Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sticking to Hand-Drawn

There's one animation icon who isn't going the pixel route:

Revered Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki has no intention of swapping his pencil for computer graphics and will keep hand drawing his films for as long as he can, he said on Sunday.

Miyazaki's new animation "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea", already a big box office success in his home country, is vying for top prize at the Venice film festival

The way it works is, you can make any film you want as long as your box office holds up. Make your distributor a mint, and your distributor will cater to your every whim. Produce a bomb, and the company soon stops humoring you.

It also helps when you can keep your labor costs down:

... 90% of [Japanese] animators and directors are freelancers, and those who have trouble making ends meet are expected to face increasing hardships as they grow older. In particular, there are veteran creators in their 40s and 50s who are getting by on ... $30,000 (US) a year ...

So march on, Miyazaki, and keep the hand-drawn torch alive.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

End of August B.O.

The summer frenzies draw to a close and box office is tepid.

Babylon A.D. ekes out a first place finish on Friday, raking in $3.1 million.

Second place Tropic Thunder stays close behind, drawing in $3 million to hoist its domestic total to $75.4 million.

And fifth place Dark Knight is poised to cross the $500 million marker this weekend ...

In the meantime, no animated fare lives in the Top Ten. The best any 'toon can do is thirteenth place, where Clone Wars is fading fast, still in 2,444 theaters, bu not in many movie-goers' hearts and minds. $27.6 million total as of Friday.

Nineteenth place Fly Me To The Moon has a grand total of $5 million bucks ...

And Wall-E stands at $217 million with a $250,000 box office on Friday down in the 22nd slot. (I'm guessing it will be beaten slightly by Kung Fu Panda in worldwide grosses. Certainly Panda will best it in profitability, since the Little Robot cost more.)

Add On: The weekend finals show that Tropic Thunder is again at the top of the heap and closing in on $84 million ... The Dark Knight (in third position) rakes in another $8,750,000 and glodes to $502,421,000 ... While Babylong A.D. collects $9.7 million in its opening frame.

Down in the animated department, eleventh place Clone Wars nudges against a $30 million accumulation, Fly me To The Monn (#18) has six and one-third million dollars in the till, and Wall-E stands at $218 million in 21st place.

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Linkage You Can Believe In ...

... my friends.

ASIFA Hollywood's Archives offers a selection of Jules Engels' color designs for the Alvin show, like for instance:

Pixar creatives describe their work lives in Emeryville to the Korea Times:

... While there is a lot of pressure to work in the studio, it's mostly self-imposed. ``There have been occasions where we had to tell people to go home,'' said [art director Ralph] Eggleston. Having worked at other studios, he said Pixar's family-like atmosphere remains unique despite its ever-expanding size. ``We always want to keep the fun part and not have people feel like they're just a cog in the wheel. I don't think anyone at Pixar wants to lose that, and I don't think we're going to lose that. At other places I've worked, it's very difficult to do,'' he said ...

And one more large chunk of evidence demonstrating the global inter-connectedness of cartoon entertainment:

MARVEL has signed a deal with cartoon producer Madhouse to create a line-up of animated series for the Japanese market featuring the company's comicbook superheroes.

Trade magazine Variety says the first four series will debut in 2010 on Animax, a 24-hour network dedicated to anime (Japanese animation). To strengthen their appeal to Japanese fans, Marvel's superheroes - including Iron Man and Wolverine - will be "retrofitted with new looks and backstories that touch on local culture and Japanese history." ...

Mr. Spielberg is still on board to direct his first animated feature:

Steven Spielberg has debunked rumours that Peter Jackson was moving into the director's chair for the first Tintin movie ... The films will be animated with motion-capture technology and star 18-year-old Thomas Sangster as Tintin and Andy Serkis as his friend Captain Haddock.

Hopefully, Steven's second animated feature will be done at DreamWorks Animation. That would be a kick.

Cinematical reports on Robert Downey Jr. maybe joining the cast of the Ben Stiller animated feature taking shape at DreamWorks.

Entertainment Weekly posts that both [Robert Downey and Tina Fey] are looking into joining Stiller's animated villain film, Master Mind. ... The premise is simple. A villain accidentally kills the guy he's arching, and loses his will to live.

Via Mayerson On Animation, Disney/Pixar honcho Ed Catmull writes:

"Creative power in a film has to reside with the film’s creative leadership. As obvious as this might seem, it’s not true of many companies in the movie industry and, I suspect, a lot of others. We believe the creative vision propelling each movie comes from one or two people and not from either corporate executives or a development department. Our philosophy is: You get great creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback from everyone." ...

And you know, my friends, that you are fresh out of ideas when you link to Homer Simpsons' colon:

The star of Fox's "The Simpsons" will be screened for colon cancer in a special animated bit on the "Stand Up to Cancer" fund-raiser airing on ABC, CBS and NBC Sept 5. In the segment, Marge makes a shocking discovery ... "There's his wedding band! He told me he was getting it polished!"

Have a glorious, three-day weekend.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Wages Then, Wages Now

I'm reluctant to get involved in an argument I've so far stayed out of, but what the hell. It's Friday night. And Robiscus writes in "Disney Tuesday" comments:

I'm saying wages are lower because studios can "get by" with animators who are more technicians than artists. There are lots of people lobbying for jobs here in LA, and that makes wages lower - but the skill sets of the people who studios will hire are much much much less than they were.

I'm not exactly sure what the thesis is here, but here's the deal about wages ...

Artistic chops don't have a hell of a lot to do with the amount of money people get. Demand for the specific skill-set does.

The Nine Old Men might have been terrific artists and the best animators of their age, but that didn't translate into huge salaries. Woolie Reitherman told me:

"Shit, Steve. I didn't get rich from the checks Walt paid me. It was the stock options we got that set us up."

The top-tier animators of the Golden Age (and beyond) made good money. But none of them were exorbitantly paid. I'll give you an example. Art Babbit, prior to the '41 strike, was one of the higher paid animators at the Disney studio, $300 per week. This was a HUGE payday for an animator at the time, since there were then folks working at the studio making -- and living on -- $15 a week. My father was one of them.

(Today, $300 would equal $4391, according to inflation calculator.)

Let's put this in broader, Tinsel Town context. Top-level, live-action screenwriters in 1940 were earning $1,000-$2500 per week. The top stars (Gable, Flynn, Cagney) made $4,000-$6,000 per week.

Like I say. It's demand for the skill-set that sets the wage, not the skill-set in and of itself.

In 1994-1995, when hand-drawn animation was white-hot and demand for feature animators and feature animation staffs was at historic highs (Disney, DreamWorks, Warner Feature Animation, Turner Feature Animation, Rich Animation were all bidding for the services of a small pool of talent), wages went through the roof. Lead key assistants were being paid $3,000, $4,000, and $5,000 per week. Lead animators were making $10,000/wk and more.

Think about that a minute. Key assistants were making more than one of the greatest animators of the "Golden Age," adjusted for inflation. Lead animators were making more than double. How is that possible?

Demand, my children. Demand.

Now let's look at the reverse situation.

Today, the same talent that made five figures each payday twelve and thirteen years ago labor on Princess and the Frog at a fraction of the money they collected in the 1990s. As a Frog artist told me three days ago:

"I'm making a little above scale. But I was working out of the business making a lot less the last two years, and I'm happy to be earning it. No complaints from me ..."

How could this be? With the guy drawing a mean line with a pencil? With all that artistic skill? Simple. The Princess and the Frog is the only game in town just now, and if animators and/or assistants want to ply their trade, scale wages or close-to is the deal in 2008, take it or leave it. (The managers at the Mouse House know how much they have to pay to lure their formerly high-priced staffers back. And if some complain about being "low balled" and refuse to come back -- and some have -- there are plenty who are willing to return at greatly reduced wages.)

Studios "get by" paying less because they can, not because traditional artists have more (or less) intrinsic worth than "technicians." Right now, the market puts a higher value on the techies because there's a greater demand and competition for their services across the industry.

It's always ... always ... ALWAYS about leverage. In today's animation business, skilled "technicians" have more of it, and skilled traditional artists have less.

Guess who makes the higher weekly wages in 2008? (It ain't the "artists".)

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Weak Television Sector

Following on the heels of employment charts below, the question arises: So why is employment for teevee animation so sucky?

