Sunday, July 19, 2009

Destination Woody

July 20 is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. To commemorate it, Turner Classic Movies is running films relating to the moon for the entire day. At 1 p.m. Eastern time, they are running Destination Moon (1950), which is of interest to animation fans for an original segment where Woody Woodpecker demonstrates rocket propulsion.

The segment is available on YouTube, so if you're not interested in the entire film, here's Woody.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Human Resources

Updated below.

There was a time when companies owned the resources they used to produce their products. A company was its factories. However, in more recent times, companies have rebelled against the idea of overhead, so they simply contract out their needs to suppliers. In the past, the onus was on the company to keep factories and workers busy or they faced the possibility of financial losses. With subcontracting, companies only pay for the work they need when they need it, and it is the subcontractor's problem to meet overhead. You could say that companies have downloaded their overheads to subcontractors.

When companies owned the means of production, they were not necessarily better behaved. The movie studios of the 1930s treated their employees so poorly that they unionized in self-defense. The concentration of production in Hollywood, with its high overhead of buildings, cameras, lights, props, costumes, etc, gave workers some degree of leverage. It was not financially viable for studios to relocate any time there was a labour problem.

Subcontracting has been a financial boon to the studios. Where they once owned everything themselves and were stuck with fixed costs, they now have several companies bidding to supply what they need and the competition forces prices down. Subcontractors have their own overheads to meet, so they cut their margins as low as possible to attract work.

Subcontracting has allowed studios to do business over a larger geographical area, which has reduced worker leverage. While it was difficult to relocate a movie studio to escape a labour problem, it is simple to redirect work to a subcontractor somewhere else.

The Los Angeles Times has an article about local suppliers who are suffering as the studios redirect work to other places in order to save money. By no longer employing these people directly, the studios feel no obligation to insure their survival. Governments outside California want to attract film and television production to their locales and Hollywood studios are only too happy to take advantage of financial incentives governments offer them. If that results in hardship for local suppliers and workers, that is not the studios' concern.

Still from Live Music

The New York Times has an article about a 5 minute cgi animated short called Live Music, produced by Mass Animation. The short was crowd sourced. Mass Animation supplied software to interested contributors, who competed to get their shots accepted for the film. Each accepted shot earned $500. The short has been picked up by Sony for release in front of their feature Planet 51 on November 20.

(You can see the trailer here. The story looks to me like a rehash of the Silly Symphony Music Land.)

17,000 people downloaded the software but only 51 people had shots accepted. The Times doesn't report how many of the 17,000 actually submitted a shot. It is impossible to know how many uncompensated hours were spent to create the film or how many minutes of footage were created to arrive at the final five.

(If only 5% of the 17,000 submitted a shot, that's 850 people. Subtracting the 51 who were accepted, that leaves 799 people who worked for free and it means that roughly 85 minutes of animation was created and 80 minutes was thrown away.)

The Times also reports that the budget for the short was $1 million. Unfortunately, the Times doesn't say how many shots are in the finished film. If we assume that the average shot length is 3 seconds, that would be 20 shots per minute or 100 shots in the film. At $500 per shot, that's a total of $50,000. That figure does not cover overhead, script, board, soundtrack, modeling, rigging, or any post-production costs, but I'm a little suspicious that animation and lighting cost only 1/20 of the budget. That suggests to me that the animators were underpaid.

Where studios once had subcontractors competing for work, they now have individuals competing. Furthermore, while a subcontractor only had to create a bid (and perhaps a sample), the individuals have to create finished shots.

I'm in favour of artistic collaboration and the idea of crowd sourcing a film over the internet is exciting. However, the long term trends disturb me. Animation production, which was already too fragmented for my tastes, is now more fragmented than ever. The 51 animators who worked on Live Music come from 17 different countries. Corporations continue to use their leverage (the fact that they have money that other people want) to externalize their costs and disperse work ever more widely. The one constant is the drive to pay as little as possible. In this case, the majority of the animation created was done for free.

