Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Fox announces three new prime-time shows

Fox Television has announced three new prime-time animation series, at least one of which is considered a sure thing to make it on the air next year.

"Cleveland," a spin-off of "Family Guy" that will be co-produced by Seth MacFarlane, is expected to get a thirteen-episode order.

Both of the two "yellow-lit" shows will be based upon a live-action TV series. "The Pitts" will be based on a 2003 Fox series about an "incredibly unlucky family" that was cancelled after five episodes (I couldn't make that up). It will be produced by "Simpsons" vet Mike Scully and his wife, Julie Thacker-Scully.

"Sit Down, Shut Up," based on an Australian series about high-school teacher who ignore their students, will be produced by "Arrested Development"'s Mitch Hurwitz, and will use three of that show's actors for voices (Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Henry Winkler.)

Both "The Pitts" and "Sit Down, Shut Up" were ordered as "table reads" in lieu of presentations. They have been approved to make one- or two-minute presentations and to hire writers.

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"Mentorship In Animation" and other Academy doings

On May 9, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will host the twelfth Marc Davis Celebration of Animation. Charles Solomon will interview panelists James Baxter, Andreas Deja, Pete Docter and Eric Goldberg on the subject of "Mentorship In Animation."

The event will spotlight the mentors who fostered these artists' professional development, as well as provide insights into their individual approaches to their art. The celebration will include clips from the masters’ work that inspired each of the panelists, and from the panelists’ work reflecting that inspiration.

See below for ticket information.

On May 16 at 8 p.m., Bill Kroyer will host "The Art, Science and Psychology of Production Design" at the AMPAS Goldwyn Theater.

The evening will feature onstage presentations by production designers Alex McDowell, Doug Chiang and Ralph Eggleston.

It will also present a real-time pre-visualization demonstration by pre-visualization director Daniel Gregoire and a review of new technologies by art director Daniel Jennings.

The program will examine how new technologies and shifting collaborations are changing the way motion picture production designers approach their work. With the advent of file sharing, computer-generated imagery and a variety of hardware and software tools, designers now have the ability to preview sets and coordinate with other creative departments more quickly and accurately than ever before.

To illustrate how the fundamental creative role of the production designer has remained unchanged despite the evolution of tools and processes, the program will also include a brief history of production design under the studio system, featuring an onstage conversation with legendary production designer Robert Boyle. Boyle was the recipient of an Honorary Award at this year’s Oscar ceremony. Joining Boyle onstage will be Oscar-nominated production designer and Academy governor Jeannine Oppewall.

The Marc Davis Lecture and the production design presentation will be held at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. These events almost always sell out, so ordering in advance is advised. Tickets are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID. Tickets may be purchased online, by mail (HTML or PDF format) or at the Academy during regular business hours. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. All seating is unreserved. For additional information, please call the Academy at (310) 247-3600.

Opening May 16 (the night of the production design presentation) and running until August 24, the lobby gallery at the AMPAS building in Beverly Hills will feature "Ink & Paint: The Art of Hand-Drawn Animation," an exhibit of over one hundred and twenty-five hand-drawn cels and artwork from Alice In Wonderland, 101 Dalmatians, The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, Gay Purr-ee, The Secret of NIMH, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Iron Giant and numerous Oscar-winning shorts starring such timeless characters as Mr. Magoo, Winnie the Pooh and the Pink Panther.

Artists represented will include Alvaro Arce, Kelly Asbury, Mary Blair, Ron Dias, Ann Guenther, Michael Humphries, Homer Jonas, Art Leonardi, Abe Levitow, Walt Peregoy, Bob Singer and Gloria Wood.

Admission will be free (and it's too bad this won't be open in time for the Marc Davis Lecture.) The gallery is open Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and weekends, noon to 6 p.m. The Academy will be closed during the Memorial Day holiday weekend -- Saturday, May 24, through Monday, May 26, as well as for the Independence Day holiday weekend -- Friday, July 4, through Sunday, July 6. For more information call (310) 247-3600.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Why is no one talking about the SAG talks?

What's going on with the Screen Actors Guild negotiations? The official word is: there's no official word. The press blackout is ongoing ... which is mostly a good thing.

Hollywood union negotiations traditionally begin with a discussion of whether or not to have a press blackout. (We have always been sure to make an exception to allow us to keep our members informed during talks.) Management typically tries to insist that the blackout remain in effect until a deal is in place, but labor is (usually) smart enough to insist that the blackout is only in effect as long as talks are actually taking place.

Now, keeping silent can deny labor one of its best weapons, that of public opinion. On the other hand, it really doesn't do either side any good to negotiate in the trade papers. Misinformation can derail membership support faster than a score of negotiating mistakes.

And of course, refusing to talk on an official level doesn't mean that everyone is going to stop talking -- as Nikki Finke proves on an ongoing basis.

So, the fact that the blackout is still in effect means that the two sides are still talking. And that is, indeed, a good thing, however far apart they may or may not be at the moment.

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2nd Animation Book Look, May 17

Creative Talent Network and the Van Eaton Galleries are cosponsoring the second annual Animation Book Look on May 17.

The event will run from 1 pm to 6 pm at the Van Eaton Galleries, 13613 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks. It's an all-day book-signing and networking event, with over seventy-five books available. Fifty artists and authors are scheduled to participate which kind of defines the term "too numerous to mention," but there is a full list and links on their website.

You can pre-order books here (starting May 1). Volunteers are needed; call Nicole at 818-728-0359 for more details.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Digital Domain may scrap its IPO

The Hollywood Reporter and Wall Street Journal are reporting that Digital Domain's IPO -- its "initial public offering" in which it tried to sell stock to the public -- failed to meet its asking price, and the Los Angeles Times says the offering may be withdrawn.

Independent film companies have often found it difficult to go public, especially if they don't have product of their own. For all its well-earned success an an effects house, DD remains a "job shop", with relatively little to offer investors.

This probably doesn't mean that DD employees will be looking for new jobs, especially with upcoming blockbusters such as Speed Racer to their credit.

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Sarah marshals international box office

As the film gurus gear up for the onslaught of summer "tentpole" features set for next month (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Speed Racer, Prince Caspian, et cetera ad infinitum), Forgetting Sarah Marshall topped the overseas numbers with with $7 million at 1,000 theaters.

21 and the resilient Horton Hears a Who! vied for second place with $6.2 million apiece in what Variety called a "forgettable frame" (meaning wait 'till next month ...)

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

This weekend's box office: mothers and stoners

While Steve Hulett takes a well-earned mini-vacation (he'll be back on Thursday), I bring you the weekend's box office news.

With somewhat-better-than-expected reviews, speculation that Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay might jump to the head of the class proved unfounded, as Baby Mama came out in first place grossing $18.2 million from 2.543 screens.

It's no secret why Baby Mama topped the weekend: according to Variety, 68% of the audience was female. It remains to be seen if Carina Chocano's fears of a Tina Fey backlash in her Los Angeles Times review come to bear.

H&K's $14.5 mil from 2,510 screens (despite an R rating) is more than just seeds and stems for the sequel to a film that tanked in theaters but was discovered on DVD.

(As I write this, Variety's international webpage is down for maintenance, so we'll wait till tomorrow to talk about the foreign numbers.)

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Finances and privacy in the age of Facebook

Thanks to our favorite contributor, A. Nonny Moose, for bringing to our attention this article in today's New York Times about a shocking trend amongst today's young professionals: sharing salary information.

But between friends almost anything is fair game. Beth Kobliner, the author of the best-selling Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties, said she had noticed that many young people now “have no idea what their boomer parents earn, but know every intimate detail about their close friends’ salaries, 401(k)s and debt loads.”

She attributes the increase in openness in part to a shared sense of struggle by people in their 20s, who have come of age in a turbulent economic time, gyrating from the dot-com boom to the post-Sept. 11 gloom, to the housing bubble to the credit crunch.

“There is a bunker mentality,” Ms. Kobliner said. “They’ve had it rough, jobs are precarious and debts are outrageous.” Bill Coleman, the chief compensation officer of, which tracks income figures for numerous occupations by ZIP code, said that he had noticed more candor about income among those who live by social networking than among those who don’t — what he calls the “MySpace/Facebook rift.”

