Ollie Johnston

Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Roy Disney at Ward Kimball tributeThe above photo of Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Roy Disney was taken on November 2, 2002, at the Disney Studio tribute to Ward Kimball, which took place at the Directors Guild. Frank and Ollie were among those giving tribute and it was probably their last public appearance I went to. Frank died at 92 in 2004, and now Ollie passed away on April 14, at 95, the last of Disney’s Nine Old Men.

The Nine Old Men was something of a public relations gimmick created by the Disney organization, as it blithely ignored the talents of people like Art Babbitt and Bill Tytla, who left the studio under uncomfortable circumstances.  However,  the contributions of Frank and Ollie cannot be ignored. One only has to look at their work on Bambi to see how good they were. In addition, their Illusion of Life: Disney Animation is a landmark text which. along with Richard Williams’ The Animator’s Survival Kit, have helped define the way animation is taught around the world.

Frank and Ollie were, of course, inseparable companions and speakers. And I first met them when they came to speak to a class at the University of Southern California in the fall of 1979; it occurred just after Don Bluth very publicly left Disney, and I recall getting into a conversation with Frank about it. I had recently returned to USC to finish my PhD after an 11 year hiatus and had finally committed to focus my career on animation. Needless to say, I would encounter them many times before I left Los Angeles in December 2003, as they were a vital part of Hollywood’s animation community, ever eager to share their knowledge and wisdom.

Ollie Johnston’s death has been well covered, and a good place to find some of the best online tributes is gathered here by Cartoon Brew. which also posted a nice tribute by Brad Bird.

Why I Stopped Going to Atlanta’s Midtown Art Cinema and Learned to Use Earplugs

Enough is enough! I finally had it with the Midtown when, on April 2nd, I went there to see Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10, a documentary that mixes live action and animation.  When the commercials and trailers started, the sound was so loud I immediately left to protest, only to be told that it would probably not be possible to turn the volume down until the film itself began. This was later confirmed by a manager.  Not wanting to miss the start of the movie, I foolishly went back into the theater, standing in the back with my fingers blocking my ears. I unplugged my ears when the film started, but found the sound distorted (what I saw as an aftereffect of the noise I had been exposed to) and immediately left, angrily asking for and getting my money back.

This was not the first time I left the Midtown because of this problem (usually after my wife and I found the sound of the movie itself much too loud); I even stopped going there for six months last year. This is sad, since, in terms of programming,  the Midtown is one of best  theaters in Atlanta; it shows a wide variety of films, from mainstream to independent, and is a venue for several festivals, including the current Atlanta Film Festival. All this, though, is not worth the damage to my hearing. (Two days later, I realized the damage was such that I was unable to stay at my usual Friday night contra dance and have not tried to go to any other movie theater.)

When I lived in Los Angeles, my wife and I occasionally walked out of theaters because of sound problems; these always involved local multiplexes and my wife blamed youthful projectionists brought up on rock concerts; and the advent of digital sound has certainly allowed theaters to turn up the volume with less distortion. I never had a problem with such L.A. theaters as the Nuart (like the Midtown, owned by Landmark Theatres); and there never a problem during our stay in London, or as a matter of fact in any of the other theaters in Atlanta, including the Tara (Atlanta’s other important art house) and several local multiplexes.

The problem is not a new one and complaints about TV commercials being too loud go back to the early 1950s. I recall a junior high science teacher talking about it and how the local TV station he complained to telling him he was mistaken; he claimed otherwise and he was right. Today, when the sound is too loud during a commercial, you can either turn the sound down, hit the mute button or skip it with your TiVo; in a movie theater, your only option may be to leave the theater; you could, of course, use earplugs, but why should anybody have to use them to see a movie?

A November 27th  article on the WTVD-TV Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, website asks the question, “Are movies too loud?” It does not address the problem with commercials and trailers, but its observations are pertinent. The station investigated the matter after a viewer expressed concern that the sound levels in a theater she took her grandchild to were much too loud.

“He almost immediately put his hands over his ears and a little while later started crying and said it hurt it hurt,” says [Marjorie] Hopkins. “We had to take him out of the movie,” she continued, “We didn’t even stay to see the end because it hurt his ears too badly.”

The station went on to do some random testing.

We saw kids’ movies like The Game Plan, Harry Potter and Bee Movie. We also checked out action movies like American Gangster.

… For the most part, they all averaged well within safe levels as described by the National Institutes of Health.

But, each movie peaked above the safe level, 85 decibels, multiple times. The NIH says those higher levels could damage your hearing after long or repeated exposure.

…. We [also] watched Transformers at the I-MAX in the Marbles Children’s Museum in downtown Raleigh. This time the movie averaged more than 80 decibels. That’s just below what’s considered safe. It also peaked at nearly one hundred decibels.

…Dr. [Edith] Ferris [, an audiologist,] says the decibel readings we found at Bee Movie and Transformers could damage hearing over time.

If the sound levels for the feature presentation are too loud, what then about the trailers, which theaters readily admit are louder still?

The story adds that,

The theater manager at the I-MAX … tells us the studios preset the volume level for movies. He says the I-MAX theater is tested quarterly to make sure it stays within safe volume levels. He also says the staff monitors every movie and if they receive complaints they’ll check it out and sometimes turn down the volume if it appears to be too loud.

I hope what the Marbles Children’s Museum says is true; however, it is obvious the management of theaters like the Midtown apparently do not have the ability or the option to turn down the volume.

