Jim Hill takes an inside look at Shrek and what's shaking at PDI, the company that animated Shrek.
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Back to the Drawing BoardShrek Shakes Up Toon Town
by Jim Hill

During a time when jobs for traditionally trained animators are scarce and getting scarcer, Jim Hill talks about how the huge long term impact Dreamworks' not-so-lovable ogre could have on the animation industry.

Well, it would appear that Dreamworks SKG animation guru Jeffrey Katzenberg is staying true to form. By that, I mean that he's still one of the most aggressive executives currently working in the entertainment industry today.

Remember back in the fall of 1998, when Jeffrey deliberately went out of his way to try & torpedo Disney & Pixar's latest opus, It's a Bug's Life? Dreamworks' first CGI feature -- Antz -- had originally been announced as having a release date in March of 1999. But -- in order to get the jump on Pixar's flick (which was also built around a comic adventure set in the insect world) -- Katzenberg ordered the folks at Pacific Data Image (AKA PDI -- Dreamworks' computer animation arm) put production into overdrive.

As a result, Antz was able to open in theaters on October 2, 1998 -- eight weeks ahead of A Bug's Life. That film eventually went on to gross $90 million during its domestic release.

Admittedly, that doesn't look so hot in comparison to the $162 million that A Bug's Life was able to rack up during its domestic run. But there are still many animation insiders who insist that -- by releasing Antz so close to A Bug's Life -- Katzenberg deliberately undercut the initial huge potential box office for the Pixar flick. Which must have annoyed Jeffrey's old boss at Disney, Michael Eisner, big-time.

Well, with last week's announcement that Dreamworks/PDI's big summer blockbuster -- Shrek -- is going to be available for purchase on home video & DVD in early November, it would appear that Jeffrey is still working out of his old Genghis Kahn playbook ("It is not enough that I succeed. My enemies must fail"). Sure, the deluxe Shrek DVD -- with its two discs loaded up with 11 hours of behind-the-scenes stuff & extra goodies -- sounds snazzy. But am I really supposed to believe that it's a co-incidence that Shrek hits store shelves November 2nd, the very same day that Pixar's latest feature -- Monsters, Inc. -- opens in theaters nation-wide?

Okay. I know. The most important word in the phrase "Show Business" is "Business." And companies that are in direct competition with one another aren't under any obligation to be nice to one another. But -- sometime -- I just wish that Mr. Katzenberg could look past his short-term goals (Destroy the Walt Disney Company. Burn the Burbank studio complex down to the ground. Drive Eisner and his family -- weeping -- into the streets. Lather. Rinse. Repeat) to take in the big picture.

After all, these are very scary times for the animation industry. Thousands of traditionally trained animators are currently out of work after studios like 20th Century Fox & Warners -- who leaped into feature animation back in the early 1990s with the hopes of landing their own Lion King sized hit -- bailed out of the toon biz after a few flops.

So now we have Shrek. With its domestic gross now standing at just shy of $260 million, that puts this computer animated comedy solidly in among the top 15 highest grossing films in Hollywood history. Which has obviously not gone un-noticed by the rest of the industry.

Don't believe me? Then let's look at some production news announcements of the past week or so. Imagine Entertainment announced that it now plans to use CGI on its long-in-development Curious George feature. And Universal -- after crowing that it had snagged Eric Goldberg's service less than one day after the master animator had left Disney -- announced that Eric's first assignment would be helming an all-CG version of Where the Wild Things Are.

CGI fever is obviously sweeping the animation industry. Even the folks over at Disney -- who seemed to be getting out of the CGI biz earlier this year after the Mouse pulled the plug on its Dinosaur follow-up, Wild Life, and began shutting down its highly touted Secret Lab facility -- now appears to be having second thoughts. The folks behind Disney's wildly funny Emperor's New Groove -- Producer Randy Fullmer and director Mark Dindal -- have supposedly finally settled on a follow-up project. The subject? A comic take on the tale of Chicken Little ... done totally in CGI.

Is this computer animated film (loosely based on a fairy tale) deliberately being done in response to Shrek's success? God, I hope not. Particularly since that Disney already had a wonderful fairy tale parody -- Eric & Sue Goldberg's Frog Prince project -- in development, which Feature Animation head Thomas Schumacher declined to greenlight earlier this year. Which directly contributed to the Goldbergs' decision to ankle the Mouse House.

Anyway ... Fullmer & Dindal's decision to go CGI with their next project does have Disney's traditionally trained animators somewhat concerned. Of course, the same could be said of the crew working on Dreamworks' next traditionally animated feature, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. It has not gone un-noticed among these folks that -- while studio heads have been busy talking up all of their plans to go forward with additional CGI features (Among the computer animated projects that Dreamworks SKG currently have in the works: Tusker, Madagascar and -- of course -- Shrek 2) -- Katzenberg & Co. have yet to commit to a traditionally animated follow-up to Spirit.

When pressed on the matter, all that Dreamworks insiders will say is that -- once pencil work is completed on Stallion of the Cimarron -- most of the traditional animation unit will supposedly be laid off for a six month period. A small story unit will then stay on at the Glendale animation annex to try & develop a follow-up feature, which will allegedly be built around the legend of Sinbad the Sailor.

Whether any of Dreamworks' traditionally trained animation staffers will ever be called back to work depends on a lot of different factors. Among these are how well Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron does when it's released to theaters on May 24, 2002 as well as whether Dreamworks' story staff can ever break the back of Sinbad's story problems. (This film -- in various different forms -- has been in development at Dreamworks Feature Animation for over six years now.)

Given how cold blooded & methodical Katzenberg has been with his dealings with his business rivals in the past, it's really not too far fetched to believe that -- in order to achieve supremacy in the computer generated animated feature business -- Jeffrey would eventually be willing to sacrifice his studio's traditional animation unit and put all of Dreamworks' resources behind its PDI CGI unit.

After all, all's fair in love & war ... and Hollywood.

My advice to those traditionally trained animators currently working at Dreamworks: Now is *NOT* a good time to buy a new house or to sign a long-term lease on an expensive SUV. A better investment now might be in your education.

As in ... now might be a really good time to sign up for a few computer animation courses.

Just a word to the wise.

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Jim Hill is an award winning journalist who specializes in writing about the entertainment industry. Hill's columns appear on Digital Media FX on the 2nd and 16th of each month. Those subscribed to the free Digital Media FX newsletter receive 24 hour advanced access to the columns before the general public.

Based out of a log cabin hidden away in the woods of New Hampshire, Jim is currently at work on an unauthorized history of the Walt Disney World Resort. In addition, he writes for several online Websites. He has a beautiful 7 year old daughter and three obnoxious cats.

You can email Jim Hill at stadlerhill@mindspring.com.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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