View Full Version : New Animation Chief Redraws Rules at Disney

04-29-2003, 11:32 AM
New Animation Chief Redraws Rules at Disney
By Claudia Eller and Richard Verrier
LATimes Staff Writers

April 29, 2003

David Stainton, the new chief of animation at Walt Disney Co., is not big on rules, which is fine with Henry, a low-slung hound who, at the moment, is chomping on a stuffed Piglet toy in the executive's office.

Although company policy forbids pets on the Burbank lot, Stainton has been smuggling his mutt into the studio for some time. He doesn't plan to stop just because he now holds one of the most visible and difficult jobs in the Disney empire.

In fact, Stainton hopes to infuse the place with a little more irreverence for past conventions.

"I really want to shake it up," he said, petting his contented companion.

After 14 years working under the public radar at Disney, Stainton sits atop an operation steeped in history -- the company's heart and soul throughout its 80 years. Animation has been a driving force behind the company's theme parks, retail stores, movies and TV shows.

It also has become one of the company's most confounding problems.

The animation division has suffered through three chiefs in four years. Along the way have come wrenching layoffs, deep cost cuts and the studio's biggest flop ever, last year's "Treasure Planet." Although still considered the market leader in animation, Disney has lost ground to rivals, especially DreamWorks SKG, the company headed by former Disney Studios chief Jeffrey Katzenberg that produced the blockbuster "Shrek."

At the same time, Disney faces tough profit-sharing negotiations over its lucrative partnership with Pixar Animation Studios, creator of hits such as the "Toy Story" movies, "Monsters, Inc." and next month's "Finding Nemo."

To all this, Stainton is expected by Disney to bring stability, vigor and profitability.

"I think we're at a time in the organization where we have to be thinking about breaking the mold and figuring out what we aren't doing and what we can be doing in a different way," Stainton said in his first extensive interview since taking the helm in January.

On Monday, the new boss roiled the ranks when he told a gathering of 525 animation employees that he wants them to produce lush, classic fairy tales -- perhaps "The Snow Queen" or "Rapunzel" -- entirely on computers. His vision was greeted with dropped jaws by the roomful of artists steeped in the traditional style of hand-drawn animation pioneered by Disney.

"There's a lot of fear," said veteran Disney animator Glen Keane, who drew the characters Tarzan, Aladdin and Pocahontas. "He's trying to steer the studio in a direction that half the artists are afraid to go and the other half are headlong racing down that path." Keane said he felt "personally challenged."

For his part, Stainton said he was simply "throwing another grenade into the pot." He knows that his message has "caused anxiety here because what I'm asking doesn't currently exist -- and that frightens people."

Down to Business

Stainton also has wasted no time letting folks know he means business.

Barely into his new job, he put two high-profile projects, "Chicken Little" and "My Peoples," on hold because he said they needed more focus. "There's a point in every movie where the whole thing falls apart, that moment where you look at it and say, 'We have to retrench,' " Stainton said. "It was that time."

Some who have worked with Stainton say his blunt style and occasional impatience can be off-putting. He said he resents being "surprised by problems" and will "definitely get brusque" if he has to repeat directions. Some of Stainton's co-workers say his blunt style doesn't sit well with the fragile egos of artists.

Stainton conceded that he had a "mixed record" in his dealings with artists, but said his perceived aloofness was a reflection of the limited time he had to spend with them, rather than a lack of appreciation for their talent or input.

That's one reason Stainton plans to move his office in Disney's flagship animation building down one floor to where the production team is based.

Stainton was plucked by Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner largely because of his success in turning TV animation into a money machine with such low-cost direct-to-video sequels as "Lion King II" and inexpensive feature films that include "Piglet's Big Movie" and "Return to Never Land." Under his stewardship, the division also created the popular animated TV series "Kim Possible."

The financial discipline Stainton needed on the TV side will serve him well in his new job, where his mandate is to produce most movies under $100 million.

Blending Worlds

Throughout his tenure at Disney, Stainton has developed a reputation as a bridge builder between the very different worlds of TV and feature animation.

