Disney to cut 160 workers in animation

Times Staff Writer

Walt Disney Co. said Friday that it would dismiss about 160 of the 800 employees in its feature animation unit as the company slowed production at what once was its crown jewel.

The 20% cutback comes nearly a year after Disney purchased Pixar Animation Studios, maker of such computer-animated hits as “Cars” and “The Incredibles.” Pixar executives including creative guru John Lasseter took control of the Disney group, aiming to revive an operation that was a crucial profit center before it lost ground to other studios.

“With John Lasseter from Pixar being put over the division, and the much brighter track record they’ve had, he’s going to keep his guys and his projects first,” said David Koenig, an author of books on Disney.

The number of artists, technologists and production managers in Burbank will be reduced. A separate TV animation unit is unaffected.


Employees said they were told that because the average production time for the Burbank company’s animated films was expanding from 12 months to 18 months, fewer staffers could handle the workload.

“The management team at Walt Disney Animation has determined that each film will dictate its own appropriate production schedule,” Disney Studios spokeswoman Heidi Trotta said. “The result of this necessitated a reduction of staff.”

Hundreds of the division’s employees are members of the local animators guild and are covered under a collective-bargaining contract. But management can choose whom to fire based on skill level instead of seniority, guild business representative Steve Hulett said. Notification of those affected is to begin the week of Dec. 11.

“Everybody’s wondering who’s going to be getting the ax,” Hulett said.

Tempering the news about the layoffs is the healthy job market for computer animation. Given the current boom, many of those laid off should be able to find work within the two months’ notice Disney will give them, Hulett said. Because Disney has shifted toward computer animation only recently, the average animator at the company has been on the job for only a few years, he said.

Disney’s animated movie division has waxed and waned since it made the company a household name more than seven decades ago with such characters as Mickey Mouse and movies like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” It peaked in the 1990s with such blockbusters as “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Aladdin,” employing more than 1,400 people.

Pixar, whose movies Disney distributed, changed the genre with a string of computer-generated hits starting with “Toy Story” in 1995. Studios such as DreamWorks Animation SKG, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. also have turned out computer-aided blockbusters.

Disney responded by cutting back on traditional animation. But it has failed to match the success of the industry’s top computer animation studios. Its current production, “Meet the Robinsons,” is scheduled for release in a few months.