Sunday, February 28, 2010

Purists' Anger

Over the years I've heard complaints about how the animation business just isn't what it used to be, how the quality of films has tanked, how all the studios care about is a buck and the bottom line, etcetera.

Decades back, I listened to Disney artists gripe how management was lousing up Walt's cartoon legacy by putting the feature library on .... [drumroll] ... VHS!

To hear some of them talk, it was the end of civilization as upright carbon life forms knew it. But the studio made a hell of a lot of money putting its longer cartoons on video tape, and so the studio continued the practice. And before you could freeze frame the Playboy centerfold in The Rescuers, most of the back catalogue was on cassette. (The horror!)

So here we are in the 21st century, and the purists whine on. Amid of Cartoon Brew gripes about how an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature is a bad idea, but guess what? The Oscars stopped being about "Best" around 1936. Today, more than ever, the little gold man is there to goose the grosses of nominees, and as such, I think "Best Animated Feature" is a splendid idea.

If it adds fifty million dollars to DreamWorks Animation or Pixar's final take, then I'm for it, because more animators and tech directors and pre-visualization artists will be drawing paychecks when the next animated feature is greenlit for production.

And lately Rope of Silicon has wondered if Pixar, shining fountainhead of creativity, has jumped the shark by making all those icky, unoriginal sequels.

My answer would be "not hardly." As Kevin Koch points out, plots are made and remade. As there was Dances with Wolves, so is there now Avatar. Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (the copyrighted title from the 1922 epic) begat The Adventures of Robin Ho0d in 1938, and a string of Robin Hoods thereafter. And Shakespeare wrote Hamlet from an earlier play (how unoriginal of him.)

Live with it. The practice has been going on since ancient Athens started constructing buildings with marble. It won't be stopping anytime soon.

But sequels are beside the point. What counts is the quality of the tale retold. If Cars VII grabs an audience by the shirt front and compels tears and laughter, nobody cares if its version #7 or sequel #20. And if a movie bores opening night theater-goers stiff, being the First of Its Kind won't help a bit.

So let's stop mewling about purity and originality, shall we? Studios are in the business to make a profit. And if they have to destroy the idealists' fantasy of the high road to do it, they'll cheerfully obliterate miles of asphalt without batting a greedy eyelash.

No creator is ever given a blank check anyway. Everyone is constrained by the system in which they find themselves. Charles Dickens wrote serials. Jay Ward had miniscule budgets on 1960s television; James Cameron had tight schedules and money with the first Terminator. The trick is working with whatever literary form or television show or movie you've got and turning it into something that entertains and delights. (And also make the congloms big bucks.)

If you're clever enough, and lucky enough, to succeed, then you'll be invited back to create yet another profitable success. Whether or not that first one was pure and original or not.

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Animation's Foreign Derby

Animation continues to be a red hot commodity around the globe. Specifics below:

20th Century Fox's "Avatar" on the weekend made it 11 straight stanzas in the No. 1 spot by grossing $36.1 million from 6,535 screens in 70 markets. ... Total foreign take by director James Cameron's 3D blockbuster now stands at $1.844 billion. ... To date, its foreign gross is more than two-and-a-half times its domestic cume of $707 million..

Finishing fifth was Disney's "The Princess and the Frog," which grossed $7.7 million from 3,203 screens in 36 territories for a foreign cume to date of $143 million. ... "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," ... drew another $2.6 million on the weekend from 1,350 screens in 20 markets for an overseas cume of $112.5 million.

Fox's "Fantastic Mr. Fox," [earned] $22.8 million; ... Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," $219 million.

For those of you keeping score (and who among us is not?) Green Froggy now has a worldwide total of $250 million, Cloudy Mit Meatballs has accumulated $237.4 million, and critics' favorite The Fantastic Mr. Fox stands at $43.6 million. Meantime, Alvin and Co. is up there at ten times Fox's number with $435.6 million.

Apparently the world community likes animated product pretty well, wouldn't you say?

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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Chasing Returns

Now with Buffet-heavy Add On.

Since the deadline for TAG 401(k) enrollment looms (the deadline is next week), here's another dollop of investment advice, this one about the folly of chasing overheated returns ....

Please note the word "chasing," as in "trying to overtake," which is essentially what chasing entails: the train -- some hot investment or fund -- is barreling along the track, and the hopeful investor is racing along behind trying to jump aboard.

The problem is, most investors buy into the hot mutual fund (or stock) around the time it's starting to cool off.

One quick example: In Money Magazine's 2010 Investor's Guide, the top ranked fund for 2009 was Oceanstone Fund..

The little darling returned 246.1% in 2009. For the three years spanning 2007 to 2009, the fund was also number one, earning 56.7% for the period.

But before you go piling onto this big-time bonanza, here's a few things you should know:

1) Oceanstone is small, with only four million dollars in assets. (This might explain part of the reason it's performing well -- the sucker has a small asset base and is therefore nimble.)

2) Oceanstone has only been up and running since November 2006, so it's got a short track record.

And here's the other thing: as investors read Money Magazine, they'll look at the rankings and jump on the gravy train, unaware that as investors sign up the fund will inevitably become much larger and less able to ride hot investments.

(This is what happened to Fidelity's Magellan Fund under Peter Lynch. Magellan took off like a rocket when it was small, well-managed and able to turn on an investment dime. But its success caused it to become huge, and Magellan became, for all intents and purposes, little more than a high-cost index fund.)

Warren Buffet, who's managed to make a few dollars as a professional stock picker, has offered this advice to small, part time investors:

... "The best way in my view is to just buy a low-cost index fund and keep buying it regularly over time, because you'll be buying into a wonderful industry, which in effect is all of American industry ... If you have 2% a year of your funds being eaten up by fees, you're going to have a hard time matching an index fund ..."

But I'll go a step or two further. You should get into a low-cost asset allocation fund (I've linked t0 three examples -- only one of which contains pure index funds) and feed it month by month over a period of twenty or thirty years.

Do it that way, and you won't have to worry about rebalancing, because the fund will rebalance for you. And you won't have to worry about a steady drip-drip of brokerage costs, because you won't have any.

The only thing you'll have to worry about, after several decades of dribbling in your investment dollars this way, is how you're going to spend whole lot of money.

Add On: Since Warren Buffet published snippets of investing wisdom in his Berkshire Hathaway letter yesterday, we quote (via The Wall Street Journal) some highlights:

Stay liquid. "We will never become dependent on the kindness of strangers," he wrote. "We will always arrange our affairs so that any requirements for cash we may conceivably have will be dwarfed by our own liquidity. Moreover, that liquidity will be constantly refreshed by a gusher of earnings from our many and diverse businesses."

Buy when everyone else is selling. "We've put a lot of money to work during the chaos of the last two years. It's been an ideal period for investors: A climate of fear is their best friend ... Big opportunities come infrequently. When it's raining gold, reach for a bucket, not a thimble."

Don't buy when everyone else is buying. "Those who invest only when commentators are upbeat end up paying a heavy price for meaningless reassurance," Mr. Buffett wrote. The obvious corollary is to be patient. You can only buy when everyone else is selling if you have held your fire when everyone was buying.

Value, value, value. "In the end, what counts in investing is what you pay for a business-through the purchase of a small piece of it in the stock market-and what that business earns in the succeeding decade or two."

Don't get suckered by big growth stories. Mr. Buffett reminded investors that he and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger "avoid businesses whose futures we can't evaluate, no matter how exciting their products may be."

Most investors who bet on the auto industry in 1910, planes in 1930 or TV makers in 1950 ended up losing their shirts, even though the products really did change the world. "Dramatic growth" doesn't always lead to high profit margins and returns on capital. China, anyone?

Understand what you own. "Investors who buy and sell based upon media or analyst commentary are not for us," Mr. Buffett wrote.

"We want partners who join us at Berkshire because they wish to make a long-term investment in a business they themselves understand and because it's one that follows policies with which they concur."

Defense beats offense. "Though we have lagged the S&P in some years that were positive for the market, we have consistently done better than the S&P in the eleven years during which it delivered negative results. In other words, our defense has been better than our offense, and that's likely to continue."

All timely advice from Mr. Buffett for turbulent times.

The only thing that I'll add here is the simplest way to be a Buffet-like contrarian is to have an asset allocation between stocks and bonds (say, 50%-50%) and to re-balance the mix to that percentage every twelve or eighteen months. This will force you, over time, to sell high and buy low.

To do it any other way is difficult. Because very few mortals -- Mr. Buffet is clearly one of that small band -- have the ability and discipline to fold a hot hand.

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Synchrolux Says

... the following:.

... [T]here’s a common joke-slash-truism in the animation community: What are the three most important things in a great animated movie? It’s a variation on the old real-estate saw: What are the three most important things in selling a house? Location, location, location. In the world of animation, the axiomatic answer is usually story, story, story. ...

Now go and read the rest of the post.

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End Of February Derby

Now with fresh-baked Add On.

Another weekend, another three days seeing how much more money Avatar makes ...

And the tall blue people now approach the $700 million domestic divide after 71 days of release. (If a movie makes $700 million worldwide, the conglomerate that releases it is ecstatic with joy, and Avatar has picked that much lucre up inside Canada and the fifty states. Truly amazing ...)

