live action and animation, says Marjorie Cohn, the executive VP of development and original programming at Nickelodeon Networks. “Live action has emerged as being just as strong as animation, which had been dominating the kids’ business for a very long time,” she says. “The immediacy of live action is really important to kids right now. The social currency, the feeling that it’s happening in real time in their lives, is exciting for them. These shows tap into a lot of the things that kids are feeling.”

Who cares that they often aren't cheap to produce? (Nobody, as long as the ratings are good. But that's often easier said than done.)

Nick right now has a bunch of animated shows percolating along. There's new episodes of SpongeBob and Fairly Odd Parents, there's the three pre-school cartoon shows headed up by animation vet Jeff DeGrandis. Then there's the CGI shows Nick is doing with DreamWorks (Madagascar Penguins high on the list.)

Happily, even with the recent burgeoning of live action projects, animation still thrives at most studios.

# # # # # # #

One quick thank you is in order. TAG Blog hit an alltime high in eyeballs this month ... 30,892 (give or take). Not particularly big as blogs go, but not itty bitty, either.

Kevin Koch and I thank you from the tops of our heads to the tips of our keyboarding fingers.

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The Nation's B.O.

... is summertime tangy.

Sex and the City rides in at the top of the weekend list, hauling in $26.1 million on Friday as it overcomes so-so reviews ...

Indy and Co. take $12,250,000 for the second spot and a total of $183.1 million.

Fright flick The Strangers (#3) has the second-best pre-screen average as it collects $7.5 million, while fourth-position Iron Man has $266,350,000 in its hopper.

And Prince Caspian is into triple digits ($106,0008,000) as Robert Iger asks: "Why oh why didn't we release this baby at Christmas like the first one?"

Your Sunday Update: For the weekend, the smallest drop in the Top Ten turns out to be fourth place Iron Man, with a 31.5% decline, a take of $14 million, and a grand total of $276,625,000.

Sex and the City bows at #1 with $52,740,000 while Indiana Jones drops 54.1%, collecting $46,000,000 on its way to $216,881,000.

The Strangers (#3), collects $20.7 million, while Chronicles of Narnia manages $13 million and a total of $115,625,000.

And way down at #13, in 433 theatres, the animated Horton tops out at $152.6 million.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Newton's Third: Part Deux

And Kevin follows up with:

One of my AM students pointed out that San Jose State University is going to be offering a class in Physics for Animators. In a bit of serendipity, the professor of that class commented on my last post, of Hancock violating Newton’s Third Law of Motion, and provided a link to the program’s website.

This is a great idea, and I heartily support it. I’ve taken a look at the most recent tutorial (”The Physics of Timing”), and I have a few suggestions, mostly related to terms animators use. In this case, when we talk about “timing,” we’re generally talking about when key actions in our animation occur, or how long those actions take. The Physics of Timing Tutorial is mostly about the displacement, from moment to moment, of objects in a gravitational field. That’s very different from the issue of timing. So, in animation terms, what is this really tutorial about? Spacing!

This excellent tutorial is about the spacing of a falling (or sliding, or rising) objects. While a physicist may talk about displacement, we talk about spacing instead, because we’re concerned with the movement of things within screenspace, so we’re looking at the relative spacing from one frame to another, not actual distances.

Substituting ‘Spacing’ for ‘Timing’ may seem a subtle point, but there’s already way too much confusion regarding timing and spacing, which I referred to here and here.

Also, the tutorial repeats the hated “animations” language. Ugh, ugh, and double ugh. I know it’s common for students and people who have worked outside the mainstream of traditional animation to talk about “animations,” but it still sounds as wrong as talking about composing “musics.”

Finally, in the last image of the tutorial, this beautiful stroboscopic shot of a bouncing ball is reproduced. [see the original post at the link for the illustration. -- Hulett]

What’s wrong with this picture? The path of action is off. The arc that the ball traces in space isn’t smooth after each bounce. Now, this is a real photograph, so what gives? I’ll reprint the Widimedia explanation:

Note that the ball becomes significantly non-spherical after each bounce, especially after the first. That, along with spin and air-resistance, causes the curve swept out to deviate slightly from the expected perfect parabola. Spin also causes the angle of first bounce to be shallower than expected.

It’s important to note these discrepancies for students, especially when otherwise showing “idealized” examples (for example, air resistance in the rest of the tutorial is explicitly ignored). If a student copied these arcs exactly, I’d correct them. And they’d be confused, because they were perfectly copying a real example. The problem is, they’d be copying something they didn’t fully understand, and so we need to keep things as simple and clear (and exclude spin and air resistance) in these examples.

Those are quibbles, and meant as constructive criticism and clarification. This is a wonderful idea, and I highly recommend it! I look forward to what Professor Garcia et al. come up with.

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Chewable Links

Now with Add ons!

Joseph Gilland opines about animation peaks and valleys:

In the late '80s, after a string of relatively dismal feature films, Disney pulled its head out of its rear and in 1991 released Beauty and the Beast, the first animated feature ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. With the hugely successful Aladdin being released a year later, and Jeffrey Katzenberg leaving Disney to form DreamWorks Animation just as The Lion King became the highest-grossing classically animated film in history, the animation renaissance of the early '90s was on ...

... while the Shrek films continue to pull in incredible (sick) amounts of money at the box office thanks entirely to clever writing and highbrow poo-poo humor, and Pixar's offerings are still looking pretty strong, we have watched the market once again become saturated with mediocre content, and animation consumers and critics have grown sick and tired of the same old films, rehashed over and over.

Obvious point drawn here: in the movie and teevee biz, imitation is de rigeur. Always. (There were twenty-something television westerns on the tube when I was a kid. Westerns sold.)

And Ron Musker is directing Princess and the Frog. Good to know.

Let the franchise building begin! Tink comes to a DVD display case near you in just a few short months (and John Lasseter rolls out the first installment here):

The computer-animated Tinker Bell, out Oct. 28 on DVD and Blu-ray ($30 and $35), is the first of four fairy films in the works, a new one launching each year.

The movie represents something bigger, too: a refocusing of Disney's straight-to-DVD strategy. The studio will stop releasing sequels of classics such as Bambi, Lady and the Tramp and Cinderella, which have been a rich source of revenue. (Last year's Cinderella III, for instance, took in more than $80 million, estimates the Redhill Group tracking firm.) Instead, they'll go for "more original work, original stories," says John Lasseter ...

"We're creating a whole new mythology," says Lasseter, who oversees the Disney/Pixar home-video originals as well as theatrical releases ...

TAG President Emeritus Tom Sito profiles animation instructor/guru Dave Masters:

For over 30 years, Dave Master has been in the business of educating people, bringing the collective wisdom of animation professionals to a broad cross-section of young artists. Whether at a low-income high school on the outskirts of Los Angeles, as manager of a Warner Bros. training program, or as an Internet pioneer, Dave has made it his mission to give everyone a shot at becoming an animator.

How did a bearded hippie radical hospital workers union organizer become one of the foremost animation educators in the USA? ...

And of course there are hand-drawn animated features being done at places besides Disney. Here is one ...

...[I]t is the turn of an animated mythological "Dashavatar", about Lord Vishnu's 10 incarnations, to entertain the audiences ...

[T]he 115 minute 2D animated feature weaves together the fascinating stories of Lord Rama and Krishna, Parashuram, Vaman, Narasimha and Buddha, and how they descended on earth to rid the world of evil and save mankind ...

"The music actually forms the narrative part of the story. There is a fun number, when Mohini distributes the nectar as the Asuras watch. Another is a children's song with lots of fantasy," said Thakore.

Princess and the Frog, move over.

We wouldn't be doing justice to this festival of links or ... hell ... life itself if we didn't include another Andrew Stanton interview:

I knew that I had to tell the story with the Earth. I had to tell a lot of history. I had to tell what's happened over 1,000 years. That almost dictated what everything was. You wanted a city that felt sort like, sort of what Shanghai's starting to feel like now. Or Dubai. And then you had to have trash towers that were amongst that because you're telling a history that you haven't seen yet. And now you're also telling the demise of that history, and then the way to try to solve the problem of that past history, and now the sort of dystopian result of that... it's so layered. It was a real brain-tease. Every shot counted. It was thrilling to solve it because every part of the buffalo is used on that. But that's really what drove everything. Just telling the story of that. But then we knew again we wanted the future to be cool.

Wall-E comes out June 27th, so the interviews will go on ... review Jeny Elig looks favorably on 2008 Animation Show #4:

Curated by ... Mike Judge, the 2008 Animation Show #4 brings together the works of animators for an eye-popping program that extends far beyond your expectations for a cartoon.

