Thursday, December 31, 2009


This marks post number 2,948 around here, and the final missive of '09. (No, I'm not actually keeping count. But the number shows up on the blogger dashboard, so what the hell.)

On behalf of myself and the others who contribute to this thing, I would like to thank you for clicking through and putting your two cents in over the course of the past year ... whether the little copper coins were off-topic or not. Without eyeballs and comments, there is not much of a blog, so we appreciate your patronage ...

I plan to be around awhile yet, doing this into 2010 and beyond (God and the membership willing). The mix will be much as before: reports from studios, snark about the industry, a bit about investing and tucking money into rainy day funds and successfully navigating nutty studio politics. Also labor commentary.

We live in interesting times (as residents of the Middle Kingdom put it), but with luck, 2010 won't be too interesting for you, me and the rest of humanity to bear. And here's wishing ... for all of us ... a healthy and prosperous New Year.

Love and kisses, TAG blog.

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TeeVee's Best Toonage

Now with Add On.

Being this is the last day of the year, Steve Fritz presents his "Best" list for 2009 in the television animation department. (Obviously, opinions may vary.)

I’m hardly turning the boob tube on anymore. The 21” flat screen atop my desktop has rapidly become my preferable destination. .... With so many networks at the touch of a keyboard, it ain’t that hard to lock into 20 or so solid half-hours of animated entertainment a week. If you don’t believe, read on.

Family Fun: 1) Phineas & Ferb (Disney XD)

Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh has provided the show that delivers everything for a second year in a row. Smart scripting, a super-inventive formula that is constantly twisted but never broken, and some incredibly good pop songs every episode insures this series should hopefully go on for years to come. If the TV industry provided more shows like the adventures of these two half-brothers, the execs will have nothing to ever worry about ....

Adult Animation: 1) The Simpsons (Fox)

21 years and we still tune in every Sunday for the latest adventures from those fine citizens of Springfield, USA. For that alone this show deserves its #1 slot. Homer Simpson as one of the most recognized Americans in the world? Lisa as snarky as ever? This level of consistent adult humor is truly unheard of in the entertainment world. Here’s to another 21 ...

The toughest part of the animation industry is, far and away, television work. Budgets are insanely tight. Schedules get more and more cramped. And the more artists get smacked in the face with impossible deadlines, the harder they work, dragging boards, designs, and layouts home for work into the small hours so they can have it ready for the production manager bright and early the following morning (Uncompensated o.t., anyone?)

As a prime-time animation director related a week ago:

"I don't linger over anything anymore, trying to polish it. There's no time. It's just slam-bam and out the door. The sad part is, I've gotten less complaints from my producers doing it fast and mindlessly than I did when I had time to put more effort into the work ...."

It's been a rugged year for a lot of animation people, and frustration abounds. (But should we be different from the rest of the country?) It's my fervent New Year's wish that 2010 is better both for everyone in the animation community, and for you.

Add On: Mr. Fritz analyzes theatrical features here.

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Top Flight Movement

Charles Solomon reflects on quality animation.


... Character animation — the art of making a figure move in ways that convey a unique personality — dates back to Walt Disney’s 1933 watershed cartoon Three Little Pigs. ... [D]irector Chuck Jones commented, “Three Little Pigs proved it wasn’t how a character looked but how he moved that determined his personality. All we animators were dealing with after Three Little Pigs was acting.”

At a time when so many CG characters chatter nonstop, it’s easy to forget how many memorable scenes in animated films communicate feelings through pure movement, from the Seven Dwarfs weeping over Snow White’s bier to Chihiro riding the mysterious train in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. ...

Decades ago, I asked animator Ollie Johnston, "Of all the animated features you've worked on, which one's your favorite?"

I expected him to say "Bambi" or "Pinocchio" or maybe even "Lady and the Tramp." But he peered off into middle distance and said: "Robin Hood."

Stunned, I said, "Really? Why that one?"

He replied: "Because I really liked the characters I had in the picture. And the acting I did with them. Robin Hood's got some of the best animation."

Ollie might be right, although I think RH's weaker story and art direction undercuts the feature. But I take his point about animation acting. Film reviewers mention the quality of the acting in cartoon features not at all, yet it's with live-action pictures on a regular basis: "Daniel Day Lewis and George Clooney give knock-out performances in the new release Grand Emoting,...".

But you'll be old, feeble and residing in an assisted living facility before you'll see that kind of analysis regarding an animated feature. It just never happens. The quality of the acting isn't something mainstream reviewers think about or consider.

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Snowtime, by Ralph Hulett

These plump little birds on cushions of snow, celebrate Christmas morn with a red-berry breakfast.
© 1955 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Stupid, It Stings

I ran across this screed, attached to a new Rapunzel picture moments ago:

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m fully let down by this first shot from RAPUNZEL brought to us today by It looks like perfectly fine, standard, 3D animation at its absolute adequacy. What disappoints me is this notion that Disney has to create 3D animated films when they had a perfectly fine 2D animated film hit theaters just a short month ago.

PRINCESS AND THE FROG should have been the launching point of a whole new Disney venture into 2D animation, a re-visitation of the amazing period of time the company had from THE LITTLE MERMAID to THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. RAPUNZEL seems right up the alley with these other films ...

Maybe Kirk didn't notice, but TP&TF, as much as I like it (and I do) has sort of stalled on the launching pad. And as Mr. Corliss pointed out in TIME Magazine, the CGesque Alvin and the Chipmunks has eaten the 2D feature's lunch after five days of release.

Now. Do I like this? Hell, no. But do I acknowledge reality? Yeah, I find that a useful activity, being rooted as I am in the world of actual events.

But that isn't the point of my gripe about Kirk's sour post. My gripe is that Rapunzel has been on the Disney schedule as a freaking CGI feature since the time of Chicken Little, back when David Stainton was running the division and the company announced it was through doing hand-drawn features.

So after seven years of development and story work, to think that Diz Co. is going to throw out years of labor to satisfy some fan-boy's desire that the conglomerate make their next fairy tale in his preferred format is silly at best, and brain-damaged at worst.

If The Princess and the Frog were climbing toward a $300 million domestic gross after a month of release, they would still be making the picture as a CGI release.

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New Year's Linkage

Another round of animated news and factoids.

So how did I miss this?

... In an article published on Tuesday in L’Osservatore Romano under the headline “Aristotle’s Virtues and Homer’s Doughnut,” “The Simpsons” was praised for its “realistic and intelligent writing” (and rapped on the knuckles for “excessively crude language, the violence of certain episodes or some extreme choices by the scriptwriters”) ...

That's the Vatican newspaper that is praising the Yellow Family.

Give our fine conglomerates something that interests them, and they will come:

Global media giants including Disney, Viacom and Star TV will have their presence felt at the first China International Animation Copyright Fair opening on Wednesday in the southern city of Dongguan.

... [T]he fair, a top one in the country, would boost the protection of the copyright of animation works and promote trade and research with regards to animation products.

Seth M. provides another interview about satire, prime-time entertainment, and other things.

... I always thought it would be funny to have the Parents Television Council write an episode of "Family Guy" and give them full creative control. Then see how good the episode is. That's something we've actually discussed in the writers' room. We haven't proposed it yet, but if somebody from the PTC reads this, it might be worth discussing ...

While we're on the subject of the Middle Kingdom, Shanghai list touts the work of five indie animators:

China's animation industry is receiving a huge amount of support from the government in a push to develop China's creative industries. At the same time, many of China's emerging independent creatives are producing eye-opening work that more often than not doesn't make it into the mainstream media channels.

Below are 5 of our favorite indie animations from 2009. Even if you can't understand Chinese, you'll enjoy the visual feast ...

Click through and feast away.

In case you'd forgotten, that Marvel-Disney deal? It's ready (at last) to consummate.