I think there are several answers, and I'll start with the recent and specific:

1) The Time-Warner animation companies (Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. Animation) have cratered in terms of employment, and they now have way fewer projects going than in earlier years. (There are bright spots. Fred Seibert informs us that "We're just about to start Adventure Time at Cartoon Network, started Fanboy & Chum Chum at Nick" ...)

2) Universal Cartoon Studio has only one series, and that series employs a limited number of people.

3) Nickelodeon, while somewhat busy, is down from previous employment highs.

4) Animation aimed at 'tweens and teens is close to non-existent. At the moment, most animation series target the pre-school and early elementary set. The older demographics are enfolded by live-action, due to Disney's success with Miley Cyrus and the "high school musical" franchise.

5) Business models have morphed as licensing fees shrink. Every studio is tight with a dollar.

We've traveled a version of this road before. Shortly before I started this job, television employment was also sucky.

Warners Animation was tiny; the Spielberg animation franchise -- Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain -- was yet to happen. Filmation had just imploded, taking 160 jobs with it. Disney Television Animation was in its infancy, and still a small boutique studio. Mighty Hanna-Barbera was past its peak and employing way fewer people.

There was a grand total of 530 people working in the unionized wing of television animation in L.A. County, which then as now was most of it.

Sound familiar at all?

The point to be made here is that television animation has expanded and contracted for half a century, reacting to market forces, technological and distriburtion changes, and shifting audience tastes. A few examples:

In 1960-61, the rapid expansion of L.A. television animation lifted southern California's cartoon community out of an employment trough created by Disney huge layoffs, commercial animation work drying up, and M-G-M's animation division closing its doors. By 1962 employment had dropped as various series failed.

Through the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, television animation production revolved around the three major network's broadcast seasons. If you worked in the teevee patch, you worked seven months on and five months off, year after year.

In the 1980s, Filmation -- for years almost a "house studio" for CBS -- pioneered the concept of syndicated animated series designed as platforms to sell toys (He-Man, She-Ra). Large episodic orders and year-round employment became the norm. The business model of syndicated animation marketing dolls and action figures was soon taken to the next level by Disney Television Animation.

In the 1990s, syndicated blocks of animation proved highly lucrative with the likes of "The Disney Afternoon" and Warners' lineup. Television animation employment climbed to new heights. A few years later, cable channels dedicated to animation came into existence (Nick, Disney, Cartoon Network) and employment in television animation enjoyed another growth spurt.

Today, unfortunately, technology and demographics drive work levels in a different direction. Young eyeballs now have video games and the internet to occupy them, and the competition from live-action product has also been problematical. Disney's Phineas and Ferb has gotten traction with older kids, but it's mostly the younger-skewing 'toons Dora the Explorer, Mickey's Clubhouse, and Mi-Hao Kai-Lan that are being made. As always, producers look for ways to make the product faster and cheaper, since few companies want to deficit finance and amortize half-hour shows over several years.

We are in, as best I can judge, a spiral of shrinking budgets and demos that will only change when the Next Big Hit arrives in animation, and studios crank up production on imitations and spin-offs in the pursuit of heavy coin. Sooner or later, it always happens.

Lastly, it's important to note there is a bright spot in television. Prime time is going great guns. Not only are The Simpsons still marching along, but Family Guy, American Dad, and King of the Hill are being joined by The Cleveland Show, Sit Down, Shut Up, and The Goode Family. There is, quite frankly, more prime time animation going on right now than at any time in television history.

So, as tight as things are, this is at least one bright sliver edging the gray cloud now hanging over television 'toonland.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Friends, Romans, Yellow Family

The morning was spent at Starz Media, where most artists (as previously stated) are back at their Cintiqs and/or light-boards...

In the King of the Hill section of the building, a staffer was happy to be back after the hiatus and optimistic that there could be more than one more season of Hill:

"We're a fairly lean and mean show here compared to The Simpsons. The King of the Hill actors are a whole lot cheaper than the other group, and the audience base is okay. I'm hoping we'll be around awhile."

Speaking of The Simpsons, the question I had for a Wise Old Veteran in the Yellow Family sector was, "How long is Fox going to keep The Simpsons on the air? One season? More than one season? What?" And the answer ...

"We tie the Gunsmoke record for number of seasons this year. I think Fox wants to break that record so we'll go another year. But I think we'll go more than that, because we're all getting Cintiqs and they want to amortize the costs for those over three years..."

Which would indicate to me, math major that I am, that The Simpsons is going to be around two seasons beyond this one.

As for more Simpsons features, Rupert doesn't hire stupid execs. So they won't miss the opportunity commission a couple more Yellow Family feature-length cash cows.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Employment and Employment Distribution

The employment stats above (also the ones below the break) tell a complex tale. Work in theatrical feature animation has been large and growing. Television employment? Welll ... not so much. That side of the biz has been smaller, and shrinking, even as overall totals have been growing ...

Since January every large feature studio -- Disney, DreamWorks, and IM Digital up in San Rafael -- have added to staff. (The exceptions are Imagi, which has no changes in staff size, and Sony Pictures Animation, now going through a rough patch as it replaces executives and sheds artists lining up its ducks about SPA's next animated feature. Which looks, as of this writing, like it will be Cloudy with Meatballs.)

Now take a look at "Employment Per Studio: January 2008 -- August 2008." You'll note that most television animation facilities endured declines in staff sizes. Film Roman and Nick had the largest job reductions, and Universal the smallest, but five out of seven teevee 'toon studios shrank rather than expanded.

So artists who've complained about how slow the television wing of animation is, have some basis for their gripes. There's work out in the small-screen marketplace, but it ain't getting bigger, certainly not at the moment. I keep hearing rumors that new shows are in the pipeline, but outside of The Cleveland Show at Fox Animation, I couldn't tell you what they are. (Cartoon Network is greenlighting a number of shorts, and hopefully some of these will generate new series, but we're months away from that possibility.)

The good news is: Union employment is pretty robust, and it's been growing. The bad new is, the growth is uneven.

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Monday, August 25, 2008


The place (out in Sherman Oaks) is going great guns. I bopped through this morning and found Astroboy still cooking, and story work on Gatchaman still rolling along.

"This pass on Gatchaman is working. Before, it was being pulled in two different directions. Now it's a straight-ahead action-adventure piece and coming together." ...

I asked a supervisor about Tusker coming over from DreamWorks, but he didn't have much to tell me besides what he'd read in the trades. I'd hear that a former DreamWorks feature director was going to be heading it up, but he couldn't confirm it. "I'm spending all my time on another feature around here ... with a closer release date."

The studio still seems to be growing (maybe it's just me). I had a lengthy hike from the front offices to the back, as Imagi has added square footage with offices and connective hallways on an upper floor of the Sherman Oaks Galleria.

Going back to my car, I detoured into the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, since I'd gotten word that IATSE-AMPTP negotiations were going to resume in the Fall (like, next month?). But nobody could confirm dates, so I supposed I'll find out when an item shows up in Daily Variety.

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Global 'Toon Box Office

Wall-E and the chubby bear continue to burn up foreign turnstiles:.

"Panda" dug up $3.8 million at 3,285 to lift its foreign take to $372.1 million, trailing only "The Dark Knight" and Par's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" at $466 million.

A little simple addition: $372.1 million overseas, added to $212.7 domestic adds up to "Let's get a sequel started right soon!"

Or am I deluded?

And Wall-E hasn't done too badly either.

Disney also opted to avoid the tentpole crush with "Wall-E," which scooped up $8.7 million at 3,905 in holdover biz from 32 markets and lifted foreign cume to $163 million while only halfway through its run. The toon held impressively in France, off just 1% to $2.7 million in its fourth frame ...

It's highly conceivable that Panda and Wall-E will both nudge up against $600 million in global box office. (Certainly KFP will, since it's almost there now. And if Wall-E approaches the Panda's overseas take, both pictures climb into the $.6 billion winner's circle, with video and the other ancillary markets still to come.)

It's good to be riding atop hit movies, yes?

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Writers Strike -- The Other Side of the Coin

The two top WGAe/w officers weigh in on the accomplishments of the WGA strike, six months after the fact:

“Would I rather not have gone on strike?” [WGAe President Michael] Winship asked rhetorically. “Yes, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We had no alternative because we had gotten to the point where we weren’t negotiating -- all they were doing was saying no -- and we had to show them that we were serious about our intentions.” ...

“We had a negotiating committee that was stocked with a lot of working writers, and it looked as if the companies’ plan was to keep the TV season going right through the hiatus, along with going ahead with a lot of movies,” [WGAw President Patric] Verrone recalled. “And at that point, it looked like the DGA and AFTRA would have been willing to go ahead and make a deal. So had we extended, we would have been out on strike with SAG and there would have been plenty of stockpiled material.” ...

Winship said: “When you’re dealing with an asymmetrical organization like the AMPTP, the element of surprise is enormously important. We also had to deal with the realization that there was an enormous amount of stockpiling going on. There were about 150 movies going into production, and the networks were approving series without pilots. So hindsight being 20-20, it was the right thing to do.” ...

After the fact, there have been a hundred post mortems: Was the strike effective ? Did it achieve its goals? Was it necessary?

IA leadership has taken the position that the WGA could have gotten the same or a better deal without a job action. Since there's no alternative reality to test the theory, all we can speculate is: "Maybe yes; maybe no."

What's clear is that the strike had a big impact on the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan and on IATSE employment. In January alone, cash flow to the Plan took a 26% hit. And as for work levels, a Cinematographer's Guild officer told me: "Features kept being shot during the strike, but series went dead." And TAG was stung as well, with four television series employing hundreds going dark.

So was the strike worth it? If you're a working WGA scribe, maybe so. If you're an IA grip on a shut-down television set, probably not.

Ultimately, the WGA ended up with the deal the non-striking Directors Guild hammered out with the producers. As I've written before, I had the opportunity to ask a Directors Guild staffer if the writers' action had helped them. He answered:

"We always thought we were going to do well in the New Media area. We came out about where we thought we would, except for sell-through. There, we got a better deal, probably because of the WGA strike."

In the end, the value of the writers' job action depends, I guess, on where you're sitting. And since we can't rerun the last ten or twelve months and see where everything would end up without a strike, we'll never know.

There is only what happened. Not what would have happened "if only."

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Guilds, Strikes, and Falling Wages

Peter Bart, current editor of Variety and former studio exec, echoes talking points I heard from IA President Tom Short before he rode off into the retirement sunset:.

Six months after the end of the 100-day writers strike, the condition of the writing community is far more dire than it was before the strike.

Indeed, the net effect of the strike has been to exacerbate and accelerate all the ominous trends that already were looming over the writing trade.

Talk to writers, agents or company dealmakers and you learn that pay levels are declining, jobs are dwindling and overall deals are on the endangered list ...

The question Bart asks: Did the WGA strike cause the declines ... or were the declines going to happen anyway?

I believe that rollbacks were destined to occur in any event, because the cutbacks were already happening in a lot of areas of the entertainment business ... long before the Writers Guild strike. In our small neck of the woods, the big studios are paying less in salaries wherever they believe they can.

I've seen a number of deals, and the majors are paying mid-level employees as close to scale as possible. Artists and animators have called to complain about it. A few have turned down job offers because of the lower pay.

Anecdotal evidence? Sure. But it's definitely not 1995 anymore.

What's going on is, the congloms know that business models are changing, driven by the internet but also other things, and they're not prepared to spend a penny more than they believe they have to. Money has definitely ceased to flow like a Sierra waterfall, and while there are a goodly number of jobs, big salaries are not attached to most of them.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hot Summer B.O.

The animated Clone Wars tailspins to seventh place -- and a $21 million total -- as House Bunny, lacklustre reviews trailing behind its fluffy tale, pushes holdovers down a notch.

Bunny gathers in $5,850,000 while second place Tropic Thunder makes $4,825,000 on its way to a $54.4 million total after ten days of release ...

New entry Death Race claims the third position and bragging rights to $4.6 million on its first day of release.

The Dark Knight closes in on $500 million (domestic) as it clings to the fourth position and collects another $3 million. Wowsers.

Add On: Daily Variety reports Tropic Thunder, after a second-place Friday finish, gunned its way back to First Place:

Tropic Thunder retained the weekend B.O. crown, slipping just 38% to collect $16.1 million.

Before Tropic Thunder, only The Dark Knight and Iron Man had managed to stay in the top spot for more than a week this summer. And only two previous studio summer titles, Mamma Mia! and What Happens in Vegas, had seen second-week drops of less than 40%.

The $90 million Ben Stiller sendup of Hollywood had a stellar Saturday, jumping 25% over its Friday level to gross $6.5 million. That propelled it past Sony�s female-skewing The House Bunny, which finished second at $15.1 million ...

On the animated side of the weekend box office, Clone Wars ends up at the fifth position after a 61.3% decline, with a total $25 million box office cume.

Three-Dimensional Fly Me To The Moon stands at #16, with a $4.2 million box office total.

Wall-E drops 50.7% in the seventeenth slot, now has a $216.2 million take.

Lastly, Kung Fu Panda resurges by 98% as it adds "popularly priced" theaters nationwide and takes in over half a million bucks to stand at a grand total of $212.7 million domestic.

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Regarding Layoffs

Add Ons belooow.

From the "Disney Tuesday" comments below:

... [A]bout 25 new animators were hired [for Bolt]. They were all told at their start that this was strictly run-of-picture, and they would be let go once animation was finished.

So, most of them are now being let go. Disney is unfortunately losing some talented animators ...

This is, by and large, the reality of the animation industry today. Also the reality of the movie business. You work on the production, and when the production wraps up, you clean out your desk and move on ...

But here's a flash memo: it's almost always been this way. When an artist tells me that long-term employment "used to be the way the biz worked," I reply that the "work one place forever" thing was actually just an eigh-year quirk.

Now, if you work someplace, any place, for a couple of years, that's "long term." If you work at one company for a decade or more, you're in the Golden Circle. Off the top of my pointy head, here are the long-term employment gigs in the L.A. 'toon industry now:

The Simpsons -- 19-year run at two different studios (Klasky-Csupo and Film Roman). Lots of long-termers, except hiatuses here and there that have lasted as long as nine to eleven months.

King of the Hill -- 11-year run, except that they cancelled it two-and-a-half years ago, then thought better of it and brought crew back .... minus layout ... four months later.

DreamWorks Animation -- despite sour-heads who keep deriding DreamWorks Animation product (I'm not one of them), Mr. Katzenberg continues to entertain the public with a fairly consistent stream of box-office performers that worldwide audiences keep flocking to see. As a result, Mr. Katzenberg has recreated Disney Feature Animation circa the 1990s: a large, stable staff and longer-term employment contracts. Plus there are olive trees, coy ponds, and a large, Florentine water fountain.

And that's pretty much it in the "long employment" department. Coming close would be the re-incarnation of Family Guy and the newer American Dad, but those shows saw months-long layoffs when the WGA was on strike for 100-plus days.

Industry employees look back longingly to Disney's two animation studios in the nineties, when both Feature Animation and Disney Television Animation had a steady stream of work and big crews employed year-round to do it.

But those happy ten-year runs were anomalies, and now gone. Disney Feature Animation has had wave after wave of layoffs from the turn of the 21st century to the present, and Disney TVA currently has way less product going through, so a small staff suffices to fill its needs. Few work twelve months a year (unless your in administration). As one industry veteran who's worked plenty of places said to me:

"A lot of animation facilities use the visual effects model. Sony Pictures Imageworks, Pixar, Rhythm and Hues, Disney Animation Studios and some others all hire production crew when there's a picture to get out and a tight deadline staring them in the face. Nobody carries anybody. Few try to create a flow of work to retain production staff. Studios know there's a talent pool out there. They tap it when they need to tap it."

My father spent his entire working life at Walt Disney Productions. In the entire cartoon industry, there were perhaps a hundred like him. Even in animation's so-called Golden Age, people got laid off when studios had less work; it was happening at Disney's when I got there in the seventies.

The eternal reality of the movie business is, if you work in it, you are going to work at a bunch of different companies. For most long-timers, permanent employment has always been a lovely myth.

Add On: Since I have no direct knowledge of Pixar's hiring and layoff policies, I won't argue how much staff is added or deleted during a production cycle.

As for L.A. studios, on the theatrical side only DreamWorks Animation has stable, long-term employment. Obviously this could change because nothing is forever.

I'm also told (here and elsewhere) that the Disney Animation Studio aspires to this model. Sadly, aspirations don't remove the reality of sizable layoffs at Disney, which have been going on intermittently since 2000, when the first wave of the hand-drawn staff was let go.

As I write in comments, I'm just stating what's happening in the L.A. animation industry, not whether it's good or bad.

Add On Too: A commenter points out that Disney Animation, Florida had a long, stable stretch of production. Righto. There are also some non-union L.A. cartoon houses -- Klasky-Csupo before it died, Film Roman in the later nineties, and Rough Draft -- that offered artists long periods of employment.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

The Late August Linkomatic

One more go-round of 'toon news you can use ... or wrap fish in.

You might remember Gnomeo and Juliet? The former Disney project about which Mr. Lasseter said: "Why are we making this?" when he first arrived at the Mouse House. Well, now the project is across the pond in Britain:

... Rocket initially brought "Gnomeo" to Walt Disney Feature Animation, but several years later the project was dropped by incoming Pixar executives John Lasseter and Ed Catmull. Miramax president Daniel Battsek, who followed the project while at Buena Vista International, persuaded Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook to revive it at his specialty division in April 2006.

Kelly Asbury will direct from an original script by Rob Sprackling and John R. Smith. Kevin Cecil, Andy Riley and Mark Burton have worked on later versions of the screenplay. Now in the storyboard stage, production is expected to be completed by 2010.

Director Asbury, of course, is a DreamWorks veteran who directed the second feature of the Shrek franchise.

As long as we're traveling the Disney highway, the L.A. Times has a piece on the question, "Is Mickey Mouse in the Public Domain, or is he not?" This is obviously a subject of some importance -- and ferocious defense -- by the Burbank conglomerate.

The ... debate, given its fullest form in a law review article by Douglas Hedenkamp, questions whether Mickey ever had a valid copyright to begin with, given the very strict rules then in effect about how the public had to be informed of copyright claims.

It centers on the title cards from the very first films with Mickey -- not just "Steamboat Willie" but two silent films that preceded it. The problem, from the company's perspective, is that Disney's name is not the closest to the word "Copyright." ...

Research and Markets analyzes the European animation industry:

Animation studios in European countries such as France and Spain have emerged as the market leaders in Europe. This is in part driven by the proactive steps taken by the governments of these countries by offering a range of tax breaks. The European animation studios started partnering to produce animation content for Television. These alliances resulted in content suited for local population. This is particularly seen in countries such as France, UK, Germany and Spain.

Toon Zone defends one of the fine, overlooked hand-drawn features of recent memory:

[The Sponge Bob Square Pants feature Atlantis Squarepants] has garnered some unusually negative reactions from hardcore fans and sneering professionals alike. After looking at Tom Shales's scathing review, it's time to return to the question I posed at the top of this piece: Who is its target audience? It's well known that a significant portion of viewers both in the US and the UK are adults; surely then, Shales concludes, this is partially aimed at adults. He seems to think that the secret to SpongeBob's success is the show's "satirical shenanigans". Having seen the program off and on since 1999, I find myself scratching my head as to what he means ...

Cartoon Brew floats the question, "Just what the hell is animation?" as it examines Year of the Fish, which calls itself "animated" but really ... uh ... isn't.

Year of the Fish is an indie film that opens next week in New York and San Francisco. I’m perplexed why the filmmakers are billing the film as an “animated feature film” when there is nothing remotely resembling animation in the trailer (watch it here). Movement that is created in real-time and then digitally-enhanced does not fit the definition of animation ...

This isn't difficult. These flicks and their cousins shouldn't be called "animation," but "rotoscope." Nothing wrong with rotoscope. Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels had an abundance of it, as did the more recent Anastasia. But roto isn't really animation, not in the sense we've thought about animation for seventy or eighty years. (Beyond Chron looks at the film's techniques and "animation process" -- that word again -- here.)

Gigacom notes how comic books are migrating to the web, and maybe becoming less comic-booky as they make the trip? ...

While sales of traditional entertainment forms like music CDs and DVDs have decreased or flattened, there hasn’t been a similar sea change forcing the comics industry to go digital — the paper-based comics business is still doing well. Combined sales of graphic novels and comic books in the U.S. and Canada hit $705 million in 2007 — a 10 percent bump up from 2006 — and sales of graphic novels have quintupled since 2001.

So if demand is still high for print, what’s driving the digital moves? Opportunity. “We want people to see these stories through as many distribution points as possible,” Buckley said ...

The company is also trying its hand at so-called motion comics, which use existing comic panels but give them an animated feel through pans and zooms or by giving characters simple movement; voice actors provide the dialog ...

"Motion comics"? Which is another word for "animatics," yes?

Have a fabulous weekend. Get out in the sunshine and play. But wear a broad-brimmed hat.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Land of No Cintiqs

I ambled through Disney TVA Sonora this afternoon ... and for the first time it hit me. A studio with no Cintiqs.

My Friends Tigger and Pooh and Mickey's Clubhouse might be c.g.i. shows (and they are), but the production boards are being done on paper, One of the few places where that's happening. I can't think of another mainline studio using Number Two carbon sticks and sheets of wood pulp. Sort of refreshing, when you think about it. A staffer grunted:

"Some production people say we're moving to computers next season maybe, but I haven't heard anything official. I like Storyboard Pro, but paper's okay too" ...

DTVA is now closing in on 100 half-hours of Clubhouse. Nobody seems to be sure if there will be a new season beyond this one, though the series is top-rated.

And three blocks away, DreamWorks busily expands its campus, even as the Mouse House builds out the acreage it holds across the street and next door. Grand Central airport and its runways are looong gone.

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Disney Tuesday

On Tuesday I was in Disney Feature's hat building, shuffling from room to room as I tend to do. And people were talkative:

"We got a heads up at today's 9:30 meeting that most of the Bolt crew has a few weeks, left, and then it's layoff time." ... "How much dismissal pay do we get?" ... "I survived the last four pictures without getting axed, but this time I've brought in my cardboard boxes to clean out the office." ...

I knew they were coming (so did everybody), but the nearness of the Bolt layoffs are now being communicated to the production crew ...

Layoffs are a sad fact of life in the movie business. You're at a studio for a project, then handed a pink slip. But people are frustrated that there's big gaps between pictures in the Disney Feature development cycle, and the longer hiatuses that are a result.

On the other hand, one grizzled Disney vet said: "Bolt is the best feature I've worked on in a long time. Better than the last four or five features, for sure."

Me, I'm hoping that Bolt is a major hit for Disney. Certainly the clips I see in the lobby hallway are funny and witty. With the caveat that clips, however amusing, aren't always guaranteed predictors about how good the overall picture is, they help to make me optimistic. As does the Disney veteran's take on the film.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Overtime Thing. Again.

Just got off the phone with a payroll person at one of the larger studios.

The payroll person wanted to know what TAG's stance on "unauthorized overtime" is. I told him that we follow the contract, and I work to keep uncompensated o.t. tamped down, but when people take work home and complete it for free (i.e., not charging overtime), there's little that the Animation Guild can do about it. "I don't go to people's houses and check up on them." ...

But I made sure he understood that:

1) We don't approve or condone people under our jurisdiction doing uncompensated overtime.

2) We let folks know that they shouldn't do uncompensated overtime. (Like, that's why I'm writing this post.)

3) We file grievances against uncompensated overtime (when we can get artists to come to an arbitration to provide supporting evidence.)

4) If studios accept work done during uncompensated overtime, then they are obligated to pay for the work (like, pay the o.t.)

5) Uncompensated overtime has been an issue as long as I've done this job. Every studio, at one time or another, allows it to happen.

And is there a solution?

Well, yeah. The day that employees collectively agree that they're not going to ignore the collective bargaining agreement and knuckle under to studio and peer pressure to "hit the deadline" and do extra work for free, is the day that the problem disappears. Because the studios will, at last, have an accurate idea of how much work their employees can actually do in a forty-hour workweek, and will budget and pay accordingly.

I don't think that reality will arrive soon, but hey. I'm ever hopeful.

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Remembering Ollie Johnston

Last night at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood, industry people and family members gathered to remember the last of the Nine Old Men.