Or, as Hank Hill would say, "What the hell?"

Toon Zone offers a lengthy interview of voice actor Bob Bergen, who broke into the cartoon voice biz after inspiration from Mel Blanc:

I just knew I wanted to be Porky Pig, so I figure, "I'll just call Mel Blanc and say, 'Listen, I know you're of retirement age, and I'd be happy to help out.'" So, I started looking in the phone book under "Mel Blanc," and I couldn't find him because he wasn't listed in the phone book under "Mel Blanc," but I did find his number under his wife's first initial, "E. Blanc" in Pacific Palisades. So I called and I bugged the conversation. I have it on tape.

Throughout that conversation, I realized, "OK, this is an industry, this is something that you have to pursue as a whole, you can't just go after a character." And the odds were against me to go after one character, but my goal was to go after one character. So I wanted to get into the business ...

Add on: Nothing in the internet age is ever lost. Via the Creative Talent Network, a Disney volleyball game circa 1980 narrated live by John Little Mermad, Alladin, Hercules Musker. Among the players: Tim Burton (who went on to direct a few live-action hits, I'm told), and the chairman of WDP Ron Miller.

Add on #2: Dustin Hoffman reflects on his first animation role in Kung Fu Panda:

I was afraid master Shifu was going to be one- or two-dimensional. I felt maybe we could add that he finds out he's wrong about something. That would come from a certain insight, which by definition could be a third dimension. If you look at people who are never wrong, they seem to be two-dimensional, much like our current administration.

Add on #3: Sleeping Beauty comes to Blu Ray!

The Walt Disney Co. is set to rerelease the 1959 animated feature "Sleeping Beauty" in October in Blu-ray with chat, trivia and video-messaging functions, just as its rerelease of "Snow White" on DVD in 2000 introduced a then-revolutionary animated menu.

"'Snow White' made the mass market wake up to the potential of DVD and helped demystify the technology," said Bob Chapek, president of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment Worldwide. "'Sleeping Beauty' on Blu-ray a decade later represents much the same thing."

Game changer? Uuuh. I guess we'll see.

Have a scintillating weekend.

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Meal Time!

What's always amazing doing this job is how you discover ... from time to time ... that different studios just fall into ignoring pesky laws and regulations.

Like for instance, seventeen years ago Klasky-Csupo just couldn't be bothered paying overtime to anybody. Like, if you were clearly "non-exempt" from overtime laws, you still didn't get any, even if you worked at the fun factory fifteen freaking hours per day. Their thing, I guess.

Fast forward to now. In the past few weeks, the issue du-jour at one of the larger studios is ... "working lunches" ...

The way it shakes out is, there's a project with an insane amount of production work occupying a short amount of production time. And everybody has their noses to the computer soft and hardware, getting shots done. The crew is working extra hours, but there's no problem in that regard because the hours are being paid. Time-and-a-half, double-time, whatever.

The difficulty is with the non-lunch lunches. Here's what I mean:

Noon comes. A meeting is called for 12:30 in the main conference room. And the supervisor says: "We'll be supplying lunch." And everybody troops dutifully to the meet, eats the sandwich, drinks the bottled water and/or Coke, listens to the spiel. And then everybody goes back to the soft and hardware in their rooms and cubicles to continue doing shots.

Great, but this is not "lunch."

See, there's this Notice of Wages, Hours and Working Conditions in the Motion Picture Industry? Put out by the Industrial Welfare Commission? And on page 9 of that notice, in Section 11, it says:

A) No employer shall employ any person for a work period of more than six (6) hours without a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, nor more than one (1) hour...

B) Unless the employee is relieved of all duty during a 30-minute meal period, the meal period shall be considered an "on duty" meal period and counted as time worked ...

Etcetera, etcetera. So over the last few weeks I've gotten calls about this, and yesterday I run over hard copies of the regulations so people who complained to me, so they know what their rights are. And when I'm strolling down the hall, a staffer I haven't talked to before eyeballs me in a way that says Talk to you a minute?" So of course I say "What's up?" and he says: "Can I ask you about ... meal breaks?"

This is a hint to me that this issue is preying on more than a few people's minds, because I get asked about it by people as I'm delivering copies of the regulations to other people.

To cut to the end credits, here's the nub of what I told the various folks who were miffed that they worked a long day without any real meal breaks:

"You don't want to make a Federal case of this, I totally understand. But you need to know what your rights are, and you need to take a meal break. So my suggestion is, after the "working lunch" where you scarfed down food while looking at the latest power point presentation, take thirty minutes away from your room and decompress. Go for a walk. Sit outside in the sunshine.

"Then when the production assistant comes around with the time cards and tells you to "put in a meal break," you can honestly put down a meal break and not have to, you know, falsify a legal document."

We'll see how it works out.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

It's not too late to play

This year's Screen Cartoonists Golf Tournament is coming up on June 21, and Monday, June 2 is the payment deadline. So, if you want to participate, contact Lyn Mantta asap by e-mail or by phone at (818) 766-7151 ext. 103.

Details below the fold.

Screen cartoonists Golf Tournament Click here to read entire post

Newton's Third: it's the law

Kevin Koch posts from his blog:

Being a former physics major has certain drawbacks. Oh, it’s a tremendous advantage in understanding how and why things move the way the do when I’m animating. But it makes it hard to enjoy some animation, when the most basic principles of physics are grotesquely violated. For example, why does the above look so wrong?

We intuitively know it’s wrong, and telling ourselves that Hancock is a super-powered dude doesn’t help much. Because even super heroes have to answer to Isaac Newton. Newton blew a lot of people’s minds by summing up much of the hows and whys of motion in three simple laws. And here’s his third law:

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Simple, huh? If I’m standing on the edge of a boat, and step towards the dock, the boat will go away from me as much as I go towards the dock. And if I’m not aware of this law, I end up all wet. If you’re sitting in a swivel chair, take that coffee mug off your desk, lift your feet off the ground, and throw the mug as hard as you can. Notice how you spin in the opposite direction from the throw? That’s Newton’s Third Law in action. Oh, and I hope you didn’t aim the mug at your officemate.

In the above clip, the law says that the force being generated at Hancock’s hands, which serves to propel an 80,000-pound whale around 600 feet in a split second, would have an equal and opposite effect at his feet. That’s assuming Hancock’s body, being super and all, is rigid and strong enough not to tear itself apart.* I’m not sure how deeply Hancock would end up burying himself in the sand, but it would be pretty deep. The whale actually wouldn’t end up going much of anywhere. Hancock would just corkscrew himself deep into the sand.

Here’s an experiment: go to an ice rink. Wear some slippery-bottomed dress shoes, pick up a very heavy object, go out on the ice, and see how far you can hurl said object. Just don’t blame me when you end up breaking your tail bone or your nose.

Of course, we’re assuming the whale above is pretty much petrified. Because if it isn’t, Hancock would simply pull two fist-fulls of flesh from the poor creature’s tail before that 40-ton mammal would budge more than a few feet. Try grabbing a big fat regular fish by the tail with a pair of pliers, and jerking it as far and as fast as you can. Yep, the fish won’t move much, but you will tear a little piece of tail away.

I know I’m being Johnny Buzzkill here, and that the filmmakers knew this was ridiculous, and that the animator was just doing what they were told, and it’s played for laughs, and all that jazz. My point is that, if you want the audience to enjoy the marvel of seeing a regular-looking dude doing something physically extraordinary, then the biomechanics and physics can’t be as trivial looking as an actor tossing a 30-pound prop, like this:

Otherwise, why bother to have the pavement exploding when Hancock lands after a huge jump? It’s kind of like watching bad Japanese monster movies, where some 120-pound guy in a suit jumps around and pretends to weigh 100 tons, but they still move like a gymnast in a rubber costume. It just looks dopey, even when the miniatures of the city being stomped to pieces look pretty good. Call me a curmudgeon, but a cursory nod to physics, even extremely exaggerated physics, make these kinds of scenes a lot more fun for me.

*Which is what would have happened to good ol’ Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man, when he tried some crap like tossing a boulder with his bionic arm. The force generated at his hand would have an equal and opposite effect at the junction of his bionic arm and his human shoulder, resulting is said arm ripping loose, and much messiness from all the torn vessels and sinews and such. Not pretty, even if the sound cues were classic.

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Of Agreements and Potential Strikes

Here's a non-surprise, as reported in today's papers:

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists early this morning reached a new contract with Hollywood studios, increasing pressure on the larger Screen Actors Guild to secure its own agreement as negotiations resume today.

