Blue Sky Moves to Connecticut

Horton Hears a Who!News broke on Thursday, January 10th, that Blue Sky Studios, producers of Ice Age, Robots and Ice Age: The Meltdown, as well as the forthcoming Horton Hears a Who! (pictured above), is moving some 12 miles from White Plains, New York, just north of New York City, to Greenwich, Connecticut. While the move from one bedroom suburb of Gotham to another does not seem like such a big deal, it is something of a rarity for a major animation studio to change states. Unlike Fleischer Studios’ misguided relocation from New York to Miami in 1938, it does not seem to pose any insurmountable problems, but it may be something of a psychological blow to the New York animation community.

The American animation industry started in New York and only began to establish itself in earnest in Los Angeles during the 1920s, probably starting with Walt Disney’s move from Kansas City. In the early 1930s, there were 3 important studios in New York — Fleischer, Terryt0ons and Van Buren; the latter closed down when parent company RKO signed on to distribute Disney cartoons. Fleischer’s move to Miami ended in 1943, when its “successor” company, Famous Studios, moved back. Terrytoons and Famous soldiered on until the 1950s, when the Hollywood majors started closing down their cartoon operations.

By that time, New York had become the place for animated TV commercials, which were in very high demand by ad agencies; the demand was such that UPA even opened a New York facility devoted to TV spots. The boom collapsed at the end of the decade, and New York animation went into a slow decline. And Blue Sky was certainly an important factor in its revival over the past 15-20 years.

For its part, the studio was set up in 1987 by refugees from MAGI/SynthaVision, the pioneer computer animation house which worked on Tron. It had intended to produce animated movies from the get-go, but the 1987 stock market crash prevented a planned stock offering from going through; as a result, it went into TV commercials and special effects instead. Co-founder Chris Wedge, though, never gave up and kept shopping feature ideas all over Hollywood; finally, Fox took the bait and eventually bought the company. (In the process, Fox closed its Don Bluth Phoenix, Arizona operation, claiming it did not have the funds to support both operations.)

However, Fox had little confidence in the success of Ice Age and actually put the studio up for sale before the film was released. (See my exclusive report on this in my April 17, 2002 commentary.) Blue Sky, which in the meantime lost much of its staff to West Coast studios, had to scramble to hire artists and write scripts for new films.

The Hartford Courant reports that Blue Sky had done “an extensive search in the New York metropolitan area” before settling on Greenwich.

The studio said the decision was driven by Connecticut’s generous movie and television industry tax credits. …

Blue Sky’s use of state tax credits is expected to cost the state millions of dollars in coming years. Whether the program pays off depends on several factors, including the company’s contributions to the state’s economy, income taxes its employees pay and whether other studios follow its example.

The state’s 18-month-old tax credit program for film, video and web production is one of the most lucrative in the country. The credits, which give back 30 cents on every dollar spent on qualified production work in Connecticut, has already attracted several movie productions, including the next “Indiana Jones” movie, parts of which were filmed in New Haven last summer.

StamfordPlus.com also notes that,

State Reps. Jeff Berger (D-Waterbury) and Carlo Leone (D-Stamford) cited the recent announcement of Blue Sky Studios decision to relocate to Greenwich as further proof that the state is prepared to become a major player in the media industry. Berger and Leone, the co-chairs of the “Film & Entertainment Workforce Development” committee (known as ‘Hollywood East’), also hailed the announcement for its major impact on the Connecticut economy.

… The animation group plans to locate their operations in a 105,000 square foot, single floor in the Greenwich American Center. The move is poised to create 300 new jobs throughout the state. Additionally, thanks to the film-industry tax credits passed recently by the General Assembly, Blue Sky is eligible to receive up to 30 percent of their expenses exempted.

Though Connecticut may indeed gain new jobs from the move, it is highly unlikely that few if any animators living in New York will move to Connecticut because of it. At least not until a lot more studios relocate there, as most animators know from experience that there are few permanent jobs in animation .

See also these stories in Hartford Business and GlobeSt.

Of Christmas Cards Past

While in the midst of unpacking files left over from my last big move, I came across a batch of Christmas cards I got in the 1990s and thought this would be a good time to share them. I was then a freelance animation journalist and these cards were among the perks.

Christmas cards can, in rare instances, be important historical documents, such as the one I have signed by the staff of the Fleischer Studios in 1934 sent to Dan Glass, who was to soon die of TB. (His death became a catalyst for the move to unionize the studio.) Others, such as those by former Disney background artist Ralph Hulett posted by his son Steve on The Animation Guild Blog, can expand our appreciation of a particular artist. I will leave it up to you to explain the implications, if any, of the following examples. (Click on images for bigger versions.) (Most of the cards are undated, as I failed to properly catalog them when I got them.) In any case, Merry Christmas to one and all!

Bardel Animation Christmas card from mid-late 1990s.Vancouver-based Bardel Animation, now Bardel Entertainment, was, as I recall, at the time a provider of ink and paint services, among other services. Hence, this card in the form of an animation cel.

J J Sedelmaier 1996 Christmas card featuring the Ambiguously Gay Duo. J.J. Sedelmaier Productions was (and is) a top commercial house. However, from time to time, it ventured into longer form projects, including producing the first season of Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head in 1993 and the Ambiguously Gay Duo shorts for TV’s Saturday Night Live. The card is dated 1996.

MTV Animation Beavis and Butthead Xmas Card 01Speaking of Beavis and Butt-head, I received this and the following card from Abby Turkuhle, who was head of MTV Animation, the network’s New York-based studio formed after the initial success of the Mike Judge show. The studio hung on for a few years before MTV decided to outsource all its series animation needs to other studios.

MTV Animation Celebrity Death Match Christmas card.MTV Animation’s Celebrity Death Match proved to be a popular hit and was one of the few stop motion series to make it big on American TV. The show’s name is still occasionally invoked by political pundits in discussing the vagaries of electioneering.

PDI Antz Xmas Card 01Antz was a surprise hit for DreamWorks SKG, a major studio wannabe which pinned most of its hopes on animation. In particular, chief animation honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg hoped to repeat the success he had with traditional 2D animation at Disney with such films as Prince of Egypt. At the time, a DreamWorks executive told me that the CGI films produced by the then 40%-owned PDI were to be medium-budget efforts that would complement its more important 2D projects. Eventually, DreamWorks eventually bought all of PDI, and part of DreamWorks Animation, which remains independent despite the parent company’s acquisition by Paramount.

Blue Sky Bunny Xmas Card 1998Chris Wedge’s Bunny was Blue Sky Studios’ calling card, so to speak, for the studio’s long-standing desire to make computer animated movies. (MAGI-Synthevision, the company’s predecessor, had worked on Tron.) Its critical acclaim, including an Oscar, helped the studio get the backing for Ice Age.