One of California’s best known and most beloved industries has all but picked up and quietly moved overseas in yet another blow to the American way of life.
Forget silicon chips and VCRs. We’re talking Fred and Wilma Flintstone, Tom and Jerry, Yogi Bear and scores of other classic cartoon characters that populate the screens of millions of TVs on Saturday mornings and dominate the fantasies of children around the world.
While their pre-production work, including scripts, storyboards and voice tracks, is still done in Hollywood, America’s cartoon titans--Hanna-Barbera, Walt Disney, Warner Bros., Fox and Marvel--now lay out, draw, paint and shoot virtually all their TV cartoons abroad, especially in Asia.
“The Simpsons” is drawn in Seoul. Most of a recent cartoon version of “The Wizard of Oz” was produced in Shenzhen, China. “The Flintstones” hails from Manila. “Winnie the Pooh” is painted in Taipei, Taiwan. “Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles” is made in Dublin, Ireland. Other familiar cartoons come from Japan, Australia, France and Spain.
There are two reasons. After a two-decade lull that lasted until the mid-1980s, animation is enjoying a resurgence. There are after-school shows, prime-time series, hourlong specials, full-length features and best-selling videos. There are superheroes and dinosaurs, fairy tales and bedtime stories, “wascally wabbits” and “puddy tats.” There’s even a 24-hour cartoon channel on cable TV.
And there just aren’t enough trained artists and animators in Los Angeles to supply the millions of drawings required. A single cartoon minute requires about 1,200 separate drawings, or “cels,” most still done by hand.
“The demand for the shows is so high there just aren’t enough people in the U.S. to do it,” said Colin Baker, head of Toon City Inc., an independent Manila studio with about 20 artists who are currently drawing “Bonkers,” a new series for Disney staring Bonkers T. Bobcat.
The other reason is cheap labor. It costs about $280,000 to produce a 22-minute cartoon in the Philippines--good for a half-hour TV show in the United States. That’s less than half the cost of producing the same animation in Hollywood.
“It became too expensive in the U.S.,” said Jerry Smith, general manager of Fil-Cartoons Inc., a Hanna-Barbera Productions subsidiary in Mandaluyong, a gritty north Manila suburb.
The exodus began in the early 1970s, when Hollywood studios tried to cut rising labor costs by subcontracting in Mexico, Australia, Canada and Spain. By the early 1980s, they were sending work to the Far East, especially Japan, where TV cartoons are popular. Tokyo soon became too expensive, however, and new studios were found in Taiwan, Korea and elsewhere.
Smith, for example, worked for Hanna-Barbera in Sydney, Seoul and Taipei before he set up Fil-Cartoons in Manila nearly six years ago with 60 artists. It now employs 800 people, including 720 artists. That makes it second in size to the shop Smith set up in Taipei in 1978, Wang Film Production Co., which has about 1,500 employees and is half owned by Hanna-Barbera.
Artists there work on such popular shows as CBS’ “Garfield,” Disney’s “Care Bears” and “Winnie the Pooh,” Hanna-Barbera’s “The Jetsons,” Fox’s “Bobby’s World” and Warner Bros.’ “Tiny Toons.”
Other artists work at Pacific Rim Productions in Shenzhen in southern China. They’ve done drawings for Fox’s “Peter Pan and the Pirates” and “The Wizard of Oz.” For Disney’s “Tale Spin,” animation drawings were shipped from France for painting and other follow-up.
The downside, cartoonists say, is that few of the artists in China, Taiwan or Korea speak English. “You’re at the mercy of the translator,” said Wayne Dearing, Fil-Cartoons’ finance director. “The lip sync comes back way out of sync. They’ve got no idea what it means. No idea.”
Then there are cultural gaps. One foul-up occurred when the Chinese studio was drawing a football game. Since they don’t play football, the artists kept mixing up the uniforms. That meant the quarterback kept throwing interceptions instead of touchdown passes. And since they’d never seen a football, they colored it Day-Glo orange.
It’s why Smith, head of Fil-Cartoons, prefers the Philippines. “Filipinos have a Western sense of humor,” he said. “They all speak English. They know America. They know why something is funny.”
Working from long rows of cramped cubicles in a three-story building, the artists at Fil-Cartoons have just finished a half-hour Christmas special starring that ever-popular modern stone-age family, Fred and Wilma Flintstone, Barney and Betty Rubble and the rest of the gang.
“Drawing the Flintstones is very fulfilling for a Filipino,” said Benjie Agoncillo, the assistant production manager. “Even if you just draw the mouth of Fred, it’s very exciting. You watch on TV and say, ‘I did that!’ ”
Now under way is an hourlong Jellystone Park epic called “Yogi the Easter Bear.” Then there are eight segments of “The Addams Family,” a science fiction cartoon based on a Ray Bradbury story, a new feature called “Page Master” about books that come to life, 13 half-hour segments of “Captain Planet,” an intergalactic superhero, and assorted other shows.
“All the Tom and Jerry cartoons are made here,” Smith said. “We’ve just finished 117 episodes at seven minutes each. We’ll start another 50 episodes in April.”
Fil-Cartoons’ artists are given a six-month training course. The perks are generous, especially by Philippine standards. Employees are given full medical care for their dependents, school fees for children, extra holidays and a bonus program in which cars are awarded each year.
Minimum pay for painters is $40 a week, though most make more. Animators earn an average of $400 a week, but the most senior animators make $850 a week or more, an unheard-of salary in this impoverished country.
Still, work isn’t easy. Since artists are paid for each frame they draw over a set quota, many sleep under their desks each night to get an earlier start on the next day. The office is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Edna Salazar, a painter, camps out three or four nights a week on a fold-up cot. “I earn more that way,” she grins. “They give us coffee and vitamins.”
Animators in Los Angeles create the characters and “blueprint” the main action on storyboards. The layout is done here, and artists then hand-draw and paint the actual cartoon characters and backgrounds. Cameramen then photograph each frame. It’s long, laborious work.
“It’s very boring sometimes to paint the same character over and over,” said Dada Rey, who sat repeatedly painting a scarecrow on nearly identical cels.
Unlike early cartoons, violence has been toned down under network rules so children aren’t encouraged to bash one another with frying pans, set fire to dogs and the like. In some cases, old cartoons are redrawn to meet new standards.
“We had one Tom and Jerry where he was chasing someone with a baseball bat,” said John Rice, Fil-Cartoons’ animation director. “We had to go back and change it to a tennis racket.”
And Quick Draw McGraw, the popular pistol-packing equine sheriff, met his match a few years ago. The artists were ordered to remove the gun from Quick Draw’s holster. It’s been empty ever since.