And, he said, the new openness on salaries is reflective of a deeper acceptance of networking, offline as well as online.

“This is a generation that is much more attuned to teamwork, collaboration and sharing information,” he said. “Everything they do is a kind of group event. How do you know, when you get your first job offer, if $45,000 is a good offer, a bad offer or an O.K. offer? You go to your friends.”

In our little corner of the professional universe, employers have been less than encouraging of this trend. Throughout the history of this blog, Steve Hulett has spoken of employers (more than one) coercing employees, sometimes in writing, not to reveal their salaries.

Apologies to those who have heard this from us on multiple occasions, but it bears repeating: coercing employees not to reveal their salaries is a violation of California state law.

But social scientists say that some young people have generation-specific motives for broaching this touchy subject.

Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell, said that an open flow of information is deemed crucial by young professionals who think of themselves as free agents, not company men.

“People move between jobs a lot more now than they used to,” Dr. Frank said. This mobility alone increases the instances that salary might come up among friends.

“If you change jobs, that’s news,” he said. “If you get a better salary, that’s the explanation of the news: ‘They’re paying me 80 grand, the last place only paying me 65.’ ”

And then there are professions such as ours where people have always moved between jobs, often with little information about what they should, or could, be making. That's why in 1995 we started an annual survey of our members to give people an idea of what the "going rates" are out there.

Our survey is an accurate indicator of where salaries are headed in our biz, but recently we've noted a trend that seems to run counter to the Times article: a smaller percentage of responses from employed members. Is it that employees are caving in to illegal pressures to keep their pay secret? Or do some animation workers still equate a lower salary to a lower self-worth?

Elders who equate openness with rudeness are missing the point, said Kate Hubin, a 28-year-old publicity director for a film studio in Los Angeles.

“For my generation, salary is one piece of the job satisfaction and self-worth puzzle, but not the only metric we use,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “Status is not just about money any more. Everyone knows you generally have to suffer to make a big income, so high-earners talk about their salary in the course of complaining — is all this worth $180,000? — while low-earners see their paltry salaries as a token of lifestyle freedom.”

In recent years, even some people over 35 have started to call for more candor on the topic. In a much-discussed appearance on The View last year, the personal-finance author Suze Orman, a proponent of people sharing salary figures as a means of fighting income disparity, challenged her fellow hosts and other guests to disclose their salary on the show (none did).

Some young professionals seem more receptive to Ms. Orman’s logic. Janet Polli, 32, who lives in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, works in sales and marketing for a nonprofit organization. A few years ago, she and a colleague were both selected for a promotion at a nonprofit, and Ms. Polli suggested they share salary information as a negotiating tool.

“I wanted to be open, like a union,” she recalled. “We would get more if we were together.”

But the other woman “was very secretive in her negotiations,” she said. “In the end, neither of us did very well.”

(Emphasis mine.)

No wonder animation employers are breaking the law in their personal contract language. It starts off with little things like sharing wage information, and the next thing you know people are talking about labor unions.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008


More toony links of varying interest:

Animation Magazine notes how John Lasseter waxes enthusiastic over the Little Elephant:

Lasseter ... talked about how Ben Sharpteen’s Dumbo remains one of his favorite movies of all time because it’s funny, emotional and the most cartoony of Disney’s animated features. “It’s the only Disney movie that the lead character doesn’t talk, but it’s also one of the most poignant.” When asked about his favorite moments in the film, he praised the roustabout scene for its design qualities and the “Baby Mine” mother-and-son sequence for its emotional power. “It’s an amazing scene especially once you’ve had a child, yourself.” He also talked about the film’s final flight climax. “That scene gets you every time. It’s a great lesson on how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Everything is done so exquisitely on this film. Ken O’Conner’s layouts are so sophisticated.”

Australia has exhumed some old, old films (one of which is an ancient cartoon) and is sending them overseas to be preserved:

The Australian government is announcing the return of eight short, silent-era films to the U.S. as part of a new partnership to preserve American filmmaking history.

The titles are "The Prospector" (1912), a one-reel Western made by Essanay Film Manufacturing; "Sin Woman," trailer (1921), a preview for a melodrama; "Mutt and Jeff: On Strike" (1920), an animated short of the popular cartoon characters; and "Long Pants," trailer (1927), a preview for Frank Capra's comedy starring Harry Langdon.

The Annecy Animation Film festival, 2008 edition, is back once again:

PARIS -- Organizers of the 2008 Annecy Animation Festival have named the toons set to screen at the event's 32nd edition ...

Competition titles vying for the festival's Cristal award for best feature include Shinji Aramaki's "Appleseed: Ex Machina" and Masayuki Jokima's "Piano no mori" from Japan, Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues" and Bill Plympton's "Idiots and Angels" from the U.S., French films Christian Hincker's "Peur(s) du noir ...," Guillaume Ivernel's "Chausseurs de dragons" and Olivier Jean-Marie's "Go West: A Lucky Luke Adventure," plus German Hayo Freitag's "Die Drei Rauber" and Adria Garcia's "Nocturna" from Spain.

In all, 1,867 films competed for the coveted slots, with 284 making it into the official selection and 216 selected for the competition category ...

The Simpsons Ride, debuting May 15 in Florida and May 17th at Universal Hollywood, gets favorable preview reviews.

Universal Studios Florida allowed the first visitors on the new $40-million Simpsons Ride this week during “technical rehearsals” in advance of the official opening ... The early reviews of the Simpsons Ride in Florida filtering in from fan sites:

— “Just as good as Back to the Future.” (Orlando United)

— “A great ride … packed with laughs.” (Theme Park Insider)

— “A ton of fun.” (IOA Central)

The fully scheduled Amy Poehler discusses her new cartoon show The Mighty B!, which debuted last Thursday on Nickelodeon:

"We wanted to develop a cartoon together," says Poehler of the simple inspiration that led to creating the show with friends Cynthia True and Eric Wiese. "And we were looking for something that had a strong female character and voice, and it just started there.

"Once we had the idea of Bessie, and knew how she would sound and act, it just sort of exploded," she says.

How Bessie sounds and acts is a lot like a toned-down version of the slightly unhinged Girl Scout Cassie that Poehler created a decade ago in the improv clubs of Chicago, and later the Comedy Central series "Upright Citizens Brigade." ...

Lastly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wielded vast influence over Hollywood in its long-ago youth. A version of that earlier clout is now returning, according to Variety, in the area of science and technology:

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences hasn't lacked for influence over the years. ... Yet recently, the Academy has acquired a level of influence on the future direction of the biz unlike any the Acad has had in some 75 years.

And it is doing so through one of its least-publicized arms: The Science and Technology Council.

The Council's first product was its report on the costs and difficulties of digital archiving, "The Digital Dilemma" (Variety, April 20, 2007). It has also been working on developing recommendations for an "Image Interchange Format" that would ensure digital images look consistent as they're passed from place to place.

The Sci-Tech Council has become one of the rare neutral bodies in the industry, which can move forward issues like the digital conversion of Hollywood without having to worry about partisan business interests.

Just 5 years old, the Council has a roster that reads like a who's who of movie technologists, all of whom serve gratis. Some of its activities are well within the Acad's familiar functions, such as archiving and public programs, but it also serves as a forum for discussion and research on emerging technical issues ...

"This is a different world in some ways from how it was in the '20s when the Academy first started," Maltz says. "And in some ways, it's no different, if you look back at why Hollywood exists. Why did people come out here? It wasn't just for the weather, it was to get away from the Motion Picture Patents Co.

Ah yes. The non-stop battle over intellectual property. It's been going on like forever. That's how the town was started, after all. Pirates fought the Edison Trust (Motion Picture Patents Co.) over who had the right to use the damn cameras, and settled in close to the Mexican border, just in case they needed to scram to a safe foreig haven in a hurry.

I'll be incommunicado the next few days, and Mr. Jeff Massie will be serving up tasty morsels in my absence. Have a jolly weekend.

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Warner Animation Prez Steps Down

I got word of this today from a Warners person:

Lisa Judson is exiting as head of Warner Bros. Animation after only 10 months in the position, with her responsibilities to be consolidated under Warner Bros. Television prexy Peter Roth.

Studio confirmed the shift, saying Judson intended to return to New York, from which she relocated to take the job. The gig had represented a significant leap for Judson, who prior to Warner Bros. served as senior VP of marketing at AOL. Before that she worked for Nickelodeon.

