Friday, April 12, 2013

Closing the Door

Disney layoffs explained.

Mouse House cut 150 positions from several film studio divisions, nearly two percent of the division's 7,000 overall jobs, according to Bloomberg. ...

Disney announced the cuts as "part of an ongoing review to ensure that the Studios’ operational structure and economics align with the demands of the current marketplace" in a spokesperson statement. ...

During Disney's Q1 earning's call in February, Iger acknowledged an operating income decline in the home entertainment and theatrical businesses due to the poor retail performances of "Brave" and a re-release of "Cinderella."

Last September, Disney took a reported $50 million write-down on a stop-motion animation project set to debut fall 2013.

But here's what I know (and think) ...

I've watched the slow fade of Disney hand-drawn animation for a dozen years now.

The writing began to etch itself on the wall when the Pixar movies consistently outgrossed the Disney hand-drawn features in the late nineties. Outside of Tarzan and the under-appreciated Emperor's New Groove, Disney's other animated offerings were not huge crowd pleasers. Disney animators got nervous.

And the Animation Guild got busy offering training classes in computer animation. By the turn of the century, the guild was training hundreds of animators and assistants in classrooms in various Disney buildings. At the same time, division head Tom Schumacher held multiple meetings at the hat building, assuring a shrinking number of traditional artists that "You're jobs are safe."

That turned out to be at variance with the truth.

There were two waves of layoffs before the hand-drawn crew was gone. It took John Lasseter and his (brief?) enthusiasm for traditional animation to bring part of the old crew back from the wilderness. Sadly, the grosses from The Princess and the Frog (not to mention Winnie the Pooh) weren't high enough to keep his enthusiasm and support intact. A year and a half ago, surviving hand-drawn animation staffers were moved down to the first floor into smaller, darker offices. Animators were told that the company would keep them on for another couple of years, but after that, who knew?

So now nine traditional artists have been handed their walking papers, and others have been informed that wages will be lowered (again), with no long-term assurances positions will be there indefinitely. Walking around the hat building after the layoffs had been announced, I heard lots of speculation about why the downsizing occurred now:

"Wreck-It Ralph didn't perform well enough overseas, so Lasseter decided he couldn't carry the traditional animators anymore." ... "Iger is telling all the corporate divisions they need to cut back. We're not exempt." ... "The hand-drawn features haven't made money like CG has, so hand-drawn is over. Disney wants to maximize profits." ...

The last of the old-line animators have projects they're working on. When those end, I presume that more positions we'll be cut. Not a happy prospect, but Disney isn't concerned about happy. It wants to release high-profit pictures. It wants the stock price to go up. CGI, by the company's reckoning, offers the straightest and most lucrative route to that ultimate goal.


David said...

It feels like there may be something else going on here that you're not touching on yet. This story is being spun in the media and on the social networks and fan sites as if it's about laying-off the remaining "2D animators" and once again about how Disney is shuttering their "2D animation department" (but there has been no such thing for several years, so this is not a real story , it's old news. ) , however on the list of names I saw of those being let go several of them have CG experience with feature film credits as CG animators. They can do the work. They're not just obsolete "2D" animators who don't know how to animate on a computer. I think it's more about their age. It seems to me now that these artists of a certain age have been purposely side-lined, kept idle twiddling their thumbs waiting for a vaguely promised 2D project to be greenlit that no one ever really had any intention of greenlighting. Now they've been positioned to be viewed as "dead weight" that the company needs to shed because they're too expensive to keep them sitting around doing nothing. But THEY didn't choose to sit around doing nothing, that was the company's choice not to make better use of their considerable talents and experience.

Unknown said...

Wrech it ralph Didn't Perform Well overseas so this is why John Lasseter Axed Traditional Animators? I Thought Wrech It Ralph Was A CGI? please explain thank you.

Tim said...

I remember a Roy E. Disney interview years ago talking about the threat of shutting down the animation studio. He fought to keep it, stating that if it shut down, then the theme parks would just become museums. Disney needed to keep producing new films to keep the company living and breathing.

I hope that they are looking to the long term effects of these decisions.

