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The Truth About The Animation Industry’s Recent “Setbacks”

Brian Smith
Brian Smith
15 hours ago

There has been a lot of negative news whirling around about the animation industry lately. Whether it’s about layoffs at Netflix or unreleased projects from Warner Bros. and HBO MAX or unmet box office expectations by even the likes of PIXAR, there seems to a ton of turbulence surrounding the world of animation. I have worked in the animation industry for over 20 years, and I have survived its ebbs and flows. Times like these are nothing new, and to be honest, we’ve survived times that have been a lot worse.

Words like that can be cold comfort, however, if you’ve just lost your job or if you’re trying to break into an industry that from the outside feels like it’s retracting. But here is one of the great things about working in the animation industry. There is always a place for someone willing to think outside the box. There are opportunities in animation across multiple platforms that simply don’t exist in live action.

Do you want to work in features? There have never been more studios involved in making feature animation. Of course, there are the giants like Disney/PIXAR, DreamWorks, and Illumination. But Netflix is still making features, despite its recent layoffs. Paramount and Nickelodeon are together and making features. If stop-motion is your thing, Laika has built a successful model as well. And there are plenty of smaller shops that are making features and creating beautiful work.

TV animation is also booming. The aforementioned Disney, DreamWorks, Nickelodeon, and Netflix all have robust TV animation divisions that are creating a wide variety of content with tons of opportunities for artists and production alike.

Then there is the world of video games, which only really exists in animation. The video game branch might be the most volatile, but there are a lot of incredible opportunities to create animation there that you won’t get anywhere else.

The Truth About The Animation Industrys Recent Setbacks

Then, of course, there is VFX. It’s another volatile branch of the industry, but it offers different opportunities. When you work on an animated feature or TV show, you will likely be on the same project for multiple years. Most VFX projects only last a few months, so when someone working on a feature gets one credit, a person in VFX could have earned a half dozen more credits because she had the opportunity to work on so many more projects.

Tom Sito is on the faculty at the John Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. He has been entrenched in the animation industry since the 1970s and he has worked as an animator and storyboard artist at studios such as Filmation, Walt Disney Feature Animation, and DreamWorks Animation, among others. His credit list is expansive and includes He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Prince of Egypt, and Shrek. Sito was also head of the Animation Guild for several years, and he has written several books on the history and the processes of animation. It is safe to say that Tom Sito has forgotten more about animation than most of the rest of us will ever know.

I contacted him recently, and I asked him what his thoughts were on the overall health of the animation industry.

“I think the animation industry is in excellent health,” he told me. “All during the COVID lockdown, when Hollywood struggled to do films, animation boomed. The Netflix and HBO Max things are temporary aberrations. By Christmas, all the hubbub will be forgotten.”

And you know what? He’s absolutely right. I was working on a giant VFX project when the pandemic started, and I missed a grand total of 2 days of work (that I still got paid for). Most of the team missed about a week while the company set everyone up to work from home. With very few glitches, we were up and running at full speed after a couple of weeks and none of us missed a single paycheck.

And I’m not the only one. Most of the people that I know in animation worked steadily all the way through the pandemic. That is one of the beautiful things about the current model for making animated films and television is that it is conducive to the work-from-home model. Most artists these days are working from a computer. The digital age in which we live allows for collaboration to happen online over secure networks using tools like Zoom, Blue Jeans, Slack, and others.

The Truth About The Animation Industrys Recent Setbacks

I followed up with Sito asking him where he thought the most opportunity was these days. In his opinion, was it in features or TV or VFX?

“The great thing about animation now is when one division is slowing, another is picking up. So if features are slow, TV is hot. If that is not happening, games are booming. Game budgets are now the equivalent of a feature film. If games aren’t happening, streaming. Or visual effects. Or Commercials. I have an animator friend who animated at Disney feature, then went to Electronic Arts, and now is on the Simpsons. When I started in the 70s, those kinds of shifts were not possible.”

