Saturday, April 01, 2006

The History of Lucky — Part 2

So here’s where it actually gets interesting.

In August of 2003, I got a call from my friend CW asking about the layoffs at the Disney Florida studio. Two months earlier Disney had fired fifty artists including 33 clean up artists (from lead keys to inbetweeners), 5 rough animators, 3 rough inbetweeners, and 8 effects artists. CW had been talking to a friend of his who happened to be the president of a major studio and they were under the impression that the layoffs had been mostly lower level people and not “A” talent. I quickly pointed out to him that Disney had let go of some of the top talent in the industry, from 20-year veterans to up-and-coming stars. Worst of all, I believed that in a year’s time (when the studio was scheduled to complete their current project) the studio in Florida would close for good.

A few days later he called again and asked if I could get a group of these former Disney Animation artists together. Except for a few close friends, it had been years since I had spoken to anyone at WDFA, but I said yes and sent out an email to a select group; some I knew personally, others only by reputation. CW had an interesting plan. He had pitched an idea to his friend that could possibly save the Florida Studio, and the Pres indicated that the idea had at least a fifty-fifty chance.

We met in the coffee shop of a local bookstore; about 15 people showed up and CW pitched his idea. Our biggest concern was to keep the talent in Florida. Evidently, Major Studio had always admired the Disney Florida studio and didn’t want to see it close, but certain legalities kept them from getting directly involved. CW suggested that we organize a small group of talent that was capable of developing ideas for feature and/or short films and make a proposal to Major Studio. The proposal was relatively simple: Major Studio would fund the group to develop ideas. After a designated time, we would then pitch them the ideas. If they liked the ideas they could green-light the project; we could start into preproduction, then when the Disney group finished My Peoples/A Few Good Ghosts and were let go, they could roll onto a new project ready for production.

The idea was bold, but I for one knew that it was possible. I had left Disney in 2000, and by August of 2003 I was finishing up my first directing job. It was called Legends of the Night Sky: Orion and it was the world’s first traditionally animated full-dome movie; an ambitious first project with a tiny budget and even smaller crew. It was hardest thing I’d ever done to date; yet, I knew that if I could pull that off, with seasoned Disney talent, we could definitely make a movie.

Generally, I think the group was excited at the possibilities, although some were more cautious. Someone suggested we needed a name for the group and after a long list of near misses, Lon Smart and Rusty Stoll (each on their own) came up with Legacy. And it stuck. So a proposal was drafted and we made a reel of our combined work, then anxiously waited for some sort of response.

But an event happened that changed everything. On November 14, David Stainton, the head of Walt Disney Feature Animation, stepped into an assembly at the Florida Studio and shut down My Peoples/A Few Good Ghosts.

A few of us in the Legacy group had discussed this possibility, but I don’t think we were prepared for it when it happened. Stainton gave the studio sixty days (can’t you just see the Wicked Witch of the West turning over the hour glass?) at which time he would return to tell them if there would be another project. But from what I heard, they were encouraged to look for other employment. You don’t say this to people if you intend for them to stay.

The Legacy Group’s proposal meant nothing now. Within a week, other major animation studios were in Orlando looking to scoop up some of Disney’s top talent; Dreamworks, Sony and even Pixar. In a short time the core talent of Florida’s animation community would be gone and chances were they wouldn’t be back.

But CW came back around with some interesting news. He told the Legacy Group that if we could produce a film, just a short, outside of Disney’s umbrella, there was still a possibility that Major Studio would fund a project. It was a daunting challenge. We had no money to produce a short, and I am not the kind of person to ask people to work for free. At this point, the members of the Legacy Group had been unemployed for close to three months. Also, we were told this meant starting a company (business acumen was not our strength). Time was running out and we needed to make a decision.

Around this time, a former student of mine called me out of the blue to get some advice on a project of hers. Her father had been a great entertainer who had inspired me as a child. He had left his company (and his own legacy) to her and her siblings along with what I can only imagine was quite a fortune. I have never been one to ask for help, but I did want to share with her the plight of the animation community and Legacy’s status.

She showed quite an interest in our work, and a few days later she sent me an email. “After much thought, I want you to know I am very interested in investing in a company such as the one you describe,” she wrote. “Creative endeavors such as this mean the world to me. I think it will be a loss to the world if an Orlando team doesn't remain intact. I maybe prepared to take a jump with you all, if you are at all interested.”

Our benefactor was on board and the ball started to roll—faster, and faster, and faster.

On January 8, 2004, just four days before the closing of Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida, Legacy Animation Studio was announced to the world.