OT- Why TWDCo Needs to "reanimate" Animation

From LP.. A well written article about the poor animation department. Didn't want you folks over here to miss it.
Jim Miles talks about what went wrong with Disney's animation division and how to get it back on track.

Pink Elephants on Parade:
Intoxicating Analysis and Quality Traditional Animation

When Disney started running Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on ABC, it was a runaway success. More so than Friends or ER, here was a show people were talking about--discussing the winners and what questions they had won answering. Disney immediately capitalized on the show, running it many times a week, sometimes several times a day. Before long, as many in the industry have noted, Disney had run the show into the ground. What should have been a long-running, steady ratings-winner for the company, quickly ran out of steam, and to top it off, Disney had nothing good to replace it in its schedule, leaving ABC low on the ladder rung of television ratings.

Similarly, in the late 1980s, after Disney had a taste of animated success with such films as Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid, it increased its animated output. They released a steady flow of traditionally animated musicals, stop-motion animation, television-based animation, computer-generated animation, and television-based animated sequels of classic traditional animated titles.

Now, with the recent lack of instant success for Treasure Planet, the Disney Feature Animation division (the department that creates the quality traditionally animated features such as Mulan and Lilo and Stitch) is at a crossroads like no other time in history. The department which has always been the heart and soul of the company is drawing painful questions from executives within the studio, industry analysts, and market-watchers.

In just a few short years, Disney may eliminate quality traditional hand-drawn animation. This means that, after rash analysis, foresightless decision-making, and concern from uninformed stock-owners, Disney could be on the verge of making some of the worst decisions in the company?s long history.

The History of the Issue.
In many ways, the problems that plague Walt Disney Feature Animation today--the division of the company that has created traditionally animated features from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Treasure Planet--began when Michael Eisner came on board in 1984 with Frank Wells and Jeffery Katzenberg. Jeffery Katzenberg took over control of the animation department and implemented many new and important changes in how the system functioned.

One such change was the move to create one animated feature a year, which was a goal Walt Disney himself had never been able to reach. In hindsight, there were several problems with this goal as implemented in the last decade. First of all, other studios attempted to get in on the trend, causing some additional competition in the marketplace. Of course, the only real competition for Disney was Disney itself. When Disney released The Lion King, its gross soared over $300 million, an amazing box office feat for any film. But industry analysts then proceeded to proclaim every single animated feature released after that film to be box office failures. Despite the fact that Pocahontas earned more money than Beauty and the Beast just four years earlier, it was dubbed a failure by analysts. As evidence of how fickle such analysts can be, when it was released in 1999, Tarzan was dubbed a failure by many analysts because it had not met the unreachable standard set by The Lion King. Now, in 2002, they now hold Tarzan as the tentpole success for the newest animated features.

During this time, Disney learned the financial gold of cheap, direct-to-video sequels of its classic films. These films could be made cheaply and released to video where parents, despite loathing reviews, would pick them up for their kids. For many years, Disney would market these videos in a way as to draw a clear line between Beauty and the Beast and Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas.

When Disney began creating films with Pixar, beginning with Toy Story in 1995, audiences ate up these films which were quite different from other Disney films. Their computer advancements were highly touted; however, they were a smash because of the same things that have always made great Disney films--strong characters and great stories.

Soon other studios would jump into animation. Fox, Warner Brothers, DreamWorks, and Nickelodeon would all begin creating and releasing a variety of animated films. With increased competition (both from itself and from other studios), Disney would face problems marketing its traditionally animated films with the same success it had had a decade earlier

Problem One: Watering Down the Market
When Disney first entered into the realm of DVD, it created its Gold Collection, a collection marked by a mad year of releasing its animated titles to a special DVD edition that would include special features along with the higher quality DVD experience. As always, it released its classic animated features (known as the canon--its now forty-two full-length animated features) along with some of its films that blended live-action and animation, such as Pete?s Dragon and Mary Poppins. However, for the first time, Disney began classifying its cheap direct-to-video titles with its animated greats. The lines between the impressive Pinocchio and Fantasia became blurred with kids? fare like Pocahontas 2 and Mickey?s Magical Christmas. Furthermore, with the flood of direct-to-video titles, the emphasis on experiencing the Disney films in the theater got lost among the push to have them on all video.

A word on these cheaply-made sequels. The stress on these videos is making a profit, and parents buy these videos sight unseen; quality is not important. As evidence of this, Toy Story 2 was originally intended as a direct-to-video sequel. Disney executives saw the film in production and realized how great it was. The film was lengthened and released to theaters, and of course, the rest is box office history. But this all happened because the film actually turned out to be good, as evidenced by the raving reviews the film earned, many proclaiming it to be better than the original.

