Tuesday, February 3, 2009

News - 02/03/08...

What can Walt Disney Animation Studios do to save itself? Ditch digital

Floyd Norman is back with a column that's sure to cause some controversy. Since this Disney Legend is now suggesting that WDAS should abandon production of CG animated features and instead concentrate on reviving its hand-drawn animation unit

I’m going to apologize in advance for today's column because I'm sure that it's going to make a lot of people angry. I have a plan that some might call radical. But it’s a plan that I’m afraid we need. Tough times demand tough decisions, and here’s one to consider:

Get rid of digital animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Yep. I said it. I think that WDAS should stop producing CG animated features and should instead concentrate on reviving hand-drawn animation.

Now, lest you think this is some kind of impassioned plea about the “purity” of hand-drawn animation -- think again. This is not some geeky, fan boy rant about which is the better cartoon medium. Far from it. This is pure business stuff. Corporate strategy, some might call it. Tough things that you gotta do when running a business during tough times.

Animation has been going through a fair amount of turmoil over the past few years. Some “business geniuses” had the bright idea that animation was going through a paradigm shift. This was all because a new tool had been invented. A tool that gave us the ability to move objects in a computer. According to these suits, this brilliant new tool was what would move animation moving to the next level. Hand-drawn animation had reached its limit, they said. Digital animation was the new paradigm. Hand-drawn was dead, and rightly so.

If today's audiences really think that hand-drawn animation is old-fashioned, then who the heck is buying all of these?

Hold on a second. If hand-drawn animation is outmoded and passé, then how do you explain Disney's ability to continue to sell “Pinocchio,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Peter Pan” in every new technology that comes along? How many times has Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment repackaged & resold the Company's old hand-drawn features on DVD with new added features or new digital transfers?

Kids watch these movies over & over again not because of the film-making technology involved, but because they’re good. The problem here isn’t with the mode -- it’s with the message. The reason that any one film fails at the box office isn’t because of the technology. It’s all about whether the stories are any good; whether the characters resonate with an audience. We have to care whether the hero wins and the villain loses. Unbelievably, it’s as simple as that.

So you see, this is not really a discussion of the merits of one film production method over another. Each has its points and that’s perfectly fine. I embrace both, of course, with the nod going to hand-drawn. But then again, that’s just me. However, we’re not here to discuss art. We’re here to talk business.

Serious question now: Does The Walt Disney Company really need a digital animation studio? You bet your megabytes they do. Luckily, they own the finest digital animation studio in the world. A company that consistently turns out some of the greatest animated features ever produced, and will -- in all likelihood -- continue to do so. Now comes the next tough business question: Are two such studios really a legitimate need?

The trouble is, Walt Disney Animation Studios is already getting lost in the crowd. That’s the problem with digital animation. There’s nothing that truly distinguishes one film from another. At one time, WDAS was unique. It was the premiere animation studio in the world. It was what everybody who aspired to be an animator wanted to work. Walt Disney, along with his incredible staff, set the standard and raised the bar so high, competitors could only dream of hopefully coming close. Once the leader in a business it completely dominated, Walt Disney Animation Studios is now reduced to playing catch up.

Walt never followed the competition. He was always too busy leading

In this ever-growing field of animated films from numerous competitors both foreign and domestic, The Walt Disney Company still has a hole card. A card that’s evident even now as work continues on WDAS' first hand-drawn animated feature in years. A movie that could restore Walt Disney Animation Studios' identity and remind audiences around the world that the Company they remember from their childhood is still very much alive. That it is already beginning to awaken from a deep digital slumber like some beautiful princess in a fairy tale.

Once again, this is not an artistic discussion. This is not a debate over which medium is more viable, or what audiences prefer. This is a business decision that will be made one day, and that day is quickly approaching.

From time to time, I’ve taken heat from angry CG guys for being too critical of their recent movie efforts. Most seem to think I was beating up on them because I had a vested interest in hand-drawn animated features. In truth, I was never taking issue with the medium -- rather the poor films that were being made. I have little doubt that -- with today's column -- I’ll once again be accused of “computer bashing.” As nervous technicians fear future downsizing and the loss of their jobs.

That said, I still think that it's time that Walt Disney Animation Studios grew up. It's time that WDAS realized that it's not the cool young kid on the block anymore. Get over it! So you’re not young, hip, or cool. Big deal. You’re still the great grand-daddy of feature animation. And that’s a very good thing to be. In fact, that may wind up being the very thing that saves Walt Disney Animation Studios.

