Why Is Common Sense Being Ignored in Animated Features?

Budgets for animated features have been rising consistently for the past decade or so. While large blockbusters at the end of the 20th century struggled to top $100 million, today’s efforts often top 3.5 times that! This rapid rise has been accomplished mainly thanks to the superb commercial performance of animated features at the box office. So why then is common sense missing from the production process of such films?

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Steve Hullett over at the Animation Guild Blog recently took a look at the ballooning budgets of animated features in the context of a Brasilian feature with a relatively small budget:

Most animation studios that I know about, union or otherwise, could produce theatrical animated features for under $100 million. But they would have to do a few things differently, like for instance:

1) Stop hiring big name stars for voice roles that could be better done by professional voice actors. Disney used this business model for years. Outside of Bing Crosby on “Ichabod Crane,” I can’t think of many super stars Walt employed on his cartoons. Radio and character actors filled the parts better, so they were the ones who got the gigs.

2) Tie the movie down in story. Work the whole thing out before heavy duty production. Get the character and production design set. Then put the animated feature into work. (I know of one big budget cartoon feature, fortunately a hit, that kept morphing and changing and running up a bigger and bigger tab as sequences were put into animation, pulled out of animation, then put into animation. Note to management: This gets expensive.)

3) Rely more on top-notch board artists and less on A-list, live-action screen writers who don’t know the medium and often produce expensive, unsuitable screenplays that either have to be heavily revised or thrown out and replaced with something else.

4) Stop overgilding the lily. “Ultra realistic” isn’t always the best solution. Because computers can render every feather on a bird or blade of grass on a rolling hillside doesn’t mean all that rendering has to be done. Illumination Entertainment designs films that work well for the story being told but don’t cost a jillion dollars in fancy visuals. More expensive doesn’t necessarily make for a better movie. More expensive sometimes gets in the way.

5) Strive for a lean administrative staff. Administration is a needed component inside a studio, but it doesn’t add artistic value. So it’s wise to make admin as large as it needs to be, but no larger. (When administrators are calling lots of meetings that accomplish little beyond slowing down the creation of the picture, that means there are too many of them.)

My question is why is such advice being a) ignored, and b) done so despite being plain old common sense!

To go one further (and to get technical for a minute), there seems to be a severe lack on the part of major studios to examine their production process and to streamline it.

A concept that pops up now and again here on the blog is the Toyota Production System. It’s a fascinating concept that has helped make every car (not just Toyotas) cheaper and more efficient. Why can’t we do the same for animation?

Steve’s second point is where it hits home. Surely you’d want to nail down what it is you are making before you actually start producing it, right? It’s nigh on impossible to design a road as you’re building it, so why do the same for an animated feature?

At the heart of the TPS concept is the ideas of consumer value and production waste. The former is to be strived for while the latter is to be minimised. It’s safe to say that the more waste there is in a production, the less overall value is delivered to the consumer.

The obvious question raised is how that can be true. It’s tempting to look at quality as a function of budget and performance, but that is to over simplify things. The value delivered in a production is actually a function of not only budget, but overall company performance. To put it simply, every dollar that has to go into a feature production is a dollar that isn’t going to another useful thing.

Now that being said, every dollar that goes into the production ought to create value in the form of box office revenue and merchandise sales. However, if the same or similar result can be achieved without spending the dollar, isn’t that a preferable alternative?

As a producer, I’d like to see money spent only in areas that are the most efficient at creating value for the consumer. That means hammering out the story before putting stuff into animation, or finding the right voice at a reasonable price, or simplifying the animation to the point where quality isn’t sacrificed but that money isn’t wasted one stuff that won’t make the audience enjoy it more.

To leave a parting thought, consider that Tangled cost circa. $350 million. In contrast The Secret of Kells cost about $6 million. Now obviously they used different technologies, but which one (in your opinion) delivers better value to the audience in terms of animation?

2 Comments on “Why Is Common Sense Being Ignored in Animated Features?

  1. Well, I like both movies equally, but there’s no doubt Secret of Kells offers better value. We should however keep in mind that Secret of Kells does have the benefit of being animated outside the U.S. and foreign animated films whether 2D or CG, or in development for a decade, will always cost less than an American animated movie.
    Make no mistake I do find it utterly ridiculous how costly animated films have gotten in the U.S, and I agree that something needs to be done. If costs go down tremendously, we might have room to experiment with storytelling, but if Free Birds ($55 mill.) proved anything, it could lead to more of the same crap.
    But why oh why, do they keep hiring celebrities to voice characters? Does anyone REALLY care that some A-list star is voicing a cartoon?

  2. Disney/Pixar would have to lead the way on returning to the non-star voice actor films, since they have the reputation to turn out audiences based on their corporate names alone — remember, 50 years ago UPA did the same thing the studios are doing today with “Gay Purr-ee”, because they thought having Judy Garland and Robert Goulet to promote would bring some buzz to a non-Disney production.

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