Search form

An Afternoon with Max Howard, President, Warner Bros. Feature Animation.

Heather Kenyon interviews Max Howard, President, Warner Bros. Feature Animation, on his thoughts about the creation of a state-of-the-art studio, its' second feature Quest for Camelot, and the future of the animated features business.

Max Howard, president of Warner Bros. Feature Animation.

When Warner Bros. created a Feature Animation Division, they appointed Max Howard as President, charging him "to pull all of the elements together." Starting as a child actor in his native London, Max moved up through the world of theater, eventually becoming a well-known producer. In 1988 he joined the Who Framed Roger Rabbit team as General Manager. Relating the animation process to theater terms helped Max to move up quickly in the animation world. He came to Warner Bros. after a successful nine years as senior vice president of Administration and Planning for Disney's Feature Animation Division. In that position, he supervised the financial, training and operational aspects of the Paris, Orlando and Los Angeles studios. Perhaps most importantly, during his years at Disney he was instrumental in the creation of their Florida studio. Hired by Warner Bros. in June, 1995, Max began to construct a solid production team and formula. Commissioned to grow the studio from its beginnings, 600 employees were hired within the first 18 months.

On Wednesday, March 18, 1998, Max sat down with me in his spacious Glendale, California office to share his thoughts on the creation of a state-of-the-art studio, its' second feature Quest for Camelot, and the future of the animated features business.

Heather Kenyon: What were the biggest challenges you faced when setting up an entire animation studio from scratch?

Max Howard: Let's explain the time. Everybody was getting into the animation business and there really weren't enough people working in Southern California to support all of the animation at the studios. Everyone had to look further afield. We all recruited from around the world and we all invested in training programs. So, that was the number one challenge: talent.

Number two was the actual infrastructure itself. We've all had to come into animation at an artistic level that has been set by another company. A lot of their technology is proprietary, so we had to create ink and paint, pencil test and tracking systems. We had to find the talent, and then the technology that the talent needed in order to make a film. But because we were starting from scratch, there was an opportunity to go one step further. We wanted to take it to the next level because we were about to spend money on capital equipment. Whenever you are investing in technology, you try to go a little bit further.

What I think has helped to define and advance the studio by probably 18 months to two years ahead of our business plan, was Space Jam, which was completely unexpected. Quest for Camelot was green lit just before I arrived. Space Jam, for us, happened just a little bit afterwards. Our involvement was probably because of my experience on Roger Rabbit. We immediately applied the infrastructure of our studio, which was still in its early implementation stage, to Space Jam. In the end, the fact that we put out a film 18 months before we had planned has been such an important thing.

Quest for Camelot's protagonists, Garrett and Kayley, with the two-headed dragon, Devon and Cornwall. © Warner Bros.

From our and the public's perspective, `Here comes Warner Bros. Feature Animation, a new division.' The first thing they do? A film with the classic characters but using new technologies. Perfect! It was a great scenario for me to talk publicly about our studio, because I know that nobody compared us to our competitors. We never got into a, "Can you unseat Disney?" scenario (as though that should be some sort of goal of ours which of course, it isn't). Those questions were never asked of me on Space Jam because the Looney Tunes characters are so obviously part of our heritage. We were bringing them to the big screen for the first time in the form of a feature. It really got us ahead of the curve. We did delay the release of Quest because we applied so many resources to Space Jam. We were originally going to release Quest in November of 1997, and we delayed six months, I think fortuitously. We've got a much better slot going in May. Disney's Mulan comes out in the middle of June. We have no competition in terms of other animated films.

HK: You are one of the few executives to have seen a film, literally come from nowhere, to fruition. What are your feelings on the verge of the release of Quest?

MH: Well, I don't feel it's our first, because of Space Jam, which is the most important thing. Yes, it's picture number one in terms of our original business plan, and the first film we selected to make, but in terms of the crew I now consider I have veterans of Warner Bros. Feature Animation.

However, I think, that if you've got a film coming out, you're always nervous about it, about how good it is. If you get over-confident about it and think, `It's gonna be great. Everyone's gonna rush to see it,' then you're tempting fate. Audiences have seen Quest in preview and we got a great response. I just returned from a trip to Europe, showing the film to promotional partners and licensees and it really works playing in other cultures. I know everybody at Feature Animation, and at all of Warner Bros., has worked very hard to support the film.

HK: The rumor is that kids love it, that kids really respond to it.