So what to do? I think that WDAS should capitalize on its own historic legacy, remind would-be moviegoers of those not-so-distant days when hand-drawn animation was still considered magical. When the animators who worked at Disney were looked upon as artists. And it took decades -- not months -- to master this craft.

You mean you don't need workstations and servers? That's amazing!

Finally, I have a question for all you executives and managers who keep looking at the bottom line. Which do you think is more expensive? Software and workstations or pencils and paper? Servers and digital infrastructure or wooden desks? Yeah, I know. There’s always digital post, but you get the idea.

Hand-drawn traditional animation is Disney’s past. But it can also be Disney’s future. What Walt Disney Animation Studios really needs to do is lead a modern renaissance of hand-drawn animation.

And when they do that ... Guess what? The magic -- because it is magic -- will return.

"Waltz With Bashir" receives Directors Guild award

Ari Folman won a Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement Award on Saturday night for his involvement with the animated feature film Waltz With Bashir.

Nominated for best foreign-language film at the Academy Awards, Waltz With Bashir garnered Folman a prize for documentary directing. It depicts an Israeli soldier struggling to recall suppressed memories of his involvement in the 1982 war with Lebanon.

DGA award winners were announced during the 61st Annual DGA Awards Dinner at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles.

Danny Boyle won the DGA's Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film for Slumdog Millionaire.

In the TV movie category, Jay Roach was the winner for Recount. Paul Feig won in the television comedy category for an episode of The Office.

The drama series prize went to Dan Attias for an episode from the final season of The Wire.

Other winners were Tony Croll (America's Next Top Model) for reality programming, Amy Schatz (The Poetry Show) for children's programs, and Larry Carpenter (One Life to Live) for daytime serials.

Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert was presented with an honorary life membership in the DGA.

Afro Samurai: Resurrection DVD in February

DVDTimes reports that Funimation have announced the DVD and Blu-ray releases of Afro Samurai: Resurrection Director’s Cut on 3rd February. Extras on this release will include Unedited Dialogue and Picture , “Path of the Samurai: 24-Page Booklet” featuring forewords by Takashi “Bob” Okazaki, Fuminori Kizaki and the RZA, concept art, production art, promotional images and more, Afro In-Depth: Exclusive insight into the world of Afro Samurai with creator Takashi “Bob” Okazaki, Afro Samurai: East Meets West, Part 1 - GONZO studios interviews and behind-the-scenes, Afro Samurai: East Meets West, Part 2 - West coast production, interviews and behind-the-scenes, and more. All the extras will be included on the Blu-ray disc in HD.

The Secret of Kells trailer

Movie-List shares a trailer for the upcoming animated film The Secret of Kells. Written by Fabrice Ziolkowski and directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, The Secret of Kells tells the story of 12 year old Brendan who must fight Vikings and a serpent god to find a crystal and complete the legendary Book of Kells.

Cartoon Brew TV #18: Superman’s Secret Cartoon History

This week we open the Brew Vaults to examine the various ways the world’s first super-hero was animated, portrayed and even lampooned in the years between his comic book inception (1938) and prior to the iconic live-action TV show of the 1950s.

Jerry Beck first provides a running audio commentary over scenes from the classic Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, then uses rare film clips to trace how the character was interpreted by other Hollywood animators—some authorized, others unauthorized.

Superman was one of the most famous American creations of the 20th Century. The first true comic book super-star and a cultural icon, the caped character quickly leapt from ten cent comic books to daily newspaper stardom and a popular radio show. Then Hollywood called. Republic Pictures tried to license him for a twelve chapter serial, but Paramount placed a higher bid and the Man of Steel became a cartoon pioneer—the first science fiction adventure cartoon, setting the bar for all action animation to come.

Naturally, Warner Bros. was the first studio to spoof Superman. Bob Clampett painted him as a buffoon in Goofy Groceries (released March 29th 1941), a Merrie Melodies cartoon. Terrytoons came up with a parody, casting our superhero as a mouse in The Mouse of Tomorrow (1942). This proved so popular several sequels were produced, leading to a full-fledged series of Mighty Mouse cartoons. Chuck Jones kidded the Superman legend using Bugs Bunny as his Super Rabbit (Warner Bros.) in 1943.

Paramount, the studio who paid handsomely for the rights to Superman, used the character in trio of animated shorts after the 17 Fleischer/Famous Studio masterpieces. First, they created a classic Popeye cartoon, She Sick Sailors (1944), which cast a star struck Olive Oyl, smitten with the Man of Steel, as the object of affection between her rival Supermen, Popeye and Bluto. Next they allowed George Pal to use the famed red & blue costume and shield in a Puppetoon short—A Hatful Of Dreams (1945)—as little Punchy dreams himself as Superman to win the heart of beautiful Judy. Finally, a strange combination of two comic strip legends, as Little Lulu defeats a fairy tale giant as Super Lulu (1947), a cartoon directed by the legendary Bill Tytla.