The tentative accord, coming after nearly three weeks of negotiations, was modeled on a pact that ended the 100-day writers strike in February. If the contract is ratified, AFTRA would become the third Hollywood union to accept a deal based on the contract negotiated by directors last year, making it tougher for SAG to argue that its members deserve significantly better terms.

You think the pressure on SAG not to strike and deal along the same lines as every other union and guild just went up by several notches? (Don't everybody raise their hands at once ....)

As much as some of the SAG leadership probably wants members to hit the bricks, thanks to AFTRA (you know, that actors union with which its larger cousin didn't want to merge?) the Screen Actors Guild now has considerably less leverage to pull off a job action.

Nikki Finke thinks AFTRA caved in a major way:

Just look at what AFTRA failed to wrought re clips in New Media. First, all AFTRA members must now "bargain for consent for the right to use non-promotional excerpts of traditional TV shows in New Media at the time of original employment" with the Hollywood studios and networks for programs produced made after July 1, 2008, which basically leaves AFTRA members powerless and unprotected.

Reading this, I take the language Nikki quotes to mean that actors hired onto a show will have to give their "consent" up front ... as a condition of employment. Bad news for any actors without the leverage of the select few (like, you know, stars the studios have to sign to the project.)

If SAG hates this outcome (and possibly the guild does), then it's a damn shame it didn't gather AFTRA under its protective wing when it had the chance (twice).

Folks who don't think strategically ... and long-term, sometimes suffer bad consequences.

On a related front, the artist staffers at Film Roman tell me that The Simpsons voice actors still have not reached a deal with Fox:

"Every week they tell us the agreement with the cast will be done this week or next. They've been saying this for a month ..."

Here's hoping (yet again) that the issues are resolved, the actors return to the recording studio, and the artist-hostages can return to work.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Remembering June Nam

Kevin writes:

Yesterday we memorialized those who died during war, and today I want to memorialize one of the many unsung animation artists who make up our industry. I got the sad news a couple of months ago that June Nam (born Myung Nam Park) died on Feb. 24. It’s taken me a while to gather together some images, and to process the unexpected loss of someone so young, so pardon me for being late with this.

June was my lead key on my first professional animation job, working on Quest for Camelot. I came onto Quest after that film had gone through a protracted, messy development and early production, and there were a fair number of bitter and disgruntled people at WBFA at the time. But not on Team Ayden. Lead animator Mike Nguyen and lead key June Nam were two of the nicest and most generous animators I’ve ever worked with.

Quest was my first film, and I wanted to work on one of the main characters. In those days animation productions were oriented by character, and I got the cold should from a couple of the leads on the main characters. I was eventually shuffled off to the Ayden/Merlin team, and it couldn’t have been luckier for me. As green as I was, June treated me with respect and patience, and in short order was giving me work a couple of grades above my inbetweener status.

I confess I was so raw that sometimes unable to grasp her corrections to my work, but she was always happy to accent the positive and encourage me. I look now at photocopies of Ayden ruffs and my clean-up drawings, and I cringe at what she had to put up with, but at the time she made me feel like I was a ‘natural.’

Not long before I came on board she’d been in a terrible car accident, which often caused her severe pain, but she’d never mention it. A couple of times I came barging into her cubicle to find her stretched out flat on the floor, trying to find some reasonably comfortable position. Somehow even in that state she exuded grace and dignity.

We had a happy, tight team amidst a lot of discord, and I’m still proud of the work we did on that falcon. Last year at Mike Nguyen wrote a heart-felt piece on animating the falcon, and working together, on Quest (which is where I borrowed the signed Ayden ruff above). He beautifully captured the way we as animators and artists can find beauty and art admid even the most screwed up big-studio production. I’ll always be grateful to June and Mike for carving out that creative space in the middle of so much chaos.

My path crossed June’s again a few years later at DreamWorks, when she came to work on Spirit and Sinbad. I’d moved into the animation department by then, so we didn’t work together, but I always enjoyed hanging out and chatting with her, and it gave me a chance to thank her for mentoring me at the beginning of my career ....

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The TAG Financial Forum

For those of you who missed it, here's a summarized, paraphrased representation of last night's forum:

What's the biggest mistake people make in saving for retirement?

Janet Gibson: Carrying too much debt. You can't build wealth when you're spending your money paying off credit cards. Revolving debt (credit cards) is the worst, because cards have high interest and they carry forward month after month. You need to have strategies to pay off debt. The money you have needs to be working for you.

Ralph Bovitz: It's a good idea to never let small items that you buy stay on revolving credit (credit card) longer than its "natural life." Pay them off as quickly as possible. And pay down bigger items.

Ralph Bovitz: Another mistake is being unwilling ... or maybe not having the ability ... to put money into 401(k) Plans and IRAs. People should try and put 10% of income into investments or a 401(k). They need to look out for themselves first so they're not a burden on their children.

How should people go about investing?

Janet Gibson: It's a good idea to have 3-6 months of income ... or the money you need to survive the next six months ... in an emergency fund. The money should be easy to get to, in a money market or savings account.

Ralph Bovitz: People should get educated about their finances. They should know how mortgages work, how credit cards work. A good resource is ... On that website there's a pig character called Benjamin Banks who headlines a program about financial literacy. It's designed for kids and teenagers, but it's good for anyone.

What should people invest in for retirement? How much should they save for retirement?

Janet Gibson: Planning for retirement, you have to figure out what your baseline needs are: Will you need $40,000? $60,000? More? Figure out where your money is going to come from. You'll probably get some from Social Security, some from Pension Plans, some from your 401(k). I think that most retirement money you save in 401(k)s and IRAs should be in mutual funds, in places where the money won't go away and there won't be big losses.

Ralph Bovitz: Janet likes actively managed funds. I think index funds work best. Modern Portfolio Theory says that having assets allocated over different types of investments (asset classes) works best. It's as much art as science. You can keep your money in ultra-safe bank Certificates of Deposit, but for growth you'll need stocks. Your purchasing power declines over time if you just keep money in lower-yielding bank deposits. It's good to remember that stocks go up and down. Often it's one step forward and one step back, even though assets grow in the long term.

Janet Gibson: Dollar cost averaging is a good way for people to go. It's what everyone does in a 401(k), put money into different mutual funds on a week-to-week schedule. I think, outside of 401(k)s, people should add to investment accounts on a monthly basis. Monthly works well for my clients. David Bach talks about putting your investing on auto-pilot in Automatic Millionaire.

Ralph Bovitz: The newer investment literature I've read says that portfoilo performance is determined by asset mix and the design of portfolios. The latest thinking in portfolio design is to have more diversified equities and less cash (for better longer term performance). An investor can always move some investments into cash as needed.

What about opening ROTH IRAs for kids?

Ralph Bovitz: Your son and daughter has to be earning money to have money put into a ROTH IRA. Only earned money can go into a ROTH.

What does somebody do in times like these, when jobs are tight and markets are going up and down, but mostly down?

Janet Gibson: If you're in your twenties or thirties, in the front part of your career, a bad market is a great time to be investing because you're buying stocks or mutual funds at a discount, and that's good. You guys are artists, and you've got skills you can use to start your own businesses. You need to develop multiple streams of income in your life, and I think a good allocation of assets would be:

25% real estate

25% stocks

25% cash

25% in your own business

What about paying off a house when you have a lot of equity in it? Wouldn't it be better to use the home equity elsewhere? For something else?

Janet Gibson: There's freedom in paying off a house, but I don't have strong feelings about paying it off or not paying it off. Sometimes its good to use home equity for other things. But I have clients who bought houses durin the UP market, and they don't have a lot of equity.

Ralph Bovitz: I think it's a personal choice, and depends on an indvidual's circumstances.

Hulett: That covers most of the major items discussed. There was lively back and forth about the kinds of investments people should get into. Ralph Bovitz favored diversified index funds, Janet Gibson liked managed funds. (I fall in the middle and said so, noting that index funds usually outperform managed funds during bull (UP) markets, but under-perform managed funds in bear (DOWN) markets.)

There was general agreement that people need to devise investment plans and have the discipline and focus to stick to them. Doing nothing is really not an option.

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Different Takes on The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Short Films, 1907-1954

Song of the South is one thing, and cartoon shorts are another.

Christopher P. Lehman, a black associate professor in Minnesota, explores the depiction of blacks in animation in his book, The Colored Cartoon: Representation in American Short Films, 1907-1954.

Various reviewers have had different takes on the work. Michael Barrier, who knows animation and its history as well as almost anybody, defends a couple of the cartoons with which Dr. Lehman has problems, but goes on to write:

... the people who wrote and drew many of the most offensive cartoons weren't making conscious choices that blacks should be depicted in degraded and insulting terms; they were just stuffing into drawings the ignorant assumptions that they shared with a great many other whites. How galling it must have been — how galling it must be — to suffer insult and humiliation at the hands of people who actually aren't paying much attention to you.

