Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Two Eras of Disney Animation Layoffs

"Sleeping Beauty" (1959) Disney's last hand-inked animated feature. From its release until the introduction of digital ink and paint, Xerography prevailed in House of Mouse long-form cartoons.

There were two dark periods of job losses for employees of Disney Feature Animation.

The first was in the time of the founder, Walt Disney; the second happened at the tail end of "The Second Golden Age" of Disney hand-drawn animation, when Michael Eisner wielded the scepter inside the kingdom.

Regarding the first: The 1950s was a time of expansion for Walt Disney Productions. After a tenuous corporate existence in the 1940s, the company successfully expanded into live-action production (Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, etc.), television (Disneyland, The Mickey Mouse Club, Zorro) and a cutting-edge amusement park, but its core competency -- animation -- was getting cut back. Shorts were phased out in the second half of the fifties due to rising costs, and Sleeping Beauty, Walt Disney Production's wide-screen animated epic from 1959, was so expensive that it failed to turn a profit.

Disney veteran Dave Michener, an assistant animator at the time, told me:

I remember seeing Walt down in front of the animation building just shaking his head, saying "What happened?"

Shortly after, the department had 2/3 of its staff cut, going from over 500 artists to 160. The feature immediately after Beauty was 101 Dalmations, and cost a fraction of what the wide-screen fairy tale was produced for. (Walt Disney hated the look of Xerox and much preferred hand-inked cartoons, but he knew he had to reduce the budgets of his animated features, and so swallowed his dislike.)

What happened to the artists who were let go? For many, fast-growing Hanna-Barbera was their next destination. Don Lusk, a Disney employee for almost thirty years, move to H-B and directed TV cartoons for the next quarter century. Iwao Takamoto, longtime assistant to Milt Kahl, departed Disney to become a top Hanna-Barbera character designer.

A smaller animation crew, turning out a cartoon feature every 3-4 years, was the norm for Walt Disney Productions over the next quarter century, at which point Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg stepped into the Disney wheelhouse and the pace of production quickened. By the 1990s, staff had grown to over a thousand people and the company was turning out a full-length feature every year.

This happy reality lasted a decade. For a time, each new feature made more money than the one before. But by the time Pocahontas was released in 1995, the trajectory was down instead of up. Audiences fell in love with Pixar's CGI animated features; the grosses of hand-drawn product continued to fall.

Comedic cows starred in the last animated feature from Disney Features "Second Golden Age" ...

The second Disney Animation blood-letting: As a new century loomed up, the red ink inside Disney Feature Animation was sloshing higher .. and alarms sounded inside executive suites. A lot of Disney animation artists, many employed at Disney Feature Animation for decades, were laid off in waves between 2001 and 2003, when Home On The Range completed production.

It was an era similar to the late '50s, but it went on longer. Disney employees had suspected change was coming, but management assured people: “Oh, we’re going to keep making hand-drawn features”, even as the company cut wages. People could see that CGI features like Shrek and Monsters, Inc. were killing at the box office, while Atlantis and Treasure Planet were not. Yet artists were hopeful, based on what they were being told.

But then significant pruning of animation staff commenced, and the company line became “Oh, we’ll be making fewer hand-drawn features, but we’ll still be making them.” Animation President Tom Schumacher held meetings with staff offering reassurances to survivors of the initial rounds of layoffs.

And the company’s tune changed yet again. The Higher Ups decided that Home on the Range would be the last hand-drawn feature out of the Burbank studio and the refrain of “We’ll still be making them” changed to “We’re done, thank you for services rendered, drive safely.” (Two more hand-drawn features would ultimately done after HotR during the Lasseter-Catmull era: The Princess and the Frog and Winnie-the-Pooh. Neither performed as well as CGI features at the box office and it doesn't look as though more hand-drawn features will go into production anytime soon.)

As in 1958-59, there was an abundance of pink slips, but not everybody was let go. Some animators on traditional features retrained to be CG animators. But many wanted to keep drawing, not become “digital puppeteers”, so a number of employees shifted to design work or storyboarding, some in the feature division but many in television animation studios around town.

