Karen Raugust looks at how Disney and other studios are re-energizing their staffs and positioning themselves for the on-demand future with a steady stream of animated shorts.
Animated shorts are seeing a resurgence of late. Disney and DreamWorks are among the studios joining Pixar which has been regularly producing shorts for years with an increased focus on the format. They view shorts as a way to develop talent, test technology and stretch creatively. At the same time, demand for short content is likely to increase with the rise of new distribution technologies, such as cell phones and video iPods. In fact, this is already happening to some extent, although studios suggest these platforms are not a priority for their short-film programs yet.
Disney has been producing shorts for 100 years. Although it halted serious production in the early 1960s, it continued to issue shorts sporadically over the years, ranging from Rollercoaster Rabbit (1990) to Runaway Brain (1995). Five years ago, the studio released Fantasia/2000, essentially a compilation of shorts, which led to several subsequent short productions including Destino (2003), One by One (2004), Lorenzo (2004) and, most recently, The Little Matchgirl (2006).
Shorts had been under the jurisdiction of Disneys special projects department, which is responsible for theme park animation, commercials and feature support. Recently, however, the studio set up a department, which has three full-time employees and reports to Don Hahn, producer and executive vp of creative development, solely dedicated to this form.
John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, who came from Pixar to run Disney Feature Animation after Disneys purchase of Pixar earlier this year, strongly support the production of shorts at Pixar and are doing so at Disney now as well. Weve been making shorts all along, but with the new leadership were organizing it in a better way, says Chuck Williams, the producer charged with setting up Disneys original shorts program.
The internal pitch process recently put in place to evaluate ideas from Disney staffers is somewhat different from the studios former Gong Show format, where would-be directors had three minutes to pitch an idea and then got a yes-or-no callback a few weeks later. Now the process is more interactive, with potential directors pitching three ideas in a half-hour period to a team called the story trust. The format is more a conversation than a straight pitch, Williams adds. Its not to root out the best idea in the building. Its about who is this person, and are they ready? Were looking for the next Tim Burton hidden away in a dark corner.
Williams estimates hes spoken with about 100 people so far about potentially doing a short. We have about 800 people here at Disney Animation, and 600 of them want to be directors. The other 200 want to produce, he offers. While all this interest will generate good ideas, it also must be managed, since the studio will greenlight very few of these ideas. What do you do with all that enthusiasm and not turn it into disappointment? Williams asks.
The answer is the Shorts Club, a formalized version of a process that had been in place for some time. An internal website is set up to give employees a forum to post their ideas and receive notes back, place help-wanted notices for shorts theyre working on, offer their services for other employees shorts, and barter time on each others short films.
Disneys new shorts department expects initially to produce one film a year, to be released in conjunction with the companys animated features; executives are currently seeing three people two days a week over lunch to find a project to accompany next years release of Meet the Robinsons (on March 30). Ultimately, the studio may add a second short per year, which probably would be released with one of the studios live-action family films.
Future shorts could include anything from experimental films to shorts starring classic characters such as Donald Duck and Goofy. Williams says he found nearly 600 un-produced shorts in various stages of completion in Disneys Animation Research Library, and wants to revive some of those.
But there will be no assignments; ideas will be circulated and if filmmakers are passionate about one, they can pitch it. Its become a real director-driven medium around here, says Hahn, alluding to Pixars immediate impact. Its about filmmakers helping other filmmakers make great films, adds Williams. Its really a peer-driven process.
Shorts at Other Studios
Pixar has had a shorts program since its inception as an animation studio and even before that overseen by the same department that creates animation for promotional partnerships and theme parks. In fact, shorts are a big part of its corporate culture, and that obviously wont change with the Disney merger. Were very committed to keeping our culture healthy and the way it is, says Osnat Shurer, exec producer and head of Pixars shorts group. Our culture is beginning to permeate Disney Animation rather than the other way around. Pixar is supporting Disney as it sets up its shorts department, but the two groups will remain separate.
Pixar, which began as a technology company and division of Lucasfilm, initially produced shorts as a way to show off its products. Its first short, Luxo Jr. (1986), was intended to promote the company at a SIGGRAPH convention. But attendees who saw the film didnt ask about the product. Instead, they were interested in the story, wanting to know whether the lamp in the film was a mother or a father lamp. That demonstrated to the company the power of storytelling, leading Pixar to make additional shorts. Geris Game (1997) was the first short Pixar released after it started producing feature films.