Going Over to the Dark Side

The problem of movies being too loud certainly contributes to the ongoing decline of movie attendance. And it looks like I may be joining the crowd.

This past weekend my wife and I went shopping at Fry’s Electronics and spotted a HD TV set playing a Blu-ray DVD of Enchanted (a film we had seen at the Midtown). My wife, who has always been annoyingly blasé about TV picture quality, was startled, and said, “I never knew a TV picture could be that good!” She was especially impressed with the 3-dimensional quality of the image. I was also impressed and realized that the picture was certainly equal to, and in some ways superior to what we saw in the movie theater. Right then and there, we both agreed to start saving for a HD TV and (when they come  out) a region-free Blu-ray player, and set up a home theater.

My fealty to the romance of “the moviegoing experience” and a sense of professional duty has prevented me from making what is, after all, a very logical decision, which an increasing number of Americans are making.

In the meantime, I made an appointment with an hearing specialist and will be ordering a pair of earplugs designed for musicians (though I understand toilet paper will do in a pinch) and writing to Landmark about my decision. I will eventually go back to the movies, being careful to both use earplugs and to come at least five minutes late (to avoid some of the trailers); however, until I have proof they have changed their ways, I will avoid the Midtown.

(Disclosures: Twenty years ago, I worked for Expanded Entertainment, a division of Landmark Theatres, when they published Animation Magazine (I was its first editor). Also, over the years, I have suffered some hearing loss, some of which may have been from causes other than moviegoing.)


Blue Sky Tax Credits

Horton Hears a Who!In January, I commented on Blue Sky Studios’ announced move from one New York suburb to another, i.e., from White Plains, New York, to Greenwich, Connecticut. The main reason for the move was because of Connecticut’s lucrative tax credit program. It seemed to give Connecticut a successful animation house, proved again by the subsequent release of Horton Hears a Who! However, in the Please sir, can I have some more department, Blue Sky doesn’t seem satisfied with the original deal and, according to Connecticut newspapers, is trying to squeeze even more out of the state.

Such negotiations are probably not unusual, except that they do involve an animation studio, which is yet another indication on how far the industry has come over the past few decades. And to prove the point, the Muscatine (Iowa) Journal reports (here and here) that,

A family-owned animation company servicing the entertainment industry has moved to Winfield from Los Angeles after Iowa legislators created new tax incentives for film companies locating in the state.

The Iowa Film, Television and Video Project Promotion Program was passed in 2007 to provide tax incentives to attract the film industry, job diversity, and talent to the state. The Iowa Film Office of the Iowa Department of Economic Development operates the program.

“It created fertile ground for companies to relocate to Iowa,” said Stephen M. Jennings, founder and co-president of Grasshorse Technologies Inc. “It was the deciding factor in our transition to Iowa.”

Grasshorse, a digital animation and special effects subcontractor, is obviously not in the same league as Blue Sky, but the story was nevertheless picked up by Fortune Small Business (here and here), which noted that,

In recent years the economic corridor that stretches from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids has emerged as a powerful locus of economic growth, not only in film but also in computer simulation, bioengineering, and renewable energy. … The falling dollar helps Iowa companies compete globally, as do generous local incentives such as a state tax exemption on profits from overseas sales.

“A key factor,” says Jennings, “was being able to compete with animation studios in Korea and India.”

I suspect studios in Korea and India are not exactly quacking in their boots about what Iowa (or Connecticut) are doing. Small regional studios, such as Grasshorse have been around for quite a while, including several which have done work for major Hollywood companies. (For example, much of the animation for the animated The King and I and special effects for Independence Day were widely subcontracted out to smaller studios and individuals.) Though trying just to compete solely on a cost basis is something of a fool’s errand.

As to the situation in Connecticut, Greenwich Time reported on Friday, March 28th, that,

The chief operating officer of Blue Sky Studios Inc. was at the capitol yesterday lobbying lawmakers to support millions of dollars worth of financial incentives to move the company to Greenwich.

… The proposal, circulated by the architect of the tax credits, House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford, has raised concerns because it would require lifting the annual cap on the credits from $15 million to $25 million.

Amann has said that although the digital animation production credits passed last year are open to all takers, the $15 million annual cap was tailored to attract Blue Sky for a 10-year commitment. The company underestimated how much it would need, which is why he wants to lift the cap to $25 million, Amann has said.

The New York Times, on Saturday, put the battle between New York and Connecticut in some perspective, reporting that,

With a proud film history dating back almost a century, to D. W. Griffith’s creation of a 28-acre production lot in Mamaroneck, Westchester County is increasingly watching production companies be lured across the border to Connecticut, which now offers them a 30 percent tax credit, compared with New York State’s 10 percent.

Since the Connecticut tax credit took effect in July 2006, that state has gone from playing host to the occasional film shoot (remember “Mystic Pizza”?) to attracting 66 feature films, television shows and commercials with a collective $400 million in production costs, the majority of it in the Fairfield County suburbs of New York.

At the same time, similar suburbs across the border in Westchester County have seen their film shoots shrivel. In 2006, Westchester was the setting for scenes from 14 big-budget features, as well as numerous independent films; last year, two movies were partially shot here.

The story goes on to say that even New York City, which has been somewhat insolated from these bidding wars, is starting to lose business to several other neighboring states. The state legislature will undoubtedly respond with its own set of incentives. I’m sure the film industry will be delighted. After all, it’s nice to be wanted.