Unfortunately, the latest installment of Survivor doesn't take place at some remote tropical island. It takes place a lot closer to home in beautiful downtown Burbank, under a giant Sorcerer's hat, at the Walt Disney Feature Animation building, where last week another group of stressed-out castaways were voted off the show.
Forget the official Disney line that Feature Animation boasts a staff of 1,000 to 1,500 artists. In Burbank, there are only about 60 traditional 2-D animators left who actually pick up a pencil or a paintbrush, counting Layout, Animators, Clean-up and Background artists and Disney has no 2-D projects currently in production for them to work on. (Disney has a like number of survivors holding on in Florida, where a half 2-D/half-CG (computer graphics) project tentatively called My Peoples is underway.)
The vast majority of Feature Animation's artists have been reassigned to a computer or shown the door. It all points to Disney's next two animated features (this fall's Brother Bear and next spring's Home on the Range) being their last.
The latest cutback came two weeks ago, after 13 traditional animators submitted five scenes they had done on computer to vie for six 3-D spots left to cast on Chicken Little. The real controversy of this, noted an onlooker, is that they were pitted against one another and the playing field wasn't fair. Those who just finished the training program called 'Boot Camp' were up against those who finished Boot Camp six months ago and had more time to finesse, complete and present a more finished test. Also, they purposely entered more people into the training program, anticipating that the majority would fail at learning the computer. Well, they were terribly wrong! They all did great. Now they're worried because they don't know what to do with them because they already hired animators from The Secret Lab (Kangaroo Jack, the dragons on Reign of Fire). They hired them on the superficial qualities that they could do a lot of footage. Forget the fact that they can't do a lot of character footage!
Last week, six of the animators got the openings on Chicken Little. It looks like the other seven will get the boot. Consider the loss of talent:
Officially, most of the seven still work for Disney, since their contracts all end at different times (some extending into next year). But don't expect many of them to latch onto new projects too quickly, considering Michael Eisner's official decree: 2-D is dead.
Sure, Eisner's ominous pronouncement is just words. Unfortunately, his actions speak just as loudly. Consider:
Disney only has two pictures left under its current deal with Pixar, and Pixar's terms for a proposed extension include paying Disney nothing more than a distribution feeeliminating Finding Nemo-sized paydays for Disney, whether it retains Pixar or not.
With Pixar insisting their offer is firm, Eisner realizes he needs a backup planand he's seen how the average 2-D animated feature has fared versus the average 3-D offering.
What Eisner, et. al., is missing is that the most important factor in the success of an animated features has always been its story. A great concept, terrific characters, catchy music are important, too. The medium is absolutely the least important.
It's a lesson Disney forgot in the 1970s, when the Nine Really Old Men were doing pictures like The Aristocats and spending a lot less time crafting an original story than adding elegant flurries of animation.
That Finding Nemo is 3-D is the least important factor in its success. Yet, Disney is working on a short film now called Lorenzo the Cat (possibly for Fantasia 2006), which will be hand-drawn and then computer renderedeven though some who have seen the work-in-progress say the rendering takes the life out of it. The computerization is being done not to improve the film, but solely to give it a computer look.
Animation historians know that Disney's golden erasof animation were all kicked off with princess stories (Snow White, Cinderella, Little Mermaid).
If ever there were an opportunity for hand-drawn animation to show its stuff, it would be with a princess story.
Well, Disney has another well-known princess story in developmentRapunzelbut wants to use motion capture, the quasi-animated computer technique used in the sci-fi bomb Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within.
A few months ago, as production was winding down on Home on the Range, Disney sold off the animators' furniture.
Animators were still working on the production when their desks were spoken for. Those lucky enough to keep their jobs have been relocated to cubicles to work on a computer.
I heard they kept the 'old' animation desks in a warehouse somewhere. They're almost like antiques, said an insider. The sale was a first come/first serve basis. It was quite haunting to see the majority of the newly-built animation desks just sitting there, waiting to be picked up. I can't imagine they will do 2-D animation any more, because the overhead alone in desks, etc., would be the budget!
The empty offices were quickly usurped by unknown administrators and the 20+ vice presidents that now oversee Feature Animation.
Eisner has expressed interest in reanimating Disney's classic 2-D features in 3-D.
A computerized Pinocchio, anyone? (In fact, much of the 3-D character animation for Walt Disney World's upcoming Mickey's PhilharMagic was so badin particular Ariel from The Little Mermaidit had to be reanimated by 2-D animators, then transferred into the computer.)
The tens of millions of dollars lost on Treasure Planet are fresh on Disney's mindand executives are bracing for the worst with next spring's Home on the Range.
The film's production cost could exceed $175 million, in part due to story problems, a change in directors, and a delayed release (it was pushed back after Brother Bear.)
One insider said he wouldn't be surprised if Home on the Range is criticized as Disney's worst film since The Black Cauldron. One of the notes that came back from the preview screening said that the movie 'was more boring than church!' It's a shame that Disney is going to go out with Home being the last example of what Disney can do.
Feature Animation president David Stainton continues to stress, We should have fun, because good films come out of a fun atmosphere!Meanwhile, he spends his time trying to figure out whom to lay off next.
He hasn't exactly displayed Walt-like instincts for success, either. He had new plants placed on every staircase landing in the building, reportedly on recommendation of a Feng Shui consultant. He also was overheard to say he couldn't understand why Finding Nemo was such a big hit.
(That didn't stop them from hanging Finding Nemo window stickers all over the lobby at the Feature Animation building, as if they had absolutely anything to do with the picture. Do not expect Pixar, come April, to grace its lobby with pictures of cows from Home on the Range.)
Before leaving, Stainton's predecessor, Tom Schumacher, held a meeting in which he admitted that he didn't know where animation would be in five years. Will there still be hand-drawn animation? Will it all be done on computer? Will it use motion capture?
Astoundingly, Schumacher thought Disney would be just fine if it killed off traditional animation. He noted that he received several e-mail messages complimenting him on Ice Age. His attitude was that if so many people think that everything animated is from Disney, the Disney name must be in great shape and there was no need to worry.
That this encouraged him terrifies me. What those compliments would tell me is that, whether through others' advances or Disney's neglect, other studios have caught up to Disney. How long will Disney pretend that it has a competitive advantage in animation if people can no longer tell the difference between its products and those of its competitors?
Morale seems to be at an historic low.
Management views its talent as a liability instead of an asset. When Schumacher found out that one of the top animators was unhappy, his first response was not What can we do to make him happy? His reaction was, Why doesn't he just leave?
In some ways the exodus is reminiscent of the late 1970s, when Don Bluth got so fed up with the misdirected department that he rallied more than a dozen of Disney's best animators and quit. The main difference is that today if Glen Keane or Andreas Deja organized a mass walkout, instead of being angry, fearful and despondent, Feature Animation executives would probably throw a party. (Ironically, the day after the latest cutback, the animation building's lobby was decorated with balloons.)
Today's survivors are like the walking dead. Remember the residents of the Pridelands after Scar took over, waiting for the return of Simba?
Said one long-time animator: I feel that what is going onor rather not going onat Disney is truly historic. Basically, Disney will never do hand-drawn animation again. Or at least not for a very, very long time and to the qualities and standards they have already established so far.
Looking around his floundering surroundings, he added, It's ironic that they modeled the building after a shipwith porthole windows and riveted doors... kinda like the Titanic. The only difference between Disney and the Titanic is that the Titanic had an orchestra!
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.