Saturday, November 28, 2009

Career Trajectories

Sitting at El Capitan the other night watching Waking Sleeping Beauty, I was struck by how career paths often turn on a dime.

Up on the screen was the tale of Disney Feature Animation, struggling in the early eighties, triumphant in the early nineties, and starting to unravel even as it released its biggest hit, The Lion King, in 1994.

Down in the theater seats, a couple of thousand artists who had ridden the rocket sat watching their younger selves, remembering how they'd hit the heights ... only to get laid off half a dozen years later.

Most of the faces I saw, the crew members who made Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King and the others happen, aren't at Disney anymore. Rob Minkoff is doing live action and projects at DreamWorks Animation. Tom Sito is teaching college and working at Warner Bros. Don Hahn and Peter Schneider are most of the way out of the cartoon business, working on independent projects.

And others who once stood on various rungs of the Disney Feature ladder are now at television cartoon studios, visual effects houses, merchandising art, or looking for their next gig. A few work in the grocery business. (One artist I've known for decades came up and thanked me for helping her get dismissal pay from a foot-dragging studio, then admitted that jobs have recently been few and far between.)

Who could have guessed in 1994 that all those high-stepping careers would have been down-sized out of existence by 2002? As one artist said to me:

"We did everything they asked, and they still stopped making hand-drawn features ..."

After a couple of decades of observation, I've concluded the race goes to the talented and hard-working, but mainly the resilient and lucky. Because no matter how carefully you plan, no matter how many hours of labor you put in, at some point the career highway will ramp off in a direction you didn't expect, and you'll have to hang onto the steering wheel because a blowout is imminent.

(In other words: You could have been the most productive employee the Fleischers had at their Miami studio, and you still would have moved to California or New York looking for work 4 1/2 years later when the place closed down.)

That reality was on vivid display at the El Capitan last Monday night, both on the screen and in the audience, and has happened to almost everyone who's worked in animation in the last thirty years. Close to nobody finishes a career where they start it. Close to nobody ends up where they think they will. Like for instance this artist:

Born in Ecuador and raised in Albuquerque, NM, Mike Judge got a degree in physics at U.C. San Diego. Relocating to Texas, Judge worked as an engineer and also tried to forge a career as a musician, but found that animation was his preferred calling. After a Dallas animation festival, Judge's 1991 short Office Space was picked up by Comedy Central. His 1992 short Frog Baseball, featuring two sadistic teen cretins voiced by Judge, subsequently led to a 1993 MTV animated series revolving around the heavy metal-loving adolescents Beavis and Butthead ...

Or this gent ...

... [Simon Tofield's] five short films -- "Cat Man Do," "Let Me In," "TV Dinner," "Hot Spot" and "Fly Guy" -- depicting the misadventures of a demanding cat and his befuddled owner have scored more than 36 million hits [on the internet.] The first film, "Cat Man Do," in which the cat resorts to somewhat unorthodox methods to wake his master and get his breakfast, won best comedy in the British Animation Awards in 2008. Tofield wasn't planning on making a series or even releasing "Cat Man Do" when he made the cartoon. It was just an exercise to teach himself Flash, an animation program widely used in commercials ...

Like it? A career in animation by accident.

As always, there are a zillion different foot-paths into Animationland, and a whole lot fewer that zig-zag through it to the tippy top. I wish to God I knew what the ideal roadmap was, but I don't think it exists.

And if it does, I've never seen it.


Anonymous said...

The problem I had with "Waking Sleeping Beauty," which I thought was a good film, was that the creators seemed to take no responsibility at all for their being not just sometimes part of a solution, but more than often a big part of the problem (less so Don Hahn). And thankfully, for them--the creators of the film--it stops just after the Lion King when things REALLY went out of whack under their control. If they did things to try and alleviate the waste at the studio, I'd love to know. I also found it strange that Tom Schumacher was in the film so little, while he figured so prominently at the studio at this time (more so Lion King on).

