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Disney Confirms Animation Cuts

Media: More than 200 layoffs are planned. Schumacher tells employees that the company is not forsaking its traditional hand-drawn style.

March 19, 2002|CLAUDIA ELLER and RICHARD VERRIER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Walt Disney Studios Animation President Thomas Schumacher officially informed his senior executives and top creative staff Monday of plans to lay off as many as 265 employees at its Burbank facility over the next year.

The cuts will reduce the staff from 1,300 to about 1,000 by May 2003, are part of Walt Disney Co.'s ongoing retrenchment of its cornerstone animation business.

Last year, Disney animation shed 500 jobs because of escalating production and labor costs and slashed animators' salaries by 30% to 50%.

The cutbacks come as the animation industry is redefining itself at a rapid pace as computer-generated movies have overshadowed those made in the traditional hand-drawn style that Disney invented. This was underscored lastweekend by the blockbuster $48-million debut of 20th Century Fox's "Ice Age" and by 2001's runaway hits "Monsters, Inc.," from Disney/Pixar Animation Studios, and DreamWorks/PDI's "Shrek."

In Monday's meetings Schumacher said Disney was not pulling out of the traditional animation business.

"We're an ambidextrous studio that can create traditional and digital movies," Schumacher said in an interview Monday. "We're not going out of the traditional business but we are expanding our digital business."

Studios such as Disney no longer are putting animators under expensive, long-term contracts and increasingly are outsourcing work. For example, Disney's lower-cost sequel, "Jungle Book 2," due next year, is being animated in Australia.

Schumacher said Disney is committing $1 million to retrain traditional artists to work on computers.

This year, Disney will release two traditional animated features, "Lilo & Stich" and "Treasure Planet."

In 2003, Disney and Pixar will roll out a computer-animated underwater adventure, "Finding Nemo," followed by Disney's traditionally made "Sweating Bullets."

The job cuts were anticipated in the animation community.

"It's no surprise to anyone in our business considering what's been going on in the last two years at Disney," said Ron Diamond, co-publisher of online news outlet Animation World. "I don't think they're losing confidence in animation.... they're restructuring their whole business organization."

Steve Hulett, business representative for the local cartoonists union, said the mood among workers was one of "glum resignation," noting "the world of animation is changing dramatically from what it was four or five years ago."

Over the last 18 months, Disney has not only scaled back its animation ranks but also slashed 4,000 jobs companywide in response to the sluggish economy.

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