The Nikkster has the early returns:

1. Shutter Island (Paramount) Week 2 [3,003 Theaters] Friday $6.7M, Estimated Weekend $21M, Estimated Cume $75M

2. Cop Out (Warner Bros) NEW [3,150 Theaters] Friday $5.9M, Estimated Weekend $16.7M

3. The Crazies (Overture) NEW [2,476 Theaters] Friday $5.9M, Estimated Weekend $15.3M

4. Avatar (Fox) Week 11 [2,456 Theaters] Friday $3.1M, Etimated Weekend $12.5M, Estimated Cume $705M

5. Valentine's Day (Warner Bros) Week 3 [3,578 Theaters] Friday $2.9M, Estimated Weekend $8.8M, Estimated Cume $100M

6. Percy Jackson (Fox) Week 3 [3,302 Theaters] Friday $2.4M, $Estimated Weekend $8.8M, Estimated Cume $70.2M

7. Dear John (Sony) Week 4 [3,006 Theaters] Friday $1.5M, Estimated Weekend $4.3M, Estimated Cume $71.8M

8. The Wolfman (Universal) Week 3 [3,043 Theaters] Friday $1.1M, Estimated Weekend $3.8M, Estimated Cume $57M

9. Tooth Fairy (Fox) Week 6 [2,249 Theater] Friday $730K, Estimated Weekend $2.8M, Estimated Cume $53.1M

10. Crazy Heart (Fox Searchlight) Week 11 [1,158 Theaters] Friday $610K, Estimated Weekend $2.4M, Estimated Cume $25M

Add On: The wire has now been crossed, and Shutter Island hangs onto the top spot with $22.2 million, Cop Out collects $18.5 million, with The Crazies earning $16.5 million. The 70% animated Avatar makes another $14 million in the fourth spot, and now has $706.9 million in its domestic kitty.

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Tomorrow: Your last chance to see "Canvas, Polyresin and Bronze"

Above: George Scribner, Rubén Procopio, Bill Wray, Annie Guenther and Vicki Banks

If you missed the opening of the Gallery 839 exhibit "CANVAS, BRONZE AND POLYRESIN" and haven't had an opportunity to see it yet, tomorrow's your last chance before it goes away. The gallery, which is located at our headquarters at 1105 N. Hollywood Way in Burbank, will be open on Sunday, February 28 from noon until 3 pm.

William Wray, Vicki Banks, George Scribner, Rubén Procopio and Annie Guenther will be in attendance. All artwork is available for purchase.

Gallery 839 is featuring the art of Animation Guild members and other animation artists, highlighting their artistic contributions outside of the sphere of what they do for animation studios.

We are interested in setting up both group shows and individual exhibits. If you have an idea for an upcoming show, or for further details, e-mail Jeff Massie at

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Friday, February 26, 2010

Mo Cap Manipulation

Bill Kroyer, director and animation veteran, has one of the better takes on motion capture:

"Pure motion capture is essentially another form of puppetry, and we don't consider puppetry, which involves real-time manipulation, to be animation," explains Bill Kroyer, an animation director at the Rhythm and Hues effects studio. "We've always defined animation as frame-by-frame filmmaking, which means the artist has the ability to go in and manipulate the action frame by frame.

"It gets tricky because it's all hybrid now, especially motion capture," he continues. "You're starting with a real-time file, but in almost every film, the motion capture has been adjusted frame by frame. Even in 'A Christmas Carol' or 'Beowulf,' they couldn't capture eyes and mouths; those had to be animated."

The thing of it is, raw, unadorned motion capture, like live action photostats traced slavishly onto hole-pegged paper, doesn't grab audiences very much. Both look kind of floaty and bizarre if animators don't get in there and massage them.

Years ago, a DreamWorks staffer told me about a mo cap test for Shrek, early in its development:

"Jeffrey looked at it and said 'it doesn't work,' and everybody agreed that the picture was going to be animated. And we'd spent a bunch of money on the test ..."

This isn't, sadly, a new phenomenon.

Ralph Bakshi told The Times he rotoscoped his entire film of "The Lord of the Rings" "to get the total realistic motion that animation has never gotten before." But the results looked weightless, awkward and far less convincing than good freehand animation. The film elicits snickers when it screens today ...

Mo cap and roto are fine tools, but they don't work particularly well if there's no artistic brain working at the computer or light board, honing and shaping them into believable performances.

No matter what live action filmmakers say, they can't erase animators out of the process, because without them, the results neither convince nor compel audiences to accept the images up there on that big, wide screen..

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A Gathering Of Links

As we move to March, we give you another cluster of linkage to Cartoon News you can review and discard, as you see fit.

The New York Times details the wonder of the New York International Children's Film Festival:

New York International Children’s Film Festival

One of the most intriguing features in the New York International Children’s Film Festival is all about Oz. But this place has no Dorothy, no wizard, no Emerald City. And it’s even farther from Kansas.

Here Oz is a virtual universe controlling everything from traffic signals to nuclear missile codes. Its sudden, fateful hacking by the Love Machine, a rogue artificial intelligence, forms the plot of “Summer Wars,” by the up-and-coming Japanese anime director Mamoru Hosoda ....

The Croods, in mid-stream story development at DreamWorks Animation, is filling its cast list.

Nicolas Cage and Ryan Reynolds have reportedly signed to play caveman in the CG-animated comedy The Croods.

According to Variety, Cage will voice Crug, a patriarch of a Neanderthal family who cautiously leads his relatives to a new land after their home is destroyed.

Reynolds is to voice a progressive-thinking outsider who challenges Crug ....

Reuters asks John Lasseter various questions:

"Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille" "Wall-E" and now "Up" have all earned best screenplay Oscar nominations. What's the secret?

A: "I believe in research. Each movie at Pixar involves research with college professors or taking trips to learn as much as we can about a particular subject matter...I have met a lot of top chefs around the world during my travels. Each one of them has said "Ratatouille" is their favorite movie and the only movie that truly captures what they do. Auto Week called "Cars" the best car movie because the details were spot on."

A Yalie complains about the lack of dramatic animations:

There is not a single dramatic animated short up for an Academy Award this year. Not a single instance of animation defying the seemingly perpetual relegation of the medium to comedy — of animation that does not rely (at least in part) on slapstick humor to tell its story. Why?

Granted, I may be more insulted by this than most ...

Yes, I imagine you are.

Animated news, the next frontier (and Tiger Woods was just the beginning):

Animated news: blurring the line between fact and fiction?

Are CGI envisionings of a killer whale attack, Brown's alleged bullying and what goes on in the male brain the future of news?

First there was the animation of Tiger Woods's car crash, which went viral. Then came the video showing a perhaps exaggerated version of Gordon Brown's alleged bullying. Western journalists have been forced to take notice of animated news ...

And we can all rest easy, because the Big Mouse has worked out it's British theater chain problem:

Odeon/UCI cinemas has agreed to an eleventh-hour deal with Disney to show "Alice in Wonderland" in the circuit's U.K. theaters.

The agreement follows a separate deal with U.K. exhib Vue, ending a controversy that had threatened to squeeze Tim Burton's 3D pic out of the local theatrical market. The Odeon agreement was announced Thursday, as Disney prepared to stage the world premiere of "Alice" in front of Prince Charles at the circuit's flagship cinema on Leicester Square ...

Have a restful weekend.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

With the Yellow Family

I spent half my morning at The Simpsons studio Film Roman, and learned one new fact I hadn't been aware of before ....

Though most everyone works on Cintiqs (see below), I noticed that layout artists were busy cutting pieces out of their layout setups and reworking them on paper. I wondered aloud why they were working with long white sheets when the Cintiq tablets were right at their shoulders. They answered:

"Rough Draft, the studio in Korea, doesn't work with the digital files, It uses paper. So we draw layouts digitally and print them out, work with them some more, cut and resize, hole punch the drawings and get them ready for shipping. It's the way it's always been with the overseas studio: layouts on sheets of paper ..."

Meantime, Bart and the rest of the brood march on through their 21st season:

On Sunday night original episodes of animated favorites THE SIMPSONS, THE CLEVELAND SHOW, and AMERICAN DAD grew significantly over their previous week’s performances.

At 8p THE SIMPSONS posted a 2.9/8 among Adults 18-49, marking a +12% increase over the previous week.

THE CLEVELAND SHOW in the 8:30p timeslot delivered a 2.8/7 among Adults 18-49, gaining +17% over the previous week.

At 9:30p AMERICAN DAD achieved a 2.8/6 among Adults 18-49, up +12% versus the previous week.

I hear Simpsons artists speculate on how many more seasons The Simpsons will keep going, and how long them might have jobs. I guess some of that depends on the next round of the voice actors' demands, but the ratings seem to be holding up.

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Becoming a Disney Writer

A commenter asks:

I hope to become a screenwriter for Disney, any tips?

Becoming a screenwriter at Disney Animation is a bit more complicated than when I did it back at the time James Garfield was President.

