Disney to shutter Zemeckis’ digital studio

ImageMovers worked on 3D 'Christmas Carol'

ImageMovers Digital, Robert Zemeckis’ Marin County animation shop that made last year’s “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” is to be shuttered in a matter of months.

Walt Disney Studios prexy Alan Bergman, who made the announcement Friday, praised IMD’s work but said, “Given today’s economic realities, we need to find alternative ways to bring creative content to audiences, and IMD no longer fits into our business model.”

Disney’s announcement said the studio hopes to strike a new long-term deal with Zemeckis and his producing partners, Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey, to include the “Yellow Submarine” remake that is testing at IMD.

A Mouse spokesman said there were no immediate plans regarding a deal for Doug Chiang, the executive VP who oversees the Novato facility.

IMD employs about 450 people. It will complete its current project, “Mars Needs Moms,” before closing down, probably by the beginning of 2011.

Move is also a blow to the Bay Area’s filmmaking community, which has seen vfx shops the Orphanage and Giant Killer Robots close in recent years as the work flows to locales with tax incentives and lower labor costs.

The announcement came as a shock to employees, who had seen no belt-tightening before they were told IMD would be closed.

Zemeckis was close to former Disney Studios topper Dick Cook, and IMD was set up while Cook was running the studio. IMD recently moved into a state-of-the-art facility in renovated hangars at the former Hamilton Landing Air Force Base. Disney has not decided what will become of that plant.

IMD had pitched itself to artists as a long-term career opportunity and a place to settle, have a family and enjoy good quality of life. It also has been among the minority of vfx and animation shops where artists are repped by a union — the Animation Guild — and receive union benefits.

Disney’s history of closing successful vfx and animation facilities has earned it considerable ill will among vfx artists and animators. In the 1990s, the Mouse acquired respected vfx studio DreamQuest Images, which did “Dinosaurs,” then shuttered and disbanded it. Disney opened an animation studio in Florida, which delivered the hit “Lilo and Stitch,” then closed that as well.

The “Lilo and Stitch” helmers moved on to DreamWorks Animation, where they recently completed “How to Train Your Dragon.”