People tell me she leaseded a house, put her daughter in school, did the whole shift-to-new-coast deal. I kind of believe that there are some major changes going on inside animation at Warners.

I've never figured out why Time-Warner has had such trouble over the last few years getting its animation ducks in a row. I mean, they've got Cartoon Network, they have now (at last) achieved some success with animated features, so why can't they get the different parts to work together and create some, you know, Syn-er-gy?

Here's hoping Lisa Judson finds her happiness with the next assignment. And here's really hoping that Warner Bros. Animation gets some traction again. Having another major employer come back to full life would be good for the whole community.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Adult Entertainment?

The Guardian off in the United Kingdom makes assertions about newer animated features:

Blame Matt Groening and the four-fingered residents of Springfield. Until December 1989, when the first full-length episode of The Simpsons was aired, the dream of an entertainment that could appeal equally to kids and their parents was just that: a dream. Kids' movies, for so long dominated by Disney, were made for kids, with little effort wasted on entertaining those who took the kids ...

Now, however, too many kids' film-makers spend too much time worrying about their adult audience, and make movies that pass the kids by. We remember the successes - the likes of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Shrek and The Incredibles - and forget the many failures, such as 2004's Shark Tale, which required a working knowledge of mafia movies to negotiate the sub-plots, something surely beyond pre-teen punters.

But even the successes get misremembered. When Pixar's Toy Story was released in 1995, it was hailed as an entertainment for all, with its Randy Newman score and its glistening new style of computer animation. In truth, though, Toy Story was not the kind of innuendo-laden gag-fest that now passes for kids' movie-making

I pretty much take issue with Mr. Hann's core premise: Animated features used to be for kids, now they're aimed at adults.

Crapola. The original klatch of Disney features (Snow White through Bambi) was aimed at general audiences (that's kids, grandparents, and every demographic in between, in case you're living in a shack outside Beaumont.) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs grossed a record $8,000,000 in 1938. That was double the gross of The Adventures of Robin Hood, the sixth highest grosser of the year that, although only number six, generated profits with which the Brothers Warner were delighted.

Friends and neighbors, you don't pull down record numbers like Snow White did if you're appealing to "the kiddie trade." It's only with skewed hindsight that oh-so-smart newspaper columnists gin up fantasy theories about "child friendly" cartoon features that never were. The truth is, animated feature producers of the thirties and forties were fighting for the entire movie-going public, just like every other movie-maker.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, has changed. Modern animated features have traveled in lock-step with their live-action cousins. You think that modern animated features are more smart-alecky and potty mouthed in 2008? Well, so are live-action films (remember all the swearing in 1930s gangster pictures? All the groping sex in 1940s comedies? Neither do I.)

Films, both live-action and animated, are mirrors of the times in which they're made. No self-respecting film producer would make a multi-million dollar feature that presumed to cut off large segments of the movie-going public, it'd be career suicide. The drill, first and always, is to make flicks that everybody wants to see. Certainly movie-makers often fail in that mission, but the goal is to be inclusive, the better to make heavy coin.

But maybe Mr. Hann is too close to the trees to view that rather obvious forest.

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Robin the Second

The second and final post of TAORH.

At the beginning of October, 1937, The Adventures of Robin Hood rolled film in Chico, California (despite the production manager's uptightness about lousy weather ... which they got). Early on, the seeds of William Keighley's later departure in favor of Warners' workhorse Michael Curtiz were sown:

From: Hal B. Wallis

Dear Bill: I don't want to start worrying you or ride or crowd you but while the first three days' dailies are gorgeous and just the last word, at the same time it has taken three days to shoot the meeting between Robin and Little John, and it was not yet complete at end of three days' work. I don't have to tell you that at this rate we will be on location until it snows ...

As production on Robin Hood ramped up, shooting on Gold is Where You Find It, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Olivia De Havilland, Claude Raines, and George Brent, was winding down. Gold, little seen today, was Warners second three-strip Technicolor film (released in February, 1938) and De Havilland joined the Keighley unit soon after filming wrapped.

By late October, the production was more than a week behind schedule, and Errol Flynn had a problem:

Dear Hal [Wallis]:

... My wig ... I loath the bloody thing. With the hat on it's fine, and the alteration I want to suggest does not affect any of the stuff we've shot so far -- the part that's wrong is hidden by the hat. The centre part in the wig is my chief complaint. I would like an almost unnoticeable part on either side so that one side or the other could sweep back off the forehead. The fringes would then, when the hat is removed, not look like fringes but just a few locks of loose hair carelessly falling over the brow. My drawing of course is hopeless but I've explained to the make up here who say they will write to the studio and explain it.

...I haven't had my hat off yet and when I do, the new wig would match. ... I'm quite certain you will think it an improvement, Hal. ... I hate this present one so much I shudder every time I see the Goddam thing -- and I've had nothing but comments from people, when they see it with the hat off, about the stupid looking fringe and centre part. So there must be something to it...

Errol Flynn got his new, improved wig. The old one can be seen here in Robin and Little John's first meeting ... which was also the first sequence filmed in Chico.

Shooting wrapped at the Bidwell Park location in northern California on November 8, and the unit returned to Burbank. There Keighley undertook scenes in Maid Marian's apartment, followed by location shooting of the archery tournament at Busch Gardens in Pasadena.

By now TAORH was fifteen days behind schedule. Hal Wallis and Jack Warner were not happy, and decided (on November 30) to replace Keighley with Michael Curtiz. This made Errol Flynn unhappy, because the actor strongly disliked the Hungarian director. But the producers wanted the man who had delivered big action films (Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade) that had also been accompanied by big bucks, so Mr. Flynn swallowed his bile and bowed to the front office's wishes (four years later, he wouldn't.)

Curtiz had a flair for staging and sweeping camera moves that William Keighly did not, yet Keighley's Sherwood forest location work meshes relatively seamlessly with Cutiz's interiors. Mr. Keighley's fight with quarter staffs (above) might not have the fluid panache of Curtiz's work, but it doesn't need to. The choreography is good and the dialogue pings back and forth; the editing and actors do the rest. (His final director's job would turn out to be Errol Flynn's last quality swashbuckler: The Master of Ballantrae).

First unit work for TAORH wrapped on January 15, 1938, at 3:10 in the morning. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, initially reluctant to score the film, reversed himself and composed Robin's symphonic underpinnings in seven weeks (and John Williams has been forever after in his debt.)

Lastly. The Adventures of Robin Hood had a final negative cost of $1.9 million dollars. That wouldn't float a small indy feature today, but in 1938 it was the highest budgeted film in Warner Bros.'s history. Happily, Robin became the sixth highest-grossing feature of the year. Happier still, most of its triple negative survived into the digital age, and is now -- seven decades further on -- available on high def DVD.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dalton Sandifer, RIP

We would be remiss if we didn't note the passing of Dalton Sandifer, a longtime animation writer, who died in mid-April ...

[Sandifer's] career spanned several decades and included such cartoon series as "The Jetsons" and "The Scooby-Doo/Dynomutt Hour." [Mr. Sandifer] died April 16 at his home. He was 89 ...

After working as a technical illustrator for North American Aviation, Sandifer got his first break in animation when he was hired in the late 1950s by Walter Lanz Co. His first on-screen credit was in 1957 for "Round Trip to Mars," a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.

In the 1960s, he began working for Hanna-Barbera Productions, initially writing for the "Loopy DeLoop" series and later for shows such as "The Secret Squirrel Show," "Samson and Goliath," "Magilla Gorilla" and "The Adam Ant Show" ...

Dalton Sandifer also worked for Ruby-Spears in the early eighties, (1980-1982) and briefly for Warner Bros. Animation in 1967. Mr. Sandifer was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1919.

We extend condolences to his wife and family.

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Happy Birthday, Robin

Alan, Basil, Olivia and Errol

And welcome to Sherwood. ...

The Adventures of Robin Hood is 70 years old tomorrow. On April 25th, 1938, Warners-First National released its Technicolor epic to boffo box office and, a year later, multiple Academy Awards (Score, set decoration, editing; TAORH lost in the Best Picture category.)