In the mid seventies, TAG Veep Earl Kress and I applied for positions in Disney Feature story department. Amazingly enough, we both got the nod. The company was looking for fresh blood and they weren't concerned whether you had a lengthy professional resume or not. (I had an unpublished novel and a few published magazine articles in my back pack. Big whoop.)

But amazingly enough, Earl and I ended up being staff writers, and were there for some years. But I don't think the route we hiked -- coming in as novice screenwriters -- exists anymore.

In the 1970s, Disney was a small studio, a sleepy backwater that mainstream Hollywood ignored. And what Hollywood really had no interest in, back in the day, was ninety minutes of hand-drawn animation. Because of that, the studio hired employees for its little cartoon department (led by former animator and Army Air Force pilot Woolie Reitherman and the last of the Nine Old Men) without regard to how impressive their previous Hollywood work was, or if they had any work at all. Most everybody was a newbie. Almost nobody came with a list of screen credits.

Today, however, the animation biz is HUGE, and hugely important to the conglomerates' bottom lines. None of the studios -- not DreamWorks Animation, not Disney, not Pixar or Blue Sky Studios or Sony Pictures Animation -- leave animation scripting to twenty-somethings with zero big league credits. All of them now use high profile writers from the live-action realm. From the corporate perspective, the stakes are too high not to.

Sometimes this approach works out fine, and sometimes studios spend a lot of money for a hundred twenty pages of deathless prose that even a team of seasoned board artists are unable to salvage. The newer reality is, if you want to write for Walt Disney Animation Studios or any of the rest, you better have a couple of high-grossing films under your belt, or they won't give you the time of day.

So here's my tip: Charge out there and get some credits that say: "Screenplay By." Then go write some animated features.

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Cintiqs' Speed Traps

A member e-mailed me the following this morning:

I recently purchased a Cintiq, and really enjoy using it. My concern is, now that everyone is switching over to digital drawing, I think that the studios have unrealistic expectations as to the time savings. Studio X has cut a week off the storyboard schedules. ... Even though we're working on computers now, it still takes time to make the drawings, and the computer is just a different tool. I would like to see if other union members agree with me, or if they have found that using a computer really does speed up the process.

I've talked to a number of board artists who've jumped to Cintiqs, and almost all of them like it. They enjoy the fact they don't have to redraw everything or endlessly cut, paste and Xerox; they like the storage capabilities. But many get frustrated with new demands that they turn out more material at a faster pace when there is still a hell of a lot of drawing to do, drawing that still takes a hell of a lot of skill, concentration and time.


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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lemming Watch

We should all celebrate the success of Alvin and the Chipmunks and sequel. Because it means that all over Tinsel Town, movie execs are shouting into their cell phones: Quick! What other cartoon characters we got out there?!"

And now we have our answer:

Speedy Gonzales is taking his folk hero status, incredible speed and signature red kerchief to the big screen, courtesy of New Line. "Garfield" scribes Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen will adapt the classic animated Looney Tunes character into a live-action/CG hybrid feature. ...

We are fortunate that Warner Brothers Animation and other studios developed a variety of cartoon characters in the thirties, forties, and fifties. Because it gives Hollywood a lot of different choices as it populates the oncoming tidal wave of hybrid animated features.

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The Disney Afternoon

I spent a portion of my post-lunch day at the Hat Building, doing my usual rounds. And the place was peaceful.

Tangled, the movie in production, is generally liked, although some departments on the first floor are still waiting for the production wave to hit at full force.

Winnie the Pooh (the next feature up) is going full-tilt in the layout department, although some animators don't have a lot of scenes yet. Meanwhile, animation staffers attended a meeting about new ideas for hand-drawn production. (The word is that the company would like to see TP&TF hit $300 million globally, the better to get into clearly profitable territory, and of course now it's below that magical figure. "But the merchandise has sold well.")

In the bigger corporate picture, Robert Iger is in an acquisitive mood:

Disney Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger, 59, is on a spending spree at the world’s biggest media company to transform his film studio, amusement parks and stores. In fiscal 2009, net income at Disney fell 25 percent to $3.3 billion -- the worst annual performance in Iger’s five-year reign -- and was almost flat in the first quarter of 2010 compared with a year earlier. ...

... In December, Disney completed its $4.3 billion purchase of Marvel Entertainment Inc., home of Iron Man, Spider-Man and the X-Men, paying a 40 percent premium over the stock price. ... In December, S&P affirmed its earlier revised outlook on Disney’s debt to negative from stable, citing concerns about the company’s recovery, the growth in spending and threats from deep-pocketed rivals...

“Disney is going to be basically doubling what they are spending,” says James Tarkenton, a managing director at Lateef Investment Management ....

Looks to me like the Disney CEO is planning to do whatever it takes to goose Diz Co.'s profit margins. Some big buys and big bets going on just now. Here's hoping they pan out.

Add On: As long as we're on Disney, the Mouse is teaming with the Getty on a worthwhile preservation program.

... The Getty Conservation Institute said Wednesday that it is partnering with a division of Disney to study the deterioration that can occur in plastics -- specifically, the kind used in animation cels.

The study will be conducted as a partnership between the Getty Institute in Brentwood and the Disney Animation Research Library ...

Some of the cels already examined by the Getty show that paint is starting to come away from parts of the plastic, while others show signs of warping and yellowing ...

The Disney Animation Research Library houses an estimated 65 million pieces of animation created over more than 80 years by the Walt Disney Animation Studios. ...

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Permanence of Three Dee -- Part XI

Somehow I missed this:

Jim Cameron's "Avatar" shone brightly at the International 3D Society's inaugural kudos event Tuesday, copping a half-dozen Lumiere Awards and a People's Choice award for favorite live-action movie.

The International 3D Society? International 3D Society?

It seems like only yesterday that my dear father was a proud, card-carrying member of the International CinemaScope Society (The Robe. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!) What the hell happened to that?!

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DreamWorks Walk Through

Around the time I was wandering the hall of DWA's Lakeside building today, Jeffrey Katzenberg was on the phone about DreamWorks Animation's March movie release in three dimensions:

QUESTION: Do you think you're going to be able to hold onto the majority of your 3-D screens post the release of "Clash of the Titans?"

RESPONSE: So, on the 3-D screens issue, again I think ultimately it becomes the playability of the movies. We will have a very, very strong 3-D platform, to launch "Dragons" on. In particular, we have an exclusive arrangement for the vast majority of Imax screens. The only ones that are excluded are some of the ones that are in the educational market. And so, that platform is exclusive to us for a six-week run ...

How to Train Your Dragon will have a big opening if staffers opinions of the movie are right, because most people I've talked to really like the picture.

I guess we'll have to wait and see.

But Dragon is done. The focus of the board artists, animators, layout artists and surfacers I talked to today is now elsewhere.

"We're well into Kung Fu Panda: the Kaboom of Doom. We've got five sequences in work. There's still way more to do than we've already done, but it's moving right along ..."

I got a look at footage for DWA's Fall release Megamind, and the stuff looks good. Funny characters and attitudes abound. (Sadly, I didn't see enough to know how the picture fits together, so don't ask.) The animator who showed me said: "I think this feature is going to surprise people. It's witty and has lots of funny sequences and bits."

And a Puss in Boots story artist says story development has been robus. So robust that it's jumped ahead of another picture, coming out in 2011.

But don't think everybody is 100% satisfied. A development guy crabbed how the company needs more projects in work to keep the production pipeline filled. "There's a lot of movies going on here, but I think there should be more small teams taking properties the company owns, that are just sitting around, and seeing what they can do with them. Just throw up an outline board and see if it works. If it doesn't, move on to the next. If we're going to get up to three pictures a year and stay there, we're going to need more development."

But most aren't complaining. As a long-time employee said as I was walking out: "For me, there's always a picture to jump onto, always some kind of work. I like knowing I've got a job to come to."

Add On: DreamWorks Animation, in case you were wondering, had a pretty okay fourth quarter, business-wise:

... Reporting its fourth-quarter income for the fiscal year ending December 31, 2009, DreamWorks reported full-year revenue of $725.2 million and a profit of $151 million – up 12 percent and 10 percent respectively – driven by films including “Monsters vs. Aliens.” The company beat fourth quarter revenue forecast with $194.2 million. ...

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Monday, February 22, 2010

My 401(k) Day

The entire workday was taken up with 401(k) Administrative meetings (and preparations for the meetings.)

Which presents me with a fine opportunity to post about retirement planning, and why anybody reading this had better get serious about tucking cash away for their Golden Years ...

Our outside experts attending the meetings today said the obvious:

"Very few people save enough for retirement. That's why a lot of corporate 401(k) Plans are now moving to "opt out" enrollment structures: When you're hired, you're automatically in the company 401(k) Plan at 3% or 4% unless you act to get out. Which most people don't."

I'm not a licensed financial advisor but I've done a jillion 401(k) enrollment meetings and read more financial blogs, investing books, and mutual fund web sites than I can remember. And here's the basic deal:

There is no perfect investment model. (When every asset class except cash tanks at the same time, like happened for six months in 2008-2009, what are you going to do?) Here are a few important retirement sign posts:

Age 50: Special "catch up" provisions allow you to contribute more to 401(k) Plans and IRAs.