Marvel Entertainment, Inc. (NYSE: MVL) is about to disappear. The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) acquisition is set to close this week. Some have criticized this $4.2 billion cash and stock deal, but there is going to be more merit to this combination with Disney than just traditional M&A. That old strategic word comes up: synergies. For starters, Disney has a market cap north of $60 billion and that makes this a relatively small deal to carry out for the Mouse House ...

And the Motley Fool tells us how Disney can maximize the value of its Marvel acquisition:

2. Pixar can render Marvel properly. If Disney had acquired Marvel before snapping up Pixar, this would have been a gutsy call. However, if anyone can turn some of Marvel's lesser-known heroes into animated art, it's Pixar's Bard Bird -- the guy responsible for Pixar's The Incredibles and cult favorite Iron Giant before that ...

Time Magazine's Richard Corliss laments the taste of the American public:

... If the good doesn't drive out the bad, it should at least stir in young minds a healthy skepticism for movie mediocrity, and zero tolerance for crap.

Explain to me, then, why Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel earned more than $75 million in its first five days of release. Was the boffo gross due to brand recognition after the 2007 movie about Simon, Theodore and Alvin was a hit? ...

Lastly, we wrap up with Slash/film's article about How to Train Your Dragon and the latest trailer, complete with Brendan Connelly's usual sneering.

But the first commenter, who claims to have actually seen the film, says this:

I had a chance to see the unfinished movie a couple of weeks back. It was one of those marketing screenings and Katzenberg was even in attendance. It was easily their best movie yet. They may have a bit of a problem though with the eventual comparison to the "dragon" riding in Avatar, though this is obviously a completely different film ...

I know that the DWA crew is high on the picture, and I like the energy in the bits and pieces I've seen. We'll find out if it's a hit the end of March.

Have a terrific New Year.

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Cheerio!, by Ralph Hulett

An old-fashioned stove is the center of happy Christmas cheer.
© 1955 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top Ten Goofs

Everybody comes up with their own list of stupid that's done in and around Hollywood, but one of our fine trade papers (via Reuters, via the New York Times, etc.) compiled a few errors that caught my attention.


Axed TV shows usually stay dead, yet two titles canceled by former Fox chief Sandy Grushow in 2002 refused to go quietly. One was Seth MacFarlane's "Family Guy," which was moved around the schedule and even put opposite top-rated hits "Survivor" and "Friends" before getting yanked. After the show's repeats got strong ratings on Adult Swim and netted big DVD sales, the comedy made its way back to broadcast in 2005. "Family Guy" is now Fox's second-highest-rated scripted series and has produced a successful spinoff ("The Cleveland Show") ...

Fox is the only network to hit big with prime time animation. (Others have tried, but only Fox has succeeded.)

I could never understand why the network canceled FG in the first place. It had a loyal fan base, it was doing okay considering how it got kicked around from time slot to time slot, but it was still drop-kicked out the door. As a Fox exec told me years ago: "Thank God for the millions of DVDs that flew off the shelves. If not for that, the show never would have come back."

But bad decisions get made all the time, by everybody. Fox is also the company that put The Blind Side into turn-around, and now the $29 million production is making buckets of money for Warner Bros.

But the newspapers don't think it's just Hollywood companies that are stupid. In the interests of being fair and balanced, here is the articles Top Pick for dumbness:


Has there ever been a longer 14 weeks? The 2007-08 walkout was a largely avoidable mutually destructive act that occurred at exactly the wrong time. In addition to almost wiping out an entire pilot season, the strike sent shows into repeats, driving a ratings crash that broadcasters have not been able to recover from thanks to increased DVR use and viewers fleeing to cable. In the end, writers outmaneuvered the studios, but few felt as if they actually won.

Some writers maintain that the DGA, after the dust had settled, got a better deal than the WGA. And since then, development deals have evaporated, writing staffs have shrunk, so who really outmaneuvered who?

Little did we know at the time, back during that winter of 2007-2008, but the job action began almost the same moment the American economy nosed into recession. Was the strike, in the end, a net plus? The only thing I know with certainty is that TAG-repped artists working on prime-time, WGA shows took it on the chin when hundreds of them were laid off during the strike.

It was not pretty.

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Curious Cats, by Ralph Hulett

Curious Cats
If a cat can look at a king ... a cat can look at a Christmas tree.

Why Siamese cats? Because we had two of them when I was growing up. (Plus there's the Lady and the Tramp connection; that probably played a role) ... -- SH

© 1955 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image. See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm. Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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The Wise Old Producer

... speaks*.

He said -- yesterday when we were having lunch -- that he believed that a good, hand-drawn feature could make a lot of money. (More than TP&TF.)

I said, based on evidence to date, that isn't the case. Because, except for The Simpsons Movie, no hand-drawn feature in the last decade has made more than $120 million domestic, and all we have to go on are the hand-drawn features that have been released, not the ones that would do gangbusters if they could only get themselves made.

(Having now done some research, I have to revise my original comment. I think a case can be made that the right hand-crafted feature could do big business. The question is, who will do it?)

Here are [some of] the domestic and worldwide takes of recent American hand-drawn features:

U.S. Hand-Drawn Features -- 1999-2009

Tarzan (1999): (d) $171 million; (ww) $448.2 million.

Emperor's New Groove (2000): (d) $89.3 million; (ww) $169.3 million.

Atlantis (2001): (d) $84 million; (ww) $186 million.

Lilo and Stitch (2002): (d) $145.7 million; (ww) $273.1 million.

Treasure Planet (2002): (d) $38 million; (ww) $109.6 million.

Brother Bear (2003): (d) $85.3 million; (ww) $250.4 million.

Home on the Range (2004): (d) $50 million; (ww) $104 million.

The Simpsons Movie (2007): (d) $183.1 million; (ww) $527 million.

The Princess and the Frog (2009): (d) $64 million.

So, having now done some research, I would have to say the Wise Old Movie Producer is probably right, for not only is he the Wise Old Movie Producer, but he has data that helps prove his point: Lilo and Stitch and The Simpsons Movie. (If a hand-drawn feature can reverse the down-trend twice, it can do it three times.)

But come on, somebody! Create a zazzy, new, hand-drawn epic. Prove the theory! There's gotta be one out there somewhere.

* Revised from my original comment here.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

SAG, Unions and Financial Core

Apparently the Screen Actors Guild has been educating aspiring actors about the downside of not joining the Guild when they start getting industry jobs.

... A skirmish broke out last week over thesps being persuaded to quit the Screen Actors Guild.

SAG First VP Anne-Marie Johnson and several board members ... leafleted outside a class conducted on the technique of filing for "financial core" status at the Hey, I Saw Your Commercial workshop studios in Los Angeles.

"We felt it was important to make sure that people attending the class get all the information about taking that step," Johnson told Daily Variety. "It's not something that we can ignore." ...

And what exactly is "that step?" Just this.

Members who go "fi-core" resign their SAG membership and withhold the dues spent by SAG on political activities but can still work on union jobs ...

The Supreme Court ruled some years ago that nobody had to be a member of a union against their will, but did have to pay those portion of dues that unions used to administer and police the contracts under which those persons worked. (Again, the dues excluded are for icky political stuff. In TAG's case, that amount to 4% of total dues.)

So what's the advantage to resigning and going financial core? You don't have to go on strike.

What's the disadvantage? You can't run for union office, you can't vote, and you might be damaging yourself politically with union members who think unionism is a good thing.

But everyone makes up their own mind.

Despite SAG's efforts, a total of nearly 2,000 actors have filed for financial core status, according to SAG's most recent filing with the federal government.

To be specific, 1,894 SAG members have resigned and gone fi core out of a total membership of 128,187. That's 1.47%.

Back in 1982, TAG had a bunch of members resign from this union and take financial core status. For most, it was done so they could legally return to work near the end of a ten-week strike. Since then, there have been a handful of people who have resigned membership for one reason or another.

