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Toon Tuesday: "We're heading in the wrong direction. Let's turn around"

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Toon Tuesday: "We're heading in the wrong direction. Let's turn around"

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First the bad news: Yes, the rumors you've heard are true. Chris Sanders -- the man who wrote & directed "Lilo & Stitch," Disney's traditionally animated smash from the summer of 2002 -- was forced off of his follow-up project, "American Dog." Which was originally supposed to be WDFA's big release for 2008.

Now the worse news: Given what a huge talent Chris is, how highly this man is thought of by the rest of the crew at Disney Feature Animation ... Sanders being pulled off of his own picture this past Wednesday -- coupled with those 166 staffers that were laid off last Friday -- has caused morale to sink to an all-time low at WDFA .

Which I know isn't exactly the hopeful sort of story that people like to read around Christmas. So how's about this: What if I were to tell you the real reason that John Lasseter & Ed Catmull pulled Chris Sanders off of "American Dog" ?

But before I can do that ... You first have to take a few steps back ... I mean w-a-a-a-y back. Take in the view from a thousand feet back.

I mean, sure. From six inches away, Sanders being forced off of the film that he himself wrote, featuring characters that Chris helped create .... That seems like a real tragedy. A true injustice.


Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises

But -- from where Ed & John are sitting -- there are bigger problems to deal with right now besides the fate of one piddly little animated feature. Like what the hell sort of movies should Disney Feature Animation be making these days anyway?

Pixar? They do CG well. Very, very well, in fact. And -- for a while there -- that Emeryville-based operation pretty much had a lock on the whole computer animation field. But now Pixar faces increasing competition in the CG arena. I mean, it's not just DreamWorks Animation that's turning out popular computed animated movies anymore. There's also Blue Sky Studios & Sony Animation & Warners & Nickelodeon ... As well as Disney Feature Animation.

You see, that's the really tough part of the situation that Catmull & Lasseter now find themselves in. These guys are running two animation studios that are -- in effect -- in direct competition with one another. Think about it. If Pixar's making CG films and WDFA is also producing computer animated features, doesn't that basically mean that these two studios are now competing for the same customers? That they're both lusting after the same dollars?

That doesn't seem like a very smart business plan to me. Competing directly with yourself.

Wouldn't it be smarter (in the long run, anyway) to create a way that consumers could differentiate between these animation studios? So that they'd know to associate a certain sort of film with Pixar and an entirely different type of production with Walt Disney Feature Animation?

Well, that's the way that Catmull & Lasseter are thinking these days. Which is why they've begun applying the brakes over at WDFA. Shifting that animation studio's production schedule over from a one-new-film-every-year routine to a slower paced one-new-film-every-18-months production schedule. So that they can then buy themselves a little more time before the next Disney Feature Animation production after "Meet the Robinsons" is due to hit the screen.

Now -- as to the real reason that Ed & John pulled Chris off of "American Dog" ... Sanders deliberately designed that film to be a CG feature. And Catmull & Lasseter ... Well, they don't really want Disney Feature Animation to be in the computer animation business as of 2008.


Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises

"Wait a minute ..., " you sputter. "You don't mean ... You can't mean ..."

Yep. Following the release of "Meet the Robinsons," Ed & John would like WDFA to go back into the traditional animation business. Full-time. With their battle plan being that -- from here on in -- Pixar would do all of the CG features while Disney Feature Animation would then become a strictly traditional operation.

Obviously, this is a pretty bold plan. One that (given the $100-million-plus that WDFA spent over the past three years to retrain that studio's staff as well as to change Disney Feature Animation into a start-of-the-art CG operation) Bob Iger reportedly hasn't entirely embraced yet. The way that I hear it, Disney's new CEO wants to see how well "Enchanted" does at the box office next November as well as how the story reels for "The Frog Princess" turn out before he officially commits to Catmull & Lasseter's new scheme.

So again ... When you take in the view from a thousand feet back ... And you realize that animated features are like ocean liners. In that they both take years to build & then launch ... If Disney Feature Animation really is going to get back into the traditional animation business ... Well, that means that -- at some point -- WDFA actually has to stop working on those CG-only projects that it already has in its development pipeline.

It was just the luck of the draw that Chris Sanders' "American Dog" wound up being the film that was about to be greenlit, that was officially about to be put into production when Ed & John decided "Let's not do this anymore."

Oh, sure. There'll be some talk now about about assigning a new director & story team to "American Dog." But the very first thing that Catmull & Lasseter will be asking these folks to do is re-imagine this film as a traditionally animated feature.


Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises

And remember how Ed & John reportedly had a conversation with Glen Keane earlier this year about possibly doing "Rapunzel" as a traditionally animated feature? And how that master animator supposedly told the new ubermeisters of WDFA that he wanted to stick with CG? Well, I would imagine that -- after the first of the year -- Catmull, Lasseter & Keane are going to have another conversation. And if Glen knows what's good for him, he'll quickly agree to turn "Rapunzel" into a traditionally animated feature.