Why remember a 70-year-old flick? Because it's the Hollywood film that most every action-adventure film ever after has followed: extravagant action set-pieces; a thundering score; an athletic, indestructible hero. Such is its influence that it has reached beyond live-action to (glancingly) impact animation.

I came across the TAORH in grade school. The film was famous then, it's iconic today. Why has it endured? Because every one of its components, from script to casting to sets, from direction to cinematography to acting, was at the peak of industry craft. The Adventures of Robin Hood, along with Gone With the Wind, represents the pinnacle of the studio-system, Hollywood film as it existed from the beginning of talking pictures to its demise in the late 1950s ...

Then as now, the quality began with story and script. Warners had to steer clear of story elements in the copyrighted Douglas Fairbanks epic from 1922, and so returned to earlier Robin Hood legends, many of which Fairbanks' film didn't touch. Even so, the film's producer Hal Wallis had trouble with Robin Hood's initial treatments until writers Norman Reilly Raine and Seton Miller were brought aboard to straighten out the earlier, lackluster drafts. Shortly thereafter, writer Raine had gripes with Robin's director William Keighley:

To: Hal Wallis:

Since I feel very strongly on the subject of Mr. Keighley's sincere but misguided attempts, further to bugger up Robin Hood, and having spent a considerable portion of last night analyzing his desires and how they would affect the facts, I would like to direct your attention to the following:


According to what Mr. Keighley replied to my question at the budget meeting last night, the reason he wants this in is ...: People remembering the Fairbanks picture... It puts over the life and pageantry of the period as well as telling the story ... It is necessary, because the balance of the script is so weak that we have to give the audience something at the beginning that will carry over ...

... The jousting tournament can never be anything but a prologue which, if done with the magnificence Mr. Keighley sees, will have the disastrous effect of putting the climax of the picture at the beginning -- and I'll be goddamned if that is good construction dramatically in fiction, stage or screen ... *

Mr. Raine ultimately got his way, and the jousting was excised. What we get instead is brisk, narrative clock-winding that quickly sets up the problem ("King Richard's being held hostage by Leopold of Austria" ...), the villains (Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne), and the heroes (Robin of Locksley and Will Scarlett).

Leading man Errol Flynn is given three big entrances in the first ten minutes, and we are catapulted off into the idealized, romanticized world of 13th century England.

There might be only one character arc in the piece (it belongs to Maid Marian), but the dialogue sparkles and the characters are vividly delineated, the action brilliantly staged. What animator and story artist/supervisor Mark Kennedy says about action sequences in Indiana Jones applies in spades to The Adventures of Robin Hood:

... after a good action sequence, we know exactly how the scene has advanced the story and how the world of the story has been altered by the sequence: is the hero now clearer to his ultimate goal, or further away? In a poorly constructed movie, nothing is altered by the action sequence, and it was just there to add some noise and flash, to wake up the audience between the boring and/or confusing talky parts.

A fine example of this in the Warners picture is the castle banquet at the start of the film: Robin Hood breaks into the proceedings, verbally jousts with the Prince and Sir Guy, initiates his relationship with Maid Marian (it doesn't start on a high note), and lays out what he intends to do before Mr. Kennedy's "useen threat" propels him to an athletic escape from the castle.

(A less-than-great image, and the beginning and end of the segment are missing, but it gives an inkling ...)

There's nine pages here of dialogue-heavy script, yet the sequence sails by. Curtiz, shooting his first set-ups on the film after Keighley's exit, keeps his camera moving and the cross-cutting energetic, so we don't get weighed down by the thickets of exposition.

This expert intermingling of character and story advancement, exposition and action, is what makes The Adventures of Robin Hood so watchable today. Sure, the acting is solid, and yes, the sets, costumes and photography are vivid, but all these things would support a less than satisfying whole if the other elements weren't in place.

So there's multiple reasons the New York Times called the TAORH "A richly produced, bravely bedecked, romantic and colorful show ... [at] the forefront of this year's best [that] can be calculated to rejoice the eights, rejuvenate the eighties, and delight those in between ... " It simply fires on all cylinders in a way that few films, be they seventy years or three weeks old, are able to do.

* This and other memos of the time come from Inside Warner Bros. {1935-1950}, edited by Rudy Behlmer, the go-to guy on all things regarding Curtiz, Warners, and Flynn.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Apple Mentored by Disney (?)

It had never, honest to God, occurred to me before but after reading Jason Schwarz's think-piece on the subject, I'm sorta, kinda partway convinced:

... Steve Jobs has carried around the blueprint for Apple’s success since he took back the permanent CEO spot back in 2000. During his latest tenure at Apple he has completely transformed the company from a one trick pony into a four-tiered empire. Has anything this dramatic happened before?

Welll, says Mr. S., it certainly has.

... [O]n June 3rd, 1984, Disney stock closed at an adjusted price of .78 cents. The widespread disgust over this valuation led to hostile takeover threats and even the near distinction of the company. Disney was out of sync with the times, their animation division was near dead, and their growth was non existent - until October of 1984, when Michael Eisner came in as CEO and began the turnaround. He took them into new markets where they flourished. He created a brand called Touchstone films and television that allowed them to produce box office hits for the masses ...

Schwarz belives that it's not a coincidence that Apple has revived in much the same way that Disney revived:

In May of 1985, Steve Jobs was relieved of his duties as head of the Mac division in the very company he had founded in 1976. Isn’t it interesting that the Disney renovation of the 1980s happened just as Mr. Jobs left Apple? It is no coincidence that he used the Disney growth strategy as the blueprint for Apple’s success, as he had plenty of free time to observe what they were doing. While he was away from the company, Apple suffered through a period of mismanagement and outdated product lines. When he returned in 1997, he began the process of implementing a Disney-like strategy. Just as Disney did with Touchstone, Apple did with the iPod. They opened up their brand to a new generation of users. This led to the development of iTunes music, movies, television shows, podcasts and games.

Apple also opened up their own international chain of retail stores - just like Disney did ...

Here in 2008, Steve Jobs is Disney's largest share-holder, and Jason Schwarz figures that the Apple/Disney revival and later marriage is more than just a happy accident. And he's betting that the similar rises in stock price for the two companies will continue in the years ahead.

Okay, maybe it's not far-fetched to think that Steve Jobs was taking notes at Michael Eisner's knee, even though Jobs is reputed to be less than a starry-eyed Mike Eisner fan. I think I'll wait for Jobs' memoirs to come out before I make any final decisions on the subject.

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At Film Roman

There's plenty of angst at Film Roman these days.

By ones and twos, Simpsons staff is being laid off as the current season's cycle of shows winds down and no renewals have been announced ...

The blackout surrounding the negotiations with the Yellow Family's voice actors continues ... which means. of course, that negotiations haven't wrapped. Whether a deal will be reached, or if the series will continue beyond the current batch of episodes is perhaps known to Fox, but the Simpsons crew is pretty much up in the air. Which causes (have I mentinoed this?) anxiety.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Disney, Extoller of Nature

When I was a tyke, I was swept up in the lush romanticism of a Disney semi-documentary entitled Perri. Mostly forgotten today, the film told the story of a flying squirrel, and I still remember the dream sequence's stylized, overlarge snowflakes. At the time, they jazzed me. (Why else would I remember them a half-century later?)

I'll admit it: I was nine or ten years old, and I cared about Perri's trials and tribulations, her brushes with danger. So I was kind of crushed twenty years after the fact when I heard one of Perri's filmmakers say:

"Man, if people only knew how many squirrels we damaged and killed making that thing! It wouldn't have gone over real well ..."

Which takes us to the New York Times' meditation on Disney nature films, both animated and otherwise:

Just how much of a friend Disney has been to woodland folk (and their kin in the sea and the jungle) has long been batted about by scholars and writers ... “These films have taught us variously about having a fundamental respect for nature,” [David Whitely writes in] “The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation” (Ashgate). “Some of them, such as Bambi, inspired conservation awareness and laid the emotional groundwork for environmental activism.”

... But many scholars have taken Disney to task on this very issue, citing the company for environmentally unfriendly policies and the films for candy-coated sentimentalism and distorted views of nature and animals.