It's often true that overlords pay little attention to those in stations beneath them. No doubt the slave-class in ancient Rome was pretty much invisible to Roman citizens. Enslaved workers hauled in from the Middle east or the forests of Germany were fixtures who were simply there, a part of everyday existence like chariots or Roman baths. What was the big deal, anyway? If Romans made fun of "stupid, slothful" slaves from Mesopatamia, well they were Mesopatamians, for God's sake! That's the way those people are!

When I was at Disney, one of the older storymen created black, jive-talking crows (along the lines of those in Dumbo) in the early development of The Fox and the Hound. He didn't see anything wrong with the characters, thought they were funny. (They were also pretty ... ah ... derivative, but that's another story ...)

Studio topkick Ron Miller told him to take them out; he kept resisting until Miller finally said in a meeting: "We're still getting letters about Dumbo! These character have to go!"

And ultimately they did, replaced by a woodpecker and sparrow who talked with a Brooklyn accent. (Another stereotype?)

By the 1970s, you see, the overlords had gotten a clue that the caricatures that had flourished in the 'thirties and 'forties were no longer okay. No longer could they use "What's the big deal?" and have people buy into it.

Emru Townsend at Frames Per Second has a level-headed take on The Colored Cartoon:

Lehman recounts a chronological history of film animation from its beginnings at the hands of J. Stuart Blackton through most of the Golden Age of animation, weaving in descriptions and explanations of the types of racist images used. This really does put things in context, as for the first time we get to see how the evolution of these images and the gags behind them corresponds to the evolution of animation, movies, pop culture and society at large.

After I finished the book—at 137 pages it's a quick read—it occurred to me that The Colored Cartoon is, in itself, an answer to many of the questions and misconceptions that have swirled around this debate for at least as long as I've observed it. Why is it okay to make fun of Elmer Fudd, who is white, but not black characters who chase Bugs Bunny? The seemingly obvious answer is that Elmer Fudd's skin colour isn't the source of the humour, his ineptitude is. For those that argue that a black character's ineptitude isn't necessarily racist, Lehman's long-range view breaks down the different types of stereotypes and why even the most innocuous-looking depictions were part of a larger trend.

I haven't read the book, but only summaries and reviews. But I think I know what Dr. Lehman is getting at. The sharp daggers of ignorance are still daggers, and they still cut.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Maytime Studio Roundabout

After the long holiday weekend, I was back into the studio routine, room to room and cubicle to cubicle in the regular way.

DreamWorks is busy with its big slate of films. Monster and Aliens, which I think is its first stereoptican production, is well into work. A staffer clued me that two sequences are animated and everybody is turning and burning on a bunch of others, looking toward an end-of-year completion.

At the House of Mouse, various and sundry employees were bopping off to a meeting down Riverside Drive brainstorming ways to rehabilitate the corporate symbol (Mr. Mouse) back into a big-time movie star. (The 1930s, Mr. Mouse's last heyday, were a long time ago).

As I stumbled through the Hat Building's hallways, some of the suggestions I heard were:

"Stop making Mickey as a c.g.i. character."

"Put Mickey in some featurettes and like, short features."

My vote would be to team Mr. Mouse with his two long-time amigos, Mr. Duck and the Goof I'm quite good with doing the obvious.

And I'm told that there's animation going on in three different sequences of Princess and the Frog. And Bolt continues to move briskly along, with overtime aplenty.

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The Jump Starting of Modern Animation -- 75 Years Ago TODAY

On May 27, 1933, a bright Technicolor line was drawn across the long history of animation.

Walt Disney released Three Little Pigs, and nothing in animation was ever the same again. Animator-director Ward Kimball related three decades ago:

[Three Little Pigs] was wonderful for the time. It made everything that came before look very crude, and it gave the studio the shot in the arm that Walt thought was wonderful.

And as Adrian Danks, president of the Melbourne cinemateque writes:

Three Little Pigs is generally regarded as the most successful short animation of all time. Many analyses of the film concentrate upon anecdotal accounts of wildly positive audience responses to the film, its extensive run in the cinemas, its promotion often above the feature film of the day, its widespread cross-promotional success (sheet music sales, dolls of the pigs and wolf, etc), and its extensive international distribution ...

By most accounts, it was the right film in the right place in the right year -- the dank, dark bottom of the Depression -- and it catapulted Disney far ahead of the competition.

Back behind Pigs' release lay the black-and-white, rubber-hose animation that had flourished from the 1920s onward. Ahead of it lay the rapidly evolving sophistication of Disney features (along with the work of Warners/Schlesinger and Fleischer studios).

"Personality animation," as we now understand it, was really jump-started with Three Little Pigs, driving the final nail into the coffin of the 'rubber hose' school of cartoons. Fred Moore, then in his early twenties, gave the piggies dimension, roundness and personality. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston write that "no other animator could portray chubby little pigs with [Moore's] solidity ..."

Other elements -- story, music, color -- came together to connect with audiences like cartoons had seldom connected before.

Three-quarters of a century on, it's a little tough to see what all the hoopla was about, for it's difficult to transport popular art out of the context of its time and have it retain anywhere near the original force and impact.

But if you squint your eyes and know a few of the cartoon shorts that preceded it, you can detect and understand at least some of the magic. (And happily, the Wolf as a Jewish peddler -- one of the ethnic slurs that was par for comedy in that long ago age -- has long since been expunged from the release print.)

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Last Call for TAG's Financial Forum

Tomorrow night (Tuesday), TAG will present an encore of last year's Financial Forum. To reiterate:

The meeting will be open to active and inactive TAG members*; pizza and refreshments await at 6:30 pm, and the festivities will start at 7 pm at the IA Local 44 meeting hall, 12021 Riverside Drive in North Hollywood. (The cross street is Agnes, 1 block east of Laurel Canyon. Parking is behind the Local 44 building or across the street behind the mini-mall off Agnes.) ...

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CN Reinvents Itself

Or at least gives it the old college try:

They're hoping to stanch the flow of young viewers leaving the network for Disney and Nick, but they're also trying to rebuild the net as "the home for boys," in Snyder's words (though he quickly adds that he hopes the female aud sticks around for shows like Cartoon's new comedy "Chowder").

"I think in general the network has a strength in fantasy and adventure, and it has a strength with boys," says Sorcher. "You'll see us capitalizing on that -- (upcoming show) 'Star Wars' is a great indicator of where all this is going." ...

It's no secret that Cartoon Network has issues. Its market share has been declining for a couple of years, and as Variety notes: "In April, total-day ratings were down by double-digit percentages in the key demos of kids 2-11, kids 6-11 and kids 9-14."

To date, CN's counter-moves to its rivals have fallen flat. (The manuevers it made going after Disney Channels live-action audience with live product of its own went mostly nowhere. I don't understand live-action on a cabler called "Cartoon Network" anyway, but it's probably me being behind the times.)

It's painful to watch a high-flying outfit slide back toward terra firma, but it happens to every animation studio at one time or another ( just look at Disney's up and downs over eighty years; it's been on the verge of bankruptcy a couple of times).

Part of the Cartoon Net's trouble is the nature of television itself: For thirty-five years the territory was divided up into three, then four networks that commanded huge audiences, and those large tracts of broadcast real estate made good money. But home entertainment now evolves at warp speed, with hundreds of cable channels and an infinite number of internet sites on the ubiquitous web. And all this subdividing insures that the properties get slice and diced into tiny, ferociously competitive lots.

All the more reason to have a robust development department to fuel future growth. Maybe CN's oncoming shorts program will fill all or part of that bill ...

(Toon Zone's Cartoon Network forum kicks around the ramifications of the Variety article here.)

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Sydney Pollack, RIP

Pollack's passing has nothing much to do with animation, but I enjoyed hell out of his films.

Sydney Pollack, the Academy Award-winning director of "Out of Africa" who achieved acclaim making popular, mainstream movies with A-list stars, including "The Way We Were" and "Tootsie," died Monday. He was 73. Pollack, who also was a producer and actor, died of cancer at his home in Pacific Palisades, according to Leslee Dart, his publicist and friend ...

"Sydney Pollack has made some of the most influential and best-remembered films of the last three decades," film scholar Jeanine Basinger told The Times recently.

In looking at Pollack's films, she said, "what you see is how he kept in step with the times. He doesn't get locked into one decade and left there. He had a very sharp political sensibility and a keen sense of what the issues of his world were, and he advanced and changed as the times advanced and changed ..."

