Ice Age and the State of Feature Animation

Scrat in Ice AgeThe 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.

But 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.

Nevertheless, 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 overrated.)

However, 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.

The 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 opened.

While 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.

This 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.

I 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.

In 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.

—Harvey Deneroff
April 17, 2002

See next week's commentary for further thoughts on the subject.


© 2002 by Harvey Deneroff