I haven't seen Live Music. I have no idea how good it is or how the people who competed to work on it feel they were treated. While the internet presents unprecedented opportunity for creative collaboration, it is also the ultimate tool to divide and conquer. I worry that individuals won't have the knowledge or the strength to protect themselves from companies focused so singularly on the bottom line.

Update: A former associate of mine had a meeting with Yair Landau, the founder of Mass Animation, and was given different figures than the N.Y. Times used. Here's what he told me:
2,500 Maya downloads (vs NY Times 17,000). This was 60 day license
200 different animators (vs your 850 guesstimate)
107 shots (winners) pared down to 97 in final edit (vs your 100 guesstimate)
50 different winners (vs 51 NY Times)
Obviously the winners did an average of 2 shots each.
He said the average number of submissions per shot was about 4.
(so about 400+ submissions) Cutting ratio of 3:1
Other: animators did NOT do lighting.
Lighting, rendering, compositing and editing was all done at ReelFX who didn’t get a mention.
The above figures make the production a lot less wasteful than what the N.Y. Times implies. It also looks like typical Hollywood hyperbole is at work here in terms of the number of downloads. It's interesting that fewer than 10% of the people who downloaded software actually submitted a shot. I wonder how big a pool of downloaders would be necessary in order to do a feature?

I would also point out a comment by gregizz, who was a contributor to Live Music and who offers his thoughts on the process.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Astonishing World of Tezuka Osamu

Kino Video will be releasing a collection of Osamu Tezuka's work on DVD on July 28 to customers in the U.S. and Canada. The DVD contains the following films:
  1. Tales of the Street Corner / 1962 / 16:9 / 39:04 / English Subtitles
  2. Male / 1962 / 4:3 / 03:09 / English Subtitles
  3. Memory / 1964 / 4:3 / 05:40 / English Subtitles
  4. Mermaid / 1964 / 4:3 / 08:17 / No Dialog
  5. The Drop / 1965 / 4:3 / 04:18 / No Dialog
  6. Pictures at an Exhibition / 1966 / 16:9 / 32:56 / No dialog
  7. The Genesis / 1968 / 4:3 / 04:02 / English Subtitles / B&W
  8. Jumping / 1984 / 4:3 / 06:22 / No Dialog
  9. Broken Down Film / 1985 / 4:3 / 05:42 / No Dialog / B&W
  10. Push / 1987 / 4:3 / 04:16 / English Subtitles
  11. Muramasa / 1987 / 16:9 / 08:42 / No Dialog
  12. Legend of the Forest / 1987 / 16:9 / 29:25 / No Dialog
  13. Self Portrait / 1988 / 0.13 / No Dialog

Also includes:
Interview with Tezuka / 1986 / 4:3 / 18:19 / English Subtitles

The pre-order price is U.S. $20.97 with the eventual price to be $29.95. You can see two minutes of excerpts (from Jumping and Legend of the Forest) at the above link.

Kino is also releasing a DVD of Phil Mulloy's work. Details here.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Ubisoft Opening in Toronto

(Updated. Here's an interview with Yannis Mallat, who will be in charge of the Ubisoft Toronto facility. Thanks to Alan Cook for the link.)

This will only be of interest to those working in animation in Toronto, but Ubisoft, the French videogame company, will be opening a studio in Toronto.

I personally don't have much interest in games, but I do have a strong interest in the Toronto industry. For years, it has been anchored by Nelvana, which not only employed people but also subcontracted work to smaller studios in the city. More recently Starz has been working on features and has managed to keep a steady stream of work for its crew.

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with several industry people and they asked me how I saw Toronto's future for animation. I wasn't optimistic. The TV industry is shrinking and budgets are being pushed lower as a result. While there is also visual effects work for features being done locally, that business has notoriously low margins and studios are quick to underbid each other for work.

