I've subscribed to the New York Times for half a dozen years now, and in that time have been perpetually amazed at how much more local news I read in those pages than in my previous paper--especially as regards my own line of work, animation.
So yet again I've unflapped the hefty Sunday edition of the Manhattan daily to find an article written just for us: on the recently revived plan to make theatrical shorts at Disney. Charles Solomon is the author.
The Times has a registration website, so I've pasted it here for your enjoyment. Obviously my usual disclaimer about copyright doesn't apply to this post--it's all property of the New York Times. Here it is:
MOVIEGOERS who have become inured to pre-show car ads and trivia quizzes may soon get something old enough to seem new: cartoon shorts.
After a hiatus of nearly 50 years, Walt Disney Studios is getting back into the business of producing short cartoons, starting with a Goofy vehicle next year. The studio has released a few shorts in recent years — “Destino,” “Lorenzo” and “The Little Match Girl” — but those were more artistic exercise than commercial endeavor. The new cartoons, by contrast, are an effort by a new leadership team from Pixar Animation Studios, now a Disney unit, to put the Burbank company back at the forefront of animation with a form it once pioneered.
“The impetus comes from John Lasseter, who takes the idea from Walt Disney and 100 years of film history,” said Don Hahn, producer of “The Lion King” and “The Little Match Girl,” in a recent interview at his studio office. “Shorts have always been a wellspring of techniques, ideas and young talent. It’s exactly what Walt did, because it’s a new studio now, with new talent coming up — as it should. I think the shorts program can really grow this studio as it grew Pixar, as it grew Walt’s studio.”
Although audiences today are more familiar with his feature films, Walt Disney’s reputation was originally built on shorts. In the 1930s “A Mickey Mouse Cartoon” appeared on theater marquees with the titles of the features, and Disney won 10 Oscars for cartoon shorts between 1932 and 1942. He used the “Silly Symphonies” to train his artists as they geared up to create “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” But after World War II Disney phased out short cartoons because of rising production costs and the minimal amount theater owners would pay for them.
Mr. Hahn said the new shorts would be screened in theaters along with Disney films. “You pay your 10 bucks to see a movie,” he said, “and you get a surprise you hadn’t counted on.” The new shorts will be done in traditional 2-D animation, computer graphics or a combination of the two media, depending on the story and the visual style.
This is not the first attempt at such a revival. Warner Brothers, for example, tried to bring back the classic Looney Tunes characters in new shorts in 2003, but they proved unsuccessful and most of them were never screened theatrically.
Chuck Williams, a veteran story artist who will produce the new films for Disney, said they do not have to become a profit center in order to perform a real commercial function.
“They allow you to develop new talent,” Mr. Williams said in an interview at the Disney studios. “Shorts are your farm team, where the new directors and art directors are going to come from. Instead of taking a chance on an $80 million feature with a first-time director, art director or head of story, you can spend a fraction of that on a short and see what they can do.”
It is not surprising that Mr. Lasseter is using short films to train and test the artists: he and his fellow Pixar animators spent almost 10 years making shorts, learning how to use computer graphics effectively before they made “Toy Story” and the string of hits that followed. Pixar continues to produce a cartoon short every year, and has won Oscars for the shorts “Tin Toy,” “Geri’s Game” and “For the Birds.”
Four new shorts are in development at Disney: “The Ballad of Nessie,” a stylized account of the origin of the Loch Ness monster; “Golgo’s Guest,” about a meeting between a Russian frontier guard and an extraterrestrial; “Prep and Landing,” in which two inept elves ready a house for Santa’s visit; and “How to Install Your Home Theater,” the return of Goofy’s popular “How to” shorts of the ’40s and ’50s, in which a deadpan narrator explains how to play a sport or execute a task, while Goofy attempts to demonstrate — with disastrous results. The new Goofy short is slated to go into production early next year.
The idea for “Home Theater” came from the experience Kevin Deters, one of its two directors, had buying a large-screen TV. “For years I’ve been saying to my wife, let’s get a nice, large TV, because I’ve been suffering with a 30-inch screen,” he said. “She finally acquiesced around the time of the Super Bowl. When we went shopping, we discovered the stores had ‘Delivery in Time for the Big Game!’ and similar promotions, some of which appear in the film.”
Over the years the studio has tried unsuccessfully to update the classic characters. Mr. Deters and his co-director, Stevie Wermers, for instance, unhappily recalled “Disco Mickey,” the 1979 album that suggested the trademark mouse could boogie like John Travolta. The cover featured Mickey in a white suit and open shirt, swinging his hips.
“You don’t want to put Goofy on a skateboard,” Mr. Deters said. “There’s no reason to attempt to make him hip and cool. Goofy isn’t cool. He’s the ultimate domesticated man, as the ‘How to’ shorts showed. I relate very well to him as the guy who’s sort of a schlub on his couch.”
“How to Install Your Home Theater” will be made with a fairly small crew: despite the triumph of computer animation, Disney still has a number of talented traditional animators who are eager to draw again.
“The Goofy short will be very funny, but we won’t have to spend a lot of money and time on it, which won’t diminish it one bit,” Mr. Hahn said. “Obviously there’s a financial component to these films. We have to make them responsibly. But the big investment is for the long haul. We’re saying we believe in new talent and new techniques, and they’ll pay dividends in 10 to 20 years, just as we’re reaping the benefits now from the investment we made 25 years ago, training John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton and Tim Burton and John Musker and Ron Clemmons.”
Disney also intends the new talent to reflect an increasingly diverse work force. For most of its 100-year history American animation has been the creation of male artists, a situation that is slowly changing.
“It’s kind of shocking to realize that once the Goofy short gets made, I’ll officially be the first woman director at Disney Feature Animation,” Ms. Wermers said. “Considering that probably more than 50 percent of the audience for the short will be female, because of moms taking the kids, there should be more female voices out there.”
Ms. Wermers is not alone in her sense that Mr. Lasseter and his fellow Pixar alumni are already having an impact.
“I feel Disney is a very different place than it was a year ago,” said Chris Williams, a story artist who is developing “Golgo’s Guest” and “Prep and Landing,” “and the shorts program is just part of that. It’s become a very exciting place to work.”