I liked his work as an actor, too. His turn last year as a senior law partner in Michael Clayton was choice.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Actors Strike Over Clips?

The question I get with regularity is: "So are the actors going on strike?"

Like I know. But a weekend ago, another union rep and I fell into conversation about it (we were hiking up the side of a mountain, so the talk occurred between huffing and puffing). He told me what he knew about the AFTRA talks that are going on:

"The big issue now for SAG and AFTRA are clip usage. The studio have had to get clearance from actors before using clips for half a century. Now the studios want automatic permission, and they say they'll pay for usage.

But AFTRA is saying what SAG did: 'Hell, no!' The congloms have got to get consent from the actors. The studios don't want to have to keep doing that, and AFTRA isn't budging on the point anymore than SAG. There's a lot of pressure on AFTRA not to cave in and look weak."

The same point was made day before yesterday in VARIETY:

Both unions have told the companies in no uncertain terms that actors must still be asked for their consent for clips of their work to be used online, as has been required of clip use since the 1950s. At a May 19 SAG townhall meeting, the clips issue generated by far the most emotional reaction, even though other unresolved issues -- DVD residuals, product placement, force majeure -- carry far more financial heft.

Studios and broadcast networks raised the clips issue as a win-win: Actors could make more money if the companies develop a market for clips to compete with the massive amounts of pirated footage on the Web, but only if the consent requirement is dropped.

The majors assert that tracking down all the thesps in a scene would be such a headache that the business would be unfeasible.

"The 50-year-old union rules at issue were intended for the few cases where a producer needed to license a film or TV clip for use in another program," the AMPTP said the next day. "No one envisioned that the Internet would come along and allow public usage of clips before either the producers or performers would create a market."

This is where things could get sticky. The unions have the weight of longtime practice on their side, and the studios want to change the practice. Changing something that old and established is hard to do, especially when the membership feels passionately about it. And if the studios don't blink, there's more than a small chance they'll strike over it.

Studios arguing that it's "too difficult" to track down actors to get consent is laughable. The real issue, as I look at it, is the majors don't want to leave the power to say "no" in the hands of actors. They want to be able to run clips without anybody having a veto.

This could be a toughie if the studios don't change their position because it's always hard to sell a major movement of the goal posts ni the best of times. And this is definitely not the best of times.

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Racism, Commercialism, and Song of the South

A couple years ago, I sat up in the nosebleed seats of the Anaheim Convention Center during the Disney shareholder meeting and heard Disney CEO Robert Iger answer a question about when Song of the South might be coming back.

Mr. Iger said that he had looked at the film, and the company had looked at the idea of re-releasing the SOTS, but after due consideration the answer was "sorry, no." The picture wouldn't be coming out anytime soon on DVD or any other format. It was just too sensitive.

I sat there and thought, "Okay, I can understand that. The picture isn't nearly as racist as Gone With the Wind, but this is Disney, after all. What family-type conglomerate wants grief releasing old product that rubs some people the wrong way, that opens old sores? Probably a safe decision."

That was in 2006. Then we moved on to other stockholder meetings ...

And Mr. Iger's thinking changed somewhat:

... At the annual shareholders meeting in March 2007, Iger announced that the company was reconsidering the decision, and had decided to look into the possibility of releasing the film ...

But that stockholder announcement quickly got reversed:

In May 2007, it was again reported that the Disney company had chosen not to release the film...

So here we are in 2008, and the Mouse House has reverted to the more cautious status quo:

..."[I]n Albuquerque today, March 6, 2008. A shareholder got up during the Question and Answer segment to ask Robert Iger, the CEO of Disney, 'Before the end of my lifetime will I ever see 'Song of the South' released to home video?' To which Mr. Iger replied the now 'standard' reply: They discuss the possibility regularly, there are certain issues of 'sensitivity' surround this movie and the long ago past era it was made in, times are different now, no immediate plans to release it, but they do regularly revisit it, etc."

Now, I totally get behind Robert Iger's thinking. Disney doesn't need to gin up controversy by putting SOTS out on the market again. Sure, it's got some terrific animation in it, and yes, it's not as over-the-top with its stereotypes as the Selznick-MGM Civil War epic, but there would be incoming flack if the feature was re-marketed, and the cost-benefit for Disney most likely isn't worth it.

All that I totally understand. What I don't understand is this ...

Generous portions of Song of the South are all over YouTube, and being watched. And one thing I know is, if Disney -- the copyright holder -- didn't want them them there, they wouldn't be.

So the only thing I can conclude is, the House of Mouse has mixed emotions about its sixty-two-year-old animation/live-action chestnut. Not ready to embrace it, but not willing to reject it totally, either. (And anyone who wants to own a copy, well ... that can be arranged.)

My take? Some of South is pretty edgy by today's standards (and a lot of blacks had problems with it right from the get-go), but if you want a dose of repugnant, consider what the Warners' animation crew was doing around the same time:

... [Eleven racially offensive Warners Cartoons], known as the “Censored 11,” have been unavailable to the public for 40 years. Postings no longer appear if YouTube is searched for “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” a parody of “Snow White” and the most famous of the cartoons. But a search for “Coal Black” does find the cartoon.

These cartoons were controversial when first released; the N.A.A.C.P. unsuccessfully protested “Coal Black” before it was shown in 1943. Richard McIntire, the director of communications for the N.A.A.C.P., wrote in an e-mail message that “the cartoons are despicable. We encourage the films’ owners to maintain them as they are — that is, locked away in their vaults.” ...

The problem for any culture, and especially a diverse civilization like ours, is the standards that one generation finds acceptable is often despised and repudiated (justifiably) in the next. Looking back, I'm amazed that anyone could not have found various stereotypes in silent comedies and animated cartoons offensive.

Yet there they are, on full view on the ubiquitous internet, for everybody to clench their jaws at.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Spielbergian Box Office

To nobody's surprise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Noggin is the top money spinner on this box office weekend:.

``Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,'' the fourth film about the archaeologist- adventurer from Viacom Inc.'s Paramount, earned $56 million in ticket sales over two days and may be headed for a record ...

Way back down the track we find Chronicles of Narnia (second go-round) and Iron Man clumped in the second and third positions, with box office totals of $74.7 mill and $237.5 million.

Paramount looks to be having a fine Spring, with Indy and Iron Man racking up big numbers. Less fine for Summner Redstone's shop is that Paramount only collects distribution fees on these two flicks, but that will still pile up into a nice, neat tower of change.

Update: Indy wallops the competition with a $101 million weekend ($126 million to date).

And there are now two Top Ten features enjoying triple digit returns.

Meanwhile Narnia: Prince Caspian takes a 58% dive as it ekes out a second weekend, second-place win against muscular Iron Man (37% drop and a $252.3 million total.)

Using the Koch Box Office Calculator (c), Mr. Jones will likely end his run in the $300 million range (3-4 times initial weekend gross.)

(Caveat: the three-day holiday weekend will maybe skew final numbers a bit.)

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Friday, May 23, 2008

In the Public Domain

This piece about a batch of Warner Bros. animated shorts for the war department that would be owned by the Feds if they had only renewed copyright is worth perusing.

... it’s fairly startling that any of the Private Snafu cartoons ever got made. All of the cartoons required War Department approval before they were screened, and no one ever accused the U.S. military of having a sense of humor. But the films place a very heavy emphasis on slapstick knockabout, often using slightly blue jokes, mild cussing (the word “hell” turns up) and vaguely tasteless gags to get their points across. But somehow or other, the cartoons received official approval, resulting in 28 shorts (averaging slightly less than five minutes) that were made between 1943 and 1945.

You can go through the $2 DVD bins at Toys-R-Us and other places and come across Public Domain Fleischers, Warners and Schlesigner cartoons (and a few others) that never got their copyrights renewed. (This never happened to the Disney product, for Uncle Walt wasn't that inattentive.)

It would be pleasant indeed if somebody could pin down negatives and/or first-generation prints for a lot of this material, since a lot of it is worth owning if it's not a dupe of a dupe.

Otherwise, not so much.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Maytime Links

"Disney Girls" from the ever informative, always entertaining BW.

Another round of cartoon linkage (with add ons and updates below), starting with the Blackwing Diaries, and Jenny L.'s terrific post on unsung Disney employees from seventy years back:

These were taken at the Hyperion studio, circa 1936-37. All this and more were scrapbooked (along with a wealth of discarded drawings, color models, doodles and company memos) by a girl with the unlikely name of Ingeborg Willy-a young woman who obviously loved her animation job inking in the best studio in the United States. By the way-none of the women pictured above is Ms. Willy, I think-she was holding the camera.

