Saturday, June 2, 2007

Animator's Palette...


I thought we'd take a look at what's been going on over at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Heh... I love saying that.

Anyway, just like the "Blue Sky Updates" we occationally have as regular articles, it's my intention to have these "Animator's Palette" articles become a regular feature on the blog. It may not be weekly, but once a month or so, we'll try to give you a peek into what is perhaps the soul of the Disney corporation: Animation. It may not make the most money for the company, but without it everything else the company makes would truly ring hollow.

Things happening within the halls of Disney animation right now are quite interesting. We all know about the shake up over in Glendale at the Imagineer building. Well, a little over a year ago something happened when Robert Iger bought Pixar and brought in John Lasseter and Ed Catmull. The first meeting that Lasseter had with them set the tone. One of the first statements out of Uncle John's mouth was that "if you don't know how to draw, you really don't belong in this building". That right there caused a great deal of hearts to flutter. Some out of relief, others out of fear. Which brings me to what was/has been Disney animation's biggest problem over the past decade and more...

The real Disney Villains:

The Suits.

Executives, Studio representatives or my favorite: Middle management. Call them what you will. Remember back to Disney "Second Golden Age" of animation?

The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin followed by The Lion King. These four films over half a decade essentially reanimated the business of animation. Not just Disney animation. But then something happened. Remember? Frank Wells died in a helicopter crash. And with him gone to balance Michael Eisner's ego something went horribly wrong. First there was the big dispute with Jeffrey Katzenberg, who believed he should get the spot for all his long years of service to Eisner. When he got snubbed by Eisner, he left to found Dreamworks and because of that we now have Shrek. But with Kazenberg gone, Eisner wanted to show that he, not Katzenberg, not the animators was what was responsible for the hits Disney had. Not that he did not deserve his share of the credit, but without Frank Wells there to contain his ego... Eisner's ego and micromanagement of everything within the Disney company continued to grow. This affected WDI as well, but that is a story for another day.

More and more, Eisner was having executives take charge of story ideas. The animators had less and less control over their projects. Unlike Pixar, where the Director was the lead in creating story ideas... the creative decisions over at the Mouse became more and more the responsiblity of studio executives that had no history of storytelling. And it showed on the box office. So who did they blame for the dwindling receipts? The animators of course. You can't blame exectutive and middle management for telling people that spent their entire lives with tales how to storytell. Can you? Apparently you can...

Not that all of the movies they made were bad. Some were quite good. Others, you could see what went wrong and a few you could tell were micromanaged to death... at the box office as well. And as always, the culprit never turns out to be the decision makers, but the people they told what to do. It amazes me that over the last decade, hundreds of talented animatiors have lost their jobs while talentless "Suits" not only kept theirs but continued to get bonuses as well.

Now this brings us back to John Lasseter and his meeting with the studio. What he's been doing, along with Ed has been to cut through that corporate structure and take the studio back to more where it was when Walt was in charge. The way Pixar was being run. Uncle John was not trying to clone Pixar, so much as bring Disney back to it's roots.

Which is not without it's pain as many animators learned earlier in the year with pink slips. Not that they weren't talented, but until John and Ed can get back to a more financially stable plate, there were simply too many animators for too little work. Of course, if a "Third Golden Age" does come about then you'll see many of them hired back or new ones come on board. WDAS will expand as it's new success grows...

The atmosphere is definately changing. But it's not done yet. It's still in the middle of it. Lots of things are still happening and the animators are still getting used to the new culture. I'd say we'll see the culmination of what WDAS will be somewhere between the time "American Dog" opens up and everyone moves into their swanky new digs over in Glendale.

But remember those "Suits" I was talking about? The ones that gave endless amounts of notes on what should happen, who should do and all those other things they were gifted in telling animators to do... well, they've stopped. The animators over there are working creatively now. They get notes from the "Brain Trust", a group of directors and animators that actually know how to tell a story. The "Story Trust" of Pixar are also involved, giving their notes as well. There is alot of creative feed back and general respect for one another. A feeling of accomplishment and pride seems to be settling in amongst the animator's cubicles. The addition of a shorts program is producing some wonderful talent the Mouse will be able to mine for years to come.

Of course, not everyone is happy. Several production people on the first and second floors aren't as bright eyed, afterall, this is where the lay-offs occured and the fear is will still happen if John Lasseter doesn't turn the ship around before hitting another iceberg. Some of these folks don't think of John as the hero simply because some of their friends got fired by him just a short while ago... and there is still the fear they might join them. This is understandable, after the roller coaster that they went through on Eisner's ego you'd expect a few of them to be wary.

In another year or so the new regime will be fully implemented and the culture will know the direction it's going. Now, if WDAS has a blockbuster come out in the next year or so... perhaps "American Dog" or "The Princess and the Frog" then everyone over there will be walking on air. That way they won't damage the plush new carpet in their new animation building.

The one being built in Glendale...

Away from the Burbank Lot...

Where all those "Suits" work...

7 comments:

Floyd Mullen said...

When can we see the shorts? How many will they make a year?

Anonymous said...

Nice article. I like how you explain what went on, unforunately the "Suits" as you call it aren't gone. John has been making progress, but some of the executives are still a problem. Not as big a problem, but still one nonetheless.

DisneyNut2007 said...

Don't be such a pessimist, Anonymous.

Biblio Adonis said...

Thanks for the great and well-written article.

Honor Hunter said...

There are six in production. The Goofy "How To" cartoon is done. Another one is in the middle of production and the other four are in varying stages of the process. They'll probably release about two a year.

Anonymous said...

reopen the Florida studio and we'll really be getting back to normal.

disneynut2007 said...

I hope that the as-yet unannounced shorts will feature characters like Mickey, Donald and Pluto.

I'd like to see a new Roger Rabbit short as well.