LA Times Calendar Section-
March 21, 2004
Out of the picture
Toontown darkens for L.A.'s animation artists, as computers and an overseas workforce overtake their future.
By Lynell George, Times Staff Writer
Eddie Goral doesn't look like a man who would have painted himself into a corner.
Even among the requisitely colorful Trader Joe's crew he works with in Pasadena, Goral stands apart: There's the whimsical push broom of mustache that looks as if it were daubed on with a big, saturated brush and the metal professor specs. It's that and the booming question he poses to most anyone passing through his checkout lane: "So, what's your passion?"
He wastes no time telling you his: "Painting." He nods toward a brightly hued mural that seems to float above the top quarter of the store, a points-of-interest sweep of Pasadena — the Arroyo, the Colorado Street Bridge, the Rose Bowl.
"Before this?" he'll explain, if you press him as he runs bottles of "Two-Buck Chuck" through the price scanner. "I was an animator."
Suddenly whimsy drains away. Anger flashes in its place. "Until Disney got rid of all of us." Once upon a time, not so long ago, Goral worked "cleanup" on a variety of big-screen Disney products — from "The Fox and the Hound" and "The Great Mouse Detective" in the '70s to "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Mulan" in the '90s. He averaged about $1,200 a week, not high-end animator money, but Goral had no complaints — he was doing what he loved. But then work slowed, eventually dried up, and Goral joined the growing ranks of the newest displaced Los Angeles employee — the out-of-work animator.
For decades, Southern California was the ultimate destination for self-described "animation geeks" — kids who worked from homemade flip books and cel collecting to get there. But shifts in the industry — a growing appetite for computer-generated graphics and the chronic issue of outsourcing — have eliminated 1,000 jobs in the last three years.
It's a frustrating time for animators: Television appears to be a lively circus of work, with new shows, concepts and packages arriving seasonally, but much of the work is being done overseas. According to the Animation Guild, there are about 1,600 union members currently employed. But for the first time in 70 years the Walt Disney Co. doesn't have a traditional animation feature in the pipeline. ("Home on the Range," Disney's last-in-the-can 2-D feature, is due out April 2.) There is only one hand-drawn feature in production — "Curious George" for Universal Pictures. Walt Disney Co. began streamlining its traditional animation units nearly four years ago; since then several hundred jobs have vanished from Southern California and Florida.
Some animators have been out of work for 18 months or more, creating a small army hidden in plain view. Some have taken part-time jobs in art supply shops or bookstores. Others have become gardeners, chefs, teachers and real estate agents. A few are studying to be masseuses or reflexologists. While a number are making strides to transition into 3-D, or computer-generated imaging, others figure it looks like a good time to delve into long-sidelined projects. Then there are those who are simply stuck, lost or in denial. They vent and carp with friends or on the busy website www.AnimationNation.com, or sit at home and obsess. As with many laid-off populations, occasional rumors of suicide pepper conversations.
In the last couple of years, it had become catch as catch can, with many bouncing from studio to production company. Goral had worked as a cleanup assistant on "Osmosis Jones" in 2000 and on "Austin Powers in Goldmember" a couple of years later. But when a steady flow of projects failed to sync, Goral had to think creatively.
"My wife got tired of me sitting around complaining and said, 'Look, the people at Trader Joe's seem like nice people. Maybe you'd like to work there,' " he says with a chuckle, the anger cooling some. "And they are. They've been very good to me."
Goral considers himself lucky. Though it has been a lesson in improvisation for him, his wife and their two children, he has a steady schedule, health benefits, a regular paycheck and a roof — a pleasant painting- and toy-strewn apartment in Montrose — over his head. He's also been teaching art and drumming up commissions. "I've begun to shamelessly promote myself," he says of the portfolio he keeps at the ready.
Goral's animation job, the painstaking process of tightening or "cleaning up" a rough drawing, giving it heft, depth and form, no longer exists in the old sense of the task — in many cases the computer takes care of the final polish. But it isn't a simple question of learning the hot tool of his trade — CGI animation. For Goral, who's 57, it's not just about skills but passion, a sense of connecting with the work. Unlike workers in other "factories," animators are artists; to be asked to learn a new medium, for some, is like asking Monet to ditch the pastels.
