Animated Shorts: Award Winners- Timm, Katzenberg, Burton

DVD Reviews: A Boxed Set Gift Guide

ASIFA Hollywood, the West Coast branch of the international organization for animators, announced its winners of the 2009 Winsor McCay Award.

The award is given for a lifetime’s work in animation. The first such award, given in 1972, went to both Fleischer Brothers, Max and Dave. It wouldn’t be long before the roll call would include such cartoon luminaries as the two of the three Walts (Disney and Lantz, but not Stanschfield), Mel Blanc, Genndy Tartakovsky, Ralph Bakshi up to last years winners, who were Mike Judge, John Lasseter and Nick Park. For a complete list, check out the URL.

This year’s selection certainly ranks up there with the greatest of past award winners. They are Tim Burton, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Bruce Timm.

Each of these men certainly deserves the recognition. Here’s why:

Tim Burton

Maverick filmmaker Tim Burton made his first major impression on the U.S. public with the live action feature film “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” (1985). Inside the animation world, he had already proven himself as a talent to keep an eye on.

Born in 1958, appropriately in Burbank, California (the home of a number of major animation studios), Burton’s prodigious talent was spotted early by Disney. They awarded him a fellowship to the California Institute of the Arts. There he studied under the legendary Walt Stanchfield, whose protégés include the likes of Don Hahn, John Lasseter, Brad Bird and many others who would fuel the animation renaissance of the late 80s/early 90s.

At the same time he also worked on “The Fox and the Hound” (1981) with the likes of Ron Clements, Glen Keane, Bird and Don Bluth; all under the paternal guidance of Stanchfield, and the last two of Disney’s “Old Men,” Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas.

From there, the Magic Kingdom let him produce two of their most radically different shorts in its history, “Vincent” (1982) and the live action “Frankenweenie” (1984). “Frankenweenie” impressed Paul Ruebens, aka Herman, who saw a similarly twisted, brilliant soul in the still exceedingly young Burton, and demanded the then 25 year-old Burton direct “Big Adventure.”

The film caught immediate media attention for its punkish visual style, which was based in part on Rueben’s hit TV show, “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” and Burton’s own unique mix of goth, cheesy comic books and underground culture renegades like Jimbo. A box office hit, Burton was able to get the green light to do his true breakthrough film, “Beetle Juice” (1988). It was another hit.

Impressed by Burton’s combined ability to mix his own personal stylings with box office success, soon-to-be mega producer Michael Uslan tapped this up-and-comer to do the first “Batman” movie (1989). It starred Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight, Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Kim Bassinger as the damsel in distress. It was then financed for a chunky $35 million and has since brought back $411 million box office bucks internationally. Burton now had a true blockbuster on his resume.

Never afraid to parlay his past success to further his own projects, Burton took advantage of his growing power to next direct another personal project, “Edward Scissorhands” (1990). This film could be called his first definitive film, both content-wise and stylistically. Burton drew from such sources as EC Comics, Edwin Gorey, Chas Addams and other unique graphic horror visionaries to tell a truly modern Frankenstein story with Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder and the late grandee of ghoulishness Vincent Price. Again, it was a hit.

One could now say Burton’s career was established, even if critical and box office reception has been as checkered as Beetle Juice’s apparel. Live action films have included the likes of “Ed Wood,” (1994), “Mars Attack” (1996), “Batman Returns” (1992), “Sleepy Hollow” (2001) and the under appreciated “Big Fish” (2003) and “Sweeney Todd” (2007), among others.

Most importantly, he never forgot his love of animation. His live action work wouldn’t necessarily allow him to direct animated feature films--after all they are exceedingly time consuming and detailed adventures--but Burton utilized his clout to produce and finance them.

The first endeavor was “Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) with Disney. Directed by stop motion master Henry Sellick, the film didn’t initially return on its investment. Produced by Disney, it only made $8 million on its first weekend. This was during a time when the Magic Kingdom was a money making machine with the likes of “Little Mermaid,” “Beauty & The Beast” and “The Lion King” creating incredible financial momentum for the studio. Still, the movie developed a fanatical cult following, more than earning its money back in video/DVD sales and licensed goods. Burton has since financed such films as “James and the Giant Peach” (1996), “The Corpse Bride” (2005) and, most recently, “9” (2009). Interestingly, none of these films appear to make their initial money back, but keep on performing for years to come.

