Tom Sito looks into the late, great 2D renaissance with the birth of The Simpsons.
In 1987, producer James L. Books hired LA Weekly underground cartoonist Matt Groening to develop animated interstitials for Foxs Tracey Ullman Show. At first Fox wanted Groening to use his trademark rabbit, Binky from his regular Life in Hell comic strip, but Groening was reluctant to lose control of his bread-and-butter character. Instead, he developed a dysfunctional family he called The Simpsons. Rather than use typically low-paid TV animation writers, Brooks went into the world of big-time sitcoms and assembled a team of top writers. Groening used a team of brash young independent animators: David Silverman, Wes Archer, and Jim Reardon anchored by Disney veteran Brad Bird.
When I was packing to go to London to work on Roger, Silverman called me. He was working with Archer at Laser Media, a little company doing laser-light shows of things like The Devil Went Down to Georgia on the walls of Stone Mountain. He told me that he was going on to a new primetime animated show being designed by Groening. He said it would be called The Simpsons. I was skeptical at first because no primetime animated series had done well since Top Cat in the 60s. I also thought the name was anything but special. Boy, was I wrong!
The Simpsons became a phenomenon. It was the most successful show on television for more than a decade. Writers Conan OBrian and Larry Doyle left for other opportunities, but new blood came in and the show kept going. In 1992, when President George Bush, Sr., referred to The Simpsons derogatorily in a speech about family values, I prefer the family values of the Waltons, not the Simpsons!, people reacted by voting in droves for his opponent, Gov. Bill Clinton.
A new, hip tone took hold in television animation. The Simpsons, John Kricfalusis iconoclastic Ren & Stimpy (1991) and the output of MTVs independent animated showcase Liquid Television Peter Chungs Aeon Flux (1995), Mike Judges Beavis and Butt-Head (1992) sparked many imitators. Klasky Csupo had produced The Simpsons originally, but after it moved to Film Roman, Klasky Csupo was busy with its creations, The Rugrats and soon The Wild Thornberrys shows.
Cartoon Network started in 1990 and created a new audience for old 70s Hanna-Barbera shows like Superfriends and Space Ghost. Fred Seibert organized a shorts program at H&B to foster new properties. This program spawned series from some successful college student films: Dexters Lab, Johnny Bravo, Powerpuff Girls (originally the Whupass Girls).
Television boomed with half a dozen primetime and late-night shows in addition to the regular daytime and cable fare. Disney Channel and Nickelodeon went out to 80 countries, 24 hours a day.
The explosion of cable channels meant reduced fees that could be asked of sponsors. Where once the kid audience dependably were all watching Scooby-Doo or He-Man, now they were splintered among dozens of channels, Cartoon Network, Kids WB!, Nick, Disney, Boomerang, Discovery Kids, etc. Producers of animated shows could no longer ask the same rates from advertisers.
The feds in Washington also drove a stake into the heart of Saturday morning kid-vid with the Childrens Television Act, promulgated on July 11, 1996. The creation of long-time lobbying of such pressure groups as Action for Childrens Television (ACT), imposed such extreme restrictions on childrens programming (ACT chairman Peggy Charen singling out animated programs for special blame) that the old networks just stopped most animation production altogether. They switched to local sports and information shows. Most of the audience had gravitated to the cable stations like Nickelodeon and Disney Channel anyway.
Saturday morning television revenue, which had once been the reliable staple of the industry, plummeted. Ironically, audiences to the new cable channels were enjoying shows like The Flintstones and Space Ghost, shows their parents watched. Another effect of the Childrens Television Act was that nothing more edgy than an absolute G rating was banned from being advertised on childrens programming.
Japanese anime, which had disappeared from American screens since the days of Gigantor, made a resurgence when, in 1987, Jerry Becks Streamline Prods. distributed Otomos film Akira nationwide. Soon video stores, which had stocked one or two eclectic titles, now had whole sections devoted to anime and manga videos.