The trouble is that animated films (both traditional and CG) are so incredibly expensive, that if they don't gross $300mil, they are considered flops. The economic pressure of creating blockbuster after blockbuster is another form of a bubble economy. Perhaps that's why Walt sprinkled his larger budget features between lower budget offerings like "Dumbo", "Melody Time", "101 Dalmatians", etc.
(On original releases, "Dalmatians" made more than its predecessor, "Sleeping Beauty" at about half the production budget.)

Dan Siciliano said...

It really is the end of an era. This is really different than a layoff story I heard that happened because of the failure of "Sleeping Beauty". A lot of people got laid off from Disney and went to work at UPA or Hanna-Barbera. The fact is...the recent 2-D films, "Princess and the Frog" and "Winnie the Pooh", didn't recieve the success it hoped for because, what I think, is that they're repeating themselves like studying the old classics and copying their own style which made those films look like it was made as a straight-to-DVD sequel...I quote that from A.O. Scott when he reviewed "Princess and the Frog". If you want a 2-D animated film done right, it has to have two things: a great new story and a great new style.

Steve Hulett said...

There was a push to do more hand-drawn features when Lasseter and Catmull arrived, but the studio (Iger) didn't want to go al in.

The under-performance of Princess and Winnie the Pooh ... and over-performance of Tangled determined the studio's course. CG is the wave Disney will now ride.

Animators have told me that John Lasseter's enthusiasm for hand-drawn pictures has waned. (He can read box office returns as well as anybody. And he wants to ride winners, not losers.)

John and Ron are working on a CG-hand-drawn feature that looks computer generated. There's a (partial) hand-drawn short in production, but WDAS is not interested in carrying its hand-drawn staff. (They were told last year that their time at the studio was finite.) Added to which, Iger told different divisions to cut back so animation is laying off staff it considers fungible.

You would do this differently, I would do this differently, but this is a large entertainment conglomerate we're talking about, not Walt and his smallish animation studio. As I tell members over and over:

Conglomerates don't care. Learn to deal with it.

David said...

"WDAS is not interested in carrying its hand-drawn staff."

But Steve, how do people get assigned (marginalized) to be part of the "hand-drawn staff" ? Especially animators like Nik Ranieri, Brian Ferguson, Ruben Aquino, and James Lopez who have experience doing CG animation on features ? Those guys have dual skills to do both CG and Hand-drawn. No one (especially the UNION) wants to broach the subject of age discrimination ?

Celshader said...

No one (especially the UNION) wants to broach the subject of age discrimination ?

Is there any proof that age discrimination was involved in this situation?

I know age discrimination happens, because this blog keeps warning folks about it. However, is that the case here? Are there no aged artists working on CG projects at Disney?

Floyd Norman said...

I'm shocked! Shocked, to learn age discrimination might have been involved here!

mark pudleiner said...

Note to 20+ year old animators ....
in around 20 years, maybe, just maybe.....
have a back up plan.
Ok... never mind.
It wont happen to you. ;-)

Steve Hulett said...

But Steve, how do people get assigned (marginalized) to be part of the "hand-drawn staff" ?

Easy. You've been there as an animator since the early nineties. That (mostly) makes you part of the hand-drawn tribe.

I've been informed that there is a tilt against veteran hand-drawn animators by some of newer CG staff. How true this is, I donno. (But studio employees are territorial; it's always been that way.)

Some of the old guard have made the jump to CG, others not. Various hand-drawn animators have told me they have done CG work, but prefer hand-drawn.

An artist who HAS made the jump told me that you have to want to work in CG and pursue it. The artist doesn't think a lot of the veterans have done this.

Justin said...

There is a difference between being able to animate in CG, and being great at animating in CG. I am not able to judge their animation abilities and I'm only speculating, but maybe they weren't kept on as CG animators because they just weren't as good in CG as the other animators?

Unknown said...

I doubt 'quality' of animation had as much to do with it as the fact that older 'seasoned' animators are less likely to jump through hoops that younger less seasoned animators will.
Even if the older animators were willing to take a salary cut that matches the newer animator's (which some might not have been willing to do)they still have the cranky old veteran syndrome to overcome.

Anonymous said...

The quality of the animation at Disney has been increasing steadily, and the amount of "veteran" credits on each film has been decreasing. I think that is pretty telling.

I agree with Justin.

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