So -- yes -- while I am sorry to see the Chris Sanders version of "American Dog" being put to sleep (Based on the concept paintings, story sketches and test animation sequences that I've already seen for this film, it looked like it was going to a very cute little picture) ... The very idea that the Sleeping Beauty that is traditional animation at Walt Disney Studios may soon be awakening from her three-year-long snooze ... Not just for an occasional feature or a handful of shorts ... But for now and for always ... That's one hell of a Christmas present, don't you think?

So while you may be feeling sorry for Chris Sanders & all of the other folks who were working on his version of "American Dog," please keep your eye on the bigger picture here. That -- because John Lasseter & Ed Catmull finally had the courage to hit the brakes and say: "We're heading in the wrong direction. Let's turn around" ... We may now see the return of full-blown full-time traditional animation at Walt Disney Studios years ahead of schedule.

Again, I want to stress here that this is NOT a done deal. Iger still needs a lot of convincing. And a lot of people within the company are going to be furious when this agenda is finally revealed. Given the sheer waste that's going to be involved here.

I mean, just think of the deliberately-designed-to-be-CG WDFA projects like "Joe Jump" that are now going to have to be junked. Swept away as WDFA moves as quickly as possible to return to its traditional animation roots.

But -- in the long run -- don't you think that the cost & the pain involved here will be worth it?

Your thoughts?

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  • ...The idea that having both studios producing CG movies would involve them unhelpful competition or 'cannibalising' is plainly ridiculous - since when did it hurt the Weinsteins that both Miramax and Dimension films produced *live action* films? Is it a problem for Aardman that they've branched out into CG instead of only making stop-motion films? Is the new influence within Disney going to insist that Disney use only one brand for its Live Action films now?  

    I think true animators will use whichever medium serves the story - I would've preferred to see Pixar branch out into hand-drawn and stop-motion before I saw WDFA suffer continued amputations.

    Cynicism alert:  I think it sounds like the problem was not that they doubted the success of 'American Dog' and 'Rapunzel' but that they worried that they might be too successful (not just financially, but creatively - unlike, say, Cars, for example) and that this would create a rival creative power base within the company...

  • mkay this is what i am talking about: http://www.imdb.com/news/sb/2006-12-19/

    the net is a buzz about the "decision" to send Disney back to 2D...

    speculation and rumor turning to fact....what a surprise....

  • I love how everyone is saying, "American Dog is great, John and Ed are stupid for canning it", or "Don't you dare touch Rapunzel, that story is awesome!" Have any of you actually seen either of these movies? I'm sure you haven't, because they haven't been made yet! They are not even finished writing the script! What you are reacting to is concept art, concept renderings, and the idea for a movie. There is a LONG way to go from concept to execution. Have any of you seen the story boards for these movies? In reality these movies could be complete crap and need a major amount of reworking to make them acceptable. Why don't you save your judgments until after you've heard all of the facts and seen the finished product. Jim Hill - this goes for you too.

  • jewalker: because we are all excited about the concept art. Never did we say we had all seen the completed movies. The concept art just looks soooooo good. Even if the script is 'booo', it's still better than e.g. Atlantis, because of the nice production design :D.. (now talking 'bout Rapunzel)

  • gobo-fraggle said:

    >>"Cynicism alert:  I think it sounds like the problem was not that they doubted the success of 'American Dog' and 'Rapunzel' but that they worried that they might be too successful (not just financially, but creatively - unlike, say, Cars, for example) and that this would create a rival creative power base within the company.."<<

    At the risk of quoting People Who Can't Be Quoted (well, I'm just imagining there are, Jim probably has some for real  :) ), consider for a moment:  "Dog" had been shut down at the concept stage--We saw nice looking concept art, and a preliminary storyboard, but no test footage, no announced cast, and no machinery already in the works to keep it from being shut down, except for Chris's "okay" say-so from the Last Guy.

    Now consider that Rapunzel is near the same stage, and...it's been a year, shouldn't we have SEEN some new progress by now?  We've seen the exact same concept art and Glen's same test shots for the character over and over on every animation site, but again, no cast, finalized story or test footage of its existence.  Lasseter decided "Dog" wasn't moving fast enough, and apparently "Rapunzel" may get the same "So, how's work coming along so far?" queries--One, however, seemed expendable to push back and hand to someone else, and the other they're trying to salvage at all costs (but not too many).  Think that question came down to storyboards and marketability.

  • There's something about concept art that's very interesting -- that is, I've never seen concept art for any production that <i>didn't</i> look <i>really good</i>.  That said, it's not enough to base whether or not a feature-length movie is gonna be good on its preliminary designs and sketches.

