New York Animation Thaws Yet Again
It wasn't until Walt Disney left Kansas City for California that American animation tilted westward. While Los Angeles became the dominant city for animation, New York never lost its industry.
Throughout the theatrical shorts era, the Terrytoon studio and the Fleischer/Famous studio (except for a brief time in Miami) continued to make seven-minute cartoons in New York. From the earliest days of television there were studios in New York such as Pelican dedicated to creating commercials. When TV animation moved into entertainment, New York was there with Joe Oriolo's studio doing Felix the Cat and Hal Seeger doing Milton the Monster. Over the years, many TV specials originated in New York by studios like Michael Sporn Animation, Perpetual Motion Pictures and Zander's Animation Parlour.
There was one area, however, where New York was conspicuous by its absence. That was animated features. Somehow, New York never was able to get a foothold in this area, though there were attempts. When the Fleischers tried to compete with Disney after the success of Snow White, they were located in Miami. Later, Ralph Bakshi started Fritz the Cat in New York but moved the production to Los Angeles to complete it. Richard Williams's Raggedy Ann and Andy was split between New York and California studios right from the start. Beavis and Butthead Do America came from MTV's studio in New York but had its actual animation done somewhere overseas.
The only exception is Bill Plympton, more a descendent of Winsor McCay than J.R. Bray. Plympton has completed several features in New York but his approach has been that of an artist working in animation as opposed to a functioning cartoon studio.
While there has always been an animation industry in New York, it has often suffered from a lack of leadership, bad luck, and a workforce that was never quite big enough. Many of the movers and shakers in New York animation were more concerned with making a buck than with blazing a trail. Those who might have blazed trails, like John and Faith Hubley, never got the opportunities they deserved. Any time a large project hit New York, it had to recruit from schools and other locales in order to staff the project. When the project finished, the newly trained people either left the city in search of work or dropped out of the business.
Ice Age represents a chance for a fresh start. The film was undeniably successful at the box office. Chris Wedge, the director, is a longtime mover and shaker in computer animation, having made noteworthy shorts like Balloon Guy, Tuber's Two Step and Bunny in addition to lending his talents to effects for features like Tron, Joe's Apartment and Alien: Resurrection. Fox has given the studio the go-ahead for a second feature called Robots and while a percentage of the Ice Age crew was laid off after production, this is the first time any studio in New York will even begin a second feature. If Robots is successful, perhaps the studio will be able to hold on to talent and have the luxury of developing it over several pictures.
Ice Age itself is marked by fresh designs, strong art direction and expressive character animation. It is an impressive first feature that mixes broad visual comedy with sentiment and emotion. We can only hope that Robots will be an equal success, putting Blue Sky on firm ground to continue entertaining audiences.
While there are five nominees for Best Animated Feature this year, most of the people I talk to say that it's really a three-way race. Spirited Away, Lilo & Stitch, and Ice Age are the three contenders. I think that any of these films may take the award, but as a New Yorker who left town in search of work after watching earlier New York animated features fail, my sentimental vote is with Ice Age. New York animation refuses to give up no matter how many times it stumbles. Perhaps with Blue Sky, New York animation will finally get the opportunities and respect that it deserves.