MH: The response has been fantastic and from moms and dads too. As in a preview, we don't just bring kids in on their own. Consider, do parents take their kids or do kids take their parents? It's very important that the film works for us on different levels and that the parents are pleased that they made the decision to see the film. There are also elements in the film that have good ethical values, which I think parents are appreciating. The moms and dads have a good time watching the kids have a good time, plus there are elements in the film which allow them to enjoy it directly.

HK: The project has certainly been high profile since the very beginning. For instance, just the voice talent roster is amazing. Every character is a major star. Do you feel that Warner Bros.'s loudly-voiced commitment to animation helped to obtain such quality talent from voices to artists? Were there other contributing factors?

MH: A lot of these artists have worked extensively with the company. Nobody becomes associated with something unless they believe in it and think it is great. Our cast reflects that. Certainly, early on when you go and talk to actors, because you start with the voices, you're asking them to be there at the beginning when nothing is moving. What's been very good for us is showing the finished film to those artists and watching their response.

For me, to have John Gielgud in the film as Merlin is just wonderful. He is the greatest living actor. You know, he's in his 90s and still so professional. We use that word very loosely I think, but it really is extraordinary that a man of that age has such an amount of enthusiasm and focus. It'sincredible. We also have Cary Elwes, Bryan White, Gary Oldman, Don Rickles, Eric Idle, Jane Seymour, Pierce Brosnan, Bronson Pinchot, Gabriel Byrne, Frank Welker, Jaleel White; and some great young talent like Jessalyn Gilsig who does the speaking voice of Kayley. I think that was our balance, making sure that we have our star names, but also people that really feel right. Kayley's singing voice is Andrea Corr, from an Irish band called The Corrs. If you go to Europe you'll see them everywhere. They have a huge following, and will soon break here in a big way. HK: Looking at the future...The buzz around The Iron Giant is great. We're already getting e-mails from people wanting to know what we have heard about it. What can you tell us about it, and the types of projects you think Warner Bros. Feature Animation will be pursuing in the future? MH: Hopefully, they will all be different. I know that is a sort of glib thing to say, but just look back on our very small slate of films: The Iron Giant is incredibly different to Quest for Camelot, which is incredibly different to Space Jam. I hope that we're going to do films that have the ability to have an edge to them. We have a wonderful freedom at Warner Bros., a freedom that comes from not having a franchise in the same way that Disney does. There's a name there that brings an expectation of their product. Now, take me near the Looney Tunes, and the responsibility is huge, but we don't have a ready-made audience who will come and see the film because it has Warner Bros. on it. Disney does, very deservedly, have that. There's an upside as well as a downside to that. The downside is that we don't have a ready-made audience, but equally, there's an opportunity to explore other avenues.

One of Quest for Camelot's more foreboding villains, Devon. © Warner Bros.

I believe The Iron Giant falls into that other avenue. It is different. We set it in a more recent time. It's not today, but certainly it isn't the sort of `hundreds of years ago' that we're used to with animated films. The characters don't break into song, although the music is part of it. The film also has a very innovative animation director in Brad Bird. We have the right combination: the right property, Brad's vision, the right studio, and we bring them together. Going full circle with the whole recruiting effort, there are people who really want to work with Brad on The Iron Giant. He's recognized as someone that's very special. The goal is that we do an animated film every year. That's a goal that I saw realized at Disney when I was there in 1986. That goal of doing an animated film didn't really hit until 1988, with Oliver & Company. In terms of new management, everybody arrived at Disney in `84, so it took some years before that system was enacted. In animation, films have traditionally come out every two or three years. Our goal is to come back every year. If sometimes, it's 18 months, that's fine, but that will be essentially because we're saying, `Okay, this is a summer movie,' or `That's a winter movie.' We've got to find the right window and consider what other films are going to be in the marketplace. HK: How do you think the studio will change in the future? MH: We're in constant change. What I hope, which could be applied to any business, is to learn continually from what we're doing. To refine the production process and continue to work on quality of life issues for the working crew are most important. Animated films take so long, and there's a great pressure on family and friends. Unlike live-action films which are essentially, for many people, a three-month process, animation can be very intensive. We would want to continue to improve at getting the script better prepared for production, having more inventory, and less time sitting around with nothing to do at the beginning and then less time later. That's on a practical basis.

