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Producing Animation in the Third Millennium

The Producers Guild of America's New Media Council recently put together a panel of industry heavy hitters to discuss Producing Animation in the 21st Century. Greg Singer was there to take down the details

Joel Kuwahara, producer of WB's Mucha Lucha, would like to see television animation revitalized with more independent projects instead of remakes of older properties. Photo credit: James Ng.

Joel Kuwahara, producer of WB's Mucha Lucha, would like to see television animation revitalized with more independent projects instead of remakes of older properties. Photo credit: James Ng.

Driving along the highway through Burbank, California, if you dont blink, you might glimpse the heavenward spire of an overgrown sorcerers hat. This Fantasia-inspired architectural curiosity sits perfectly at home on the Walt Disney Feature Animation studio lot, and it is where Mr. Roy Disney himself sets up office everyday. It also happened to be the venue for a special industry event on August 17, 2002, sponsored by the New Media Council of the Producers Guild of America. The focus of the days seminar? Something unassumingly titled, Producing Animation in the 21st Century.

Naturally, one hundred years ago, it would have been impossible for animating entrepreneurs to imagine how the medium would look today -- or, for that matter, the cultural context in which it would be created and commercialized. So, it is with a similar sanguine myopia that we squint toward the next one hundred years, and continue in the great animation tradition for imagining the impossible.

The four-hour panel discussion was expertly hosted and moderated by Catherine Winder, noted co-author of Producing Animation (Focal Press, 2001). Winder has served as a creative executive with Fox Animation, helping to oversee the establishment of Blue Sky Studios feature development. Winder was also the founding producer of HBO Animation and its acclaimed animated series Todd McFarlanes Spawn; as well as the producer of Peter Chungs Aeon Flux for MTV.

An Introduction to Many Aspects

The days event was intended, in part, to explore the breadth of animation currently being produced. With this in mind, the panel was introduced, and asked to give their seasoned insight on "their" present-day niche within the industry.

Lori Forte, producer of Ice Age, feels that humor is one of the most important traits an animation producer can possess. Photo credit: Sam Urdank. © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

Lori Forte, producer of Ice Age, feels that humor is one of the most important traits an animation producer can possess. Photo credit: Sam Urdank. © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

Don Hahn, whose distinguished career with Walt Disney Studios began in 1976 on Petes Dragon, has helped to produce such films as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, among others. Hahn spoke briefly on the increasing overlap, and blurring, of live-action and animated filmmaking. The techniques for one kind of filmmaking almost inevitably benefit the other: whether in terms of using live-action editing styles, camera movements and other visual language in animated stories; or using storyboards, animatics, digital effects and set construction in live-action. Almost every major movie that we see today incorporates, in some fashion, an animated complement or make-over.

Lori Forte, who also began her career with Disney, was the producer behind Fox Animations Ice Age, shepherding the project from script to screen. Forte gave her perspective and experience on what it means to bring a story idea all the way from development through delivery. Unlike other mediums (e.g., television or even live-action features), the process for crafting an animated story can sometimes be downright glacial, which suits her just fine. From a creative standpoint, being able to mold and hone a story over the several years of its production is not only challenging, but rewarding.

John Walker, formerly an associate producer with Warner Bros. on The Iron Giant and Osmosis Jones, is currently a producer with Pixar, working on Brad Birds new action-adventure comedy The Incredibles. Walker offered an overview for how traditional 2D skills and processes are translating into the increasingly favorable and sexy medium of 3D animation. In contrast to the typically rigid, linear planning associated with 2D films, 3D animation allows for a bit more freedom and flexibility. Whereas 2D animation involves only designing environments that the camera will see, 3D building, texturing and lighting generally requires much more attention to the tiniest possible details of a shot. In some respects this is good, because one can essentially then shoot coverage for their scene. Yet, in trying to streamline the 3D process, some of the 2D sensibility for shot planning is coming into play, such that a team can scale back on the amount of global detail that its modelers and texture artists need to create.

Charles Grosvenor, producer/director of the direct-to-video franchise The Land Before Time, explained in detail the process of creating home video features. Photo credit: Flammarion Ferreira.

Charles Grosvenor, producer/director of the direct-to-video franchise The Land Before Time, explained in detail the process of creating home video features. Photo credit: Flammarion Ferreira.

Charles Grosvenor earned his stripes at Hanna-Barbera from 1978 through 1992, first as model designer and layout artist, and then later as supervisor and associate producer for such television series as The Pink Panther and The Smurfs. Now, for the last several years, Grosvenor has served as the producer and director for Universal Studios successful direct-to-video franchise The Land Before Time. Grosvenor discussed the pipeline for creating home video features, explaining that the process is very straightforward without much time or room to reinvent the wheel. Still, even within its modest budget, with proper planning and strategic use of resources, a quality of vision can be brought to the final product, both in terms of artistry and story.

