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Hollywood Draws Line Between 2D, 3D

Animators, facing a limited number of jobs, also face a choice: learn to create with computers or move on.

July 27, 2003|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

What drew artist Kevin Koch to the world of animation was a pencil. What has kept him in the business is a digital tablet.

Like dozens of animators who work for movie studio DreamWorks SKG, Koch spent nearly a decade honing his pencil-on-paper artistic skills: turning a curved line into a straining back, blurring colors to bring a subtle blush to a woman's cheeks, transforming a flat drawing into a living, breathing creature.

Then, this year, Koch's managers at DreamWorks sat down and gave him the news: The studio, facing a steady box-office decline for its old-fashioned two-dimensional animated films, was making a big push into the new territory of digital animation.

Put down the pencil, his bosses said, and let us retrain you to use a software palette. Otherwise, you'll have to leave.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Computer animation -- An article and photo caption in Sunday's Business section about 2D animators being retrained as 3D computer animators misspelled the surname of a drawing instructor at Sony Pictures Imageworks. His name is Karl Gnauss, not Guass.

As president of the local chapter of the union representing animators, Koch knew it was a choice thousands of other artists in California would have to make. With 2D animators facing waves of layoffs as their jobs move overseas, there is only one answer.

"You retrain in 3D," Koch said. "If you've kept your eye on the horizon, it's been pretty clear that this was coming."

Computer-generated, or CG, animated films are the toast of today's Hollywood. George Lucas recently announced the creation of Lucasfilm Animation to produce computer-animated features. Sony Pictures Animation has six CG films in development.

DreamWorks has four in its pipeline, including the sequel to the 2001 sleeper hit "Shrek" and the mob-themed comedy "Sharkslayer," which features a cast of fish. Of the 15 animators working on "Shrek 2," all but two have a background in traditional, non-digital animation. Nearly all of the 40 artists working on "Sharkslayer" have been retrained from 2D.

Even Walt Disney Co., the studio that has led the way in hand-drawn animation for nearly a century, is embracing computers. Although some 2D feature-film projects are in the works, artists at Disney's animation headquarters in Burbank speak nervously of drafting tables being put into storage, to be replaced by Linux machines.

Employees point to a staff meeting this spring, where the president of the animation division, David Stainton, proclaimed that the future would be digital and that the more than 500 animators would have to be retrained to work on computers.

The shifting landscape inside Hollywood's animation studios has created an unexpected culture clash between artists who were raised in the tradition of "Pinocchio" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and those who came of age with "Toy Story."

Digital artists understand technology. For them, animation often is about creating 3D reality -- to make characters on the screen look lifelike.

The 2D artist, on the other hand, tends to focus on performance. For them, animation is about creating performances -- to turn the characters into believable actors.

And for artists such as Koch, making the shift from 2D to 3D means facing criticism from both camps. Traditionalists insist that their brethren have betrayed their roots, while the digital crowd grumbles over a new crew of artists competing for a limited number of jobs.

"It's like tectonic plates rubbing against each other," said animation artist Charles Zembillas, founder of the Animation Academy in Burbank. "It's an exciting time, and a stressful one. To say there's a lot of tension would be an understatement."

Not too long ago, studios were embracing traditionally drawn films with gusto.

In the 1980s, Steven Spielberg jumped into the animation arena with the wildly successful film "An American Tail," the highest-grossing debut for an animated feature at the time.

That prompted Disney to shove its production schedule into overdrive. It hired thousands of animators and story artists. By the early 1990s, Disney was releasing a hand-drawn feature almost every year -- "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin" -- and raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in domestic box-office sales. "The Lion King" has pulled in $328 million.

Other studios rushed to set up their own 2D animation facilities. The creative results were strong, but the financial tally was less than spectacular, ranging from the $24.6 million brought in by 20th Century Fox's "Fern Gully: The Last Rain Forest" to the mere $1.1 million for "Freddie as F.R.O.7." from an independent British studio.

Widespread Layoffs

As the studios began to pull back, artists felt the pain first. In 2000, Fox shuttered is 2D animation facility in Phoenix, laying off almost 400 workers. Disney's troubled animation division, which has been through three management changes in four years, has cut about 75% of the more than 2,000 artists it had on staff at the peak.

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