My experience in animation production actually began thanks to my frequent talks with Disney animators and directors while I worked at the Disney Studio Archives. There, when I disagreed with an answer to a question, I was greeted with other reasons or pulled aside and told the “real” reason.
It was at later studios that I realized the phrase was often used as a dodge. It was how someone deemed “creative” could defuse a situation. As I began doing more and more animation work (storyboards, x-sheets, animatics, cgi animation and more), as well as the production stuff (creating schedules, budgets, etc), I discovered how much of a dodge it was. However, it seldom worked with me because I did know how the elements worked and what was needed.
One particularly frustrating day a studio exec tried to explain why I couldn’t adjust a schedule to make it more comfortable for the artists. I disagreed with his answer. He then claimed, “You just don’t understand”. I replied, “You’re right. I don’t understand. And if you can’t explain it to me, then you don’t understand it either.” The exec was taken aback and we went to the head of the studio. The studio head was a former animator and director. He looked at me and then at the exec. The studio head then looked at my proposed schedule and said it looked fine. He asked the exec what was the problem. The exec paused a second. The studio head then said, “And please don’t tell me I won’t understand.” The studio head then added, “John knows more about animation production than almost anyone I know. And he also knows the creative end. He would understand any difficulty you have with the schedule.” The exec shuffled off and I got to run the production as I had suggested.
As we now head towards the halfway point of the first decade of a new century, I still hear that time-honored cry when I ask a question or make a point about the logical aspect of a situation. And when the answer or reply makes no sense, they are right… “I don’t understand”.
First, the category makes it impossible for a great, animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture. In the past it was not. Remember BEAUTY AND THE BEAST? What are the odds that FINDING NEMO might have become the second animated film to be nominated for Best Picture? Imagine if (as has often been suggested) a science-fiction/fantasy category was in place. LORD OF THE RINGS would not have won Best Picture. Instead of being married, it would have been a domestic partner. (How’s that for being both political and current!)
Secondly, that “separate but equal” mentality actually seems to dumb down the award. Most of the categories get people coming out and speaking grandly about the craft being honored (like art directors) or of the importance of the actual production (Best Picture). What do the Animated Features get? Lame animated characters or, worse, this year’s babble-fest by Robin Williams. A few years back, Williams was part of a group of comics put together for the Oscar ceremony in an attempt to “salute” comedy. The comics joked, did shtick, and, at one point, Williams almost broke an Oscar he was handing to someone. The show was criticized for making the award ceremony trivial and insulting to the artists.
What makes all this even more frustrating is that the animated short subject category actually gets a more prestigious presentation than the animated feature! One reason for this is the shorts, like most of the other categories, seem to be treated like art. In fact, look at this year’s winner. The Academy passed over glitzy, commercial shorts like DESTINO and BOUNDIN’ and went for the more individual HARVEY KRUMPETT. Those who found this pick a “surprise” don’t follow the Oscars much. For decades, Disney animators have complained their occasional animated short was “passed over” for some foreign film. How many actors and actresses win an Oscar while appearing in a major, big hit movie? How many actors from RINGS were nominated this year? Heck, Johnny Depp’s PIRATES nomination was, as he put it, a “brave” thing. If animated features were judged like the shorts, TRIPLETS probably would have won.
Oscar history shows a general lack of acknowledgement of comedy, fantasy and science fiction in the big four categories (Picture, Director, Actor & Actress). On occasion, the Academy has broken stride with such films as ANNIE HALL and LORD OF THE RINGS. In an attempt to get around Oscar’s history of bypassing animated features, animation has become a second-class entry. Yes, it has it’s own seat now. But that seat is in the back of the bus.
Not to sound cold and callous, but I’m not sure what the fuss was about. The whole situation struck me the way 9-11 did. Was the attack on the Twin Towers terrible? Yes. Did a lot of public defenders lose their lives? Yes. Were innocent people killed? Yes. Why was it different from all the other times buildings have been destroyed (Oklahoma City), public defenders have lost their lives (almost every day as it’s part of the job.) and innocents have been harmed (the postal Anthrax attack)? The answer was because 9-11 was seen on TV. As one pundit noted, why was there nearly a half hour gap between the two planes on such a well-timed mission? So TV cameras could get set up for the second impact.
