Tonawanda News

April 9, 2008

LANE: Computers may erase animators' presence

By Paul Lane<br><a href="mailto:lanep@gnnewspaper.com">E-mail Paul</a>

My daughter is only 8 months old, and she already has more Disney movies in her collection than I’ve seen.

That “back in the vault” marketing scheme works wonders, as family members and friends (and dear old Dad) have scooped up copies of “The Jungle Book,” “101 Dalmations” and other animated classics.

While the “Toy Story” series, “Ratatouille” and other computer-generated films are well-done (and dazzling to look at sometimes), there’s just something about the old-school, hand-drawn movies that’s special — perhaps the idea appeals to my youth, when I was a member of what might have been the last generation to grow up on Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Whatever the case, it appears that my sensibilities are about to be further antiquated.

In announcing its animated movie lineup through 2012, Walt Disney Studios officials said this week that all of their Pixar computer-drawn movies will be released in 3-D format in addition to traditional methods. The move comes on the heels of a push by four major movie studios — including Disney — to finance and equip movie screens across North America with 3-D projection technology, which is being done to entice more movie-goers back into theaters.

“We’re excited to be pushing the boundaries of 3-D and computer technology to tell our stories in the best possible way,” John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, said in a release.

No one can blame movie studios for evolving, especially in light of recent sales figures. North American box office gross increased 4.09 percent to $9.68 billion in 2007, according to Media By Numbers, but tickets sold dropped in 2007 for the sixth time in nine years. Attendance for 2008 (298 million through March 30) is down 2.56 percent from the same point a year ago, although the running gross ($2.12 billion) is up 0.7 percent thanks to higher ticket prices.

That doesn’t mean that the past is easy to let go of, though. “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” are among the recent Disney landmarks that did wonders with nothing more than illustrators’ hands, while “Pinocchio” and other oldies still hold up well. And although they received a bit of computer assistance, the creative fingers behind last summer’s “The Simpsons Movie” did amazing things with mostly pencils and paper.

That by no means is meant to diminish Disney’s prospective lineup. The 3-D format will debut in May 2009 with “Up,” about an elderly man (voiced by Ed Asner) who finally follows his dream of exploring the globe. Both “Toy Story” films will be released in 3-D in late 2009-early 2010, which will lead up to “Toy Story 3” in June 2010.

Other films will include “newt,” about two newts who are the last of their species but are unable to get along, yet alone preserve their species; and “Cars 2,” a sequel to the Owen Wilson-voiced racing tale set for release in summer 2012.

By the time my daughter is old enough to add to her collection on her own, hand-drawn movies may be completely obsolete (Disney officials maintain about 600 hand animators on the studio’s staff, a number that’s plummeted in recent years). Those illustrators are busy creating the musical “The Princess and the Frog” for release in December 2009, but the bulk of the work beyond that has shifted to the computer nerds.

Moving away from hand-drawn movies is necessary for Disney to thrive, and that can’t be held against the studio’s leaders. But in a year where Mickey Mouse is celebrating his 80th birthday, it’s hard to imagine him not being actually sketched again.

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Another initiative to put butts in theater seats has seem venues offer alcohol during movies.

About 150 first-run theaters serving alcohol have opened within the last three years, Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners, told Gannett News Service. That brought the total of such establishments from 14 in 1997 to more than 400 today.

Liquor sales began as a way of ”repurposing single-screen theaters,” Corcoran said.

This seems like an OK theoretical idea, if alcohol can be kept out of minors’ hands — a difficult feat considering the ease with which underage viewers can sneak into R-rated showings. If I was able to see five movies a day on one ticket during my college years, I’d have been in heaven in having my of-age friends buy some beer to share.

Whether it be 21-and-over theaters or enforcement initiatives, this is another evolutional step that may be inevitable in time. Just expect a lot of hiccups along the way.

Contact editor Paul Lane at 693-1000, ext. 116.