When I was working with Eric Goldberg on Looney Tunes Back in Action, I chanced upon two young animators at the test machine arguing over the movement of a Bugs Bunny scene they had just done. I said, Guys, stop and recognize where you are. You are animators at Warner Bros, in Hollywood, arguing how to draw a good Bugs Bunny scene. Savor this moment. In the 1970s we dreamed about doing something like this, and it may not happen again.
The Beginning of the End of the Second Animation Renaissance began when Walt Disney Frank Wells went on a weekend skiing trip on April 2, 1994. Wells was a big ski fan who had adopted the beautiful-people fad of avoiding the long waiting lines for ski lifts by chartering a private helicopter to fly to the more remote ski slopes. That morning Billy Joel and his wife, Christie Brinkley, had a scare when their helicopter developed engine trouble mid-flight on a similar trip. Undaunted, Wells resolved to push on to the slopes. His friend Clint Eastwood was supposed to accompany him that day, but Clint had to cancel at the last minute.
As Wells helicopter climbed higher and higher through the snow-packed Sierras, some loose packed powder blew off an overhanging escarpment. A freak ice ball was sucked into the helicopters air manifold, causing the engine to stall. The helicopter crashed and exploded, killing Wells instantly. Wells death sent shock waves among the power players of Hollywood. His death left a gaping hole in the Walt Disney Co.s top management.
After the grief passed, everyone naturally assumed that Jeffrey Katzenberg would move up and assume Wells position, as equal to Michael Eisner and Roy Disney, but Eisner said no. Katzenberg was stunned. The animus between Katzenberg and Eisner grew. Animation executives like Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher were caught in the middle. Their code words for these exchanges were that, Mom and Pop are fighting again. So, in late July 1994, just when The Lion King was exploding with success, Katzenberg announced he was exercising his contract option and leaving the Walt Disney Co. The artists at the feature animation division were stunned. What was going to happen now?
Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen formed DreamWorks SKG in early 1995 with animation as a central pillar of their company. Spielberg already had an animation studio in London called Amblimation where they had made the feature films American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991) and Were Back (1993). Before that, he had produced the Don Bluth films in Ireland An American Tail (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988) and with Warner Bros. he had produced the TV animation successes Tiny Toons and Animaniacs. To build DreamWorks animation, Spielberg brought over the European talent from Amblin London as the nucleus, while Katzenberg began aggressively wooing top animation talent away from Disney.
By the turn of the millennium, budgets and staff levels of animated feature films bulged. Its an old adage in animation that whenever a studio seems to get successful it immediately buys a large, expensive building and inflates the production infrastructure to the point where the maintenance overhead chokes the studio. Like castles in the sand, they fall with the first ocean wave.
When Hanna-Barbera was at its peak, the production staff was minimal. Even Walt Disney Studio Animation, in the Ron Miller-era, was administered by just three people and a man to hand out pencils and paper. Now, in Hollywood, every cartoon studios individual department needed a production manager, production coordinator, two assistant production managers and a cloud of production assistants.
New computers and tracking systems were developed almost per production. Instead of hiring one or two savants who knew where every one of the 1,500 plus animation scenes were in the pipeline at any one time, studios invested ruinous amounts on computerized tracking systems with tech support and additional staff to feed it information. Old animator Frank Thomas sighed: Ya know the difference between 1940 and now? In 1940 there were 50 artists to every lawyer, now there are 50 lawyers to every artist. And this entire overhead had to be reflected in the film budgets.
In 1977, the Dick Williams musical Raggedy Ann & Andy went over budget at $4.9 million dollars and Disneys The Rescuers cost $17 million to make. By 2000, animated film budgets were estimated a million a minute. Budgets of $147 to $200 million were not unusual. This was regardless if the film was drawn with pencils and paint or computers.
The demand from corporate owners and stockholders was that every film had to be a bigger blockbuster than the previous effort. Animation studios were not allowed to make a small film. Live-action filmmakers could have a hit, then a flop and then go on their merry way. A prestige film like Boys Dont Cry (1999) could rack up the accolades while doing little business, but the minute animated features hit a tough patch, industry pundits started writing epitaphs for the entire animation industry. The crew on Disneys Pocahontas (1995) were actually depressed after The Lion Kings box office soared to $100 million in just 10 days. It was like being a comedian scheduled to go on stage after a better-known stronger comedian. Everyone felt the pressure of the industry mantra: Bigger-Better-Faster-Cheaper.