Just this past year, Disney released the Peter Pan sequel Return to Never Land (produced by the television animation department) to theaters and has plans to release The Jungle Book 2 to theaters in 2003 (in addition to Piglet?s Big Movie, both animated by the television animation department). Reviews were hardly glowing for the poorly animated Return to Never Land and Internet buzz on The Jungle Book 2 is mediocre at best; they are hardly comparable to Toy Story 2 in warranting a theatrical release. Return to Never Land and The Tigger Movie both made modest but respectful box office grosses, and The Jungle Book 2 and Piglet?s Big Movie are sure to as well, but the question investors must ask is at the risk of what? What is the true cost of making and releasing these features?

The existence of these film are a result of the work of the Feature Animation department. Had the love and care had not been poured into Peter Pan, its sequel would not exist. Furthermore, in fifty years, when the original Peter Pan will still be making loads of money for the studio, Return to Never Land will still be seen as a cheap sequel that doesn?t live up to the original. The new characters in these films are not viable properties for the studio and never will be. The same love and care that went into the original films isn?t there.

If these films are allowed to water down the success of traditional animated films today, which in turn could bring a close to the creation of new films, Disney will have nothing to build on for the future.

In other words, just as nobody today really knows or cares about many of the most successful films of 1959, when Disney releases its 1959 flop Sleeping Beauty to video for the third time and to DVD for the first time in 2003, it will become a best-selling title, earning millions of dollars for the studio. Just as this happened for Sleeping Beauty, in thirty years, when Die Another Day is on the discount shelves at Walmart, Treasure Planet will receive its fourth reissue to the latest home viewing format in a collector?s edition. After having been almost unanimously praised by future critics as a Disney classic worthy of the name and regarded as a film that was under-rated at the time of its release, it will become one of the top-selling titles of the year, and kids will run to the store to buy Jim Hawkins action figures and Morph plush. At least, this is what history has shown us with other Disney "flops" and "critical pans."

Despite its final box office gross, as history has proven, Treasure Planet will still be a valuable asset to the studio in fifty years. Just as past Disney mega-flops--including Fantasia, Bambi, and Sleeping Beauty have proven--these films stand the test of time. The money made by a Disney animated film in its original release is a pittance compared to the financial role it plays in the future of the studio. The easy money made by these cheap sequels now may very well threaten the future of the real, long-term money-maker for the studio, quality traditional animation. The brand Walt Disney began in 1928 with the first Mickey Mouse cartoon will be destroyed.

Problem Two: Flooding the Marketplace
With so many films about human characters who sing songs released in the 1990s, some have suggested that Disney may have made their films look too much alike (despite key difference between all of them), which could have been another key factor in the drop of box office revenue.

Now, Disney is poised to run computer animation into the same problems. All of Disney and Pixar?s films have done very well. Since Toy Story was released in 1995, only three Disney and Pixar titles have hit the theaters. People can?t get enough of these films because they literally can?t get enough--they aren?t populating the marketplace . . . yet.

First of all, Disney is perched to make the same mistake in that most of it?s Pixar films. are all buddy films. Finding Nemo, to be released in 2003, looks to be, from previews, a buddy film. This is after the release of Shrek and Ice Age which were, essentially, buddy films. Now, Disney has set many of its traditional animators to focus on even more computer-generated animation. Eventually, audiences will feel that they are getting the same thing no matter how original or different these films really are.

As Disney gets caught up in the whirlwind of fallacious analyst reports that praise computer animation and decry quality traditional animation, it may come at the cost of traditionally animated features. This is not to say that, with the potential end of the partnership between Disney and Pixar, they should not be pursuing computer animated stories; however, to bank solely on it is unwise planning. With DreamWorks, Fox, Big Idea, Nickelodeon, and soon the independent Pixar to be populating the release calendar with computer animation, the market for such films is set to take a dive like every other trend.

To not develop traditional animation (particularly as other studios abandon it, leaving a need in the market in the future) is a bad decision which would likely have severe and uncalculatable financial ramifications for the studio for generations. Even during its most financially lean times, traditional animation has proven to be a cash cow for the studio for sixty-five years.

Problem Three: Marketing Problems
As Thomas Schumacher, head of Disney animation, recently said in an interview quoted in Entertainment Weekly, you cannot make someone like you. When it comes to marketing, however, it is not a matter of whether people like you; much of it has to do with making people think they will like you. Unfortunately, Disney has failed to do this at the expense of several of its recent traditionally animated films.

