Disney alters toon ops

Lays off 250 animators

At least 250 Mouse House animators will be laid off this year, part of a previously announced shift to hiring on a per-project basis, but also a reflection of an industrywide tilt from traditional toons toward computer-generated ones.

Last weekend, 20th Century Fox’s CG-toon “Ice Age” opened with a March-record $46.3 million in box office. The bow followed Disney’s boffo release in November of CG-produced “Monsters, Inc.” and a similarly successful bow earlier last year by DreamWorks’ “Shrek.”

On Monday, Walt Disney Studios Animation prexy Thomas Schumacher quantified for toon troops how many more layoffs are to come this year, following a similar number of animation pinkslips in an earlier wave last year (Daily Variety, April 24, 2001). At the time, execs said Disney planned to trim its animation ranks to 1,000-1,100.

Just three years ago, Mouse employed 2,200 animation staffers. But a brief surge in toon interest among Hollywood majors quickly crested and a series of layoffs began paring those numbers almost immediately.

Separately last year, Disney announced the elimination of 4,000 other company positions spread among operations worldwide. Those job cuts were part of the Burbank, Calif.-based media congloms to reduce operating expenses and boost efficiency.

A Mouse spokeswoman said the timing of Schumacher’s address to animation employees was merely coincidental to the “Ice Age” debut. But for some time, Disney has been encouraging traditional animators to acquire CGI skills as well, tacitly acknowledging a diminished emphasis on traditional toons.

The latest round of Mouse pinkslips will circulate primarily through various toon departments in Burbank. A few layoffs are expected to hit ranks at Disney’s Orlando, Fla., animation facility, the spokeswoman said.

Much of Disney’s computer-toon production capacity resides with its Richmond, Calif.-based co-prod partner Pixar.

Disney’s next toon release will be the traditionally animated “Lilo and Stitch,” set to bow June 21. The next Disney/Pixar title, “Finding Nemo,” is an unslotted 2003 release.

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