These come from the collection of Robert Cowan ... who acquired Ms. Willy's scrapbook in 1998. He made an absolutely lovely job of printing up a facsimile and offering this rare scrapbook at cost, thinking that he'd like to share his find with interested parties. Only a very few were ultimately sent out(Hans Perk writes about it in more detail here), but it may yet be reprinted ...

Looks like one of the leading contenders for the Palme d'Or at Cannes is an animated, feature-length documentary:

An animated documentary about a massacre in the Middle East is the current frontrunner to win the coveted Palme d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Waltz with Bashir uses animation to portray fragmented memories Waltz with Bashir is a daring and provocative attempt by director Ari Folman to bear witness to an atrocity committed during his stint in the Israeli army in 1982.

... "A lot of anti-war movies, if you look at them through the eyes of teenagers, they get it all wrong.

"Yes, they see war is useless. But they think: 'It's terrible but I want to be out there - I want to go through that experience.'

"And I hope that when young people watch this film they will think: 'No, I don't want to be part of this. It has nothing to do with my life.'"

(Sounds more controversial than your garden-variety 'toon, yes?)

Then there's the reality producer who wants to do cartoons.

Top reality producer Mark Burnett is venturing into TV animation ... Mark Burnett Prods. will produce Liquid Generation's first three TV projects, including originals "Witness Protection" and "Rapper in Chief." It also will consult Liquid Generation's efforts to take their existing content from online to television ...

I might be totally wrong on this, but it doesn't sound like Mr. Burnett has mega budgets going for these. No doubt I'm in error ...

This is my favorite headline of the week ... possibly the year:

Animation is the Sudden Cessation of Creativity Stupidity

A pity the accompanying article -- an overview of the growth of the animation business in India -- isn't as compelling.

Animation creator Mike Judge cobbles together his favorite cavalcade of newer cartoon shorts:

Every year, King of the Hill creator Mike Judge hand-picks his favorite cartoon shorts for a national tour of movie theaters that he calls The Animation Show. Now Judge and animator Don Hertzfeldt have compiled shorts from the 2007 road show and assembled their choice picks on DVD.

Set for release June 3, The Animation Show: Volume 3 features quirky experiments in hand-drawn and computer-rendered animation from 16 artists who are working way outside the Pixar/DreamWorks mainstream ...

Animation Magazine informs us that Gabor Csupo has sold a new cartoon series to the old eastern bloc ... as a long-form. (Nice to see a live-action director going back to his roots)

Immigrants, a 2D-animated adult series from Klasky-Csupo co-founder Gabor Csupo, has been sold to Hungary and Russia as an 89-minute feature film scheduled to debut in October. According to Daily Variety, Hungaricom acquired rights for Hungary prior to Cannes and sold it to Moscow's Ruscico for Russia and former Soviet territories during the market ...

Let's end with a clip from the next Big Animated Feature to be released this summer:

It turns out that watching CG-characters perform complex, gravity-defying kung fu moves is truly awesome to watch. If all the sequences in the film are like this DreamWorks has nothing to worry about at the box office ...

I'm keenly interested in its box office future. The bigger the better, as far as I'm concerned.

Add on: The Economist has a good, Economisty review of David Price's new tome about Pixar:

A number of interesting things about Disney emerge in this excellent, readable account of Pixar's early years. David Price claims, for instance, that Disney's chief executive, Michael Eisner, considered shutting down the company's animation unit after he took over as chief executive in 1984, an astonishing fact given the subsequent success of cartoon films such as “The Lion King”. Mr Price also makes clear just how much Pixar owes to Disney: it was the larger company's marketing for “Toy Story”, for instance, that gave Mr Jobs the confidence to launch an initial public offering of shares in Pixar in 2005.

Yep. Rumors were rampant in '84-'85 that disney animation was gonna get outsourced.

Add on Deux: Randy Miller provides us with a brief history of the life, death and rebirth of Futurama:

... the demise of Matt Groening's Futurama proved to be slow and steady. Not in quality, of course: this tale of a man frozen for a millennium only got funnier as the series progressed, though network support dwindled during its four-year lifespan. As the Simpsons machine rolled on, Futurama's timeslot was shuffled around; for a time, the series' broadcast directly followed Groening's most famous creation, but it didn't last long. The series was eventually cancelled in August of 2003 ...

Have a fulfilling end-of-week experience and a thrilling three-day weekend.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Up At Film Roman, Watching the "Gravy Train"

From comments down below:

... honestly, i don't have a hell of a lot of sympathy for the Simpson's crew. they've been on one of the biggest gracvy trains this town has ever seen animation-wise(has any other show had more longevity? any other job had more security?) ...

It's always heart-warming when you read this kind of all-encompassing love for co-workers. Somebody gets a fairly steady job paying okay wages, and they're despised for it.

Good will toward fellow artists, it's a delight to see. But let me say a few things about the "gravy train" ...

I was up at Film Roman this morning. There's like maybe a dozen artists working in the Simpsons unit. One of the surviving layout artists said to me:

"I've been off for ten weeks. We just came back two weeks ago, and on Friday we're through with everything and back on layoff ..."

He wasn't complaining, just giving me the cold reality when I asked how things were. And I'll tell you something about the Simpsons layout artists. They work incredibly hard, and for years they worked at below-scale rates: a grand a week or less when contract studios were paying twenty and fifty percent more. A thousand dollars sounds like a lot, but there were seasonal breaks and L.A. rents to pay, so maybe not so much.

And the last time the voice actors went to the mat with Fox, the artists had a real long layoff.

So yeah, the Simpsons crew has had a long gig, but the pay for many hasn't been, like, overwhelming. And the artists have sort of had something to do with making the long employment happen, haven't they?

One other thing. Long employment isn't always the end-all and be-all, and it doesn't necessarily make you even semi-wealthy. I knew plenty of Disney long-termers back in the seventies, guys that had been around twenty or thirty years. One grizzled board artists told me:

"I got to Disney in '55. I was managing a gas station before I was hired, and they paid me so little that I had to go on managing the gas station at night to make ends meet. That went on for three or four years ..."

My old man made $15 a week when he began his thirty-five-year Disney career; he was making $60/week when I was born. He ended up comfortably middle-class not from his Disney salary, but from all his non-Disney art jobs.

The first half-century of animation in Southern California, few got rich from animating or designing or drawing storyboards. Woolie Reitherman confided: "I got rich from Disney stock options, not from the pay."

Most, of course, didn't have Disney stock options. At a TAG Golden Awards banquet celebrating fifty-year animation employees, Disney veteran Joe Hale chortled: "Half a century? Hell, this is a business where you have to work that long to survive."

He wasn't joking.

So if you want to ride the bitter train because somebody has managed to work steadily in cartoonland, you'll have to ride without me. Because I know how hard it's been for even those who've had long-term jobs, and I ain't climbing on board.

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The Road to Riches ... next Tuesday

I spent a good part of my life being an idiot about money. (Hold your applause, please).

When I think of the moolah that has flowed through my fingers like water, the dollars I have pissed away, I cringe. I've been trying to catch up ever since.

In that regard, the Animation Guild is holding a financial seminar for its members next Tuesday night ...

It's called "The Road to Riches And a Happy, Successful Retirement." (catchy title, yes?)

I'll be hosting a panel of ace financial advisors: Ralph Bovitz (CPA and Financial Specialist), Janet Gibson (of Primerica), and Shawn Loddy (of Regal Securities.)

They and I will be kicking around strategies for building a financial wall of security around your life, also better strategies for weathering our current financial storms. (To be clear, the experts will be doing most of the talking, not me.)

The meeting will be open to active and inactive TAG members*; pizza and refreshments await at 6:30 pm, and the festivities will start at 7 pm at the IA Local 44 meeting hall, 12021 Riverside Drive in North Hollywood. (The cross street is Agnes, 1 block east of Laurel Canyon. Parking is behind the Local 44 building or across the street behind the mini-mall off Agnes.)

Be there.

*Inactive members (withdrawn or suspended) are welcome; they have "voice but no vote" at the meeting, but they can always ask questions.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Simpsons Interruptus

As a commenter below commented, there's trouble in Homerland:

Last week, Fox announced a fall schedule that included animated staple "The Simpsons" in its normal Sunday timeslot. The hitch? There's still no deal with the voice talent behind "The Simpsons." And without one, the 20th season of the series could be in jeopardy.

While sources close to both the voice actors and 20th Century Fox TV are optimistic that they're on the road to a new deal, production on the show's 20th season has been on hold for months -- meaning the studio will probably produce just 20, rather than 22, segs next season ...

I'm a longtime believer in leverage, and the voice actors of The Simpsons obviously have some. (Call me naive if you like , but I don't think the company will replace the actors with cheaper imitations.) Howsoever ...