I've never had a problem with people taking financial core status. I wouldn't do it myself, since I'm one of those lefties who believe in collective bargaining, collective action, and E Pluribus Unum. But I also believe in people knowing what their rights are (which is why I'm writing this.) And if somebody believes resigning from union membership is right for them, hey, go for it. There have even been a few times in the course of my illustrious union rep career when I've asked people to go financial core, just to get them out of what's left of my hair.

They've always refused.

The interesting thing is, over the last several years, we've had more financial core non-members wanting to come back to full membership than the other way around. 1982 is a long time ago, and few people believe that the fine conglomerates for which they work is actually in their corner.

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It's the Tax Break, Stupid

Universal-NBC GE (soon to be Universal-NBC Comcast) has been a feeble player in the animation game. Universal Animation Studios essentially closed shop this month, and the company has been a non-presence in theatrical animation, as well as a chronic under-performer in live-action.

Now, of course, it's done a deal with Chris Meladandri and is partnered with Mr. M.'s Illumination Entertainment to make CGI animated features. For a period of time I wondered where Illumination was going to set up its studio, but then I found out the business model: Illumination works out of offices in Santa Monica, freelancing development and doing productions overseas.

It's first animation feature, Despicable Me was produced in France. Not India. Not China. But the land of champagne and camembert. And why is that? ...

... 3D toonpic "Despicable Me," which is produced by Chris Meledandri, [is] among the first five recipients of France's tax rebate for international shoots.

Paris VFX house Mac Guff handled animation modeling, texturing, rendering and compositing on "Despicable Me," which is the first film from Universal's family film unit Illumination. .

When you are a pretender to animation's throne and not named Pixar, DreamWorks or Blue Sky, you have to watch your pennies, especially when you're dealing with a tight-fisted conglomerate like General Electric.

So Illumination-Universal will get its big French rebate, and the picture will roll out next Fall, and we will see if Mr. Meladandri's lower rent business model results in profits for Universal's shiny new animated feature.

If it does, other companies will likely sniff after the same sort of game plan. And if it fails, there will be small interest in replicating Illumination's blue print.

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Winter Shadows, by Ralph Hulett

Winter Shadows
Moon-silvered snow is etched with a shadow pattern of bizarre, snarled branches.
© 1961 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Christmas Eve Post

... where a commenter writes:

It's not a secret that Elves is dead or that the producer and directors have gone. That said, it's lame and irresponsible for Slashfilm (or whatever it's called) to do "stories" on the posts here. Hello Slashfilm: either get an actual source that YOU know or leave speculation on other message boards alone for chrissakes.

And for the 101th time Steve: this is why our board shouldn't be public. it's really going to backfire some day ...

And my 101th answer is "No." It's already backfired, but I'm still here typing anyway.

As for that other thing, I've told naughty old Slashfilm a jillion times, "Stop stealing stuff out of our comments section!!" For some reason they don't listen to me, I don't know why.

But thanks for your kind words. Concern trolls are some of our favorite people.

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Richard Corliss Speaks

... a discomforting reality:

... Alvin took in more in its first four days than the early December animated feature The Princess and the Frog did in its first 32 days (18 in wide release). The chipmunks should earn back their $70 million budget in a week or two. ...

Like it or not, every exec in the entertainment conglomerate pyramid is taking note of this.

"People are tired of CGI..."? Not hardly.

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Animation Recently ... Animation Soon

Nine months ago Uncle Steve wrote:

[There will be] nineteen features over [the next] thirty-three months .. and if you include the features in release between January 1, 2009, and December 31, 2011, the total bumps up to ... a grand total of twenty-one ...

We're about a quarter of the way through the cycle, so how, exactly, are animated features doing? Not badly, as a matter of fact. A number of titles listed on the far side of the above link can be considered solid winners in the movie pantheon. Let's look at the group that's recently been in release, shall we? ...

Bolt -- Generally considered something of a disappointment (it got stunted by the brilliant Disney marketing campaign opening it on the same day as Twilight.) Worldwide gross: $308.3 million -- production budget: $150 million.

Coraline -- A stop-motion sleeper hit out of Laika Animation in Portland, Oregon. Worldwide gross: $121.9 million -- Prdctn bdgt. -- $60 million.

Monsters Vs. Aliens -- A hit in the U.S., but an under-performer elsewhere. Worldwide gross: -- $381.5 million -- prod. bdgt (est.) $150 million.

Battle For Terra -- Indy made in L.A. that failed to hit the sweet spot. Worldwide gross: $2.9 million. Prdctn budget: $24 million.

Up -- Pixar's latest, and another homerun. Worldwide gross: $683 million -- Prdction bdgt: $175 million.

Ice Age 3 -- a hit domestically and gargantuan hit overseas, the Ice Age franchise is one of the pillars of Fox-News Corp. -- Worldwide gross: $883.7 million -- prctn budgt: $90 million.

Astro Boy -- A big budget and a lot of talent onboard, but the retro title failed to connect. Worldwide gross: $21 million -- Prdctn bdgt: $65 million.

Cloudy With a Chance Of Meatballs -- A (mild) hit for Sony, its domestic gross got stunted when theatre chains pulled the picture after Sony's early DVD release announcement. Worldwide gross: $194.8 million -- Prdctn bdgt: $100 million.

The Princess and the Frog -- In release, doing okay but not great. -- Domestic gross: $63.4 million (and counting) -- Prdctn cost: $105 million.

Alvin and the Chipmunks - The Squeakquel -- This animation hybrid is another sharp arrow in Fox's consierable animation quiver. 1st 5 days domestic gross: $77 million. prdctn bdgt: $70 million (est.)

So that's what's been happening with animation the past year. Some misses, several hits, and a couple of productions that were in the so-so category.

But what of the soon-to-be future? DreamWorks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon will be another hit for Jeffrey's company, and Shrek #4 will be a huge hit. (I'd say you could take that to the bank, but given the state of banks these days ...)

Toy Story III, out this summer, will be a sizable money-maker around the world.

The jury is out on the American-prepped but French-made Despicable Me. I wouldn't count it out, since the visual gags and pratfalls (judging from the trailers) are numerous, and you can seldom go wrong with visual humor, so long as there's the semblance of a story.

Hybrid animation is with us for the long haul. Studios have had good results with chipmunks and house cats (the first Garfield especially) and will continue to mine that rich vein. And there will be lots of animation in the big, live-action blockbusters, whether they're set on faraway planets or in Victorian London. Stereo viewed pictures (3D to you and me) will continue to expand, with animation leading the way.

Disney's Winnie the Pooh will probably track a little lower than The Princess and the Frog, which looks iffy to crack a $100 million domestically. (Pooh gets a Spring release in 2011.) I'm thinking that Walt's company will keep doing hand-drawn animation, but only at a production cost of $40 million-$70 million. The audiences, as of now, don't seem to be there for hand drawn product in the way they were in the early nineties. (Wish it were otherwise, but the grosses tell the tale.) Maybe the right hand-crafted property will really and truly click, or maybe the eyeballs have made a permanent move to CGI and stereo viewing.

The one thing that's evident is that theatrical animation is definitely a major commercial force in Tinsel Town, and is likely to stay that way. Nobody ignores it anymore, nobody cedes animation to one or two companies, everybody is in the game. And that's not going to change anytime soon.

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Snowy Cypress, by Ralph Hulett

Snowy Cypress
Through a dark pattern of cypress and misty moon, a yellow-lighted church beckons in the distance ...
© 1955 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Seventy Years Plus Four Days

Back on December 22, 1939, the first mo-cap feature made its debut:

Gulliver's Travels is a 1939 American cel-animated Technicolor feature film, directed by Dave Fleischer and produced by Max Fleischer for Fleischer Studios. The film was released on Friday December 22, 1939 by Paramount Pictures.... The sequences for the film were directed by Seymour Kneitel, Willard Bowsky, Tom Palmer, Grim Natwick, William Henning, Roland Crandall, Thomas Johnson, Robert Leffingwell, Frank Kelling, Winfield Hoskins, and Orestes Calpini ...