Other recent Pixar projects include For the Birds (2000), Boundin (2003) and One Man Band, which Pixar will release theatrically and on DVD with this summers feature, Cars. It expects to wrap its next short, which is likely to accompany the studios next feature, Ratatouille (opening June 29, 2007), in a few months. Pixar currently completes one short film per year; the schedule depends on the features, with much of the work on shorts squeezed in between feature productions.
DreamWorks debuted its first major original short, First Flight, written and directed by Cameron Hood and Kyle Jefferson, in limited release with the feature Over the Hedge in New York and L.A. in May, after some exposure at film festivals. The studio also has created some commercial shorts based on its feature properties, and many of its employees have created their own short films. PDI also completed several short films before it was acquired by DreamWorks.
The creators enthusiasm, along with the quality of the film, convinced DreamWorks to greenlight First Flight. We knew we were going to make this short somehow. That was clear, says Bill Damaschke, DreamWorks head of creative production. He reports that more than 80 DreamWorks artists contributed to the project.
&articlesSince First Flight, weve put a process in place, although sort of loose, Damaschke continues, explaining that a team of directors has agreed to meet regularly and consider ideas for shorts. If the property is right and resources are available, the studio would do another one, says Damaschke. He adds, however, Theres no official plan to make x number of shorts per year.
Sony Pictures Imageworks also has produced some shorts recently, and although it doesnt have a specific plan for future projects it is willing to discuss at this time, the idea of shorts is and always will be an area of great interest, says Tim Sarnoff, SPIs president.
The ChubbChubbs (2002) was originally conceived as a pipeline test to help determine the studios strengths and weaknesses in producing all-CG animation within the Imageworks production environment, according to Sarnoff, who says, By design, The ChubbChubbs presented a multitude of technical and artistic challenges. The concept for the short, which won the Oscar in 2003, came through an open call for ideas. Another Imageworks project, Early Bloomer (2003), grew out of a storyboard class in Imageworks training program.
Some smaller studios, too, have been actively producing shorts over the last five years. Blur Studio, for example, has completed four shorts and is working on a fifth. Aunt Luisa (2002), Rockfish (2003) and In the Rough (2004) were all shortlisted for Oscar nominations, and Gopher Broke (2004), which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival this year, was nominated. The studio is currently working on Gentlemans Duel, a complex seven-minute film, according to Tim Miller, Blurs creative director and president.
The first production, Aunt Luisa, came about when the studio found itself suddenly with some down time from service work and decided to produce something of its own, long a goal at Blur but unachieved due to time constraints. After the film was Oscar-shortlisted and received positive feedback from the industry, the company decided to institutionalize a shorts program. It holds a contest each year to select the best short-film ideas submitted by studio employees; the first production to come out of the contest, which generated 30 entries in its first year, was Rockfish.
While no studio views its shorts program as a profit-generating enterprise, there are many non-financial benefits. One of the most important is developing talent. Working on a short film allows people to stretch in new leadership roles, taking on additional responsibilities as a first-time director, lead animator, production designer, and so on. They may then move on to assume those roles on a feature. Were developing directors for five, six, seven pictures out, Williams says.
At Pixar, Doug Sweetland worked for the first time as a lead animator on Boundin, and later became a supervising animator on Cars. Similarly, the director of For the Birds, Ralph Eggleston, is a production designer and art director. While he did not have ambitions to direct features, Shurer says, his experience directing For the Birds has had a positive impact on his feature design work.
Its the same entire process, but condensed, explains Shurer, who points out that pitching a short, whether or not the studio greenlights the idea, offers a valuable opportunity to receive notes from some of the leading lights of 3D animation. Its a little expensive as a way to train, but its paid us back, Shurer maintains.
Another goal of a shorts program is to get the creative juices flowing and keep employees fresh and motivated. After working on a 3D feature, which takes three to four years to complete, being assigned to a short gives a team a six- to nine-month break. Its a chance for a cleansing sorbet before the evening meal, Hahn says. And it gives our up-and-coming talent a chance to shine.
It gives filmmakers at the studio the opportunity to work on something that means something to them and to give it their personal vision, adds Damaschke. Lots of filmmakers have a personal idea that may or may not lend itself to a full feature treatment. A short allows them to exercise their talents in a format thats more manageable and in some ways easier to accomplish.
