The Way Things Work

The lights came up in the small screening room where we had just viewed several clips of impressive movie footage. In this particular instance our visual development artwork had been scanned into the computer and effectively manipulated to create some pretty cool visual effects. Since our producer and directors were present I wanted to show my appreciation and enthusiasm for the film we were creating. Like a Disney fan boy I turned to the development team seated behind me and gushed, “I really want to see this movie!” 

I may have wanted to see the animated movie we were developing, but that day would never come. The movie was everything I loved about animated filmmaking and it was the reason I came into this crazy business. For the past year we had been creating a fun story, compelling characters along with an awesome visual sensibility. Because the motion picture was everything an animated movie should be, I knew we would have no problem engaging an audience and I couldn’t wait to bring this animated film to the big screen. However, you don’t always get what you wish for and in this particular case this notion proved to be true. I often remind my young students that while they love animated filmmaking, this magical medium remains a business and should be regarded as such. As much as we might enjoy creating wacky and zany cartoon characters, this unique art form is still about commerce. And, commerce is subject to all the machinations of the corporate world and the market it serves. Goofy cartoons are still a product that is marketed and sold to consumers. We would do well not to forget that. We’re the filmmakers and we create the finished product. Yet, we’re not the ones making the important calls. Business choices determines whether a movie lives or dies. While such decisions appear to be made by caprice, it’s usually driven by corporate strategy and a deliberate plan. Sometimes the decisions made are well informed and often times they appear to be downright foolish. In any case, none of this is our concern. We are simply the cartoon makers.

Anyone who has been in this fascinating business for forty or fifty years or more has experienced the pain of seeing a beloved project crash and burn. You watch in sheer horror as the movie you’ve poured your heart and soul into be ripped from the production schedule and shoved onto the shelf to be revisited another day. More often than not, that day never comes. I’ve watched movies big and small sent to the motion picture trash heap. These were projects we loved. Movies we were invested in. After months, or on occasion, years of work, we had little choice but to walk away. When you’re a professional you dry your tears and move onto your next project. Thankfully, your enthusiasm for the new project helps erase memories of the old, and you pour your heart into the new adventure in this amazing world of animated filmmaking. I think I’ve been luckier than most. The majority of movies I’ve developed have actually made their way through the production process and come out as real films. Not all were great, mind you, but at least they got made. I remember the LA screenwriter who had several scripts optioned. Yet, none ever made it to production. The poor screenwriter had the distinction of being the author of several films that were never made. Welcome to Hollywood.

I was sincere many years ago when I said, “I really want to see this movie.” I did want to bring that particular film to the big screen because I thought it would be awesome. Little did I know plans were being made to move in a totally different direction. And, the scuttling of the animated movie was part of that plan. Whether you call it a devious plot or a well planned conspiracy, it all came to pass. The premiere animation unit was turned on its ear and artists numbering in the hundreds were sent packing, never again to return. Of course, this was an insightful business decision and we’re all the better for it, right? Well, at least a handful were the beneficiaries, and the rest … not so much. I’ve had to learn the hard way that’s the way things work in the wonderful world of animation and probably always will.

Making an animated motion picture is great fun...except for all the other stuff.

Making an animated motion picture is great fun...except for all the other stuff.