At present, Burton is married to actress Helena Bonham-Carter, who has starred in many of his films since “Planet of the Apes” (2001). He and Depp also keep tight relations going. Currently he’s working on his own adaption of “Alice In Wonderland,” with Bonham-Carter and Depp starring, and a full-length feature version of “Frankenweenie.”

No matter how you add it up, Tim Burton’s impact on the animation field is undeniable. His unique vision, love of stop motion animation, and long term success insures he deserves the McCay award.

Just one of Katzenberg's many projects

Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Just for producing the biggest money making animated film of all time, “Shrek II” (200), Jeffrey Katzenberg earned McCay recognition. Then again, love him or hate him, when you look at his career in the animation industry as a whole, he earned the award.

Born in New York City in 1950, Katzenberg’s father, David was a stockbroker. His mother, Anne, was an artist. Somehow Katzenberg managed to merge his parents’ two diverging disciplines into becoming one of the biggest successes in La La Land.

Interestingly, biographical sources say Katzenberg never attended college. His early career in the entertainment field, where he started out as a talent agent, wasn’t exactly auspicious either. It would turn around in 1975, when Katzenberg landed a job at Paramount Pictures, as an assistant to then chairman and CEO Barry Diller.

His first project was to help revitalize “Star Trek.” Obviously he did a pretty good job at that, as the series about the ship that goes where no man has gone before is still making money to this day. One anecdotal story states he got down on his hands and knees to convince Leonard Nimoy to return to the roll of Spock. True or not, Trek wouldn’t have been the same without the epitomal Vulcan’s presence, and Katzenberg knew it.

By the time Katzenberg was done with Paramount, he was working with the title President of Production, directly under then Paramount COO Michael Eisner. When Eisner moved to Disney in 1984, he made sure to bring Katzenberg with him. Eisner also brought some other incredible talent to the fold, most importantly Frank Wells.

Katezenberg was appointed head of Disney’s Feature Film division, including its then moribund animation section. At that time, Disney animation was in a truly deep quagmire. It had virtually nothing on TV and its latest feature film, “The Black Cauldron,” was turning into a major disaster. Scuttlebutt was Eisner and Katzenberg were seriously tempted to scrap the founding stone of the Disney Empire, but Ron Clements and John Musker anecdotally went down on their hands and knees and begged for one last shot. They got it with the modest film “The Great Mouse Detective” (1986), which turned into a modest critical and financial success. It didn’t hurt that another project Katzenberg did under the aegis of Steve Spielberg, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988), then turned into a box office monster.

Thus, Katzenberg gave Clements and Musker the green light to do their next feature film, “The Little Mermaid” (1989), one of the true keystones of the modern animation renaissance. From there, the hits just started coming, including “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), “Aladdin” (1992) and “The Lion King” (1994). Disney also made a serious impression in the television world when it launched the Disney Afternoon in syndication.

Yet egos like Eisner’s and Katzenberg’s were too big for one now tremendously successful studio. When Wells died tragically in 1994, Katzenberg made a play for his position. He and Eisner butted heads so hard the latter eventually forced his junior to resign. As a last stroke, Katzenberg sued, and the courts would eventually take his side, awarding him $280 million in lost revenues.

Still, the master stroke came when Katzenberg used his new unemployment to get in touch with Spielberg. The two, along with music mogul David Geffen, decided to strike out on their own and formed their own production operation, Dreamworks SKG. Katzenberg would lead the animation division, virtually building a new studio from scratch.

Dreamworks’ first effort, “Prince of Egypt” (1998) was an auspicious affair. It cost the young studio approximately $70 million to make, and only brought back $100 million domestically. It would bring in an additional $110 million internationally, saving the movie from being a total dud. Still, it would set the tone for the early days of what would eventually evolve into Dreamworks Animation.

The early films of that period, including “The Road to El Dorado” (2000), Aardman’s “Chicken Run” (2001) and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron” (2002) would meet with mixed critical reception and, more importantly, tepid gate results. Still, a small side production starring Michael Meyers would set the course for Dreamworks to this day.

The film was about an anti-social ogre forced to rescue a princess. Released in the spring of 2001, Dreamworks’ first CGI film was produced for a then modest amount of $60 million. It not only starred Meyers in the roll of the ultimately lovable curmudgeon ogre Shrek, but Eddie Murphy, Carmen Diaz and John Lithgow. The film caught fire, bringing back over $267 million domestically and just short of $500 million when you add the international money.