"I'm an animator," Goral explains, "I like to paint. That's what got me here."
Industry ups and downs
This isn't the first time the world of hand-drawn animation has felt the squeeze. Over the last 30 years, there've been creatively flat periods, as well as volatile strikes in late '70s and early '80s that sought to put the reins on "runaway production" — subcontracting television animation work to foreign posts. Ink and paint people had learned to live lean. But a trio of Disney feature hits — "The Little Mermaid" (1989), "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) and "The Lion King" (1994) — proved that classic, hand-drawn animation could still romance the eye and make a pile of cash. ("The Lion King" pulled in more than $300 million in domestic theatrical release alone.)
Suddenly, it was the era of the celebrity animator, says animation director Tom Sito, former president of the Animation Guild Local 839, the labor union for screen cartoonists. "I opened an issue of In Style or Buzz or something [and there was a story called] 'Animation: A cool profession,' " says Sito, who worked on a string of Second Golden Age hits, including "Lion King," "Mermaid" and "Beast."
"When I got hired, in '75, animation seemed so dead. Each strike was like a Greek tragedy," he recalls. "[Then] you saw animators riding around in Humvees, buying houses in the Glendale hills. They were getting signing bonuses. The '90s were very fat."
But like any bubble, it burst. The success of Disney and Pixar's "Toy Story" changed everything — hand-drawn was out, CG was in. Recent poor showings for hand-drawn projects with high hopes — "Looney Toons: Back in Action" and "Treasure Planet" — haven't helped matters. Although the new technology created new jobs, they were neither numerous enough nor technically suited to the skills of established traditional animators. Ink and paint people are told that they can make the tech transition but most in-town productions want animators with lots of experience, says Bronwen Barry, a clean-up artist and "in-betweener" who has served on the animator's union executive board for more than a decade. "Although it's nice for the résumé," Barry says, "it's not the lifeboat that people thought it would be."
The tech shift only exacerbated an ongoing problem, one facing many industries — outsourcing. At nonunion shops in Australia, Korea, Taiwan and now India, the painstakingly detailed work of cleanup and "in-betweening" — refining the series of sketches that create movement — can be done for less than half the cost.
The studio's mounting expectations haven't helped matters.
"We were in the middle of an enormous boom after 'Lion King,' " Barry says. "And it just got crazy. We were being managed by MBAs. They would change things — gags, the story. And when a film would tank, it was the artists — their high salaries — who were blamed."
But survival has always been about reading between the lines. As Sito explains, "One of my mentors once said, 'Always remember, you're only two flops away from disaster. The first one happens and it's time to reevaluate; the second, steal your pencil sharpener.' "
Kathleen Quaife, a special-effects animator, had worked pretty much nonstop since relocating from Virginia to Los Angeles in 1982. She had her pick of work — Hanna-Barbera, Don Bluth, Warner Bros. and eventually Disney. Even during the industry's slower periods, she worked 80-hour weeks, animating fire, cyclones and her favorite — water. She's mentored and trained a new generation and has the gold-plated "Official Disney Mentor" paperweight to prove it. She moved with ease between television and features. She never thought it would change. Until it did.
Now Quaife, who just a couple of years ago was pulling down six figures, can barely hold back the tears when she realizes that she is looking at a 70% salary dip. She mulls the last few months, picking at a plate of roasted chicken at a favorite Thai restaurant in Sherman Oaks. She has a little time before she has to rush back home to interview a potential boarder. "Every little bit helps," she says.
When the restaurant owner comes by to say hello, she asks about his son. Puffed up, the owner announces: "He's going to Art Center!"
"Not to study animation?" Quaife asks with a start.
The color returns to her face.
Divorced, she's the mother of two sons. One is on his way to college — thankfully, Quaife says, with some financial aid. The other is in eighth grade. "The orthodontist would like to get paid, I'm sure."
"This year was the wake-up call," Quaife says. She has a plan, today's anyway — she's going to move to India, where the action is. "CG isn't the problem," she says. "There's work. Plenty of work. It's just that it's done in every other country on the planet. I could not in good conscience train people here for work when there is none."
