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Toon Tuesday: What Disney's deal with Robert Zemeckis really means for WDFA

Toon Tuesday: What Disney's deal with Robert Zemeckis really means for WDFA

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Maybe you saw this press release yesterday afternoon:

The Walt Disney Studios and Academy Award(R)-Winner Director Robert Zemeckis
and Producing Partners Form New Company That Will Produce 3D Performance Capture Films

The multi award-winning team of Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey join forces with The Walt Disney Studios to set-up a new performance capture film company, it was jointly announced by Dick Cook, chairman, The Walt Disney Studios and producer/director Robert Zemeckis.

The company will create films using the performance capture technology, a technique of digitally recording actors' movements that are fed into a computer allowing for the development of state-of-the-art 3D motion pictures.

Zemeckis, Rapke and Starkey will produce all of the films with Zemeckis expected to direct a number of the projects. The Walt Disney Studios will distribute and market the motion pictures worldwide.

In making the announcement Cook said, "The creation of this new company is yet another step in our leadership role in cutting edge technology as it relates to the movie industry." Cook continued, "Bob is an amazing director who continues to push the envelope in creating the best in cinematic experiences. Along with his partners, Jack and Steve, they are one of the finest producing teams in the business. They have a real pulse on the future of motion pictures especially as it pertains to the creativity and technology of motion capture and 3D film experiences. They are true leaders in every sense of the word and we are proud to be partners with them in this new endeavor."


Zemeckis added, "Jack, Steve and I are looking forward with great excitement to be working with Dick Cook and his team. In addition to being an enthusiastic champion of 3D movies, The Walt Disney Studios is committed to the advancement of digital cinema in all areas including performance capture."

Zemeckis, along with executive producing partner Rapke and producer Starkey, first used this innovative film technology of performance capture when he directed the highly successful animated feature film "Polar Express."

Following up on the success of "Polar Express," Zemeckis was executive producer on his second performance capture film, the Academy Award-nominated Best Animated Film "Monster House," with Rapke and Starkey producing. Additionally, Zemeckis is directing and producing the performance capture film, "Beowulf," with Rapke and Starkey also producing. The film is due out in theaters in 2007.

Among some of their other credits are: "Castaway" -- Zemeckis director and producer and Rapke and Starkey producers; "What Lies Beneath" -- Zemeckis director and producer and Rapke and Starkey producers; "Contact" -- Zemeckis director and producer and Starkey producer; "Forrest Gump" -- Zemeckis received an Academy Award for Best Director and Starkey was awarded the Best Picture Oscar for his role as producer; "Back to the Future" trilogy -- Zemeckis directed and Starkey served as associate producer on part 2 and 3 and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" -- Zemeckis directed and Starkey was associate producer.

Based on what the suits in Burbank are now saying, this deal (Which -- according to TMZ.com -- has been in the works since last August) is a real cause for celebration. Given that the Mouse owns the world's best computer animation studio (I.E. Pixar) as well as now having Robert Zemeckis under contract to produce state-of-the-art performance capture pictures, Walt Disney Studios will soon re-establish its dominance as the entertainment industry's true leader when it comes to animation.

More importantly, once John Lasseter & Robert Zemeckis join forces (This is reportedly why the Walt Disney Company just optioned Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" books. So that John & Robert could then then work together to develop this potential new franchise for the studio. The first installment of which will supposedly will be directed by "Finding Nemo" helmer Andrew Stanton) ... Well, there'll just be no stopping Mickey then. Disney will literally be able to steamroller right over its competition (I.E. DreamWorks Animation, Sony Animation, Blue Sky Studios et al).


Of course, some of you may have noticed that Walt Disney Feature Animation doesn't yet seem to have a role in this "Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" plan that Mouse House execs have mapped out for the studio's animation unit. A fact that has not gone unnoticed by the folks who are now working for WDFA.

As one Disney animation veteran told me yesterday:

"It's becoming increasingly obvious that Disney is getting ready to pull the plug on computer animation here in Burbank. 'Joe Jump' has been pushed back. Plus there are all these stories lately about how Lasseter has been bumping heads with Glen Keane over 'Rapunzel.' Meanwhile, 'The Frog Princess' is moving along at warp speed.

The rumor these days is we're going to officially switch back over to only doing traditional animation here sometime in the next 12 months. Only this time around, traditionally animated films from Disney are going to be events. Which means that Burbank is only going to produce a brand-new feature every two or three years.

That means WDFA is going to need a much smaller crew, only 150 - 200 guys. Which means that another 400 people are going to lose their jobs. And given how hard some of these people worked at animation retraining in order to survive the last round of lay-offs ... Well, that's just cruel.

With Ed (Catmull) & John calling the shots now, rather than Don Hahn, it's going to be really interesting to see who gets invited into the lifeboat this time around."

So -- yes -- while it is very cool that Robert Zemeckis' new performance capture company will soon be calling Disney Studios home, you also need to understand that this change comes at considerable cost. With a lot of very talented WDFA employees losing their jobs sometime soon so that the Mouse House can then claim to be home to a CG, performance capture as well as a traditional animation unit.

Your thoughts?

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  • The only thing I really have to comment on here is that if Lasseter touches Rapunzel or makes Keane change to traditional animation, I will be extremely angry. Other than that I really enjoyed Monster House (imo best animated film of the year), but I just don't view Zemeckis as Disney. Hopefully they don't give that many people the pink slip

  • Yeap. Pretty much. I've heard alot of money has been put into "Rapunzel" has it not? Taking this back to the drawing board to turn it into a traditional animation film would probably delay it, we'd probably never see the light of day for it. And I could easily see Dreamworks making a masterpiece knock-off of Rapunzel a year before Disney would release their traditional animation one. Those backstabers, I could see that happening. All I know, is if this film gets turned from the glorious CG it is now to traditional animation. it would probably take years till it sees daylight, probably until 2011, god, seriously, its been worked on for a long time now. Disney CANNOT AFFORD TO LOSE KEANE. Keane is a very talented Disney Animator, a legendary worker for Disney. Losing him would be a very bad thing for Disney. Gah. I'm mad now. John, don't touch Rapunzel please. It sounds amazing. And I love the storyboards. And there better not be a new news story that points to a new fact that Rapunzel will bear the Pixar name. wouldn't that suck. gahh. i'm really mad, whatever. oh well, thats life. live on, i gotta do my ap history homework, gosh

  • My thoughts?

    Motion Capture is not animation. I sadly suspect that it will end up like some parasite that slowly but surely eats away at legitimate animation until it has driven it to extinction. REAL artists and animators see Mo Cap for what it is - a pretender to the throne. It is only praised by the clueless unwashed masses, as well as the penny-pinching studio execs and accountants who see it as a way of producing something that resembles animation cheaply and quickly, yet doesn't require all those pesky animators to create it. Only a few clean-up animators are needed to do some superficial tweaking of the resulting images, but they can't do much more than polish the turd.

    Though I am hoping that Disney Feature Animation can save the day by bringing back traditional drawn animation, I am not optimistic that John Q. Public will be able to tell the difference between drawings that magically come to life upon the screen or, what amounts to in my opinion, the filmic equivalent of Frankenstein's monster - a stiff and ungainly, resuscitated corpse that shuffles around awkwardly, sometimes resembling Tom Hanks or a penguin...

  • This is news?

    Who HASN'T known about this for months?

  • Amazing that it's not the CEO, not the executives nor board of directors who are laid off - but it’s always the artists.  Then they tell the remaining artists, you better give us big money makers or you too will be canned.  Then the CEO / executives get big pay days/bonuses.  In conclusion, if you child wants to be an artist, pull that pencil out of their hand and tell them that they should plan on being an executive.  Or perhaps that too is not realistic for Disney CEO/executives/board of directors are appointed by a select group.

  • Train Conductor Tom Hanks = Creepy

    Motion capture works great at bringing animation into traditional movies (Andy Serkis in Kong and LOTR), but I just don't see a market for it as a complete movie process.

  • From the few clips I've seen of "The Polar Express" and "Monster House", I think that motion capture technology looks kind of bad.  I don't like this new deal at all (I had never heard about it until right now).  Why?????  What was going through the minds of the executives at Disney?  Did "The Polar Express" and "Monster House" do such good business that Disney wants to emulate them?  Bringing back traditional animation (yay "Enchanted", bigger yay "The Frog Princess") should give Disney the upper hand.  To be honest, we "Disney Dweebs", and "animation dweebs" are excited about 2D coming back to Disney.  But what about the average parent, who brings their kids to any animated/family film?  Sure, they grew up with traditionally animated Disney films, but I can't see them being excited...it'll be just another thing to do with the kids.  I can't see them being excited about the motion capture films any more than the average CGI film, or the upcoming traditionally animated films.  I'm excited for traditional animation coming back, not at all for this motion capture...so many people think that it looks creepy...why bother, Disney?  I never want a Disney film to flop, but I hope that these motion capture films flop and then the deal will be over and Disney can go back to making movies that look good.

  • urgh- double post-

    I forgot to add that I don't want "Rapunzel" touched, either.  Sure, initially I would have much rather had a 2D "Rapunzel", but Glen Keane and the other workers have put so much time and effort into it, that if John Lasseter touches it, all the fans will hate Lasseter.  I'm still skeptical about him being in charge, and if he makes a bad move, I'll be so mad.  

