Suspended Animation

When Pearse Cullinane left Dublin to work for Fox Animation Studios in Phoenix, he hadn't counted on losing his rights in a right-to-work state. These days the only line he's drawing is in the sand.

"Arizona's a weird place," Cullinane says. "People on the street wave hello to you, but I haven't talked to my neighbor since I moved in. It's like The Stepford Wives. It takes a long time to get accepted in Phoenix, but the people here [the Dubliner] have been great. They're real salt-of-the-earth people."

Once a place to seek refuge from the job, it's now become a place to escape round-the-clock calls from creditors and raise a glass to Dublin colleagues who've left Phoenix and Fox behind. Only four of the original Dublin crew are left in the Valley; only Cullinane had a contract.

"It's the first time in 10 years I haven't worked with these people," Cullinane sighs ruefully. "It was very difficult saying goodbye this time . . . we knew we would probably never work together again. We'd worked in so many studios, but we always got back together, and that's what Gary and Don were really upset to see, the team they started in Ireland split up. Some guys who came over are in Australia, Canada, Ireland.

Pearse Cullinane's footage output on Anastasia was tops at the studio.
Pearse Cullinane's footage output on Anastasia was tops at the studio.
Cullinane has sold most of his possessions.
Paolo Vescia
Cullinane has sold most of his possessions.

"There's a few small studios in Ireland. A couple of my friends did animation for Madonna's new video, so they're going pretty good. There's work there, but I just don't want to live there. I got used to sunshine, having a swimming pool, just living really nice. I never had money until I came to America, and that's after working for seven years at a studio and coming home with 300 dollars in my pocket. When I left to come here in '94, there was very little work."

Cullinane was 18 and working for the civil service in Dublin when Sullivan-Bluth Studios opened in Ireland.

"Six floors, beautiful building, just great atmosphere. Never worked anywhere like it," he says. "Relaxed, but everyone worked really hard. I applied for any kind of job there."

Having never drawn anything professionally, he became a photographer. "I'd work those big old ACME cameras, shoot the drawings and transfer them onto cels. That's how I got in. After a year and a half of doing that, I went to see if there were any vacancies in the drawing department."

Cullinane got into various other jobs in the animation studio, like sketching the scenes in blue pencil and working up story boards. But he found he excelled at cleanup -- animation's equivalent to continuity, except you must hand-draw every frame between key drawings.

"A cleanup artist's job is to make sure that the character's the same all the way through the movie. If you look in animation movies, there's a lot of silly mistakes. Like clothes that change colors all the time."

Cullinane worked on The Land Before Time and five other Bluth movies before things started falling apart there.

"An American Tail and Land Before Time made loads of money, but then All Dogs Go to Heaven was a bit of a . . . dog," says Cullinane sheepishly, as if a movie that casts Burt Reynolds, Loni Anderson and Dom DeLuise as pooches and asks them to sing could expect any other fate. "That was the end of that. Disney killed us with good business sense."

Linda Peterson Warren, director of the Arizona Film Commission, admits that she's no animation expert. But she does understand the cutthroat nature of the cartoon business.

"The competition was so fierce, and any time there's someone new on the horizon that looks like they might make a dent in Disney's market share, Disney just goes ballistic," Warren says. "They really do. They reissue something on that same release date. Disney has this library that's like a gold mine, and they can just keep rereleasing in limited editions and they have this fabulous merchandising component and they market like nobody's business."

"That's why [Bluth-Goldman] thought the marriage with Twentieth Century Fox was made in heaven," she conjectures. "Not only were they setting them up with the capital to build a U.S. facility, but offering solid distribution as well. And it was a good six years . . . almost."

Although Fox's Phoenix facility was state-of-the-art, working conditions were less than ideal.

"It wasn't a happy working atmosphere. It just didn't click, pretty much from the start," remarks Cullinane. "At the studio in Dublin, you couldn't wait to go in to work. I used to work for nothing on Saturday and Sunday, and when you're 19, you don't care. But here there was no camaraderie. No one would stick up for anyone. Everyone was for me, me, me. Once people brought politics into the studio, I'm surprised they got any movies finished."

The different cultures at the studio didn't mesh, particularly the animators from the Philippines, who kept to themselves. Was there a Filipino equivalent to the Dubliner where they'd congregate after work and trade barbs?

"No, no," Cullinane says. "They basically were very family oriented, did their work and went home. There was some great Christmas parties when it did jell a bit. But once work started on Anastasia, it was pretty much bad vibes all the way through."

Not all the bad vibes at Fox were because of interdepartmental politics.

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