Back to 1-12: Was the closing of a major feature animation unit sad? Yes. Did many folks lose their jobs? Yes. Why was this any more tragic than the closing of Dreamworks 2D feature animation unit, Warner Bros feature animation unit, Disney’s California 2D feature animation unit, Turner’s animation feature unit, Marvel Animation’s TV division, Dreamworks TV division, the closing and gutting of the Hanna-Barbera building, etc. The answer is, “I don’t know”. In fact, I know a number of folks who worked on such block-busters as LION KING, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, IRON GIANT and others who felt a bit “burned” at the attention Florida was getting compared to the silence that greeted their terminations.
It is nice to see the fans and media pay some attention to the closing of an animation facility. It would have been nicer to see some of this flurry in the early days. However, I doubt it would have stemmed the tide of things to come, just as critics of talking films, television and video games failed to slow their ascent.
A great wit of the last century said, “You either progress or you retrogress”. Disney knew he had to move out of silent films to sound, from black and white to color and from shorts to features. All of these impacted his work staff. He knew he had to venture into TV, live action, and audio-animatronics. Each time the studio shifted focus. Long loved jobs were lost and new ones were created. But Walt and his studio survived.
What would Walt do now? Roy’s comments notwithstanding, I think Walt would be doing the same thing. Walt, and any studio exec, would do whatever it took to keep his studio and product alive. It’s sad that 2D features seem to be going the way of the animated short. However, I am glad that such a move created any furor at all. It shows there is still some emotion out there. And even if it does not affect the current situation, it may be remembered when future plans are being made.
(UPDATE: In February I heard the news Dreamworks is selling their animation unit. It is one of those financial moves where Dreamworks gets cash for the facility, but still gets films by renting out/hiring the facility. While it is being presented as strictly an accounting tactic, the end result is that Dreamworks will have no financial interest in keeping the facility going. One bad picture, one disappointing project and Dreamworks could walk away leaving the crews hanging. Where are all the screamers now? Perhaps it’s because the crews would be cgi people, not artists.)
For example, in the coverage of Florida closing, I saw numerous stories about how the animators had health issues (like a coming baby). The stories stated when the doors closed, these people would be without coverage. Actually, the Florida studio is a union studio. Those folks would have health care for at least six more months. Now the poor production folk (which few articles even mentioned) would lose their benefits almost the same day they walked out the door.
In January, the BBC approached me. I was told they were looking for information about Disney’s THE LION KING and Tezuka’s JUNGLE EMPEROR (aka KIMBA). They said they had heard I knew Tezuka and of the similarities between the two projects. Since they had a film crew coming to Hollywood, they asked if I would be available. I told them that I would be glad to give my opinions on the matter.
Once on the phone, I proved not to be what the BBC wanted. They continually tried to get me to state that Disney knowingly stole the idea of THE LION KING. I refused to make that claim. Then they asked how well I knew Tezuka and what did he think. I had to remind them that Tezuka was dead when the film came out so “probably didn’t have an opinion”. I then told them my experience with Tezuka was a few casual, and very neat meetings and an attempt to do some business. (I tried to talk Tezuka into doing a new Astro Boy series with a studio I was at.)
I then asked if the whole story wasn’t a bit “old”. After all, LION KING had come out almost 10 years ago. If the BBC was really looking for comparisons, I told them there were several websites devoted to it, many with frame-by-frame comparisons.
It was then that they stated what they were really looking for was info on how Eisner had destroyed the company. I told them that I was sure they could find plenty of opinions on that without me. I even mentioned Roy Disney’s site.
They asked if my experience with Tezuka, Disney and other studios gave me some key insight into what Eisner was doing. I told them I had never met Eisner, so personally, could not comment on the man. I stated that some of Eisner’s decisions may have been wrong, but all were most likely based on the desire to keep the studio profitable and make more money.
I reminded them that when Eisner first came to Disney and began the cost cutting process there was a fair amount of rumbling from animators, stockholders and the public. They complained about how his decisions to go into TV animation, get into home video, out source pictures and create live action films with “R” ratings were going to kill the studio. However, when the studio began making tons of money, all that criticism faded away. I told the reporter if Eisner’s purchase of ABC, now an example of his “bad decision making”, had become a cash cow, folks would be cheering the move.