My thinking was that Vancouver was better positioned than Toronto for several reasons. It has a big geographic advantage in that it's in the same timezone as California and is a shorter flight for executives and directors than the flight to Toronto. Most importantly, though, it has video game company Electronic Arts in addition to TV, feature and VFX work. Vancouver's greater diversity of work made it stronger than Toronto.

Now, Toronto will be at least as diverse as Vancouver. Should Nelvana, Starz and Ubisoft remain strong anchors for employment, it will keep talent in the area rather than have it wander off to greener pastures. While this announcement may not have the public relations value of Pixar opening in Vancouver, it is as important in stabilizing the local industry.

Unfortunately, two of the three anchor companies are not Canadian. What would really solidify things would be for Toronto-owned studios to create intellectual property that's sold around the world. Should that happen, the industry would be much better positioned for growth.

(Thanks to Paul Teolis for the link.)

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Some Links

Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean Animation is profiled at Greenbriar Picture Shows. Steve has lovingly put together a series of DVDs of public domain material from various studios. Where most public domain releases are done on the cheap, Steve puts enormous effort into finding the best materials and creating extras. I heartily endorse his products.

Spline Doctors has posted a podcast with Pete Docter and Bob Peterson of Pixar.

Brad Bird is interviewed by Nancy Cartwright at

The ASIFA Hollywood Archive presents artwork from Ray Patterson's time at the Mintz studio in the 1930's.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Time and a Place

I've been catching up on some movies lately and three of them have helped sharpen my thoughts on an aspect of animated films.

The Commitments (1991), directed by Alan Parker based on a novel by Roddy Doyle, is set in Dublin and is about a band that meshes well onstage but can't mesh off stage. A Soldier's Story (1984), directed by Norman Jewison based on the play by Charles Fuller, is set in Louisiana in 1944 and is about a murder that takes place on an army base that is home to black soldiers. Mean Streets (1973), directed by Martin Scorcese from a screenplay by him and Mardik Martin, is set in Manhattan's Little Italy and is about young people on the edges of the mob.

What these films have in common is how thoroughly they evoke a milieu. The visuals are obviously a part of it, but the characters' patterns of speech and more importantly their attitudes, place the stories in very particular times and places. You could not drop a character from one of these movies into either of the others and have the character fit. The characters in these films experience the world in different ways and have very different expectations of themselves and their surroundings. Watching these three films is to visit three very different worlds.

The part of milieu that animated films usually get right is the visuals. It has become common for animation studios to send staff on field trips to do research so that the art direction captures the feeling of an environment. However, animation usually stops there. The characters' speech patterns and attitudes are transplanted from California and dropped into a world that looks different, but ends up feeling the same.

How much does Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame have to do with Paris beyond the art direction? How much does DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda have to do with China beyond the choice of local animals and architecture?

While artists are sent on field trips, has any animated feature ever gone on location to record voice tracks? Does the creation of animated stories by committee dilute any sense of a time or place? Does the necessity of making films understandable to children prevent the films from straying too far from what children know?

There are animated films that are successful in evoking a milieu. Bakshi's Heavy Traffic has a lot in common with Scorcese's Mean Streets in evoking lower class New York. Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis probably does a better job of evoking Iran through its story and characters than it does through its visuals, the reverse of the typical animation approach. Mike Judge's King of the Hill could only have been created by a Texan. Miyazaki's work is thoroughly Japanese. Each of the animated examples above comes from a director's personal background and while that might seem like an argument for more personal films, it isn't a necessity. Norman Jewison, who has made several films about the American south and its racial tensions, is Canadian.

For live action films, setting is a foundation that the story and characters are built on. For too many animated films, setting is just a way of dressing a story up, like a kid in a Halloween costume. No matter how good the costume is, it doesn't really convince anybody.

(Posting here will probably be sporadic over the next 6-7 weeks as I'll be away at various times.)