Friday, July 16, 2010

The Wall Street Journal Is Right ... But Also Wrong

The Journal's story (forwarded to us by a faithful correspondent) here observes some things about animation production correctly, but also the inverse. Par example:

Illumination [Entertainment] ... relied on young, less-expensive animators and first-time directors, who can cost less than half that of a more experienced hand.

The trouble with the equation above is, less-expensive animators and novice directors often need an older pro close by to clean up sub-par animation or straighten out sequences and storylines that don't come quite together, because otherwise you end up with flat and bo-ring. (Of course, I have no way of knowing because I wasn't there, but I would wager that among the novices and trainees who were getting their feet wet at MacGuff/Paris were experienced professionals who held things together.)

Then there's the reality of a seasoned hand knowing how to do the shot right the first time instead of the fourth or fifth. On a dollar for dollar basis, the artist who knows the rig and the shortcuts produces more usable footage. Besides, longevity and experience don't always mean premium wages anyway. Just ask the "experienced hands" who commanded five thousand dollars a week in the booming '90s and have seen their wages cut by 50% and more (if they are collecting wages at all.)

One other major cost driver of late has been operating your own production shop. The big players out there -- Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Chris Meladandri's alma mater Fox/Blue Sky -- all have permanent studios. As noted here earlier, Illumination Arts has gotten away from that particular business model. (Can we say "studio overhead?" I knew we could.) MacGuff, IE's animation sub-contractor in France, no doubt secured the gig on the basis of quality and cost.

And yet, despite recent media attention to "the new business model," I would submit that a well-run studio can do its own productions and deliver high-end work at a competitive price. That was the case with Cloudy With Meatballs (production budget $100 million in Culver City) and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (production cost $90 million in the Tri-State area) or the upcoming Winnie the Pooh ($35 million in Burbank, with a chunk of the feature outsourced.)

But what counts more than anything else? Savvy and efficient planning, from script to rough animation to final color. "Doing it right the first time" is the big money-saver.

The animation team put in about 50 weeks of work, about two-thirds the number that often goes into animated features.

The Journal hasn't gotten the memo, but a lot of recent features have been turned out in under a year. (Bolt is one recent example of which I have first-hand knowledge.)

But the phenomenon of a fast production schedule isn't exactly new. From start to finish, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs took twenty-six months to produce. Dumbo moved along even faster, costing all of $900,000. (By contrast, Pinocchio cost $3.75 million -- the most expensive film of its era on a per-minute basis.)

After the creative dust settles, what really pares the cost of movie-making is good decision-making. It strokes a lot of egos to have ten administrators in the room protecting turf, throwing out dime-store ideas and signing off on the latest story pitch, but what it mostly does is gum up the works. Nobody, in the end, cares if all the highly-placed bureaucrats had their say, of if a character's hair strands fluttered around just right or if the soft, ambient light in that nighttime exterior came from the correct source.

What audiences care about is having a a rollicking good time in a darkened auditorium. If Chris Meladandri, Jeffrey K. or John Lasseter can pull that magical feat off, it won't matter a whit how much the picture costs. (But if it occurs on a $69 million budget, so much the better.).


Anonymous said...

I sincerely hope that the success of Despicable Me doesn't portend bad things for the American feature animation scene.

But yet, I fear that it may signal an end to the American middle-class animator. Just like in other middle-class industries, the global economy where the earth is flat will simply mean that American animator making 2k a week will have an extremely difficult time competing with a skilled animator on the other side of the world making half the wages.

It won't happen right away. But I wonder what things will look like 10-15 years from now. The only way around it is to constantly remain ahead of the curve artistically and technologically. We'll see...

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

That is an incredibly insightful post.

Anonymous said...

This has made me think of how animation is being done in asian as well. Japanese animators work incredible hard for low wages. Most barely have enough to live on their own and burn out really quickly. Seeing as most in-between work goes to China it is a huge possibility China will soon enter the animation industry as they learn the process from other countries. It's a huge worry I have since torrents steal most of the profits from theaters and DVD sales that as the price to make animated films will stay the same the animators will come to harm. This is a rather scary period seeing as young people (at least in Japan) don't want to take up such hard work with low wages. I wonder if it is the same as in America.

