Comments on "Dream On Silly Dreamer"
May 11, 2005
Recently, Jim Hill Media published a letter by an industry insider that I found interesting. In fact, so much so that I felt compelled to break a fairly long absence from commentary to respond to the posting. Below, I have posted the letter as it was presented at Jim Hill Media and below that are my comments on the letter to the writer and the general public. Please feel free to share this commentary with anyone you feel would be inerested in it and, if you have not seen the film yet, I would like to encourage you to see it with an open mind and form your own decision about what you think of it.
Retired (out of disgust) Disney Supervising Animator of 20 years
I've been a fan of yours for a long time now. I've read you on every site you've written for, and I'm glad you've finally setup a permanent home at Jim Hill Media.
I caught the screening of "Dream on Silly Dreamer" at the Newport Beach Film Festival last month and wanted to offer you my opinion on the film. My take is quite different from all the praise the film has been receiving in the online community, so feel free to post it on your site. Just do me the favor of blocking out any info that might identify me to my employers.
I think that my negative take on the film comes mostly from my background as a television animator. I've animated on shows for half of the 6 major networks. On shows like **** and ****. I've also animated for numerous cable networks on award winning shows and a countless number of pilots, pitches, and demos over the years. So, this opinion is coming with an insider's view of the animation world.
There has always been a large division between the worlds of feature animation and television animation. Some claim that the people that can't make it in the feature business go to television. Yet anyone with any experience knows this isn't true. Both fields have their geniuses and their lackluster performers. So, I'd like to make clear that my displeasure with "Dream on Silly Dreamer" is not intended as a insult to the feature industry. I have the utmost respect for many of the animators that work in that field. In fact, feature animation is what made me want to become an animator to begin with, which is why I was so excited to see "Dream on Silly Dreamer".
When I heard that the film was going to be playing at the Newport Beach Film Festival, I made sure I marked my calender so that I would not forget to be in attendance that weekend. I was eager to see the film that you and many others had been talking about so positively since last year. I was disgusted by Disney's decision to halt production of traditionally animated features. So, my hopes were high for Dan Lund and Tony West's documentation of the downfall of WDFA (Walt Disney Feature Animation). However, what I didn't expect was the 45 minute "pity party" that the film turned out to be.
Admittedly, Lund and West were severely limited in their ability to tell the story of traditional animation's demise at Disney, due to the fact that they had no access to Disney's archive of animation. So, to chronicle the death of an art form, the filmmakers turned to the artists. This, in my opinion, was their fatal mistake. After about a 10 minute introduction to how feature animation works and how great it was to work for Disney back in the "magical" days of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, we begin to hear stories of the animation boom of the mid-90's.
They got huge bonuses. $100,000 or more in one check. More swag (free stuff) than you could shake a stick at. They had catered meals and non-stop parties. They needed to go out and get agents to negotiate deals. They even got a brand new building to animate in. Not that they were all that grateful for it. They show footage of one artist criticizing the building during it's opening party, derisively calling it a "post-modern gas chamber". That artist should come work in some of the cockroach-infested basements that I've animated in. Maybe then he would be a little more thankful. As you can tell, it was around that time in the film that my sympathy for these animators started to fly out of the theatre.
Maybe many of them had worked at Disney for their entire career? Or perhaps they had spent too many years in the comfortable hands of the mouse's white gloves? But either way, it was clear to me that these artists were getting spoiled by the time that the 90's rolled around. Perhaps if they had kept their egos in check, maybe the impending fall wouldn't have hurt so badly.
I give credit to Lund and West for asking two artists if the animators were partially responsible for what happened to WDFA. Unfortunately, both times this question is raised, it is laughed off and blame is thrown at Eisner for firing Katzenberg, thereby creating Dreamorks and creating the competition that led to the salary wars. More blame is placed on Eisner for producing the "direct to video" sequels that watered down the product. All of this is true. But, the artists never admit that they may have played acrucial role in the demise of WDFA.
In fact, the artists seem to adopt the executive credo of "success having many fathers, but failure being an orphan." They enjoy saying how hard they worked on award-winning films like "Beauty and the Beast," telling stories of long hours put into the film and how some artists even had marriages breakup due to their dedication to the studio. However, we hear nothing about long hours put into "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," "Hercules," or "Treasure Planet." As a matter of fact, none of these movies are ever mentioned by name in "Dream on Silly Dreamer" Although the executives deserve the lion's share of the blame for the failure of those movies, I don't find it to be a coincidence that these titles aren't mentioned. For the "silly dreamers", it's as if they were responsible for all the magic up until "The Lion King" and had nothing to do with every film after it.
