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Out of the picture

Toontown darkens for L.A.'s animation artists, as computers and an overseas workforce overtake their future.

March 21, 2004|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Eddie Goral doesn't look like a man who would have painted himself into a corner.

Even among the requisitely colorful Trader Joe's crew he works with in Pasadena, Goral stands apart: There's the whimsical push broom of mustache that looks as if it were daubed on with a big, saturated brush and the metal professor specs. It's that and the booming question he poses to most anyone passing through his checkout lane: "So, what's your passion?"

He wastes no time telling you his: "Painting." He nods toward a brightly hued mural that seems to float above the top quarter of the store, a points-of-interest sweep of Pasadena -- the Arroyo, the Colorado Street Bridge, the Rose Bowl.

"Before this?" he'll explain, if you press him as he runs bottles of "Two-Buck Chuck" through the price scanner. "I was an animator."

Suddenly whimsy drains away. Anger flashes in its place. "Until Disney got rid of all of us." Once upon a time, not so long ago, Goral worked "cleanup" on a variety of big-screen Disney products -- from "The Fox and the Hound" and "The Great Mouse Detective" in the '70s to "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Mulan" in the '90s. He averaged about $1,200 a week, not high-end animator money, but Goral had no complaints -- he was doing what he loved. But then work slowed, eventually dried up, and Goral joined the growing ranks of the newest displaced Los Angeles employee -- the out-of-work animator.

For decades, Southern California was the ultimate destination for self-described "animation geeks" -- kids who worked from homemade flip books and cel collecting to get there. But shifts in the industry -- a growing appetite for computer-generated graphics and the chronic issue of outsourcing -- have eliminated 1,000 jobs in the last three years.

It's a frustrating time for animators: Television appears to be a lively circus of work, with new shows, concepts and packages arriving seasonally, but much of the work is being done overseas. According to the Animation Guild, there are about 1,600 union members currently employed. But for the first time in 70 years the Walt Disney Co. doesn't have a traditional animation feature in the pipeline. ("Home on the Range," Disney's last-in-the-can 2-D feature, is due out April 2.) There is only one hand-drawn feature in production -- "Curious George" for Universal Pictures. Walt Disney Co. began streamlining its traditional animation units nearly four years ago; since then several hundred jobs have vanished from Southern California and Florida.

Some animators have been out of work for 18 months or more, creating a small army hidden in plain view. Some have taken part-time jobs in art supply shops or bookstores. Others have become gardeners, chefs, teachers and real estate agents. A few are studying to be masseuses or reflexologists. While a number are making strides to transition into 3-D, or computer-generated imaging, others figure it looks like a good time to delve into long-sidelined projects. Then there are those who are simply stuck, lost or in denial. They vent and carp with friends or on the busy website, or sit at home and obsess. As with many laid-off populations, occasional rumors of suicide pepper conversations.

In the last couple of years, it had become catch as catch can, with many bouncing from studio to production company. Goral had worked as a cleanup assistant on "Osmosis Jones" in 2000 and on "Austin Powers in Goldmember" a couple of years later. But when a steady flow of projects failed to sync, Goral had to think creatively.

"My wife got tired of me sitting around complaining and said, 'Look, the people at Trader Joe's seem like nice people. Maybe you'd like to work there,' " he says with a chuckle, the anger cooling some. "And they are. They've been very good to me."

Goral considers himself lucky. Though it has been a lesson in improvisation for him, his wife and their two children, he has a steady schedule, health benefits, a regular paycheck and a roof -- a pleasant painting- and toy-strewn apartment in Montrose -- over his head. He's also been teaching art and drumming up commissions. "I've begun to shamelessly promote myself," he says of the portfolio he keeps at the ready.

Goral's animation job, the painstaking process of tightening or "cleaning up" a rough drawing, giving it heft, depth and form, no longer exists in the old sense of the task -- in many cases the computer takes care of the final polish. But it isn't a simple question of learning the hot tool of his trade -- CGI animation. For Goral, who's 57, it's not just about skills but passion, a sense of connecting with the work. Unlike workers in other "factories," animators are artists; to be asked to learn a new medium, for some, is like asking Monet to ditch the pastels.

"I'm an animator," Goral explains, "I like to paint. That's what got me here."

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