They tip toed over a lot of graves in this film. I thought at least one would have hands reaching out from beyond the tomb to drag them to hell.

g said...

This is a sad story, truly it is.

But certainly there are success stories within Disney, and people who are still there who worked on the films you mentioned, right? (especially after the rehiring of a slew of 2D juggernauts)

And outside Disneys (sometimes triumphant, sometimes pathetic) walls, animation has flourished and succeeded wildly beyond Disney's imagination and capability. They are just now recovering (Bolt, PATF, Rapunzel) and making solid films again.

I guess what Im trying to say is, the story isnt over, things are looking better, and while endings in the past have been sad, that doesnt mean it always has to end sadly, right?

Floyd Norman said...

Animation was deemed “unsinkable” back in the early nineties, and many lived it up. We embarked on this special voyage together, but when the good ship Feature Animation struck the iceberg there simply weren’t enough lifeboats.

Congratulations to those who made it, but for many of us still clinging to the wreckage, the water is getting damn cold.

Anonymous said...

I thought you were working Floyd? Some super secret project if Im not mistaken :)

Anonymous said...

No, Floyd is not much more than a minor splinter on a sinking ship.

Anonymous said...

What ship? Disney?

I think Disney still has a chance. PATF looks like it has potential, and all Im hearing about Rapunzel is that the story is finally together and they are working away on it. Pooh is next for 2D.

Doesnt seem too bad? Am I wrong?

Anonymous said...

I don't think you understand. There was one brief, shining moment when animators were treated as stars. They had agents, lawyers, signing bonuses. multiple studios bidding on them and made the remaining 9 Old Men jealous of how they were treated and paid. And it wasn't just the STAR players but everyone including Clean-up artists and inbetweeners.

Those days will most likely never come again. Now artists (other than some story people) who are treated in a lesser way than ever before. Even by Pixar.

It's a sad time and hard for many to accept this complete reversal. What's even sadder (as someone noted earlier) is the artists are also somewhat to blame. You can't just blame the 'suits' - though it would be nice.

In fact, I find it ironic (and hopefully karmic) that Ron and John are the ones that might be resposnible for 2D returning to Disney and the theaters since it is widely believed that Treasure Planet is the film that utterly sank 2D at Disney. Hopefully it will be a repeat of their Little Mermaid (which was the first big hit of the renaissance of 2D) for Dsiney and not TP.

Floyd Norman said...

And besides, the "splinter" is already retired.

I was speaking of my esteemed colleagues who continue to struggle with the current employment situation.

Anonymous said...

Intelligent comments. Nice for a bit of a change of pace.

Disney is far from back on the right track at this moment in time. It's been put on a track that is make-it-or-break-it by Iger. Not Lasseter, Iger.
They're set to either make a success and more franchise/ancillary cash cows from Princess fairy tales or close trying. Frog is the next to last try that they'll get. But as it stands now they've committed to operating on a skeleton crew basis taking no chances and making no new films, only old ones with new names.

None of this makes anyone happy. Welcome to 1977, folks.

Anonymous said...

None of it makes me happy either, especially when I know nearly every major animated film in the last 2-3 years has made at least 300mil worldwide, and some of them have topped a billion.

And we people who actually put the blood and sweat into the film make barely enough to afford a mortgage.

Heck, most of us dont even own homes because we cant settle down because we're constantly changing jobs.

Sammy's Got Shades said...

Retired Floyd?

So you're working with Lasseter and company for free?


Floyd Norman said...

For free? I don't think so.

BoltSucked! said...

"They are just now recovering (Bolt, PATF, Rapunzel) and making solid films again"

I'm sorry to say that "Bolt" is not the brilliant film you believe it to be. Or that its everyone's fave.

Quite the opposite.

Anonymous said...

Each to his own but on any level Bolt didn't "suck" at all.