The BBC then tried to go down the old “what would Walt do” avenue. They cited Florida as a perfect example of something Walt would never do. Again, I went back to business decisions, mentioning some of the points already covered above (in 1-12). I then explained that Walt had closed his shorts department, putting lots of animators out of work. He switched to Xerography and put all the inkers out of work. Then he cut his feature unit back to just key folks and put everyone else into a per-picture, temporary work status.
I was thanked for my information. I then asked when the film crew would be in town. I was informed that the reporter would talk with the producers to see if my material was needed. The BBC said they had already contacted a lot of people, and didn’t know if they would have time to film all of them.
A few weeks later I received an email from the BBC. They stated it was nice talking to me, but that my views were not “in line” with others they had talked to. Because of this, the producer felt my comments would not be needed.
It all reminded me of the time I was at a comic convention. A reporter was trying to get examples of super-high prices for comic books; I mentioned that not all comics were expensive. The reporter moved on. I felt a bit like Michael Rennie’s character in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. (If you don’t know the scene, it involves the reporter at the space ship. If you don’t know the movie, rent it. You’ll see where THE IRON GIANT got a lot of ideas.)
My first reaction was to simply erase the stuff. But a few folks changed my mind. One insisted my comments had value. Another stated that I should keep it in since it showed my common sense and logical mind was often “ahead” of the frantic fan views. So, I decided to include the whole mess...
When it comes to Eisner, yes, he may be known as the man who closed the Florida studio and evicted many of Disney’s Burbank animation workers. But it is more like one of those “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” moments. (I give notice here, I am not a religious person so may not have the quote correct, but it is the best I can remember from the many times I’ve heard it TV and movies say it.) Basically, it is Eisner who created the Florida studio and gave many of those Burbank animators their cube.
Eisner came to Disney in the 1980s and inherited two animated features, THE BLACK CAULDRON (a tar pit of talent and money) and THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (a light underachiever). Both taught him a lesson.
CAULDRON taught him that he didn’t want any more films green lit via a pitch of colorful presentation art. When Ron Musker and John Clements approached him about doing THE LITTLE MERMAID, he insisted they sit down and write a treatment of the film so he knew and they knew what the story was and where it was going.
MOUSE taught him that promotion was key to success. After the modest B.O. of MOUSE, AN AMERICAN TAIL became a smash hit a few months later. Eisner brought in the marketing department and raked them over the coals. (His famous quote was “where were the billboards for OUR film!”)
A careful rebuilding of the Disney animation department followed these two lessons. This department had begun being whittled away by Walt in the early 60s and kept as mostly a haven for the nine-old-men. Bluth realized this and left. His exit and competition with Spielberg gave Eisner the drive to put money behind animation. OLIVER AND COMPANY came out against LAND BEFORE TIME in the Fall of 1989. LAND opened stronger and gave Spielberg another film that “beat Disney” and became the top grossing animated feature. Eisner swore he would keep OLIVER in theaters until it out-grossed LAND. And he did, leaving it out until late Spring, almost a full six months!
Of course this all became a pre-cursor to the animation boom of the 90s. Eisner’s legacy includes Peter Schneider and Katzenburg pumping more money and time into animated features. That legacy begat features like WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (the only animated feature to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture) and THE LION KING (which became the top grossing animated film in history, a title it held for almost 10 years). And Eisner’s lesson on promotion brought such things as “work in progress” debuts at art festivals and pre-debuts at the Disney owned El Capitan Theater to build interest and press coverage.
Eisner also brought Disney animation to TV via The Disney Afternoon. Suddenly animation jobs and characters were created for the small tube. Not since the Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro had Disney jumped so heartily into TV production. Despite some questionable entries, the success of such series as THE GUMMI BEARS, GARGOYLES, and even KIM POSSIBLE, allowed Disney to build some of the studios that have recently closed.
But even that isn’t Eisner’s entire legacy. Whereas a number of Disney board members and execs balked at the idea of selling Disney’s library, Eisner turned the studio into a money making machine by selling films to TV and cable. Then, while other studios kept home video prices high for a robust rental market, Eisner had Disney start pricing their films at under $30. Initially considered suicide by video experts, Eisner helped launch the age of sell-through, which soon became one of Disney’s, and Hollywood’s, biggest profit centers.