Beginning with Fantasia 2000, Disney has not always marketed its traditionally animated features well. For example, for Fantasia 2000, the release was split between two times of the year, ensuring that when the film hit wide release, it had lost its press. With Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Treasure Planet (2002), Disney repeated the same mistake it made with another PG-rated traditionally animated film, The Black Cauldron in 1985--they marketed it toward older audiences with the emphasis on its darkness and adventure elements.

The film missing from this analogy of recent Disney "flops" is perhaps the biggest mistake Disney has made in recent years. After shockingly minimal promotion, The Emperor?s New Groove earned favorable reviews and strong word of mouth. This was evidenced by the fact that the film earned more in its second week of release than it did in its first, but Disney did nothing to capitalize on its potential. The result was that it became a top-selling video the following year, and more importantly, it has a strong following among teens and tweens, the two groups that drive film grosses.

Because of its inability to see the quality in its own product and plan accordingly, Disney failed its artists and its investors by neglecting to reach for the film?s blockbuster potential.

Instead of looking at these coinciding strings of cause, Disney and Hollywood analysts have eagerly jumped on the thought of the demise of quality traditional animation, but these are hasty generalizations made without serious thought on what is real. And it is these hasty generalizations that are guiding Disney to potentially end its production of traditionally animated films which will lead to financially disastrous results.

Problem Four: Leadership Change Required
Since the new regime in 1984, Disney has put traditional business executives in charge of feature animation. Animation is an extensive process with a rich history that was developed over many years since the early part of the last century. It is not like live-action film-making; the executives in charge need to know and understand visual artists and the animation process. The executives who have helmed this department since the mid-1980s have not understood this. Jeffery Katzenberg, who was highly praised for his role in the Disney animation renaissance, has shown how little he had to do with it with his own studio?s release of The Road to El Dorado and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, both of which were panned by critics and not wildly popular because of their lack of storytelling and character development.

Katzenberg was followed by Peter Schneider, and he was followed by Thomas Schumacher. During the reigns of the latter two, Disney animated features racked up many unnecessary cost-overruns. The animation process, as implemented at Disney since Walt?s day, works to avoid the high cost of editing completed scenes and other such expenses.

As an example of who should run the animation division is Howard Ashman. By all accounts, Howard Ashman, who sadly died of AIDS in 1991, was the closest the studio ever had to having another Walt Disney. He loved animation and knew and understood the great legacy of Disney animation, and he was a genius storyteller. It was Howard Ashman who suggested for Sebastian the crab to be Caribbean and solved key problems for the Beauty and the Beast plot, among many other things. When reading stories of Ashman?s input for these films, one cannot help but think of Walt Disney in how he intrinsically understood how to make films full of heart and warmth.

Howard Ashman did not work his way up in the gears of Hollywood executive positions. He was a lyricist before he became the Executive Producer of Beauty and the Beast. That is what Disney needs--not someone who has been playing the corporate game for years but the next Walt Disney--someone who knows animation storytelling and whose passion for the art drives him/her to create the truly perfect animated film.
Problem Five: Loss of Artistic Talent
In the past several years, Michael Eisner and Thomas Schumacher have cut the animation staff in half and sharply cut salaries. This was a great short-term fix to increase revenue to make the company look healthy and successful for its investors; however, this short-term fix was unwise in planning for the long-term.

As part of this cutting and restructuring, some of the remaining Feature Animation artists have been redirected into the television animation division to work on creating the cheaply-produced sequels. For many of these artists who helped create films like The Lion King and Mulan, this is the equivalent of having Amy Tan write romance novels. This is hardly the best use of Disney?s finances in the long-term.

Even more distressing, many of Disney?s greatest artists have left the studio in order to use the training that they got at Disney for competing studios. Among the long list is Eric Goldberg (co-director of Pocahontas), Ken Duncan (animator of Jane Porter), Roger Allers (co-director of The Lion King), and Kirk Wise (co-director of Beauty and the Beast), all of whom left amidst emotional duress put upon the animators by short-sighted cuts and artistic hostility from disinterested executives.

These are the A-list stars of the animation industry, and Disney?s loss of these talents is the equivalent of KFC mailing out copies of its recipe for its secret mix of herbs and spices. Disney cannot remain competitive in the Disney name only; it will only create successful and critically acclaimed films if it has the people in place to do it, whether it is in traditional animation or computer animation. Sending such talented people to the competitors will do nothing to help Disney maintain the upper-hand in the competitive film industry.