... I'll ... never forget Ollie's enthusiasm and encouragement when I left Disney to pursue computer animation at Lucasfilm Ltd. I invited him (and Frank) to speak to our small group of pioneers. The principles of animation that I learned from them gave me an edge in this new frontier, and were 100% responsible for our success there and later at Pixar. Competitors would ask what software was I using to make my computer animation so funny. Ollie taught us that it's not the tools that make something entertaining; it's how you use them ...

-- John Lasseter

I worked with Ollie in the late seventies. Not only was he a terrific animator and artist, he was one of the gentlest, nicest human beings who ever lived. If he ever had mean or vindictive words to say about anyone, he must have uttered them in the dark of night in a small, empty room. Because I never heard, and never knew anyone who heard, any kind of snark coming from Ollie Johnston.

Even at the end of his animating career, his greatest joy was sitting in his first floor office creating animation. As one veteran of the time told me: "Ollie does eight, nine, ten feet a week, every week. And it's great stuff. I don't know how he keeps it up."

But he did keep it up, year after year, picture after picture. And for that we should all be grateful.

Photographs copyright Mark Kirkland.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Burny Mattinson has probably worked longer at Disney Feature Animation than anybody now living. He started there in the mid-fifties and just kept on going ... and going ... and going.

I worked with him on several projects, some that got made and others that didn't. He was a producer and director on The Great Mouse Detective, and handled both jobs well. He's always been a charming, sunny guy with an infectious laugh. And he's still at Disney Animation Studios after fifty-plus years, contributing design ideas and storyboards. Here he recounts the trials and tribulations of working on Sleeping Beauty

(What Burny doesn't mention is that he worked as both an artist and a production person in management during the making of the film. The gestation period was ... ah ... lengthy. My background artist father worked on the film, went off to Europe for a year, then came back and painted production backgrounds for two more years. Like I say, SB consumed a lot of production time from start to finish.)

Q: Did anything of Maleficent make it into Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective? Or was Vincent Price enough of a lead there?

MATTINSON: Actually Vincent Price’s performance in Champagne for Caesar influenced us in getting Vincent Price to do it. We showed that to all the animators and they said, "that’s our Ratigan." Actually, to begin with, Ratigan was a really small, very crotchety type of character. But, when we saw the performance of Vincent Price in that film, he was very broad shouldered and very eccentric in that character and we knew we had our character. When we went on the stage to record him for Ratigan he asked, "How should I do this?" and we said, "Like Champagne for Caesar*!"

A quarter-century ago, Burny was John Lasseter's boss. But here in the 21st century, those roles have reversed.

* Champagne For Caesar, a 1950 live-action comedy, had Price playing a larger-than-life corporate top-kick who ranted and raved in many of the same ways the animated villain Ratigan did thirty years further on. Price's CFC role is unlike any other villain he ever did ... with the exception of the Big Rat in the Disney picture.

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Film Roman and Full Parking Lots

Now with Add On.

Tom Klein, a newer Simpsons producer.

When I pulled into the parking lot that wraps around Film Roman/Starz Media, I had a hard time finding a spot to stash my car. A large number of spaces than usual were filled, a good indicator that more shows are ramping up, and more artists coming back to work.

But all is not sugar and cream:

"Fox seems to want to hold down costs on the artistic side. Lots of people are being asked to do more than before, and wages are about the same." ... "Artists are happy to be back at work, but nobody knows how much longer The Simpsons goes on. One more season? Two? Will Fox keep it around longer?" ... "The Fox producers want every show more elaborate than the last." ... "There's going to be a second feature we figure, but will there be a third?" ...

One brighter spot is the arrival of Tom Klein as a new Simpsons producer.

"Tom's been good at communicating, and it seems he wants to be as effective as he can." ... "Tom's responsive. When you need something to do your job, he works to get it for you." ...

Nobody I talked to has a clue whether or not The SimpsonsM will have a Season #21 after the current 20th. "Maybe Fox and Gracie will want to break more records and keep it going" is the hopeful conjecture.

All or most of the Yellow Family's veteran directors are back in harness and working on new shows.

Add On: I failed to mention that at Starz Media, as in other animation facilities, the march of the Cintiq is relentless. Returning Simpsonsites have abandoned pencil and paper, and are working for the first time in digital mode with the big, ubiquitous computer screens. "The board artists now use them," a staffer said, "and some of the designers and layout artists are starting to take them up. Probably everybody will be drawing on them sooner or later."

I'm told the idea is that production efficiency will be improved. But in my experience, shifting to digital means more neat stuff can be done, so more neat stuff will be done. And no overall efficiencies -- same amount of work with less staff -- will take place. The resulting reality will be more work creating more stuff with the same (or more) staff.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Hello Maggie!

Click on the thumbnail for a full-sized version of the cover

Our friend WILLIE ITO, retired Disney artist and Local 839 officer, sent us a copy of Hello, Maggie!, a children's book by Shigeru Yabu that features some of Willie's lovely illustrations.

The book is based on the author's recollections of life as a ten-year-old Japanese-American living in the Heart Mountain, Wyoming relocation camp during World War II. Mr. Yabu writes:

... We were a happy family living in San Francisco. My parents were busy with our dry cleaning store. I was a busy boy paying with my pets.

Then on December 7, 1941, we got news that changed our life. World War II had begun. Over 120,000 Japanese Americans were ordered to leave their homes and move to internment camps set up throughout the United States.

It was a very sad day when my father Joe told me that I had to leave my pets. I gave my German shepher dog, canary, gold fish, and turtle to my best friend Russell.

My teacher and my classmates gave me a going away party at Fremont Elementary School. It was hard to say goodbye, especially when I saw my teacher crying ...

It's one of the more charming aspects of the Land of the Free that, from time to time, it rounds up selected groups of its citizens and puts them in various prisons for the sheer fun of it, but there you are.

We do so value our freedom and democratic values.

TAG has a number of members who lived through World War II internment. Shigeru Yabu is not one of them, but Willie Ito is. A native San Franciscan, Willie spent the war years in the internment camp at Topaz, Utah, where his interest in art blossomed. Upon his return to the bay area after the war, he continued his studies in art.

Hello Maggie! for sale at and

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Rules of Markets

I haven't posted anything on investments for a bit, so here's a nugget: The wisdom below comes from stock analyst Bob Farrell, courtesy of Big Picture.

Basic stuff, but people in our industry tend to forget it (as do I):

1. Markets tend to return to the mean over time.

When stocks go too far in one direction, they come back. Euphoria and pessimism can cloud people's heads. It's easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment and lose perspective.

2. Excesses in one direction will lead to an opposite excess in the other direction.

Think of the market baseline as attached to a rubber string. Any action to far in one direction not only brings you back to the baseline, but leads to an overshoot in the opposite direction.

3. There are no new eras -- excesses are never permanent.

Whatever the latest hot sector is, it eventually overheats, mean reverts, and then overshoots. Look at how far the emerging markets and BRIC nations ran over the past 6 years, only to get cut in half.

As the fever builds, a chorus of "this time it's different" will be heard, even if those exact words are never used. And of course, it -- Human Nature -- never is different.

4. Exponential rapidly rising or falling markets usually go further than you think, but they do not correct by going sideways.

Regardless of how hot a sector is, don't expect a plateau to work off the excesses. Profits are locked in by selling, and that invariably leads to a significant correction -- eventually.

5. The public buys the most at the top and the least at the bottom.

That's why contrarian-minded investors can make good money if they follow the sentiment indicators and have good timing.

Watch Investors Intelligence (measuring the mood of more than 100 investment newsletter writers) and the American Association of Individual Investors survey.

6. Fear and greed are stronger than long-term resolve.

Investors can be their own worst enemy, particularly when emotions take hold. Gains "make us exuberant; they enhance well-being and promote optimism," says Santa Clara University finance professor Meir Statman. His studies of investor behavior show that "Losses bring sadness, disgust, fear, regret. Fear increases the sense of risk and some react by shunning stocks."

7. Markets are strongest when they are broad and weakest when they narrow to a handful of blue-chip names.

Hence, why breadth and volume are so important. Think of it as strength in numbers. Broad momentum is hard to stop, Farrell observes. Watch for when momentum channels into a small number of stocks ("Nifty 50" stocks).

8. Bear markets have three stages -- sharp down, reflexive rebound and a drawn-out fundamental downtrend.

I would suggest that as of August 2008, we are on our third reflexive rebound -- the Januuary rate cuts, the Bear Stearns low in March, and now the Fannie/Freddie rescue lows of July.

