Saturday, October 22, 2016

Branding: When is Enough Enough?

Belle returns as Emma Watson in a live action "Beauty and Beast"
retelling, while Mogli gets realistic in the" Jungle Book."

When I was a clean-up animator on Mulan, I experienced the magic and innovation that Disney Animation was so good at bringing to their latest feature slate.

Still rolling in "Lion King" money by 1997, Disney had little box office competition and existed in their own bubble.  The halls of Feature Animation Florida were lined with stunning masterpieces of visual development and model sheets that made crossing the building a sensory zenith. Everyone inside was drinking the Kool-Aid, even when competitors like DreamWorks, Blue Sky, WB and Sony were trying to jump on the hand-drawn animation bandwagon. It was a bright spot that everyone expected to last forever.

The Disney Legacy of Hand-Drawn Fortunes
Where Walt's “Snow White” and subsequent films took decades to break even, Disney was leading the industry with handsome profits from their revitalized hand-drawn division, propelled by "Beauty and the Beast and it's Oscar nomination for best Picture.

Disney brings the Renaissance in a "Quasi-something" success.

The reigning champion of 2D animated films, Disney could afford to take risks outside the fairy tale box while exploring new technology with 3D partner Pixar. Groundbreaking 3D features like “Toy Story” fuelled Disney’s appetite for more, making the climate receptive to non-fairy tales like “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules.”

Mulan and Tarzan were epic 2D masterpieces. Subsequent releases like the 3D “Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 2” were successful distractions from the poor performance of 2D features like “Fantasia 2000” (2D and 3D) and “Dinosaur” (half CG, half live-action).

All Hail the CG Cash Cow
The next four years contained twice as many releases, including staggering receipts from “Monsters Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.” Mixed results from 2D releases like “The Emperors New Groove,” “Atlantis” and “Treasure Planet” couldn’t justify the modest success that 2D “Lilo and Stitch” would bring. In early 2004, Disney halted all 2D operations and would focus on the “sure-fire” prospect of 3D animation. Executives claimed that “2D was dead”, as they planned to take back the market share that DreamWorks and Blue Sky had earned from 3D.  For a business answerable to profit and stockholders, some may argue it was the only way to go.

Quirky, off-beat "Lilo and Stitch" charmed audiences and critics.

It took Disney a long time to remember how to get it right. 

Before masterpieces like “Tangled, “Wreck in Ralph,” and hits like “Frozen,” Disney (and audiences) plodded painfully through CG features like “Meet The Robinsons,” and “Chicken Little.” Pixar’s “Cars,” was unwatchable. “Wall-E” and “Ratatouille” were hit-or-miss, and foreshadowed the pretentiousness of “Brave.”

My 3-and-a-half year old liked "Meet the Robinsons"
while I could barely sit through it.

To gain future permanence, Disney has resorted to branding itself to death.  There are more Toy Story sequels on the way. “Cars,” “Cars 2,” “Planes,” “Boats,” and “Skateboards” are close behind.  Disney Princesses are starring in TV series, sharing all ethnicities and all sizes to speak to every demographic on earth. Animated classics like Snow White and Cinderella and Jungle Book are remade as live action, fractured fairy tales, appealing to a new generation.

No stone has been left unturned to reach out and expand Disney's audience. Playing it safe and predictable can only go so far, though.

A Long, Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away,
the only thing the script could imagine was another Death Star. 

Lucasfilm and the Marvel Money Machine
Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm and Marvel brought a new meaning to marketing.
We are assured a new SW movie every year. "The Force Awakes" is the first SW entry to have a female protagonist, and it won’t be the last. “Rogue One” has another female lead in a prequel to the original SW (but taking place after the second trilogy). Ugh! Amidst these films, the Death Star plays a prominent role. Disney, Lucasfilm – whoever is listening: ENOUGH of the DEATH STAR ALREADY!  You would think with a billion characters in the Star Wars universe the studio would tread new ground come up with a new idea. Sheesh!

We've also seen several animated CG kids television series: “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” “Star Wars Rebels,” and a plethora of Lego Star Wars toys, replete with animated webisodes. Toys R Us has an isle dedicated to Star Wars merchandise, and Disney Hollywood Studios has remodeled its theme park to emphasize the SW experience.

 Lego Star Wars are the popular kid on the block. 

Is branding to death a good thing? Or is it a surefire way of diluting the integrity of a product?

Look at Marvel, who started trivializing their comic book characters years before Disney bought them. How many “Spider-Man” titles is Marvel publishing now? There are several Spider-men wearing the mask, both male and female, present and future tense. Can anyone keep track of The Avengers books? New Avengers, Uncanny Avengers, Young Avengers, Great Lakes Avengers, Secret Avengers, and Avengers Go To College (I made-up that last one!).

Will the real Spider-Man please stand up (before I barf)?

They’ve penetrated the Marvel kids market with “Super Hero Squad” and Marvel Max for adult content. The Marvel movies are a mega-monolith of licensing expansion and profit. Marvel has furthered their reach expanding into Netflix with binge-worthy series like “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones.” ABC’s “Marvel Agents of Shield” airs in the prime time family slot. The live-action productions that have been inspired by the classic comic titles are now so successful, that they are, in turn - driving the comic book content.

Brand New…Again
Forging new territory is part of what makes things exciting. We love better products. But let's not overdue it. Stop reincarnating the “DC Comics” Universe, as done in the recent “DC 52” super hero titles. Superman is still Superman, with or without red tights. Aquaman is blond with no beard, folks, let’s keep him that way. Batman is getting more miserable and grim every day, no matter where you meet him, with costumes running the gamut from black armor to grey rubber and back again. And DC has released a cartoon and toy line up called “Super Hero Girls” aimed at capturing the school girl market.

 DC Comics "Super Hero Girls" take no prisoners as they
infiltrate the school girl market.

Stop, Apple. Please.
Only the future will tell how much brand saturation consumers and audiences can stand. Although I love my Mac, I am tired of Mac this, Mac that, Mac the other thing. How many more OSX system updates do I need to stay compatible with Facebook or LinkedIn? Soon I will have no alternative but to update my entire hardware and software packages to stay in step with the industry. My iPhone 4S still works fine, thanks.

The iPhone 4S is as sophisticated a phone as I need. 

Adobe, take note. Do I really need the latest Photoshop iteration? The one I have has served me well in painting digital storyboards and illustrations. To get the latest Storyboard Pro, Adobe Illustrator, Maya, Final Cut, Cinema 4d, Final Draft, Microsoft Word and Office, how much do I need to earn? A lot, I think. Which makes it more frustrating to make a living doing what I love.

Back to Basics
I’m a ravenous geek and fan-boy at heart. In a radical detour, I've lately developed a habit after morning school drop-off. I bust out my watercolor sets to practice the “master's medium” amidst the nature preserves in Westchester. I can study and paint the most beautiful trees in New York while learning this evasive medium. Despite all the frenetically-paced myriad branding in Show Business, Advertising, Publishing and Social Media, the simplicity of a brush, water, a rag and a block of watercolors is helping restore my sanity temporarily, and revitalizing my soul to withstand the next Apple update, Disney trend, or female Spider-person.