    << Derek J:  We've seen the exact same concept art and Glen's same test shots for the character over and over . . . but again, no cast, finalized story or test footage . . . >>

    That's something that's consistently bothered me about <i>Rapunzel</i> -- and to the some extent <i>American Dog</i>.  In spite of all the beautiful concept art for the Tinkerbell franchise, it's still facing story problems.

    Something PIXAR has had that WDFA hasn't had is a real good sense of story and characters.  Chris Sanders is a talented artist, but that doesn't mean he's also a good storyteller.  Just take the example of Ward Kimball -- and to a certain extent Wolfgang Reitherman.  Or on the flipside, Walt Disney -- marginal animator, damn good storyteller.

    As for the necessity of defining the brands, I agree with that.  Seeing as both are aimed at the General Audience, it's beneficial for them to each have their own distinctive "look".  (And it's ridiculous to assume WDFA will no longer use <i>some</i> CGI (as they have since <i>Great Mouse Detective</i>).

    Success will go to whichever studio is the first to figure out ( be it Disney, MGM, Paramount, Dreamworks, etc. ), motion pictures are not about trends or generalizing the audience so much as telling good -- no, actually <i>great</i> -- stories in brilliant ways.

  • Gallopin' Gaucho said:>>:As for the necessity of defining the brands, I agree with that.  Seeing as both are aimed at the General Audience, it's beneficial for them to each have their own distinctive "look".  (And it's ridiculous to assume WDFA will no longer use <i>some</i> CGI (as they have since  Great Mouse Detective)."

    I'm hoping Keane will have one argument up his sleeve about the 2-Digital style--Namely that he wants the Old Days back, and John wants the Brand Image of the Old Days back, but are they being realistic about it?...Some old-timers still blame "Eisner's fault" for the Katzenberg Formula, and if Rapunzel and Frog Princess were only 99% good and got a few bad reviews, out would come all the "Same old 90's Disney films" jokes out of the woodwork.  (Qv. AskMike's "Disney is all about Princesses!" comment...WTF??)

    I can't speak for Keane's storyboards, and he may be running up costs by playing Rapunzel as an "experimental thesis", but  if Lasseter wants to save those costs with 2-D...a "traditional" Rapunzel just wouldn't be that interesting.  The one thing they have to agree on is that Disney Brand Image is about "Show Us the Fantasia"--Give us something  that other studios aren't doing, in story or visual, and then we'll know it isn't lazy ol' Dreamworks.  And since the entire studio is riding on the first new public example of Brand Image, it would be the better investment to dazzle us unwilling new audiences with what NEW visuals and a good story can do, before we argue about "what the old days were like"...If you can get it, John, you get what you pay for.

  • I say GOOD!!!! There really is no reason at all for WDFA to be producing CGI with Pixar around. Pixar has been born and raised on CG; WDFA on traditional animation. The teaming up of these two companies was perfect because now they could (hopefully) rule the realms of both these animation mediums. Let Pixar do its magic, and let WDFA do its.

    I am sorry to see Sanders go because he is a mastermind that created both the movie and character of Stitch as well as worked on The Lion King. And to tell the truth I would have been fine with having American Dog be CG only because he was behind the picture. But you have to make sacrifices. I just wish he could have been assigned the task of making this movie into a traditional animation work and not be kicked off his own project.

    Now I would be VERY sad if Rapunzel gets the CG axe. Supposedly the animators were working on creating a truly awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping CG film with very stylized animation and amazing detail. In fact I have been looking forward to this movie for a long time.

    So because the animators are really trying to create a picture that pushes the boundaries of CG, unlike American Dog, I hope and believe that Lasseter will let Rapunzel slide.

  • DerekJ said: We saw nice looking concept art, and a preliminary storyboard, but no test footage,"

    Actually, there was footage shown at SIGGRAPH last year or this year.  I saw a clip online where the dog was on a train.  It wasn't much, but it looked nice.

    Gallopin' Gaucho said: "And it's ridiculous to assume WDFA will no longer use <i>some</i> CGI (as they have since <i>Great Mouse Detective</i>"

    *cough* The Black Cauldron *cough*

    DerekJ said: "a "traditional" Rapunzel just wouldn't be that interesting"

    How do you figure?  #1, No other company is making traditionally animated Princess movies, as far as I know.  #2, a "traditional" Snow White/Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty/Little Mermaid/ B&tB/Aladdin all were interesting. As long as the story is interesting, the movie should be (we've seen the pretty pictures...even if "Rapunzel" is made in 2D, it'd still be pretty, I bet).

    One of my biggest concerns about Disney only doing 2D and Pixar doing all the CGI films is that Disney films are different from Pixar films.  Even though I prefer the look of traditional animation, what if a WDFA film is in the works, and the people working on it feel that, in order to be a more effective movie, must be made in CGI?  I don't feel that they should, right now, say no more CGI films from Disney.  

