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Saturday, December 23, 2006

the end of the year

2006 is winding down. It is time to take note of the good and bad things that happened in this interesting year.
Normally one does this in an attempt to better oneself. That is why there are New Year resolutions. But 2006 was a seminal year for the world of animation. Industries do not make resolutions, but studios do, and did.

A major studio made a major resolution--and like its human constituents, it made it at the end of the year. Most humans do not take the year's end ritual seriously and their resolutions, if they are observed at all, generally affect only a small coterie of friends . The resolution made by the studio will affect all of us in the animation field for a considerable time to come.

The animation community has rumoured that the Walt Disney Feature Animation Studio will now, once again, exclusively produce hand drawn animated films, while newly acquired Pixar (actually the dominant partner in the equation) would continue to produce computer generated films exclusively. This, if it is true, is the logical outcome to the merger of the two studios earlier this year.

Like most simple solutions, it is anything but. Projects already in development at Disney in CGI (by decree of the previous Chair, Michael Eisner, who recently declared '2D dead') would go into turnaround. LIFE WITH WILBUR ROBINSON, which will be released in March 2007, will be the last Disney Feature CGI film. Inevitably that means layoffs and downsizing until they get their headway again.

Some animators have reminded me of the Frogs who Wanted a King from Aesop's fable--they yearned for a strong hand, another Walt, and if only their leader would arrive, all would be blissful with steady jobs and interesting work for all, forevermore. They were unaware that a strong leader might want different followers.

Animators who came of age during the fat times of the Nineties have a harder time adjusting to the shifts and swings of employment than older artists who remember the seasonal and projects-end layoffs that were standard before.
Humans have a tendency to believe that good times will go on forever. It's as true in animation as in economics.

Disney 'Old Man' Frank Thomas was having none of that. Once, during one of the earliest layoffs, I wrote him to say that many people were worried about their job security.
"We never had any!" Frank said crisply. "My goodness, when a feature ended you had to call the Shorts department and ask if they had anything on a Goofy film or something so you wouldn't get laid off! I made myself 'indispensable' so they wouldn't fire me, but there was never any guarantee!"

The changes in the Disney studio's philosophy in the past few years remind me of the constant religious shifts in the court of Henry VIII as he courted a European sovereign or a wife. It is dangerous to be of the wrong persuasion when the king's mind has already been made up.

The king in this anecdote is John Lasseter, who is the most powerful man in animation right now. He is also the most powerful man who has ever been in animation. I wonder if anyone else has studied the deeper implications of the Disney-Pixar merger.

Lasseter is now head of Pixar, Disney Feature Animation, Disney Television Animation, and the animation board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Even Walt Disney never ran two studios simultaneously.
The changes are just beginning at the older studio. Pixar remains more or less unchanged, since it is the one literally calling the shots.

Thirteen years ago it was Pixar who was the junior partner, the dubious spinoff with an untested product. Disney, the grand old lady of animation, now has to re-establish its reputation with new, hand drawn films that will bring back the old magic.

But, no matter how many 'd's' it has, animation is only motion on a screen if there is no intelligence directing it, no meaning to the movement---in other words, no story.
Pixar's people all trained with Disney veterans and they use storytelling methods that were originally developed at Disney in the 1930s. Artists are the kings there, but no one rules save one. Management keeps their distance and lets the artists make the movies.

Disney Features became a victim of corporatitis in the past few years. Artists were subordinate to executives who sometimes had no background in art, and who were sometimes Hollywood players.

True, this happens in live action as well, but animation IS the artists' work. It can't be saved with the voices or caricatures of big stars, or the latest rock music. It stands and falls on the performances of its artists--especially the story artists.

So Disney's resolution is to somehow resurrect their old spirit along with the older medium and get back to making fun, wholesome entertainment for a mass audience (no more 'targets' of fourteen year old boys, thankfully.)
I believe that they will keep this resolution, though there will be some rough patches at first. It is painful to read of old friends who are no longer there, or who are worried that they may no longer be there. Time will heal the wounds. After all, it is not the only studio in the world. But it is true that when Disney sneezes, the animation industry catches cold. The resolution will have a knock on effect with other studios if one condition is met.

All they need is a hit picture with a good story.


Bill Robinson said...

Well said, Nancy. I never really thought about the fact that John Lassetter is in control of Pixar and Disney AND all the Disney subsidiaries...I wonder what he does to relax?

Nancy said...

Hello Bill,

I don't know but I do know that there is a bit of a scramble to get him to look at things when he is at Disney.