Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Disney Abandons Traditional Animation??

That statement seems unthinkable but after reading the inside story, I can only conclude that it's already happened! The only hope would be to remove Michael Eisner and do a complete 180 of his policies - i.e. rehire an army of laid off artists. Read on and you'll see what I mean.

Last year, Disney/Pixar released "The Incredibles", a great action/adventure comedy that was originally planned as a 2d animated film. Not being a huge fan of 3d computer animation, I didn't run to see it right away - but when I finally did - WOW! It was terrific! I later read of the many traditional 2d techniques that were applied to the characters' creation and movements. The film even included a cameo of Frank & Ollie, legendary animators and writers of one of my favorite books: Illusion of Life - a virtual textbook of Disney animation.

The Incredibles simply looked terrific in 3d and most is certainly earning tons of money, just like it's predicesors Finding Nemo and Shrek I & II. Thus bringing us to the sole motivating factor behind Disney's decisions: money.

Two years after the fact, it finally came to my attention that they had closed the doors on their Orlando Animation Unit at MGM as well as their Feature Animation departments in Burbank and all over the world!

Ever since the Florida studio first opened back in 1989, I had wondered what it would be like working on staff as a feature animator - but then imagined it might be somewhat awkward, considering that the artists were continually being watched by tourists behind the glass at the theme park. That would have been a minor concern as I later learned.

I finally had a chance to tour the studio in 2002 and was impressed by the quality of work being produced there (Lilo and Stitch, Brother Bear). Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad being an artist in a fishbowl afterall. It was however noticably quiet, with only a few artists walking about in the mostly empty studio. The tour guides simply said that most of the staff was on "hiatus". I later learned the true story of what had been happening there with nearly 260 artists put out to pasture in favor of cutting back on feature production.

It seems that the overwhelming success of 3d computer animated features caused the Disney suits to rethink their commitment to the standard medium. A handful of the misplaced Orlando artists were moved to other studios. Some have been incorporated into 3d projects but most were just plain sent packing.

During my visit, I spent a little time talking to one of the artists in the cel-art shop as he drew Jessica Rabbit for me. I asked if he'd ever considered working in the animation department. He recoiled with a decisive "No way!" followed by horror stories of Eisner and his massive layoffs. No wonder Walt's nephew Roy quit in protest. What the Mouse corporation intends to do from now on remains to be seen but the sad, undeniable truth is that there are currently no 2d animated features in production ... or even being planned.

Recently during the Rose Bowl, a commercial aired featuring 3d versions of all the classic Disney characters (Mickey, Goofy Donald, Dumbo) making their way to Disneyland for its 50th Anniversary Celebration. It looked ok but I couldn't help but shudder as I watched the blobby floating genie and comtemplated the evident death of Disney cel animation as we know it.

Now you can imagine how I choose to answer when I'm asked that age old question: "Why don't you work for Disney?" -SJS

Here, are some links so you can read the whole story for yourself: