Monday, April 22, 2013

Bad Ex Studios

Starting out, we all fancied our careers taking the Frank and Ollie trajectory. Working at a studio for life.  Meet another lifer and fall in love.  Get married on the studio lot.  Buy a house and fill it with studio memorabilia.  Maybe a studio themed swimming pool.   Name your kids after the studio's characters.  As the years passed, you would create legendary film moments, be idolized by the younger generation, and retire as an animation legend.

In reality, most of us have had a series of Wile E. Coyote trajectories -  flying along, feeling confident, then "PAF!"  Rock face.  Something went horribly wrong.  A studio layoff.  A studio closing.  And like Wile E., you put on that flight suit and try again.

And then there are those studios you wanted to love but ended up hating.  A bad ex studio.  You're thinking of that bad ex studio right now.  The place you were pigeonholed.  Or were put down by abusive management.  Or didn't fit into studio cliques.  You had such high hopes.  It was supposed to be the one.  Your forever studio. These are the ones you never quite get over.

When Filmation closed in 1989, I was surprised by how hard the artists took it.  After all, the shows were crap. There was a strong bond the among the Filmation crew, and a real loyalty to Lou Scheimer.  It was more than a job on a low-budget Saturday morning TV show.  And though Filmation has been gone for 24 years, they still miss her.   

In the '90's, you couldn't say hello to a former Bluth artist without them going off on a tirade about the studio and how they were screwed by it.   This is not an exaggeration.  While in their presence, try as you might to steer the conversation to anything but work, a Bluthie would pull out that axe and grind away.  Say "Hey how about them Dodgers?" and they'd reply, "I'm gonna cut off Bluth's head and shit down his neck!!"

Bad, bad ex.  

So what was Don Bluth's crime?   Bluth sold himself as the second coming of Walt. Gary Goldman liked to lay this shit on too.  They played the role of animation saviors and asked artists to work long hours for shit wages for the love of the medium.  They would be part of a great and lasting legacy and young artists lapped it up.  Years later, after following their messiahs to Ireland to animate trolls,  they realized they'd been had.   And like leaving a cult, it did not end well at all.  I  can't count how many friends went through that studio and left with a bad head. On more than one occasion, I suggested they have group therapy.  No joke.  

Luckily for Bluth, since the year 2000,  Disney has stepped up to be the biggest bad ex studio around.   Disney and its artists have seen more breakups and reconciliations than Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.  Some artists love that studio so much, they don't notice how much she's changed.  For some, no matter how shitty she treats them, they'll go back to her in a blur frame.  Working at Disney is still the ultimate proof that you've "made it".    For others, enough is enough.  Who ever thought Glen Keane would leave?  

At my bad ex studio,  I was underutilized.  Of the Oscar-nominated artists in the building, I was the only one not directing a picture.  I  entered as a board artist and gave it my all.  I always aim to make a creative impact, and where most studios use that to their advantage,  the boys in charge at this studio saw me as a threat to their positions and marginalized me.  My morale spiraled down and when I announced I would leave at the end of the project, they hastened me out the door with a layoff.  The boys made sure to portray themselves as innocents as added insult.  Bad ex bitch!

I  never bought the studio-as-family thing, and certain directors and producers need that.  Showing love for the project isn't enough, you have to love them as well.  Doing your best work is not enough, you have to be a great pally pal. Today, more than ever before, the big studios take on artists with a trial period, during which you are judged not only by your work, but by your fit.  I know an excellent veteran artist who did not make the cut somewhere because some wimp felt threatened by his strong opinions.   If there are any students reading this, beware: it's not all about your work anymore.  Studios want staff homogeny.  The big egos at the top want no iconoclasts. Today,  yes men get all the love.  It's a Mel Cooley world.  

Imagine Disney without Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, or Bill Peet.  They and many more like them were artists unto themselves, not just company men.  They spent their whole careers at one studio and STILL had hard feelings about it.  Not a bad studio ex, but a bad old studio marriage.  Would they have survived the studio today, or been tossed aside for better fits?

Studios are heartbreakers, kid.  That's just what they do.



  1. I fall to my knees and kiss your feet for this wonderful piece but I need to remind you of the words of Lord Curzon, "If a man were to speak the truth he would be knocked down in the street as an enemy of all."

  2. Most of the "blushes" in the industry that didn't flee to Ireland and Arizona were known as "pod people."

  3. Wow.

    I could write a childern's story that was based on.

  4. Although I did watch many Filmation cartoons when I was young, I agree that they are mostly crap. However, I will make an exception for Fat Albert. I still like that one.

  5. Great article! (I personally didn't have the bad Bluth experience, I didn't get on that plane to Ireland, but I know many who did.)