Disney Animation to cut staffers

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Five months after the Walt Disney Co. slashed 20% of its work force at its live-action studio, the company has said that it will do likewise at its Burbank animation facility.

Walt Disney Animation -- which houses Disney Feature Animation, Disney Television Animation and Disney Toons -- will cut about 160 jobs from its staff of 800, with employees due to be notified of their employment status by midmonth.

Disney, which made the announcement Friday, will give the affected workers 60 days' notice, putting their last day of employment there roughly six weeks before the March 30 opening of Disney's next animated feature, "Meet the Robinsons."

Walt Disney Animation employees have speculated for months that layoffs might be headed their way by year's end, the catalyst being Disney's $8 billion purchase of Pixar Animation Studios.

After that May acquisition, Pixar's Ed Catmull and John Lasseter were named president and chief creative officer, respectively, of Disney's animation business. Pixar -- operating in Emeryville, Calif., just as it did before its merger with Disney -- will retain its entire 800-person staff, sources said.

Sources said that Don Hahn, who had been interim head of Disney Feature Animation, has been gone for a few months already, and it wasn't clear Friday whether he would return.

Sources said the decision for deep cuts in staffing are being prompted at least in part by a shift to a longer production cycle. Currently, feature production has been completed in 12-14 months, but Disney plans to shift to an 18-month cycle.

The company has said it plans to release two animated movies a year, one produced in Burbank and one in Emeryville. Burbank animators are about two months from completing work on "Robinsons," according to IATSE Local 839 business agent Steve Hulett.

Hulett said Disney informed the union last month that "substantial" layoffs were in store.

More than 300 of the Burbank animation employees, including 106 animators, are members of the animation guild, Hulett said. About 56 other IA job classifications include employees in story and visual development operations, technical directors, digital lighting professionals and others.

It was unclear Friday whether certain job classes might be hit harder than others by the layoffs.

The feature division employs the most, at perhaps 350 CGI workers plus a sizable support staff. The TV division employs about half that number of animation employees, and the direct-to-video Disney Toons unit outsources much of its animation work overseas but also has a small on-lot animation staff.

A Disney spokeswoman said the layoffs will not affect movies currently in production. After "Robinsons," the Pixar-Disney film "Ratatouille" is due June 29. Films that had been in development, the status of which are now unclear, include "The Frog Princess," "American Dog" and "Rapunzel."

"After a careful review process, the management team at Walt Disney Animation has determined that each film will dictate its own appropriate production schedule. The result of this necessitated a reduction in staff. As a result, it will be necessary to eliminate a number of current positions," the Disney spokeswoman said Friday.

"We are committed to do everything we can in order to assist everyone during this transition period," she said. "Once notified, employees will have up to 60 days to find new employment. Disney will also help provide job placement opportunities."
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