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What can Walt Disney Animation Studios do to save itself? Ditch digital

What can Walt Disney Animation Studios do to save itself? Ditch digital

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I’m going to apologize in advance for today's column because I'm sure that it's going to make a lot of people angry. I have a plan that some might call radical. But it’s a plan that I’m afraid we need. Tough times demand tough decisions, and here’s one to consider:

Get rid of digital animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Yep. I said it. I think that WDAS should stop producing CG animated features and should instead concentrate on reviving hand-drawn animation.

Now, lest you think this is some kind of impassioned plea about the “purity” of hand-drawn animation -- think again. This is not some geeky, fan boy rant about which is the better cartoon medium. Far from it. This is pure business stuff. Corporate strategy, some might call it. Tough things that you gotta do when running a business during tough times.

Animation has been going through a fair amount of turmoil over the past few years. Some “business geniuses” had the bright idea that animation was going through a paradigm shift. This was all because a new tool had been invented. A tool that gave us the ability to move objects in a computer. According to these suits, this brilliant new tool was what would move animation to the next level. Hand-drawn animation had reached its limit, they said. Digital animation was the new paradigm. Hand-drawn was dead, and rightly so.

If today's audiences really think that hand-drawn animation is
old-fashioned, then who the heck is buying all of these?

Hold on a second. If hand-drawn animation is outmoded and passé, then how do you explain Disney's ability to continue to sell “Pinocchio,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Peter Pan” in every new technology that comes along? How many times has Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment repackaged & resold the Company's old hand-drawn features on DVD with new added features or new digital transfers?

Kids watch these movies over & over again not because of the film-making technology involved, but because they’re good. The problem here isn’t with the mode -- it’s with the message. The reason that any one film fails at the box office isn’t because of the technology. It’s all about whether the stories are any good; whether the characters resonate with an audience. We have to care whether the hero wins and the villain loses. Unbelievably, it’s as simple as that.

So you see, this is not really a discussion of the merits of one film production method over another. Each has its points and that’s perfectly fine. I embrace both, of course, with the nod going to hand-drawn. But then again, that’s just me. However, we’re not here to discuss art. We’re here to talk business.

Serious question now: Does The Walt Disney Company really need a digital animation studio? You bet your megabytes they do. Luckily, they own the finest digital animation studio in the world. A company that consistently turns out some of the greatest animated features ever produced, and will -- in all likelihood -- continue to do so. Now comes the next tough business question: Are two such studios really a legitimate need?

The trouble is, Walt Disney Animation Studios is already getting lost in the crowd. That’s the problem with digital animation. There’s nothing that truly distinguishes one film from another. At one time, WDAS was unique. It was the premiere animation studio in the world. It was what everybody who aspired to be an animator wanted to work. Walt Disney, along with his incredible staff, set the standard and raised the bar so high, competitors could only dream of hopefully coming close. Once the leader in a business it completely dominated, Walt Disney Animation Studios is now reduced to playing catch up.

Walt never followed the competition. He was always too busy leading

In this ever-growing field of animated films from numerous competitors both foreign and domestic, The Walt Disney Company still has a hole card. A card that’s evident even now as work continues on WDAS' first hand-drawn animated feature in years. A movie that could restore Walt Disney Animation Studios' identity and remind audiences around the world that the Company they remember from their childhood is still very much alive. That it is already beginning to awaken from a deep digital slumber like some beautiful princess in a fairy tale.

Once again, this is not an artistic discussion. This is not a debate over which medium is more viable, or what audiences prefer. This is a business decision that will be made one day, and that day is quickly approaching.

From time to time, I’ve taken heat from angry CG guys for being too critical of their recent movie efforts. Most seem to think I was beating up on them because I had a vested interest in hand-drawn animated features. In truth, I was never taking issue with the medium -- rather the poor films that were being made. I have little doubt that -- with today's column -- I’ll once again be accused of “computer bashing.” As nervous technicians fear future downsizing and the loss of their jobs.

That said, I still think that it's time that Walt Disney Animation Studios grew up. It's time that WDAS realized that it's not the cool young kid on the block anymore. Get over it!  So you’re not young, hip, or cool. Big deal. You’re still the great grand-daddy of feature animation. And that’s a very good thing to be. In fact, that may wind up being the very thing that saves Walt Disney Animation Studios.

So what to do? I think that WDAS should capitalize on its own historic legacy, remind would-be moviegoers of those not-so-distant days when hand-drawn animation was still considered magical. When the animators who worked at Disney were looked upon as artists. And it took decades -- not months -- to master this craft.