Of course, the name for "mo cap" in 1939 was "rotoscope." The Fleischers had developed the system in the 1920s, and Disney used it sparingly in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Max and Dave employed roto extensively for their feature's title character ...

... and it paid off, as Gulliver rushed through production at the spanking new Miami studio, but was released in time for the Christmas holidays, and ended up an unalloyed hit for their mother studio Paramount. (Disney's second feature rolled down the gangway a month and a half later, to do half the business of Snow White.)

The Fleischers' second feature, Hoppity/Mr. Bug Goes to Town had the bad luck to get released two days after Pearl Harbor and tanked. A year later, Paramount dissolved the Miami studio and got out of the feature cartoon business, leaving the field to Disney. And so today we have the mega-corporation Disney Co. instead of Fleischer International. But maybe somewhere out in the cosmos, in a parallel universe, the tale is different ....

Fleischer Studios artist Bill Turner penned the cartoon above -- and less faintly than shows up here -- for a company newsletter after the completion of Gulliver's Travels. Of course, we all know this kind of thing doesn't happen any more. (Courtesy Harvey Deneroff. Click on the image to enlarge it, and make the darn thing more visible.).

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Christmastime Derby

Now with hot, buttered Add On.

As the deluge of Holiday releases rains down, the projected winners are:

1. Sherlock Holmes (Warner Bros) NEW Fri $25M [3,626 runs], Estimated Wkd $70M

2. Avatar (Fox) Week 2 - Cume $161.2M Wed $16.4M [3,452 runs], Thurs $11.3M (-31%), Fri $24M, Est Wkd $70M

3. Alvin & Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (Fox) NEW - Cume $38.8M Wed $19M [3,656 runs], Thurs $8M (-57%), Fri $12M, Est Wkd $43M

4. It's Complicated (Universal) NEW Fri $7.5M [2,886], Est Wkd $23M

5. (Tie) Up In The Air (Paramount) Week 4 - Cume $16.7M Wed $1.7M [1,895], Thurs $1.7M, Fri $4M, Est Wkd $14M

5. (Tie) Blind Side (Alcon/Warner Bros) Week 6 - Cume $176.6M Wed $2.2M [3,252 runs], Thurs $1.5M, Fri $4M, Est Wkd $14M

7. Nine (The Weinstein Co) Week 2 - Cume $345K Fri $2.2M [1,412], Est Wkd $7M

8. Princess And The Frog (Disney) Week 5 - Cume $61.6M Wed $2.4M [3,475 runs], Thurs $1.4M, Fri $2M, Est Wkd $7M

9. Did You Hear About The Morgans? (Sony) Week 2 - Cume $12.2M Wed $1.0M [2,718], Thurs $665K, Fri $1.6M, Est Wkd $5M

10. Invictus (Warner Bros) Week 3 - Cume $20.2M Wed $800K [2,125], Thurs $705K, Fri $1.3M, Wkd Est $4.2M

So what we've got is three animated features/animated hybrids in the Top Ten (Avatar, Alvin & Co., The Princess and the Frog). Having seen Sherlock Holmes this weekend, I can tell you there are generous dollops of digital effects and c.g. animation in that picture too. (The visualization of Victorian London and over-the-top action set pieces don't come cheap.)

Christmas Carol, now out of the top ten, will likely see its domestic gross top out somewhere between $140 and $150 million (roughly half its worldwide take). Carol's first-weekend multiple ($30 million) is a healthy 5X, so we can say that the film had staying power across the course of its run. I think the feature's immersive 3D helped it quite a lot.

Add On: And Mr. Holmes sets a holiday record ... with Avatar close behind. And Robert Downey goes from being a down and out, drug-addled problem child of Hollywood, to a bankable star with two tent-pole franchises under his belt. Not bad at all.

Add On Too: At the wire, what you need to know is:

1) Animation hybrid Avatar stayed on top for a second weekend (both in total revenue and per-theater averages) with $75 million. (The master sleuth was a strong second, collecting $65 million.)

2) Alvin scored himself $50.2 million and $77 million for his five-day opening.

3) The Princess and the Frog had the steepest drop of any Top Ten feature (-28.7%, not good) and has now collected $63.3 million.

4) Twelfth place Christmas Carol is fading in its eighth week, and stands now at $136 million. (It will probably end its domestic run at around $140 million.)

5) The Fantastic Mr. Fox, despite critical hossanahs, is now little more than a retinal after image, earning $18.3 million domestically against a $40 million budget.

Have yourself a short but zestful workweek.

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Eager Beaver, by Ralph Hulett

Eager Beaver
Has the eager beaver bitten off more than he can chew?
© 1961 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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Friday, December 25, 2009

Young Worshippers, by Ralph Hulett ... with Special Christmas Links

The staff and officers of the Animation Guild wish you a merry Christmas ... and offer you, as an added bonus, gleaming Christmas linkage.

Young Worshippers

Three children charmingly portray the wonderment of the shepherds and an angel at the lowly manger.

Roger Ebert shares his favorite ten animated features of 2009.

True, the once neglected art of animation has undergone a rebirth in both artistry and popularity. Yet having escaped one blind alley, it seems headed into another one: The dumbing-down of stories out of preference for meaningless nonstop action. Classic animated features were models of three-act stories: Recall "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" or "The Lion King." The characters were embedded in stories that made sense and involved making decisions based on values. Now too many stories end in brain-numbing battles, often starring heroes the age of the younger audience members ...

The New York Times looks at Sita Sings the Blues:

Nina Paley’s new film, which arrives in New York on Friday trailing festival love, is certainly ambitious and visually loaded. There are songs, bright colors and a story taken in part from one of the biggest, oldest epics in the world. But it is also modest, personal and, in spite of Ms. Paley’s use of digital vector graphic techniques, decidedly handmade ...

While we're on the New York Times, the "paper of record" admits to an oopsie:

An obituary on Dec. 17 about Roy E. Disney, who helped revitalize the famed animation division of the company founded by his uncle, Walt Disney, referred incompletely to the release of “Fantasia,” noted for its use of animation to interpret classical music. It was considered a “groundbreaking 1942 film” in the sense that it was released nationally that year. But a longer version was shown in a special engagement in 1940 in New York and again in 1941 in Los Angeles and a few other cities.

Terry Gilliam does terrific work, but he really has to stop saying things like this. He can afford to work for zip; others can't.

I’ve offered my services to Pixar. I said I’d even sweep the floors and mop up -- and no one’s called me back yet! ...

The Nikkster points out that the Top Three films on Wednesday were animated. (Well, she listed the Top Three, anyway, and I point out they're animated. Likewise for #7.)

1. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (Fox) Wed $19M [3,656 runs] -

2. Avatar (Fox) Wed $16.4M [3,456 runs] Cume $124.8M - Week 1

3. Princess And The Frog (Disney) Wed $2.4M [3,475 runs] Cume $53.2M - Week 5

4. Blind Side (Alcon/Warner Bros) Wed $2.2M [2,760 runs] Cume $171.1M - Week 6

5. Up In The Air (Paramount) Wed $1.7M [1,895] Cume $11M - Week 4

6. Morgans? (Sony) Wed $1.0M [2,718] Cume $9.9M - Week 1

7. A Christmas Carol (Disney) Wed $1.0M [1,245] Cume $133.7M - Week 8

Last item: Here early on Christmas day, we link to ASIFA's cavalcade of Disney Christmas cards. (It's only right.)

© 1955 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image. See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm. Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Development Heck

There's been a lot of chit chat about Disney feature projects that are in development at the hat building. (You can find some of it here, here and here. And a compendium of real old unmade projects here.) What I've learned about "development" as both participant and spectator is that projects come and go and fall in and out of favor. They are put into development, then yanked out of development. Some blessed few are greenlit for production, then the red light flashes and the whole train comes to a rattling halt. Directors are assigned, then unassigned.

