Being Moved From Longtime Home, New Series to Be Done Overseas : Disney Animators Fear for Future

Times Staff Writer

Shortly after Michael Eisner became chairman of Walt Disney Productions last September, he characterized the company as the princess in Disney's 1959 animated film "Sleeping Beauty." In Eisner's analogy, he and new Disney President Frank Wells were hired to awaken "the princess" and usher her into a new era of economic success.

But in the opinion of many of the company's animators, the wake-up process has threatened to strip the princess of her greatest asset--the art of animation itself, as perfected by the studio, and the future of the animators themselves.

The animators' fears stem primarily from two recent events at the Burbank-based studio.

First, the animators are being moved off the studio's Burbank lot. Ever since the late Walt Disney and his brother Roy built the studio, animators have worked in the main building. The company's chief executives have also had their offices in the main building, but the facility was named the Animation Building.

On Feb. 1, however, the company began moving the animators to a building in nearby Glendale. According to Disney sources, the change is to make room for producers and staff who will make live-action films.

High-ranking Disney executives could not be reached for comment.

The animators' resentment over the move has been no secret at Disney. Gags and cartoons about the move cover walls in both the old and new offices, such as one cartoon depicting the animators bunched together on the roof of a hollow Animation Building.

"That's a way of making a joke of it and easing the pain," said Jane Baer, an animator who has been working for Disney on and off since 1956.

Along with her husband, Dale, another longtime Disney animator, Baer is currently developing preliminary designs for a new Disney TV series.

"They (Disney's new management) are stressing the live action more so than the animation," she said. "The animators have been made to feel like second-class citizens."

But Don Hahn, manager of the Disney animation department, is less critical: "Everybody's going to have apprehensions (about the move), there's no doubt about it. But after the initial shock, I think everybody's really pleased."

According to Walter Stanchfield, a Disney animator since 1948, "we feel more close-knit because we are separate. It's such a nice, casual atmosphere at the studio and we were a little apprehensive at being cut off from all that. Psychologically we have been separated."

The other major departure from tradition is two new animated Saturday morning TV series--"The Gummi Bears" and "The Wuzzles"--that, The Times has learned, Disney has sold to television networks to begin this fall. Eisner personally sold "The Gummi Bears" to NBC, according to a network official. "The Wuzzles," to air on CBS, was sold to that network by Disney development people, a CBS spokesman said.

What has the animators feeling "nervous," Baer said, is that the shows will use what is called "limited animation," which is both cheaper and inferior in quality to the classic animation technique practiced by Disney until now.

Limited animation, as illustrated by TV cartoon shows such as "The Flintstones," depends on dialogue, rather than action, to carry the story. Instead of the constant movement that gave Disney cartoon characters their personality, a character's arms and legs might move while the body remains rigid.

Saturday morning cartoon producers, such as industry leader Hanna-Barbera Productions Inc., have long had their animation done in places such as Korea, where it is far cheaper to produce. As one executive with Taft Entertainment Co., Hanna-Barbera's parent corporation, said: "Disney has always been scornful of limited animation."

Now Disney will go the same route.

Confirming that the series will be produced either in Korea or Japan (from designs created here) "in the Saturday morning manner," Willie Ito, Disney's associate producer of the programs, said that, nonetheless, "we are hoping to have a little more quality . . . than we are used to seeing on Saturday morning."

According to Ito, "The economics of it (having the animation done in Korea and/or Japan) really was never discussed. It was basically the time element of production. For us to gear up a complete animation crew to handle two shows would be rather a difficult task."

To NBC, at least, economics are at the heart of the matter, however. "Disney's is still the best animation in the world, but it takes months to get the quality and detail," said Phyllis Tucker Vinson, vice president of children's programs at NBC. "Because of salaries paid you can't provide (classic Disney-style) animation for Saturday morning."

According to Bud Hester, business representative of the Screen Cartoonists Local 839, which represents most Disney animators, wages for animators in Korea are about 25% of those paid animators here, where the base salary for experienced animators is now $728 a week.

Baer, who is working on preliminary designs for "The Gummi Bears," has mixed feelings about the venture.

"In a way, Eisner and Wells are very good for the studio because they're doing so much more now and it's kind of been (good) for everybody," she said. But, she added, "The Disney quality has always been so unique, and it's what set the studio apart. To see it deteriorate would just be a tragedy."

"The Gummi Bears" series is based on a candy product of the same name that is made by Heide, a West German company. Disney is presently developing toy bear characters for both the program and a toy line to be sold by Disney.

"The Wuzzles" is a co-venture with toy manufacturer Hasbro Bradley Inc. The program is based on six different characters that were developed by both companies for both the series and a plush toy line to be marketed by Hasbro. "Wuzzles" are combinations of two animals-- for example, a bumblebee and a lion becomes a "bumblelion." The toys will be unveiled next Monday at a toy industry convention in New York.

Both series are expected to attract unfavorable attention from Action for Children's Television, the organization headed by children's programming advocate Peggy Charren, who has fought against children's shows developed around merchandise. "I have been predicting for a long time that if we let programs sell toys on TV, the next thing they're going to do is sell sugar, and sure enough, here we have a program ("The Gummi Bears") that is based on sugar," said Charren.

"One would assume Disney is going to be benefitting from the sale of the candy," she said.

Disney officials were not available to comment on the Gummi Bears arrangement, but a spokesman for Hasbro said the "Wuzzles" contract calls for Hasbro and Disney to split the profits 50-50 from both the series and the toys.

To be sure, the classic Disney animation style won't disappear. It is scheduled to appear in at least two of the studio's feature films, "The Black Cauldron," which will be released next summer, and "Basil of Baker Street," which is just beginning the animation process.

According to animator Stanchfield, "(Disney President of Motion Pictures and Television) Jeffrey Katzenberg gave a talk to us and tried to assure us that it wasn't that we were being ousted in any way. They (the management) have been talking about doing things like a sequel to 'Bambi,' and they seem to be very serious about enlarging the staff and doing these other shows."

But Stanchfield added that "they're going to be more cost-conscious from now on, and to do a picture like 'Bambi' (the original version) would be impossible now."

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