The early oughts marked the most recent “animation recession” in Los Angeles-based cartoon studios. Today, animation employment is near all-time highs. Even though live-action movie employment is on hold because of the pandemic, much of the animation industry continues to work at home.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Netflix On The March, Cartoonwise

Netflix might have lost Disney animated properties, and Warner stuff might be migrating to AT&T/Warner streaming services, but the world's biggest streamer is still bound and determined to be a Player in animation:

... Netflix is planting another flag in the ground with a new exclusive deal, making all future episodes of Pokémon exclusive to its platform in the US.

The new deal means the first 12 episodes of Pokémon Journeys: The Series, the 23rd season of the iconic anime franchise, will be available to stream on Netflix starting June 12th, 2020. Future episodes will be added to Netflix every quarter for the rest of the season, according to the company. The Pokémon Company International has struck other deals with broadcasters around the world, but in the US, Pokémon is about to become a streaming exclusive.

Netflix will cede no ground to Disney+ or other animation streamers without a fight. But it's not just Pokemon:

... Netflix announced that they are getting access to all seasons of one of the best television series of all time this coming May, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

All three seasons of the show will arrive in the US on Netflix on May 15, which is 61 episodes in total.

Forbes is being a little breathless here, I think. "The best television series of all time"? I don't recall anybody working on it all those years ago when I was wandering around Nick on a weekly basis rushing up to me and gushing: "We're working on the best television series of all time!" (I mean, the crew liked it, thought it was good, but nobody went into screaming fits about it.)

Be that as it may, Netflix is making a hard run at the House of Mouse and others in the battle to be an animation standard-bearer. It's also got its own development slate of animation, produced in their Hollywood studio, and it's been aggressive in long-form animation as well, underwriting Klaus and the oncoming Glen Keane project.

Which, of course, bodes well for long-term animation employment in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

SCOOB! (Not in theaters)

So it turns out that this virus thing bites deep, as more and more animated features shift to online rollouts, rather than in multiplexes...

Warner Bros. has decided to send its animated film Scoob! straight to premium on-demand, versus waiting for theaters to reopen en masse once the coronavirus pandemic begins to subside.

The studio on Tuesday announced that the Scooby Doo movie will become available both to rent and to buy in the home on May 15. ... Both Warner Bros. and Universal — similar to the other major Hollywood studios — have delayed the vast majority of their movies in order to give them a proper theatrical release. ...

Not ideal, of course, but how long does an entertainment conglomerate want to sit on product? (Six months? A year??) Multiplexes probably won't be open for months. And even when they do take down the yellow tape and start selling tickets, how many people are going to show up??

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Work Around Town 2020 -- #4

Warner Bros. has been in the cartoon business for ninety freaking years, and today has two animation subsidiaries. The older one is Warner Bros. Animation, which concentrates on home-screen product (broadcast, cable, streaming, etc.). The new one is Warner Animation Group, which focuses on theatrical releases, though the movies-in-theaters thing is temporarily suspended, since most of the world is "sheltering in place".

Nevertheless, here's a summary of what Warners two studios currently produce. Expect changes as I gather more info. (Cartoon Network Studios, part of the same conglomerate has these things in work.)


It has facilities in Hollywood and Burbank, CA. Most of its employees work on the Warner lot.

Scoob! -- in development -- no announced release date

Tom and Jerry -- in production -- Christmas release (we'll see if that changes, eh?)

Space Jam 2 -- in work -- summer '21 release

Lego Batman 2 -- ongoing development -- no release date; both summer 2021 and 2022 releases have been mentioned, but there is nothing official.

DC Super Pets -- in development -- Spring '22


Multiple production facilities in Burbank, CA.

Animaniacs -- ongoing -- artists, as on other Warner series, working from home during the pandemic.

Unikitty! -- ongoing -- currently in Season #3

Teen Titans Go -- ongoing -- Season 6

D.C. Super Hero Girls -- ongoing -- newer episodes now unspooling on Cartoon Network.