At the end, what gets made is determined by (in no particular order) 1) the quality of the piece, 2) How many internal studio champions it has, 3) Marketing's input about a) whether marketing can sell the movie and b) how well the characters lend themselves to toys, video games and electronic devices. And 4) If there's a gaping hole in the release schedule that has to be pluggd with something. ....

There are other motivating factors, of course, but those are some of the larger ones that come to mind.

So let us tip toe back through various projects that have been in development at Disney over long stretches of time. This isn't a comphrehensive list, since I'm making it on Christmas eve from the top of my pin head and it only covers stuff going back to the 1960s. (We'll label the projects produced and unproduced. We'll also note that some earlier development work on well-loved titles is, in some cases, pretty much unrelated to development work on the same titles years and years later.)

Chanticleer -- based on the French fairy tale, this project was in the running after Sleeping Beauty. Songs were written, boards and design work done; ultimately done in because Walt didn't think a chicken could carry an animated feature (The internal saboteurs around the studio kept muttering: "Oh yeah, that's the chicken picture...") Unproduced.


Catfish Bend -- based on the books by Ben Lucien Hubbard. Song of the South style animal characters living along the lwer Mississippi. Character designs, outline storyboards, several rough treatments. Spearheaded by Ken Anderson, it never went much of anywhere. Unproduced.


The Nightinggale -- based on the short story by Hans Christiam Anderson, this piece was worked on by Mel Shaw and John Lasseter back in the day. Embryonic development, unproduced

The Abandoned -- this book by Mr. Gallico has gone in and out of development for a lot of years, championed by Bernie Mattinson and Joe Grant, among others, with lots of work done on it. Unproduced into the 21st century.

Mickey and the Three Musketeers -- Wait. Wasn't this done at Disney Toons? And released a few years ago? Well, yeah, but this version was different, and in development at features in the early 1980s. (There are obvious similarities because both spring from the Dumas classic, but the approaches were not the same.) This version unproduced (but produced at Disney Toons.)


Wild Life -- in development for a lo-o-ong period of time, slated as one of Disney Feature's early CGI projects, and championed by division head Tom Schumacker. The plug on this particular project was pulled when Roy Disney objected to the direction it was going in. Unproduced.

In the 21st century, two Big Name Disney directors worked on a spy feline project (the name of which eludes me), Gnomeo and Juliet came and then departed during a management change, and the ever-popular Joe Jump had a birth, then death (or at least deep hibernation), and then a rebirth with Mr. Moore at the helm. (The project's been around since the early days of TAG blog.)

Rapunzel, now scheduled for a November 2010 release, has had a number of story changes over a lengthy gestation period, and Home on the Range, released back in 2004, started life years before as an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous.

Animated projects -- particularly those of the Disney persuasion -- have often occupied Development Heck for years and sometimes decades before showing up at the neighborhood AMC. Not the way executives and production managers usually want it, but the way it is.

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And Away We Go!, by Ralph Hulett

And Away We Go!
At the count-down, Mrs. Claus waves a cheery good-bye as Santa Prepares to blast off on his remarkable flight around the world.
© 1955 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Falling Wages

Across the animation biz more 'toon employees are working at lower wages. No exceptions.

Walt Disney Co.'s chief executive Bob Iger received a total compensation package worth $29 million in 2009 -- a tad less than the $30.6 million of a year earlier ...

See? We all have to sacrifice.

But when you think of Mr. Iger's pay cut, think also of Disney's falling profits:

Net income at the Burbank media conglomerate fell 25% in fiscal 2009 from a year earlier, with significant declines at Disney's movie studio and weaker earnings at the company's theme parks ...

Things are tough all over.

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Besting Jeffrey K.

I'm not talking about what other Hollywood animation studios are hoping to do in the upcoming 12 or 24 months, I'm talking about the folks whom Jeffrey (and DreamWorks Animation) have unwittingly humiliated, the animation artists of the Middle Kingdom.

Chinese cartoonists and animation experts have put their heads together, for the future of the industry. At the 2009 Annual Animation Meeting, held in Hainan island, one idea was to use China's rich history as inspiration ...

Many experts suggested production companies should investigate what the overseas audience wants and try meeting their demands.

Yin Xiaoxiang, Today Animation Company, said, " We would test the water by pre-selling cartoons in the international market. The response we receive from overseas buyers and media will then decide if we should continue producing the cartoons or not. "

Another gnawing fact is that China's animation market is still dominated by overseas productions. Statistics show that 88-percent of cartoons that young Chinese people love, are from Japan, Europe and America ....

Call it "The Curse of Kung Fu Panda", or the Great Wall of Global Toondom, but it appears the Chinese might be doing some focus groups and outside studies as they strive to tear down the barriers that prevent them from becoming global animation players. For it seems the cartoon industry of China is keen on producing animated blockbusters in the manner of Jeffrey Katzenberg, John Lasseter and Walter Elias Disney. (What would Chairman Mao think?)

Sadly, it's not enough to commission reports, or have a lot of eager fingers poised over keyboards and a big render farm at your disposal. You must also have characters and a story that connects across cultural and national boundaries.

That small detail often seems like a simple task when you're watching someone else's successful cartoon in a darkened theatre ("Hey! We'll just do something like that! It's easy!"). Trouble is, it isn't, not really. If it were, more studios besides the ones run by Jeffrey, John, and Chris Wedge would be doing it.

But we're happy the Chinese want to join the club. They're capitalists now, aren't they? And profit and big bucks are the names of the games they want to play. The Five Year Plans have been tucked away in a dusty Beijing attic, forgotten and ignored.

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Reverie, by Ralph Hulett

A faithful shepherd, profiled against a crimson sky, reflects upon the first Christmas two thousand years ago.
© 1955 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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The Permanence of 3-D -- Part VI

After Avatar, the momentum picks up for viewing in three dimensions.

Piper Jaffray estimates the 3D market will grow from $5.5 billion this year to $25 billion by 2012 at a compound annual rate of 50 percent. ...

Good news, yes? But then there is this.

A new PricewaterhouseCoopers report concludes that every industry sector must make adjustments over the coming 18 months to meet the creative and financing demands of such expensive, complex production. Similar challenges involving creative and tech-related compatibility also will confront game studios and game consoles, TV station operators and broadcast and cable TV networks, Internet companies and consumer electronics manufacturers.

“Among the other issues studios must find answers to are the integration of special effects in a 3D movie ...

And what's the sub-text to the above? It's that the congloms are muttering to themselves:

If we lay out major bucks for all this pricey technology crap, are we going to recoup our investment? Or are we going to lose our butts?

I've read other think-pieces -- and thought myself -- that when we reach the point where 100% of the movies we love are in glorious Three Dee (in the same way that 100% are in color), that the fine companies who rule us will find it tough to charge the movie-going public a premium for watching stereo presentations.

Because nothing will be special if everything is special.

And if Viacom and/or Warner Bros. break ranks and drop ticket prices on their 3-D extravaganzas when market pressures become intense, won't every other company follow suit to stay in the game?

Or am I missing something?

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Arnold Stang -- In Memoriam

The man who was Top Cat has died at ninety-one. And as writer Mark Evanier says:

... Arnold had an amazing career in radio, movies and TV and on the stage. He was in one of my favorite movies, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and he was the lead voice on one of my favorite cartoon shows when I was a kid, Top Cat. In animation, he was also the voice of Herman the Mouse in the old Herman and Katnip cartoons, and he was heard in other animation projects and in hundreds of commercials. He was, for example, the original voice of the Bee in the Honey Nut Cheerios ads ...

Writer, television host and TAG Vice President Earl Kress talk to Arnold about his long career in 2008.

May God speed you to your rest, Mr. Stang.

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Around the House of Mouse

Today was my hat building day, where some lead animators are limbering up for Winnie the Pooh, and most everyone else is plunging into work on Rapunzel.