Age 55: Early Retirement allowed by Motion Picture Industry Health and Pension Plan (49.5% of monthly annuity; 100% of Individual Account Plan with 20 Qualified Pension Years and 20,000 hours.) Special Early Retirement (70% of monthly annuity and 100% of Individual Account Plan with 30 Qualified Pension Years and 60,000 hours.)

Age 59 1/2: Can take withdrawal from 401(k)s and IRAs without penalty.

Age 60: Full retirement and Retiree Health Benefits from MPIPHP with 30 Qualified Pension Years and 60,000 hours.

Age 62: Early Social Security benefits.

Age 65: Medicare becomes available.

Age 65: Full Retiree benefits from MPIPHP.

Age 67: Full Social Security benefits for those born after 1960.

Age 70: Social Security benefits stop growing. (Grows 8% per year from age 62 to age 70 -- IF benefit is unused.)

Age 70 1/2: Minimum distribution from IRAs and 401(k) Plans are required.

Asset allocation can be as simple or complex as you care to make it. The standard-issue allocation for people under 45 is 60% stocks (70% domestic; 30% foreign, with a quarter of the total in small caps) and 40% bonds (short term and intermediate issues.)

For people over 55 the usual allocation is 60% bonds and 40% stocks. (And here you will find one of the kazillion asset allocation and investment wizards that are available on the intertubes.)

Asset allocation and a solid investment strategy are relatively simple things. What's hard is sticking with them. But with a bit of discipline, the task is highly doable.

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Fox the Dominator

Fox is developing yet another teevee cartoon:.

... BRICKLEBERRY PARK (FOX, New!) - Waco O'Guin and Roger Black ("Stankervision") have booked a pilot presentation order from the network for a new animated comedy about "a group of forest rangers at a declining park that's about to be shut down." Dave Herman ("Office Space"), Tom Kenny ("Spongebob SquarePants") and Carlos Alazraqui ("Reno 911") have already signed on to voice the project ...

Forget about Disney, the company. Or John Lasseter, the man. The Big Kahuna in animation is someone else ...

... and that someone else is a kindly old gentleman named Murdoch.

Think about it a minute. Rupert presides over the highest grossing animated feature (Avatar) of all time. Sure, there's live action in it. And James Cameron argues that it falls in the l.a. column. But anybody who's honest would concede there's more animated elements in its two hour and twenty minute running time than anything else.

As Snow White was the highest grossing feature film as of 1938, so Avatar is the highest grossing feature circa 2010 ($2,467,962,011 and counting.)

But that's only a fragment of the reason that Rupert Murdoch is Animation's New King. In television, the Fox Network has its Animation Domination" schedule, where Sunday night IS Toonville. On the theatrical front, Avatar is only the beginning. There is the tentpole known as Alvin and the Chipmunks. There is Blue Sky Studio's Ice Age franchise, the last feature of which brought in a tidy sum for News Corporation.

So forget Walt Disney or John Lasseter or Jeffrey Katzenberg. The Big Kahuna of animation isa well-known newspaper mogul Keith Rupert Murdoch.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Can't Keep a Good Director Down

As there is life after Disney, so is there life after Pixar:

Chris McCoy and Jan Pinkava are writing the animated film "Little White Lie" for Laika Entertainment, the company behind the Oscar-nominated "Coraline."

"Lie" stems from an original idea by Pinkava, who has a story credit on Pixar's "Ratatouille," which he co-directed. Pinkava also will direct "White Lie."

Laika needs a replacement for Henry Selick, and now it's got one in Dr Pinkava. Here's hoping White Lie is a thundering success.

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Tex Avery's Roots

The Dallas Morning News remembers a native son:

... [Tex Avery] first heard the line [Eh, what's up, doc?"] at North Dallas High, where he graduated with the Class of 1926. Standing in the cavernous hallways, one can almost hear Roaring '20s teenagers passing one another during class changes. "Hiya, doc." "What's new, doc?" "What's up, doc?"

... Avery ... once told an interviewer that Daffy Duck was born on White Rock Lake in East Dallas, where he and his friends hunted ducks.

Who knew?

Unfortunately, various educators are aware of N. Dallas High's graduate, and are steering impressionable youth down a perilous path..

... [S]tudent artists are competing in a contest to paint the best mural of Avery's characters. Winners will be declared later this month. Teachers say incidents of illegal graffiti have decreased recently, because students can use the cartoon contest as an outlet ...

It's fine and dandy that illegal grafitti is down, but get real. Lawyers from Time-Warner will soon be banging on North Dallas High's doors, handing out "cease and desist" orders for copyright infringement. And getting students to erase the murals.

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The Foreign Derby

The many varieties of animation (hand-drawn, cg, hybrid) continue to prosper in venues across the seas:

... [D]ominating the foreign circuit, 20th Century Fox's "Avatar" squeaked out its 10th consecutive round as the No. 1 film overseas, generating $51 million -- down just 15% from last weekend -- from 7,600 screens in 71 markets.

Overseas gross total for director James Cameron's record-setting blockbuster was $1.780 billion with its worldwide tally weighing in at $2.468 billion ...

And Rupert's other hybrid animated feature is churning out foreign coin for News Corp. as well:

... Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" hoisted it overseas cume to $215.5 million thanks to a $3.7 million weekend at 2,500 screens in 30 markets ...

Though Sony smothered its most recent animated feature a little too early stateside, the opus rolls on overseas:

... "Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs" drew $3.2 million on the weekend from 1,470 screens in 21 markets for an international cume (collected since last Sept. 16) of $107.7 million.

To date, Cloudy has fun up a worldwide total of $232.6 million.

Meantime, Green Froggy continues to hop right along:

No. 5 was Disney Animation's "The Princess and the Frog," which cashed in on school holidays in France and the U.K. and grossed $12.1 million from 3,397 screens in 40 territories. Overseas cume stands at $131.5 million. France, with about two-thirds of the country observing school vacations, generated $4.1 million -- up 9% from last weekend -- from 697 locations for a one-month market cume of $23.1 million ...

So will TP&TF be a money spinner after all revenue sources have reported in? You betchya. It's already grossed $234.2 million on a worldwide basis. After factoring in the little silver disks and product merchandising, it should perform satisifactorily.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Multi Animated Links

Linkage on a winter weekend, what could be finer?

The New York Times details the animated shorts vying for an Oscar:

... Few movies of any length combine such daring and craft with the dazzling wit of “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” Nick Park’s half-hour tour de force. It marks the welcome return of Wallace and Gromit, the hand-molded English bloke and his skeptical dog who have brought glory to the Aardman animation studios. ...

How to Train Your Dragon serves up a teaser trailer (which is probably already sprinkled far and wide across the intertubes, but we throw it up as a link anyway.)

Adult Swim expands ....

The additional hour of prime time is in response to Adult Swim’s high ratings that have dominated the 18- to 34-year-old male demographic consistently since 2007.

Quick. Dream up some crass and/or edgy and/or older demographic-type cartoons.

Dr. Catmull to be honored:

... The 8th Annual Video Effects Society (VES) Awards, which takes place on Sunday, February 28, will honor Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar President Dr. Ed Catmull with the Georges Méliès Award for Pioneering ...

The Los Angeles Times looks at a new direct-to-video hand-drawn feature:

'Dante's Inferno' and the rings of pop culture

... The direct-to-home-video release ... is rooted in "The Divine Comedy," the epic 14th century poem by Dante Alighieri that endures as one of the signature works in world literature. This "Inferno," though, will be a bit jolting to anyone whose mental image was shaped by high school textbooks or the classic illustrations by Botticelli or William Blake's watercolor interpretations. This "Inferno" finds its hellish landscape in the game published this year by Electronic Arts and developed by Visceral Games ...

The WGA (east and west) held its writing award ceremonies today:

... The WGA's annual awards for film, TV, radio, news, promotional, video-game, animation and variety-show writing were presented ... in simultaneous ceremonies at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles and the Millennium Broadway Hotel's Hudson Theatre in New York City. "Family Guy" mastermind Seth MacFarlane hosted the West Coast show, while "Curb Your Enthusiasm" regular Susie Essman hosted back east ...

The Art Center College of Design is mounting an animation exhibit at its Williamson Gallery:

... A rare opportunity to see just what's involved in creating the blend of artistry and technology in animated film opens March 5 with the "DreamWorlds" exhibit ...

"It's ...a chance to peek behind the veil and see what the environment of contemporary animation looks like," said Stephen Nowlin, the gallery's curator. "You get to see the process, and people are still fascinated by that...but I think they'll still be able to suspend their disbelief" when they see the finished movie. ..."

And finally there is Yogi Bear Three Dee ... now shooting in New Zealand?!

... Welcome to another day at Jellystone Park. Or, as it's known to its usual native wild creatures, the mountain bikers of Auckland, Woodhill Forest.

It's roughly halfway through the New Zealand shoot for Yogi Bear, the mixed live action and computer-animated 3D version of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon which dates back to 1958.

The production has already spent time in Taupo, shooting whitewater scenes at the Aratiatia rapids, and in central city Auckland - (spoiler alert) at some point Ranger Smith is reassigned to the tiny "Evergreen Park" better known to us as Emily Place.

