Misunderstood, but very successful
September October 2011

by Courtland Shakespeare

Animation has to be the least understood of all categories of film even though it has also been one of the most financially successful.

Walt Disney was told by industry experts he was committing career suicide by attempting a feature length animated film with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Audiences, supposedly, were simply not capable of watching 90 minutes of animation.

Of course, the film went on to gross over $66 million with a production budget less than $1.5 million. Since 1937, the film has been re-released eight times in theatres earning a further $120 million at the box office and that’s not including VHS, DVD and Blu-ray rentals and sales.

Even more ironic, it was one of the Disney “Nine Old Men,” (Frank Thomas), who publicly expressed his opinion that great animation would never be obtained with computers.

Fortunately, Pixar went on to prove him wrong, although they were actually broke and deep in debt at the time - while they were trying to finish the first full length computer generated movie - Toy Story.

Due to the fact it hadn't made a profit, the company was being shopped around for sale. It makes you wonder how Toy Story ever got made. Even George Lucas, who was actually the person who started Pixar in the first place, dumped the company (after he saw The Adventures of André & Wally B.) by selling it to Steve Jobs (Apple CEO) for a mere $5 million. Steve’s shares in the company are now worth billions.

Once the movie arrived and blew the doors off the box office, the MPAA gave John Lasseter an Honorary Award for it in 1995. It wouldn’t be until 2001 when the Academy (MPAA) finally caved in and introduced a new category (Animated Feature Film) - 64 years after the release of Snow White.

The first animated film to win a “feature” Oscar was Shrek.

Pixar has won the Best Animated category six times since then.

Meanwhile, the only Oscars early Disney films were even nominated for were in categories for music or song. Snow White never won in a category and neither did Bambi or Fantasia, although Disney did dominate the Short Subjects category by winning every year in the decade of the 1930s.

After Disney, the dominant short animated producer was Fred Quimby at MGM. He was nominated 17 times and won seven Oscars for cartoons—many starring Tom & Jerry. This was amazing for someone who knew nothing about animation and, according to historians, had no sense of humour.

The actual talent behind Quimby was none other than William Hanna and Joseph Barbera who went on to form their own studio and dominate early animated television with shows such as The Flintstones and The Jetsons.

After them, it was Warner Brothers’ turn to dominate the short subject category at the Academy Awards with films starring Bugs Bunny, Tweety and Pepé Le Pew.

Their obstructing producer was Edward Selzer—another philistine. He tried to stop Robert McKimson from making Tasmanian Devil cartoons. He also told Chuck Jones there was nothing funny about a skunk who spoke whacky french. He had no hesitation, however, when it came time to accept the Oscar in 1949 for "For Scent-imental Reasons."

Despite what has appeared to be a conspiracy to impede animated film, the trend seems to be finally turning around. Animated films are more popular than ever - and the animators, themselves, are actually being appreciated.

With a G rating (for general audiences), the animated family film has been dominating the worldwide box office.

While John Lasseter is usually producer on Pixar films these days, he is also head of production at Disney now. He has always said his favourite animator is Hayao Miyazaki - the Japanese writer and director who started Studio Ghibli back in 1985. He is the most popular and successful filmmaker in Japan.

His Princess Mononoke was number one at the box office only until Titanic surpassed it. Miyazaki won the Academy Award the year after Shrek with his incredibly imaginative and innovative film Spirited Away. His films are now distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Disney Pictures.

It should be no surprise, animated films are dominating DVD sales this year. Three of the top five selling movies are animated. They include Disney’s Tangled, Dreamworks’ Megamind and Universal’s Despicable Me.

The most highly anticipated film this Christmas season may be Spielberg’s version of The Adventures of Tintin. He will be directing and Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson, will be producing. Weta Digital (the production company that worked on Avatar and Lord of the Rings) are doing the visual effects and animation.

One of the world’s most popular and oldest “comic” characters, Tintin, was created by Georges Rémi. Writing under the name Hergé, his books have sold over 350 million copies in more than 80 languages. While not as popular in North America as in Europe, there's a good chance the film will do well—with the best movie making people in the world working on it.

With the radical shift into computer animation in the last two decades, and its incredible growth in popularity, there is a wealth of talent as well as new studios appearing all over the planet. Our own Sheridan College (now in Mississauga) offers high-end computer animation courses. That's why they’re called the “Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning.”

“Originally animation was like cartoons, but now it’s everything that you watch.” says Savvas Apatsidis of IC Tech. His company has been in business for over 20 years here in Mississauga. They specialise in custom hardware and software solutions for digital content creation and can supply you with everything you need to get your own digital animation studio started.

Originally launched by Wally Dragich, who was an early adaptor and instructor at Seneca College, IC Tech is one of Canada’s top media and entertainment dealers for Autodesk 3D Studio MAX and Maya. Those 3D application programs are the dominant software tools used today on high end movies such as Avatar, Tron, Rango, Star Trek, and Iron Man as well as major TV commercials.

IC Tech supplies render farms, work stations and software to a huge list of clients. There's an incredible number of animation studios in our area, said Savvas. “We’re fortunate to be in the second largest city in the animation industry behind Hollywood,” he said.