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What’s Up, Doc? Warner Bros. Animation Thanks to ‘Space Jam’

November 26, 1996 GMT

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Bugs Bunny never had it so good.

With more than a little help from his friend Michael Jordan, the debonair hare launched Warner Bros.′ feature animation program with a smashing $48.5 million two-week take for ``Space Jam.″

The achievement marked the first time a rival has made a serious dent in Disney’s virtual monopoly of the feature animation market. Don Bluth’s ``An American Tail,″ sponsored by Steven Spielberg, had a splurge in 1986 with a box-office gross of $47,483,002, but most other contenders have flopped.

Max Howard, president of Warner Bros. Feature Animation, admitted he didn’t expect the impressive showing of ``Space Jam”:

``The cartoon characters hadn’t been known for being in a feature. Michael Jordan had a following, but not as an actor. We were happily surprised that it has attracted a wide audience. The teen-agers are very solidly there. But we are attracting adults as well, especially those who are interested in the animation medium.”

The British-born Howard, an animation veteran at 44, dodged the analogy of ``Snow White and the Dwarfs,″ the 1937 film that launched feature animation for another company.

``We were lucky to be able to use all the classic characters of Warner Bros. cartoons,″ he pointed out, ``whereas `Snow White’ introduced a whole new group of characters. We were able to profit from all the great talents who made the public love the `Looney Tunes.′ ″

The usual question: What can Warners Feature Animation do for an encore?

``Our encore is `The Quest for Camelot,′ ″ Howard replied. ``We have a number of projects in various stages of development, so while we were working on `Space Jam,′ we also were making `The Quest for Camelot,′ which will come out at this time next year. That is a fully animated feature.

``We are working on different films, and I’m hoping we will develop more films that will combine live action with animation.″

The longtime goal is to produce one feature a year, or at least every 18 months. Aside from choosing suitable subjects, a major concern is finding enough talent.

``As you must be aware, talent for animation films is at a premium today, because so many studios are making them,″ Howard commented. ``The talent pool is very small, although there are a lot of artists coming into the business. The success of animated films is attracting a whole new group of artists who want to have careers in this medium.″

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He believes there is room in the marketplace for more animated features _ ``as long as they are good.″

Warner Bros. has been in the cartoon business since 1930, when the company released the first ``Looney Tunes″ (a play on Disney’s Silly Symphonies). ``Sinking in the Bathtub″ starred Bosko, a cheerful creature in a derby hat.

Over the years the casts were augmented with Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Tweedy Bird, Pepe LePew, Wile E. Coyote, Speedy Gonzalez, Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester and Road Runner.

A crew of gifted animators created the Warner Bros. style: violent, irreverent, hilarious. The legendary Mel Blanc provided most of the starring voices.

Three years ago, said Howard, Warner Bros. recognized there was a market for well-made animation features.

``I think Warners realized that if you wanted to get into these films, you had to create the structure for them,″ he said. ``That meant building a studio and permanently employing animators and artists.″

The company now employs more than 550 at its suburban Glendale animation studio and one in London. And Howard continues to ``scour the world″ for additional talent.

Computer imagery played an important role in ``Space Jam″ and will continue to be used in future films. Computers also supply the colors. But Howard emphasized that animation is mostly done the old-fashioned way: by hand.

He wouldn’t reveal the cost of ``Space Jam,″ saying only that animation features are ``very expensive, very labor intensive, and they take a long time to produce.″

Once a child actor, Max Howard grew up in the English theater. He joined Disney in 1986 to run the London studio where ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit″ was produced. He supervised the financial, training and operations aspects of the Disney studios in Orlando and Paris and worked on various Disney features until moving to Warner Bros. 18 months ago.