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Interview: Bill Dennis – Ex-CEO of Toonz Animation

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Harvey Deneroff interviews ex president and CEO of Toonz Animation about his time spent running a service studio overseas.

Bill Dennis recently stepped down as president and CEO of Toonz Animation India, in Trivandrum, one of India’s major overseas studios. Because of his background — including 20 years at Disney before taking charge of the Manila-based Fil-Cartoons subsidiary of Hanna Barbera — he has enjoyed considerable more visibility than most executives of similar studios throughout Asia; it was a visibility that was further bolstered by having Toonz sponsoring an animation festival, a children’s animation workshop and even an animation school, as well as helping to establish an Indian chapter of ASIFA. It was with the background in mind that he has been appointed ASIFA’s ambassador to animators in developing countries.

I first encountered Bill Dennis about 10 years ago, when I approached him for funds on behalf of the Society for Animation Studies when he was Vice President of Human Resources at Disney Feature Animation. He turned me down, but then became an SAS member. It was a nice gesture, which reflected both an old-fashioned courtesy and a genuine interest in what the organization stood for. Ever since, we have kept in touch and I periodically talked to him for various stories I wrote over the years, including a lengthy interview for my Animation Report when he left Disney in1993.

Four years ago, he hired me as Festival Director of the Week with the Masters Animation Celebration, a festival Toonz was sponsoring that featured guests from Europe and North America, as well as a competition focussing on Asian films. I had a great time running the event in 2000, but my involvement was cut short by 9/11, which caused most of its international guests to withdraw their participation. (I subsequently acted as a consultant for the 2003 edition.)

Thus, when I heard that Bill was stepping down from his position at Toonz, I thought it was time for another lengthy interview, which he readily agreed to do via email.

Why Manage an Overseas Studio

When I asked him why he decided to run an overseas service studio after his years at Disney, he said, “After 20 years with the same studio, it was time to try something new. I wanted to find more exciting and challenging opportunities. And what could more interesting than helping to promote animation in developing countries?”

“I believe,” Dennis boasts, “that by establishing a highly successful and credible studio operation, that Toonz has been the catalyst for the current boom in animation in India. In addition to service work, we developed and are currently marketing The Adventures of Tenali Raman, the first animated TV series to come from India for a worldwide audience.”

On a different level, Dennis feels, “Toonz brought attention to Indian animation with our international animation festival, the Week with the Masters Animation Celebration. We also developed the Children’s Animation Workshop, an award-winning workshop series for Indian children and collaborated in establishing the Toonz‑Webel Academy in Kolkata (Calcutta).

Dennis’ was first hired by Disney in 1973 to work in merchandising at Walt Disney World and soon became involved in training. Eventually he was put in charge of all manpower planning for the Orlando facility before being switching to the Burbank studio to head up employment. In 1984, Peter Schneider offered him the post of Vice President of Human Resources for Animation. “I had always been fascinated with animation and in awe of the Disney heritage and tradition,” he said, “and jumped at the opportunity.” But after seven years in the post, he decided it was time to leave and joined Hanna Barbera to take charge of Fil-Cartoons, its overseas studio in Manila. “It was,” he says, “ a very large studio, with 1,000 artists, which Hanna Barbera could no longer support with work. However, I felt the studio could become independent within a couple of years, with its own list of clients, and then be sold for a profit, which I eventually did after two-and-a-half years.”

In taking charge, he used his Disney experience to take an aggressive approach to boosting morale and quality. He recalled that, as part of a program to make physical improvements, “We held a competition among our artists to design murals for the studio walls and ended up selecting six.”

He also noted that, “Several artists actually lived at the studio, sleeping in their cubicle areas and going home to their families in the provinces on weekends. This had to change right away, so we built a small 60-bed dormitory, charging the artists a nominal fee to cover costs.”

Beyond the physical aspects of the workplace, Dennis set up two training programs involving 40 artists, in which Western artists and teachers were brought in. “We also,” he said, “held family days, so that artists’ spouses and children could get a tour of the studio and learn more about what we were doing.”

In creative terms, Dennis encouraged his artists “to develop their own story ideas.” These ideas formed the basis for Swamp n Tad, a short film made for Hanna Barbera’s What a Cartoon series, and Child Soldiers, Fil-Cartoons’ contribution to the Unicef’s children’s rights series of public service announcements.

Toonz Animation India

“No sooner than the Fil-Cartoons sale was complete,” Dennis recalls, “when a friend asked me to travel to India and consult with his studio on how to grow their business on an international level. This was interesting as it gave me time to study the potential for animation in India.”

“When I returned to Los Angeles in 1998, a group of private investors approached me about opening a new studio anywhere in that part of the world. To make a long story short, we founded Toonz Animation India (www.toonzanimationindia.com) in Trivandrum in 1999. Significantly, it marked the beginning of the growth of animation in India.”

