Suspended Animation

Phoenix resident Pearse Cullinane is a gifted and prolific hand-drawing animator. It's a painstaking job he perfected in an era when most animation companies, including Disney, were looking for shortcuts and ways of making feature-length animated film as cheaply as possible.

An amiable, self-described hippie from Cork, Ireland, Cullinane had worked for an animation studio in his homeland for seven years before coming to Phoenix in 1994. He became a hot commodity as consumers, drawn by Disney hit cartoon features, revived what had been a moribund film genre.

After renewing its commitment of turning out quality animation features with The Little Mermaid, Disney's streak of hits seemed unstoppable. Every year or so, another time-proven tale was being made into another Disney musical. Beauty and the Beast. Aladdin. But it wasn't until The Lion King raked in elephant dollars at the box office that all the other major studios sat up and said, "We can do this, can't we?"

No one bolted upright as emphatically as Twentieth Century Fox. One of the premier studios during Hollywood's golden age of moviemaking, Fox is now the pricey jewel of Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch's $24 billion conglomerate, News Corporation. In the tradition of its control-crazed owner, Twentieth Century Fox decided it wasn't enough just to commission animated films -- it needed its own animation-features studio.

To achieve such Disney-osity, Fox went into partnership with two former Disney animator/directors, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, who had found success when they struck out on their own in the early '80s. Bluth productions such as The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail and The Land Before Time kept animated features alive until an embarrassed Disney rebounded to dominate once more.

Lured to Dublin, Ireland, by low production costs and government incentives in the mid-'80s, Bluth had set up an animation company there called Sullivan-Bluth Studios.

It was there that Pearse Cullinane broke into the business.

After The Land Before Time, the studio rolled out four more full-length features: All Dogs Go to Heaven, Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelina, A Troll in Central Park. Unfortunately, each one performed worse at the box office than the one before it.

By 1994, Sullivan-Bluth Studios was on the verge of closing its doors. Cullinane and his colleagues fretted about their futures.

The Fox-Bluth-Goldman partnership promised to turn things around. Fox not only offered Bluth-Goldman a solid distribution plan to go up against Disney, it invested $100 million to build a new state-of-the-art animation studio here in Phoenix.

"That was when Don and Gary came around asking us if we wanted to come and work on the next film in America," says Cullinane. "It was an amazing offer they gave us in Ireland. Beautiful color brochures and folders showing us what a great lifestyle we would have in Phoenix. Our careers would be set, working for a major multinational company, and we thought this was it. The industry is so up and down and we thought there's no way Twentieth Century Fox was ever going to close."

Cullinane and some 60 of his fellow Dublin animators accepted the offer to move to America. Other animators were lured from the Philippines.

Cullinane was among the first to arrive at Fox Animation's new Phoenix office at 2747 East Camelback Road.

"The old Charles Keating savings-and-loan building," Cullinane says with a sardonic laugh. "That was a really bad omen."

But life in the United States agreed with him. He took to the climate and lifestyle. He met and married an American woman who has three children.

When a succession of films Cullinane helped create in Phoenix failed at the box office, Fox pulled the plug on the studio here, leaving Cullinane and other resident alien workers little recourse but to accept meager severance packages and, without employment, lose their rights to stay in the United States.

It mattered not to Fox that Cullinane had a contract with the studio through June 2001.

"Well," Cullinane says, "I'm Irish, I can hold a grudge. But I had no choice. It was either take their first offer, which was really silly, or try to hold out here.

"I held out. And I'll stay."

His holdout has been painful. In the past few weeks, mounting bad luck and debt have forced Cullinane to see his home go to foreclosure, to separate his American family out of necessity, to watch his once-good credit plummet and to sell his American accumulations at giveaway prices.

When Anastasia -- the first full-length feature to roll out of Fox's Phoenix animation studios -- premièred in 1997, the local media coverage was a frothing fawn fest of hometown pride.

In contrast, Titan A.E. (After Earth), the latest Don Bluth-Gary Goldman offering -- a sci-fi adventure set after Earth's destruction by an army of gelatinous cyborg goons -- was preceded with a foreboding silence in the Valley. In fact, there was no press buildup for the movie at all save for a sobering June 11 article in the Arizona Republic recounting how the studio was in danger of closing permanently if Titan tanked.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic