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.

As Cullinane tells it, "A lot of people had mental problems, a few of us cracked up and had to go and see psychiatrists. Most people that came here were from a coastal city or an island and had never been to a desert or had to drive everywhere. I didn't know how to drive when I got here. I was 27, I had taken public transport everywhere."

As an act of pure optimism, Cullinane actually waited for a bus in Phoenix. Only once.

Under pressure during the last stages of Anastasia, the studio worked seven days, 12 hours a day. While average salaries exceeded $100,000 a year, there were no bonuses following the success of the movie, which made more than $100 million. In its first weekend, it grossed $15 million and came in at No. 2. Not bad for a first movie from a new studio. That same weekend Disney rereleased The Little Mermaid, just to be nice.

Pearse Cullinane was intimately involved in the creation of Anastasia.
Pearse Cullinane was intimately involved in the creation of Anastasia.

Reviews for Anastasia were, for the most part, favorable, but Cullinane can still get his Irish up thinking about the negative notices, including one from this paper.

"Every movie we released was massacred by the New Times. Everyone's seen the old Anastasia movie. And here's this guy knocking it, saying it's not the real story of Anastasia. It's a cartoon! The guy who wrote that was a dickhead, and you can tell him that from me," he says, laughing into the recorder. "I think he didn't even like Braveheart. How can anyone not like Braveheart? It's a great movie."

After Anastasia, Cullinane asked Fox for a two-year contract.

"That got extended to four years when I said, 'Show me the money,'" he says.

Fox's next feature was to be Planet Ice, which never developed past the drawing-board stage because executives in Los Angeles were unhappy with the story. Some elements of the story were eventually rewritten into Titan (The Ice Planet, for one), but in the meantime there were more than 300 artists with too much downtime and no film project. In a crunch, Bluth noted the popularity of one of Anastasia's key characters, an albino bat, and came up with a direct-to-video sequel, Bartok the Magnificent.

Cullinane's department, the most labor-intensive, never got a break. During this fallow period at the studio, he and his co-workers did cleanup work on DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt ("It was just sloppy, you'd have to go back and redo the whole thing," says Cullinane) and video games such as The Indian in the Cupboard. Cullinane even delivered $20,000 worth of extra footage on Bartok, but "Fox said they didn't have the bonus money since it was a straight-to-video feature."

For the most part, the Twentieth Century Fox brass didn't really bother with the people in Phoenix.

Says Cullinane, "We had no real contact with Fox in L.A. That's why we put 'Area 51' outside our cubicles. We didn't really exist. We were an entity outside of L.A. Sometimes it would've been nice to know a little more about what's going on."

The Los Angelenos were about to make real contact in 2000. And it wouldn't be a Christmas card.


Like the ill-fated ocean liner Titanic, Titan A.E. was launched with great expectations. Touted as the first animated U.S. sci-fi film in decades, it came to Fox from another director and to Phoenix with a short completion schedule -- 19 months. Originally meant to be a live-action film, Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman and CEO Bill Mechanic suggested doing it all in 3-D animation, or CGI (computer generated imagery). When that proved too expensive, they opted to make it half CGI and half hand-drawn.

Progressively, Fox demanded more and more CGI and wound up with 87 percent 3-D animated, which sometimes left the movie's heroes looking like helpless refugees from Toon Town. Twelve 3-D animators in Phoenix did most of the work, with Fox farming out the Ice Crystal sequence to POVDE, a studio in Ireland that does work for George Lucas. Rather prophetically, Fox also contracted the New World sequence to Blue Sky Studios in New York state. After closing the Phoenix studio, Fox would invest a ton of money in Blue Sky Studios.

Needless to say, the mood wasn't euphoric at the Phoenix studio during creation of Titan, either. One hears about Disney animators sneaking a few lurid frames into The Little Mermaid or Pocahontas for a bit of fun.

"It's different when a studio's going well; you have a laugh, you're enjoying your work," notes Cullinane. "Those little filthy things usually get caught in the dailies, but most people don't let that stuff go to the screen."

In Titan, there was one unintentionally funny scene where the big macho Korso is showing pretty boy Cale how to operate the spaceship's joystick; it rivaled The Ambiguously Gay Duo for yuks.

"It wasn't meant to be anything. Here was the part of the movie where it was supposed to be really intense, and we're all cracking up in hysterics. People with really bad minds just picked that out, so we changed all that. But the angles looked hilarious."

Fox was targeting hetero young adult males, 12 to 17 years old, by including rock music by Lit, The Urge, Fun Loving Criminals and Splashdown, and including animation reminiscent of Japan's Anime studio. It was Japan, after all, that produced the last full-length animated sci-fi movie, Akira, in 1989.

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