It's a great movie, just on a smaller scale as Basil was. I find that infuriating because the saving of feature animation-the blockbuster extravaganza-has also been the death knell for even thinking of making or pitching a "little" film(I hope you guys understand little isn't a putdown at all by the way).

What matters from a business standpoint is that "Bolt" didn't make huge numbers. And I don't care what the excuses are, the film was horribly marketed and sold. HORRIBLY. It was the stepchild of the Pixar takeover to begin with and suffered a lot of the same problems from the Team Disney building that befell "Iron Giant" on the WB lot.

From the abysmal, meaningless title to the standees in theaters of a lightning bolt("Hey dad! See that cool metallic design thing over there? That reddish one? I wanna see THAT!!" WTF!)-to promote what was 90% a comedy with talking animals was an unbelievable fuckup.
It's a shame on about every level, especially considering it had the best CG character animation that Disney's done and some of the best anywhere.

g said...

I'm sorry to say that "Bolt" is not the brilliant film you believe it to be. Or that its everyone's fave.

Are you illiterate? He didnt say it was "brilliant" or "everyone's fave," he said it was "solid."

And I think 88% on Rotten Tomatoes proves it.

Worldwide, Bolt did over 300 mil, better than Horton Hears a Who (from the same year), which Fox and others called a blockbuster.

Bolt IS a recovery film for Disney, no matter what you say.

g said...

Haha. I forgot I actually wrote that. Talk about blindly defending myself. Swap out "he" for "I"

Carry on.

Floyd Norman said...

Back in the eighties I attended the "Great Mouse Detective" wrap party. I told producer, Burny Mattinson that this was Disney's come back film. Though, the company never got behind the movie, it certainly paved the way for greater things to come.

Like "Mouse Detective," "Bolt" is accomplishing the same.

mark pudleiner said...

As Floyd mentioned,"Great Mouse Detective" was indeed a turning point. While working at Bluth Studios, myself and a few others went with Don Bluth once the film opened.
I remember walking from the theater after seeing the film, Don turning to us and mentioning that the computer was the way of the future.
He was very impressed with the 'Big Ben' clock at the end of the film. How good it looked as the animation and camera moved over and around it.
I could see him thinking about what he could do with this new way of moving around the layouts. The added depth etc.
I know it all seems simple right now, but back in the 80's, this film that John and Ron directed had some large positive creative effects on people.

Sheriff Woody said...

If you ain't working for free then you ain't retired, Floyd. Hehe..

And yer dead on in your comment about The Great Mouse Det./Bolt comparisons.

When are you going to direct something? A short perhaps? Is that this super secret project you're working on? Or is it with publishing now?

Spill it! We wants to know..

Anonymous said...

So according to you the picture after Bolt should be a complete embarrassment and have the worst level of quality ever released from Disney (ala Oliver & Co) and THEN release a film that kickstarts the studio again (like Little Mermaid)?

Anonymous said...

Oh har har.

Yes, history is going to LITERALLY repeat itself.

People love to want Disney to fail, dont they?

Anonymous said...

I think what he was trying to dryly point out is that Floyd's ( and Mark's and Sheriff Woody's)prediction of GMD kickstarting Disney Animation again was dead wrong. It wasn't until Jeffrey and company saw what could happen with LM that they put their enthusiasm behind animation. Until then they were content to let Roy and Peter run the dept for the most part.

Anonymous said...

You're all wrong. Oliver and Co. was a HUGE boxoffice success. People forget that it was the highest grossing animated film of all time, at the time it was released. And it went head-to-head with "Land Before Time," and ultimately prevailed.

It was also considered a creative milestone animated film at the time, as well. Here was a contemporary setting, with upbeat pop music from well-known musicians, instead of the usual dreary musical scores that had been done for animated movies up til then.

Oliver & Co was a much bigger financial success than Mouse Detective, and got loads more media attention in the "Disney animation is making a comeback" category. It, along with "Roger Rabbit," which had come out earlier that year, was the animated movie which made the public realize that Disney animated features were coming back in a big way.