Again, I understand that this might all be difficult to read if you’ve just been laid off and your phone isn’t ringing off the hook with offers for new opportunities. I can tell you that I know how you feel. I have been laid off multiple times, and more than once I had to go several months before landing my next job. It can be hard. It can be terrifying, especially if you have a family to support. And the longer it goes, the less likely it feels like you will ever land a job. I have had those feelings myself. I know them well.

But I have always found another job because the fact of the matter is, there are always jobs out there in animation if you know where to look. Another question I asked Sito was what advice he would give to someone who has just experienced a layoff and is struggling to land that next gig. The advice he gives is both sound and practical.

“Realize it’s no tragedy,” he said. “Just the end of an inning in a baseball game. I got laid off plenty of times. Every studio that was a power in Hollywood when I first arrived in 1982 is now dead and buried except Disney. But me and my fellow animators are all here and all working. After a layoff, take the time to revamp your portfolio (samples), have lunch with a few friends in other studios, and see what’s up. Don’t sit in your mom’s basement and sulk. Always keep one credit card clean for emergencies.”

The Truth About The Animation Industrys Recent Setbacks

The old adage of one door closing so another door can open sounds cliché, but it is also very true. When I was laid off from Universal after the completion of the Curious George feature, I landed at Sony three months later with an opportunity to work in TV animation, and I worked on two series for Sony, The Boondocks and The Spectacular Spider-man. Those three months were tough, especially when I interviewed for jobs that I didn’t get. But I ultimately landed a good job that lasted for two and a half years until I got laid off again. Less than two months later I was working at DreamWorks Animation where I lasted for eight years until Comcast bought the studio and I was laid off again. That layoff lasted the longest. I worked a couple of temp gigs but didn’t find full-time employment again until I landed with Lightstorm Entertainment almost a year later. I’m not going to lie. That was tough. But it ultimately worked out for me, and it gave me an opportunity to work on Avatar: The Way of Water for four years.

The point is that layoffs happen in this industry. The best way to handle them is to understand that fact and be prepared when they do come and use the time wisely. Again, this is a healthy industry, and just because you’ve been laid off from one studio doesn’t mean that there aren’t multiple other opportunities out there. Most recently, I was let go from Netflix back in May. But because I had done such a good job with Lightstorm, and they still have Avatar 3 to make, they welcomed me back with open arms (and a higher salary).

Finally, I asked Sito what advice he would give to someone just trying to break into the business, and I firmly believe this also applies to people who have been in the industry for years, if not decades. You have to play the long game. When I got into this business, my dream was to spend my entire career at Disney. That didn’t work out for me, but the blessing that came from that is the half dozen other places I’ve worked and the hundreds of talented people that I had the opportunity to meet and work with that I would never have had if I had stayed at Disney.

The Truth About The Animation Industrys Recent Setbacks

Says Sito: “This is the Hundred Years War, and you are in Year 1. There is plenty of time to succeed and fail.

“–Animation today is global. Don’t be afraid to relocate to do a job. If you want to stay at home in Toledo, you are in the wrong business. I’ve worked all over the world and had a great time.

“–The things you should look for are 1) Experience, 2) Reputation, 3) Money. In that order. Experience and Money are self-explanatory, but what I mean about reputation is credits on some big, well-known projects will open doors for you. Whatever I do for the rest of my life, I am known as a guy who animated on Roger Rabbit, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, Prince of Egypt, and He-Man. Richard Williams called that your armor. You need to build up armor. Then people will seek you out instead of the other way around.

“–A lot of animation is based on personal contacts. I want to like and trust the artists I hire. So don’t lose touch with your animation buddies. They will be the ones to turn you on to new job opportunities more than any job site. Even working on a bad project, people are watching you. People that will go on to good projects. Do your very best, no matter what the project. Because you never know who is watching.

“Now good luck, and good hunting.”

Good luck, indeed. But always remember that you make your own luck. I got lucky by landing back at Lightstorm after it didn’t work out for me at Netflix because the timing was right that they were looking for new people, but I made my own luck by working hard during my first stint there and leaving on good terms. So when it came time for me to go back, they were happy to have me.