You mean you don't need workstations and servers? That's amazing!

Finally, I have a question for all you executives and managers who keep looking at the bottom line. Which do you think is more expensive? Software and workstations or pencils and paper? Servers and digital infrastructure or wooden desks? Yeah, I know. There’s always digital post, but you get the idea.

Hand-drawn traditional animation is Disney’s past. But it can also be Disney’s future. What Walt Disney Animation Studios really needs to do is lead a modern renaissance of hand-drawn animation.

And when they do that ... Guess what? The magic -- because it is magic -- will return.

Did you enjoy reading today's column? Well, this is just one of the insightful tales that this Disney Legend has to share. Many of which you'll find collected in the three books Floyd currently has the market. Each of which take an affectionate look back at all the years that Mr. Norman has spent working in the entertainment industry.

These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's cataroo.com) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.com.

And while you're at it, don't forget to check out Mr. Fun's Blog. Which is where Mr. Norman postings his musings when he's not writing for JHM.


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  • I whole-heartedly agree.  I really enjoy "Chicken Little, "Meet the Robinsons", and "Bolt", and I love "Dinosaur", but I enjoy watching traditionally-animated features more.  When I watch a movie, it does come down to the story, because I'm not thinking about what medium the film is in when I watch it, really.  But traditionally-animated films just seem more magical to me.  I love learning how they were made, watching features about how the characters came to life.  I think that Pixar will be expanding at some point, putting more live-action in their films and whatnot, and of course Disney will still be putting CGI elements into their films...I wonder if other companies would be making traditionally-animated films again, though, if Disney's are successful (which I really hope they are!).

  • I don't know why you're so defensive, Mr. Norman.  I thought there was general agreement on this point.

  • Well, I disagree. Sorry, this isn't to say I'm against hand-drawn. But I think each story merits the appropriate media.

    I remember when the 1967 film "In Cold Blood" was shot in black and white, well after the movie industry had moved to color. That choice was made because it expressed the "cold" nature of the crimes in the story.

    So, I'm rooting for "story." And, really, Mr. Norman, I know that you are, too.

  • Good morning Floyd. I have to agree with you. It just makes good business sense. The CGI guys at WDAS aren't in danger of being without work. Just transfer them to Pixar. (OK, I know that moving families from one place to another isn't fun, but I think it has to be done business wise)

    As for me, I'm no artist. I like CGI animation. But guess what I usually buy? Yep, I usually purchase the classics. I have them on on VHS and am snatching them up as they become available on DVD. And among the classics I count "Beauty and the Beast", "Little Mermaid", "Aladdin", "Hunchback of Notre Dame." You see where I'm going with this I hope. These aren't old but they are classics because they are good.

  • Not to brush aside Mr. Norman's concerns about his views stirring controversy in some circles, but my first thought when reading this article?

    Well DUH.

    Ever since the Mouse House acquired Pixar for the long haul, Disney has pretty much been tripping itself up by offering two sets of computer animated films.  We, as animation fans, know what's up, but the public is probably hopelessly confused about what's a Disney film and what's Disney/Pixar.  Unfortunately, the main visible difference seems to be that Pixar has a strong brand identity while Disney does not.  Pixar is known for pushing the boundaries of the medium visually while telling solid, smart yet family friendly stories.  DreamWorks has become the hip and edgy studio, going for the pop culture reference and the big laughs.  Disney has been trying to find its voice and seems to be playing catch-up to everyone, including its own past successes.  While I wouldn't say that the right combination of story, visuals, and creative team couldn't put Disney's CG offerings on a strong path of their own, I do agree that going back to hand drawn 2D would allow the studio to instantly stand out again instead of struggling to find its place in a market that already has its titans that aren't Disney.

  • While I agree with everything Floyd says, a bigger step WDAS can do to save itself is STOP GIVING AWAY THE TALENT.

    In an earlier article (http://jimhillmedia.com/blogs/jim_hill/archive/2006/03/20/monday-mouse-watch-the-coming-disney-pixar-corporate-culture-clash.aspx), Jim noted how Pixar recruited and retained talent.  Disney, on the other hand, seems to finish a project and then scatter the talent to the four winds, assuming they can re-hire when needed.  It would seem Pixar can build on each accoumplishment, but to some degree WDAS is building from scratch.  Great for short-term profits, not so good for long term viability of WDAS.  Why is the guy responsible for making an engaging film a temp employee, but the guy who figures out the merchandise's price point a salaried eimployee?

    I'm no animator (and no psychologist either), but how do you give your best effort when you know your reward will be a pink slip?