The artists were smarting from overwork. Wrist wraps for repetitive motion illnesses, and carpal tunnel syndrome were common. Meanwhile, a number of producers, most of whom entered their jobs completely unaware of the animation process, began chalking up small fortunes.
As the millennium approached, tastes changed and the world audience finally tired of its steady diet of Broadway musicals à la cartoon. Test audiences groaned aloud when the first tinkly piano notes signaled an impending long song sequence. The studios scrambled to look for a successful new formula. They tried to create American anime, Japanese-style action adventure, but the mass-market nature of Hollywood meant animation could never be as edgy or implicitly sexual as Japanimation can be. In Japanese anime and manga, characters frequently are slain or mutilated to re-appear as robot entities like Mamoru Oshiis Ghost in the Shell. No matter how exciting a sequence was, no one ever seriously thought a Disney or Warner character would die.
In addition, by now dynamic new digital visual effects had moved back the borders between live action and animation. If the live-action Tomb Raider (2001) and the cartoon Atlantis (2001) had basically the same story, except one had sexy Angela Jolie and the other didnt, which do you think young boys would go to?
So, one by one, the new films failed to catch The Lion King Box Office Brass Ring: Dinosaurs (2000), Anastasia (1997), The Emperors New Groove (2000), The Road to El Dorado (2000), Atlantis (2001), The Iron Giant (1999), Titan A.E. (2000), Osmosis Jones (2001), Treasure Planet (2002), Sinbad (2004), Home on the Range (2004) Looney Tunes Back in Action (2003). All these films cost between $50 and $200 million each and performed poorly for a myriad of reasons.
While 2D hand drawn films sputtered, CGI studios like Pixar scored hit after hit. Toy Story and Toy Story 2, Ice Age and Shrek capped the CGI success and Klasky Csupos Rugrats films demonstrated you could now do a hit movie overseas. CGI also came to dominate advertising. Looking for someone to blame for the downturn in their fortunes, the big studios turned on their celebrity artists. Labor costs, i.e., those big salaries, were now trumpeted in the media as the main reason their films failed. Animators salaries would not account for all the costs, even at double their 1988 salary, that would only had doubled costs to $20 million, not $200.
The castles of sand began to fall. After Bakshis Cool World. Paramount abandoned animation; after a 10-year association 20th Century Fox got rid of Don Bluths Phoenix Studio and stuck to its 3D CGI efforts. After the financial disappointments of Quest for Camelot, The Iron Giant and Osmosis Jones, Warner Bros. scaled back its feature animation unit. They resolved to run it more like a live-action production, where artist crews would be assembled and let go project-specific, instead of maintained during down periods. The Warner animation building in Sherman Oaks had to sublet office space to reality shows like The Bachelor to pay the rent.
DreamWorks opened big and created an ambitious slate of animated films. The first big effort, The Prince of Egypt (1998) performed well but not great, The Road to El Dorado (2001) and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) disappointed and Sinbad (2003) flopped. The DreamWorks attempts at TV animation Invasion USA, Toonsylvania and Shrek 2 (2004) and Madagascar (2005). After the failure of Sinbad, Katzenberg called hand-drawn animation: A thing of the past.
In 2002, a new rift had developed between Roy Disney and Eisner. Citing a mandatory executive retirement clause, Michael forced Roy off the central executive board. On Nov. 30, 2002, Roy Disney and Disney family attorney Stanley Gold resigned after publicly calling upon Eisner to step down. They began an aggressive grass-roots campaign to oust Eisner from his chairmanship. They started a website, SaveDisney.com, which was regularly read by thousands of Disney employees and fans. The companys stockholder meetings turned into angry free-for-alls. Because the feature animation division was so close to Roys heart, many artists interpreted Eisners dismantling of the 2D staff as his way of getting back at him.