Problem Six: The Computer Animation Fallacy
As stated above, computer animation is in the stage where traditional animation was in the early 1990s. It is still something fresh and new to audiences (just as traditional animation was for Disney as it re-entered the genre of animated musicals) that will eventually dip as other films and companies populate the marketplace.

The second mammothian problem with the move toward computer animation is the fallacy that audiences prefer computer animation to traditional animation. This has lead many analysts to suggest that had Treasure Planet been made solely with computers, it would have been successful. Besides the fact that there is no concrete evidence to support this and that it fails to identify more realistic reasons for mediocre box office performance (such as poor marketing and tough competition from proven film franchises), it doesn?t hold up to reason.

Hollywood perceives what it wants to. Hollywood is one city on this earth, and no matter how many analysts try to outdo each other in attempting to identify trends, what they say in not necessarily true.

Currently, traditional animation is very different from computer animation. For example, the characters in DreamWorks? Shrek moved; however, they did not move realistically in the same sense as Belle, Aladdin, or Simba. If the time ever comes where it could be the same, it would only be after millions and millions of dollars were spent in developing the software to recreate what had already been done for decades by hand.

Furthermore, to suggest that the family audience--the primary audience for most animated films--care about the type of animation is ridiculous. The average parent cannot tell that computers were used to create the moving backgrounds in Treasure Planet, let alone their children. When analysts suggest that Disney needs to further integrate computer animation into its traditionally animated films, they forget that successful integration of these two forms means blending them seamlessly; the moment it becomes noticeable is the moment the audience is removed from the reality of the story. To put a greater stress on creating only computer animation and traditionally animated films with an increase in computer-generated elements ignores this fact and drives up costs for traditional animation in the attempt to develop new technology.

This idea is also clearly and loudly refuted by several other factors. Lilo and Stitch was a major theatrical success for Disney despite having very little computer animation (many critics praised its use of watercolors and traditional animation). Atlantis: The Lost Empire sold very well on video. Beauty and the Beast was re-released successfully to theaters and is a top-selling video title.

For many different factors, Disney traditional animation has entered a temporary slump. The sad reality is that in hindsight, many of these factors are Disney?s own fault. Not only have they filled the marketplace with quality product, they have flooded it with product that is watering down the Disney brand. On top of it, they have severely mishandled films that are of high quality and held enormous profit-making potential. In order to prevent this in the future, Disney needs to hire management with the ability and foresight to steer both computer and traditional animation into its bright future. It needs to learn from its past mistakes, think clearly, and rely on reason to draw conclusions about what needs to change and how it needs to change, not listen to those who draw hasty generalizations based on fallacies and fads. Furthermore, it must not make cosmetic choices or choose short-term solutions while ignoring the future.

For sixty-five years, Disney?s traditional animation has been the heart and soul of the Walt Disney company, creating loving memories for billions of children across the world. On the basis of these memories, Disney has made billions upon billions of dollars for its stockholders and for its executives. With the invention and application of new technology, Disney should see it as a new way of making money, not as a replacement for what has earned the company billions for so many years.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was a single television show, but Disney must learn from the mistakes it made with it. Disney animation is the division with the greatest earning potential in the immediate future and, more importantly, in the long term. Michael Eisner has steered Disney into grand waters for its investors. But unless he thinks clearly and makes these important changes, when he wakes up from his drunken stupor of cosmetic cost-cutting measures to save money, he will make Disney the weakest link.


Thanks for sharing this interesting article with us! :D Once again we see that everyone seems to know what is wrong with the Disney organization except the losers in charge. It's clear that nothing is going to change until Eisner and his yes men move on to strip mine the assets of another company. At this point I only have faith in the Disney organization making the wrong decision. Disney's California Adventure is their monument to Eisner corporate thinking and it should be his leadership tombstone.
Jeff. thank you for sharing this exceptional--and ultimately heartbreaking--article. I was pleased to see that Jim Miles brought up an essential point that I've also raised in other threads on this site--the absolutely fundamental problem that is currently plaguing the Walt Disney Company is that the artistic direction of a company founded in innovation and excellence is being provided by corporate businessmen without even a remote concept of artistic vision and integrity. Grasping executives assisted by financial analyst-henchmen are not the people qualified to assume the leadership of Walt Disney's company. I was so pleased when Jim paid tribute to Howard Ashman as an artist who could have potentially helped to fill the void left by Walt's untimely departure--what a tragic loss.

Until a true visionary artist can once again provide enlightened guidance, I'm afraid we will be left to sadly watch a company mired in the financial whims of the times, desparately clinging to the coattails of its founding father. Mike.