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PostPosted: Thu May 01, 2003 11:10 am 
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April 29, 2003

New Animation Chief Redraws Rules at Disney
By 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."

Among Stainton's more intriguing plans for the feature animation unit is to recruit live-action movie directors with distinctive styles to help create animated films.

"We've been a relatively closed shop for quite a long time," Stainton said. "There's no reason to limit ourselves just to people we have under this roof."

He began his pursuit of new talent just weeks into the new job after reading a magazine article about "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann and his penchant for churning ideas.

Although Stainton had never met the filmmaker, he tracked down his e-mail address and sent him a pitch.

"What you make are big, musical animated fairy tales, except you do it in live action," Stainton said he wrote. "I wonder if you would be interested in seeing what kind of thing you could do with ... [what] we have in our sandbox."

According to Stainton, the director responded, "I never really thought about it that way. I think it would be very exciting."

Stainton's boss, Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook, likes the notion of breaking down walls between live action and animation, an approach that worked well with filmmaker Tim Burton, who created the story and characters for Disney's 1993 animated movie "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

"He's got everybody energized," Cook said of his new animation chief. "He's got both the left brain and the right brain working simultaneously."

People who know Stainton say his out-of-the-box thinking is a refreshing contrast to Disney's conservative culture.

"He will be a marked change for the studio," said talent and literary manager Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, who represents top animation filmmakers. "David knows innately what it takes to be successful and to make Disney a major force again."

One thing Stainton said he knows for sure: The studio's core audience for animation is 4- to 10-year-olds and their parents. "If you think you're making a movie for everybody, you're making a movie for nobody."

Stainton said that lack of clarity contributed to the dismal showing of "Treasure Planet," which cost an estimated $140 million but grossed just $38 million domestically.

The "blow and shock" of "Treasure Planet's" performance was a wake-up call, he said. "It really gives us a chance to throw everything up in the air and look under every rock and stone in terms of questioning the way we do business ... to a degree that I don't know would have been possible without that kind of financial failure."

On the face of it, Stainton would seem an unlikely candidate to head one of Disney's key creative centers. He was an American history major at Princeton University (his thesis was "The American Reaction to French 19th Century Revolutions") and received his MBA at Harvard Business School.

Arts & Entertainment

But while his colleagues were preparing to become bankers and consultants, Stainton was thinking entertainment. The arts had been a lifelong passion for Stainton, who grew up in a middle-class household in Rochester, N.Y. His mother, a bacteriologist in a local hospital, played piano competitively and sang in a choral group.

"That was a big influence on me," said Stainton, who played French horn, piano and acted and sang in high school and college stage productions.

Although his mother and father, who worked in human resources for a local department store, supported his artistic pursuits, they wanted him to be a doctor, lawyer or businessman.

"I was brought up to think that all of that is great as a hobby, but of course you need to do something you don't like as a real job," Stainton joked.

Thus, it was a stroke of good fortune that he was recruited as a strategic planning and finance executive in 1989 by Disney brass who were scouting the Ivy League for business candidates.

Soon after, Stainton realized he was misplaced and began taking UCLA Extension classes at night in script development and movie production.

While still in strategic planning, Stainton conducted a study for Disney's then-animation chief Peter Schneider on how to build on the surprise success of "The Little Mermaid" with a steady stream of development projects. Impressed with his analysis, Schneider hired him to work in feature animation development in 1991.

There he promptly showed his creative side. One Christmas, while visiting his parents back East, he was rummaging through his collection of "classic" comics, which included "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

"I was a nerdy kid," he said. "I didn't read Superman or Batman comics."

As he thumbed through his Hunchback comic, he was struck with the idea that it would make a good animated movie. He wrote an outline and made the case to his bosses. His idea would evolve into the 1996 film that grossed $325 million worldwide.

Stainton knows that not everything will come so easy for him or the studio. But he's optimistic.

"We've gone through a really wrenching process," he said. "I want to create an environment inside the building of fun and creativity. Let's remember, we're making cartoons."

-------------
(c) 2003 Los Angeles Times

-------------

I'm sure that there's lots to discuss here - I'll start off on a couple of points.