In 1948, Superman was personified in a weekly live action movie serial by actor Kirk Alyn. The Sam Katzman chapterplays (Superman in 1948, Atom Man Vs. Superman in 1950) were produced on the cheap. Unable to come up with a low cost way to make his actor fly, Katzman turned to cartoon animation. Director Howard Swift (Fantasia) set up his own commercial animation studio shortly after the Screen Gems studio shut down (Swift was a director there) and was brought in to add several shots of Superman in flight. You decide whether he succeeded or not; it didn’t fool any of the kids in the audience.

These odds & ends of super-minutiae from the 1940s reflect the fame and popularity of the character’s early years. Superman has been a TV hero, a movie star and a staple of animation programming almost continuously since his creation, as this episode from the Brew Vaults aptly demonstrates.

(Thanks to Steve Stanchfield for recording the commentary track, and Randall Kaplan for sound and picture editing.)

(Thanks cartoonbrew)

Briefly: Disney TV Cuts 400 Staff; Cheech & Chong Return

* Disney's TV unit will eliminate about 400 jobs as part of cost-cutting efforts. Details on which channels or positions would be cut were not released, although these cuts are in addition to the 200 previously announced cuts from the Disney-owned ESPN network. [The New York Times]

* Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong are beginning to talk about their reunion tour, which also includes plans for an animated movie, detailing why they broke up the team in 1985, why they're getting back together now, and how their routines are different with more than 20 years since their last appearances together. [The New York Times]

An Afternoon of Remembrance for Hollywood Animation Community on Feb 7, 2009

ASIFA-Hollywood, the Animation Guild, and Women in Animation will be hosting "An Afternoon of Remembrance" on February 7, 2009, to celebrate the recently passed in the animation community. The event will be held at Lasky-DeMille Barn, 2100 N. Highland, Hollywood, with a reception at 1:00 PM and the memorials beginning at 2:00 PM. Among the honorees will be Steve Gerber, Ollie Johnston, Eartha Kitt, Harvey Korman, Bill Melendez, and Emru Townsend.

Clone Wars Ignites TNT Encore

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is getting a first-season encore presentation on TNT.

The animated series, which has been a hit on Cartoon Network, will debut on the cable channel—a fellow Turner outlet with a broader audience—on Feb. 14, reports Variety. The premiere will feature back-to-back episodes airing after coverage of NBA All-Star Weekend activities and then settle into a regular Wednesday night slot at 10 o’clock starting Feb. 18.

The series’ second season is set to debut later this year or early in 2010 on Cartoon Network.

Academy Shorts Nominees Screen Feb. 17

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will screen this year’s animated and live-action short film Oscar nominees in a special program Feb. 17.

The event, titled “Shorts!” will take place at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills at 7:30 p.m., and will feature onstage discussions with filmmakers, subject to availability.

This year’s animated short film nominees
 are: La Maison en Petits Cubes, Kunio Kato, director; Lavatory Lovestory, Konstantin Bronzit, director; Oktapodi, Emud Mokhberi and Thierry Marchand, directors;
 Presto, Doug Sweetland, director; 
and This Way Up, Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes, directors.

The live-action short nominees are: Auf der Strecke (On the Line), Reto Caffi, director;
 Manon on the Asphalt, Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont, directors;
 New Boy, Steph Green, director, and Tamara Anghie, producer;
 The Pig, Tivi Magnusson, producer, and Dorte Høgh, director; and Spielzeugland (Toyland), Jochen Alexander Freydank, producer-director.

Tickets are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID. Tickets may be purchased online at www.oscars.org, by mail, or at the Academy’s box office during regular business hours beginning Monday, Feb. 2, at 9 a.m.

Morph Brings Aardman Style to Esquire

Aardman Animation’s original claymation star Morph is celebrating his 30th anniversary by becoming a fashion plate in the pages of the March edition of Esquire magazine.

Morph rose to fame through appearances on several British TV programs produced by Aardman and the late Tony Hart, who created the character in 1977.

The plasticine character—with his sidekick, Chazz—dons clothes for the first time in the pages of the magazine, wearing such labels as Burberry, Gucci and Prada. The clothes were recreated in miniature by Aardman animators, who spent eight weeks on the project.