Ralph H. Lutts, the author of “The Nature Fakers: Wildlife, Science & Sentiment,” wrote that Disney’s version of the original Bambi story by Felix Salten, first published in English in 1928, was “a ‘Sunday school’ vision of nature as a place without stress, conflict or death,” and that compared with the original story on which it is based, the Disney version was a much less “ecologically and philosophically complex vision of nature" ...

I've always had problems with academics who've sneered at Disney for "sentimentalizing" and "oversimplifying" literary works or the complex wonders of nature. Come on already, they're freaking movies! Anybody going to get the vapors because Armageddon is unrealistic? It's a Bruckheimer movie, not a documentary.

Call me a simpleton, but I've never had a problem immersing myself in Snow White, Dumbo, or even, God help me, Perri.

But it still, like, bummed me out that they killed all those squirrels.

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At Studios

Wandered through two studios yesterday. There was Nick, which has sizable staff working (although not as sizable as in years gone by. They are doubling up on some positions on some shows, trying to contain costs.)

Talked to a manager about Nick's testing policies, and about the recent kerfluffle when the New York office cut corporate benefits for non-covered (i.e. non-union) personnel, then restored some of those benefits when staff went into revolt. He wasn't happy about the New York office's original dictate, but there wasn't much that he could do about it. They give orders, he follows them ...

At Disney Animation Studios, Bolt is thundering along at a high rate of speed, and a fine Bolt display has gone up in the lobby (replacing the multi-media presentation on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 70th anniversary.) Lots of people on the Bolt production crew are now into serious overtime. I asked one of them: "You getting paid for all the late hours?" He replied:

"Oooh yeah. I'm making good money ..."

I observed that some studios here and up north just paid set salaries no matter how long people worked in a day. He grinned at me.

"I make it a point not to go work at those places. It's one thing when you're twenty-three and don't know any better, but I'm too old for that {crap}."

He didn't use the word "crap."

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Financial Core

Financial Core is one of those things that unions and guilds are generally loath to talk about. (For the uneducated, "F.C." is a legal category where an employee working under a union collective bargaining agreement can resign from union membership and take "financial core" status. He or she will still be under the union contract for wages and benefits, and will still pay all or most union dues, but they won't be subject to union discipline or rules, and won't have to strike or honor a union picket line.)

I bring this up because during the recent W.G.A. job action, a number of Writers Guild members resigned and took "financial core" status. And on Friday last, the WGAw and WGAe pilloried them in a joint e-mail:

... In the face of enormous personal and financial hardship on the part of many, you sacrificed in the knowledge that your refusal to work would reap benefits not only for yourselves but countless others in the creative community, now and in the future. Your stalwart resolve paid off. Yet among the many there were a puny few who chose to do otherwise, who consciously and selfishly decided to place their own narrow interests over the greater good. Extreme exceptions to the rule, perhaps, but this handful of members who went financial core, resigning from the union yet continuing to receive the benefits of a union contract, must be held at arm’s length by the rest of us and judged accountable for what they are – strikebreakers whose actions placed everything for which we fought so hard at risk ...

The two guilds then go on to publish some of the strikebreakers' names*.


Screenwriters Craig Mazin and John August give their opinions about the e-mail on their respective blogs. They're not complimentary.

But you can go read them for yourself. My purpose here is to give you my take, and here it is:

People go fi core for a whole raft of reasons, but usually it's because they are under duress.

Like living check-to-check and on the verge of losing their house.

Or being thrown out of their apartment.

Or having children to support.

The point is, Verrone and Winship likely don't know, and certainly I don't know, what motivated each of these writers to break ranks and return to work during the strike. But I remember a lengthy strike in which I participated during the 1980s, and the desperation in a lot of people's eyes as the thing went on ... and on ... and on.

And some people finally couldn't take it any more, sent letters to TAG about their choice to go financial core, and returned to work.

And a week later, the picket signs came down and everyone still out -- including me -- returned to their jobs.

And a couple of days after that I found myself sitting on the patio of the Disney commissary eating lunch, and one of the line-crossers came up to me. Sheepishly. He said:

"Steve? You don't hate me, do you? I mean, because I came back in early? Because I had to have some money? Get back to work?"

I shrugged and shook my head, saying that everybody had to do what they had to do, that life was too short to hold grudges, and nothing would change between us, at least as far as I was concerned.

The guy looked relieved, shook my hand and went in to lunch. And we got along cordially from then until he retired and moved to the other side of the country. I never forgot that he went "fi core", but I forgave him for it there on the commissary patio, days after the strike he'd "broken" had ended.

And here's my thoughts on the actions of Writers Guild Presidents Veronne and Winship: What they did on Friday -- cherry-picking the names of (mostly) soap-opera writers, the least powerful and among the lowest paid of WGA members, and making them public -- was churlish, infantile, and counter productive. And really, really shitty.

* I considered linking to the list of financial core writers that the WGAw and WGAe so thoughtfully provided, but then reconsidered. Why be that petty and small-minded?

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The Wealth Trajectory ... In Animation and Other Places

The New York Times had several interesting points about wealth and the distribution thereof in its Sunday newsprint edition:

... It's a great time to be rich ... Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California [report] ... that one out of every 10,000 American families has income in excess of $10.7 million. These lucky duckies number less than 15,000. Put together, they could all fit into a modest-size town. (We could call it Aspen or Nantucket.)

What’s more, the superrich have been getting an increasing slice of the economic pie. In 1980, the top 0.01 percent of the population had 0.87 percent of total income. By 2006, their share had more than quadrupled to 3.89 percent, a level not seen since 1916 ...

[T]he government’s Current Population Survey, which covers about 50,000 households and is best known for producing the monthly unemployment rate. Like ... tax return data, the C.P.S. also shows rising inequality. From 1980 to 2005, the earnings of the 90th percentile full-time male worker increased 49 percent more than the earnings of the 10th percentile worker. Among full-time female workers, there has been a similar divergence between high and low earners ...

At this point you're thinking: "Oh goody. Hulett's doing another "class warfare" post. About how The People are getting shafted, about what dungholes the dripping-with-money elites are."

Uh, no.

As I've gotten older, I've moved past a lot of that crap, because it's pointless to whine about it. The only things that work are actions you take, either political or personal, to remedy inequality. And since political action can be lengthy and endlessly frustrating, it's often better to work on the personal.

One of the better things you can do for yourself on that micro personal level is getting a good education.

... Simply going to college and graduate school is hardly enough to join the top echelons with Lloyd Blankfein and Bill and Hillary Clinton. But neither is education irrelevant. If Mr. Blankfein had left the New York public school system and gone directly to work, instead of attending Harvard College and Law School, most likely he would not be the head of a major investment bank today.

If the Clintons had been content with high school diplomas and not attended Georgetown, Wellesley, Oxford and Yale, they most likely would not have reached the White House and Senate, and it is a good bet that they would not now be getting multimillion-dollar book deals and $100,000 speaking dates. A top education is no guarantee of great riches, but it often helps.

What I've seen in animation is, those with better educations end up having the skills that lead to more lucrative career opportunities. For instance, director John Musker went to Northwestern and Cal Arts. John Lasseter, Brad Bird and Joe Ranft were also Cal Arts alumni (maybe there's a trend here?)

Star animator Fred Moore made it on a high school education and a few Chouinard Art Institute night courses, but most ordinary mortals today need more. Computer software programs can't be mastered via two months of night school.

While it's true that a good education isn't the only solution (benevolent fortune and persistent networking help too), knowledge and command of your craft is the single most important element you can do for yourself. Or as the Times says:

... Maybe educational levels are like Willie Wonka’s chocolate bars. A few of them come with golden tickets that give you opportunities almost beyond imagination. But even if you aren’t lucky enough to get a golden ticket, you can still enjoy the chocolate, which by itself is well worth the price.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Can't Get Into Cal Arts?

We've got the solution for you right here.

Just get comfortable wearing a burqa. And know where the nearest bomb shelters are ... in case some superpower becomes unpleasant.

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Box Office! Foreign and Domestic!

Stateside, Rob "Lion King" Minkoff's Chinese epic The Forbidden Kingdom lands at the top of the box office pile with $20,870,000 in weekend #1.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall comes in second with $17,348,000 ...

Prom Night takes the usual horror-flick dropoff of 56.3%, dropping to third. Prom has now earned a grand total of $32.5 million through its sophomore frame.