Even with these sporadic rallies end, we have yet to see the long drawn out fundamental portion of the Bear Market.

9. When all the experts and forecasts agree -- something else is going to happen.

As Stovall, the S&P investment strategist, puts it: "If everybody's optimistic, who is left to buy? If everybody's pessimistic, who's left to sell?"

Going against the herd as Farrell repeatedly suggests can be very profitable, especially for patient buyers who raise cash from frothy markets and reinvest it when sentiment is darkest.

10. Bull markets are more fun than bear markets.

Especially if you are long only or mandated to be full invested. Those with more flexible charters might squeek out a smile or two here and there.

I have been the classic, nincompoop investor -- that is, bailing out at the bottom of markets. I did it in silver a long time ago, and I did it in 2003 at the bottom of the last Big Bear.

But just because I've been stupid is no reason that you should be. Since many folks reading this make good salaries sometime and no salaries sometime (and unemployment isn't overly generous), I'll give a few extra tips drawn from hard, personal experience:

Pay yourself first. By that I mean, put money away every week. And don't say "I can't afford it." Brown-bag it to work, get rid of the cable t.v., let the kids go to public schools. Do whatever you must for your money stash to grow.

And where to put the dough?

Feed your 401(k). Put the loot in broadly diversified asset classes (foreign and domestic stocks, bonds, you know the drill). Use the funds that are lowest cost (this will mean -- mostly -- index funds.) And pay attentino to Farrell's market rules above.

Plow money into a Roth IRA. This is good to do because, although you can'ts stuff untaxed dollars into a Roth, all the earnings that you get over the next ten or twenty or thirty years will grow tax free.

Tuck money into a rainy day fund. When you work in the entertainment business, lean times follow boom times as surely as sun follows rain. If you think you're career track will follow a steady, upward trajectory and it actually happens that way, then you are one of the lucky few.

Because, like it or not, Farrell's market rules are a lot like life ... and work careers. We all get an allotment of good days and bad days. The good days are not a problem, but the bad days have to be prepared for.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Linkorama August

Fleischer at the ASIFA Animation Archives ...

More links on a sultry August day ...

Director Henry Sellick holds forth on the making of Nightmare Before Christmas

How was your working relationship with Tim Burton?

Henry Selick: Working with Tim was great, he came up with a brilliant idea, designed the main characters, fleshed out the story, got Danny Elfman to write a bunch of great songs.

He got the project on its feet and then stood back and watched us fly with it. Tim, who made two live-action features in L.A. while we were in San Francisco making Nightmare, was kept in the loop throughout the process, reviewing storyboards and animation. When we completed the film Tim came in with his editor Chris to pace up the film and make a particular story adjust to make Lock, Shock, and Barrel just a touch nicer.

What was the most intricate scene (stop motion wise) to complete?

Henry Selick: While virtually every bit of the stop motion animation was challenging, there were several particularly difficult scenes to pull off , one began where Jack is shot out of the sky with his Skellington Reindeer flying over head and being shot down and lands in the arms of the angel statue in a graveyard and goes on to sing a song there while the camera continuously circles him.

The opening song of the film "This is Halloween" was monstrously challenging as it introduced all the Halloween Town monsters to the audience.

Overseas, the box office for animated features as bee robust:/p>

Warner's ... opened "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," the feature-length digital animation from the Lucasfilm factory, on 3,200 screens in 22 markets for an estimated $7.6 million. The title finished No. 3 domestically [see below], and its weekend global take stands at $23.1 million ...

Pixar/Disney"s "WALL-E" wound up fourth on the weekend with an estimated $13.8 million from 3,824 locations in 29 markets, pushing its overseas cume to $146.2 million. The animated title had six No. 1 openings with a Thailand bow registering $800,000 from 105 sites ... DreamWorks/Paramount"s "Kung Fu Panda" raised its overseas cume to an animated $363.5 million thanks to a $6.3 million weekend from 4,062 screens in 61 markets ...

So. We do a little back-of-the-envelope math and discover that KFP has a global gross of $575.5 million, while the Little Robot Wall-E has taken in $360.2 million.

Animated cartoons are now ... a century old?

On Aug. 17, 1908, Cohl released the cartoon “Fantasmagorie,” which amazed viewers and instituted a new form of art.

As long as we're on the subject of Golden Oldies, ASIFA Hollywood's Animation Archive has a fine overview of the work of the Max Fleischer Studio, circa 1929-1930:

... [W]hen Grim Natwick joined the [Fleischer] studio in early 1930, the look of the Fleischer films changed completely. A full range of gray tones was added to both characters and backgrounds. The animation became much more fluid and well-drawn, thanks in great part to Grim's expert draftsmanship. Along with his crew of kids... Jimmie Culhane, Willard Bowsky and Rudy Zamora, Grim Natwick proceeded to animate things that had never been seen before on the cartoon screen ...

Since we're skimming over "days of yore," we'll end with a Disney flow chart via DIGG. (And where it comes from before that, I've no idea.) But you can see that Walt filled the slot now occupied by Mr. Lasseter ...

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Weekend Box Office

The well-reviewed Tropic Thunder finishes ahead of the not-so-well reviewed Clone Wars (putting it mildly), and The Dark Knight falls out of first place for the first time in ... oh ... a month? ...

Now with Add Ons!

Well-reviewed or not, Clone Wars is the only animated contender in the Top Ten.

Add On: The Weekend Finals show that, when all the ticket stubs fluttered back to earth, Tropic Thunder was Numero Uno with a $26 million weekend take, and $37 million opening week; The Dark Knight gathered in $16.8 million for a $471.5 million cume after five weeks ...

And The Clone Wars settled for the third spot with a $15.5 million box office. (Word of mouth is probably not super positive, and grosses most likely won't hold up, but it should be a money spinner).

Down list, #4 Mirrors collected $11.1 million in its opening weekend, and Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona collected $3.7 million in the tenth position. Doesn't sound like much, but the film had the second highest per screen average for the weekend.

Among other animated entries, twelfth place Fly Me to the Moon - 3D raked in $2,000,000 in limited release and had the third best per screen average. And Wall-E (#13) accumulates another $1,840,000 for a $214.1 million total, while the almost-gone Kung Fu Panda is just shy of $212 million.

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Three Dee!

Three Dee Cinema appears to be getting a major boost:

A consortium of the biggest US cinema chains is closing in on a $1bn deal that will pave the way for a new generation of money-spinning 3-D movies, after securing provisional backing from three key Hollywood studios.

Walt Disney and Paramount Pictures are on the verge of signing a contract with Digital Cinema Implementation Partners, a consortium made up of the AMC, Regal and Cinemark chains, according to people familiar with the situation.

... There are about 40,000 cinema screens in the US, but only 700 can show films in 3-D. There are hardly any digital-ready screens in the international marketplace, so the studios have set their sights on the US first. However, they are also betting that the format will eventually transform the global box office.

... Studios are producing more movies in 3-D, with 13 to be released in 2009. Fox has lined up James Cameron's Avatar and Ice Age 3 while Disney will release Bolt this year and plans to reissue Toy Story next year in 3-D.

The questions that pop into my mind are:

1) With all Three Dee, will the studios really be able to make their higher-priced theater admissions stick?

2) Will the Three Dee format mean that films go to 48-frames-per-second projection rate ... to minimize strobing on camera moves? (I'm guessing yes).

3) Will all Three Dee, all the time, make the production of hand-drawn animation even less appealing to studios than it is now?

4) How much will 48 fps impact animation production costs? Bigger render farms?

Just asking ...

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Wall-E Passes KFP In B.O. Derby

While Tropic Thunder collects great reviews and knocks The Dark Knight from the top of the box office list, something else has occurred ...

Wall-E nosed past Kung Fu Panda for top animation domestic box office bragging rights in 2008.

As of Wednesday, the Wallster had $211,834,786 in the storage unit after 48 days of release, and Panda had $211,577,666 after 69 days. And since the Pixar epic is in more than four times as many theatres as Kung Fu Panda (1803 vs. 408) this margin will increase.

Which flick will ultimately be the most profitable? I sure as hell don't know. (We'll have to wait for foreign totals, won't we?) What I do know is that my great hope that Space Chimps would overtake both of them is (apparently) dead.