I found the one true moment of humility and truth came towards the end of the film. A piece of animation shows a conveyor belt leading out of the feature animation building carrying away all the WDFA artists. Above the conveyor belt is a large neon sign with an arrow and the words 'this way to real world." That I could agree with. For years these artists had been lucky enough to be a part of a wonderful place that treated them better than most animators get treated in the industry. But, in reality, the animation world is nothing like the Disney company or a Disney movie. You work long hours without large bonuses, catered meals, or fancy animation studios. When a project ends, you get laid off and you hope that the next project is closer rather than farther away.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that Dan and Tony didn't make a movie about the loss of a tradition and an art form. They made a movie about a group of animators that get laid off. Unfortunately that's something that happens too often in this industry to people that work under worse conditions, and no one makes a movie about them.
Keep up the good work.
(Funny, I don't recognize that name. - D. P.)
My Thoughts on The Post:
Wow! That was, indeed, an interesting perspective and not one that is commonly held. I would really like to know who wrote it. In addition to that, I have to say that I agree with some of the comments presented in the piece. SOME of them. I would also like to comment that the reason people don't mention the later films, (Atlantis, Hercules, etc.) is because those later films are the less successful ones and, (NOT coincidentally) the features that were the MOST influenced by untalented "creative" executives. And what about that term, "creative executive"? You can bet that no truly creative person coined that phrase. This is the kind of title concocted by management and MBA types in small meetings of their own kind, behind closed doors, to expand their level of influence in whatever sphere they happen to find themselves. They simply create and then adopt a title and use the term, (however ludicrous) to describe themselves until it becomes commonly accepted. In fact, if you ask ME, the ones who distanced themselves from the later films ARE the "creative" executives, the same ones who had little or nothing to do with the success of the earlier films, while freely taking credit for them just the same. In reality, I am actually the MOST proud of the animation I did on those latter films. I count my work on the Gargoyles in "Hunchback" and Flit in "Pocahontas" as, by far, my best work in full character animation, (story problems aside). It is my strong belief that the animators and the animation quality just arced upward and got stronger year after year as the quality of the stories, subject matter and material presented to the highly competent "animation machine" spiked downward, getting weaker and weaker and more pedantic and preachy with every new "creative" executive that crawled out of the woodwork and onto the gravy train. As for the hefty bonuses for the artists, I think it might be prudent to compare those "huge" bonuses and fluffy bathrobe Christmas offerings with the outrageous amounts lavished on Eisner, Ovitz and the board (to name just a few), over this same period. Show me the equity there. It's like Stomboli in the classic film "Pinocchio" when he is outraged at finding a counterfeit coin in his loot from the puppet show. Once he realizes it has little value to him, he "graciously" gives it to the naive little puppet as a gift while keeping the real profits for himself. To quote a Disney executive speech to animation staff around the time of the success of Aladdin, "Congratulations! Aladdin just cleared $200 million. And, sorry, Mr. Eisner's bonus this year is $200 million." I paraphrased slightly but the tone is there. Let me tell you, I saw no huge bonuses during the Basil, Oliver, Mermaid, Rescuers years. In fact, it is commonly known that, save for a select few (most of whom still reside at the studio), Feature Animation artists in the late 1980s and well into the 1990s were paid less than our counterparts throughout the industry in the so-called "real" world.
I do agree with this writer about the maudlin, "pity party" tone of the film, (the writer's words, not mine) and I have to admit I was worried about that and about how non animation folk might receive it, but I have to say that it is a little presumptuous of the writer to criticize the strong feelings of these people from his or her position outside the gates of Disney Feature Animation without having lived the experience.
For me, there were a number of happy years working at Disney Features, learning and growing and watching the characters I worked on cease to appear to me as a series of drawings and start to become living, breathing, thinking characters in their own right. My happy times at Feature Animation have very little to do with compensation, gifts or perceived luxuries. I knew at the time that the best films our generation would produce may very well come out of that block of non-descript warehouses in Glendale, (I was right) and I still cherish those years of exploration , growth and fun as well as the strong friendships I forged during that time. But, those golden days slowly began to wane as bombastic, self righteous and, in many cases, elitist "creative" management began taking over the creative process. And, though I can only speak for myself here, I am sure that many other animators in the industry share my view. I did not enter the field to become rich. I did not enter the field to become famous. In the '40s and '50s, many animators, with talents and accomplishments I could only HOPE to someday achieve, toiled away in relative obscurity, being paid a decent, but not extravagant, salary for a lifetime of impressive work. What I (and other animators) did demand of Disney Feature Animation was to be included in the creative process that we had worked so hard to become a part of. This requirement, however, the powers that be could not allow as that inclusion clearly showcased the management's glaring inadequacies in the creative arena, (It still does).
As I said earlier, the writer of the original post is right in some regards, but misses the overall mark by looking at the situation with a skewed. biased and inaccurate perspective. Most of all I do agree that there is a big difference between TV animation and Feature animation with many fine artists toiling away in both arenas. I know this because I have done both. And, despite all the perceived "pixie dust" of feature animation compared to the real world outside the pretty prison, I have always had my feet planted firmly on the ground, my head screwed on tight and my eyes focused on the real world.