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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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  • A large part of me, in just the past week, wishes that there wasn't a partnership between Disney and Pixar.  As long as Disney got to keep the rights to the films and characters, at this point, I wouldn't have minded if they went their separate ways.  I enjoy the Pixar films, but not enough to have Disney films become Pixar films.

  • Nope, I disagree with you blackcaudron85, no one else was better for the part than lasseter and Ed, better than stainton. But anyway, we both have to recognize that Pixar films are kind of gigglish disney charm in em. and many people nowadays just consider pixar, disney. like did you see that new disney movie cars, people say that. And like yeah... Its all gonna change from now on. But heck, if Disney starts crankin out pixar films, no prob with me, i'd hate it, but its better than the full flat out failures they were producing a year earlier

  • I'm an animation student in Canada, and I have been following news about Pixar from JHM for awhile.  First of all, I just want to say that I think that people are getting just too antsy about this.  

    Yes, american dog looked interesting.  But couldn't the same thing be done in 2d?  CG is a medium that can be used to create some mind boggling effects and push the boundaries of what is humanely possible.  But thats just it- HUMANELY possible.  CG is a medium that tries to emulate what life looks like, not what life FEELS like.  CG is cold and lifeless and is a very technical medium.  While I LOVE cg and what pixar does with it, its not a happy, touchy kind of medium.  PIXAR does a darn good job of making worlds that really draw you in (as mentioned before, Finding Nemo was amazing) but why is that? Why did finding nemo work? why did toy story work?

    because there was NO way those movies could have been done the way they had been if they were in 2D.  These are movies specifically made for 3d.  Movies that would have a hard time working in 2d, due to their nature.  Though there has been a movie (pinocchio) that deals with a little wooden (boy) toy, toy story was great because you felt that you could almost touch the characters inside the movie.

    Now, take Disney's 3d.  While I cannot argue with the fact that chicken little was cute and fluffy, it made my brain hurt.  These are animators used to working in 2d and it showed.  While some areas in the film kinda work (like the pig), others do not (like the ugly duckling).  Squash and stretch, one of the MAIN rules of animation, is used to an extreme in this movie, and it looks, well, odd.  You can see in their new movie, meet the robinson's, that this use of squash and stretch has been pulled back a lot.  

    What I'm trying to say in a windy and quite odd way, is that Pixar makes CG movies.  They're good at what they do.  Although the medium that they use is not traditional, how they get there is.  Don't say anything about artistry; that company employs some amazing artists and the preproduction stuff for their movies are amazing.

    In disney's case, I love the old 2D.  I watch it all the time (i'm a fan of the xeroxed technique they used in robin hood and sword in the stone and jungle book) and it doesn't get old.  They use(d) the same formula everytime, so you really could get in to the movies fast because you knew what to expect.  The stories were told in an interesting fashion, the art was amazing, and the quality of their work was unsurpassed.

    I know in an old JHM forum topic that it was rumored that pixar was going to do a 2d movie, just to show disney that money could indeed be made from such a venture.  Now that Pixar is owned by disney, they might be using disney to bring back 2d.

    SO WHAT.

    Any sacrifice made to bring back 2d is worth it.  Its a medium that I am being schooled in, not 3d.  Its a touchy-feely type of work and what you can do with it surpasses 3d.  You don't have to be told about the world you are in, you don't really have to announce the 2d stories.  Disney's 2d is in a realm of its own.

    As for glen keane, i don't think disney is going to be trying to piss him off anytime soon.  What actually happens with rapunzel is anyone's guess, but having glen fired would be the worst thing to ever happen to disney in recent years.  He's been a supervising animator on the little mermaid up thru the recent, bad CG animated disney stuff.

    Anyway, my vote is for a return to 2D.

    ...I don't think i can stand another poorly done 3D animated movie, competing to be the best, when they are really all competing to see which movie is the least cookie-cuttered.

    Kadi

  • JHM's most popular column finally emerges from its long winter's nap, as Jim Hill answers your questions about a cut scene from "The Rocketeer," Goofy's original voice as well as soliciting your opinion about this site's editorial direction

  • Jim Hill reviews this new hardcover from Disney Editions, which takes a detailed look at all of the dogs who have appeared in Disney animated shorts & features over the years

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