Animation Producers on Going Digital

Feature animation producers from DreamWorks, Disney, Pixar, DPS/Film Roman and Universal got together at DreamWorks last night to talk about the advantages and growing pains (or in some cases downsizing pains) associated with going digital. The panel discussion was presented by the New Media Council of the Producers Guild of America and produced by NMC board members Iyan Bruce, James Fino and Jay Malla.

Leading the discussion was Obie Scott Wade, president of ObieCo. Ent. In addition to developing Howdy from Texas at Warner Animation and creating Julius & Friends with Paul Frank, Wade was a writer on Baby Looney Tunes and is currently writing and directing Al Roach: Private Insectigator, a digital film noir pilot for the Turner Classic Movie Channel.

Shrek producer Aaron Warner started things off by recounting how Shrek was originally supposed to employ physical miniature backgrounds with composited CG characters. He noted how much more expensive the process would have been and how hard it was to convince the powers that be that they could do it all digitally and still get the look they wanted. And while the speed of technological innovation made the film possible, he also acknowledged a problem therein, stating "The technology you start with is defunct by the time you finish the film."

Dreamworks Animation head of creative production Bill Damaschke mentioned how DreamWorks is in the process of revising its production pipeline by adopting the proprietary systems used by PDI in Northern Calif. He said that while the Burbank facility now primarily uses Maya for 3D animation, the goal is to create a unified pipeline so artists can work at either location. Damaschke also discussed DreamWork’s CG training program, noting, "We have a 99% success rate in transitioning animators from 2D to 3D." He also assured an audience member that "Entry-level positions are not going away." Warner chimed in stating that DreamWorks made around 250 entry-level hires in the past year.

Finding Nemo producer Graham Walters noted that having experience in 3D animation was not a prerequisite to working at Pixar, a sentiment that was echoed by the rest of the panel, most notably Walt Disney Feature Animation VP of production Carolyn Soper.

Soper remarked, "It’s much easier to take someone with artistic abilities and teach them to learn to use a tool than it is to take someone with technical skills and teach them to be artistic." And while she points out that Disney Feature Animation has shrunk from around 2,000 people to roughly 900 employees, she asserted, "We made a conscious effort to split the crew down the middle between traditional 2D artists and 3D animators."

One notable traditional Disney animator, Glen Keane, had serious reservations about going digital, according to Soper. "Michael Eisner really wanted Glen to do a 3D fairy tale [Rapunzel Unbraided] and Glen said, ‘No way. Not going to do it.’" Eventually Keane came around to the idea but the 3D crew was a little uneasy with the idea of a 2D guy coming in and running the show. And Keane was indeed resolved to do things his way. "He was such an inspiration," recalled Soper. "He said, ‘I want to get to the top of the mountain.’ And while most 3D artists start from the same side of the mountain, he said, "What would happen if I started from this [other] side?’" Soper added, "Now he uses words like ‘subsurface scattering’ and ‘nurbs.’ It’s really funny."

King of the Hill producer Loren Smith recalled that creator Mike Judge was also dragged kicking and screaming into digital. Since Judge was so fond of the quality and intimacy achieved using cels, watercolor backgrounds and film, Smith said it took three to four years to get him on board with the less costly digital ink and paint. She said it then took four months of calibration to get the digital work to match the original style. For instance, lines were coming out way too thick and backgrounds appeared too distant, according to Smith.

For more information on the Producers Guild of America, visit www.producersguild.org, or see the New Media Council site at www.pganewmedia.org.