Thursday, June 20, 2013

High Animation Costs?

Slate offers the kind of simpleton article that makes me crazy:

Why Do Animated Movies Cost So Much?

A good animation movie can take $50 million or more to produce. Animation is a highly labor-centric work. During my undergrad, some of our classmates worked on a three minute animation film for a college event. That took about two months for a team of eight people. Multiply the quality by 1000X and the size by 100X and you get a Pixar movie. ...

1) The story, direction, and sound: An animation movie might have no human actors, but it does have human story creators, screenplay writers, art directors, and sound effect people. It takes a lot of effort (and wages) to create the smooth story that will capture the audience. In a regular movie, an experienced actor might carry the show even with a bad story line and could do a lot of spontaneous things. There is no saving in an animated movie.

2) Art work creation: A single frame of an animation film can have millions of moving parts. For the Sully character in Monsters, Inc., there were 2,320,413 individually named hairs on his body. When he moves, the animators have to animate each hair in the body to create a highly realistic effect. ...

3) Studio costs: Studios such as Pixar have 600 or more creative people working on a movie for three to four years. They need to be housed and provided a creative environment and tools ...

4.Server costs: Animation is a highly computing-intensive task. Each individual frame has to be rendered to integrate all the moving parts. ...

Here's a news flash: It ain't the CG, Virginia. Animation has always been pricy, relative to lower budget live-action films. But at the same time, animation costs have always varied radically, even as they were lower than many A-list movies. A few scattered examples:

Pinocchio was the most expensive movie of its time, if you base it on running length. Gone With the Wind (released at the same time as Pinoke) cost $4.25 million (three hours and forty minutes) to Pinocchio's $2.35 million (86 minutes). Do the math.

But animation could also be cheaper than its live-action competition. Twenty months after the debut of the little wooden boy, Disney produced Dumbo for under a million bucks, way less than Technicolor live-action extravaganzas of the period (Adventures of Robin Hood, Wizard of Oz, Northwest Mounted Police) many of which cost more than $2 million.

In our time, animation costs still run neck-and-neck with live-action pictures but still vary widely in cost. Of current top-drawer animated features, the high-priced specimen would be Tangled, weighing in at $250 million. (When a picture is in production for ten or twelve years, costs explode.) And the low-cost candidate is Illumination Entertainment's Despicable Me, down in the $75 million range. (Chris Mededandri runs a lean ship.)

And what would be the "median cost?" for the modern animated feature? Probably something in the $100 million to $170 million range, which is right on track with budgets of modern live-action flicks. (You don't believe it, go look at Box Office Mojo and compare various budgets. Super-hero tent poles cost as much or more than the product coming out of Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, and Blue Sky Studios. And way more than movies produced by Illumination Entertainment.)

So to the question, "Why do animated movies cost so much?" the only sane response would be:

"Compared to what?"

Animated features have always had similar levels of costs relative to A-list live-action, no matter what era you care to do budget analyses. As it was in 1940, so is it now. CG has nothing to do with it, it's the medium.


Steven said...

More importantly, what's the point? Don't invest in animation? "Smart" producers save money by doing it on the cheap? What's the context of the article?

Steve Hulett said...

Companies try to do animation "on the cheap" all the freaking time. And almost always they do a face plant.

Currently, going the more expensive route is paying off handsomely. But in the nineties, studios aped Disney and went the expensive route and failed big time.

There's no fool-proof approach, but animation is the most successful subset of theatrical motion pictures, and spending large amounts of cash to get production does has (often) paid off. So I doubt the high-spending will change anytime soon.

-hoops said...

The original Toy Story only cost $30M which was around the cost of a traditional animated feature at the time. Even adjusting for inflation it is a reasonable budget. So these things don't have to cost an arm and a leg. Most of the Bluth pictures cost between 7M and 25M even if you double that adjusting for inflation it is not bad.

Steven said...

I was referring to the motives of the author of the article. It sounds like he was responding to someone else's skewed point of view about animation.

Made in MPLS said...

I would argue that a "simpleton" article on the costs involved in making computer animated films is not inherently a bad thing. If you are someone who does not work in the animation industry, it might be helpful to have a "simpleton" answer because you might not have any idea about what computer animation means. I think we need to be careful about putting this information in such a negative light. A sane response to any question is to try to understand where the person who asks the question is coming from. Tracing this article on Slate to its roots on Quora ( ), the person who asks this question also states "animation movies cost as much and sometimes even more than normal high budget movies to make". So in fact the question was stated in comparison to "normal" high budget movies, it is just that Slate failed to make that evident.

Just because we (the people who work on animated films) might understand why computer animation still, at its heart, involves most of the same human labor costs as tradition animation, this does not mean the general public understands this. The general public might hear "computer" and animation together and, not really actually knowing anything about animation, might make the assumption that because the computer is involved that things are automated, and therefor less human labor must be required, making it cheaper. As someone who works in vfx, I can certainly vouch for the lack of awareness amongst the general public about what my job is, and what is involved in the making of a computer animated movie in general. I think there is a lack of understanding amongst the general public about what animation really requires, and how regardless of the medium, it is the human involvement that makes animation good.

I think we should be careful about labelling people who do not know about computer animation, or animation in general, as "simpletons". As was discussed in one of the recent vfx town hall meetings, if we are to receive the appropriate respect and pay for our involvement in filmmaking, it behooves us to educated the end consumer about what we do so that when push comes to shove the general public will support the workers involved in the film making process.

Steve Hulett said...

Point taken.

Maybe "ignorant" or "less-than-fully-informative" would have been better. Maybe not.

The article's basic points were essentially on-point, but what I took issue with was that computers made CG animated features expensive. Actually lots of CG animated features are (relatively) inexpensive.

Animated features have ALWAYS been fairly high-cost. Because they're pretty labor-intensive. Labor is more the issue than computers or render-farms.

Site Meter