Little Mermaid simply topped them all, a year later.

Anonymous said...

Wow...have you ever seen Oliver & Co?

Anonymous said...

Yes. Have you ever seen the animated movies made between 1970 to 1987?

By and large, tired, dreary shit.

For the record, Great Mouse Detective has some of the worst animation I've ever seen in a Disney feature animated movie.

Fozzie's Agent said...

"For the record, Great Mouse Detective has some of the worst animation I've ever seen in a Disney feature animated movie."

Forget about asking him if he's seen Oliver and Co. Ask him if he's seen Great Mouse Detective!

Anonymous said...

No really. Haven't seen it in awhile, eh? It's pretty mediocre. Bad timing and spacing all over the place. Essentially the same crew animated Oliver, so I'm not sure how you can justify imagining that the animation quality is incredibly different between the two.

And obviously, my boxoffice information cannot be disputed.

Fozzie's Agent said...

But your taste can be disputed..

Anonymous said...

The fact that Disney never made any other films using the Oliver & Co formula shows that they didn't consider it a hit regardless of it doing a little over 50mill - thank God for that.
It's not like they hired Elton John, Barry Manilow or Phil Collins (or some other has-been popstar) to do a voice in Little Mermaid or take a lit classic and transpose it until Treasure Planet and we all know how that turned out (a film JK refused to do during his tenure).

Even though Black Cauldron, Mouse Detective, Mermaid and B&B had some bad animation none of those sank (stank?) as low as Oliver. The majority of the animation in Oliver was bad and had very little decent work in it. The opposite is true of those other films.

Even (if as claimed) it had the same crew as GMD (which it didn't) it had a different director (a very, very green different director) and the level of animation required was more realistic than GMD and many of the GMD crew had very little animal anatomy skills. There's a HUGE difference as to animating in the style necessary for GMD (pretty much a Mr. Toad clone) and Oliver & Co (a Dalmation - sort of - clone)

Anonymous said...

Nope. The crews for GMD and Oliver were indeed largely the same.

You didn't like Oliver. That's your opinion, sad as it is. The fact is, its animation was more refined than Mouse Detective, and its story appealed to a larger audience. GMD is strictly niche.

Oliver was, and remains, the pinnacle of animation achievement of Disney animation.

Polly Hutchens said...


Pinnacle of Disney animation?

I don't call into question your taste?

I call into question that you HAVE taste.

Michael said...

I had a chance to go see WSB and couldn't, which made me sad. I really look forward to seeing it. As someone on the outside, who has a real interest in how the sausage is made (so to speak), this is a story I've long wanted to hear. I'd also like to get a lengthy account of what happened after, but who knows if that'll ever happen. Heck, I still haven't been able to see "The Sweatbox".

I also appreciate any semi-objective commentary on what's happening at Disney today. Animation is such big business these days that it's hard to believe that things are on such a razor's edge. The comparison to 1977 is chilling. Although it opened my eyes as to the true meaning of the current skeleton crew, "wait and see" approach. I do think PATF is going to hit big, so hopefully that'll breathe more life into things. Seeing all the nomadic animators at work with reliable, steady contracts would make me very happy.

I hope that it also eventually allows the WDAS traditional anim unit to do something non-fairy tale; I maintain that Atlantis and Treasure Planet were both good ideas that could have been great but stumbled in execution and marketing. Atlantis in particular was so close to being great, in my opinion. If WALL-E and Up could be such big hits with such odd concepts, you'd think that eventually he who holds the greenlight would give animators the benefit of doubt.

One last thing - I love the comparison of Bolt and Basil. I'd never thought of that before. I'm actually quite a fan of Basil - it's not perfect but I find it consistently entertaining and there are lots of nice bits.

And yes, Oliver doesn't hold up well but it was very big at the time. Basil's better, hands down, but Oliver made a bigger splash.

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