And they'll be here until mid-March, with more days at Woodhill and West Auckland's Studio West for scenes inside Yogi's cave.

It's always good that an American icon is being shot on the bottom side of the globe. Makes me tingle.

Have a refreshing sabbath.

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The Mid-Winter Derby

The lead horse appears to be Shutter Island, fast out of the gate with $14.1 million, headed for a $35 million dollar opening weekend. ...

The Nikkster's tally, (earlier and slightly off) goes as follows:

1. Shutter Island (Paramount) NEW [2,991 Theaters] Friday $13.5M, Estimated $35M Weekend

2. Valentine's Day (Warner Bros) Week 2 [3,665 Theaters] Friday $5.6M (-61%), Estimated Weekend $17M, Estimated Cume $89M

3. Percy Jackson & The Olympians (Fox) Week 2 [3,396 Theaters] Friday $4.0M (-58%), Estimated Weekend $16M, Estimated Cume $62M

4. Avatar (Fox) Week 10 [2,582 Theaters] Friday $4.0M, Estimated Weekend $16M, Estimated Cume $687M

5. The Wolfman (Universal) Week 2 [3,223 Theaters] Friday $3.0M (-68%), Estimated Weekend $9.0M, Estimated Cume $49.5M

6. Dear John (Relativity/Sony) Week 3 [3,062 Theaters] Friday $2.3M, Estimated Weekend $7.5M, Estimated Cume $66.2M

7. Tooth Fairy (Fox) Week 5 [2,523 Theaters] Estimated Weekend $4.5M, Estimated Cume $50M

8. Crazy Heart (Fox Searchlight) Week 10 [1,089 Theaters] Estimated Weekend $3.0M, Estimated Cume $21.5M

9. From Paris With Love (Lionsgate ) Week [2,311 Theaters] Estimated Weekend $2.5M, Estimated Cume $21.2M

10. Edge of Darkness (Alcon/Warner Bros) Week 4 [2,118 Theaters] Estimated weekend $2.3M, Estimated Cume $40.5M

Avatar, in its tenth week, closes in on a $700 million domestic accumulation, which is narrowly short of amazing.

Add On: At the finish, DiCaprio and Scorcese triumph atop Shutter Island, raking in $40.2 million for the weekend.

In second and third, Valentine's Day earns $17,160,000 while the hardy, long-limbed blue people pull down $16.1 million to give Avatar a domestic total of $687,821,000.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

The Animateds' Current Box Office

Not the high-flying hybrid stuff that is sprinkled with live (ecch) action, but the 100% unadulterated animated features. There are two still two of those in general release ...

The Princess and the Frog has earned $102.1 million in domestic release, and $109 million in overseas takings, for a grand total of $211.1 million in worldwide grosses.

Since TP&tF comes out on those little silver disks on March 16th, its domestic total is unlikely to climb a lot higher. (What the release pattern is in each foreign markets might be known to Diz Co., but certainly not to me.)

The other pure animated product out there is The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which despite critical hossanahs, isn't setting the record books on fire. As I write, the feature has made half its money inside the U.S., and half out, with a total accumulation of $40.6 million against a budget of $40 million.

Add On: As indicated above, The Princess and the Frog has now toted up a $234.2 million worldwide gross.

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Books Don't Always Translate

Bill Peet moved major plot points (and many of the bells and whistles) from Dodie Smith's novel 101 Dalmations to the big screen for the Disney version half a century ago.

Apparently translating a book into another medium is not always as successful as the 1961 model turned out to be.

Broadway in Chicago’s ‘101 Dalmatians’ a dog of a musical

The conceit of this ill-conceived show is that the dogs are played by regular-sized people in spotted outfits, so Director Jerry Zaks has made all the people playing humans larger than life by putting them up on stilts. The resulting dog-people aren’t very doggish and the humans are like nothing on earth.

The pop-tinged score, by Styx singer Dennis DeYoung is almost completely forgettable, the exceptions being “Hail to the Chef,” a bouncy food song crooned by Cruella to the dogsitting cook while her henchmen make off with the pups, and a recurring reggae number, “Be a Little Bit Braver ...”

Four adults, ten kids, 15 real Dalmatians and a few dummy dogs and puppets portray the 101 canines of the title, but not very well. ... The puppetry simulating the puppy pack could have been done much better ...

I read Ms. Smith's opus about dalmations decades ago, but it stays with me still. Mr. Peet was faithful in his adaptation, although he left out a few poignant scenes (one with an old man remembering his faithful dog in front of a blazing fireplace) that failed to make the cut for the animated version, probably because they played well on the printed page but not on a storyboard.

A shame that the stage version of the book wasn't more riveting, but knowing the novel's challenges, I don't know how it could be. Animation really was (and is) the ideal medium for it.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Animation at the Brothers Warner

Today was WB Animation day at the ranch (formerly Columbia, currently Warner Bros.)

... WBA continues with its super hero direct-to-video features:

Bruce Timm: [Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths] is a return to my favorite show Justice League Unlimited. The original script was intended to be the bridge story between Justice League and Justice League Unlimited to explain how we went from seven heroes to more than 50 super heroes. We loved the story and the script, and it floated around here for years while we tried to figure out what to do with it – it was considered for a comic, but fortunately that got shot down. Then we took a look at it and, with just a few slight tweaks, we jumped at the chance to make it a DC Universe movie ...

WB Animation is a beehive of activity, especially compared to how empty and downright sleepy the place was ten or fourteen months ago.

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The Sub-Contracting Scam

The New York Times details the mis-categorization of working stiffs:

Federal and state officials, many facing record budget deficits, are starting to aggressively pursue companies that try to pass off regular employees as independent contractors ...

... Many workplace experts say a growing number of companies have maneuvered to cut costs by wrongly classifying regular employees as independent contractors, though they often are given desks, phone lines and assignments just like regular employees. Moreover, the experts say, workers have become more reluctant to challenge such practices, given the tough job market.

Companies that pass off employees as independent contractors avoid paying Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance taxes for those workers. Companies do not withhold income taxes from contractors’ paychecks, and several studies have indicated that, on average, misclassified independent workers do not report 30 percent of their income ....

I've had a number of visual effects artists, storyboard artists and designers complain to me about this practice over the years. I've even known of assistant animators, working in-studio, who have been labeled as "independent contractors" by a company in order to get around taxes and unemployment.

Now, of course, we have outfits like MBO striving to be enablers for firms that don't want to be on the hook for taxes and unemployment benefits for the people they engage. The tap dance goes like this:

"Heey now! You're a happening cat with places to go and people to see! You don't want to be pinned down with that employee stuff! You need your free-dom! We'll help make the indie thing work for you! Just give us 5% of your cash flow! ..."

Nice work if you can get it, but here's the way it's supposed to work: If you're working on site, or taking direction for the work performed, or using the company's equipment, you're an employee.

There are certainly bona fide independent contractors out there, and there are certainly independent contractors who make good livings. But let's face it, there's a lot of cheating and corner-cutting being done by various companies, and lots of workers are being short-changed.

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Blue Sky Diz says that Mr. Lasseter is co-directing Cars 2. I wouldn't know anything about that, but in the recent past I had occasion to talk to Disney and Pixar artists who said:

"The new management team is cautious. John isn't taking big chances at Disney. They're trying to go with the kind of structure they have at Pixar, with a smaller creative group at the top, and I'm not sure it works well at Disney. The slate is really thin, and theyv'e got a hole in the slate now that Snow Queen is shelved, and they've asked directors here to see if they can come up with something. There should be more pitching of ideas, but management is wedded to the director-driven project, and they haven't greenlit a lot of stuff ..."

"The best way to not get ahead at Pixar is to say you want to be a director ..."

Me, beyond my observations walking around the hat building and talks with various artists there, I couldn't tell you much about Pixar. (In fact, I could tell you no-thing.)

The artists I've conversed with agree that the Disney development slate is thin, but between the films in the pipeline at Emeryville and the ones now in production down in Burbank, the House of Mouse has a goodly number of animated releases lined up on the tarmac, so there really isn't a short-term problem.

It's the more distant future that appears cloudy, but maybe that's because we're not there yet. Maybe a burst of new projects will happen between now and summer. Who knows?

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

March of New TeeVee Animation

The last few months, various conglomerates and law firms have phoned in to ask about contracts for new animated shows. (Had one today, in fact.)

Funny how companies have figured out that animation is cost effective and, as an added bonus, has a dandy commercial shelf life. And that adults like it too. The media is apparently picking up on the trend:

HBO launches The Ricky Gervais Show and the second season of The Life & Times of Tim on Friday (9 and 9:30 p.m. ET/PT), and FX recently introduced Archer (tonight, 10 ET/PT). They join Comedy Central's South Park, Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block and Fox's Sunday lineup with offerings aimed more at grown-ups. ...

Casey Bloys, who oversees comedy at HBO, says the pay-cable network isn't specifically trying to launch animation. "What we're looking for are interesting shows. (The creators') point of view was the most important thing." ...

On the business side, animation is easy to dub for international audiences and it performs well in DVD sales, says Modi Wiczyk of Media Rights Capital, which produces Tim and Gervais. Quality animation can now be made "at a basic-cable price," too, Landgraf says.