For a service agency like Blur, its a chance for us to be our own client, so we can flex our own creative muscles, Miller says. Shorts offer an opportunity for the animators to do something more creative and with more storytelling than game cinematics or other service projects. In fact, a lot of talent has come to Blur specifically because of its shorts program, Miller reports. Its a huge morale booster.
Meanwhile, creating a short film allows for experimentation with styles, music genres and characters. [Shorts] present a rich environment in which we can explore ideas, characters and techniques, Sarnoff explains.
Studios often use short films as a relatively low-risk way to test new techniques and software, too. Blur is switching from 3ds Max to SOFTIMAGE|XSI for rigging and animation, for example, and is using Gentlemans Duel as a test run for the new set-up. Similarly, Pixar created Geris Game as a way of practicing with skin, cloth and other attributes needed to create a CG human, which hadnt been done well up to that point.
Its a great way to test technology and put it into actual production, Shurer says. It forces your hand in making the technology viable. And the stakes are a bit lower [than for a feature film].
For a small studio, especially one doing primarily service work, releasing short films helps put the company on the industrys radar and illustrates what it can do. It shows people were storytellers and not just story executors, Miller explains. The work can generate more service jobs as well; Miller says Blur was hired to animate commercials for Dannons Danimals brand because of Gopher Broke, which appears on its demo reel.
Consumers can see shorts from Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks in theaters before feature films from those studios, as well as on the subsequent DVD releases. Were fortunate for them to get in front of our features, Shurer says, noting that this exposure strengthens the Pixar image and allows a lot of people to see the production, even though it doesnt add to theater owners or the studios profits directly.
Our brand is known for over delivery, Shurer comments. As part of that, the studio tries to add extra value to both theatrical releases and DVDs. The DVD of The Incredibles, for example, features five hours of additional programming, including Boundin, which also was shown in theaters before the film. One Man Band will be shown in front of Cars theatrically, and will be included on the Cars DVD, along with another short, directed by Lasseter, derived from the film. Does that translate directly to dollars? asks Shurer. I dont know.
Disney has included original shorts on its feature DVDs as well; The Little Matchgirl will appear as part of a Hans Christian Andersen retrospective on The Little Mermaid special edition DVD in October. While the studio hasnt often released shorts with features in recent years, it is planning to follow in Pixars footsteps and do so starting with Meet the Robinsons in 2007. It also plans to release a compilation DVD box set of Oscar-winning and nominated Disney shorts in the future.
The festival circuit is another important means of exposure for shorts. Williams notes that film fests are one of the few opportunities for animation professionals at Disney, whose Little Matchgirl will screen at 50 to 75 festivals, to meet with their colleagues outside the studio. For a big company like us, thats important, he says.
Damaschke notes that while DreamWorks always participates in the major vfx and animation festivals, doing panels, presentations and screenings, its shorts allow it to get involved in other events, where the focus is not necessarily on animation. First Flight, for example, screened at the Tribeca and South by Southwest film festivals.
New Media Opportunities
With the explosion of new distribution channels for animation, such as video iPods and video-capable cell phones, there is will be an increasing need for short content that can be downloaded or streamed. The demand and market for shorts does appear to be expanding and there is an increasing opportunity and marketplace for original production of short form entertainment, says Sarnoff, who adds that Imageworks is open to all appropriate new media distribution opportunities.
Both Disney and Pixar have some of their shorts available for sale on iTunes, and Hahn believes these types of distribution opportunities will grow over time. [Shorts are] a perfect format for that, he says. Its not a business were looking at for today or tomorrow. But its a piece of it.
More important, however, is the payback of the shorts program in terms of talent. Were trying not to justify it as a business model, Williams explains. We look at it as a long-term development cost in training.
Blur has gotten many calls about distributing its shorts over the iPod and other new media platforms, says Miller. But he cautions, No ones shown me a revenue model that shows the moneys there. He also points out that viewing a theatrical-quality short film is not the same experience on the tiny screen.
Wherever it is distributed, an animated short is a unique art form. Its not a taste of something bigger, its its own thing, stresses Shurer.
And thats perfect for certain concepts. As Hahn says, Some stories dont demand 90 minutes of screen time.
Miller adds that shorts are a perfect venue for experimentation and taking risks. Theres a lot of benefit to doing shorts to put yourself on peoples radar, he says. But you cant gear shorts to what you think is marketable and people will buy. I think thats the wrong reason to do it. Its a place where you can take some chances.
Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).