Up on the second floor, I ran into a down-hearted artist, recently finished with The Princess and the Frog. He told me this:

"I'm not happy with the way TP&TF is performing. They should have released it away from all the blockbusters. I'm disappointed. It's grosses just haven't been as good as we hoped. And after we finish with the Winnie the Pooh feature I don't know if Disney will do anymore hand-drawn pictures" ....

Me, I think that the Mouse will be producing several more hand-drawn epics, but I'm far from an expert. However, a long-term Disney veteran with an office on the third floor agrees with me.

"They've done real well with merchandise for The Princess and the Frog, and that stuff is important. They've got Pooh coming up, and I know that there's another hand-drawn feature, Snow Queen, after that.

I'm thinking that as long as the company can hold costs down, and the grosses are enough so that the studio doesn't lose thirty or forty million dollars, they'll be making hand-drawn features for awhile" ...

I'm not certain that a final verdict on hand-drawn vs. c.g.i. has been rendered, although a c.g. modeler I encountered on the second floor believes the jury has handed in the envelope. ("Look at the last seven years, man. It's pretty conclusive. Computer animation just makes more money.")

I donno. Maybe hand-drawn features are like like Hollywood westerns: Nobody wants to watch one ... until they do. (See "Wolves, Dances With" and "Yuma, 3:10 To".) And then there's the always next Simpsons movie. I seriously doubt that will be rendered in computer graphics.

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Three Kings, by Ralph Hulett

Three Kings
Artist Ralph Hulett has employed unusual transfer-painting technique for this sophisticated rendering of the Three Kings.
© 1961 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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Monday, December 21, 2009

Remembering Dale Oliver

A Disney lunch in the Penthouse restaurant, circa 1971. Dale Oliver at the left front; Ollie Johnston on the right.

A commenter writes:

I went to a funeral for a dear friend today at Forest Lawn. His name was Jack Scroggins, a bomber pilot for the Air Force in the early 60s.

While standing graveside during the service I noticed he had a "neighbor" named "Dale Oliver." I couldn't help but notice that Dale's marker said simply "Animator" and "WWII Glider Pilot."

It is great for my friend Jack to be next to Dale. Jack loved Disney animation and collected them in every format known - from cards to magazines to VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD, Jack had it all. Mickey sat on his desk at all times.

I haven't thought of Dale in a while, but I used to think of him often. He taught classes at TAG's animation school for years, and came into the office all the time to chit chat ...

Dale was a longtime Disney assistant animator (he joined the company in 1947), and worked closely with Frank Thomas for decades. Dale was promoted to full animator in the early eighties, but his career ended a short time later when he and his fiancee were involved in a horrific car accident that left the fiancee dead and Dale so badly injured that he never worked in the animation industry again.

Even with all the adversity, I knew Dale as a buoyant, upbeat guy. It wasn't until after his accident that I learned Dale had been a glider pilot during World War II, participating in the D-day airborne landings, the allied push into Holland, and the Rhine River crossing. I once asked him about his long night in Normandy; he told me:

We landed in the dark. I brought the glider down, everybody got out, and then I stood around for three days until they shipped me back to England ...

Dale understated just a little. He joined the Army in 1942, volunteered for glider service that summer, and participated in three major campaigns. The casualties for glider pilots during the invasion of Europe were incredibly high; if a pilot hit a post or barrier when landing (and hundreds did), the glider broke into small pieces, and occupants along with it.

Mr. Oliver's version of his corner of the war -- June 6, 1944 (click on it to enlarge.)

Dale was always self-effacing about his military career; the only reason he brought up his D-day experiences with me at all was because I asked him. He was one of the unsung heroes of World War II, in the same way he was one of the many unsung artists who turned out Disney animated features year in and year out.

Dale passed away six years ago at the age of 84, but he deserves to be remembered not only for his time at Disney, but for the service he rendered the country behind the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

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The Big 59 ... And Many Happy Returns!

Jeffrey Katzenberg turns 59 today, so Happy Birthday Mr. Katzenberg. I remember when he came to Disney a few years back. Then, he was "Paramount's whiz kid," or at least, that's the word I heard about him around the studio.

He's not a kid any longer. He's cranking DWA into overdrive and seems to enjoy it.

Katzenberg is ... logging a hundred hours a week making and selling high-tech cartoons. Sleeping five hours a night, often on planes traversing 20 countries in as many days, Katzenberg is living the fantasy many of us can only dream of.

"I never felt like I have worked a day in my life," he said.

By way of coincidence, I had lunch today with The Wise Old Movie Exec. He invested in DreamWorks Animation stock long ago, and is delighted with DWA's recent performance. He told me:

"DreamWorks Animation is trading at $40, which is as high as it's been. I keep thinking that Jeffrey is working toward selling out and making himself a nice profit. That high stock price has got to mean there's something going on behind the scenes, like buyout discussions."

It might also explain the sterling press and upbeat reports out of the Glendale studio. The boys and girls have three movies coming out this year that are getting solid buzz, the stock is at an historic high, and Jeffrey has never been more into it.

Plus, if you're 59, and cash in while the company is at the top of its high-flying trajectory, you'll probably end up with a long-term employment contract from the conglomerate that purchased you.

And when the deal comes to an end in 2029, you'll be the richest elder statesman in Hollywood.

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Pink Candle, by Ralph Hulett

Pink Candle
A Noel Candle to light the lonely Christ Child on his way.
© 1955 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Vacation Linkage

Stories both new and of the last week in the linkage of our lives.

Brittany Murphy died today, and the Guardian has a nice overview (with clips) of her career:

Murphy looked like she had a sense of humour and a striking lack of pretention – her longest running gig was voice work for US animation King of the Hill.

Robert the Sponge is re-upped for another season:

... Nickelodeon announced Tuesday that it will bring back SpongeBob, Squidward, Mr. Krabs, and others from the hit series for 26 original episodes, bringing the total number of episodes for the series to 178 ...

Variety gives the new chipmunks opus a "thumbs up".

Ticketbuyers who scurried to see the smash hit "Alvin and the Chipmunks" two Christmases ago likely will want to double their pleasure with "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," a frenetic but undeniably funny follow-up that offers twice the number of singing-and-dancing rodents in another seamless blend of CGI and live-action elements. The new pic comes off as more specifically kid-centric than its predecessor, but should nonetheless have similarly nostalgic appeal for baby boomers who remember the title characters as '50s novelty-record phenomena, '60s primetime cartoon stars and '80s Saturday morning TV attractions. Theatrical prospects are huge; homevid potential, humongous. ...

And The Princess and the Frog will (again) have its work cut out for it.

Then there is the animation industry on the other side of the world.

... While the Indian market has not taken to animated content, an Indian animated property is creating a flutter in overseas markets. Little Krishna, the maiden project of Big Animation , a part of Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group’s (ADAG) Reliance MediaWorks, was first acquired by Viacom Media's animation entertainment channel Nick for the South Asian territory.

Now, international television content distributor Evergreen Entertainment has bought the film for global distribution. Produced by Big Animation and Iskcon’s India Heritage Foundation, Little Krishna is the first Indian animation content Nick and Evergreen Entertainment have ever bought.

Big Animation has made Little Krishna in two formats—13-half hour episodes and three feature films of 85 minutes each. The 13-part series is already being broadcast on Nick in India and earlier this month won the best animation award at the Asian Television Awards in Singapore ...

“We had a good run in India and for the first time an Indian original animation IP is making its presence felt globally. The deal with a global distribution giant like Evergreen was the icing on the cake. It will give a boost to Indian animation. We are also looking to have the series dubbed in local languages across all countries and from this month, Little Krishna will be available on every major shelf in the country.” ...

I'm not sure how "Little Krishna" will play in a Muslim or Catholic country, but good luck ...

And we'll end with TZ's recitation of the possible but not necessarily obvious.

* Pixar will release a film that flops at the box office. When this happens, it will be a shock to the 3D CGI animated film system.