The animation field is growing, Wiczyk says. "Twenty to 30 years ago, there wasn't a huge bench of people who wanted to make animated comedies. Now, this genre is attracting such bright talent."...

Thirty years ago, there weren't a jillion cable networks. We had three big broadcast companies, and we had low-rent syndicated shows appearing on the independent teevee channels sprinkled across the air waves. That, boys and girls, was pretty much it. Now, however, there's a lot more time to fill, and it can't all be talk and reality shows.

So animation is getting a close look by the multi-nationals because it travels well and makes money. And on our end, we're getting inquiries from various entities about new contracts. But we're telling the smart operators who ask about covering "just the writers" some sad news:

"Sorry, TAG isn't serving as a prophylactic against the Writers Guild of America (west). You want to cover your six writers to the exclusion of directors, storyboard artists, designers and animators, you can't do it with a contract from the Animation Guild, because we won't sign that kind of a deal."

It's pretty much all or nothing, the way we see it. In the next few weeks, we hope to have some newer studios signed to contracts, but the congloms' latest subsidiaries and subcontractors are going to have to decide if they want to cover the whole animated enchilada. Because covering a small slice of it just isn't going to work.

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Henry Selick Has a Point

It regards James Cameron's small art film, and it's a good one.

"Is it animation? Is it a new category? ... I don't know where it fits. I will tell you this, animators have to work very, very hard with the motion-capture data. After the performance is captured, it's not just plugged into the computer which spits out big blue people. It's a hybrid."

Well, yeah.

Just like Out of the Inkwell and Gulliver's Travels (the Fleischer edition) and Don Bluth's later work. There was lots of live-action emoting in the mix with all of them, but the final results needed animators sitting and desks. Lots and lots of animators. Likewise Avatar.

So to describe it as pure flesh-and-blood actor's performance is more than a little wrong.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Who's Got the Biggest ... Lever?

All right, class. Here's a fine example of two groups striving for optimum leverage.

Walt Disney Pictures' decision to accelerate the release of its upcoming 3-D film "Alice in Wonderland" on DVD has sparked a revolt among movie theater owners in Europe.

Major chains in Great Britain and the Netherlands have threatened to boycott the movie when it hits theaters March 5, a move that could cut into box office revenues ...

Theater owners in Italy and other European countries are mulling similar action, said Westrate. Some European exhibition executives complained that, unlike their counterparts in the U.S., they were not consulted by Disney executives until recently.

The Big Mouse appears to have itself a problem.

If it goes ahead with its narrowed theatrical window, it might push more DVDs out the door, but it risks killing theatrical grosses. Whatever is a conglomerate to do?

Disney Distribution President Bob Chapek has been in London since last week meeting with exhibitors in an attempt to resolve the dispute.

I hope Bob is good at tap dancing, because he's going to have to entertain (and soothe) a lot of ticked-off European theater owners. But the question remains, who's going to blink first?

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Union Stance

A commenter asks:

What's the official Union stance on studios like Dreamworks and Sony farming out work to smaller studios in Burbank and Texas, and overseas to cut rate studios in India etc?

Simple. We're against it. We want them to do the work under union contract, under their own roofs ...

But here's the conundrum. How do you gain the leverage to achieve that result?

One way is to dry up non-union work by organizing it. Several years ago, there were several big non-union studios that we wanted to organize. One was Klasky-Csupo. Another was Film Roman. Roman we eventually organized when it cut benefits and wages to the point of employee revolt. K-C went out of business. (Some might ask: How can this be, since Klasky-Csupo had the big cost advantage of lower pay and benefits? My answer: Stumble-footed management. That trumps everything else, every time. Happily, most of the L.A. animation industry -- not counting visual effects -- is unionized.)

Another way is voting for political candidates who will incentivize companies to keep the work here. (Blue Sky studios is in Connecticut for a reason.)

Another way is to support the unionization of non-union studios by signing representation cards and voting "yes" in National Labor Relations Board elections. (This means you have to ignore the fear tactics that management will employ, and trust me, they will employ them. But the simplest way to blot out the hysteria is remind yourself: "We're all working for multi-national conglomerates. All I want is what the employees at the directly-owned conglomerate studios get.")

The hardest nut to crack is dissuading companies from shipping work overseas. As I've said before, we had two strikes over this issue, the second one ten weeks long, and it was ugly. As of now, I believe that the best way to do cut the work outflow is elect politicians who will create trade laws that keep more of the work in the country. (Realistically, I don't think this will happen anytime soon, but you never know.)

But I'll be blunt: An official union stance means bupkus if there isn't muscle and will behind it. SAG or TAG or the WGA can have an official stance supporting the four-day workweek or a ten dollar per hour minimum wage or six weeks of paid vacation, but it they have no practical way of making these things a reality, their positions are mainly philosophical.

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A Visual Effects Digital Artists Guild?

Actually, that's kind of what TAG has become. We've moved from carbon on paper to pixels inside computers. Eighty percent of our membership now works on computers.

But a visual effects artist, inspired by the "Open Letter to James Cameron" on the Huffington Post, writes this:

I've started a blog to discuss these issues and welcome your thoughts ...

My thinking on the subject is, visual effects work is way past the point where it needs overtime protection, pension benefits, and a portable health plan.

When we began representing the craft a decade and a half ago, it was a qualified digital artists paradise because there were a bunch of high-salaried jobs chasing relatively few experienced digital artists.

One example: On Disney's pioneer CG animated feature Dinosaurs, it took the studio a year and a half to find personnel to do all the jobs. (They were looking for employees with lots of production experience, and back in the mid-nineties, there weren't enough.)

But supply has now caught up with demand, and while there are a lot of CG jobs, so are there many CG animators, modelers, riggers and technical directors. Abuses abound, gight schedules pound many into quivering heaps of protoplasm, and if ever there was a need for a more level playing field, the time is now.

I know from experience that it's easier to organize work from an existing labor platform than starting a new organization from scratch, but if people want to invent a new entity, by all means they should go for it. For our part, we will keep pushing to organize digital artists under the TAG 839 banner. We've been doing that since the early nineties, so we ain't going to stop now.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Merchandise Driven

I was lunching with the Wise Old Studio Exec today. When we fell into a discussion of current animated features (also a few live action features), he smiled and said: "It's all about the merchandising, Hulett. That's what they're selling."

And it's obviously true:

The toy industry is increasingly reliant upon Hollywood for characters and stories that kids will want to reenact in their homes. Toys tied to Hollywood's publicity machine is one of few bright spots in a retail industry that has been stagnant

... [John] Lasseter has long chafed at the reluctance of toy manufacturers and retailers to get behind original movies. In his induction speech to the Toy Hall of Fame on Saturday night, he recalled how North American toy buyers placed a scant 60,000 orders for Buzz Lightyear toys when "Toy Story" was released in 1995. Canadian manufacturer Thinkway Toys subsequently has sold 35 million of the figures ...

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was still working as a story person, merchandising was important, but it wasn't the tail that wagged the dog.

Now it's the engine that makes movies happen, particularly at Disney. When the veterans tell you flat out, "We're making Pooh because marketing wants to sell a lot of WtP DVDs and plush toys," you get the picture.

It's about moving merchandise.

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A Three Dee Crash and Burn?

The question I have: Is this gimmick going to collapse of its own weight?

Hollywood studios, juiced by the success of "Avatar," are tripping over each other to release movies in 3-D. In the process, they risk overloading multiplexes, which are equipped to handle only a portion of the 3-D pack at a time.

More than 20 3-D releases are scheduled already for this year, and additional titles are expected to be announced. Costly productions could wind up cannibalizing each other as they jostle for screens. As of the beginning of the year, less than 10% of the U.S.'s roughly 40,000 screens were 3-D enabled

The whole Three Dee explosion was as predictable as the sun coming up in the east this morning.

As soon as Avatar and all the animated features began making huge money, the stampede to stereo viewing got serious. Like for instance:

"There are dozens of projects that are being looked at right now for last-minute 3-D conversion to be released in 2010," says Chris Bond, who heads up the 3-D team at Prime Focus, the special-effects company working on "Clash." but has never before converted a major feature film into 3-D. "A lot of studio executives are going to look at 'Clash,' and if it works—then 3-D conversion will explode."

Brace yourself for a big explosion.

Before it's all over, the congloms will turn every movie this side of Birth of a Nation into a dimensional extravaganza, because the blood is now n the water and the big finned fish are having a feeding frenzy. And when the cloudy red water finally clears, audiences will have become sick of all the sh*tty Three Dee (and alot of the "good" Three Dee along with it) and grosses will slide.

And then the corporate hand-wringing will start. "What the hell happened?! It's Three Deee! Why aren't the rubes coming anymore!?"

There will be angst. There will be recriminations. A little while after that, all eyes will turn to Jim Cameron to find out what the Next Big Thing will be, and the next stampede will commence.

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The Organizing Thingamajig

A couple of months ago, out of the clear blue Western sky, we got a bunch of people coming in wanting to sign cards for their non-union studios. Here's why I think it happened:

* Most of the folks were working on shows owned by monster conglomerates, and were ticked off that the congloms were running the work through non-union studios.

