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A JHM Exclusive: In-depth coverage of David Stainton's meeting yesterday with the WDFA-F crew

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A JHM Exclusive: In-depth coverage of David Stainton's meeting yesterday with the WDFA-F crew

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"Do not go gentle into that good night ... rage, rage, against the dying of the light."
-- Dylan Thomas

Okay, so this meeting wasn't actually held at night. But -- even so -- the crew from Disney Feature Animation-Florida did NOT "go gentle." From everything that I've heard about yesterday's meeting with David Stainton -- when it was finally revealed that the Walt Disney Company would in fact be closing down its Central Florida animation operation sometime later this year -- there was a lot of anger in the room. Particularly when people began openly booing Stainton as he feebly tried to defend Disney's decision to shutter the studio.

The final meeting of the Disney Feature Animation-Florida staff was held upstairs in the multi-purpose room at the Disney-MGM production facility. In the exact same room where -- back on November 17th -- the team learned that production of "A Few Good Ghosts" was abruptly being halted and that WDFA management was seriously considering closing the Central Florida facility. So -- as you might expect -- none of the 250 artists and technicians in attendance had particularly fond memories of that room.

At approximately 10 a.m., veteran WDFA producer Pam Coats, WDFA-F studio head Andrew Millstein and President of Disney Feature Animation David Stainton took the stage. What they said surprised no one:
That the Walt Disney Company HAD decided to close down Feature Animation-Florida later that year. That certain "core people" would be offered contracts to come on out to Burbank to work on other WDFA projects there. But as for the rest of the WDFA-F crew ... They'd be paid through March 19th, then let go.

In hindsight, several of those in attendance believe that it was the unfortunate use of the phrase "core people" that eventually set the audience off. After all, fewer that 50 WDFA-F staffers had been offered jobs back in Burbank. Which seemed to mean that the rest -- some of whom had worked for Feature Animation-Florida since the studio first opened back in May of 1989 -- were expendable. Suddenly obsolete. That image apparently didn't sit well with the assembled artists and technicians. But -- for now -- they held their tongues.

Still, those in attendance couldn't help but be touched by Pam Coats' heartfelt speech. After all, Pam had been with Feature Animation-Florida right from the beginning. Having produced both "Trail Mix-Up" as well as "Mulan," there was no one in the room who doubted that Coats was really upset at the idea that the Central Florida facilty had to close.

Then Stainton stood up to speak. I'll say this much for David. He supposedly did the best he could. Laboring mightily to put the best possible face on this whole awkward and awful situation. Stainton reportedly started his remarks by praising to the hilt all the wonderful work that the WDFA-F team had done over the past 15 years on various Disney animated features.

Stainton then allegedly went on to say that it was really nothing personal. It was just that Disney corporate had decided to go another way with WDFA. Rather than run several separate animation studios in far-flung corners of the globe, Disney would now go back to its old 1980s model. Where all of the unit's talent was located under one roof, working together on the very same film.

So far, so good, don't you think? No huge gaffes on David's part, right? Okay, so some of the WDFA-F staffers in attendance doubted Stainton's sincerity. But at least the guy had shown up. Stainton hadn't fobbed the job off onto one of his flunkies.

But then David apparently made a crucial error. He threw the meeting open for questions. And this is where things really started to get away from him.

The crowd -- already angered by that "core people" comment -- peppered him with pointed questions. Which supposedly started with: "Why is the Walt Disney Company flooding the feature animation market with all these low quality direct-to-video sequels?'

Now Stainton (who -- it should be pointed out -- up until very recently was actually in charge of Disney Television Animation, the division of the Walt Disney Company that makes those direct-to-video films) supposedly tried to defend his old division, saying "Now they're not low quality films ..."

... Only to be shouted down by all those assembled.

David reportedly tried to continue, insisting that "the public couldn't really tell the difference between the direct-to-video stuff and the films that Feature Animation actually produces." This comment was also met with boos.

Sensing that he wasn't exactly going to be able win this crowd over by answering that question, Stainton quickly moved on to another query. Which allegedly was: "For the footage that I've seen so far of 'Chicken Little,' it's clear that we're just trying to copy Pixar now. Why isn't Disney trying to make its own kind of CG films?"

