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Disney Animators Form New Company - 2004-02-15

The Walt Disney Company, the entertainment powerhouse that began more than seventy years ago with a little cartoon character named Mickey Mouse, is getting out of the traditional cartoon business. The company is closing one of its legendary animation studios in Orlando, Florida, laying off most of its once 2,000-strong army of artists, and relocating the rest to company headquarters in Burbank, California. The move reflects the growing dominance of computer-based digital animation over the painstaking hand-drawn animation methods that Disney studios pioneered. But some of Disney's traditional animators aren't ready to hang up their pens and brushes. A group of them has decided to form a new company, one that that will work exclusively with "hand-drawn" animation techniques.

In 1937, audiences were enthralled by Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first-ever full-length animated feature. The film's exquisite artistry, the product of thousands of hours of work by teams of skilled artists and animators, set the standard for the many Disney animated feature films that followed over the next four decades. But in the early 1980s - the fledgling technology of computer-generated animation began to find its way into cartoons and special effects. With a touch of button, artists could animate graphic images with a stunning new degree of realism.

"Even the great traditional animators such as Nick Ranieri and Glen Keane and Mark Henn are all learning how to animate on the computer animation platform. And from the best of my knowledge there's no desire at this point to go back to hand-drawn animation," explains Eddie Pittman, the founder and director of Legacy Animation Studios, which opened last month (January) in Florida. He and his staff are credited with animating more than 25 feature films, including Disney's The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Alladin, Mulan, and Lilo and Stitch. Mr. Pittman believes hand-rawn animation connects with viewers' emotions more powerfully than computer-generated art.

"We all can make some scribbles on a piece of paper," he explains. "And to imagine that those scribbles can come to life and act, emote, is just amazing - it's magic. But when we watch computer animation, it's so slick, it's so flawless in many ways, visually, surface-wise, that I think we don't know how it's done. So we don't think someone actually did touch it or make it."

"Because you're dealing with three dimensional sets and three dimensional characters, they are closer to live action," says Charles Solomon, a film critic and contributor to The Los Angeles Times newspaper. "Actually, in many ways, computer animation is similar to puppet animation. Because you have questions of how they're lit and just their dimensionality adds something to that world. In two-dimensional animation, you have a chance for much greater fantasy and charicature."

Disney Studio's 1994 hit, The Lion King earned more money at the box office than any other animated film before it. But its success was eclipsed by last year's Finding Nemo, a computer-animated film that, like The Lion King, was as appealing to adults as it was to children. Legacy Studios director Eddie Pittman says some Hollywood executives believe that hand-animation has become "old fashioned."

"Hollywood is quick to jump on trends," he says. "They did this after The Lion King, and thought people love to see animated movies. But the truth was, people love to see good stories, no matter how that story is delivered. Lion King was a really good story, same as Nemo was a really good story. But from the response I've gotten from Disney fans all over the world - I've received over a thousand e-mails now supporting us in pursuing traditional animation - people love hand-drawn animation and they don't think it's old fashioned. Otherwise, there are two of the three films nominated for Best Animated Feature this year are hand-drawn animated films. So I don't think that it's an old-fashioned art I think it's a very viable form of entertainment."

Legacy Studios director Eddie Pittman acknowledges there are some great computer-animated films being made and gives special credit to Pixar Animation Studios, which produced Finding Nemo. Pixar, which is headed by Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs recently (Feb 1) broke off its longstanding partnership with the Walt Disney Company because of disagreements over distribution of its films. Mr. Pittman says the break-up reflects the changing focus of the Walt Disney company.

"Disney has a rich tradition of entertainment animated films that seems to be changing right now," he points out. "And one of the changes from my perspective is not recognizing who those creative people are, which creative people are important to their process of making these films successful. Pixar is a wonderful creative partner. And as many of the animators in the Florida studio were wonderful creative people that really made Disney what it was."

For the Los Angeles film critic Charles Solomon, the impact on Disney could be enormous if they are not able to heal the rift with Pixar.

"And if Disney and Pixar don't 'kiss and make up,' Disney will have a very powerful rival in Pixar," he says. "Because in some ways Pixar has supplanted Disney in recent years as the studio that makes the film that you go to, knowing you can take your grandfather and your grandson to this movie and we'll all be entertained, there will be something there for the most and least sophisticated member."

Legacy Animation Studios director Eddie Pittman says the new company in Orlando is named for the legacy of Walt Disney who also started out as a lone cartoonist with big dreams. "I think Walt Disney's legacy was more than about animation and theme parks," he says. "I think it was about being innovative, it's about great story and that's about pursuing things that are very important to you. And not giving up."

In a 1938 interview, Walt Disney talked about his vision for the movies he wanted to make. "Over at our place we're sure of just one thing. Everybody in the world was once a child," he said. "So, in planning a new picture, we don't think of grown-ups and we don't think of children. But just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in everyone of us that maybe the world has made us forget and that maybe our pictures can help recall."

Last year, Legacy Animation Studios founder Eddie Pittman directed the first hand-drawn animation film designed for projection in the dome of a planetarium.* Legends of the Night Sky: Orion, is the first 360-degree cartoon ever made, giving planetarium visitors the feeling of being surrounded by and part of the cartoon. Mr. Pittman’s new company, Legacy Animation Studios, will release its first film this summer – an animated short called Lucky, the story of a four-leaf clover who is down on his luck and learns to rise above adversity.

*rewritten for clarification 19 February 2004