"There was a time when feature animators wouldn't speak to TV animators," Disney Vice Chairman Roy E. Disney said. "David was a big asset. He kept feature animation and TV animation more arm-in-arm than they had been."

Among Stainton's more intriguing plans for the feature animation unit is to recruit live-action movie directors with distinctive styles to help create animated films.

"We've been a relatively closed shop for quite a long time," Stainton said. "There's no reason to limit ourselves just to people we have under this roof."

He began his pursuit of new talent just weeks into the new job after reading a magazine article about "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann and his penchant for churning ideas.

Although Stainton had never met the filmmaker, he tracked down his e-mail address and sent him a pitch.

"What you make are big, musical animated fairy tales, except you do it in live action," Stainton said he wrote. "I wonder if you would be interested in seeing what kind of thing you could do with ... [what] we have in our sandbox."

According to Stainton, the director responded, "I never really thought about it that way. I think it would be very exciting."

Stainton's boss, Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook, likes the notion of breaking down walls between live action and animation, an approach that worked well with filmmaker Tim Burton, who created the story and characters for Disney's 1993 animated movie "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

"He's got everybody energized," Cook said of his new animation chief. "He's got both the left brain and the right brain working simultaneously."

People who know Stainton say his out-of-the-box thinking is a refreshing contrast to Disney's conservative culture.

"He will be a marked change for the studio," said talent and literary manager Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, who represents top animation filmmakers. "David knows innately what it takes to be successful and to make Disney a major force again."

One thing Stainton said he knows for sure: The studio's core audience for animation is 4- to 10-year-olds and their parents. "If you think you're making a movie for everybody, you're making a movie for nobody."

Stainton said that lack of clarity contributed to the dismal showing of "Treasure Planet," which cost an estimated $140 million but grossed just $38 million domestically.

The "blow and shock" of "Treasure Planet's" performance was a wake-up call, he said. "It really gives us a chance to throw everything up in the air and look under every rock and stone in terms of questioning the way we do business ... to a degree that I don't know would have been possible without that kind of financial failure."

On the face of it, Stainton would seem an unlikely candidate to head one of Disney's key creative centers. He was an American history major at Princeton University (his thesis was "The American Reaction to French 19th Century Revolutions") and received his MBA at Harvard Business School.

Arts & Entertainment

But while his colleagues were preparing to become bankers and consultants, Stainton was thinking entertainment. The arts had been a lifelong passion for Stainton, who grew up in a middle-class household in Rochester, N.Y. His mother, a bacteriologist in a local hospital, played piano competitively and sang in a choral group.

"That was a big influence on me," said Stainton, who played French horn, piano and acted and sang in high school and college stage productions.

Although his mother and father, who worked in human resources for a local department store, supported his artistic pursuits, they wanted him to be a doctor, lawyer or businessman.

"I was brought up to think that all of that is great as a hobby, but of course you need to do something you don't like as a real job," Stainton joked.

Thus, it was a stroke of good fortune that he was recruited as a strategic planning and finance executive in 1989 by Disney brass who were scouting the Ivy League for business candidates.

Soon after, Stainton realized he was misplaced and began taking UCLA Extension classes at night in script development and movie production.

While still in strategic planning, Stainton conducted a study for Disney's then-animation chief Peter Schneider on how to build on the surprise success of "The Little Mermaid" with a steady stream of development projects. Impressed with his analysis, Schneider hired him to work in feature animation development in 1991.

There he promptly showed his creative side. One Christmas, while visiting his parents back East, he was rummaging through his collection of "classic" comics, which included "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

"I was a nerdy kid," he said. "I didn't read Superman or Batman comics."

As he thumbed through his Hunchback comic, he was struck with the idea that it would make a good animated movie. He wrote an outline and made the case to his bosses. His idea would evolve into the 1996 film that grossed $325 million worldwide.

Stainton knows that not everything will come so easy for him or the studio. But he's optimistic.

"We've gone through a really wrenching process," he said. "I want to create an environment inside the building of fun and creativity. Let's remember, we're making cartoons."

04-29-2003, 02:28 PM
Extremely interesting article! He seems like he has good ideas, but he is also the person behind some cheapquels. Interesting to note that he put a hold on My Peoples and Chicken Little.