So I lose the bet with the seventeen-year-old, and have to buy him the 'Vette he's been eyeballing.*

* Not.

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"The RIGHT Way"

Not long ago I was jawing with a story artist at a great metropolitan animation studio. He talked to me about the frustrations of being a long time on a project:

"We've been kind of meandering through the woods for awhile, trying different things. Management wasn't really paying close attention because we didn't have any looming deadlines.

"But now other projects are out of the way and they're focused on us. And they're asking: 'What are you guys doing? We've got a deadline now. You've got to stop the exploring and do the story the right way.' See, they're kind of nervous. They want a hit, and they think there's one right way to do the story, and we've got to do it the single right way."

As he talked, I thought about what animator Charlie Downs had once told me about Ward Kimball's view of this right way thing. Mr. Kimball didn't think there was a "right way," but rather "ways that worked" ...

"I showed Ward a scene I had animated. He said, "Not the way I'd do it," then he looked at me and said, 'That doesn't mean anything. Five guys will do the scene five different ways, and they'll all work.'"

Which is another way of saying that art is not science, and there is no single, correct approach. Or single solution. You can take five creative roads and all the roads can get you to a good artistic place. Or otherwise.

When a production has a lot of time and there's no deadline looming, creators tend to dawdle. Explore. Travel down side alleys. As C. Northcote Parkinson wrote long ago: "Work expands to fill the alotted time." If you've got five weeks to pull the movie together, you take five weeks. If it's five months, then five months is how long you spend. (Sixteen years ago, Jeffrey Katzenberg gave a Disney story crew three weeks to overhaul the middle of Aladdin. They did.)

And then there's science fiction writer Robert Heinlein's dictum: Write it, and write it right the first time. How often does that happen? Like hardly never..

The above is, I guess, a long-winded way of saying that there's never a single, correct way to go with anything, but only better solutions and worse solutions. The bitch of it is, even worse solutions can, on occasion, lead to big box office results.

How big of a bitch is that?

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

August Studio Walkabout

Disney Feature story artist Paul Briggs is leading the charge with another limited edition compilation comic book (note the title above). This is a follow-up to the Disney story crew's 2008 Masterwork, which was a sell-out at the Comic-Con mere weeks ago.

You will note that the "Who" of Volume One has been replaced by the "What" of Volume Two, slated for Comic-Con '09. (Anybody care to guess what word might be at the top of Volume Three?) ...

Elsewhere in the Disney Animation Studio's hat building, the Princess and the Frog story crew is wrapping up major continuity work on that feature and moving on to other projects (and companies) even as PATF's production staff accelerates its efforts.

Meanwhile, work on Bolt nears the finish line.

Over at Rough Draft studios in Glendale, about two-thirds of the Sit Down, Shut Up artistic staff is now in place. As more scripts are completed and recorded, another director is added to the production mix, along with support staff (board artists, designers and affiliated crafts).

There are now four directors on board the good craft SDSU, with another two yet to be brought on.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

DIC Entertainment -- The Last Chapter?

DIC Entertainment has always been energetically non-union.

The Animation Guild won an organizing election at the studio soon after Disney acquired the company as part of the ABC-Cap Cities acquisition. We spent years in litigation, another year in fruitless negotiations. A long-time DIC employee told me:

"You can wrestle with them until the end of time, Steve. Andy Heyward will never do a contract with the Animation Guild."

And Andy never did. He was willing to spend money on National Labor Relations Board appeals and court reviews, and when at last the legal options ran out, his attorneys never came close to agreeing to a contract.

Now it seems TAG will never get another bite at the apple:

TORONTO -- Canadian cartoon producer Cookie Jar Entertainment is poised to cut jobs at DIC Entertainment soon after it acquired the U.S. global brand management company for $87.6 million.

Cookie Jar CEO Michael Hirsh on Tuesday gave few details on the pending layoffs but did say an "integration plan" will be unveiled by Aug. 26 ...

Most of the job cuts are expected to come from DIC's corporate office in Burbank, where Cookie Jar already has relocated its Los Angeles-based subsidiary ....

In the 1980s, when a wide swath of the Los Angeles animation business was in the doldrums, DIC Entertainment provided a lot of animation artists with a lot of work. I once visited a friend working at the studio on Ventura Boulevard, and the place was a beehive of activity. There was lots of shows being produced, and people were working, even if it was at under-scale wages.

Last month, however, the party apparently came to an end, as Cookie Jar picked up the remnants of once-burgeoning DIC. Weep not, however, for Mr. Heyward. One of his former supervisors alleged to me: "Andy took a percentage off the top of everything, so he's done a little bit of okay." And we read that Andy still has an employment contract with Cookie Jar, so he's more than okay. Bully for Andy.

But it seems as if the final curtain has fallen on the decades-long story of DIC. As Cookie Jar's top honcho states: "...the company was not viable in its current state."

Happily, we are.

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Sizzling Mid-Week Linkage

If this isn't alchemy, what is?

Here's a Wednesday compendium of links with a shorter shelf life ... who wants to wait until the weekend anyway?

Disney veteran Don Hahn serves up a new book on his chosen profession:

The Alchemy of Animation aims to give readers a comprehensive look at the process of making animation at Disney in the modern age. Hahn’s first book in nearly seven years, this one is aimed at a slightly older audience than his acclaimed Animation Magic ...

(Cartoon Brew has its take here).

Imagi picks up a DreamWorks property and runs with it:

"Tusker" was brought to Imagi by Cecil Kramer former co-head of production at DreamWorks Animation, whom Imagi hired last year and who Glen said had "mothered the project for six years ..."

Imagi describes "Tusker" as "the saga of a young elephant's journey of discovery, heroism and redemption, which intersects with and renews the life of a reclusive old elephant who has always been an outsider." Company says that it will announce a helmer and other talent roles in the coming weeks.

Company also said it is in advanced development of "Cat Tale," a tale about a cat raised as a dog. Galen Walker is producing from a script by Aaron Mendelsohn.

(Apparently Mr. Kramer was more enthusiastic about doing the project than Mr. Katzenberg was, yes?)

Speaking of Mr. Katzenberg, he'll be winging to the Netherlands next month to receive an award:

IBC, the leading event in electronic media worldwide, has announced that its International Honour for Excellence 2008 will be presented to Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation SKG ...

"I am thrilled to be among the distinguished list of recipients to have received an International Honour for Excellence," Katzenberg said. "At DreamWorks Animation we aim to create and deliver quality and innovative entertainment for family audiences across the globe, and I am very grateful to IBC for acknowledging our efforts in this area." ...

Daily Variety serves up another article about animation outstripping live-action in the triple dimension department:

While live-action filmmakers are mostly still pondering stereoscopic 3-D, the stereo revolution is sweeping animation.

The biggest CGI animation studios -- Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks, Fox/Blue Sky -- are all working in stereo.

That means new tools for animators, new ways of thinking for animation directors -- and perhaps even different stories to animate.

Animation directors need to think differently about their staging and pacing, says Ben Stassen, director of "Fly Me to the Moon," the first animated feature made from its inception for digital 3-D.

"When you make a 2-D film, you use the screen as a window, and you tell the story through that window," he explains. "When you make a 3-D film, you try to get rid of the window and the frame and transport the audience as close as possible to the filmic space, if possible to the middle of the filmic space itself."

At Siggraph, Ed Catmull talked about his differences with some studio topkicks:

He cited an unnamed head of a major studio who told him, "Our central problem is not finding good people, it's finding good ideas."

Pixar's experience, Catmull said, was just the opposite.

"We realized that if you take a good idea to a mediocre team, they'll screw it up. And if you take a mediocre idea and give it to a good team, they'll either fix it or throw it out and do something else. So the important thing was to find good people."

As a result, he said, Pixar's development department doesn't look for ideas for films.

"Their job is to find teams that work well together. In fact, since everything sucks at the beginning, all we can tell is whether they work well together."

I tend to side with Dr. Catmull on this one. Since there are only ... what? ... six basic ideas, the execution of those ideas becomes sort of important.