Scooby Doo and Guess Who? -- ongoing -- An official release date for Season 2 hasn't been confirmed; it likely air later this year. Warner Bros. is also releasing their animated movie SCOOB! in a few months, backgrounding how Scooby and Shaggy met and the beginnings of Mystery, Inc.

Little Ellen -- ongoing

Jellystone! -- ongoing -- Season 1

Looney Tunes Cartoons -- ongoing

Green Eggs and Ham -- ongoing -- Season 2

Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz -- three seasons (60 episodes plus special)

Harley Quinn -- ongoing -- now in Season 2

Thunder Cats Roar -- ongoing --

Yabba Dabba Dinosaurs -- ongoing

Young Justice -- ongoing -- Season #4

Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai -- ongoing

Deathstroke: Knights and Dragons -- ongoing -- Season premiered in January

Warners released its first "Looney tunes" cartoon short on this date in 1930: the immortal Sinkin' In The Bathtub, starring Bosko.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Sequelitis Again

Disney is making plans to sequelize one of their 1970s animated features:

Disney+ is in the early development stage of a live-action/CG hybrid remake to the 1976 animated classic Robin Hood. The studio is bringing back Kari Granlund, who penned the Lady and the Tramp remake, to write the screenplay. ...

Disney legend once said that Robin Hood was his favorite animated films because he loved the animation in it. Trouble is, while the animation is terrific, the story, voice-acting and overall momentum of the feature leave many things to be desired.

RH was released in 1973, the third full-length cartoon production to come out after Walt Disney's death, and the first he had nod hand in. It made a handsome profit for the studio, and was re-released once before finding its way to home video.

The Disney streaming service is a voracious creature, so it makes sense to mine everything in the catalogue. What made money in 1973 can make money in 2021 (or whenever the new iteration gets released.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Renewal Time!

Since animation is the one segment of entertainment that is still in production, companies appear to find it advantageous to send out a few renewal slips.

Fox has ordered a second season of its animated family comedy Duncanville for 2021-22. ... [The show] joins fellow Fox freshman animated series Bless the Harts, which also has already been renewed for a second season.

The network has been ramping up its animated portfolio over the past two years and currently has five series on the air — veterans The Simpsons, Family Guy and Bob’s Burgers, and newcomers Bless the Harts and Duncanville — with two more, Housebroken and The Great North, set to join the lineup next season. Animation is one film/TV area that still is going during the pandemic-related Hollywood shutdown. ...

As noted previously, animation directors, board artists, and designers (among others) have been working remotely from home. At least one veteran says he misses the studio ambience, but under the circumstances is happy to take the working conditions his usual place of business is handing out.

In these challenging times, money made in a cramped home studio is far better than unemployment ... or no money at all

Friday, April 3, 2020

Union Contract Negotiations

The Directors Guild of America (DGA) has ratified a new three-year agreement that was negotiated just before the pandemic. A few of its highlights...


* Wage and residual base increases of 2.5% in first year of contract; 3% in the second and third years.

* A nearly 50% increase in residuals for members working on original SVOD series.

* Employer contribution rate to the Pension Plan will permanently increase by 1% in the first year of the agreement – from 7% to 8%.

* DGA will have the right to allocate up to 0.5% of the negotiated increases in salary rates -- second and third years of contract -- to either pension plan or health plan.

The short summary of the DGA Agreement is similar to many other agreements of various entertainment guilds and unions: 3%/3%/3% increases in wages and benefits, changes to low SVOD payouts, the ability for money to be taken from contract wage bump-ups if they're needed, because who knows what the future holds?

I would expect many pension/health plans, both corporate and Taft-Hartley [i.e. union] plans, have been hit pretty hard the last five weeks. All or most invest in stocks, and stocks have been slammed. (You may have noticed.)

My crystal ball is cloudy, but upcoming labor negotiations between the studios and the Writers Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees) will not be easy. The studios will make a stab at arguing that, due to the Recession/Depression and ongoing financial pain, the deal struck with the DGA is inoperative for everybody else.

That should go over well.

But we will see how the other talks pan out. Maybe the economy will be back on its feet by the time the other guilds and unions sit themselves down at the negotiating table. Maybe pigs will fly. Just have to wait and see.