  • Hmm... Not trying to blow my own horn, but I remember making similar comments several years ago when the "big cheese" scrapped traditional animation and said that CGI was the future. I cried "malarkey" then, and I say it again, "MALARKEY".

    It has nothing to do with the medium, whether it's digital, or hand drawn or clay-mation, or whatever the latest and greatest (supposedly) is, it's about the content, the story. The public could care less what medium it's in. Sure, initially, they might be drawn in to it, but what they really want is to be entertained, romanced, carried away to fantasyland with a good story for an hour and a half, not dazzled with the latest fancy technology.

    There are many cliche'd sayings that refer to this, but "lipstick on a pig" has been around for awhile and was thrown around in the last election cycle, it just happens to be pretty apt for this. If you have a bad or weak story, it doesn't matter what medium it's in, because in the end, it will still be a bad story and the public can see right thru the fancy show. Thinking you can cover it up with the latest razzle dazzle technology is just foolish.

  • With all due respect to Mr. Norman, I don't agree that "WDAS should stop producing CG animated features" completely. Of course I would love to see more hand drawn features but I don't think it would be wise for Disney to completely give up on making CG films.

    I would contend the proper format would depend on a film's story. While (perhaps) a film like 'Ratatouille' might have worked in a hand-drawn format, I don't believe that 'Finding Nemo' (set in the vast expanse of the ocean) or 'Wall-E' would have told their stories as effectively as they did using CG technology.

    Again, submitted with all due repect.

  • While the time for arguing about quality can come and go at any time I have to agree with the author that from a purely business point of view offering what is NOW unique to animation in the form of a traditionally animated movie does make a perverse kind of sense, CG movies have become a victim of their own success and a glut is now apparent.

  • I totally agree and made a similar argument back when Bolt was outbarked by Twilight last fall.  Disney needs to let Pixar play the CGI game and stop looking like a Dreamworks wannabe.  It's plain business and the hand drawn animation still sells and they do it better then anyone else.

  • Harosa: Yeah I agree with you regarding "glut." I have a tendency when first seeing a promo for a CGI film to say "Oh, it's another one of those." Now Dream Works, and Disney too, are trying to re-invent 3D. How many people were impressed by the 30 second 3D commercial on the Super Bowl for "Monsters and Aliens?" I wasn't.

    I also agree with what RLS Legacy said about giving away the talent. Or in Disney's case, forcing the talent to leave. I recently watched an old preview of "Beauty and the Beast." You know, the one with Jeffery Katzenburg etc. How many of the people in that preview are now at Dream Works? I mean, doggone it, what did Michael Eisner hope to accomplish when he forced Jeffery Katzenburg out?

    Then of course, John Lassiter was fired from Disney. Years later they offered to hire him back and he said to himself that now famous quote: Go back to Disney and be a director or stay at Pixar and make history?

  • I think both Writtenbytim and RichHamilton are missing the point that Pixar is Disney and Disney is Pixar. Granted Pixar is currently insulating itself from the Disney company and culture as a sort of wholly owned - but separate - subsidiary.

    But if Feature Animation goes back to doing ONLY Hand Drawn and Pixar continues doing ONLY digital, you create two groups within a company that are able to focus on furthering their particular skill sets. Right now Feature Animation is being asked to essentially maintain staffing and competencies in two similar but essentially totally different disciplines.

    The story should still dictate which medium it is produced in (and thus which department it is produced BY), but I don't see how Feature Animation abandoning its CG unit would restrict DISNEY from looking at a story and determining where it would be best produced...

    just my two cents.


  • Oh, Floyd, I hope, I hope, your vision comes to pass. It's very dependent on the success/failure of "Princess and the Frog" (a DUMB title, BTW - "Frog Princess" was far better. Why the name change? Because of an imagined French connection? Mon dieu! Gimme a break!) I too believe that hand-drawn is the salvation of the Disney Animation unit. But it had better be *damn good* hand-drawn. I realize there's no way we'll get 2D animation at the level of "Lady and the Tramp" - but hopefully we'll get it at least at the level of "Lion King". "Sleeping Beauty"? A pipe dream. But Walt believed in pipe dreams. Does Iger?

    I'll go you one further, Floyd: How about some American studio opening a unit to hire and train artists for American TV Production? Instead of shipping most of it to India and Korea? Think of the talent THAT would develop that could later be hired for feature films! Wow, talk about a pipe dream! What the heck am I smoking here? But it's nice to think about...

  • Best piece by you in quite a while, Mr. Norman. I applaud you and this brilliant line of thinking.

  • I agree with Mr. Norman!

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