  • My opinion, for what it's worth, is tha this is just more of Iger being the "technophile" he's described as. He downloads shows via iTunes, puts movies on-line, and now sees a new type of animation that may have potential.

    The investment is not that big (he didn't have to buy a studio), since he is setting up a production deal, much like Disney has with Bruckheimer. If the motion capture flops, Disney does not have to pick up the costs of future movies, and Zemekis would be welcome to market to other studios.

  • I think making traditional Disney animated films an "event" sounds like exactly the right idea.  It seems to me that when Disney animated films came out every year, or even twice in the same year, that's when they had problems.  I remember when Disney's animated films first came out on video...some were marked as "Disney's Classic..." and some were not.  Then somewhere along the way they were all marked as "Disney's Classic" (including, say, the Rescuers sequel), and they films that were "Disney's Classic..." were now "Disney's Masterpiece..."  

    It's just human nature...the more common something becomes, the less exciting it will be to people.  I think having only one film in full production is the way to go.

  • As far as I'm concerned, anything that drives Disney back to creating traditionally animated motion pictures that are "events" is a good thing.

    I still firmly believe that the medium of communication is largely irrelevant. There have been traditionally animated films that sucked and traditionally animated films that are classics. There have been computer animated films that sucked and computer animated films that are classics.

    What distinguishes the two? Well ... story, of course. And by story, I mean the larger use of that word that encompasses all things that are good in a movie ... gags, drama, love, hate, engaging characters, conflict, resolution ...

    The truth is the American public is STILL smart enough to recognize a turd for a turd. There may have been a time when they were suckered in by CGI's slick appearance, but that time has passed. People just want good movies. Period.

    So what's the point? The point is, if Disney makes GREAT traditionally animated films they will be successful. If they don't, they won't. And the same goes for Zemeckis ... if his films are great, they'll be great. If not, they won't be. They're not going to squeeze out traditional animation just purely by existing.

    All I care about is that Disney makes great animated films. I would much prefer that they use both mediums to create them ... I love The Lion King and Sleeping Beauty and Little Mermaid and Snow White and Beauty and the Beast and Peter Pan equally alongside Toy Story, Cars, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo. Who cares how they were made? THEY'RE GREAT MOVIES!!

    The problem is Disney has just flat-out made DISMAL films lately ... The only one squeezed in there of late that was good was Lilo and Stitch (and even that wasn't GREAT). But they had a serious of complete stinkers that just KILLED their brand. I think they over-reacted a bit with the rush to bring in outside talent, but at least they recognized they had to shake things up.

    My biggest worry in all this is what someone else alluded to above ... Iger seems to be a real techno-weenie. I worry sometimes that he's getting WAY too caught up in the delivery method of their content and not focusing enough on making sure it's content that someone actually wants.

  • Why do I have a feeling that this deal is less about motion capture, and more about making nice with people that Eisner ticked off?  

    Why do I have a feeling that, with just a bit more sucking up, Iger's first "2-D Animated Event Movie" will be the slam-dunk that Eisner let slip through his fingers?  

    Why do I have the feeling that Bob Hoskins better keep his schedule open?

  • Actually, the technology of motion capture isn't what interests me about this deal.  It's story development.  Monster House had a very well-developed story and characters; it was quite well-written, moreso than the last several Disney releases.  (And there was a great deal of actual animation involved; how in the world does one motion-capture a "living" house?)

    If Disney spends half the creative time on story that Zemekis' team (or Pixar) does, then those "event" pictures have half a chance of being as good as they purport.

  • John: do not touch Rapunzel with one finger!! If you do that, you'll not only have the whole Disney fanbase against you, but I swear that once you lose Keane (in other words: he leaves Disney) you.. will.. lose.. your.. job..

    And: hmm.. I actually hate motion capture. Looks like.. well.. I just hate it. It isn't pleasant to look at for over an hour long, so I actually hate this deal. Oh god, I'm so furious about that sentence "Plus there are all these stories lately about how Lasseter has been bumping heads with Glen Keane over 'Rapunzel.'" Grrr.. JOOHHNN!!! :@

  • Motion capture looks to me to be just a digital form of rotoscoping. And it doesn't impress me. "Polar Express" was awful - but I must admit, not just because of the wax-museum effect of the motion capture. It had a lousy story. The original story was, after all, just a child's picture book with a great premise, great illustrations and a weak ending. The film's extrapolation of that flimsy material didn't improve anything much IMO. But you know, the motion capture was still the most off-putting part of the movie. The characters' eyes were the stuff of nightmares, LOL, glassy and inhuman. I really don't get the excitement over this new technology.

    Yeah, and of course talent gets victimized at the hands of non-talent. That, my friends, is truly the oldest story in the world.

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