And Horton Hears a Who descends gently from sixth place to eighth while running its domestic box-office total to $144,407,000.

Meanwhile, on the foreign front:

The Dr. Seuss toon won the weekend of April 11-13 overseas, grossing $9.1 million from 4,707 playdates for a foreign cume of $104.9 million in its fifth sesh. The appetite for family fare is proving just as robust abroad as it is in North America, where “Horton” has grossed $139.5 million through April 13.

“Horton” has done far more biz internationally than the two previous Dr. Seuss pics, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” ($85 million) and “The Cat in the Hat” ($35 million).

The toon enjoyed good hold over the frame, posting a 15% gain in its French sophomore sesh to $3.8 million and a 7% gain in its fourth British frame to $1.2 million. It was the third consecutive weekend “Horton” took the top crown.

Which means, of course, Fox will be manufacturing more animated features ...

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Corporatist America vs. The Artist

A little while back, a commenter below raised the spectre of artists getting ripped off. And three days ago, a DreamWorks artist brought the same issue up. So clearly it's a subject worth exploring:

An Orphaned Work is any creative work of art where the artist or copyright owner has released their copyright, whether on purpose, by passage of time, or by lack of proper registration. In the same way that an orphaned child loses the protection of his or her parents, your creative work can become an orphan for others to use without your permission.

If you don't like to read long articles, you will miss incredibly important information that will affect the rest of your career as an artist. You should at least skip to the end to find the link for a fantastic interview with the Illustrators' Partnership about how you are about to lose ownership of your own artwork.

Currently, you don't have to register your artwork to own the copyright. You own a copyright as soon as you create something. International law also supports this. Right now, registration allows you to sue for damages, in addition to fair value.

What makes me so MAD about this new legislation is that it legalizes THEFT! The only people who benefit from this are those who want to make use of our creative works without paying for them and large companies who will run the new private copyright registries.

These registries are companies that you would be forced to pay in order to register every single image, photo, sketch or creative work.

It is currently against international law to coerce people to register their work for copyright because there are so many inherent problems with it. But because big business can push through laws in the United States, our country is about to break with the rest of the world, again, and take your rights away ...

(Update: Commenters below -- in particular the estimable Kevin Geiger -- point out how misleading this article is ... and by extension, how wrong I am (was?) for buying into it. For a full airing of the issue, continue on to the "comments" thread.)

Of late, the U.S. of A. has become an expert at breaking the rest of the world's laws, so why shouldn't we go break another one?

Here's the reason: This time, we're not making mischief overseas, but robbing American citizens, in particular citizens who draw, photograph, paint, those kinds of things.

"This will devastate the livelihood of artists, photographers and designers in a number of ways. ... That at the behest of a few hugely rich corporations who got rich by selling art that they played no part in the making of, the U.S. and U.K. governments are changing the copyright laws to protect the infringer instead of the creator. This is unjust, culturally destructive and commercial lunacy. This will not just hurt millions of artists around the world" ...

Not good. Not necessary. And doesn't Bill Gates have enough money already, without stealing from others?

Go now and write or phone your senator and congress person, and let them know how much this sucks. As I am.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

401(k) Plans, Admin Costs, and Due Diligence

Most working folks in 21st Century America have pension plans with 401(k) in the title. Defined Benefit Plans, those old-style pensions where you started collecting a monthly check right after you were awarded a gold watch, are pretty much o-ver.

What everyone now gets is the opportunity to put aside part of their paycheck into a tax-deferred pension saving account, and if they're lucky, get some kind of matching contribution from the company (which is delighted to provide a match because it's way cheaper than the check-a-month pension system they used to fund.)

But here are some wrinkles you need to know, as they apply to all 401(k) plans across the country ...

By and large, 401(k) plans are more expensive than a low-cost mutual fund like Vanguard or even T. Rowe Price. Why? Because a 401(k) Plan has a layer of expenses on top of the various mutual funds it offers:

* It needs to carry insurance to protect trustees.

* It needs to pay legal counsel (lawyers) to keep the Plan up-to-date with federal and state pension laws, and assist in responding to complaints that might come up.

* It must perform due diligence (reviewing administrative performance and fund performance as required by government regulations). This often requires the assistance of outside financial advisors, often at additional cost.

In TAG's case, this has meant -- at one time or another -- changing administrators and switching funds. Some years back, our original administrator dropped the ball on several occasions so the trustees (half of them corporate, half of them union) set about finding a new administrator who might do better. We approached several different companies, whittled the field down to three, and then had each do full-on presentations, finally choosing the one that offered the most bells and whistles at the highest quality for the lowest cost.

Now, when a 401(k) plan has a large asset base, the extra costs for individual participants are pretty minimal. A plan is probably using an administrator that employs economies of scale, for instance a cheaper, sub-advised version of a retail mutual fund, or lower administrative fees, etc.

With mutual funds, most 401(k) Plans desire an array of asset choices -- without having so many that the average participant is confused and bewildered. (We offer a couple dozen options, which is probably on the high side).

The other thing that 401(k) plans like (and need are well-performing funds. This doesn't mean that each account hits a home-run in absolute terms very year, but that it performs as well or better than funds like it.

So, if you have say, a large company international fund, it better be doing as well as similar large company international funds, and it had better be keeping pace with its benchmark -- which would be a large company international index.

To this end, every three or four months, we sit down and review each of our 401(k) funds (escept for the indexes) and check on style factors (is the fund still a large company domestic growth fund, or has it morphed into something else?), its risk/return factors (is it riskier than the market index to which it's linked?)?), and how does it stack up to similar type funds?

We score each fund based on the above, and if one of the Plan's offerings falls to say, a 6 out of a possible 10, it goes on our "watch list." And if it keeps earning a low score for three or four quarters, we jettison it and replace the thing with a higher scoring fund.

This is part of due diligence (see above), and every 401(k) Plan must do it.

What makes fund reviews an ongoing adventure is, every actively managed fund will falter at one time or another, but you you don't want go replacing funds helter skelter. So, you wait to make sure it's down for the count, and not just for two or three months.

I tell 401(k) participants that, if the time comes when they've been out of the industry for three months and they have the opportunity under Plan rules to move their 401(k) money, they should consider doing so because:

1) They'll probably be able to snag outside funds that have lower costs than similar accounts in their 401(k) Plan, and

2) They'll have a much bigger choice of investment options.

But I think the biggest service 401(k)s perform is that they make it easy to put savings away for retirement, and wrap up the procedure in a tax deferral.

And a 401(k) pension plan is better than no pension plan at all.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Sito Speaks at the TAG Computer Lab

To celebrate its fourth anniversary, the Animation Guild Computer Lab will present a discussion with Tom Sito on Monday, April 21.

Tom is the President Emeritus of the Animation Guild. He has worked as an animator, storyboard artist and director, most recently on Click and Clack's As The Wrench Turns for PBS, and he has taught animation at UCLA and USC. He is the author of Drawing The Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson, published by University of Kentucky Press.

Tom will discuss topics ranging from education to how traditional art is being affected by computer technology; and how the employment side of animation is being affected as well.

The discussion will be held at the Guild's offices at 4729 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, starting at 7 pm. The event is free of charge, but seating is limited. RSVP to (you will receive a reply from

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Animation at Newport Beach

This year's Newport Beach Film Festival, which starts next Thursday, is going to feature twenty-seven different animation programs.

Among the highlights:

  • "An Evening of Disney Animation Rarities with Roy E. Disney and Don Hahn": On April 30, Roy and Don will screen a collection of short animated films that had limited theatrical releases, some of which are not on DVD. Among the highlights will be How to Hook-Up Your Home Theater starring Goofy, The Little Match Girl, Lorenzo, Destino (the Disney/Salvador Dali collaboration), Redux Riding Hood, and Disney's first crack at computer animation, Oilspot & Lipstick.

  • Leslie Iwerks's documentary, The Pixar Story, will be screened on April 26 and 27.

Click the above links for screening and ticket information.

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3-D Animation and 48 Frames Per Second

James Cameron* is high on the wonders of visual stereo.

Several days back, I was reading director James Cameron's interview with Daily Variety about the many advantages of filming movies in 3-D, and how much he thinks creating cinema in three dimensions will end up being What Every Filmmaker Does. Then I came to this:

I'm hearing that there are already calls to increase the frame rate to at least 30 fps for digital 3-D because certain camera moves, especially pans, look jumpy in 3-D. I saw that in the Imax 3-D "Beowulf." You've been an advocate for both 3-D and higher frame rates. Have you seen the problem and do you have any thoughts on it?