Quote:
He began his pursuit of new talent just weeks into the new job after reading a magazine article about "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann and his penchant for churning ideas.

Although Stainton had never met the filmmaker, he tracked down his e-mail address and sent him a pitch.

"What you make are big, musical animated fairy tales, except you do it in live action," Stainton said he wrote. "I wonder if you would be interested in seeing what kind of thing you could do with ... [what] we have in our sandbox."

According to Stainton, the director responded, "I never really thought about it that way. I think it would be very exciting."


Well, as you may have picked up I'm a big fan of Baz Luhrmann's work, but if the sole aim of getting Baz to work on a film is to make a "big, musical animated fairy tale" then what's the point. Aren't Disney doing that already - and very sucessfully when they do?

What is the point - does Stainton want to make animated movies, or live action?

Quote:
One thing he knows for sure: the studio's core audience for animation is 4- to 10-year-olds and their parents. "If you think you're making a movie for everybody, you're making a movie for nobody."


Oh well, I guess Disney Co. learnt nothing from working with Pixar or even their "founding father" Walt Disney.

Both made successful animated movies, and both thought the animation, story and dialogue had to appeal to all ages. Besides, what appeals to a 4 year old girl certainly doesn't appeal to a 10 year old boy (and "vice versa"). Each film should be made with enough appeal across a wide demographic.

Apart from that we have CGI mania again (I hope this fad wares off soon and people realise it doesn't matter what medium a film is animated in).

Still Stainton is not all bad and could be an asset to the animation division - I'm sure he's done some wonderful work in the past (like kicking off the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" film :D ) and I'm sure part of this is being new, he needs to start his leadership off with "fresh ideas". It's too early to say really.

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PostPosted: Thu May 01, 2003 1:37 pm 
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I like this guy already. Looks like he wants to turn the animation department around - bout time, IMO. They need to get back to what made 'em great in the first place.


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PostPosted: Thu May 01, 2003 4:51 pm 
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Making a movie for everybody = making a movie for nobody? Hmm...I think Pixar's 4 with their undeniable cross-generational appeal did just great. Same with Lilo & Stitch. Whereas a niche market product like Treasure Planet bombs. There's mnre to it than that, obviously, but to make movies specifically for 4-10 year-olds and no one else seems awfully short-sighted.


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PostPosted: Thu May 01, 2003 5:02 pm 
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i would have to agree with luke, i mean the other disney classics appeal to adults as well as children. some were probably more geared toward adults (fantasia maybe). this guy sounds like he's going to rattle some cages there at disney which isn't always a bad thing, just different. i'm anxious to see what kind of environment he brings to the field of feature animation. you have to admit, the cheapquels are getting better (imagine if return to neverland had been released only on dvd, i'd probably like it better than having to go to theaters to see it.....not's that it's bad anyway)


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PostPosted: Thu May 01, 2003 7:17 pm 
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I tend to agree with most on this board in that Disney has been successful in the past in appealing to a broad audience, and that is where it works best. Pixar was given as an example, as was 'old school' Disney, but if we look to more recent examples such as The Little Mermaid and perhaps most significantly The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, then one can see that Disney's 'new' generation of animators has the ability to win this wide appeal as well.

The focus on CGI in animation is following the same trend as it has in live action films - replacing the story (see the recent Star Wars films). CGI works well to supplement and enhance a movie, not to re-do the thing entirely. I was excited to see mention of wanting
Quote:
them to produce lush, classic fairy tales -- perhaps "The Snow Queen" or "Rapunzel
, but just as disappointed to see 'entirely in CGI' afterwards.

I do love the CGI films that have come out in recent years - the Pixar 4, Shrek from SKG, and yes, even Dinosaur - but I always marvel more at traditional animation as I know the amount fo work that has gone into it.

Before I get off my soapbox, I just wanted to say I can appreciate the need to "shake things up" given the box-office 'failure' of Treasure Planet, but that does not mean abandoning your roots. I too love Baz Luhrmann's work (he is after all, one of my kind!), but you don't need to go outside the house of mouse to find that kind of magic - it is already there!

(Steps down from box of soap....)

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PostPosted: Thu May 01, 2003 11:42 pm 
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The focus on CGI in animation is following the same trend as it has in live action films - replacing the story (see the recent Star Wars films).