Even the most optimistic worry that the future of paint and ink looks bleak. Animators, whose stock in trade is keeping it light, find themselves short on gags. "We're so used to making people laugh," says storyboard artist and director Tom Mazzocco, "it's very strange to be in this position where you're constantly consoling people."
On any given Friday, from 12:30-ish to 2-ish, a couple of dozen or so animators descend on a dimly lighted coffee shop in Burbank. Their aloha shirts and grab bag of mouthed sound effects — the rimshots, car horns, coiled-spring "boings" — announce them.
One by one, they file in for their break from the drawing board, filling up the big horseshoe booth. Stan Sakai, who writes and draws the Usagi Yojimbo series of comic books, arrives and passes out copies of the Comic-Con International convention pamphlet. Paul Power and Mike Kazaleh fall into a discussion about "Plastic Man" while Chad Frye and landscape painter and storyboard artist Bob Foster listen in.
The lunch, a 20-year-plus word-of-mouth institution, has long been a place to trade ideas, gossip, chart the goings-on at various studios around town. But of late the time has been spent networking, rustling up work or grousing.
These bull sessions can cover a lot of ground in the time it takes to finish up a patty melt and cola. Don Dougherty regularly brings in a newspaper and does a reading of a review, then the group trades opinions across the table. Today, Dougherty arrives with the paper, but they don't get to the reviews. Too much is going on in the business pages — what with Comcast and its bid for Disney and Roy Disney's campaign to oust Michael Eisner, who has been blamed by many for the 2-D world's woes. "Disney lost itself," says Floyd Norman, who joined Disney in 1956 and was among the first to break the company's color line. "They want to be something else. They took the mouse off the logo. Disney doesn't want to be Disney anymore."
"Everyone's been going nuts about things going overseas," says Rusty Mills, "but nobody ever notices when it happened in our industry. We've been dealing with this for years."
The formidable Stan Shaw! (the exclamation point is the way he signs off on everything, even his contracts) pipes in from across the table. "Yeah, they don't like animators over 30. They don't like animators who have ideas."
"Yeah, they send you to the theme park and you get to be a character at the park. An animal," Dougherty tosses in, peering over his specs, his eyes horror-story wide.
"Well," says Shaw!, "I guess that's better than being a topiary."
The wisecracking has gotten most of them through the worst of times. And a good many of them around the table packed the pencil sharpener.
"This is a job people used to have for a lifetime," Norman says. Over the years, he has reinvented himself, from animator to storyboard artist, from features to Saturday morning TV, from ink and paint to 3-D.
But not everyone is that lucky. Norman has bumped into a fair number of ex-co-workers around town — bagging groceries, shaking the trees for work.
"To see your job disappear, everything you worked and trained for? There's nothing that prepares you for that," Norman says. "We've seen a lot of fads and trends. Right now it's CG. But what people forget is that it's all about a good story. Three-D, 2-D, whatever. I see it at Pixar, but not at Disney. Pixar is doing Disney storytelling. And I don't think Disney has learned that yet. I hope that they do. But until then the artists are taking the hit."
Some warn that CG is not exempt from the outsourcing drain. "A lot of live-action-effects work," Sito says, "is going to New Zealand, Shanghai and Taipei." If the CG world doesn't face its future, he says, its inhabitants will be caught like Bambi in the headlights.
'2-D's last stand'
The more banged-around veterans say it used to be a seven-year cycle. When things took a dip, more than likely you could piece things together with freelance, a little moonlighting, ride it out.
Veteran animator Mark Kausler did so for many years, navigating between television, commercials and an array of landmark features including "Yellow Submarine," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Beauty and the Beast." Most recently he worked on "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" and "Osmosis Jones." And though he stays busy — he's working on "Puffy Ami Yumi," a coming series for the Cartoon Network that's being produced out of Japan — the telephone doesn't ring as often as it used to. He's had enough "free time" to put the finishing touches on his labor of love, "It's the Cat," a nostalgic animated short in the classic ink-and-paint style, 15 years in the making. "With every project," he says, "you get this sense, hanging over your head, 'This is 2-D's last stand.' "
After all she'd been through, ex-animator Denise Meehan decided it was time to leave the game.
