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New Animation Chief Redraws Rules at Disney

April 29, 2003|Claudia Eller and Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writers

David Stainton, the new chief of animation at Walt Disney Co., is not big on rules, which is fine with Henry, a low-slung hound who, at the moment, is chomping on a stuffed Piglet toy in the executive's office.

Although company policy forbids pets on the Burbank lot, Stainton has been smuggling his mutt into the studio for some time. He doesn't plan to stop just because he now holds one of the most visible and difficult jobs in the Disney empire.

In fact, Stainton hopes to infuse the place with a little more irreverence for past conventions.

"I really want to shake it up," he said, petting his contented companion.

After 14 years working under the public radar at Disney, Stainton sits atop an operation steeped in history -- the company's heart and soul throughout its 80 years. Animation has been a driving force behind the company's theme parks, retail stores, movies and TV shows.

It also has become one of the company's most confounding problems.

The animation division has suffered through three chiefs in four years. Along the way have come wrenching layoffs, deep cost cuts and the studio's biggest flop ever, last year's "Treasure Planet." Although still considered the market leader in animation, Disney has lost ground to rivals, especially DreamWorks SKG, the company headed by former Disney Studios chief Jeffrey Katzenberg that produced the blockbuster "Shrek."

At the same time, Disney faces tough profit-sharing negotiations over its lucrative partnership with Pixar Animation Studios, creator of hits such as the "Toy Story" movies, "Monsters, Inc." and next month's "Finding Nemo."

To all this, Stainton is expected by Disney to bring stability, vigor and profitability.

"I think we're at a time in the organization where we have to be thinking about breaking the mold and figuring out what we aren't doing and what we can be doing in a different way," Stainton said in his first extensive interview since taking the helm in January.

On Monday, the new boss roiled the ranks when he told a gathering of 525 animation employees that he wants them to produce lush, classic fairy tales -- perhaps "The Snow Queen" or "Rapunzel" -- entirely on computers. His vision was greeted with dropped jaws by the roomful of artists steeped in the traditional style of hand-drawn animation pioneered by Disney.

"There's a lot of fear," said veteran Disney animator Glen Keane, who drew the characters Tarzan, Aladdin and Pocahontas. "He's trying to steer the studio in a direction that half the artists are afraid to go and the other half are headlong racing down that path." Keane said he felt "personally challenged."

For his part, Stainton said he was simply "throwing another grenade into the pot." He knows that his message has "caused anxiety here because what I'm asking doesn't currently exist -- and that frightens people."


Down to Business

Stainton also has wasted no time letting folks know he means business.

Barely into his new job, he put two high-profile projects, "Chicken Little" and "My Peoples," on hold because he said they needed more focus. "There's a point in every movie where the whole thing falls apart, that moment where you look at it and say, 'We have to retrench,' " Stainton said. "It was that time."

Some who have worked with Stainton say his blunt style and occasional impatience can be off-putting. He said he resents being "surprised by problems" and will "definitely get brusque" if he has to repeat directions. Some of Stainton's co-workers say his blunt style doesn't sit well with the fragile egos of artists.

Stainton conceded that he had a "mixed record" in his dealings with artists, but said his perceived aloofness was a reflection of the limited time he had to spend with them, rather than a lack of appreciation for their talent or input.

That's one reason Stainton plans to move his office in Disney's flagship animation building down one floor to where the production team is based.

Stainton was plucked by Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner largely because of his success in turning TV animation into a money machine with such low-cost direct-to-video sequels as "Lion King II" and inexpensive feature films that include "Piglet's Big Movie" and "Return to Never Land." Under his stewardship, the division also created the popular animated TV series "Kim Possible."

The financial discipline Stainton needed on the TV side will serve him well in his new job, where his mandate is to produce most movies under $100 million.


Blending Worlds

Throughout his tenure at Disney, Stainton has developed a reputation as a bridge builder between the very different worlds of TV and feature animation.

"There was a time when feature animators wouldn't speak to TV animators," Disney Vice Chairman Roy E. Disney said. "David was a big asset. He kept feature animation and TV animation more arm-in-arm than they had been."

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