The same can hold true for anyone. The animation industry is as healthy as you make it. Work hard, make good contacts, and develop a good reputation, and you will be able to find work. Not only that, but you will have the potential to thrive in an industry that, while potentially volatile, is ultimately one of the healthiest, safest, and most stable branches of the entire entertainment industry.

Everything Everywhere All at Once: A Thematic Spectacle

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a stylized film that combines a whole lot of familiar ideas to create a film that is utterly unique. While watching this film, I felt like I was seeing something the likes of which I had never seen before. Later as I reflected on it, I realized that it was a film that was heavily influenced in terms of storytelling and style by other films. However, the screenwriting and directing team of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert combined these elements to create a movie-going experience that was as unique as it was entertaining.

Stylistically, I came out of this film feeling like I had seen a latter-day Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. Everything Everywhere All at Once wasn’t as silly as Scott Pilgrim, although there were plenty of comedic moments, and the stylization was completely different in both films, but the overall effect is the same. The in-camera effects and the graphics on screen created a stylized world that keeps viewers on their toes, not knowing what kind of visual stimulation is coming next. However, none of these stylized components existed for their own sake. Kwan and Scheinert expertly used them to create mood and advance the story. They also sped up the camera during fight scenes to add a frenetic feeling to what were already very intense and interesting and entertaining scenes.

From a storytelling perspective, there were a couple of films that Everything Everywhere All at Once borrowed from in significant ways. This film borrows a lot, both story-wise and thematically, from The Wizard of Oz. That is one of the most well-known films in the history of cinema, and its story and thematic components are obvious. Everything Everywhere All at Once has similar themes, but this time it is the mother who is dissatisfied with her life in her ordinary world and is brought into the special world where she sees all of the different lives she could have experienced and they all look much better than the life she has. However, just like Dorothy, over time this movie’s hero, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) realizes that the life and the home she has are perfect for her and she wouldn’t give that up for anything. Also, similarly to The Wizard of Oz, the people who are in her ordinary world act as archetypal shapeshifters and appear in her special worlds in different and strange ways. Also, also, there is even a Wicked Witch in Everything Everywhere All at Once, and they even give us a little end-around with it. We start the movie thinking that IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis) is playing the role of this movie’s Mrs. Gulch, but instead, it’s Evelyn’s own daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) who commands the power to destroy everything in Evelyn’s world.

The new take on this classic theme of appreciating what you have, no matter how miserable it seems, has a ton of depth to it as well. This is a story about the fragile relationship between mothers and daughters and how the morality of one generation is different from the next. Any aspiring screenwriter should study this film’s script for that reason alone. That thematic aspect added a wallop of emotional impact to this story. The audience spends the first three-quarters of the film enjoying the action and the witty dialogue, but all of that action was subtly laying the groundwork for a surprisingly emotional finish. It is that emotional finish that separates this film from others. We actually care about these characters. We care about what happens to them and we genuinely root for them.

It seems like Marvel has been dominating the ideas behind the multiverse lately, but the other film that I believe influenced this one is not a Marvel movie. It’s a more minor comedy from the late 80’s called Mr. Destiny, that starred Jim Belushi and Michael Caine. That film ran with the idea of the multiverse without referring to it by that name. But it pointed out how decisions and actions can change the course of our lives depending on their outcome. In Mr. Destiny, it was one specific event from his childhood that led Jim Belushi’s character’s life to go in what he felt was the wrong direction. Mr. Destiny, played by Michael Caine, changed that event for him to let him see how his life would have turned out had that event worked out differently. Again, the thematic issues of appreciating what you have are all over that film, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it while watching Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out how successfully this film and specifically its script implemented the Hero’s Journey. I will save a full Hero’s Journey breakdown for another blog, but suffice it to say, this film is so successful as a story, and is striking such a chord with audiences, precisely because Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert in their magnificent screenplay used those components to craft this story. Not only are all the stages there, but there are several other archetypal elements throughout the film, ranging from the characters to the story elements. Throughout the film we are shown threshold guardians and mentors, tricksters and shapeshifters, shadows and allies. Evelyn herself is not only the hero of the story, but she is also a shapeshifter as she uses abilities from her different existences to change who she is all through the story.

