The other major effect on the London companies was the success of Roger Rabbit. It ended the notion that animation features could not make money quickly and changed the needs of those people who buy animation.
For the past twenty years, investors in features have been demanding their money back ever quicker. The old Disney precept that a new generation came along every eight years-or-so allowing indefinite re-release did not appeal to the fast-buck money men. They wanted a blockbuster, a tenfold return of their money within six months of its release. Animation had not been seen to have that ability, but Roger Rabbit turned that belief on its head, resulting in several features being brought to England to be made. This provided a great deal more work for our animators and succeeded in bumping up their rates of pay.
The second effect has been of a technical nature. The animation in R.R. was superbly executed by Richard Williams and his staff, and the subtle shading they achieved when matching the live-action gave rise to many requests for similar treatment in the commercials that followed. For example, Tony Tiger (advertising Kellogg’s Frosties) started out as a conventionally drawn character, but he has undergone a number of changes which culminated in the use of digital techniques to give him that more rounded appearance.
(Here followed a compilation of Tony Tiger adverts which clearly showed the various phases of Tony’s development.)
The recession beginning in the 80s did not adversely affect the industry as much as it did others. The majority of studios have done very well, protected by two factors. First: the type of manufacturers who use animation regularly for snacks, crisps, breakfast cereals, soft drinks, sweets, toys, etc. were not hit by the recession as most others were. Second: animation budgets are favourable when compared with the average live-action budget, making the product a more viable alternative in the circumstances. Besides, some animation companies are seen to be more dedicated to producing commercials, and in these nervous times agencies are more inclined to stick with those studios they perceive to be safest. It is certainly true of Hibbert-Ralph who are quite content to be seen as producers of animated commercials.
Jerry has never regarded the studio as a stepping stone to other things, although they now have a subsidiary unit making entertainment material.
“As we come out of the recession,” he said, “animation companies will have to face up to the next great computer revolution. For the past five years we have had digital techniques – by that, I mean shooting onto laser disk, then adding effects and providing elements from 2-D computers – these are standard techniques which I believe are about to change. We have taken delivery of the Cambridge Animo System which was recently demonstrated here, in London. Those companies who already have Animo say the potential is enormous. The theory in that one man sitting at the workstation in a corner of his bedroom will be capable of producing a Disney standard cartoon feature-on-film – given time. Now, I am not suggesting this is what will happen, but it will certainly bring animated cartoons to the level of desk-top publishing.
“As the acceleration of personal computer power continues, the 2-D systems currently in use will become cheaper and more readily available to us, reducing the need to work through facility houses.
“There is an advantage in working on commercials: the studio is able to attract bigger budgets per second than any other area of animation, and we are able to solve problems that may arise, quickly and readily. There is also an added advantage, working this way -you get to experiment with the most sophisticated equipment.”
It is this constant ability to switch from style to style, from simple to complex animation, from traditional to computer animation that holds interest for Jerry.
In answer to one questioner concerning receipt of the initial story-board from the agency, Jerry replied that if something did not appear to be working then the first thing they ask is for permission to re-do it. Or they might make a Leica reel consisting of a series of quick sketches shot on video, and show that to the agency. In this way they can see whether or not the idea works.
“These days agencies are more interested in the ‘finish’,” he said, “Harry is very flexible, and when you have a situation where people can be flexible too, they tend to exercise that ability. With Harry you can change anything to anything, including colours, and so you might be told ‘I’m not too sure about those red trousers, let’s try blue.’ So you spend an hour or so changing then to blue, and someone else says ‘Ooooh, I’m still not sure – let’s try green.’ But all this extra time means you are spending company money at £500 per hour and you have to put a stop to it. The more you can agree beforehand prevents the assignment from becoming a time-and-cost-wasting experience.”
Expanding on his attitude to longer productions, he said that although he appreciated the attractions of building up a character and devising a sustainable performance, and the fact you would not have agency men breathing down your back all the time, currently he did not feel motivated enough to tackle the 90-minute feature film. Even so, he added, it seems there is more chance these days of doing something all your own. Their Entertainment unit has already put out a 1 3 x 5-minute series to test the water, and they are making one of the 25-minute shorts in Channel 4’s Opera series.
“If you are a commercials company you never end up owning anything you make, that is my principle regret. I would like to own the rights to our productions, and since animation is a young mans game and I’m not getting any younger, our entertainment company will probably prove to be the solution to that one regret.”
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Printed in Animator Issue 31 (Spring 1994)