Meanwhile, you're halfway to the weekend. Don't quit now.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

New Zealand Finds Its Animation Groove

We blather about overseas animation from time to time, but we seldom say much about what the kiwis are doing:


... An X-rated 90-second cartoon sex romp created by Auckland-based animator Laban Dickinson became an edgy online viral campaign promoting a men's hair wax product. He isn't certain if it resulted in increased sales of hair wax but he does know that "drawing boobs for a year was pretty fun". The cartoon, which features breasts, nudity and erections, was certainly controversial: one disapproving blogger wrote: "All I see are nasty cartoon people looking like they're doing it." ...

[New Zealand's] animation industry ... is booming. "New Zealand, this year, has got more international product out there in the market than ever before," says Brent Chambers, managing director of Flux Animation Studio and a 20-year veteran of the business. He lists television series such as Jane and the Dragon, Staines Down Drains, Master Raindrop, The Adventures of Bottle Top Bill and Milly, Molly (popular kids' shows made here and screening in several countries, including Australia and the United States) as examples ...

[I]ncreasing numbers of New Zealanders are putting their skills and training as animators to good - and very diverse - use ... Animation is widely applied in New Zealand-made TV advertisements, series and feature films as well as in emerging fields such as viral internet campaigns. Animators and visual effects artists are also key players in the development of cutting-edge video games ...

I remember well visual effects artists, after fifteen years at Warners, Imageworks and Rhythm and Hues, telling me their next gig was at WETA in far-off Wellington, working on King Kong.

They were amazed that there was a sizable visual effects house on a small island in the south Pacific, yet there it was, another example of animation going global. But it didn't surprise me a whole lot. I recalled when I was herding children along a Honolulu Street and a local pointed out a skyscraper that housed a big animation studio.

"They're doing some c.g.i. feature called Final Fantasy. They've got over a hundred people working for them ..."

Turned out it was a Japanese game company moving into animated features; later I found out that several L.A. storyboard artists I knew had been lured from the mainland to work on the project.

Who knows? If the picture hadn't underperformed in a major way, there might still be an animation studio in Honolulu, making yet another Pacific island with an animation industry.

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Wage Minimums In The Recent and Distant Past

When I was but a lad, I found myself working at Walt Disney Productions in the Animation Story Department. I was a "Trainee", and I made a princely $130 per week. It seems like a pittance now, but in the mid 1970s I was living on it ... with folding money left over.

That was TAG's "Minimum Rate" at the time. Most studios made it policy to pay most employees close to negotiated minimums, and the Mouse House was no exception. You made forty or a hundred bucks over your rate, you were a Major Player. (More than that, and you were one of the Nine Old Men).

But it got me to thinking about Minimum Rates in general, because -- except for the go-go nineties -- M.R.s have been the main signpost for a lot of animation employees in the six-plus decades L.A. animation has been unionized. So let us now take a brief trip down Memory Lane ...

What follows are the contract minimums for a journey artist working as an animator ... or layout artist ... or storyboarder ... or writer. (A television Production Board Artist would get a 15% add-on). Because old contracts have shifting start and end dates for salary bumps, the numbers are generalized a little.

1976 -- $351.56.

1977 -- $393.76

1978 -- $441.00

1979-80 -- $501.48

1980-81 -- $537.58

By the early eighties, inflation was roaring and for the 1982-1985 contract, wages increased every six months for its first two years. The telescoped minimums looked like this:

August 1, 1982 -- $612.12

August 1, 1984 -- $728.84

Sizable jumps, but inflation was over 10% per year, so studios and unions adapted. By 1985, the rates had returned to annual increases instead of semi-annual increases. (At times they went up on a percentage formula, sometimes a dollar formula. The dollar-per-hour jumps ended up providing smaller gains).

Almost always TAG follows the pay-raise formula of the IATSE and the Basic agreement -- which follows the pattern of the other entertainment unions and guilds. (Funy how that works):

1985 -- $764.84

1986 -- $804.84

1988 -- $848.84

1990 -- $900.56

1993 -- $1043.44

1995 -- $1,074.76

1998 -- $1,140.20

2000 -- $1,209.64

2002 -- $1,283.28

2004 -- $1,375.32

2006 -- $,1,446.56

2008 -- $1,534.64

A dozen years ago, lots of folks regarded minimum rates with sneering disdain: "Who needs them?" ... "I make my own deals." ..."The minimums are worthless."

Of course, at the time, the industry was roaring, with an abundance of jobs chasing a minimum of qualified artists. Supply has long-since caught up with demand, and those "sky is the limit" attitude have gone away. Now, more often than not, I get: "Man, I'm glad the rates are there."

Times they do change. But then, change is the only constant anybody can rely on.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

The Gang at Cartoon Network

It's quieter and less crowded than in days of yore, but there are projects stirring and series being done .

Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends is wrapping up its six year run, completing its 78 episodes toward the end of the year. (If my spies are correct, animation wraps up October, the rest a couple of months after) ...

That will leave Chowder, Flapjack and Ben 10, Alien Force as the series-in-work at the CN Burbank studio (shown above under crystalline Burbank skies). But there are other things happening on First Street. A production person informed me:

"We have one new series that might be greenlit soon. And there's seven new shorts greenlit for production. We've taken one hundred pitches for other shorts, and approved twenty-five boards for development in the shorts program ..."

Which isn't to say that this will bring the studio back up to its former speed. As I walked out the door, an exec said to me: "We need to get more shows going."

I told him he would get no arguments on that subject from me.

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Wanna buy a building?

4729 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA As many know, we're in the process of rebuilding our soon-to-be new home.

Well, here's our old home, the one we're still in. And the new paint job is dry, the ratty old shrubs have been replaced with riverstone (thanks to board member Steve Zupkas's hard work), the For Sale signs have been posted.

And it's official: Our abode over the last twenty-eight years is on the block.

From the listing:


4729 Lankershim Boulevard North Hollywood, CA 91602

For further information please contact:

Stevenson Real Estate 1111 N. Brand Blvd., Suite 200 Glendale, CA 91202

Mike Tolj, (818) 956-7001 x 21 Mark Miller, (818) 956-7001 x 33


  • Purchase Price: $1,995,000

  • Building Square Footage: 6,355 approximately gross square feet

  • Lot size: 6,878 square feet (per Assessor)

  • Great business exposure

  • Within minutes of Ventura (134), Golden State (5) & Glendale (2) Freeways

  • Accessible to retail shops or nearby amenities

  • Built in 1961

  • Parking: 5 stalls

  • Neighbors: Universal Studios, NBC Studios, Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NoHo Art District, and Valley Village.

The Property is located in North Hollywood which, like most of the rest of the San Fernando Valley, was once part of the vast landholdings of the Franciscan Mission San Fernando Rey de España, which were confiscated by the government during the Mexican period of rule. The Treaty of Cahuenga which ended the U.S.-Mexican fighting in California was signed at Tomás Feliz's adobe house at Campo de Cahuenga on Lankershim Boulevard in January of 1847.

North Hollywood has certainly come a long way since the late 1800s when the Southern Pacific Railroad opened a branch line from downtown Los Angeles to the Valley. In 1895, the Chatsworth Limited made one stop a day in Toluca, although that name was in conflict with a sign on the new station which read Lankershim. With the Post Office across the street called Toluca, controversy over the town’s name continued and the local ranchers used to quip, “Ship the merchandise to Lankershim, but bill it to Toluca.”

The area formerly known as Lankershim was subsequently renamed North Hollywood in an effort to capitalize on the glamour and proximity of Hollywood proper. North Hollywood today is extremely diverse, with Latino, including El Salvadoran-Americans and Honduran-Americans, Asian-American, including Thai-Americans and Filipino-Americans, Jewish, including Israeli-Americans, Jamaican-American, Middle Eastern, including Iranian-Americans, Eastern European, including Armenian Americans, and African-American populations.

North Hollywood's landscape has been transformed in recent years, with condominium towers (including a 15-story building on Lankershim Blvd) being built in the midst of older one-story bungalows and small apartment complexes. The community is being transformed from a relatively lower-middle class suburb into a regional center, in large part as a result of the construction of Metro Stations for the Red Line and the Orange Line, two lines that have made the city into a regional hub for the San Fernando Valley. Medium- and high-density developments are being built around the Metro Station, particularly in the NoHo Arts District, with the intent of creating a walkable urban village.

Here's the flyer (PDF format).

The line of eager buyers forms on the left. Certified checks and stacks of Swiss francs cheerfully accepted.

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