The Unhappiest Place
On Earth

By Judy Seckler
The Pasadena Weekly (CA)

Disney animators say company is sacrificing quality and artistry for cash-cow straight-to-video sequels
Over the course of five years, the Disney Co. has followed the ranks of other corporations and issued several waves of layoffs to, according tocompany officials, fight off the effects of a sluggish national economic climate.
Financial analysts have praised Disney for the cost-cutting measures that its executives have mapped to ride out the slump: closing 50 retail stores, cutting operating hours at theme parks, reducing movie studio costs and eliminating 4,000 jobs.
Then in mid-March, The Wall Street Journal reported that the company would lay off an additional 250 animators over the course of the year. These latest rounds of cuts at Disney have, in effect, cast company animators as sacrificial lambs, revealing cracks in the once happy "Magic Kingdom" as founder and cultural icon Walt Disney used to call his cartoon empire.
Many Disney animators from feature and video divisions gripe freely at union meetings, but refused to talk for this story. They know- as do reporters who have revealed the secrets and the inner workings of Walt's now extremely unhappy empire- that potentially serious repurcussions follow those who dare to criticize.
Case in point is the recent firing of reporter Nikki Finke at the New York Post. A pair of Finke's stories, "Pooh Scandal is Shred Hot," and "Deep Pooh-Pooh," detailed the long-running dispute over the North American royalties of Winnie the Pooh merchandise between Disney and Stephen Slesinger Inc. Unfortunately for Finke, the newspaper she used to work for is a subsidiary of News Corp., which is owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch, longtime friend and business associate of Disney Chairman Michael Eisner.
Finke has since filed a $10 million lawsuit against The Disney Co., News Corp. and the New York Post for intentional interference with contract, libel and slander.
According to her Pasadena attorney, Pierce O`Donnell and Shaffer, Finke included both points of reporting. Nevertheless, DIsney representatives complained about the story's inaccuracies, but never supplied examples to back up their complaints.
Finke was reported as saying the text she filed was altered in the editing process to include references to shredding and to reflect an increased inflammatory and snide tone.
Finke indicated she was not consulted when the editing changes were made.
The lawsuit filed by O`Donnell, a longtime entertainment attorney and onetime owner of the Pasadena Weekly describes the free press` role , per a ruling by the US Supreme Court: " to act as the public's eyes and ears..."and , the suit goes on to say," the public's right to know is placed above corporate interests and self protection. By attacking Finke, Disney and News Corp. have violated this fundamental principle."
So why can't Disney, an entertainment giant many times over, stand to take the heat?
Endangered animators say they have a pretty good idea of the answer. They believe the layoffs point to the increasing expendability of the company's creatibe workforce, whose efforts, they could rightly claim, virtually single-handedly built the foundation for Disney's later successes. While many animators have felt the financial pinch, many others say the pinch can be felt just as profoundly in the day to day creative meetings within the company.
Accusations run the gamut, from the studio using cost-cutting measures for its straight-to-video sequels damaging product quality, to executives meddling with the creative process, to pressure-filled creative presentations, to middle managers failing to demonstrate any love for, or for that matter any connection with, the "product" being created. There's even talk that the Burbank studio has plans to phase out its animation unit and do all the work out of the company's Orlando studios, say some of those same animators who are fearful of being connected with any public statements, critical or otherwise, about the company. Animators have said they've been told the summer release "Lilo & Stitch" would have to perform like "The Lion King" at the box office for the studio to reconsider its position. Those in the animation industry wonder if the studio will abandon its history of traditional animation for the computer-generated animation of "Toy Story" "A Bug's Life" and "Monsters, Inc.," all widely embraced by an entertainment-hungry public.
Animator Brian Mitchell may have coined a new term with the t-shirts he's selling online. The slogan "No more cheapquels!", his term for cheap animated sequels that the Disney Co. has produced for the straight-to-video market, is emblazoned across the merchandise.
Mitchell, who's worked on Disney's animated feature "The Prince and the Pauper" and TV animation shows "Casper, The Friendly Ghost" and "Animaniacs," among others, runs The Center for Character Animation, a small cartoon animation school on Long Island. He's logged in hours as an animator on five features for companies such as Disney, Warner Bros., Don Bluth, Hanna Barbera and VIvendi Universal. He designed his T-shirts to protest what he considers to be an assembly line of cheap, animated sequels that the company is churning out. Mitchell said the company is capitalizing on the success of its former high-profile films, like "Cinderella" and "Peter Pan," but its sequels have weaker characters and story lines and are made with lower quality animation.
The sequels have also been budgeted at at fraction of the cost of its predecessors.