All of that keeps us guessing about what will happen next. It keeps us engaged fully in the story. This is a film that I can highly recommend based on the sheer entertainment value. But it also has a screenplay that any aspiring screenwriter can learn from.

2021 Winner for Best Picture: CODA

In what must be considered at least a mild upset, indie darling CODA beat out such heavy weights as Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. It beat out Nightmare Alley starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchet. It beat out Don’t Look Up and its plethora of stars including Lonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, and a brigade of other A-list talent. It beat out Will Smith vehicle King Richard. It beat out international darling Drive My Car.  CODA indeed turned out to be the little engine that could, winning all three awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture.

CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults, and the main character is Ruby Rossie (Emilia Jones), a teenager who is the only hearing person in her family that includes her deaf parents, Jackie and Frank (Marlee Matlin & Troy Kotsur in a Best Supporting Actor-winning performance) and a deaf older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant). Frank is a fisherman and she has to help on the boat every day before school, where she is a misfit and often the target of teasing by other kids. As she struggles to fit in at school, she also struggles to help her father and brother keep their fishing business alive as they have to deal with a lack of fish and ab abundance of government regulation.

Screenwriter and director Sian Heder did a masterful job in her Oscar-winning screenplay of creating a layered story that was not difficult to follow and had a riveting Hero’s Journey that helped make it such a strong story, both thematically and emotionally. Not only that, but she gave us characters who were ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances, and those circumstances created dramatic situations.

The Ordinary World is set up right away to show Ruby working the boat with Frank and Leo. On the boat, she’s listening to music and she has a great voice. We also learn that Ruby is a spunky and witty kid who is bullied at school and given heavy expectations at home. She immediately presented to us as a likable character who is also sympathetic. In fact, all of the characters are likable, and that’s what makes Ruby’s impending decision so hard. Hedler did what every good screenwriter and director should do. She set up the story so that Ruby would have to choose between what she wants (to be a singer) and what her family needs (to keep Ruby working on the boat).

In true Hero’s Journey fashion, Ruby gets two calls to adventure and she refuses them both, and these stages happen in tandem with Meeting the Mentor. The first call she gets is when she signs up for choir. We already know she’s a good singer, but she only signs up because Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a boy she is interested in, has already signed up. The refusal comes when she’s in the first rehearsal and the teacher, Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who serves the archetypal role of the mentor throughout the story, wants everyone to sing Happy Birthday. Rather than risk embarrassment in front of her peers, she runs out of the class. After coming back and giving Mr. V a chance to hear her voice, he presents her with another call to adventure to train for an audition for Berklee College of Music. She initially refuses that call as well because it would interfere with her ability to help with the fishing boat, before finally accepting it, at which point she crosses the first threshold.

All of this gets us through the first act of a very well-structured screenplay that was worthy of its own Oscar win. Moving into the second act, the Tests, allies, and enemies stage is obvious. The first test she faces is learning a duet with Miles. They start off awkward at first, but just when they’re getting comfortable rehearsing the song in her house, they hear her parents having sex. After Miles tells the friend at school about it, word spreads like wildfire, and it nearly destroys their burgeoning relationship. Ruby also has to balance her responsibilities with her family with her new responsibilities with music class. Add to the fact that her deaf mother doesn’t have any comprehension of what she’s trying to do and is questioning Ruby’s motives, and we have a second act that builds the drama and the tension of the story very nicely.