Richard Raynis has produced extensively in both animated primetime television for The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Futurama, and in childrens television for Men in Black, Ghostbusters and Starship Troopers, to name a few shows. While differentiating between the two kinds of programming, Raynis emphasized the live-action half-hour comedy format that much of todays adult-targeted animation is built on. He explained that, for traditional 2D television series, following the standard production model of the last 15-20 years, much of the story is worked out and refined during pre-production, before being shipped overseas for actual animation.

Joel Kuwahara, who oversaw animation production at Icebox.com, brought to the table a glimpse into Mucha Lucha, the frenetic and flamboyant Flash-animated kids show, which is leading Kids WB! to a number one ratings spot. With a roughly $300,000 budget and 8 weeks schedule per episode, Kuwahara highlighted the differences in production methodology of Flash-based versus traditional properties. Macromedias Flash software is used in building character models, storyboard and backgrounds, and then this pre-production is shipped, via ftp, overseas for animation. Dailies are received, again via ftp, with some in-house fixes and revisions made at the end of the whole process. The overall pipeline remains in the computer, from start to finish, helping to shave off time and money in producing the show. Unlike the slower process of traditional television animation, with its inevitable rushed retakes, more accurate and timely creative feedback can be given, according to Kuwahara, using the digital production model. Because the animation files are vector-based, the show is also immediately available for scaling and outputting to various platforms of distribution.

Obie Scott Wade is presently a development consultant for Disney TV Animation, as well as a writer on projects for other studios. Wade, formerly the creator and producer of the award-winning Web series Julius and Friends, based on the characters of Paul Franks clothing franchise, broached an insightful and inspired look into the potential of trans-media (i.e., the opportunity to extend a property across various markets of commerce and exhibition). In articulating his fascination and interest for creating immersive spaces (for example, for museums and theme parks), Wade described one interactive exhibit he helped to produce, where a computer tracks the shape, position and movement of a visitors shadow against a screen. From this information, animated butterflies flutter around the visitors silhouetted form, coming to rest on the edge of the shadow or to dance away, as appropriate.

Stephen Fossati, last but not least, co-founded Chuck Jones Film Productions with Chuck and Linda Jones, producing theatrical short cartoons for Warner Bros., and executive producing Chuck Jones online series Timberwolf. Currently developing a computer animated television series based on the well-known work of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey, called Gorey Tellers, Fossati talked about the merits and challenges of working on short-form animation. Given oftentimes small or nonexistent budgets, short films require a great amount of discipline and commitment. It can be difficult to go back and make changes once production is under way, so it is essential, Fossati suggests, to plan down to the frame every intended movement and moment. Perhaps one of the failures of many short animations, including those produced for the Internet, has been a lack of rigor in taking short-form animation seriously, with the attendant challenge for crafting a complete story, with beginning, middle and end.

"Trans-media" opportunities was the subject of Obie Scott Wade's talk. Photo credit: Timothy Fielding.

Everyone Has An Opinion!

From here, the conversation opened up to an overview of producing for animation, in more general terms, with a question being posed and then everyone throwing in their ideas and opinions. I'll recount the answers to three of the most pressing questions.

While it is assumed that producers have creative control over production, this, as Don Hahn light-heartedly admits, is an illusion. The fact remains that any show is a huge collaboration, with directors, artists, executives and technicians all contributing. Rarely will a project be the singular vision of one individual. (At the end of the day, this is part of the magic and miracle of the medium, in cajoling out of the slow-motion emergency of production some collective act of creation.) What, then, are the traits of a good animation producer?

Without hesitation, Lori Forte answers, Humor! Over the haul of four years, one has to help maintain enthusiasm and focus, in mediating and compromising among everyone, with as much grace and patience as you can muster.

Stephen Fossati agrees: Patience. Its such a long process, from concept to completion, you have to constantly remind yourself that even though youre bored seeing [the project] for months and months, the audience will still appreciate it.

Veteran Disney animation executive Don Hahn spoke about the overlap between live-action and animated filmmaking. Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Veteran Disney animation executive Don Hahn spoke about the overlap between live-action and animated filmmaking. Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.

You have to work with everyone to include them in ownership of the film, Don Hahn comments. A producer serves as a kind of buffer or middle man, Hahn says, in protecting artists and executives in each of their sides of the process.

Because so many intensely creative minds are involved, Charles Grosvenor remarks, It is a very delicately balanced team, and has to be respected.

