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Production on Animated Films Gets Drawn Out

Movies: Movies at key studios get mired in changes in an attempt to take the format to the next level.

February 26, 1999|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The extent of the fine-tuning on "El Dorado" seems to pale by comparison to the reworking being done on Disney's "Dinosaur" and "Kingdom of the Sun." Schumacher refuses to discuss budgets on either film except to say that animation, like all types of filmmaking, has gotten increasingly expensive over the past few years, especially in light of increased competition for top animators.

Neither Schumacher nor anyone else at Disney will comment on a recent story in the Hollywood Reporter that claimed "Dinosaur," the studio's first marriage of computer-generated images and live action, will ultimately cost as much as $200 million. "The only way that [budget] has been attached to the movie is by its being published," says Schumacher, "and if people see it in print they believe it."

But Disney executives acknowledge the film has been a challenge--and a costly one at that. Like "Toy Story," the studio's first computer-generated animation project, Schumacher says "Dinosaur" is "an experimental movie. We're doing things we've never done before."

The eight-minute opening sequence is a heady blend of state-of-the-art computer graphic images against travelogue-worthy backdrops. Plans to simultaneously open the film and a related Florida theme park attraction have been dropped as the learning curve on this groundbreaking animation technique has proved to be steep. Many of the technicians working on the film had not worked in animation before, Schumacher explains.

The delays have been exacerbated by the usual story problems, Schumacher admits. "The biggest issues have been telling the story of the journey [of the main character, a young dinosaur] and the fact that shooting on live-action plates limits the changes you can make animation-wise."

Schumacher says "Dinosaur" will be nothing like Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park." In the Disney dino universe, for example, the creatures talk and the story takes place in a mythical past during a period when dinosaurs were threatened with extinction.

According to Schumacher, the animation aspects of "Dinosaur" have been largely completed; what's left is the fine-tuning and finishing. The release date has yet to be set and will only be finalized when Disney can assess the impact of other animated and family films being released over the next year or so.

Whatever the ultimate cost of the project, the lessons learned on "Dinosaur" will impact Disney's animation future, in particular its sequel to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," which will meld live action, computer graphics and regular animation.

Changes Being Made in the Midst of Projects

As for "Kingdom of the Sun," Schumacher likens the delays on the broad comedy set in the Incan empire ("El Dorado" has a somewhat similar backdrop) to the story problems he experienced with "The Lion King."

"We started 'Lion King' way back in 1990 and moved it back several times. One director left and another was hired. The story shifted enormously."

According to one animation source, Disney had a quarter of "Kingdom" animated when it "realized the story didn't work, that it was really bits and pieces of other movies."

Schumacher's version of events is not dissimilar. Aspects of "Kingdom" were too much like other stories Disney has told in the past, he said. "We liked it, but we weren't enjoying it enough. It didn't have a comedic and emotional center."

But Disney believes it has found a gold nugget in the original story in the form of a minor character (voiced by David Spade); the revised story will focus on that character's exploits. The process of reworking the story, Schumacher estimates, burned up about six months.

Fox, which had originally planned "Planet Ice" as a late 1999 release, delayed the film also because of story problems. After launching its new feature animation division with "Anastasia," a rather traditional Disney-like animated musical, the studio was looking toward breaking new ground with an animated science-fiction tale as its follow-up, says Meladandri.

"But we had more problems with the story than we anticipated," he said. Fortunately, he added, many of those issues were ironed out during the development phase rather than during production.

Still, "we were in development for a lot longer than we expected," says Meladandri, which has pushed back the release to 2000. The first year of the new millennium (to others, the last year of the current millennium) will be relatively crowded with animation efforts. Some will capitalize on the time-honored Disney model. But several will break off into new directions and genres previously reserved for live action. "We're all pushing in the right direction," says Meladandri. "If the films are different and innovative enough, it should continue to create great creative opportunities for people working in the medium."

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