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Banquet for an Art

This was a banner year for the animated feature, a year in which the form proved just how rich and varied it can be.

It was the year that demonstrated there are more flavors in animation than just plain Disney, the year that saw everything from the stately “The Prince of Egypt” to the rowdy “South Park,” from the wonderful “The Iron Giant” to Pixar’s witty “A Bug’s Life.”

With major studios in Burbank, Glendale and Sherman Oaks and the majority of animators trained at CalArts in Valencia, animation is very much a Valley art and industry. And, in a sense, 1999 was to animated films what 1939 was to features.

If this year was a banquet, people in the animation business feel the future will be a feast.

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In recent interviews with leading animators, it was clear the field is bursting with energy and ideas. It was not so long ago that audiences saw a new animated feature only when Disney produced one, every four years or so. Now animated features are almost commonplace, utterly remarkable given how labor-intensive they are to make.

“When we all started, it was this backwater industry,” Don Hahn of Disney recalls with a laugh. Along with Henry Selleck (who did “James and the Giant Peach”) and Brad Bird, Hahn was part of a group of Young Turks dissatisfied with what Disney had become before its rebirth in the 1980s.

There was an exodus of talent from Disney then, but Hahn chose to stay and was one of the people who helped transform the studio and indeed the industry--he was associate producer of the animated sequences in the groundbreaking “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” as well as producer of both “Beauty and the Beast,” the first animated feature to win a Best Picture nomination, and “The Lion King.”

Like others in the business, Hahn sees animation as having lost its marginality.

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“For a while people thought of animation as a genre,” he says. “Now you’re getting directors who are trying to express themselves through the medium of animation in a variety of genres.”

Hahn’s sums up his own current project as “a ragtag team of explorers sets out to find the lost continent of Atlantis.” It is “a big, fun, wide-screen adventure movie like the ones we watched when we were kids,” he explains, in the spirit of such Disney live-action classics as “Swiss Family Robinson” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

To be released in the summer of 2001, “Atlantis” will incorporate computer as well as traditional animation. In Hahn’s view, the industry has readily adopted the computer because it gives the animator so many new options.

In the computer, he says, “artists now have a really sophisticated tool. You do whatever you need to do to get the right effect on screen, and the audience shouldn’t really care,” how the effect was achieved.

Bird, whose “Iron Giant” won 11 Annies this year, hopes the current passion for computer animation doesn’t threaten the traditional kind.

Bird, who has had numerous offers since the critical success of “Iron Giant,” says he thinks there may be “less reluctance on the part of the audience to go along with something new if it’s computer generated than if it’s traditionally animated.”

He fears that people make certain assumptions when they see traditional animation; they assume they are in for something G-rated, with lots of songs.

“I don’t want to see computer animation at the expense of traditional animation,” he says. “I want to see them both happen.”

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Zak Penn is producing “Osmosis Jones” for Warner Bros., a film that combines live action and animation in an action comedy about a white blood cell, played by Chris Rock. Think of it as “Fantastic Voyage” meets “Rush Hour,” Penn advises.

At 31, Penn is part of a new generation--"We grew up on animation"--that accepts it as another valid form of filmmaking. They don’t think of animated movies as something only kids can relate to.

“A lot of people have to get over the hump about animation--like my parents,” says Penn, who adds he hasn’t been able to induce his parents to watch “The Simpsons.”

Penn is clearly stoked at the opportunities presented by “Osmosis Jones,” including getting to use the human body as a fascinating action location and creating a compelling protagonist who isn’t human. He loves it that “Osmosis Jones” is “plot-y,” something he likes in a film.

“Disney movies get so focused on character, they don’t have much plot,” he says. “ ‘Osmosis Jones’ is told more like a regular movie in that there’s multiple subplots, intricate plots that all come together at the end.”

Working with characters that include an over-the-counter cold tablet and scenes set inside a stuffed-up sinus have piqued the filmmakers’ creativity, he says.

“We really can use people with fresh perspectives because the characters are things you’ve never seen before. How do you draw the Ebola virus?” he asks. “This movie is like the ‘Star Wars’ cantina scene stretched to an entire movie. There’s constant room for invention.”

Like his peers, Penn thinks this a great time to be making animated movies.

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“Unlike a lot of feature films, animated films are getting better and better and better. I think there’s a whole undiscovered world in animation.”

Spotlight runs each Friday. Patricia Ward Biederman can be reached at valley.news@latimes.com.


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