(I suspect his passage to India was probably a little less direct, as I recall bumping into him while I was researching an article on Vietnamese animation; when I told him what I was doing, he mentioned that he had been to Vietnam to investigate business opportunities there.)

At the time, service studios in India were just beginning to emerge and Dennis said, “I felt the climate was right for this type of business to flourish.” He also noted, “There were four specific factors in making a decision: English was a second language, which is always important when you expect your clients to come from the West; an abundance of raw creative talent; an untapped treasure trove of stories and fables; and favourable economics.”

“Our mission for Toonz,” he added, “was twofold: First, to become a global player in animation as a provider of animation services to Western clients. Second, and more important, we wanted to develop and own our own films and television shows which would provide us with an internationally-distributed library and future revenue streams.”

I asked Dennis, if language was so important, why have studios in the Philippines, where American English is widely spoken, not done as well as studios in countries like Korea. “English is an important factor,” he replied, “but only one of several. Another very important factor which fosters success is organized support. Korea has recognized animation as an important industry and the country’s institutions have embraced the business and its promotion. This did not happen in the Philippines and it is just beginning to take hold in India, where there is now an association of studio owners and an ASIFA chapter.”

Master of Your Own Destiny

The temptation for many overseas studios is to concentrate on service work, rather than original productions. This, Dennis feels, is short-sighted. “Building a library,” he says, “was and is key to the continued success of Toonz. Even Western studios who traditionally handled only service work have learned that, while it pays today’s bills, subcontracting does not provide for a future.”

“And,” he adds, “there are a lot of collateral benefits to doing your own projects. Top creative people, no matter what part of the world they are from, gravitate to exciting, challenging assignments. You don’t usually find those projects at subcontracting facilities. And, by developing your own materials, you also develop the skills of your artists. These enhanced skills help their work on service projects.”

“But, the biggest reason,” he feels for doing original productions, “is that you are master of your own destiny. Products you develop are yours to promote, expand and exploit.”

What, I asked, do companies do about the lack of qualified preproduction talent that has plagued many overseas studios wanting to do their own projects? “I think,” he says, “you have to bite the bullet and bring Western preproduction talent in and have your top creative folks work alongside them for months or even years. It may also be that you’ll always need a Western creative director on board to guide your projects. It raises costs somewhat, but it also raises the quality and marketability of the project. In the long run, I think it is worth the investment.”

Training

This brought up one of the most important problems Dennis and others face in countries like India with limited or no experience in animation. ”For us,” Dennis said, “it meant we would have to take responsibility of training talent to work on world‑class projects. To do this I enlisted several of my friends from the US and Canada, who continue to move in and out of the studio, updating the skills of the artists.”

The biennial Week With the Masters has certainly helped bring attention to Indian animation, in part by bringing in such filmmakers as Bill Plympton, David Fine, Jimmy Murakami, Paul Driessen and Joanna Priestley. At the same time, Dennis admits, “there were tremendous side benefits for Toonz, as we were able to enlist these ‘masters’ to spend quality time with our staff.” (However, it must be said that Dennis’ early ambitions for the event had to scaled back after the financial hit the company took following the events of 9/11; and I would not be surprised if Toonz eventually decides to drop its sponsorship of the festival now that Dennis is gone.)

But establishing internal training programs and bringing in outside artists does not fully compensate for the shortage of animation schools in India. “The only major animation training program when the studio was established,” Dennis points out, “was the National Institute of Design (NID). While it is a strong program, they only graduate a handful of students each year, which is really not enough to support the growing animation industry.”

Because of this, Toonz agreed to an offer from the West Bengal government to help set up the Toonz‑Webel Academy in Kolkata (Calcutta) (www.toonzwebelacademy.com). Dennis explained that, “The government’s West Bengal Electronics Industry Development Corporation Ltd. (WEBEL) provided the infrastructure and financial resources, while Toonz is provided the expertise, instructors and overall design of the program.”

Unlike the world-class NID program, which is geared to training independent filmmakers, the Toonz‑Webel Academy, Dennis says, “is geared more to the specific needs of the studios in India. It is a one-year program which concentrates on the basics of animation, and will enable students to take on inbetweener or junior animator positions in India. I realize this is a far cry from what is required for Western artists. But, it is a start. In time, the school will expand to offer more specialized courses.”

(Toonz is not alone among Indian studios in establishing training programs, a number of whom have aggressively pushed their own academies in the fast-growing labour market.)

Dennis has not expressed any of his plans for the future but he is obviously excited and honoured about being asked by ASIFA to serve as ambassador to animators in developing countries. Asked how he expects to carry out this task, he says, “One way, will be by conducting workshops on a variety of topics in various countries around the world.”

“One of the biggest problems for young animators in developing countries is how to get started. Typically they would have one or more good ideas, maybe a little bit of money to get started, but they don’t have a clue how to move forward.” And given his background, Dennis would certainly seemed to be well qualified to give suggestions which might be useful.

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