For three-fourths of a century of 2-D cinema, we have grown accustomed to the strobing effect produced by the 24 frame per second display rate. When we see the same thing in 3-D, it stands out more, not because it is intrinsically worse, but because all other things have gotten better. Suddenly the image looks so real it's like you're standing there in the room with the characters, but when the camera pans, there is this strange motion artifact. It's like you never saw it before, when in fact it's been hiding in plain sight the whole time. Some people call it judder, others strobing. I call it annoying. It's also easily fixed, because the stereo renaissance is enabled by digital cinema, and digital cinema supplies the answer to the strobing problem.

The DLP chip in our current generation of digital projectors can currently run up to 144 frames per second, and they are still being improved. The maximum data rate currently supports stereo at 24 frames per second or 2-D at 48 frames per second. So right now, today, we could be shooting 2-D movies at 48 frames and running them at that speed. This alone would make 2-D movies look astonishingly clear and sharp, at very little extra cost, with equipment that's already installed or being installed.

Increasing the data-handling capacity of the projectors and servers is not a big deal, if there is demand. I've run tests on 48 frame per second stereo and it is stunning. The cameras can do it, the projectors can (with a small modification) do it. So why aren't we doing it, as an industry?

Because people have been asking the wrong question for years. They have been so focused on resolution, and counting pixels and lines, that they have forgotten about frame rate. Perceived resolution = pixels x replacement rate. A 2K image at 48 frames per second looks as sharp as a 4K image at 24 frames per second ... with one fundamental difference: the 4K/24 image will judder miserably during a panning shot, and the 2K/48 won't. Higher pixel counts only preserve motion artifacts like strobing with greater fidelity. They don't solve them at all.

If every single digital theater was perceived by the audience as being equivalent to Imax or Showscan in image quality, which is readily achievable with off-the-shelf technology now, running at higher frame rates, then isn't that the same kind of marketing hook as 3-D itself? Something you can't get at home. An aspect of the film that you can't pirate.

When I read that, the first thing into my mind was: Oh, hey. Fine for live-action, just crank up the camera speed, shoot at 48 fps, no problemo. But what the hell happens to animation?

Visions of Frank, Ollie and the other Nine Old Men animating Sleeping Beauty (and the rest of the Disney hand-drawn canon) at 48 frames per second of celluloid dancing in my fevered brain, I drove to DreamWorks and sat down with an experienced CG renderer. And I asked him the 48 fps question: How would rendering 48 frames per second instead of 24 impact his job? How would it affect equipment? Here's a truncated version of what he said:

Forty-eight frames? Right eye, left eye? Oh yeah, that would mean quite a bit more work for a renderer and the render farm. I'd estimate that the work load for a renderer would increase 50-60% ...

And certainly more work for an animator, yes?

So what happens if, one day in the not-far-off future, Mr. Cameron's dream of the 48 frame-per-second 3-D or 2-D movie becomes standard across the exhibition world? I'm thinking it could well happen, since the capacity is there. And if audiences like it, and big-name directors demand it, then viola. 48 fps is the norm.

Methinks it will create an interesting challenge for animation ... and animated visual effects.

* Actually, that isn't J. Cameron up top there. It's somebody else who sort of looks like J. Cameron. But I thought it was a funny visual.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Joys of Testing

Here's a missive regarding the issue of lengthy tests for board artists applying for jobs:

I honestly don't expect an answer, in fact I have yet to get one from anyone, but as an animation professional (board artist) I have been giving a lot of thought to board "tests" which are handed out regularly by places like Film Roman, Nick, Cartoon Network, etc.

It is my impression, after talking to a lot of people and also taking tests myself (and I'm not some burned out hack, I'm a pretty good board artist) that these tests are not "real." Meaning, they are busy work. They are passed out because of some union obligation to make it seem like the job positions are open to outside people and not already given to people who either work at the studio currently or are friends of the directors that are going to be pulled in.

Many of these tests take a week to do and can be as long as 40+ pages once completed. I have never gotten a job either by portfolio drop or by test. In 18 years! I started to talk to other artists about this last year and I have found the story to be the same. No one taking tests ever gets hired. One guy even told me he had been promised an in house promotion, and later saw that very job being advertised as available! In a panic, he demanded his director to explain why his job was being advertised as available for test takers to compete for. The director assured him it was only a formality, and that he did have the job.

I think I've gotten enough proof that test taking and portfolio drops are a waste of people's time, and I wish I could get a solid answer from people like you who are advertising these sort of things thru the TAG e-mails. This doesn't make you a "bad" person for doing it, I just want to know the truth. I think this is one of the best kept secrets in the business. Tests are merely busy work, legal obligations. I even contacted a recruiter at a major studio and asked them this same question. Of course, I was met with dead silence.

What is really going on here? It's not going to change anything on my end one way or another if I finally know the truth, because I've decided not to take tests anymore. Not only is it demeaning, but I also think it's worthless..I have no proof otherwise.

I'd love for you to shed some light on this subject but it's probably something you can't talk about for fear of breaking open a giant can of worms.


From a "no more tests" artist

Thanks for your note. Maybe you don't expect an answer, but I'll give you one anyway.

Just so you know, there is NO "union requirement" for any studio to test applicants. It's the studio's idea, first and always.

Testing has been an issue for years. I've said the following to various studios:

"We understand that your company needs to make sure that the work in applicants' portfolios is their own, and so a short test -- of a few hours -- is appropriate to determine that the work the artist submits in the portfolio has actually been created by the artist.

"But a test that is days or a week long? That's too much."

We've gone around about this for freaking years. The push-back we get is constant. I once got into an argument with a management attorney over the length of their test. The attorney's reasoning: "Okay, so it's long ... but the person can do it in little bits and pieces! Over a couple of months if they want to! They don't have to do it all at once! We want to see how they handle a long scene!"

I've debated this until I'm mauve in the face. We have some language about it in the contract, p. 94:

"...the bargaining parties discussed the concern raised by ... Local 839 that ... tests administered by the Producers in making hiring, prmotion and or assignment decisions were excessive.

"The bargaining parties agreed that such evaluations should required only a reasonable amount of work to complet and should be rleated to the hiring, promotion and/or assignment decision. Evaluations which do not meet this crieteria should be discontinued or redesigned ..."

I know of a few cases where tests have led to jobs (King of the Hill, The Simpsons Movie), but I agree with you that often the tests lead to nothing. Many studios that test often end up hiring somebody from within. I've asked them: "Why do you bother?"

I know at least one board artist who flat-out refuses to take tests. He says: "Here's my portfolio, I have plenty of commercial work, so if you can't hire me on referrals and the portfolio, see ya bye."

TAG is always happy to take up this issue, always happy to file a grievance. We've filed no grievances about it because nobody wants to step forward as the "plaintiff" and be labeled a problem person. And the Animation Guild can't file a grievance if it doesn't have a grievant.

The simplest, most direct way for abusive testing to end is for artists to refuse to participate in it.

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Belated Linkorama

Some weeks we just don't get around to a links festival. Some weeks there just aren't enough hours in the day ...

Another animated feature rolls down under at Animal Logic:

Zack Snyder is set to direct "Guardians of Ga'Hoole," an animated feature film based on the series of children's books by Kathryn Lasky ...

The intention is to execute in Sydney, Australia, through Animal Logic, which worked with Village Roadshow and WB on "Happy Feet." The film is on a fast track and is likely to be ready by 2009 or 2010 ...

It is the first animated film for Snyder, who followed the stylized hit "300" by reteaming with WB and Legendary on "Watchmen," an adaptation of Alan Moore's DC Comics creation.

Brad Bird takes another victory lap as The Writers Guild and Animation Writers Caucus honor him:

The WGA West's Animation Writers Caucus has awarded its animation writing award for lifetime achievement to writer-director Brad Bird.

"Brad's work has put him in the pantheon of animation creators for whom the art and craft of animation writing are elegantly (and sometimes literally) drawn together," [WGAw President Patric] Verrone said.