... my stomach churns when I think of the handful of artists hanging by a thread at Film Roman, also all the laid off artists who are now the collateral damage caused by the stalled voice-actors' negotiations.

I'm pretty much of the opinion (stated here previously) that the actors are piggy-backing on the (possible) SAG and AFTRA strike that could happen anytime after July 1, the better to juice their own negotiations with Rupert's boys and girls.

I'm told there are several scripts ready for recording, but if contracts aren't finalized, then ... no voice tracks, and no shows. And if a general actors strike goes on for months (certainly a possibility), then there will most likely be fewer Simpson episodes inside a shorter 20th season.

I gotta believe that the parties will reach a deal and hustle the scripts on hand into the recording studio. If they don't, a lot of Simpsons artists, all of whom deserve better, could have a long, miserable summer. Many have already had a really crappy Spring ...

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Studios and MisInformation

Yesterday, I hit two different cartoon factories. In the course of my rounds, some new hires asked me questions, a few of which made me gnaw on the inside of my wizened cheeks. I've hit on this topic before, but in the interest of continuing education, I address the questions yet again:

"The studio told me the union contract only allows them to give me two weeks vacation per year ..."

The fabled union contract says this: "All weekly employees ...who have had one year of continuous employment ... shall be entitled to two (2) weeks paid vacation." (Article 8).

But wait! There's more! The contract also says:"Nothing in this Agreement shall prevent any individual from negotiating and obtaining from the Producer better conditions and terms of employment than those herein provided ..." (Article 4.C.)

So guess what? Employees are free to negotiate more vacation, higher wages, and extra benefits. (Stock options? Abso-freaking-lutely). All it takes is juice and leverage.

Some people have those things, others don't. For instance, a dozen years ago, animation employees regularly negotiated for wages that were double minimum scale. Many negotiated four ... or five ... or six weeks of yearly vacation. Nobody in management said back then: "Oh, sorry. The union contract precludes us from giving you more vacation."

"Nobody at the studio told me anything about initiation fees or dues when they recruited me. All they said was they were a 'union shop.' Then they said they were 'legally prohibited' from telling me any details ..."

Actually, no. There's this "freedom of speech" thing. It's in the Constitution. And the studio folks can tell you as much or as little as they desire. Nothing at all wrong with saying little, and if they want to say, "Gee, there are initiation fees and dues, but we don't want to give you wrong info, so here's the number of the Animation Guild (818-766-7151), call them," that's completely okay by us.

But "We're legally prohibited"? Uh, no. Because the studio isn't.

"They also said, when we finished negotiating my deal, that they'd 'prefer it if I don't tell anybody what I was making.'"

Of course they'd prefer it. Because it really simplifies their task of negotiating with others if the others have no effing idea what their fellow employees are making. But as we've said 437 times before, Section 232 California labor code states:

No employer may do any of the following:

a. Require, as a condition of employment, than an employee refrain from disclosing the amount of his or her wages

b. Require an employee to sign a waiver or other document that purports to deny the employee the right to disclose the amount of his or her wages.

c. Discharge, formally discipline, or otherwise discriminate against an employee who discloses the amount of his or her wages.

I raise all these points yet again because if I don't repeat them over and over, people forget the law and their rights when they're in a manager's office being gently intimidated.

After all. If you don't push back here and there, pretty soon you're shoved right on over the cliff.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Mr. K.'s Baptism

One of the refreshing things about Jeffrey Katzenberg is he's honest about his beginnings in 'toon land:

"I knew nothing about animation. Nothing whatsoever," Katzenberg told The Associated Press at the Cannes Film Festival ...

Katzenberg said his indoctrination into animation came on his first day at Disney, which he joined in 1984 as head of the film division after his boss at Paramount Pictures, Michael Eisner, became Disney chief executive. In preparation for a meeting with Eisner, Katzenberg made a list of 10 critical things he needed to do at their new outfit.

"Nowhere on that list was there any mention of animation," Katzenberg said. "When the meeting was about to come to an end, Michael stopped and he said, 'Oh, by the way, do you see that building over there?' And he pointed out the window of his office ... 'That's where they make animated films.'"

"I went, 'Oh, really?' He said, 'Yes, and it's your problem.'

Happily, Jeffrey turned his 1984 "problem" into a very lucrative franchise and living, and the world's the richer for it.

But he's right, he was kind of ignorant about animation in the beginning. Back then, he went through the whole department, looking at projects, deciding what stayed on track and what would be jettisoned.

And he quickly realized that The Black Cauldron, then 80% complete, had ... ah ... issues. Jeffrey, naturally enough, looked around for ways to improve those issues. Coming from a live-action background, he asked to look at "all the outtakes."

He was told: "We don't have any. There aren't any outtakes in animation."

This was one of Mr. Katzenberg's early lessons in cartoon making. But Mr. Katzenberg was a quick study, and didn't have to be taught twice. Which is why he's running a successful animation studio today.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Battle of C.G.I. Effects on Foreign Shores

... and day-glo "cartoony" viz effex lose out to the photo-realistic type:

Summer tentpole season hit a speed bump overseas, as the opening of “Speed Racer” met a wall of audience indifference ... “Speed” hit the $1 million mark in only three of its 30 markets — $2.5 million in South Korea, where it was a distant second to the second frame of “Iron Man”; $2 million in Mexico; and $1.3 million in Brazil.

The European markets were far less interested. Spain led the way with $891,000, followed by $714,000 in the U.K., $411,000 in Italy and an especially dismal $146,908 at 590 in Germany, where it finished eighth ...

The problem seems to be that nobody is overly enthralled with the flick. For example:

“Speed Racer” had received plenty of Teutonic press, since it was entirely shot at Studio Babelsberg outside Berlin and partially financed by federal and regional film grants. One exhib blames the pic’s failure not only on negative reviews and a lack of familiarity among Germans with the 1960s toon series upon which it’s based, but also on a possible aversion to its hyperkinetic graphics.

“I think people saw this computer game world and were not impressed,” he notes. “It was not something they wanted to immerse themselves in for two hours.”

By contrast, Iron Man colected $38.7 million in its second week. So in this case, photo-realism in the c.g.i. area made the difference. (Couldn't have had anything to do with acting and story, could it?)

And Horton Hears a Who has collected $136+ million in foreign lands, and over $150 mill stateside.

So does it crack the $300 million barrier, or not?

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

TAG 401(k) Choices

Back to retirement investments.

Often at the end of my 401(k) enrollment meetings, an artist asks: "Okay, I'm getting into this 401(k) Pension thing. So what do I invest in?"

I usually blather on, listing various options, stressing that I'm not a certified financial advisor. But since this is going to be a semi-succinct post, let me whittle today's advice down to a few points ...

Most 401(K) plans limit a participant's options. They give you three or four bond funds, ten or twenty stock funds (foreign and domestic), a choice of "Retirement Destination" funds which are a collection of investment accounts that put you in a set ratio of stock and bond selections which become more conservative (tilted more to bonds) as you get closer to retirement.

We get gripes from time to time about fund choices, and I sympathize, but few 401(k) plans give sophisticated investors the range of options they like. (A smattering of 401(k) Plans have "brokerage windows" where participants can invest in whatever they desire, but these drive administrative costs way up and few plans have them.)

Most participants, however, aren't sophisticated investors. Most get the information and forms for the TAG Plan and then get their own financial advisor to help them ; others ask me (did I already say this?): "What funds do I get into?"

I always have a short, simple answer. Be broadly diversified, have foreign stock, domestic stocks, and bonds. And patience. Plenty of patience.

I don't believe investing needs to be complicated. In the TAG plan (you can find a list of all the funds on page 9 at the link above), there are a bunch of ways to do that. One way is do a single "Retirement Destination" account. A single click on the fund with your retirement date, and you're done.

But maybe a better way is to go for more quality and use two funds from the Plan. The stock fund would be T. Rowe Price Spectrum Growth, highly rated by Morningstar and a choice that gives you wide stock diversification.

"...Spectrum Growth is a great choice for one-stop exposure ... For investors with long time horizons and a willingness to ride out the inevitable bumps of an all-stock portfilio, this fund holds much appeal ...

Moderate costs are one reason for that ...Extending the [cost] edge is the quality of the fund's underlying holdings. Indeed, a few of them, such as T. Rowe Price Equity Income, are Analyst Picks. Finally the fund benefits from skilled management at the top ...

Morningstar Funds 500

The other fund would be PIMCO Total Return, giving you a big slug of bonds, run by Bill Gross and his merry band of top-flight analysts down in Newport Beach, CA.