I see a trend in the industry. In the past, we brought a crew in that became fixtures. They went from film to film. They were just allocated to a director and told, "This is you're next film. This is what we're making. This is what you're working on." Now the director builds a crew to make a picture. Hopefully, the crew is the same, and goes from picture to picture. But essentially that whole mandate of being able to say to the director, "This is the film we'd like you to direct. Who would you like as your crew?" is a live-action model. But I think it has great potential for animation. You don't necessarily apply that through all areas, and in fact some departments need to go from film to film, but I think the key artistic leadership roles are the crew that make a film. Today, you don't have to sign some sort of endless contract. You can come and go. Do a film there, come back, do a film here. HK: Do you think digital production will reduce the number of artists you use? Or do you think that because the audience is seeing all of this animation, they're going to get more and more sophisticated? MH: I think it gets more and more sophisticated. In theory, if, for example, the digital paint systems that have been introduced in the last five or six years were used to recreate the hand-painted films, it would be a significant reduction. The reality is that you push it, you add more colors. You have colors with neat inclines and blurs. You couldn't do it in the past because either you couldn't physically do blurs, or indeed, there was a finite number of colors that you could afford to paint on a cel. There was a finite number of layers of cels that you could photograph, without the ones on the bottom going blurry and the color not coming through. There were limitations that have been removed. Ultimately, we have to control costs. There has been a significant increase in the costs of making these films. The cost of labor has gone up dramatically, because there's been a shortage of talent. Somewhere in all of this is the middle ground. We all want to make lots of types of animated films. If they continue to get more and more expensive, then you all have to make a similar type of film; a film that everyone will love, all age groups, and it must work in every single ancillary market. There's a danger of not being able to succeed if we're all doing imitations of each other. HK: There is no denying that the competition out there is intense and it's only going to get stronger and stronger as more and more studios come into play. How is Warner Bros. going to handle this? How are you going to compete? MH: Remove the idea that an animated film is different to any other type of film. You say that there are 200 or 300 live-action films. There used to be one or two animated films. Now, there's going to be four or five animated films. In terms of the whole, that's negligible. My kids want entertainment. If it's good, they'll go, even if they've seen two animated films in the same week. So, perhaps some of the opportunities to promote your films and make them all event movies will be curbed, which is why the costs of the movies has to be controlled. If they all have to be huge event movies, and have to make incredible amounts of money to make them work, then yes, there's a problem. There's different ways to look at it. If you say there's a 400 or 500% increase in the number of animated films being made, then it's terrifying. But it isn't. It's the whole number of films being made and animation is just one technique. Particularly when you start seeing the blur, the crossover, of animation into live-action, which is why opportunities for the artists working in the industry at the moment are enormous. The computer doesn't draw. An artist draws. They use the computer as a tool. The Iron Giant character is CGI. What do we do? We teach our 2-D animators how to utilize software programs so they can draw using software. I need a performance. Animators give the performance. They understand how to act. Not how to turn the head, but when to turn the head. The subtlety is required and it is acquired from the animator, whether that's 2-D or 3-D.

HK: What, if anything, did you learn from the release of Anastasia? Was it a promising forecast because Anastasia did well? MH: I think it did great. It was really good for all of us. We have to learn to look at each other's success as beneficial for us all. Obviously, we'd like to be number one, but there's no point in being number one if there's no number two, number three, and number four. I hope that people will stop worrying about whether the audience will want to see more or less animation, and just start thinking of animation as a technique for making movies. When it's obviously animation, we say, `Can you flood the market?' but when the animation isn't obvious, we don't even think about it. You can put Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Space Jam, Titanic, Jurassic Park, and Men in Black in the same arena, and say they're all live-action films containing animation. Titanic is the most extreme example. It's full of animation, but it's not compared. Audiences go to see something because they have heard it's a great story, a great film. How it's brought to the screen is transparent to the audience. There is a stigma that the animated film is for children, but everybody alive grew up with animation. [Viewers] should be able to graduate from that and see animation used in other ways. Go see a live-action film. There's many films you might think don't have any CGI shots, and then you sit through the credits and suddenly, a CGI house will come up. Of course! It's everywhere. Today live-action is the template for the animation. Shoot the live-action, then off we go! Now it's up to the animators to create all of those elements that weren't shot in live-action. HK: You have a point. People don't say, "Oh, there's 16 live-action films coming out!" MH: Right, people don't say, "Oh, let's stop using the camera. It's the camera's fault." Is the animation at fault? No, it just didn't work. The story wasn't right. You're blaming the wrong thing. You're blaming the tools, and that's incorrect. Animation, in all of its forms, is just a great technique for telling certain types of stories. But going back to your question, all I can do, or all anyone can do at DreamWorks or at Fox, is worry about what we're doing, what our films are. The whole Warner Bros. organization is enormous. It is this great, well-tuned machine that's used to market and distribute pictures. All I can do is utilize these strengths, and all I can worry about is the product that I'm producing, not what they're doing. Heather Kenyon is Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Magazine.