And another Pixar director, John Lasseter, unspools one of his favorite films at UCLA next Monday:

... "I have studied [Dumbo] from every aspect, from story, to story structure, to art direction," Lasseter says. "It's very funny. It's emotional. It's the most cartoony [of Disney's animated features]. It's very short.

"It's like 64 minutes, and it's so concise in its storytelling. I learned a lot from it, as a student at CalArts and a young animator at Disney."

If you're in Westwood, drop on by.

All Emeryville, all the time. The new teaser for Wall-E.

In the future projects department, I don't know how this got past us:

Rumor has it that Blue Sky Studios, the Academy Award winning computer animation subsidiary of 20th Century Fox (responsible for Ice Age, Robots and Horton hears a Who!) might have optioned a small press book called The Anubis Tapestry for one of their next projects.

Written and illustrated by Bruce Zick, The Anubis Tapestry deals with “a young lad who must become a mummy in order to rescue his father from the ancient Underworld ...

Lastly, one of the vocal regulars of The Simpsons tries his hand at mocap animation (and yes. There's ongoing debate if it is animation):

... Harry Shearer is a multimedia kind of guy. His talents are on display on film, TV, radio, CDs, the Internet, video games -- you name the medium, he's there. And soon, he'll be working a yet another format: motion capture animation. At the National Assn. of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas today, Shearer gave attendees a sample of the work to come, showing a brief skit that integrated Shearer's voice, expressions and gestures into a pair of computer-generated figures. The official version, due later this year on My Damn Channel, will have Shearer lampooning the presidential candidates, political leaders and media figures who populate the 2008 campaign ...

The demo shown at NAB wasn't Pixar-grade material, yet it was still impressive. It compared favorably with video game animation, only with more expressive characters ...

Please don't havve any midweek crises. Life's tough enough already.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

At the Salerno Animation Fest

Perusing News in the Animation World, I came across this snippet from the "Cartoons on the Bay" Festival, just concluded in that country shaped like a boot:

... Disney's "My Friends Tigger and Pooh" won a special mention for its screenplay ...

MFT and P is out of the Disney TVA stable (like you didn't know). And I point out this award here because Nicole Dubuc, one of the show's talented writers, is also a TAG board member.

So. I guess this is a shout-out.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Wellsian Disney

Visiting Disney TVA at the Frank Wells Building this afternoon, I found the remaining staffers on The Replacements near the end of their gig:

"We've done fifty-two episodes, and it doesn't look like we're gonna get picked up for more" ... "The producer plans to pitch some ideas for a new season and told me: 'They didn't laugh me out of the room when I floated the idea'" ... "It kinda seems like we're done, my last day is Friday."

On the brighter side, Phineas and Ferb have just gotten a big pickup order:

"The buzz around the building is we get another 26 and 13, bringing our total to over sixty half-hours" ...

So P & F looks to be in production for a good little while yet. There are some other series at Frank Wells that look like they could go past their initial orders, but no official word on extensions have been passed on to the crews.

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Farewell Ollie

Virgil "VIP" Partch, one of Johnston's assistants, depicts Ollie receiving a compliment from a director on a well-done scene.

Word reaches us that Ollie Johnston passed away yesterday. He was the last of the Disney animation pillars, and he crossed the big river at age 95 ...

I knew Ollie for years, working with him on The Fox and the Hound before his retirement at the tail end of the 1970s.

Ollie was, first and foremost, a tyro animator. When Woolie Reitherman tried to drag him up to one of Woolie's patented, all-day story meetings around the big director's desk in Woolfgang's office, half the time Ollie would not show up. Ollie once told me:

"Gee, those meetings. They go on and on, and we argue over dialogue, and I've got a scene I should be doing down in my office. You guys can do all that without me ..."

Ollie was gentle, gentlemanly, considerate of other people's feelings. I never knew him to utter an unkind word to a co-worker. When he and Frank retired from their first-floor animation duties and moved to a big third-floor office to write "The Illusion of Life," Ollie asked me to read an early draft. I did, and thought it was terrific. He expressed gratitude that I had taken the time. In reality, I was the grateful one, being allowed to read it at all.

He was the last of nine charmed lives that made magic on movie screens for a half-century, and now he's gone. Thanks for everything, Ollie. All of us are the richer because you graced the planet.

Addendum: The Disney press release lionizing Mr. Johnston is here.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Wages In That Other Animation Business: GAMES

Since video games dwarf the movie business, it's probably a good idea to pay attention what wage rates are over in that neck of the woods.

Game Developer Magazine has done a wage survey (not unlike TAG's own), and it's kind of instructive.

...[B]usiness and marketing leads the pack, with an average annual salary of $101,848, and experienced executives pulling in $132,305.

Okay, not exactly what a high-level television or movie exec makes, but not at all shabby. But what do Tech Directors (programmers) and animators (game division) make? Per the survey:

Programmers are a distant second with an average annual salary of $83,383, but they're also one of the most educated groups: 50% hold bachelor's degrees and 26% have completed some graduate work ... [A]nimation [is] at $66,594, Game Design at $63,649 ...

By way of comparison, rates from our most recent animation wage survey are a teensy bit different.

The annual wage for a programmer/technical director is $94,233.50

The annual wage for a 3-D modeller is $78,545.50

And the annual wage for 3-D animator is $87,272.50

To what do I attribute the difference? Part of it's that the 'toon business is more mature, and the age of people in it are older. Also that a large swath of television and feature animation is unionized, which makes a considerable difference, particularly in Los Angeles. Travel to other parts of the country where there is a minimal union presence, and the rates are lower.

The game industry has very little unionization.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Horton Keeps On Trucking

As noted below, there's one film in the world marketplace that continues to triumph:

With foreign box office in a pre-summer holding pattern, "Horton Hears a Who!" stayed on top for the third consecutive frame with $10.6 million at 5,300 playdates in 56 markets ...

Besides "Horton" and "21," only four other pics topped the $4 million mark ... Underlining the foreign appetite for family fare, "Horton" posted decent holdover numbers with a 15% gain in its French soph sesh to $3.8 million and a 7% hike in its fourth British frame to $1.2 million. The tale of the big-hearted elephant's hit $104.9 million offshore, joining "10,000 BC" and "Jumper" as the third U.S. title released this year to top the $100 million mark overseas.

Fox noted that "Horton" has far exceeded foreign perfs for previous Dr. Suess pics "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" ($85 million) and "The Cat in the Hat" ($35 million). With openings still coming in Italy, Japan and South Korea, the studio expects the CGI toon's final foreign cume to nearly match the domestic total, now at $139.6 million ...

So we know at least one thing. It's not live-action versions of Seuss for which overseas markets hunger, but the animated variety.

This bodes well for future employment in the 'toon biz, wouldn't you say?

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

El Box Office

The horror remake Prom Night sails to the top of the list despite the slashing lacerations given it by film critics. (And if it runs true to genre, it will nose dive in its second weekend.)

Nothing else seems to be busting the turnstiles. Horton now has $135.2 million in its domestic till, which makes it the only Top Ten flick north of the $100 million mark.

Update: Variety weighs in on the Sunday finals:

Sony and Screen Gems’ “Prom Night” terrorized the competish at the weekend box office, grossing an estimated $22.7 million from 2,700 theaters and scoring the best bow for a horror pic so far this year.

“Prom Night,” starring Brittany Snow and Johnathon Schaech, pulled off the move despite a generally soft marketplace for horror pics. More suspense than gore orgy, film won the B.O. crown by a wide margin on the strength of teens who took advantage of the pic’s friendly PG-13 rating.

Placing No. 2 in its bow, Fox Searchlight and New Regency’s Keanu Reeves-Forest Whitaker cop actioner “Street Kings” grossed an estimated $12 million from 2,467 runs, according to Rentrak.

Continuing to play a strong hand, Sony’s gambling drama “21” came in No. 3 in its third sesh, declining a narrow 28% to an estimated $11 million from 2,736 runs for a cume of $62.3 million. That gave Sony two pics in the top five.

But the overall slump at the domestic B.O. continued, sans the breakout hits enjoyed during the first part of 2007, including “300” and “Wild Hogs.” (“Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” is the only 2008 film to cross the $100 million mark; last year there were four.) ...

So there you have it. Except for the occasional animated feature, the movie business is having a sucky year.

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