* Most of the folks had were union members and had union health benefits, but the benefits were running out and they were faced with the skim milk offering of their non-union facilities.

* Most of the folks were getting slammed with uncompensated overtime because they were working for a flat salary. (Meaning that no matter how many hours in the week they worked, they get paid the salary and nothing more. There's no overtime in the deal.)

So here's what's happened since:

We've collected a bunch of representation cards from a variety of studios. At one place, we're coming right along.

At another studio, the crew we were collecting cards from has (mostly) been laid off.

At yet another studio, the campaign was chugging along smartly until management got wind of it, and the head honcho held a meeting for the staff and did a lot of hand-wringing about how "going union" would cost thousands more dollars per week and the big fat conglomerate wouldn't pay them more money and they just can't keep going under the weight of the horrid union yoke.

And so now the organizing drive is progressing somewhat less smartly. Artists have gotten rattled. Some have turned hostile to sweet old TAG ("Why is the union going after this place?"). some have just hunkered down, waiting for the storm to blow over.

Here's my take about getting non-union places to go union, based on my wee bit of experience:

1) Organizing is always tough, even under the best of conditions, (and in the current economic climate we're several country miles from good conditions.)

2) Management always says "We can't afford it," (Think about it a minute. You think its serves their purposes to announce: "Sure we could do it, but we'll have to lay out more cash, so we don't want to." That's usually the truth, but how would that go over? Not well, in most instances.)

3) Almost all the moolah to fund non-union shops comes from the same places the unionized money originates: News Corp, Disney Co., Time-Warner, Sony, Viacom, General Electric. There's also some European cash in the mix, but mostly the money gushes from the Big Six.

4) TAG ends up organizing the studios where it has enough leverage to get a contract, and the reverse. Sometimes this means it needs only a little leverage, sometimes this means it needs a lot.

Lastly. There is no "fair" or "unfair" here. There is only what Local 839 has the ability to get. (I was disabused of believing in the fair or unfair idea a long time ago. It's a popular concept, but it's mostly fatuous, because your idea of fair will seem totally unfair to somebody else.)

So here's what I tell individuals who think they're getting shortchanged with the non-union work:

"You're the one with the ability to change things. I can stand out on the sidewalk and help, and will if you really want me to, but you're the one that has to make the change happen. There are some risks, but they're not huge. And success is not necessarily assured, even if we get the cards and win an election. But if you act or don't act out of fear, you're stunting your own growth, because it's a crappy way to live.

"So sit down and think out what you want and need to do, then go for it. But whatever you do, try not to do it from a frightened place, because it will get to be a habit, and it will end up ruling you."

I'll report back here if anything important develops. And if not, not.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Animation In The Middle Kingdom

So here's what China says is happening with the animation biz in China:

There were at least eight domestically-produced animated films last year in China, making it a "blowout" year for China's cartoon films according to critics.

Yin Hong, professor and director of the Center for Film and Television Studies of Tsinghua University, said the production scale of China's cartoon industry has been expanded to more than 140,000 minutes of animation this year, which formed the foundation for many films.

He contributes the growth to the continuous efforts of the government, which set up supporting policies to boost domestic animation industry.

In 2000, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) required local TV stations to get approval from the administration and set quotas for imported cartoons to air on TV.

In 2004, it issued another regulation, stipulating that at least 60 percent of cartoon programs aired in any given quarter had to be domestic.

In September 2006, the SARFT banned all foreign cartoons from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Last February it extended the ban to 9 p.m.

Additionally, the Chinese government has made an annual investment of 200 million yuan in the animation industry since 2006.

Last July, the Ministry of Finance and the State Administration of Taxation jointly issued a favorable taxation policy to support the development of comic and animation industry.

The Chinese animation industry is clearly stifled by the heavy, suffocating hand of its Communist masters.

Just contrast what happens in horrid China to our fair democracy, where every multi-national conglomerate is free to innovate, buy and sell, and grab as much bailout money as our good-hearted Federal Government is willing to give it.

Don't know about you, but give me the clean, brisk air of Free Enterprise any time!

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The Foreign Takings

And of course the derby goes on overseas, even more robustly than here in the States.

"Avatar" in its ninth round on the foreign circuit defiantly stared down overseas openings of three big major studio films over the weekend, emerging No. 1 with $59 million drawn from 8,453 screens in 71 markets.

... "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," director Chris Columbus' adaptation of the popular book series by Rick Riordan. Opening round produced $28 million from 5,800 venues in 40 territories with No. 1 market finishes recorded in South Korea, Brazil, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Venezuela.

Finishing fourth was Universal's "The Wolfman," which collected an estimated $21 million from 4,222 situations – for a $4,974 per-screen average – in 37 territories. Domestically on the weekend it premiered No. 3 with a weekend tally of $31.1 million. ...

"The Princes and the Frog" grossed an animated $11.3 million from 3,643 locations in 39 markets, hoisting its overseas cume past the $100 million mark ($109 million) with the prospect of various holiday playtimes ahead in active territories. ...

... "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" jacked its overseas cume to $207.1 million thanks to a $4.5 million weekend at 3,774 screens in 38 markets. ...

There were various other performers, but the pictures above all have large doses of animation wrapped inside their running times.

This is important because the more animation succeeds, the more animation gets made. And the more it gets made, the more that animators, technical directors, pre-visualization artists and storyboarders have jobs working to make animation happen.

This is a good thing.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Animated Cartoons in the Middle East

Yet another area of the globe where animation is going like gangbusters:

The prosperity of the UAE, particularly Dubai, in the past decade, includes a long list of achievements. Among those, building man-made islands, the tallest building on earth, and the longest automated metro system in the region.

Now the boom has also sparked a burst of creativity among many young Emiratis in the field of producing TV animation series. ...

For nearly four years, more than one TV series has become a must-watch for both nationals and many expatriates in the UAE mainly during Ramadan. ... [T]hey all share certain characteristics: they stem and reflect scenes from the heritage, culture and life in Dubai. Also, they are all narrated in a comic way and received with a laugh, if not a guffaw ...

"I have received offers from three Arab TV channels outside to produce an animated TV show for them," said Haider Mohammad Haider, producer of Sha'biyat Al Cartoon. "But I had to turn them down, because I don't have the technical ability to produce another TV show at present".

... The high cost of production, due to a lack of sufficient technical support inside the UAE — the three shows are produced with companies based in Singapore, Cairo and Amman — is considered a major obstacle. ...

I never thought of Singapore as a low cost subcontractor for Dubai's animation industry or anybody else's. But what do I know? The world economy being what it is, maybe there's a chance that animation producers in the United Arab Emirates will take a close look at Southern California's talent pool and throw some sub-contracting work our way. (TAG has a contract for work with an Israeli cartoon company. Why not Dubai?)

We've outsourced work to all points of the globe for decades. Seems to me it's time for the globe to start reciprocating.

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The Valentine Derby

Now including cinnamon Add On.

Oh dear. The Nikkster would have us believe that Avatar has dropped to fourth place:

1. Valentines Day (Warner Bros) NEW [3,665 Theaters] Friday $16.5 million, Estimated 4-Day Weekend $60M

2. Percy Jackson & The Olympians (Fox) NEW [3,356 Theaters] Friday $10.5M, Estimated 4-Day Weekend $50M

3. The Wolfman (Universal) NEW [3,222 Theaters] Friday $10.5M, Estimated 4-Day Weekend $35M

4. Avatar (Fox) Week 9 [2,685 Theaters] Friday $4.8M, Estimated Weekend $24M, Estimated Cume $661M

5. Dear John (Relativity/Sony) Week 2 [2,975 Theaters] Friday $4.5M, Estimated Weekend $19M, Estimated Cume $56.5M

Meanwhile, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Part Two, in the fifteenth slot as of Thursday (before the avalanche of new pictures slid into multiplexes), stood at $212.6 million. The Fantastic Mr. Fox, showing in 155 theaters across the fruited plain, is up to $20.5 million.

Add On: At the wire, Valentine's Day equals its budget ($52 million and change), winning by several lengths. Percy Jackson and The Wolfman finish in a dead heat for the Place position, collecting $31.1 million and $30.6 million.

Avatar declines a mere 3.7% , raking in $22 million for a total of $659.6 million (domestic). Alvin and the Chipmunks (#18) now holds $204 million in their furry cheeks. The Princess and the Frog has collected $101.7 million.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Window

Disney is going where Sony recently went:

Britain's biggest cinema chains may choose not to show Disney's latest animation Alice in Wonderland because the company are proposing to sell it on DVD just 13 weeks after it reaches the big screen.

However, film industry insiders say that even if cinema chains decide to take action, it is unlikely to be enough to shake Disney, due to its solid box office results and eagerly-awaited Toy Story 3 film later this year.

"(Disney has) leverage, and there's no reason why they should refuse to use it," said analyst Hal Vogel of Vogel Capital Management.

Ah yes. Leverage. Where the hell have I heard that word before?

Disney has more of it than the Culver City studio does, and therefore can ram more of its business desires down theater chains throats.

