Age and the State of Feature Animation
well-deserved success of Chris Wedge's Ice Age (Blue
Sky/Fox Animation Studio) comes at a time of great change
in feature animation and is a film which moves the process
of change along in several important ways, including a shift
in production away from the Los Angeles area.
first, I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the film.
Blue Sky is a studio I have followed with considerable interest
over the years. (I profiled it in my Animation Report
newsletter and commissioned a story about it for Animation
World Magazine.) The studio, based in White Plains, New
York, was founded in 1987 by refuges from MAGI/SynthaVision,
the pioneer computer animation house that gained fame for
its work on Tron. Its takeover by Fox gave Creative
Director and cofounder Chris Wedge an opportunity to fulfill
his long-held ambition to make feature films.
I found Bunny (1998), his Oscar-winning short overly
sentimental and too much like a John Lasseter film. When I
told Wedge at the film's West Coast premiere that it was very
much like Toy Story, he took as the highest compliment,
when actually I was just trying to be diplomatic. (I much
prefer Toy Story 2 to the original, which I think is
Ice Age seems to resemble a Chuck Jones' Roadrunner
cartoon more than anything out of Pixar. In fact, the gags
involving Scrat, the squirrel-like creature, provide the funniest
Wile E. Coyote gags since Richard Williams' Chuck Jones-inspired
The Thief and the Cobbler. Beyond its gags, Wedge proves
himself a skillful storyteller, effectively adapting Peter
B. Kyne's classic Western novel, The Three Godfathers (which
served as the basis for at least four movies), to the prehistoric
animal kingdom. Most remarkable is Peter DeSève's wonderful
character designs, especially those for the film's humans;
their stylized look, which at times is almost two-dimensional,
will hopefully provide a model for breaking away from the
trap of photorealism.
film's success would seem to give new life to Fox Animation
Studios, whose previous record has been something less than
glorious, and to justify its shifting resources from its failed
Phoenix studio to Blue Sky. Thus, it comes as something of
a surprise to hear talk about Fox putting Blue Sky up for
sale, with the asking price going up since Ice Age
there may be internal reasons for the sale, such as a need
to raise cash, it also fits into the recent trend away from
maintaining large in-house animation studios to hiring crews
on an as-needed basis much the same way live-action
films are made.
is also one of the reasons given for the latest round of layoffs
at Disney, which is also preparing for the trauma of a wholesale
changeover to computer animation. In the meantime, Disney
seems to be stumbling. Lilo & Stich, its next in-house
production, has apparently not been testing well and may result
in Disney pulling back on its marketing; there are also rumors
that it is unsure of what to do with Treasure Planet, which
is scheduled for the fall holiday season. Added to this is
pressure the poor profits of the Disney organization as a
whole, which have dropped from $1.3 billion in 1999 to $58
million last year.
also expect DreamWorks to start engaging in layoffs of traditional
animation artists after production winds down on Sinbad,
which is due out next year. However, it is possible they could
be replaced with CGI artists if the company does go ahead
with plans to set up a PDI South at its Glendale facility.
the midst of all these changes, the focus of feature animation
production has slowly but surely switched away from Los Angeles
to the San Francisco Bay area and to a lesser extent New York.
Much of this is due to the emergence of computer animation,
a trend likely to accelerate in the short term as Industrial
Light & Magic enters the fray.
April 17, 2002
next week's commentary for further thoughts on the subject.
© 2002 by Harvey