Former Disney animator Dave Pruiksma said the studio is settling for lower standards because, by their very nature, most sequels lack originality. Mitchell blames executive mismanagement.
"Creative people and executives don't mesh," he said. " They're thinking dollars and cents." Mitchell described story meetings where executives throw out story suggestions to "justify their existence" and weaken story lines, making it difficult for creatives to keep a film's story on course. With executives so focused on profits, it's a tough climate to remain creative, the animators say.
"At-home video...the system is set up for failure," said Chris Henderson, associate producer of "Return to Neverland" the theatrical sequel to "Peter Pan." "There's no way an executive can give a project enough creative time. We'd do presentations every two weeks where you put your head on the chopping block- it makes you nervous," Henderson said.
Story artists and animators would walk away from meetings with their film full of story holes. The effect was putting "Band-Aids on Band-Aids," he said.
"In my best projects, executives give you the space. A lot of ego is involved. They think they're saving films. They're also good at dodging bullets and pointint fingers. Executives would say 'How did we get this crap?'"
And sometimes it is crap. Perhaps no one knows better just how poorly done these productions are than the very audience for whom they are marketed, the kids themselves, says Henderson and others.
One video store manager in North Hollywood said Disney'd videos are clearly marketing tools for the company. " The first five minutes of a video is all company product advertising. They don't care. It's obvious it's about making a quick buck. The sequels are nowhere near as good as the originals. They're terrible," he said.
Pruiksma, who walked away from a 2- year career at the studio, likens the process to "walking over the storyboards with golf cleats." Metaphorically, it's the animators who have to replace the divots.
"The more involvement they (the executives) have, the poorer the quality of the story. The animators are not talking about supreme rule. But the executives don't appear to have an original idea in their heads," said Pruiksma, who has worked on such hits as "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "Beauty & The Beast," "Pocahontas," "The Lion King," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and "Atlantis."
When Pruiksma packed up his bags in May 2001, he sent a departure letter by e-mail to his friends and colleagues. He began, " I feel it has been a dream come true and a great blessing to have worked in the animation industry and particularly at Disney Feature Animation for the past 20 years."
Pruiksma's letter continued, "I have watched with increasing concern and consternation as the artists of the studio were ever increasingly left out of the creative process to the point where their contribution was reduced to little more than numbers on a ledger. I helplessly watched as as projects not fully developed were pushed into production, despite the warnings of animation veterans, and saw millions and millions of dollars needlessly wasted. I have seen focus groups and business people steering the path of projects and effectively stealing the soul out of an idea right before our eyes."
Perhaps animator Phil Mendez, who provided the artwork for this story, put the Disney dilemna with its artists, best when he said," If you were an Eskimo and you didn't get to your destination would you blame the dogs?"
" The current prevailing attitude is let's do it cheap and fix it later," Mitchell said. " It's bad for business. If they could make a movie for $10 and get away with it they would. They get away with a certain amount of animation overseas. The studios burn through the animation and cut corners. I know the animators are trying bu there's a watering down (of product) and the public will start to turn off." All the animators worry that Disney, long synonymous with quality and good value, is straying far from its once extremely high standards.
"Walt was chemistry," Henderson said. Most present-day animators say that Walt Disney's talent was that he came from an animation background, and that he understood the medium and could back it up with intelligent and creative decision-making.
Jean Mohler, who worked as an executive secretary at Disney on and off for 27 years beginning in 1952, said Disney would check out the day's animation after everyone went home for the evening. "He would change things around. Animators would come in the next day and say 'Oh, he's been here again.' But it was always better. He had an eye," she laughed.
The studio's animation languished after Disney's death in 1966. When the management team of Michael Eisner,Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over the studio, one of their first forays into featura animation was to shape "The Black Cauldron," a 10-year project, into releasable form. The film's failure to ignite at the box office in 1984 sent animators' morale plummeting. Animator paranoia was accentuated by the studio's decision to move animation off the lot into a warehouwse in neighboring Glendale. Although a memo promised them the exile would only last two years, it took 10 ears before animators had a new building adjacent to the main lot they could call home.
Today, animators work in a corporate structure that has little resemblance to the one Disney prospered under. A movie studio is just part of a stable of diverse company holdings where the head of the studio is considered middle management.
Creative people complain that the studio is losing touch with it's family audience. "The last few traditional films such as ' Atlantis,' and 'Emperor's New Groove' have not been as profitable," said Pete Emslie, a Disney character artist who left the company in 1994. Emslie points to the marketing of "Atlantis" as its downfall. The film was narrowly targeted to appeal to the teenage boy market, and teenagers stayed away from it.
Disney representatives remain upbeat about animation's ongoing role in the company. Pam Coats, senior vice president of creative affairs in Disney Feature Animation, said the company has not made a secret of cutting it's costs. "We make a lot more movies for a lot less manpower, and we're not working on holidays," she said.
Her colleague David Strainton, president of Walt Disney Television and Video Premieres, said the company was attempting to improve the quality instead of cost cutting. TV animation and the video division had profited by the downsizing of feature animation "By moving into TV animation, it gives these artists a place to go. There used to be a wall between the two divisions. It's brought the two divisions together."
Strainton stands by the success of TV animation and videos. " If some people are upset, I don't know how to respond," he said.
Both executives described heavy schedules and long days. Coats had eight animated films in production and 25 films in development. " We go from project to project, whereas an animator is on one project," she said " In an ideal world, we'd just be on one project. We devote as much energy as we can to each," Strainton added.
Coats also dismissed the notion of executive apathy. "I work with people on 12-hour days and at least one day each weekend. They're passionate.They could make more money working at a financial institution. The only reason they don't is because they love the product," she said.
According to Coats, the end of traditonal 2-D animation is a myth. "We have a commitment to be the premiere animation studio in the world," Coats said. The studio will release an animated feature in fall 2002 titled "Treasure Planet" that combines 2-D and 3-D animation, she said. In addition, Coats said she had several 2-D and 3_d feature projects in development up through 2007.
The writing/directing team of Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois stands out as a bright spot amidst all the discord. Sanders, who has a 15-year career at Disney working on projects such as "Mulan," "The Lion King," and "Beauty and the Beast", and DeBlois, who was most recently involved in "Mulan" will roll out a new animated feature this summer titled "Lilo & Stitch."
The film has a strong story line and borrows traditional animation vocabulary that harkens back to the 1930's, from the character art to the use of watercolor art for the backgrounds. Lilo, a lonely Hawaiian girl, lives with her older sister/guardian, Nani. They adopt Stitch, an alien creature programmed for havoc, at the local animal shelter. The sisters adopt Stitch, mistaking him for a real dog. The bonds of family and affection finally take hold by the end of the film.
Sanders said the studio had room at its Orlando location to develop the project. Storyboard meetings were conducted via phone conferences every week. Most of the suggestions were constructive and the changes improved the film's story although he hadn't had the negative experiences described by those working in the straight-to-video department.
According to Sanders, he received tremendous support from Thomas Schumacher, president of Walt Disney Animation and Theatrical Productions, and there were no other layers of executives to deal with. "He kept the film off the radar screen.People say the film stayed quiet and pure. There was nobody in L.A. to blurt it out in a restaurant," he said. Sanders dismissed the idea of traditional animation being phased out. Rumors have spread rampantly with the help of the Internet of traditonal animation's demise. The gossip, on supposedly substantiated information, has no basis in truth, he said.
"I think there's always a fear when there's a leap in technology, that it's going to wipe clean what came before it," Sanders said.
"You can't predict but inevitably these two things are going to mesh together and constantly help each other because those guys who are doing 3-D all came from 2-D."
Conversely, the medium of 2-D had borrowed animation tools from 3-D. "You're going to see lots of different hybrid things," he said. Each style had its strengths, he said.
Steve Hulett, business representative of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonist Local 839, paints a different picture. "Traditional artists have been given their walking papers. It's a big, painful transition. They don't have long-term plans to keep traditional artists."
Many animators who began their careers after the "big boom" in 1994 never experienced economic downturns such as the climate that has hit the entertainment industry recently. "People always thought that their jobs would always be there. I hear how unfair and how `un-American` it is, but the bottom line is that the corporation doesn't care. If laying people off is what they have to do, they'll do it," he said. "There is no family, it's a ruthless shark tank."
Some animators who asked to remain anonymous say they were dumped from their contracts without fair warning, a condition of their contracts. Others complained of being treated like indentured servants. Hulett said some animators are willing to train for the year that it takes to transition to computer animation. Animated features like the "Toy Story" series, "It's a Bug's Life" and "Monsters,Inc." are where executives think the money is. Although Disney distributed "Toy Story," the innovative computer animation company, Pixar, made the film. And Pixar has its own stable of artists.
"The trend is so strong for computer animation. It's a lot cheaper and a lot less labor intensive," Hulett said.
A Fox executive told him that while most studios felt confident about taking a stab at computer animation , only Disney could do 2-D.
A telltale sign of animation's health occured at this year's Academy Awards show when the Oscar for animation went to "Shrek," a DreamWorks SKG film. "Even though `Atlantis` was eligible, the studio put up 'Monsters,Inc.' It was a stronger picture. It's ironic. It's the first time an Oscar was awarded for an animation film.
Disney's been the main player since animation first began and the studio's film didn't win. Seemed like a bit of a snub," Emslie said.



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