One more splendid example of the power of our multi-national conglomerates.

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The Fustercluck of Foreign Levies

... as regards the Animation Guild and its members.

Years and years ago, when I was moist behind the ears and Brian Walton was the executive director of the Writer Guild of America (west), I got into a kerfluffle with him regarding foreign levies. "Foreign levies" are royalty-type monies that foreign collection agencies vacuum up from various sources on behalf of film and TV writers and directors, and then turn over to the writers and directors' guilds in the U.S. for pay out to credited writers and directors. For example, the European Union collects a tax on blank videocassettes that goes towards payments to writers and directors.

I objected to Walton that his organization was collecting money for persons the WGA did not represent, under a system in which TAG had no input. (This was in the early nineties, when the WGA repped zero animation writers.)

I was told to buzz off.

And here we are, years later. And whether TAG likes it or not, the Directors Guild and Writers Guild are the collectors of foreign levies for animation people. And the amount of foreign levies flowing into their coffers is considerable.

Unfortunately, the way those two organizations go about handing out the money is, as far as we can see, considerably different ...

Over the course of the time levies have been paid out, the DGA has contacted us on a regular basis to help track down animation directors for which it has no contact information. TAG has been happy to assist the Directors Guild on locating the recipients of the money. As a result, quite a few of our director members have gotten checks in the mail they probably wouldn't otherwise have received.

But while the DGA has been diligent in working to locate animation directors to whom money is owed, the WGA has been the opposite. In the two decades that payments have gone out, the Writers Guild has contacted us exactly once for a list of addresses of animation writers. The WGA now represents some animation writers and hosts the Animation Writers Caucus, but its database for writers of cartoons is far from complete. Why the Writers Guild doesn't check in with the other organization that has lots of names and addresses that would be useful to it is a mystery. Perhaps WGAw has its reasons, but its performance seems lackadaisical to us.

Unsurprisingly, in 2005 various writers sued the WGA over its slothfulness in paying out foreign levies. Now, some little while later, a settlement is in the offing, but a few writers object to the terms:

... [T]he proposed Settlement Agreements ... is a settlement in name only. It makes no provision for the actual payment of Foreign Levies to class members and fails to address the central thrust of the Complaint: that WGA converted, misappropriated or otherwise refused to disgorge Foreign Levy money belonging to writers who identities and locations are already known. ... The Settlement does not materially benefit the plaintiff class, and indeed confers no greater benefit on participating class members than on class members who opt out. The Settlement was negotiated by class representatives who shared on interest with writers of non-union work, yet who also shared no commonality with the typical covered writer who is a member in good standing of WGA ...

Here [are] some of the key problems with the Settlement, (resolutions in italics):

1) WGA is under a fiduciary duty to pay union and non-union writers their Foreign Levies but is not doing so. (No change under the Settlement.)

2) The WGA is not doing anything to actually locate and/or distribute funds to individuals, and in particular, non-covered writers who may not be known to it. (WGA pledges to do a better job, but does not pledge to work with the myriad stakeholders who are entitled to Foreign Levies, including ... IATSE Local 839 ...)

3) There has never been a comprehensive accounting of which writers have not been paid their Foreign Levy royalties. (There will not be a comprehensive accounting ...)

4) WGA does not have a viable system to collect and distribute Foreign Levy royalties. (Consultants will prepare a secret report for WGA -- and plaintiffs' attorneys' eyes only -- recommending improvements ...)

5) WGA has authorized signatory production companies to take 50% of earnings of writers of non-union works even though those companies have nothing to do with non-union productions. (Settlement permits this apparent conversion to continue, and requires writers of non-union works to release WGA ... from all claims.)

6) WGA retains undistributed Foreign Levies indefinitely, circumventing California escheat law, and retaining all interest. (Nothing changes.)

7) Writers have the right to assert claims for Foreign Levy royalties against foreign collecting societies. (Writers are obligated to release foreign collecting societies from all claims ...)

8) WGA takes a 5% administrative fee from Foreign Levy disbursements. (The administrative fee charged to writers will increase to 10% of disbursements ...)

9) WGA fails to pay writers any interest on money owed ... (No change ...)

10) WGA lacks any authorization from non-members to even collect foreign levy moneys on their behalf. (The Court made no ruling on this subject, but the FAQs on WGA's website assert that the Court has "affirmed WGA's right to do this.")

11) Writers are entitled to Foreign Levy royalties from Latin American countries. (The release requires writers to relinquish claims for these royalties.)

12) Writers retain the right to allege claims against production companies for misappropriating their foreign levy royalties. (Ambiguity in in the release may be construed by production companies as requiring writers to relinquish claims ...)

TAG's position in this tangled mess is straight-forward. We have a problem with being cut out of the process and have said so repeatedly, we have a problem with the (seemingly) lackadaisical payouts of levy money by the WGA to our members, and we want to see a) more transparency and b) more responsiveness than the WGA has so far been willing to offer.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Linkorama of Toondom

New links, new stories, new joys and new heartaches, starting with the unhappiness of Mr. Katzenberg:

... [Jeffrey] Katzenberg's 3-D zeal has its limits, especially when it comes to a rival studio that's going to open its 3-D movie a week after Katzenberg's new film. As you may have heard, Warner Bros. announced it will release "Clash of the Titans" in 3-D on April 2, one week after DreamWorks Animation unveils its latest 3-D film, "How to Train Your Dragon." According to my colleagues Richard Verrier and Claudia Eller, Katzenberg was furious when he heard the news, so much so that he shot off an e-mail to Warners Entertainment chief Barry Meyer, heatedly protesting the decision ...

And the sadness of it is, Warners will be stealing screens with a movie in semi-fake Three Dee. (But at least it's starring Sam Worthington.)

Speaking of unhappiness, over on the green isle the animation community is a wee bit disgruntled.

The Animation CEO Forum, an Animation Ireland body that brings together CEOs from the leading Irish animation companies to discuss industry issues, has criticised Irish public broadcaster RTÉ saying they are failing to support, develop and fund the Animation sector in Ireland.

Says Cathal Gaffney: ... “Irish children have as much right to quality home produced programmes as their parents do.” ... “However, the RTÉ schedule is almost entirely full of imported animation from the US and Europe. Unless there is a change in RTÉ’s policy, Irish children will learn to speak with an American accents and can expect to see American-style yellow school buses for a long time to come.”

“Who knows what success the Animation sector could achieve if RTÉ were to commit just 5% of its programming budget towards animation. Ultimately, Irish children would be the real beneficiary as they watch quality home produced programmes relevant to an Irish audience and to their lives,” he concludes. ...

Technorati links up to the latest Toy Story 3 trailer:

It's nice to see familiar characters back in action, especially recast in gorgeous new settings. As is to be expected, the animation is unbelievable. Pixar grows with leaps and bounds with each new picture, and this one is no exception. The textures and lighting all look phenomenal. ... previews the parts of Despicable Me that Universal-Illumination Entertainment unveiled in Santa Monica last week:

... This grouchy old man with stick legs (going to be hard to get an action figure to stand up) who pops the balloons of children and threatens to kill his neighbor's dog for pooping on his lawn calls a meeting of his scores of little minions to plan his next heist. Under his house (the only creepy one on the block) is a vast underground cavern filled with the little yellow dudes. He seems to know each of them by name ... Gru reveals that his next big heist will be to steal the moon! (He's shrinking it. More portable that way.)

The sequence was quick moving and funny. Really, really funny. Particularly the scene in the coffee shop. ...

I guess you'll have to go see the flick to find out if the whole thing is "really, really funny."

Turner Classic Movies will be holding a film festival that will include group of cartoons that don't get out and about much:

... [A]uthor Donald Bogle will introduce and discuss a collection of cartoons removed from circulation because of negative racial stereotypes. Titles include Clean Pastures (1937), Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarves (1943), Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears (1944), Hittin’ the Trail for Hallelujah Land (1931), The Isle of Pingo Pongo (1938), Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time (1936), Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943) and Uncle Tom’s Bungalow (1937).

Lastly, there is super hero news:

During an interview with Comics Continuum, Warner Brothers Animation supervising producer Alan Burnett revealed that "Green Arrow" would be the third of three 10-minute animated "DC Showcase" episodes. Burnett also mentioned that a fourth DC animated short is also in the works, which will be 22 minutes long. However, Burnett declined to say which characters would be featured in the fourth short.

Add On: Linkage here has already overlapped with Cartoon Brew, so I'll do it again with this:

"Snow White has to be out by Christmas—if not it’ll be too bad for Disney’s,” 20-year-old platinum blonde Reidun “Rae” Medby wrote her boyfriend ... in the fall of 1937. She was barely able to keep her eyes open after a month of working weekends and double shifts in the Ink and Paint department ... “The minute I get a pen in my hand my brain goes numb—just like it does at the studio. Don’t be upset if I start inking ducks and mice.”

Ms. Medby's words echo down the decades. She was relating, seventy-three years ago, what visual effects artists, storyboarders, and tech directors know too well in the present age: the studio policy of "work them until their retinas pop loose" is always with us.

Have a fulfilling Friday. And don't forget that you have a three-day weekend in front of you.

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