It's a rainy night outside, so business is slow inside her funky tchotchke shop, Fuzzy Dice, a short stroll from Pasadena City College. "But at least there's business," says Meehan, tucking a strand of wavy dark hair behind her ear as she helps a woman pick out a couple of astrological sign magnets.
Meehan took a job at Disney in the early '90s. She was 23. She left her family, her home, even her fiancé to take a crack at it. "My fiance told me, 'If you don't go, you'll always wonder, what if?' So I came."
Working cleanup and in-between, Meehan enjoyed all the perks. The catered breakfasts, lunches and dinners. There was a cappuccino-coffee cart, fabulous parties, drawing classes at lunch time. But by '95-'96, Meehan took note of the small changes. "The coffee cart guy was the first to go. The fresh popcorn was replaced by packets by the microwave. They hired out the cafeteria and all the food started to smell the same." Then she noticed the bigger things. The bonuses shrank, the five-year contracts disappeared.
By the time Meehan was working on "Home on the Range," the writing was on the wall: "I went home for the evening and came back, and they were rewiring my office for computers."
But the day she knew things weren't going to turn around was when they were assembled in a room in late 2000 and told they would be facing pay cuts and most likely layoffs. It was the day that Meehan was closing escrow on her house. "I just about passed out."
Meehan ultimately took the pay cut, lost her house and then her job. "I wrote a letter to Roy Disney, which got posted all over the studio, saying that it felt like I was losing a family." Toward the end, Meehan had taken computer classes sponsored by her union. "There was a waiting list. And they were very limited to what we were offered." She'd gotten herself up to speed and applied for a job but got passed over.
After accepting a job "for a lot of work and little pay," she quit and started thinking outside the box. Meehan and her old boss Jackie Sanchez sunk their creative impulses into this venture — Fuzzy Dice — because, as the tag line goes, "People like stuff."
It was something to focus on. "It really was a place to put our energies instead of floating around blindly." Open for three months, not only has Fuzzy Dice been a channel for Meehan and Sanchez, it has provided an artistic outlet and a financial base for their former colleagues who design T-shirts, jewelry, funky baby blankets.
Nowadays, Meehan says, she doesn't go to too many animator get-togethers. "The bitterness just eats people up."
She understands it, though: breaking with that identity is tough. "People really get sucked into it, 'Oh, you work for Disney?' You can see it in their eyes. It's hard to give that up."
When forced to, however, she discovered she didn't really miss it. "I don't know if I'd go back into animation. But even if we close down tomorrow, I've already succeeded."
Whether it will come around again feels up in the air. And even if it does, it won't be like the old days. There are worries that too much time might pass. "Animation is like a muscle. You've got to use it," says Sito, who has started an independent production company, "Gang of Seven Animation," to help shepherd new and independent animation projects. "And right now CG is king. 'Finding Nemo' was supremely successful. But I don't think photography got rid of painting or the Moog synthesizer replaced brass or piano. I'm kind of hoping this goes the same way."
But people like Eddie Goral can't sit around waiting. When he's not on the Trader Joe's clock, Goral's out teaching or collecting commissions — from the YMCA or anyone else who is interested. "When people used to ask me what I did, I would whisper — I'm a painter," he says. "I don't do that anymore. Now I announce, 'I'm a painter. Can I show you some of my work?' "
He was all smiles as he sailed through the frozen food aisle on a recent Sunday morning. "I just sold two more paintings on EBay. That means that I'll make this month's rent!"
Of mice, moguls and cartoon stars
A history of animation from Mickey to Nemo.
1928: With fully synchronized sound, "Steamboat Willie," left, drawn and voiced by Walt Disney, debuts in American theaters.
1937: Disney releases "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first feature-length animated movie.
1938: Los Angeles cartoonists form the Screen Cartoonists Guild Local 852.
The Golden Age of Animation
1939-69: In 1939, "Snow White" receives a special Academy Award for "significant screen achievement." The lushly drawn full-length animated feature — from "Pinocchio" to "Jungle Book" — becomes a hallmark of American moviemaking.