Anonymous said...

It's a huge worry I have since torrents steal most of the profits from theaters and DVD sales that as the price to make animated films will stay the same the animators will come to harm. This is a rather scary period seeing as young people (at least in Japan) don't want to take up such hard work with low wages. I wonder if it is the same as in America.

If it cheers you up, people can't use BitTorrent to get Buzz Lightyear toys and Disney princess backpacks just yet. I suspect Dreamworks and Disney will keep bankrolling high-end character animation for as long as they can profit from character-related merchandise.

not alarmed said...

Steve, all you have to do is consider the source: The Wall Street Journal. They are all about investments and profits, nothing else. Things you can't quantify, like art, quality and entertainment value, the factors that actually have influence on the success of a film, are meaningless to them. They want to reduce everything down to numbers. It's a Racing Form for investors.

To the rest of us, if a film is worth seeing, if it's successful, how much it cost is just so much "inside baseball."

Thankfully, most of the established producers in our field are WSJ types; investors who create nothing but profit by cleverly distributing their disposable income to others who actually do things and make things. The producers do need to make enough to keep growing and stay in business but they are also motivated to create something, which sets them apart from the target audience of that article.

It's not a trend. It's just investment advice. We are all just chess pawns to the money people.

Anonymous said...

Investing millions in an animated feature is a big risk. The risk paid off, and they deserve the prize. They don't write many articles about the awful low budget features that lost money.

So when you want someone to give you money for your awesome "art", ask yourself if you would invest in it yourself.

Anonymous said...

To 'not alarmed': Yes, it is all about the money, but your loose assumption about the articles' intended audience betrays your ignorance to the complexity of the state of our industry. The first and previous commenters are getting close to heart of the issue in that without the marketplace guaranteeing success, all the time and effort that goes into making these films (whether as a producer, artist, accountant or janitor) needs to become more efficient, and if that means finding equal talent for a lesser price overseas it's an easy choice to make. People all over the world and in every industry have been required to improve their skill sets to stay competitive. What makes artists any different? Chris M, Jeff K and John L all have the foresight to manage these converging challenges to ensure their films have the best shot at being quality entertainment, and yes, profitable.

Anonymous said...

" if that means finding equal talent for a "

Saw Despicable me. It's a cute kids film, and works at that level. I'd have to say that the animation is pretty run of the mill, and by far lacks the sophistication even the weaker Pixar, Blue-Skye, and DW films have. The characters all move the same--and often with little thought. This may have more to do with the fact that the movie isn't much more than a "gag-fest," but I've not seen too much animation from the studio in France that made this to show they can do character animation very well.

Anonymous said...

As one of those middle-class American animators, I can't get too upset by this. It's nothing new (remember Happy Feet, the last 'game changer' that didn't change anything). Despicable Me was made by middle-class European animators, with a liberal helping of well-paid vets from the established studios, working very much in the usual system. It was not made on a shoe string budget. Cheaper than Pixar, sure, but about 1000% of the final budget of Hoodwinked. It was relatively cheaper than American productions not because the salaries are so different, but because they didn't polish the film in the manner of the big studios here.

While seeing Despicable Me (and I enjoyed it, but pretty much agree with the previous poster above that it wasn't particularly distinguished artistically), I was struck by the trailer for Alpha and Omega. That's a film that, if it hit as big as Despicable Me, would have me quaking in my boots. But it was the worst trailer I have ever seen, and in a few months the film will have come and gone after costing somebody whatever few millions they stupidly bothered to invest.

Meanwhile, Megamind and Rio and Cars 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2 will make a combined billion dollars in the domestic box office, that Owl movie will under-perform, and the Wall Street Journal will write another article saying the exact opposite of what they're suggesting in this one.

Despicable Me wasn't made in Asia. To everyone who thinks China and India are about to take high-end animation jobs down to slave wages, take a look at the way those studios are run and at the quality of work that comes out of them. Will Asian studios improve? Probably. They have to, since their work currently is unwatchable. Producers will continue to try to speed that process up, and they'll continue to get burned, and eventually leave the industry to real professionals. The animation tradition here (the US, Canada, and Europe) took many decades to develop, and there aren't shortcuts.

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