* Zemeckis will continue to chase his mocap boondoggle while Katzenberg continues to chase his 3-D boondoggle as long as the money holds out for them.

* Classically animated films will continue to play a smaller role in theatrically released animation. Princess and the Frog may resurrect hand-drawn animation for Disney, but none of the other major studios are set up for that style of storytelling any longer and they still won't see much value in doing it.

If 3-D is a boondoggle, then a lot of people are heading for trouble, not just Jeffrey. (And if you're working next week, try to knock off early on Thursday. It will be good for your soul.)

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Cameron on 3D

James C. expounds on stereo features and the future.

... "So far, [3D] has been relegated to some big, beautiful and expensive animated films from Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, and some relatively inexpensive horror films. There's a vast landscape in between where filmmakers of varying degrees of seriousness operate ...

"[The Cameron-produced Sanctum] is an R-rated picture, an adult drama. There are no monsters or fantasy elements. It's basically 'Deliverance' in a cave, a pure psychological drama. The goal with that film is to show you don't have to spend a couple hundred million dollars to make a film in 3D. We're making that picture for about $22 million. I'm going to make all my features in 3D so in a way, what's good for 3D is good for me ..."

Me, I think 3D will become a permanent fixture because studios see movie-goers flocking to the technology and they note with glee that they can charge higher ticket prices for the privilege. (If studios believed that black-and-white silent movies would cause people to stampede to theaters, they would be searching for the next Charlie Chaplin.)

And face it. The picture has been brilliantly marketed with 3D being the major hook, ever since Cameron began touting the technology in the press a year ago. And although reviews are mostly positive (80%+), some movie reviewers are a tad sour:

James Cameron hasn’t made a feature film in 12 years and hasn’t made a good one since 1986. But nothing I can say will stop people from spending their money on “Avatar” ... Now he’s been given state of the art 3D technology and some $250 million to basically remake – as my friend said – “FernGully.” But I appear to be in the minority with my complaints as the film keeps racking up awards and good press ...

We have been through every scene before – outraged scientist confronting military/big business; tough gung ho commander with no sympathy for the natives or such touchy-feely notions as nature and culture; stranger in a strange land trying to befriend the natives; greedy humans pillaging natural resources; etc. ...

[Cameron] doesn’t really integrate [3D] into the story or push it to its limits. In a sense, films like “Up” or even “Coraline” employed 3D to better thematic and stylistic effect. With the exception of that early depth of field shot and maybe one or two more -- Cameron never uses the 3D in a visually innovative way. Plus he can’t resist pointy sticks and arrows aimed at the audience ...

Negative, yes? But the occasional bad internet article won't damage Avatar's box office. And the number of 3D films will steadily increase, the cost of the technology will steadily come down, and your friendly neighborhood entertainment conglomerate will lick its chops at the prospect of premium prices paid by the yokels as they troop through the turnstiles to pick up their plastic glasses.

My only question is, when all movies offer stereo viewing, can Fox, Viacom and the rest go on charging an extra $3 or $5 when we go squint at them? Because how many cheap, polarized spectacles are we really going to need?

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Santa Claus Tree, by Ralph Hulett

Santa Claus Tree
Mustachio upon mustachio, a tier of St. Nicks forms a novel Christmas tree.
© 1955 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Toonage in Foreign Lands

Variety reports that the film directly above is now the fourth largest grosser in this wide world.

It seems to me that Christmas Carol has kind of followed the Polar Express trajectory: okay opening, but nothing to phone up Aunt Hilda about, then ... good staying power:

Robert Zemeckis' Disney's "A Christmas Carol" placed No. 3 for the frame, grossing $14.8 million from 5,298 screens in 50 territories for a cume of $146.8 million. The 3D holiday title had grossed $124.4 million domestically by the weekend for a worldwide total of $271.2 million. Many dismissed the film after a soft opening, but it has proved to have staying power.

However, the going could get tough for "Christmas Carol" as "Avatar" takes away 3D screens ....

Gee, you think?

But of course, there's lot of other animation in the overseas marketplace.

... Placing No. 4 for the frame at the international B.O. was the blockbuster launch of toon "One Piece: Strong World" [see up top] in Japan, scooping up $11.7 million to beat the $11.6 million scored by the Hayao Miyazaki toon smash "Ponyo" in its first weekend in 2008...

[Animated hybrid] "Arthur" came in No. 5 internationally, followed by Disney's traditionally animated toon "The Princess and the Frog." ... [TP&TF's] foreign launch was 10% ahead of the opening of Disney's "Bolt" in the same markets, according to the Mouse. Key drivers were Germany at $2.8 million from 544 screens and Mexico at $1.5 million from 425. "Princess" moves into Italy and Russia on Dec. 31. ...

Disney/Pixar's Up" placed No. 9 for the sesh, grossing $6.4 million, led by a dazzling $5.9 million in its second sesh in Japan. Foreign cume is $401.4 million for a worldwide total of $678.1 million. ...

Coming in No. 10 at the international B.O. was toon "Planet 51," grossing ... a worldwide haul of $70.1 million ...

Think about everything up above for a minute. The animation hybrid Avatar is at #1. Christmas Carol is closing in on a $300 million gross. The French hyrid Arthur was fifth at the global box office, and The Princess and the Frog is running ahead of Bolt overseas. Up is still minting money, and the Japanese One Piece: Strong World has landed in fourth place worldwide.

There's a broad and diverse river of animation making money in the 2009 marketplace, which isn't lost on the bean counters. This could explain why global employment for animated features continues to expand.

Add On: The Times of Los Angeles reports:

"Avatar" sold a studio-estimated $232.2 million worth of tickets around the world this weekend, the ninth-biggest global debut of all time not accounting for ticket-price inflation. It was the biggest ever for a non-sequel, a sign that Fox's marketing machine succeeded in generating huge interest in a picture whose name alone didn't have much built-in excitement, as evidenced by modestly attended midnight screenings Thursday night.

The film's $73-million domestic gross was, like every movie in the market, significantly affected Saturday by snowstorms that kept East Coast audiences, from Washington, D.C., through New England, off the roads. ...

The big money for "Avatar," however, is coming from the rest of the world. Despite not yet having opened in Japan and China and frigid weather in northern Europe, it collected $159.2 million, the sixth-highest simultaneous foreign launch of all time...

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More With Less

Last week I walked into one of our fine animation studios and heard this from a director:

"We're getting hammered around here. The schedules are tightening up, and the production people are piling on more and more to do. I'm working way longer hours Monday through Friday, but I refuse to come in on weekends.

I used to take more time to polish the work. Now I just slam it out and grab my paycheck. Funny thing is, the last couple of months they've had less criticism of the work I've pushed through fast ..."

I hear variations of this all over town. And I hear variations of it from my union compatriots in the live-action community. Hard as it is to believe, this is apparently going on nation-wide:

Many U.S. workers are being pushed to toil harder and shoulder the load once carried by colleagues who've since been laid off. That can mean long days without overtime pay or raises, less family time, and more mental and physical fatigue.

Don't like it? Walk out the door and you'll join 15 million unemployed Americans, the largest segment of whom have been idle for more than three months. Your former boss will have plenty of replacements to choose from. There are about six job seekers for every opening.

The workload for many survivors is likely to mount in coming months. As business cycles accelerate, companies get busier, but employers are typically reluctant to add staff until they're convinced the good times will last ...

The fact that everyone in Toon Town is hunkered down, working their tails off, is not news at this site. The fear of layoffs is not news. But it's always useful to step back and look at the forest instead of just the different bits of bark on the trees.

But there's another tough reality for unions just now , and that's in the area of organizing.

Such workers would seem likely to welcome approaches from unions to gain bargaining power with their employers. In fact, it's just the opposite. ...

"It makes it more difficult for unions to organize because people are grateful to have any job," ....

Yep, I'm familiar with this dynamic. People are happy when they have a paycheck, any paycheck. And in that frame of mind, there is a reluctance to rock the boat.