  • I find it realy funny how your all saying that "Rapunzel" is in begining stages. It probably sucks, we haven't seen smack. Now, hmmm.... Let's see. Pixar! Have you seen anything other than "teaser trailer," damn good animation and test footage. now... Let's see.

    John Lasseter. Extremely secretive guy who kept almost all Pixar films very secretive. Let's see? I wonder why we still have not seen anything other than "test footage" and pics of Rapunzel? I wonder whose in charge of Disney now? I'll let your brain do the rest.

    And as for Rapunzel, it might only have that out. How do I know its a great film? Didn't JOhn Lasseter say that he saw an almost completed first act, and it was the strongest movie opening he's ever seen? Other than that..

    I really have no idea why anyone would think Rapunzel was gonna be this beautiful film, with a great story. I simply have no clue... And the fact that Glen Keane has worked for Disney in some of the biggest princess movies they've made * cough * Beauty and the beast etc. * cough * I really have no idea where I got that Rapunzel might be this great film? I guess I shouldn't set my sights for Disney so high... Sorry Disney enthusiasts... lol ( Suck on that )

    Psh. T H I N K

  • JoeHaro.. You crack me up :P

  • <<blackcauldron85 said:  *cough* The Black Cauldron *cough* >>

    You're right.  Sorry, that's my mistake.  Black Cauldron was the first.  (Thanks for reminding me!)

    <<blackcauldron85 said:  what if a WDFA film is in the works and the people working on it feel that, in order to be a more effective movie, must be made in CGI?  >>

    I'm guessing the move the Disney brass would make is shift the project to Pixar, key staff/animators included.  If they cordone off the "brands", I don't think they'd have to cordone off the staff (outside of the buildings/places they're working).  You know how Walt suddenly had Marc Davis working at Imagineering on Disneyland and Xavier Atencio writing the POTC-ride script (even though he wasn't, at the time, a studio writer)?  I think the tie Pixar will have to Disney is more similar to Imagineering than Miramax/Touchstone/Hollywood.

    <<JoeHaro07 said:  I find it really funny how your all saying that "Rapunzel" is in beginning stages.  It probably sucks, we haven't seen smack...  John Lasseter.  Extremely secretive guy... >>

    Your points are well made.  But, with regards to RAPUNZEL, there's been no teaser trailer.  I'm not hinting RAPUNZEL sucks, I am hinting it may be struggling through development.  I have a huge amount of respect for Glen Keane.  But this is, if I'm not mistaken, his first time as a director.  I imagine he's going for perfection.  He wants it to be great.  Unfortunately, that could also mean he's going too slow.

    <<linklewtt said:  I would be VERY sad if Rapunzel gets the CG axe. Supposedly the animators were working on creating a truly awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping CG film with very stylized animation and amazing detail. >>

    This still remains speculation on JH's part.  Possible, but I doubt they'd overhaul the production if enough work's been done on it.  (Not unheard of though -- Walt had "Flowers and Trees" redone entirely in color).  It really depends on how far along RAPUNZEL is at this point.  I imagine the conversation JH hints at will be more of the standard -- "Show us where you're at" type meetings.  If it's still in early stages, it'd be plausible to rethink it "traditionally".  No matter how it's made, I find it hard to believe Keane will put out a lemon.

    <<Derek J said:  I'm hoping Keane will have one argument up his sleeve about the 2-Digital style--Namely that he wants the Old Days back, and John wants the Brand Image of the Old Days back, but are they being realistic about it? >>

    That's the immediate problem they run into with regards to "brands".  The generalization's out there that Disney's only successful when they've got princesses and songs running through their storyline.  But to me, the WDFA brand has been/should be like you say "Show us the Fantasia" -- dazzle the audience.  Entertaining as Pixar is, they're not, I dunno, magical as Disney is at its best.

  • Gallopin' Gaucho said: "(Thanks for reminding me!)"

    No problem!

    Gallopin' Gaucho also said: "Entertaining as Pixar is, they're not, I dunno, magical as Disney is at its best."

    That's a perfect way to put that.  I've never been able to articulate that.  But I agree.

  • O-Meon has an article about Chris Sanders and "American Dog", and that gives some more insight into the situation.

  • It really isn't surprising that we haven't seen any more production art for American Dog or Rapunzel considering who runs the show now. Besides the teaser trailer that was released for Ratatouille, how much production art have you seen for that movie. Who can even name Pixar's next movie and state who the director is, let alone provide any production art (by the way, Pixar's next movie is W.A.L.-E, and I don't know who the director is). Pixar has a tradition of keeping these close to their chest so that they get judged by their final product. Disney has a tradition of sharing information early and often. I think both sides are having to adjust to the new partership as Disney tries to learn to work in the Pixar way, and Ed and John learn that it is hard to keep things secret in Hollywood.

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