Morph will also appear on the cover of a special limited edition of the magazine, which goes on sale Feb. 5.

El lince perdido wins Goya for best animated film

"El lince perdido" was named best animated film Sunday at the Spanish Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 23rd Goya Awards, Spain's equivalent of the Oscars.

It defeated three other animated feature films, DonkeyXote, Espíritu del bosque and RH+ El vampiro de sevilla, at a Madrid ceremony.

Directed by Raúl García and Manuel Sicilia, El lince perdido (The Missing Lynx) was set in Andalucía's natural parks. It pays tribute to renowned environmentalist and documentary filmmaker Dr. Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente.

For best animated short film, the winner was La increible historia del hombre sin sombra, directed by José Esteban Alenda.

It won over fellow nominees El ataque de los Kriters asesino (Samuel Orti), Espaguetti Western (Sami Natsheh), Malacara y el misterio del bastón de roble (Luis Tinoco) and Rascal's Street (Marcos Valín, María Monestillo and David Priego).

Six Goya Awards went to Javier Fesser's Camino, a critique of the Opus Dei religious order. It won for best movie, director, actress, supporting actor, original screenplay and new actress.

The award for best new female talent went to Nerea Camacho for her part as infirm visionary girl Camino. Jordi Dauder was named best supporting actor recognition for his role as Don Luis. Carmen Elias won for best actress for her role as Gloria, Camino's mother.

Native American Animated Films Challenge Popular Portrayal in the Media

An article at PhysOrg.com notes the work of Prof. Joanna Hearne, assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri, in chronicling recent animated films made by Native American filmmakers that challenge their popular portrayal in the media. Her work follows older films made by non-Native Americans, such as Disney's Peter Pan or Pocohontas, and contrasts them with more recent efforts in "digital and clay-animated productions" that will tell "contemporary and traditional tribal stories accurately" in an effort to help Native American youths relate to their heritage and culture.

Briefly: "Spirited Away" & "Persepolis" YALSA Awards; Stuttgart Fest; "The 99"

* The American Library Association (ALA) has announced its 2009 YALSA Awards, naming Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis as two of 2009's "Fabulous Films for Young Adults." [ALA, via Nausicaa.net]

* The 16th Annual Stuttgart Festival of Animated Film will take place on May 5-10, 2009, focusing on the 100 year history of German animation. [AWN]

* Dr. Naif al Mutawa's The 99 is underway as an animated series at the Chennai Sanraa Media Ltd animation studios of India, with an expected release date of October 2010. [Times of India]

Disney Doldrums

I wandered through the Disney Animation Studio this afternoon. Maybe the mood I encountered was associated with this:

Walt Disney (DIS) ... contributed to the Dow’s downturn in the session as shares fell nearly 3% on economic data that showed consumer spending fell for the sixth consecutive month in December, capping the worst year for the reading since 1961 ...

Okay, maybe it isn't the declining stock price. But the first thing I encounter on the first floor of the hat building was a grimace from a veteran Disneyite.

"Morale around here isn't too good ... like it's tense ..."

Nobody I talked to is unhappy with the films now in work. The discontent comes from the continuing waves of layoffs.

Also the wage reductions.

Up on the second floor a c.g. person stopped me in the hall and asked: Is there anything we can do about the 45 hour workweek at the same pay?" He wasn't pleased when I told him "No."

Another artist, when I asked how work was going, replied: I'm having 18% less fun." (referencing her 18% pay cut.)

And a mid-building group wanted an impromptu meeting, so we held one in their room. As one of them said: "After a big round of layoffs, management told us that there wasn't going to be anymore, then there was more layoffs. We just don't believe a lot of what we get told..." I didn't have much in the way of a pithy reply.

There's belt-tightening going on at lots of L.A. animation studios. It isn't just Disney. I told this to a number of Disney employees. For some reason spirits weren't buoyed.

It isn't just Disney stock that's down.

(Thanks Animation Guild Blog)

Did Terminator Salvation's Christian Bale drop nuclear F-bombs?

TMZ.com reported last summer that Terminator Salvation star Christian Bale went ballistic at director of photography Shane Hurlbut while filming a scene in New Mexico—and today the site posted what it says is the actual F-bomb-laden audio of that fracas.

The audio, if genuine, is not for the squeamish and certainly not suitable for work. It features what sounds like Bale ranting about a ruined scene and berating Hurlbut and director McG.

But some, including the New York Post, question the audio's authenticity, suggesting that it's a put-on. Bale, after all, is a good actor.

Real or fake, Bale's Terminator Salvation opens May 22.

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