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Toon Tuesday: The End of Endless Development

Toon Tuesday: The End of Endless Development

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Recently, I was listening to a writer describe President, Barak Obama and the Obama White House as being impatient. In fact, White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanual has a known reputation for being impatient, and is a guy intent on getting things done.

What the heck does this have to do with animation, you might ask? Well, it’s been a personal gripe of mine that animation studios need to display some degree of impatience when it comes to animated film making. This is critical because feature film development burns through goodly sums of money. If you’re serious about getting the most from your investment, a little impatience might be in order.

Yep, I know what you’re thinking. In recent years, production schedules have contracted, and many find themselves doing nine months work in six. If you work in television you’ve seen what use to be an almost leisurely pace turn into a nightmare of scrambling to meet impossible deadlines. However, we’ll leave the discussion of television schedules for another time.

The craziness of television is not my focus here. I’m talking about feature animated film languishing in development hell. The high profile motion picture that appears to go nowhere while continually gobbling up huge sums of money. Looking back on my career, I’ve been involved in more than one of these nightmarish enterprises, and I can’t help wonder whether this was a master plan by the powers that be or simply just incompetent upper management? Take your choice.

First of all, I’m not coming at this with a skewed perspective. I’ve had the opportunity to see both sides of this serious issue. I’ve labored in the trenches as a regular worker, and I’ve pulled the plug on projects when in management. This is something that concerns me as a worker and a manager, so I’ve no agenda here.

Walt Disney storming out cartoon by Floyd Norman
I've seen the Old Maestro -- not at all pleased -- walk out of more than one story meeting

Since I’m less than impressed with animation management today, I’ll take my examples from the past. Of course, I’m speaking of the Old Maestro, Walt Disney who launched and shut down a fair number of projects himself.

You see, Walt knew that a good idea doesn’t necessarily translate into a feature animated film without some work. That work, known as the development process, would in time reveal a potentially great movie -- or a dead end. In the old days, these calls were made by the old man himself, and were up to his judgement. Walt appeared to know what would sell and what wouldn’t. And, more often than not, his instincts proved to be correct.

While working at a small production company some years ago, I had the opportunity to experience the approval process first hand. There were always a number of terrific ideas that refused to gel into a workable script. Several writers contributed drafts, and story artists worked away to help visualize the movie. It quickly became evident we didn’t have anything -- so the project was pulled, and we moved on.

I’ll admit that like the current administration, I’m pretty darn impatient as well. I’ve spent endless months in “development hell” on a number of projects and more often than not, we ended up with nothing. I’ve worked on shows where the writers, director, and producers were replaced on a regular basis. And, I’ve completed boards where the finished story bore no resemblance to the one we started.

C-wing of the Disney animation building
This is C-Wing where "The Black Cauldron" spent nearly a decade in development.
The finished film was hardly worth the wait 

Over the years these experiences have taught me three important lessons, and I would have thought they’d be obvious by now. However, I continually notice nothing about the development process has changed. For what they’re worth, here’s what I’ve learned.

  • Start with a solid idea. You should know how your story begins and how it ends. If you can’t answer these questions, you’re simply wasting time and money.
  • Limit development time. If your ideas aren’t coming together in six months, then six years probably won’t make any difference.
  • Kill the darn thing and move on. There are dozens of good ideas out there waiting to be developed. It’s pointless to get bogged down with one that doesn’t work.

I’ve watched Walt Disney pull the plug on more than one idea during my time at the studio. Some of the projects in development were amazing, and it broke my heart to see them “die.” However, I quickly learned that animation remains a business, and the Old Maestro was not about to squander time and resources on ideas that were going nowhere. A shelved project didn’t necessarily mean the movie was dead. There was always a chance the troubled film might be resuscitated at a later date.

I know I’ll probably be taken to task for my opinions, but I still contend a lengthy development time does not necessarily guarantee a great movie. After all, Walt’s master story artist Bill Peet adapted, wrote and story boarded “101 Dalmatians” in six months. Plus, he pretty much did the whole damn thing by himself.

Finally, I’ll admit that keeping a project in development for an extended time does have one positive advantage.Hopefully, you can get the kids in and out of college before the money runs out.

Walt tapping cartoon by Floyd Norman
Walt had little patience for ideas that weren't working.
If a film wasn't coming together, he shut it down pretty quickly.

Did you enjoy today's Toon Tuesday column? If so, Floyd Norman currently has three books on the market that talk about the joys & perils of working in the animation industry.

These volumes 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) 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.

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'm guessing that one of the reasons that films get stuck in unending development is that nobody wants the money already spent on the film to be "wasted."  The problem is that this can then become a vicious circle, as the money already spent on the project is used to justify not killing the project, meaning that even more money gets spent until it becomes unavoidably obvious that the movie is never going to work and tons of money has been wasted in order to avoid wasting money.

    If I get what you're saying, it's not that a film is only worth making if the idea is perfect the first time.  Certainly there have been numerous animated films that, as you say, bear little resemblance to the first draft of the story.  "Aladdin" had so many characters who never showed up in the final film that they could have been the cast of their own movie.  And "Toy Story" has to undergo major changes partway through the development process to become the film we saw in theaters.  (Not that any of this is stuff you don't already know.)

    But I completely agree that sometimes a project just needs to be let go after a certain amount of time in development, or at least put on hold so that the production team can give it a fresh look later and maybe come up with new solutions to the challenges that previously had them stumped.

  • Floyd, your comments are 100% correct. I work in the comics industry and so many projects get developed for too long and wind up being crap.  And the longer it's developed the more people shovel their own agenda onto it.  Bravo for putting process in perspective!

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