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The Rest of the Steeple Chase

Now with candy-coated Add Ons.

Atop the list, Avatar vacumes up a large number of box office greenbacks, but other animated features remain in the derby ...

The Princess and the Frog drops 50% (as a Disney mucky muck speculated it would) and drop to #2, collecting $3.4 million for a $36 million domestic accumulation .

The Blind Side (#3) scoops up $3.2 million for a $158 million domestic total.

And Christmas Carol loses momntum and stereo screens, sliding to #7 and a $951,000 take. Dickens's novella currently owns $128.3 million in box office receipts.

Add On:At the wire, Avatar collects $73,000,000, and #2 The Princess and the Frog drops 49.5% (the norm for most features in this week's Top Ten) to now stand at $44.8 million after two weekends.

Christmas Carol (#7) has taken in $130.4 million domestically, while Planet 51 (#15) has 38.5 million in the till and The Fantastic Mr. Fox (#17) owns $17.4 million.

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Herald Angel, by Ralph Hulett

Herald Angel
"Music is well said to be the speech of angels" — Thomas Carlyle

A little retro artwork on gold leaf ... and we now start rolling these designs out daily, just for you.

© 1961 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image. See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm. Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar Watch

Mit Add On!

The newest animated feature is now in release, and Rupert's battalions are holding their collective breath and crossing their fingers.

... [M]idnight screenings of “Avatar” ... sold about $3.5 million in tickets at theaters in the United States and Canada, said 20th Century Fox...

And the Nikkster weighs in with her up-to-the minute analysis.

... Hollywood has refined its original unfocused $60M-$75M prediction upwards to $85 million for the 3-day domestic weekend -- better than the all-time December opening of I Am Legend at $77,211,321 but only because of Avatar's 3D ticket price premium ...

Avatar is huge in Australia with $4.8 million from Thursday and Friday combined, and running double what 2012 which did not have a 3D premium did there, or $2.3 million. (By contrast, New Moon opened to $7.8M.) In Germany, Avatar debuted to $1.7 million, compared to 2012's $1.4M. (New Moon did $2.2M.) In Korea, Avatar opened to $1.4, behind 2012's $1.9M. (New Moon made only $800K.) But in the UK, opening day was hit by snow so grosses are running behind ...

I don't think there's much question that Cameron's Big Blue movie will break records on its opening weekend. The question is, how will the feature sustain week to week? (Titanic opened at a good not great $25 million, but then week after week didn't drop.) I won't venture a guess if Avatar holds up anywhere near as well as the big steamship.

And the Blue People collect a nice chunk of change on Day Uno:

... "Avatar" drew a strong $27 million in its first day at the box office from 3,452 theaters. ... Among all opening days which are Fridays in December, "Avatar" ranks behind Will Smith’s 2007 sci-fi tentpole "I Am Legend" which grossed $30.1 million.

Add On: The L.A. Times brings us the happy news that Avatar, when all the quarters and dollar bills were counted, did better than forecast on its first weekend:

A stronger-than-expected Sunday boosted the weekend box-office total for "Avatar" by $10.3 million, a sign of strong momentum going into the holidays.

The James Cameron-directed 3-D adventure ended up selling $77 million of tickets in the U.S. and Canada

So there, unbelievers!

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Yule Links

Today's opening of the latest animated epic Avatar promises to be big. Or so says Hollywood Insider.

1. Avatar: $87 million

So Fox is trying to keep expectations in check with this film but I’m not buying the modest predictions. I think the incredible word-of-mouth coupled with the must-see factor will propel this movie into the upper echelons of weekend grosses

2. The Princess and the Frog: $18 million

Relief is finally here for Disney’s animated romp that began its theatrical run with a rather soft opening frame last weekend. Moms — and kids — are finally free and nothing says “holiday cheer” like lots of trips to the movies ..

Seth MacFarlane talks up his newest production.

The sequel to the first "Family Guy" parody comes out on Blu-ray and DVD on Dec. 22 ... The first hour-long movisode, "Blue Harvest," kicked off the show's sixth season in 2007. "The first one did so well in demand that the second just seemed like a logical thing to do," MacFarlane said.

A third based on "Return of the Jedi" will be out next year, MacFarlane said ...

DreamWorks Animation is developing a different kind of feature project.

DreamWorks Animation has set Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris to write "Gil's All Fright Diner," an adaptation of the A. Lee Martinez novel that has Barry Sonnenfeld attached to direct ...

Much like the "Twilight" series, "Gil's All Fright Diner" revolves around a vampire and a werewolf. Here, they are mismatched partners who battle zombies and try to save the world, after they stop in a diner in the desert that is a conduit for the supernatural ...

Animated vampires and zombies. We're talking a whole new level of entertainment here.

The latest Shrek rolls out its new trailer. (DWA says this is the last, but after it makes $710 million dollars, I seriously doubt the series ends.)

It looks as thought TP&TF is going to hold pretty well in its second weekend, but even if it doesn't ...

The week of Thanksgiving, Princess Tiana items outsold the perennial favorite, "The Little Mermaid's" Ariel, by $700,000.

Retailers are reporting that "Princess and the Frog" articles account for as much as 19% of sales of all Disney Princesses merchandise, which generates about $4 billion in annual retail sales.

Interest in Tiana has been so keen, Toys R Us stores pulled merchandise off shelves to ensure an adequate supply for the movie's wide release ...

Lastly, the Chinese are still moping around because they didn't make Kung Fu Panda.

Animated comedy "Kung Fu Panda" is humiliating for China because it successfully sold Chinese culture to the world but was created by Hollywood, an animation forum has been told ...

Ouyang Yibing, vice-chief of China Animation Association, said Kung Fu Panda, which was a global hit with audiences, was the perfect example of how successful a Chinese animated figure could be.

"Unfortunately, it is our US counterparts, and not us, who made this terrific presentation and showed their deep understanding of Chinese culture. It is a humiliation," he said.

I doubt that it's much consolation, but I'm humiliated on their behalf. It's the least I can do.

Have a life-affirming weekend.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

No Dominance?

So the Golden Globes roll out their animated nominees a couple of days ago ...

The category's five nominees announced Tuesday morning ... included: "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," ''Coraline," ''Fantastic Mr. Fox," ''The Princess and the Frog" and "Up." ...

And Variety and USA Today grab onto the "diversity of styles" meme, and how one animation style doesn't have a lock on the biz:

...[T]he Globes have ... chosen some highly traditional, retro-styled projects to go up against "Up's" state-of-the-art shiny, 3D CG imagery. Disney Animation Studios' "The Princess and the Frog," ... took the old-fashioned 2D route with a hand-animated revamp of the classic fairy tale ... And Fox's "Fantastic Mr. Fox," ... features the even more basic technique of stop-motion animation. -- Variety

... Not only does computer animation no longer have a monopoly, but no one method seems to dominate ... -- USA Today

Variety points out (correctly) that the Globes could have picked other cgi cartoons for its animated category instead of the specimens that it did, but chose not to.

But swear to God, I don't know what USA Today is smoking. CGI clearly dominates cartoon box office. The big global animated features during the past year were cg products. ( Even The Princess and the Frog had a lot of computer imaging in it.) And neither Fox nor Coraline have been outsize performers, so I guess I really don't know what our "national newspaper" thinks dominance actually means.

When you have the non-nominated IA: Dawn of the Dinosaurs rack up $883,718,521 around the globe while the nominated Coraline tallies $121,916,524, you don't have to be a math major to know what style of animation is the King Kong in the marketplace, even if Mr. Kong isn't receiving a shiny trophy.

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Little Helper, by Ralph Hulett

Little Helper
Santa-in-the-box directs a Christmas "extra" on his gift route.
© 1961 by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

See Ralph Hulett Christmas card designs at TAG's art gallery, open weekdays 8:30 am-5 pm.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.
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