David reportedly tried to reply by saying that it was Pixar that was copying Disney, not the other way. That Pixar had borrowed Disney Animation's old production model (I.E. Keeping all of its artists under one roof, concentrating all of its resources on one film at a time). How Pixar had established this "braintrust" of directors and story people who helped each other, who worked together so that that studio could always get the most out of every single project.

"Disney needs to get back to that sort of production system in order to stay competitive," Stainton supposedly continued. "But -- in order to do that -- we have to shut down all of our satellite studios like Paris, Tokyo and Orlando."

Following up on the Pixar question, one of the WDFA-F staffers there reportedly asked: "How is Disney Feature Animation going to distinguish its computer animated films movies from all the other CG features out there?" Stainton allegedly said that he wanted WDFA to start producing CG movies that " ... that have songs. Movies that have heart. Movies that definitely have humor. Movies that push the art of the film-making forward." David then supposedly went on to say that -- once Disney got started making CG films that featured human characters -- that ".. that's something that's going to set us apart" from what Pixar, Dreamworks and Sony are doing.

Given the way that Stainton had answered the above question, it was clear that the Mouse was now going whole hog for CG. Which was when one brave WDFA-F staffer reportedly stood up and asked the $64,000 question: "So it's true, then. Disney's actually getting out of the traditional animation business?"

Stainton allegedly said: "Yes. For a while, anyway." This response supposedly immediately brought boos from the audience. Which is why David reportedly began to back pedal, saying things like: "We do have two new traditional animated projects in development. And -- if it were the right time and the right project came along -- I'm sure that we'd do 2D again. But -- for right now -- Disney's going to concentrate on doing just CG."

The traditionally trained WDFA-F staffers began booing Stainton's presentation in earnest at that point. To hear that the Walt Disney Company had officially decided to turn its back on traditional animation just made the group furious.

Sensing that the meeting had somehow taken a really bad turn, Stainton quickly handed the mike over to WDFA-F studio head Andrew Millstein and refused to answer any more questions.

Andrew tried to get the meeting back on course. But Millstein got choked up as he tried to get the final pieces of the agenda, mentioning the various operational things that still had to be done in order for the studio to be properly shut down. Someone started singing that old Irving Berlin standard, "There's No Business like Show Business." Which -- for some odd reason -- got a laugh out of the crowd.

And with that, the meeting was over. 15 years of hard work dismissed in less than an hour. As everyone shuffled out, someone commented on the danish and the rhubarb cake that WDFA-F management had provided, saying "This is the first time that I've been to a firing that was catered."

Stainton, absolutely humiliated at the way the meeting had ended (Said one wag: "He couldn't have handed that microphone to Millstein any faster. You could see that he just wanted to flee that room"), disappeared almost immediately.

Grumbling angrily, the WDFA-F staff filed out of the building. Some of them for the very last time.

(Well, maybe not. There's talk that there may actually be a WDFA-F going away party. One last shindig for all the staff who ever worked at the Central Florida studio. Either in the fish bowl, the trailers or the fancy schmancy new building. So that this crew can all get together one last time and say "Goodbye" ... before they all head their separate ways.)

Mind you, some WDFA-F staffers were quietly approached as they exited yesterday's meeting. They were then quickly pulled into nearby offices by members of WDFA-F management. Where they were reportedly offered contracts that would allow them to continue to work for Disney Feature Animation. IF they agreed to relocate to Burbank. But given how badly these staffers had treated over the past eight weeks by the Walt Disney Company, many of those artists and technicians who were approached yesterday just laughed and said "Hell, no."

So -- all in all -- it was a pretty terrible day for Disney Feature Animation. With 200 WDFA-F staffers being laid off or fired by March 19th, the president of the division jeered, and a dozen or more artists and technicians actually turning down work rather than returning to the Disney fold. Mickey got himself a black eye today that -- I'm afraid -- won't fade for years yet to come.

Your thoughts?


My thanks to the many members of the Walt Disney Feature Animation-Florida family who quickly came forward yesterday to share their impressions of what sounds like a pretty emotional meeting.

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