Something else besides was driving upper studio management. The attention the animators got in the Katzenberg-Eisner feud and the new feud between Roy Disney and Eisner had soured management on the cult of the celebrity artist. The studio began to de-emphasize the value of the performing animator and looked for cheaper means to make characters move. The animator was now to be a craftsman functionary like a stage carpenter, nothing more. New executives, brought to Disney fresh out of business school, bragged of their lack of understanding of the medium they were now placed in charge of. They could look at a high-quality film like Lilo & Stitch (2002) and a low-budget quickie and not see any appreciable difference. This enabled them to gut the Disney studio with a clear conscience.
Starting in 2003, the Walt Disney Studio laid off 1,400 workers and closed the animation wings in Disney Paris, Tokyo and Orlando. In 2006, they closed Disney Australia. The artists who created Ariel, Belle, the Genie and Mufasa were shown the door. The Disney artists remember March 25, 2002, as the day when the plans for the massive layoffs were made known. In September 2005, John Musker and Ron Clements, the veteran directors of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, ended their employment. Their goodbye party was held in the driveway of the feature animation building. Studio head David Stainton declared, I know John and Ron still have more classic films in them! But for the near future they would not be made for Disney.
Laid-off effects animator Dan Lund and his partner, Tony West, created a documentary of their experience called, Dream On, Silly Dreamer. It was screened for stockholders at a meeting in Minneapolis to thunderous applause. On Jan. 29, 2004, after 10 months of frustrating negotiations, Pixar announced it was walking away from any further contract talks with the Disney Co. Six days later Pixar chairman Steve Jobs criticized Disney animation, calling their more recent releases Treasure Planet and Brother Bear bombs and calling the studios cheap sequels embarrassing.
On March 3, 2004, at the annual stockholders meeting in Philadelphia a whopping 43% of polled stockholders demanded Eisner resign. It was the highest no vote ever recorded for a U.S. stockholders meeting. The meeting was webcast back to the Disney/Burbank Studio lot where office workers in the cubicles cheered the news. The next day, after 21 years Eisner stepped down from the chairmanship of the Walt Disney Co.
On Oct. 1 2005 Robert Iger superseded him. Roy Disney was re-instated to the Disney executive board. In January 2006 Disney and Pixar announced their deal. Pixar would be purchased by the Walt Disney Co.; creative heads John Lasseter and Ed Catmul would take over the operations of Disney feature and Imagineering. Lasseter announced an end of cheap productions and a trimming of the bloated executive infrastructure. Rumors abound that the warlords of Pixar want to make a 2D film at Disney just to prove it can still be done. Directors Musker and Clements were soon back at their desks. Friends warned Roy Disney not to hurt himself by jumping for joy too strenuously.
So, is hand-drawn animation a thing of the past? Or like synthesizer music, will audiences tire of the bright brassy luster and go back to wanting original instruments? As of this writing the Oscar contenders for 2006 include a stop-motion film, Wallace & Gromit, a traditional film Howls Moving Castle and a puppet film, The Corpse Bride. A compositor joked: Well, I guess CG is dead! The late, great, 2D renaissance is now history, but future history is still too unclear to see. There may be future 2D theatrical and TV successes, but they will be done as a consciously eclectic choice, like making a black-and-white movie.
Yes, Virginia, there will still be animation. It will still thrill and entertain, but there may never again be a time when big studio crews of hundreds of pencil-wielding artists so dominated as during the late, great, 2D renaissance. But then, we were told in the 70s it would never come back.
Further reading: Storming the Magic Kingdom, How Corporate Raiders Forced a Revolution at Disney, by John Taylor, Knopf, 1987; Making Toons by Allan Neuwirth, Allworth Press, 2003, pp 33-41; DisneyWar by James B. Stewart, Simon & Schuster, 2005, p. 178; Animatrix A Female Animator: How Laughter Saved My Life by Heidi Guedel, iUniverse, 2003 and Bourbon in My Coffee by Stefani Olivieri.
Tom Sito is an animator, teacher and co-founder of Gang of Seven Animation in Los Angeles. His new book Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of Animation Labor is due out this fall from University of Kentucky Press.