When Walt Disney Co’s animated film “Home on the Range” debuts Friday, it may signal the end of an era for hand-drawn cartoon features as the company that all but created the art form moves to computer images.
Disney’s film studio is under pressure in its animation division, having cut back staff and ended a lucrative partnership with Pixar Animation Studios Inc., which established new computer animated movies like the $850 million global box office hit “Finding Nemo.”
“Range,” a comedy about a wiseacre cow voiced by Roseanne Barr who tries to save her farm, is the last hand-painted cartoon on Disney’s current film slate, studio chief Dick Cook said in a recent interview. Moreover, most of the industry is moving in the direction of computer animation.
“It is where things are going,” Cook told Reuters.
Computer animation, often called 3-D, is more than drawing with a computer pen. In some ways it is like puppetry, since designers build a character that they then manipulate with commands that work like digital strings. They can add as many layers of complexity as they want, so that a character could be built with one smile or 100, for instance.
Mickey Mouse has already made the jump to computer graphics and has a computer-animated holiday video in the works. Still, the studio chief stands behind “Range,” calling it a “kick” and arguing hand-drawn cartoons are not yet dead in Hollywood.
“I don’t think it is the end of an era. I think hand-drawn animation will continue in one form or another,” he said.
Pressure to performBut statements like Cook’s have been viewed by industry watchers as an attempt to downplay the importance of “Range” to Disney, in particular, and the phasing out of Disney-style animation in favor of computer-generated movies like “Nemo,” DreamWorks’ “Shrek” or Twentieth Century Fox’s “Ice Age.”
In fact, most of Disney’s recent hand-drawn animated films, with the exception of 2002’s “Lilo & Stitch,” have been only moderately successful at best. Major 2002 flop “Treasure Planet” led the company to reduce its quarterly earnings.
“Range” is said by industry watchers to have cost Disney between $80 million and $100 million.
The movie debuts as Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner battles an investor rebellion, and it follows the announced end of a relationship between Disney and Pixar that has yielded five smash movies with more than $2.5 billion in ticket sales.
The demise of the Pixar deal has only boosted pressure on Disney’s animators to crank out a hit.
Cook did say video games had set tastes of the current and previous generation of kids, and next year Disney’s animation department will release computer-animated feature, “Chicken Little,” which tells the story of the chick who thought the sky was falling on the day after she was proved wrong.
“Most animators that are in the business are pretty committed to digital now, and if not they are probably headed to the next hall, which is story boarding,” said one-time Disney animator, Mark Pudleiner, who worked on “Range.”
Disney has slashed its animation work force by about two-thirds since 1997, which created a lot of uncertainty at the company, said, Peter de Seve, an animator and character designer who worked on “Treasure Planet” and led the team that designed characters for “Ice Age.”
He said that Disney was making creative decisions in a corporate manner, watering down the artistic process.
“There is such an aim for the bottom line and so much census-taking and poll-taking that the stories get diluted,” he said.
But, he added, the word is that “Chicken Little” looks good.