Of course the negative Eisner legacy also began in those early days. Almost immediately, he decided it would be cheaper to hire outside companies to handle some of Disney’s studio work. This led to many layoffs. His desire to go to Disneyland any time he wanted broke the time honored tradition of keeping the Park closed on Mondays and Tuesdays during off-season. This led to less maintenance time and an easily visible downgrade to the Park. The key about these Eisner “downsides” was that they led to record profits and enormous growth. There’s a reason you see so many photos of a smiling Eisner and Roy Disney in those days.
However, one of the “good profit points” had a dark side. The previously mentioned opening of Disney’s TV division also led to the out-pouring of numerous direct-to-video sequels. Of course, one may not realize that sequels to Disney classics were in Eisner’s plans from his beginnings. Remember RESCUERS DOWN UNDER? Around that time, there was an announcement of a BAMBI sequel to feature Thumper. It spawned one artist to joke THUMPER: THE MOTION PICTURE.
As Sam Spade might have said, “I know some of the positive legacies are not important, but look at the number of them! On the other hand, you have Eisner closing one or two studios.” So what will Eisner’s legacy be? Time generally shows that the most recent legacies are the ones most likely remembered immediately. So Eisner will probably exit Disney as the man who destroyed animation. However, in another decade, he may be looked back as the man who gave Disney its second golden age.
History and legacies are so fickle.
By Sunday, February 1st, I began seeing more and more business editorials that were stating my thoughts. Several went so far as to say by year’s end, Eisner would be vindicated for passing over a bad deal from Pixar. Sure, they stated, other studios are willing to grab at such a deal. However, for the likes of a Warner Bros or Fox, even a bad deal with Pixar is better than no deal. For Disney, these business folks stated, such a move would have been a step backward. By Tuesday the 3rd, even some websites were beginning to acknowledge the split might have been a positive.
One thing does confuse me. Shortly after Eisner took over, Disney re-incorporated in Pennsylvania. The alleged reason was that companies incorporated there were almost impossible to become victims of hostile takeovers. If Comcast can do it now so easily, was the move just a big waste of time and money?
What will happen if Comcast (or some other company) buys Disney? No one can tell. BUT, having been involved in studios during similar large mergers several things are probably likely. First, massive cost cutting will occur to help balance the budget after the price of the sale. Second, while executives and vps figure out who will finally be in charge, or who will be eased out, decision-making will come to an almost complete stop. (No one will want to be held responsible for a wrong decision.) This will cause all projects in any stage to stall from around 3 to 12 months. Final result will be lots of layoffs, lots of cancelled productions, lots of new executives and lots of indecision. In the end, there will be a financially leaner machine, and a much less human operation.
Still more news… On March 2nd, Disney moved Eisner into the position of CEO. Roy and company are still wanting more. One person being discussed to take over Eisner’s spot is a key exec from FOX. Great. We all know what a great rep FOX has for treating animation and animation talent. NOT. They also have a wealth of experience in theme parks. NOT. I hope the Disney “dweebs” as they seem to be referred to these days know the future of Disney really is now the future of all media giants: Regular changes of management and no security for creative talent.
After writing all that, over the weekend [it is now March 8th] folks from within Disney are stating they are all “hiding under their desks”. The articles now quote insiders saying they all know that Eisner will not last forever. They all know new bosses, whether picked by a board of directors or a corporate buyer, will create many changes, especially in personnel and spending. As one exec put it, everyone is waiting for “the next bomb” to drop.
In her attempt to move children’s animation into new directions, she had high hopes for a number of “break through” series. Two of her favorites appeared that first year. Another one appeared the second season, 1991. Despite the shows being unique and highly publicized, all are now almost totally forgotten.
First season featured the notorious ZAZOO U and the semi-successful ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES. ZAZOO U was created by Shane deRolf. It was produced at Film Roman under the steady guidance of Bob Curtis. DeRolf was a children’s book illustrator that Margaret frequently referred to as “the next Dr. Seuss.” The series was about a group of animals attending college. I actually remember little about it. (I was working on BOBBY’S WORLD at the time, another series debuting on Fox Kid’s freshman year.) I remember one character had a Richard Nixon voice. The art featured wiggly line designs, like the later DR. KATZ, and considered “ugly” by most folks working on it. There were odd songs and bits of poetry. And finally, after both critics and ratings chimed in, the series ended its run after around 10 episodes; with the final, completed three episodes never airing. I am not alone in my shaky memories. Searches of the web found it not listed on many sites claiming “complete” listings of animated TV shows.
ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES fared somewhat better. Though no critical or ratings success, it did get a pick up of five more episodes for a second season. (It is rumored the pick-up was due to a favor from Margaret to the producing studio.) The series, again mostly forgotten, did have the plus of great voicing by John Astin (best known as TV’s Gomez Adams). Based on the popular (?) cult film series, the film followed Astin’s character, a scientist, in his battle against the giant fruit. (Yes, for those who don’t know, tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables.)
The second season introduced LITTLE SHOP, which was an animated spin off of the musical LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. This was another ratings flop. However, unlike the other two, this one was actually clever. It featured the main characters as children with a rappin’ Audry II. My favorite episode was yet another take on the IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE saga, that of seeing what the world would be like if the main character was never born. In this case, the boy discovers that the rest of the cast would have had great lives without him! When he asks the plant how could this be, the plant basically tells him not everyone is put on this planet to help! The story was very cynical, and quite surprising message-wise for a Saturday morning show.
As mentioned, none of these break-through series broke anything, except maybe the bank. There is little about any of them on the web or databases. By the Fox Kid’s third year, they were building steady ratings based on several series that were mostly “stupid” comedies and “mindless” super hero shows. From then on they were on their way to becoming the top kids network… at least for a few years.
In this business you have to question every resume and portfolio that comes in. My favorite tale is of the storyboard artist who worked his way up to producer on a particular series. A young board artist came in and presented the producer with a storyboard. It was a storyboard that the producer had done a few years back when the producer was a board artist! The hopeful youngster had obviously gotten a sample board and merely whited-out the original name on the board and written his own in, then re-copied the page!
For several years, when I came across websites that listed credits to films and saw an error, I would write the site a note. Sometimes I would get a response, and sometimes not. Even when I would get a “thank you”, the error would not always be corrected. More than once, I would get the “how do you know” response and have to show my credit on the series to indicate my knowledge. On one occasion, I joined a “forum” to post a correction and got flamed for it.
These days, I just don’t bother. I do not want to be an officer of the web police. It is just too big a precinct. It is also too frustrating. When a big media source, like the New York Times, makes an error, you can shrug and say, “Well, they aren’t experts on animation.” When a well reknowned and much linked to animation site makes an error, I tend to slap my head in disbelief. For example, a major animation site recently mentioned PARTY WAGON would be the first “made-for-cable” movie on Cartoon Network. Did this site already forget FLINTSTONES: ON THE ROCKS, a feature that aired “way back” in 2001?
A prominent animation artist-writer-producer-historian was once asked to join an apa. His response was that “apa’s simply allow one person to spread their misinformation to a wider audience.” Sadly, the web has taken that place. On the Internet, you don’t have to be right. You just have to be linked.
It reminds me of another profession I work in: mascot performance. I have years of experience working at Disneyland and freelancing including recent stints as Felix the Cat, Astro Boy and Tony the Tiger. Professional mascots can easily discern the difference between a well-done performance and someone who only stands there or flails around. Yet, your standard management person will still claim you can throw a suit on anyone and get good results. (A Disneyland exec once referred to costume characters as “walking coatracks”.)
A short while back, an animation director/producer set up a studio. The union newsletter quoted the fellow as saying his studio would be more cost effective than others because he would hire no production personnel. I chuckled. How cost effective can a studio be that pays union artist wages for people to photocopy their own boards, model packs etc? In a less cost effective standard studio, a much lower paid production assistant would handle that.
In fact, animation history is full of hopeful artistic individuals wanting to get away from the production giants to start their own studio. From Ub Iwerks to Richard Williams to Chuck Jones to Don Bluth, few of these have had any real success. Those that have been successful often come more from a production background or have a production person as co-partner.
The key to operating a long-lasting studio is understanding and respecting talent, wherever it may be. For every artist who gripes that production people are all alike (evil and intrusive), there is a production person who claims artists are all alike (greedy and easily replaced). Both positions are not only wrong, but show a complete ignorance of the process of animation.