From there, Katzenberg has redirected the studio’s efforts to CGI, with overall positive results. Further hits came in the form of “Over the Hedge” (2006), “Madagascar” (2007), “Kung Fu Panda” (2008) and, most recently, “Monsters v. Aliens” (2009). Still, the big green guy in the room has to be Shrek. “Shrek II” (1994) truly is the biggest money maker in the realm of animated feature films, grossing $441 million in the U.S., $920 million when you add international. The third in the Shrek series also didn’t do too shabby, with just under $800 million in global receipts.

Dreamworks also had a rough start in the television arena. It’s first efforts, such as “Father of the Pride,” were hit with both tragedy off screen and low Neilsen ratings on. The TV division appears to be on the rebound though, with the series “The Penguins of Madagascar” having turned into a solid success on Nickelodeon. With the TV division now under the aegis of animation legends Stephanie and Jim Graziano, many see Dreamworks TV starting to come into its own.

In the meantime, Dreamworks Animation is in the middle of one heavy slate of 3-D CGI production. Among the titles in the works are a fourth chapter in the Shrek franchise (and a Puss In Boots spin off), a third Madagascar film,  a second Kung Fu Panda, as well as totally new works such as “How To Train A Dragon,” “The Croods” and “Masterrmind” between 2010 and 2012.

As said before, when you were the man who put out the biggest money making movie of all time, you’ve earned your shot at a McCay. It will be the stuff of legend to see how Katzenberg will now top himself.

Bruce Timm

Like Burton and Katzenberg, there’s a bit of the maverick in Bruce Timm.

For instance, unlike most animators in the business, he didn’t go to Cal Arts or any other such recognized school in the business. Still, his skills were so sharp he landed his first job doing layout for Lou Scheimer’s Filmation studio in 1981. From there, he moved on in 1982 to Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s “The Secret of NIMH,” a few years later he was working with Ralph Bakshi on his “New Adventures of Mighty Mouse.” Before Timm made his big move, he collaborated with no less than John Kricfalusi on an aborted attempt to revamp Bob Clampett’s “Beany & Cecil.” The idea of Timm and John K working together can set one’s mind spinning.

Sometime around 1990, Timm would make the career decision that would set his path for the ongoing two decades. He landed a job at Warner Bros. doing character design on the groundbreaking “Tiny Toons.” From there, his parody sketches of some fellow WB animators were transformed into the best characters to ever come out of the Animaniacs fold, Pinky and the Brain.

From there, Timm hooked up with the likes of Alan Burnett, Paul Dini and Eric Radomski for the original “Batman: The Animated Series.” Not only did the series set new standards for its dark, gritty re-evaluation of the world of superheroes. It also became the birthplace for dozens upon dozens of ultra talented animators and other creative people. While the prestigious talents of the likes of Glen Murakami, James Tucker, Dwayne McDuffie, Frank Paur, Boyd Kirkland, Lauren Montgomery, Sam Liu, Kevin Conroy, Curt Riba, Butch Lukic, Kevin Altieri, Mike Jelenic and many, many others would sooner of later have earned them recognition, none of them would deny their hookup with Timm certainly helped speed it up…at least as far as the animation industry is concerned.

With this kind of talent under him, Timm went on to produce such series as “Superman: The Animated Series,” “The New Adventures of Batman,” “Batman Beyond,” “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited.” His stamp could also be felt when he became a supervising producer on “The Batman,” “Legion of Super Heroes” and “Batman: The Brave & The Bold.” Only names like Hanna-Barbera and Scheimer can claim so numerous a number of incredibly good programs, and Timm did it in much less time.

After such a number of incredible TV series, Timm then went to expand what was now called the DC Animated Universe into the growing field of direct-to-DVD field. While some of the early productions were shaky, they have become a breeding ground for a number of interesting and excellent experiments, with the latest efforts, such as “Batman: Gotham Knight,” “Wonder Woman,” “Green Lantern: First Flight” and “Batman/Superman: Public Enemies” becoming sterling examples of superlative action-adventure storytelling and truly dynamic traditional animation.

And Timm still goes to his favorite comic book shop every Wednesday and still picks up the latest titles.

At present, the man is supervising a new Justice League DVD, written by McDuffie and directed by Montgomery and Lie, entitled “Crisis On Two Earths.” Yes, there are plenty of rumors as to what Timm will be doing next, but it doesn’t really matter.

Quite frankly, the comic book world recognizes Bruce Timm as one of the all-time greats. In 2010, the animation world does the same.

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