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Moving Forward in the Wake of Disney Orlando Closure

Orlando animation professionals look ahead in the wake of Disneys January shutdown.


The Good Ole Days: Lilo & Stitch and Mulan showed what Florida had to offer. © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

The closure of Walt Disney Feature Animations Orlando, Florida, operations on January 12, 2004 and the associated layoff of 250 people came as a shock to the central Florida animation industry. Many former Disney employees subsequently have moved from Orlando to seek jobs in California, Canada and even India, some permanently and some leaving their families behind in the hopes of returning. Others have left the animation business altogether or are trying to survive as freelancers. Meanwhile, a handful of former Disneyites have launched new studios, hiring a few people initially and hoping to use additional animators on a project basis.

Disney Orlando employees had heard about the troubles at Disneys worldwide feature animation operations, including massive layoffs in California and at the companys Paris- and Canada-based studios. Closer to home, they had taken pay cuts and seen smaller layoffs of Orlando workers. But many believed that Orlando would be exempt from any large upheaval because of its strong track record since it was established in 1989.

Orlando had begun as a satellite operation with between 50 and 100 animators, working on Roger Rabbit shorts including Rollercoaster Rabbit. After successfully completing portions of Beauty and the Beast, among other feature projects, the studio built a reputation for quality and was able to pitch Florida-developed projects, such as Mulan and Lilo & Stitch, to the studio. By 1998, the Orlando animators, which numbered 400 at peak times, had their own four-story building and seemed to be going from success to success.

It was this history that made the closure so surprising. At a minimum, animators thought they had until the completion of A Few Good Ghosts (a.k.a. My Peoples), at least a year away, before any significant cuts would occur. Even then, the generally accepted worst-case scenario was that Disney Orlando would be reduced to a satellite capacity of 40 to 50 people, like it had been in the early days. Virtually no one thought the studio would be shuttered completely.

The biggest shock came a month prior to the closure, when Disney announced it was ending production on A Few Good Ghosts. While the company cited creative problems as the reason, Orlando animators point out that other films, like The Emperors New Groove, had faced more significant challenges but the studio had invested what was needed to overcome the difficulties and finish the film. The new regime at feature animation, however, with David Stainton replacing Tom Schumacher as the divisions president, supported an altered strategy, animators say.

The stoppage of A Few Good Ghosts came without warning. That was upsetting and disheartening, said Tom Bancroft, a former Disney and Big Idea animator and now a partner in Funnypages Productions, which is relocating from Orlando to Franklin, Tennessee.

After production on A Few Good Ghosts ended, the studio took a month to ponder the future of Orlando. When the decision finally came, it was a surprise and it wasnt a surprise, said Rob Corley, Bancrofts partner at Funnypages, who was working on My Peoples/A Few Good Ghosts. Many people were expecting that after My Peoples, that would be it.

Its a culture shock, says Jeffrey Varab, founder of Genesis Orlando, a nearly four-year-old 3D studio that has hired and trained some former Disney employees. Theres sort of a pseudo-security when youre at a studio. He notes that while there are always ups and downs in animation, people who joined the industry within the last 10 years caught a rising wave and are adjusting to the new realities of the marketplace.


New Directions

Disney kept staffers on salary for three months after the closing, opening up the editorial department and archives so employees could update their reels, and selling equipment ranging from desks to LunchBox systems (for pencil tests) to animators at a significant discount. Recruiters from studios such as Pixar, ILM, DreamWorks and CORE Animation of Canada immediately came to Orlando. It was like buying a Disney animator cheap, said Bancroft.

A Disney-seasoned veteran is a pretty prime opportunity for a studio, says Corley. Its not just about the talent and the classical training, but about a professional production mentality.

A lot of people are leaving, which is sad, Corley continues, adding that many of those who have decided to stay in Florida for personal reasons are finding jobs outside animation. Clean-up artists, in particular, have limited animation experience and, with 2D on a downtrend, their choices are really limited as far as animation goes.

According to several animators, Disney offered a select number of supervisors and tech people one-year positions in L.A., without a guarantee of future work and often without paying moving expenses. Many took the company up on the offer since they saw more opportunities in California, no matter what happened at the end of the year. If one project dies, you can rest assured there will be others, Corley says.

Even after 15 years, Disney remained one of the few games in town for animation. There are several small commercial 2D and 3D houses in Orlando doing animation and storyboarding, and Electronic Arts Tiburon Studios in nearby Maitland is a successful developer of interactive game franchises such as Madden Football and NCAA Football.

Genesis Orlando, founded by Varab, an ex-Disney supervising animator, is committed to CG animation. While working on Eight Crazy Nights, Varab says, I realized then that the traditional market just seemed to be getting slammed left and right. Prices were declining and demand wasnt there. So he decided to focus on 3D production.

Jeffrey Varab founded Genesis Orlando, which recently struck a marketing and licensing deal with Chryslers Jeep for original property Tugger, the Jeep 4x4 Who Wanted to Fly. © Genesis Orlando Inc.

Jeffrey Varab founded Genesis Orlando, which recently struck a marketing and licensing deal with Chryslers Jeep for original property Tugger, the Jeep 4x4 Who Wanted to Fly. © Genesis Orlando Inc.