PTR in an intermediate bond fund so there will be a little up and down to it, but Gross is one of the savviest bond traders in the business (don't let the beach address fool you).

... Manager Bill Gross and PIMCO are our Fixded Income Fund Managers of the Year for 2007. ...Gross and PIMCO won with style ...[T]hey moved into higher-quality fonds(and away from corporate fare) and took on more interest-rate sensitivity ... Thanks to its bets, the fund has looked like a champ since mid-2007 ... It's more than 9% total return (2007) ranks in the intermediate bond category top 1% ...

-- Morningstar Funds 500

The only other question is: how much of your hard-earned money should you put in one account, and how much in another? That, of course, depends on your tolerance for risk, but my non-certified advice ...

In your twenties and thirties, plunk down 70% in stocks and 30% in bonds.

In your forties and fifties, try a mix of 60% stocks and 40% bonds.

And when you reach geezerhood, focus on a mix of 50/50 or maybe even 60-70% bonds and 30-40% stocks. (Your bond/stock ratio will depend on your tolerance for the roller-coaster ride that stocks give you.)

Final thought: TAG is having an investment seminar for members at its Tuesday, May 27th membership meeting. We'll have three financial advisors there to answer any and all questions, so you might want to mark your calendar.

(More about this later.)

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Springtime Box Office

(Maybe it would be useful if I put up the right g.d. graphic.)

With early Friday returns in, Chronicles of Narnia, The Sequel collects over $19 million, bumping Stan Lee's creation down to second place (where it will have to console itself with a $200 million domestic box office in its 16th day or release -- today) ...

Speed Racer decelerates, collecting two million dollars in fourth position. Outside of Iron Man, there is only one film in the Top Ten that's grossed over $50 million (Sarah Marshall). Obviously that will change by the end of the weekend ...

Update: Chronicles of Narnia, Part Deux comes in at #1, but $9 million under the first edition ... or as Ms. Finke puts it:

FRIENDLY KIDS FRANCHISE TURNS TOO FIERCE: Darker 'Narnia 2' Falls $ Short of Original

Meanwhile, Speed Racer is dying a quick and ignoble death, dropping 58.8% in the second lap, collecting $24,367,000 after two weeks. (This is one Joel Silver production that won't --- I'm going out on a flimsy limb here -- make its money back.) Or as Nikki says:

Warner Bros' anime actioner Speed Racer continues as a major bomb, ending Friday No. 4 with only $7.7M (-59%). The $160M movie's cume is just $29.8M -- which means it won't get beyond $50M in total domestic box office.

(Why N.F.'s totals are different than BO Mojo's, I have no idea.)

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Mid-May Linkorama

Another round of animation tidbits ...

Time Magazine hossanahs the new DreamWorks opus Kung Fu Panda:

KFP, from a clever screenplay by ex-King of the Hill writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, is a tribute to the literally hundreds of '70s Hong Kong martial arts dramas that flooded Saturday-morning U.S. TV in the wake of Bruce Lee's success with Enter the Dragon. The plot, of a laggard who undergoes rigorous training to become a great fighter, is familiar from many Jackie Chan films, including the one that made him a star, Drunken Master. Fans of Chang Cheh's Five Venoms movies will have no trouble spotting this movie's Furious Five: the Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tigress (Angelina Jolie) and Monkey — voiced by Chan himself, as a way of lending his vocal blessing to the project.

Chan's confidence was well placed. Directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne may have an unhealthy fondness for humiliating physical humor — there are more sight gags of fat creatures hurting themselves than in an entire run of Super Bowl commercials — but they are essentially respectful toward the conventions of martial arts films and the Zen spirituality underlining them.

(The Hollywood Reporter's take on the film is here.)

And we'll touch on a big animation company we don't think much about here, Electronic Arts:

Acquisition charges pushed video game publisher Electronic Arts to a loss for its fiscal fourth quarter, but the company's strong software sales helped the company's revenue blow past analyst expectations.

The company reported a $94 million loss for the quarter, or 34 cents per share, compared to a $25 million loss, or 8 cents per share, a year ago. Net revenue, however, was up 84 percent to $1.13 billion, with titles such as "Rock Band" and "Burnout Paradise" leading the way ...

EA’s optimistic forecast reflects widespread optimism in the video game industry. Year-to-date, game software is on pace for record sales, and EA still has several major titles in the wings.

Leading that pack is "Spore," the long-in-production title from Will Wright, the creator of "The Sims" franchise. Due Sept. 7, the game will let players create unique creatures and guide their evolution from the embryonic stage to the space age. The company is also working on "The Sims 3".

EA Sports will launch "Facebreaker," its first new franchise since 2002. Expansions for the "Battlefield" and "Command & Conquer" franchise are also due soon. And the company will debut more of its fall and winter lineup at the E3 Media Summit in July. All totaled, the company has more than 15 games scheduled for release this year—and expects to make between 63 and 68 percent of its revenue in the second half of the year.

"I believe it’s the best and most exciting lineup in EA’s history," said Riccitiello.

It appears that EA and the industry have not yet crash and burned because of on-line gaming ...

The Wall Street Journal reviews "The Pixar Touch" (a tome we touched on here earlier):

The conventional wisdom – not discouraged by the company itself – is that Pixar's genius flows from Steve Jobs, who started the studio from a computer-animation division he bought from Lucasfilm for $10 million after he left Apple Computer Inc. in 1985. The truth is much more complex and far more interesting, as David A. Price reports in "The Pixar Touch." Mr. Price, in addition to offering unprecedented detail about the notoriously press-shy company's workings, tells a story that abounds with lessons for business people and creative artists alike. Chief among the lessons is that no one invents anything in isolation and that getting fired can turn out to be a promotion.

The Pixar story begins at a time and place that few of the company's many admirers would guess: the University of Utah in the 1960s. The school's computer-science department, founded by a Mormon elder, attracted some of the era's brightest minds – students included software-programming guru Alan Kay, John Warnock (who would go on to co-found Adobe Systems Inc.) and Jim Clark (Netscape). Another of the star students, Edwin Catmull, was recruited by the New York Institute of Technology to direct its computer-graphics lab. There he met a collection of like-minded graphics programmers, including a long-haired Californian named Alvy Ray Smith, now revered as a computer-graphics pioneer ...

The Fox Network will be rolling out a couple of new animated series for prime time -- not exactly unknown news, but detailed by the Montreal Gazette here:

Two animated comedies are set for midseason, where they will join Fox's animation duo of The Simpsons and Family Guy.

The Cleveland Show is a spinoff from Family Guy, and focuses on the Griffins' neighbour, Cleveland. And Sit Down, Shut Up, about the faculty at a dysfunctional high school, reunites Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz with Arrested stars Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Henry Winkler. It's based on the live-action comedy Sit Down, Shut Up which originated in Australia.

King of the Hill and American Dad will return in the fall, but will go on hiatus in midseason to make room for Sit Down, Shut Up and The Cleveland Show.

While on the subject of Fox and animated fare, the Rupe conglomerate is keen on developing more 'toon talent:

News Corp. is drawing up big small-screen animation plans. 20th Century Fox TV and Fox Broadcasting Co. have teamed to launch Fox Inkubation, a joint venture designed to discover new animation talent and develop animated projects outside of the traditional model.

Additionally, 20th TV has formed a new animation department focused on more conventional development of cartoon series and has tapped Jennifer Howell, executive vice president of "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker's Important Films, to run it.

"So much of our success has been driven by animated shows, and we have been contemplating how to step up our efforts in the area," 20th TV chairman Gary Newman said. "We believe it is critical to our future success." ...

This short piece in the NY Times is eleven days old, but it caught my attention: the various possessions and domains of Andrew Stanton:

Favorite item in house: My ergonomic office chair. It is based on the tension you put on it. I swear by it. I love it. It brings down my blood pressure ...

There seems to be new production centers springing up across the globe. India, Shanghai, Taiwan, Korea. Name a location, there seems to be a production house there. But here's one I hadn't seen before (maybe I lead too sheltered a life):

Movie production company Fable Works has unveiled plans to produce Cereal Heroes, an animated 3D feature film that is expected to launch in 2010.

The movie will be produced at Sparx Animation Studios in Paris, France and Ho-chi-min, Vietnam ...

Add on: Andrew (Shrek, Shrek II) Adamson talks about his current live action gig, those Narnia flicks. But now he's taking a break:

"I'm passing the directorial reins on for the next instalment, though I will keep my hand in as a producer. It's been a real labour of love, and I do find it hard to let go. I always worry they'll find out I'm still a 13-year-old at heart."

We wish you a productive and life-enhancing weekend.

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