1940-42: Disney produces "Pinocchio," "Bambi" and "Fantasia." Disney's top animators, the "Nine Old Men," above — Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Woolie Reitherman and Frank Thomas — become a powerhouse that will last through the 1970s.
1941: Veteran animator Art Babbitt and 13 other animators are fired from Disney for demanding a union. Anger over the long-promised profit sharing from "Snow White" makes the workers sympathetic to the call to unite. The strike lasts four months. The National Labor Relations Board helps settle the dispute and makes Disney recognize the Cartoonists Guild, give screen credits and rehire Babbitt.
Mid-1940s: "Termite Terrace," the Warner Bros. cartoon studio, gives birth to a new wave of insane cartoons. Over the next several decades, characters such as Bugs Bunny, left, and Daffy Duck become central to the company's image.
1947: In New Rochelle, N.Y., members of the Guild's East Coast branch strike the studio known for Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle. The strike lasts eight months — the longest cartoonists' strike in history. Eventually Terrytoons founder Paul Terry is forced to sign with the guild.
1951: The cartoonists at Disney, Warner Bros. and Walter Lantz vote to join the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, its Territories and Canada). Locals 839 (Los Angeles) and 841 (New York) are chartered in 1952. The guild continues as an independent union, gradually shrinking until it merges with the Teamsters in 1971.
1960: The Flintstones, above, by Hanna-Barbera, becomes the first prime-time animated TV series.
1984: John Lasseter leaves his animation job at Disney to join filmmaker George Lucas' special effects computer group, which later becomes Pixar Animation Studios.
The Second Golden Age of Animation
Late 1980s-2000: With exquisite color, rich soundtracks and celebrity voices, animated films from a variety of studios do surprisingly good business. Disney grows from 125 animation employees in 1985, to 1,500 by 1995. Warner Bros., MGM, Chuck Jones, Universal Studios , HBO and Fox Studios open animation divisions.
1989: "The Little Mermaid" grosses $84 million.
1991: "Beauty and the Beast" grosses nearly $146 million and becomes the only animated feature to be nominated for a best picture Oscar. The film receives six Academy Award nominations and won two (for its title song and original score).
1991: Pixar and Disney team to develop, produce and distribute up to three feature animated films.
1994: "The Lion King," left, is released in the U.S. in June and grosses nearly $768 million worldwide.
1994: Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, right, form DreamWorks SKG. Warner Bros., Fox Studios and Turner Entertainment embark on their own animation projects and feature-length production units.
1995: "Toy Story" is the first fully computer-animated feature film and the highest-grossing film of 1995.
1996: Lasseter receives the special achievement award at the Oscars for his "inspired leadership" of the "Toy Story" team.
1997: Pixar and Disney enter into a new agreement to jointly produce five movies.
1999: "Toy Story 2," above, breaks opening weekend box office records in the U.S., U.K. and Japan. It is the first film in history to be entirely created, mastered and exhibited digitally and the first animated sequel to gross more than its original.
2001: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences adds the best feature animation film category. Disney announces plans to significantly scale back its feature animation operation, cutting scores of jobs and slashing salaries by 30% to 50%. The Animation Guild begins offering CGI/3-D training.
Disney Co. shutters its Secret Lab that has provided digital effects for a range of animation and live-action films such as "Dinosaur," below right, and "Pearl Harbor." "Monsters, Inc." becomes the third-highest-grossing animated film ever.
2002: Disney reduces staff at its Burbank facility from 1,300 to about 1,000 by May 2003. "Shrek" wins the first best animated feature Oscar. "Treasure Planet," a hand-drawn Disney release, fails at the box office.
2003: Walt Disney Feature Animation closes its production studio in the Paris suburb of Montreuil-sous-Bois and lays off all 89 workers. Fifty animators in Orlando, Fla., are laid off, and Disney's Tokyo-based animation studios are slated to be closed.
2004: Disney and Pixar split. Walt Disney announces it is shuttering its Orlando-based animation studio, cutting about 258 jobs.
Sources: AnimationNation.com, MPSC839,Tom Sito, Los Angeles Times, AP. Research assistance: Jacquelyn Cenacveira