Genesis has been doing subcontract jobs for Burlington International and other clients while developing proprietary properties over the last three-plus years. It is currently launching several in-house-developed projects through deals with corporate marketers. You have to apply some marketing ingenuity when approaching a market with an idea, Varab explains. You need brand recognition, even with a new character. Genesis, which has grown from a staff of three to almost 30, recently announced a marketing and licensing deal with Chryslers Jeep division for Tugger, the Jeep 4x4 Who Wanted to Fly, an original Genesis property, and with the Build-a-Bear Workshop for a CG-animated feature film for late 2005, among other alliances.

Studio Start-Ups

Several studios have risen in the months following the end of Disney Orlando. Many were in the planning stages prior to Disneys announcement, but circumstances accelerated the timing.

One of these new ventures is Project Firefly Animation Studios, which launched in March as a 2D and 3D house based at Universal Studios Florida. It was scheduled to open after the cofounders contracts with Disney expired in about a year. We were forced to act more quickly, says president Dominic Carola. We knew we wouldnt have this chance again to follow our dream. Fireflys other cofounders are Paulo Alvarado, Gregg Azzopardi, John Webber, and director of business development and finance Glen Gagnon.

The studio will take on work-for-hire projects as well as developing family content, and is currently in negotiations for three projects including a TV series and a percentage of a 2D feature. Studio size will be project-driven, with the companys first job requiring as many as 25 people and the feature as many as 65.

Another new animation studio is Raven Animation, a wholly owned subsidiary of the publicly held Raven Moon Entertainment, producer of the syndicated series Gina Ds Kids Club. We do some animation for Gina Ds Kids Club, and we wanted to expand on that with some terrific new projects that are fully animated, says Joey DiFrancesco, ceo and exec producer, along with Bernadette DiFrancesco, at Raven. The company started its animation division around the time of the Disney layoffs and hired some of its eight staffers from the Disney group. (Mike Gibilisco is on board as Raven Animations director.) The company plans to hire other animators as needed.

Ravens animated properties, mostly spin-offs from the Kids Club, include Mr. Bicycle Man, with former Disney animator David Murray signed as lead animator and writer, The Cuddle Bug Cousins, The Bobo Blocks and The Transistor Sisters; a PSA on childrens safety featuring Mr. Bicyle Man is going out to U.S. stations this month. Raven also plans to do contract work for outside companies.

Project Firefly Animation Studio had to accelerate its schedule when the founders were let go from Disney.

Project Firefly Animation Studio had to accelerate its schedule when the founders were let go from Disney.

Corley and Bancroft started Funnypages Press as a comic book company a couple of years ago. The idea was to allow the partners to explore some of their own ideas without violating non-compete clauses with Disney; they had intended to open an animation division, Funnypages Productions, after Corley finished A Few Good Ghosts, but sped up their plans after the shutdown. The studio, launched in March, is doing several work-for-hire projects as well as pitching its own properties, including Bancrofts Opposite Forces and Corleys BoyRobo. Funnypages works with publishers, music companies and animation distributors, positioning itself as a bridge between various media.

Like others in the Orlando community, Funnypages is moving out of the area. The relocation to Tennessee allows the company to be closer to many of its clients; several are Christian music, publishing or entertainment firms. One is Forefront Records-EMI, for which Funnypages is working on its second animation job. It intends to use Orlando animators as needed and employed 30 former Disney animators and clean-up artists on its first project.

One of the new operations that started up after the Disney closure, Legacy Animation, already shut its doors in May after just five months in business. There is no official word about why, but most in the Orlando community believe it is due to the pullout of a major investor. Founded by Eddie Pittman, Legacys stated mission had been to continue the story-driven, 2D animation tradition created by Walt Disney. The studio had three projects in development and a short film, Lucky, in production.

Speculating on the Future

There are differences of opinion about whether the Orlando area can sustain a vibrant animation community post-Disney. Some observers believe the lack of a union (Florida is a right-to-work state) will keep salaries too low to attract good people, point to the dearth of post-production houses and other service bureaus, and mention the low amount of local competition, which leads to higher prices. This, they say, is an important point, especially with more work going to places like India. They also point to the fact that there is no established network, as there are in cities where the animation business is bigger.


Raven Animation has benefited from the former Disney talent in the Florida area. Projects include The Transistor Sisters (left) and Mr. Bicycle Man, a PSA. © 2004 J+B Di Francesco. All rights reserved.


These members of the community are pessimistic about whether the new studios can succeed, forecasting that many will not last long enough to see the next upswing in demand for animation. They believe that animation professionals with families to support would rather relocate to somewhere with more opportunity than take their chances on a risky new venture.

On the other hand, many Orlando-area animation professionals, including those launching studios, have a more optimistic perspective. We can produce animation a lot cheaper than New York or L.A., argues DiFrancesco, pointing to the lower salaries and cost-of-living expenses. The Florida lifestyle also will attract and keep many people in the area, observers believe.

Varab cites the growth in animation schools in the Southeast, including the DAVE School and Full Sail in Orlando, Ringling School of Design in Sarasota, Florida and Savannah School of Animation and Design in Georgia, as another promising factor. These are great new film and animation schools putting out great emerging talent, he says. Combine that with the great tradition of talent coming out of Disney, and its an opportunity for the beginnings of a great little community.

There also is a certain sense of community and mission on the part of the new studios, not only to keep Orlando animators working, but to support story-driven, family entertainment in the manner of Walt Disney. We rarely do a job where we dont call on at least one of our friends from Florida, says Bancroft.

Adds Corley, We want to try to help as many people as we possibly can. Thats everyones goal. But we have to be realistic.

I think its really important to work together and support each other, Varab concurs, noting that Genesis has offered to outsource for Project Firefly if needed. We have a lot in common and its good for the industry.

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).