The Approach and the Supreme Ordeal are two scenes in one. Ruby decides to blow off fishing one day to go swimming with Miles. That particular day a state monitor goes on the boat with Frank and Leo and turns them in to the Coast Guard for operating the boat in an unsafe manner due to their disability and without a hearing person on the boat. That leads to the Reward. Ruby makes her choice. She decides that school can wait and she’s going to stay at home and be the hearing person on the boat so Frank and Leo can continue to fish.

That leads to the Road Back and back-to-back emotionally powerful scenes.

Ruby still takes part in the choir’s concert. Frank, Jackie, and Leo come to support her, even though they can’t hear.  Leo’s girlfriend Gertie, who can hear, tells them she’s a good singer. When she starts her duet with Miles, Heder did something remarkable. She turned the sound off so we could watch the concert from Frank’s point of view. He can only see Ruby singing and the joy it brings her. Then he looks around. He sees the faces of the other people in the audience. They are clearly enjoying and moved by Ruby’s singing. After getting home, Frank asks Ruby to sing the song for her. As she does, he puts his hands on her throat to feel the vibrations of her singing. He actually connects with Ruby in a way that heretofore seemed impossible. Speaking for myself, it’s one of the most heartwarming scenes I’ve ever seen in any film.

The Resurrection is a literal resurrection of Ruby’s dream. Frank decides that her dream cannot die and the family puts her in the car for the drive to Boston and her audition at Berklee. It seems like she’s going to flame out before she even gets the opportunity to even start. But then Mr. V shows up to play the accompaniment. It looks like she might flame out again until her parents and brother sneak in to watch from the back. She starts signing as she sings and the passion comes out. It’s another emotionally gripping scene that only the most hardened of hearts could get through without wet eyes.

The Return with the Elixir… Well, I’ll save that for you to see yourself.

Did the Academy get it right?

I can say unequivocally that they did. I have already posted that CODA was my favorite film of the year, and that can be seen here. Aside from that, the last two years have been difficult on all of us. CODA is the feel-good movie that we needed (and deserved), and it’s been a long time since a feel-good movie won Best Picture. You could make the case that Green Book was a feel-good movie, but it was so polarizing that any feel-good aspects associated with it were washed away. In my humble opinion, the last movie to win Best Picture that could truly be called a feel-good movie was 2010’s The King’s Speech, or maybe 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, which was another little engine that could. Either way, it’s been a while since a feel-good kid of movie won, so maybe we were due.

But even just looking at CODA on the merits, it deserved to win Best Picture. It has a layered story with a main character who has the classic dilemma of having to choose between what she wants and what she needs. There’s really a deeper layer than that because, in fact, she has to choose between what she needs and what her family, the people she loves, needs. And that need isn’t trivial at all. Her family lives with a disability and she appears to be the only one who can help them. This is a real problem with no easy answers.

When comparing Coda to the other films that were nominated this year, CODA had the most. It was a well-crafted story that was also entertaining and emotionally captivating. Each of the other films nominated this year had one or two of those qualities, but CODA was the only one with all three. It was clearly the most deserving film this year to be named Best Picture.

Should you see it?

Absolutely. This is a story that will not only entertain you, but it will make you feel something. For aspiring screenwriters, this film has a script that any screenwriter can learn from, as it’s win for Best Adapted Screenplay demonstrates. This is a film that, if you have not seen, or even if you have seen only once, you should do what you can to see it or see it again.

Best Picture Movie Quote – Moonlight

The Oscars are tomorrow! Between now and then we will be posting a movie quote from each decade that the Oscars have been awarded. Today’s quote is from 2016’s winner, Moonlight, screenplay by Barry Jenkins.

“Ok. Let your head rest in my hand. Relax. I got you. I promise. I won’t let you go. Hey man. I got you. There you go. Ten Seconds. Right there. You in the middle of the world.”

Best Picture Movie Quote – The Godfather Part II

The Oscars are less than a week away. Between now and then we will be posting a movie quote from a Best Picture winner from each decade that the Oscars have been awarded. Today’s quote is from 1974’s winner, The Godfather Part II, screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola & Maro Puzo.

“My father taught me many things here – he taught me in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”