There is nothing 'wrong' with the new films. They take place in a scfi/fantasy galaxy. The CGI helps to transport the viewers to those worlds, especially when there is not 'earth equivalent' place to film them in. He is following the story, hitting every plot point needed for the prequels. I think the problem is too many people are letting themselves be distracted by the overwhelming amount of effects and also don't know enough about the story to really understand the subtleties of what is going on. The second film especially contains many elements that fans have been waiting decades to see.

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PostPosted: Fri May 02, 2003 12:49 am 
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Maerj wrote:
There is nothing 'wrong' with the new films. They take place in a scfi/fantasy galaxy. The CGI helps to transport the viewers to those worlds, especially when there is not 'earth equivalent' place to film them in. He is following the story, hitting every plot point needed for the prequels.


Oh, please don't get me wrong! I'm a huge SW fan and I'll buy every remastered, retweaked copy of the films put out. Perhaps I am just jumping on the 'bash SW bandwagon...'. All I was saying (and perhaps poorly) was that some films go for the WOW! factor just to get audiences in (And Mr. Lucas sure knows how to make us go WOW!).
Basically, I was saying ti would be a shame to see traditional forms of animation disappear to make way for CGI simply to please the "masses".
SW was a bad example.
The Core...look to the Core....

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PostPosted: Fri May 02, 2003 12:52 am 
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LOL, okay, I can DEFINITELY live with that. The Core was... Armageddon inside of the earth. It was somewhat entertaining, but ehhh.....

:lol:

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PostPosted: Fri May 02, 2003 4:43 am 
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There's another issue with getting Live Action names involved with animation (I have a sneeking suspicion that they mean CGI animation, where at least it's easy to rework camea angles)... cost.

I can't see Baz Luhrmann wanting to spend... what 2 to 4 years? of his life making an animated film without wanting suitable financial reward. No slight on Baz (who I love), but if he can make 2 live action films in that time he's going to do that and make twice the money (or more than that, as he'll also have more ownership in his own films). So he would want a greater financial incentive to do the work in the first place.

So at a time when Disney are complaining about costs of production being too high (normally because their own meddling adds another 20-40M to the budget) they are going to employ a named creator with NO experience of animation while they have talented people on staff who not only are cheaper, but have a love of animation and are not used. To add insult to injury, Disney's in-house creators are often overruled by "top brass" and I get the impression if Baz Luhrmann did agree to work with Disney all of his ideas would be treated as gold-dust. :x

My view on creating the perfect Disney film is let the creators do what they want and make a film that appeals to them [*]. It worked for Disney in the past. It worked for Lilo and Stitch by all accounts. It worked for Looney Tunes (all the directors at old time Warner Bros. Animation just wanted out do each other and make each other laugh). Have faith in your creators and quality work will be created.

[*] Don't say Atlantis:The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet were made by the creators to please themselves and flopped. Both of these films still had sufficient meddling from the studio executives.

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PostPosted: Wed May 21, 2003 5:31 am 
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Yowza. Can't say I'm too hopeful after reading all that.

The one good idea - bringing in outside talent. Yes, there might be folks that will bring in fresh ideas to a stale department. But as was said, just bringing them in to do the same things as Disney already does would be foolish.

The rest is just scary. Let's aim all the films at 4-10 year olds, let's make them all computer animated because they're hot, etc. After a string of computer animated flops, they'll realise it's *STORY* that counts, not the style of the animation.


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PostPosted: Wed May 21, 2003 1:36 pm 
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I have to say I'm not over the moon about Rupunzel and Snow Queen being made entirerly in CGI, unless its 2D CGI like The Simpsons and Futurama.

I don't think (as of yet) I've seen a CGI film where a scene has really pulled at my heartstring's unlike Classics like Dumbo, Bambi, Beauty and the Beast, Lady and the Tramp ect and I'm not sure it can be done. And thats what I really want in an animated movie, really hard emotion.

Maybe we'll all be surprised though, who knows.

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PostPosted: Wed May 21, 2003 7:00 pm 
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All of the Pixar films have emotional moments in them, but no other studio has acchieved that in CGI animation to date.

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