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Keeping 2-D cartoons alive in a 3-D world

So that this old art wouldn't be forgotten, an animation fan opened his own studio.

September 01, 2006|Carrie Antlfinger | Associated Press

RICHFIELD, Wis. — Tom Hignite knew something was off when he went to the Disney studios in Florida three years ago and saw empty easels instead of animators working on a film.

Hignite later heard they had been laid off -- because fans were going to see more computer-animated movies, and box-office sales had been lagging for classic hand-drawn, or two-dimensional, movies.

Having gone to art school, he didn't want 2-D films to die. He'd had success with a home building company and decided to put money into a studio that would make only 2-D cartoons.

So in 2004 he started Miracle Studios in Polk, about 30 miles north of Milwaukee. He originally hired 12 animators, who had worked at Disney, Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. They also sometimes work from Hignite's Richfield home.

"If I could do something in a small way to keep this art alive ... it just struck me as a good time to do it," Hignite said.

So far they've finished a book called "Miracle Mouse" and plan to use the proceeds for an animated film based on the book.

Steve Hulett, a business representative for the Animation Guild, said major studios, which worked on hand-drawn feature films, used to employ 2,000 to 3,000 people in the mid-1990s, but that number has dropped to a few hundred.

Some companies still produce hand-drawn films but contract some or all of the animation to other countries. The emergence of computer-animated films, such as "Shrek" and "Finding Nemo," which raked in big bucks, helped cause the industry to veer away from 2-D, he said.

"I think the market is heavily tilted to computer-generated imaging," Hulett said. "I don't see that changing."

But Sarah Baisley, editor in chief of Hollywood-based Animation World Network, an online animation news service, said even though 2-D films aren't being produced as much, that doesn't mean 2-D is dead.

She said other countries have become more involved in animation, including France, Germany and Canada, with some giving subsidies, grants and tax incentives to help support the industry. About 20 European features are coming out this year, but they don't have the marketing of U.S. studios, Baisley said.

Los Angeles-based Film Roman Inc., which produces "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," is working on a "Simpsons" film and a 2-D film by Rob Zombie called "The Haunted World of El Superbeasto."

Scott Greenberg, the company's president, said they have 300 or 400 animators working on their television and DVD productions. They do much of the animation in the U.S., but some is sent elsewhere, such as South Korea.

Another sign that 2-D animation won't go away: At California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, students must study it, said Suzan Pitt, an animator who has taught experimental animation there for seven years. She said 2-D animation is very much alive in experimental animation.

At the Wisconsin studio, Hignite hopes to raise enough money from the $19.95 book, released in July, to finish the movie, which is about Miracle Mouse and his beaver friend, Okey Doky, who help Cranky Crane see everyday miracles.

They also charge $1.15 to watch the movie's first minute on its website.

Hignite estimated it would take $20 million to $40 million to make the film.

Troy Gustafson, 44, started at Miracle Studios in February 2005 as the lead effects animator. He had worked for Disney for 13 years before being laid off. "I am grateful I still get to practice my skill. It's a gamble anytime a studio starts up," he said.

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