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Disney Pushed Toward Digital

Hand-drawn cartoons have been its stock in trade, but 3-D movies are bringing in bigger box office returns.

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

In Walt Disney Co.'s upcoming animated tale "Brother Bear," an American Indian boy is transformed into a 7-foot grizzly and has trouble adjusting to his new body.

Meanwhile, Disney is undergoing a radical transformation of its own, experiencing wrenching internal changes in its bedrock animation business.

For the first time in decades, the entertainment giant that pioneered feature-length animation with 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" has no traditional animated big-budget movies in production.

The sea change comes as audiences and most Hollywood studios have largely shunned traditional, 2-D hand-drawn animation in favor of cartoons that feature dazzling, lifelike images generated on a computer.

"The realities are that consumer expectations are now driven by a new type of animation that has three dimensions," said Jeffrey Logsdon, a media analyst with Harris Nesbitt Gerard.

Two costly traditional animated features released in the last year, Disney's "Treasure Planet" and DreamWorks SKG's "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," bombed at the box office. By contrast came the soaring success of those studios' respective computer-generated blockbusters "Finding Nemo," in partnership with Pixar Animation Studios, and "Shrek," further helping to turn the animation industry on its head.

Most of Disney's competitors, including newcomer Sony Corp.'s Sony Pictures Entertainment, News Corp.-owned 20th Century Fox and AOL Time Warner Inc.-owned Warner Bros., are focused exclusively on producing digitally animated movies for their big-budget offerings.

Even Disney archrival DreamWorks, headed by former Disney Studios chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, who once banked heavily on costly 2-D fare, has abandoned hand-drawn animation for now. "Until audiences show some affection for 2-D, we're not going to get back into it," said DreamWorks spokeswoman Terry Press.

One of the rare exceptions in the march toward digital is Vivendi Universal's Universal Pictures, which along with Imagine Entertainment plans to produce a 2-D version of the classic children's series "Curious George." The studio originally had planned a more expensive digital version. It opted for a lower-cost 2-D format, viewing it as a better creative fit with the original book character.

Viacom Inc.-owned Nickelodeon Movies has a couple of 2-D movies in the pipeline, but its slate is heavily dominated by computer-generated or mixed-media animation projects, including a 3-D version of "Mighty Mouse," to be directed by live-action filmmaker John Woo.

The 3-D technique "lets us create worlds never seen before, and that's what people look for on the big screen," said Nickelodeon Senior Vice President Julia Pistor.

To be sure, the industry will closely watch the performance of the 2-D "Brother Bear" for what it may portend about traditional animated movies.

The film, which opens in Los Angeles and New York on Oct. 24 and premieres nationwide Nov. 1, is one of only two remaining major 2-D movies in the company's lineup. It will be followed by next year's "Home on the Range," which also has wrapped up production. Each film cost about $100 million.

Animators in Orlando, Fla., are working on a third movie, tentatively called "A Few Good Ghosts" (formerly "My Peoples"), which is half computer-generated and half 2-D.

Disney animation chief David Stainton, plucked from the company's ranks in January to turn around the struggling animation division, stressed Friday that Disney was by no means abandoning its traditional medium.

"I absolutely stand firm that 2-D is not dead," said Stainton, noting the company has several ideas for movies that may end up as traditional animated productions or blends of various media. "It really depends on the filmmakers' vision and story. The technique is a secondary consideration."

But Stainton also has made clear that 3-D increasingly will play a larger role in Disney's future. Stainton, who prides himself on breaking conventions in Disney's storied division, shocked longtime animators this year when he asked them to produce classic fairy tales such as "The Snow Queen" and "Rapunzel" entirely on computers.

"It's very important to recognize that artists are always looking for new tools and better ways to express their vision," Stainton said.

Although Stainton had nothing to do with the development or production of "Brother Bear" or "Home on the Range," their performances are pivotal for the executive who was tapped to rejuvenate a division that has been rocked by massive layoffs, deep cost cuts and a painful changeover to the digital world.

In December, Disney animators received an internal e-mail alerting them that the tools of their trade were being sold at a company auction in an off-site warehouse. Among the items listed in the memo was an animation desk for $1,299; a story board for $54.15; and a 6-foot-tall cabinet for stacking scenes for $64.95.

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