John Walker says, Setting priorities is paramount. It is a very delicate process, getting everyone to work together. Quality itself is never a problem. Artists, by their nature, seek to do their best work. Its usually more a problem of too much quality, in one place. We need artists who are creative, but who are also able to work within parameters, limitations of budget and schedule, and who can accept direction.

In pitching animation ideas to studios or executives, the consensus was to sell your vision. What kinds of properties are producers considering and choosing for animation?

Lori Forte answers, Things that would be impossible or prohibitive in live-action coupled with engaging characters and story, of course. I tend to look for features that appeal to all ages.

Don Hahn adds, Plus, animation should provide an iconic world, or fantasy space, that you can inhabit

Artistically, John Walker suggests, we can do more here in the States than we have, as already done in Japan. Perhaps in echo of the rhetorical question of why paint a tree when you can photograph it, Walker comments, Its like what Brad Bird says, in that animation offers the same possibilities, or more, than live-action. Brad just happens to prefer to tell his stories through animation.

Richard Raynis, producer of both primetime and children's animation television, sees corporate branding as a major trend in TV animation today. Photo courtesy of Richard Raynis.

Richard Raynis, producer of both primetime and children's animation television, sees corporate branding as a major trend in TV animation today. Photo courtesy of Richard Raynis.

In approaching or encouraging financiers to invest in a film, what distinguishes a project with a $5 million budget versus one with $50 million?

Everyone agreed that animation, from an investment standpoint, is a high-risk business, but one with potentially great returns, in the form of ancillary materials, video rentals, serialization, and the like. The common wisdom deems that you get what you pay for, but when looking at films such as those of Hayao Miyazaki, one realizes that cost does not have to limit artistic integrity. Conversely, a lot of money does not guarantee that a film will be entertaining, successful, or have a good story.

Lastly, in the opinion of the panelists, what is the state of the animation industry?

For television, says Richard Raynis, There has been a lull for primetime, and a movement towards branding, as seen with Cartoon Network.

Joel Kuwahara says, I understand that recycling older properties is done for purely business purposes, but I would like to see more independent properties given a chance to grow, a chance to revitalize television animation.

In being able to take advantage of asset libraries, more 3D television animation may also be on the way, if costs can be amortized over the course of forty episodes, or mitigated with the help of overseas studios.

The Internet seems, for the time being anyway, to be defunct with regards to commercial animation. There is some indication, however, that the revenue model is changing, returning to the successful early paradigm of television, where shows were individually sponsored by companies or promotionally underwritten by other funding sources.

As far as direct-to-video animation is concerned, we can expect more of the same. Original properties, without pre-awareness, may have a difficult time finding a market, but with steady video and DVD sales, including the persistent and pioneering example of Big Ideas VeggieTales franchise, the opportunity is real.

Concerning big screen feature work, everyone felt that 2D animation would always be around, and not elbowed out of existence by an encroaching 3D style. It is ultimately a matter of directorial choice, and both styles serve as interesting and strong ways to tell their stories.

Wrap-Up

Following the days panel discussion, which was filled with informational gems, given the special venue of the event, we were treated to a handful of clips from Disneys upcoming animated feature Treasure Planet. (Hint: Martin Shorts robot character may appear 2D, but he is 3D-constructed and animated, and seamlessly integrates with the other onscreen 2D action. Ah, we nod in recognition, the future.) All seminar attendees were also treated to a stack of film titles on DVD, generously donated by the participating studios, including Universal Studios, Disney and Twentieth Century Fox. Now those were some nice bonuses!

As we sit, however uncomfortably, on the cusp between the 20th and 21st centuries, we can rest in the knowledge that, as long as we have life in our lungs and stories to share, animation will have a growing and vibrant future in our cultures media.

With other fledgling outlets for animation only beginning to peek-a-boo over the horizon of our fancy and imagination, including portable devices, on-demand programming channeled through our televisions and game consoles, or some real-time holographic deck where we will all congregate, the possibilities are beyond our immediate forecast. Sometimes, truly, the future is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.

The New Media Council was formed in May 2002 to encourage the confluence of traditional and new media entertainment. Council members are some of the most experienced producers and production leaders in the fields of digital filmmaking, iTV, animation, gaming and Web development. The Council serves as both a resource to those interested in learning more about the New Media Council's practice areas, and as collaborators with conventional producers interested in expanding their production and/or distribution capabilities. The seminar was produced by PGA New Media Council board members: Iyan Bruce and James Fino.

For more information about the PGA and their upcoming events, visit their Website at: http://www.producersguild.org.

Greg Singer lives in Los Angeles and loves animation.

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