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Sunday, September 18, 2005

'Disney Moves Away From Hand-Drawn Animation'

The NY Times has a fascinating piece today that chronicles Disney's turbulent transition from hand-drawn to digital animation, in anticipation of November's release of "Chicken Little," the studio's first computer-generated film produced in-house. (IE, not by their partners at Pixar.) The story opens by describing a summit in April 2003 that brought together two opposing camps at the studio: the pencil pushers and the mouse jockeys. Fifty animators convened to debate the pros and cons of hand-drawn versus digital. It was called "The Best of Both Worlds" seminar - quite a diplomatic name.

Some snippets from Laura Holson's piece:

    "...[A]t the end of [April 2003, David Stainton, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation,] lobbed another grenade. He told more than 525 employees gathered at a town hall meeting that the studio would stop making hand-drawn movies for the foreseeable future. Those interested in computer-generated animation could sign up for a six-month "C.G. boot camp."

    "What I was saying to them was, 'You've got to embrace it or there isn't going to be a place for you,' " Mr. Stainton said. (That's him at the left in the photo, posing with Piglet, center, and Richard Cook, right, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. Photo courtesy of The Laughing Place.)

    Some animators resisted. "There was a period of time here when they were buying computers and we never really saw anything," said Chris Sanders, the director of "American Dog" who created "Lilo and Stitch." "You're like, 'Well, do we have computers?' 'Yes, we do.' 'Really? Where are they?' 'They're around.' 'Where, exactly?' 'Downstairs.' 'So, computer animation, we can we do that?' 'Uh-huh.' 'Like theirs?' 'Uh-huh.' " Mr. Sanders laughed. "It went around like that."

Wall Street analysts think "Chicken Little" will prove a major turning point for the entire Disney organization:

    From a psychological standpoint, 'Chicken Little' is very important for Disney," said Hal Vogel, a financial analyst who has covered Disney for years. "Everything is touched by animation and if they don't refresh it, it becomes frayed at the edges."

There's a cutting quote in the story from Glen Keane, a Disney animator who worked on "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid," and is now working on a new movie called "Rapunzel Unbraided."

    "I loved 'Shrek,' " Mr. Keane responded. But the characters, particularly Princess Fiona, looked plastic to him. "Every frame of that film was a bad drawing to me, personally," he said.

Toward the end, Holson points out that the animation biz has gotten a lot more competitive - a trend that's bound to continue.

    In 1995, only six animated movies were released - half of them from Disney, according to the company. By contrast, nearly 20 animated films are expected to be released in the next two years - three from Disney. That has led some Wall Street analysts to suggest that as animated movies become more mainstream, they will no longer command the huge profits that studios have enjoyed from them.


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