The Pen Is Mightier Than the Mouse

In 1984, when Ron Fleischer and Monica Kendall were newly minted animators, fresh out of Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute, respectively, there were still decent prospects for work in Chicago. Globalization had come early to the labor-intensive animation industry, with routine inking and painting going overseas in the 70s, but Kendall (who, along with Fleischer, will be speaking at this weekend’s Midwest Animators Conference in Downers Grove) says there were about eight studios here doing commercial and industrial work. She hooked up with her future husband, former Disney animator Ed Newmann, and in 1985 they opened Calabash Animation, where ever since they’ve been doing work for commercials (for Trix and Lucky Charms, among others), along with their own short films. Calabash now employs 12 full-time people and some freelancers, but Kendall says they’re the only Chicago studio left doing traditional, hand-drawn cell animation.

Calabash stayed away from Saturday morning cartoons–“a tough market, where they’re always looking for ways to cut corners,” Kendall says. Most of the work on those shows is done in places like Korea, China, and the Philippines. But in 1990, Fleischer gave it a whirl. He went to work as a technical director for StarToons, a new outfit in south-suburban Homewood. StarToons was owned by Hanna-Barbera alumnus Jon McClenahan, who thought he saw a production niche in the huge Saturday morning market. As Fleischer explains it, “Hollywood writes the scripts, records the voices, and does all the preproduction work. Then they send everything overseas and keep their fingers crossed that it won’t be misinterpreted.” As a U.S. company, StarToons would offer more complete and reliable service, including storyboards (though they’d still be sending some manual tasks abroad). McClenahan cut a deal with Warner Bros. that had his company working on projects like Steven Spielberg’s Tiny Toon Adventures, Road Rovers, and Animaniacs, the last of which snagged them a couple of Emmy awards.

Then, in the mid-90s, there was a technical revolution, with effects even more profound than the globalization of labor. Digital software came along, eliminating cells, cell painting, cameras, negatives, and a lot of human error–along with a certain emotional vitality. India, with its computer-literate workforce and even more competitive wages, became the new hot spot for animation outsourcing, and StarToons entered a partnership with an Indian corporation, Heart Entertainment Ltd., which built a facility in Hyderabad that included a training center. “We established a curriculum, and I went out there to set up the digital department,” Fleischer says. “Even Disney scoped us out.” But when StarToons hit a dry spell a few years later and couldn’t meet payroll, Heart pulled the plug and StarToons folded. “We’d been around 11 years and helped them learn the business,” Fleischer says. “They hung us out to dry.”

On September 11, 2001, the newly unemployed Fleischer was scheduled to fly to California for an interview with Disney. “I wanted a job so bad, even after the first two planes went down I was willing to get on another flight that day,” he says. He wound up in California for a year, working on the Powerpuff Girls movie and the PBS show Liberty’s Kids, then returned to Chicago in the fall of 2002 to take a faculty job at Columbia College, where he’s now happily ensconced. “After 20 years of being in deadline hell, busting my butt on other people’s projects, working 60-hour or more weeks, now I’m teaching and working on my own short films,” he says. With $15,000 from relatives, friends, and a Columbia faculty grant, he and former StarToons colleague John Griffin are producing Lemmings, an eight-minute short he’ll pitch for development into a feature film or television series after it travels the festival circuit. The animation is being done by a former StarTooner who just started a new company in Minneapolis.

“Right now, CGI (computer generated, or 3-D) is the flavor of the month,” Fleischer says, and traditional animators are going begging. “That’s because Pixar has been so successful at making CG movies, and Disney has been so unsuccessful at making traditionally drawn movies” lately. But, he says, “Pixar has a preproduction staff that knows how to write good movies based on really good stories and character development that gets people emotionally involved with the film.” He thinks Pixar, independent of Disney, will hire the traditional animators Disney’s laid off and then crank out its own terrific 2-D films. In the end, he predicts, a marriage of traditional and computer techniques will prevail. Meanwhile traditional animators are finding work designing video games and slot machines. There’s also growing interest in cartoons for an older audience, like those on the Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” block. “We’re coming out of a pretty bad slump,” Fleischer says, “but it’s on the upswing.”

For information on the Midwest Animators Conference see or call 773-233-8788.


The ASCAP Foundation/Disney Musical Theatre Workshop, under way at the Cultural Center this week and next, includes River’s End, a new play by Chicagoans Cheryl Coons and Chuck Larkin; Becoming George, based on the life of George Sand, with book and lyrics by another Chicagoan, Patti McKenny; and Breathe, a collection of seven short musicals celebrating gay and lesbian life. Sessions are held at 7 PM Wednesdays and Thursdays through April 29. The public’s invited, but seating is limited. It’s free….The NEA announced this week that it will help returning troops write about their wartime experiences in “Operation Homecoming,” a series of writing workshops conducted by the likes of Tom Clancy. “Operation Homecoming” will be produced in partnership with the Department of Defense and sponsored by the Boeing Company. According to the announcement, Jim Albaugh, president of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, already knows what the results will be: “Their wartime experiences…will be a powerful portrait of courage, sacrifice, and patriotism.”…Fifteen six-foot, 700-pound Mickey Mouse statues, each a cloying variation on the original, will be installed on State Street from Wacker to Jackson for a two-month visit beginning May 22. Some things really are better in 2-D.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.