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Annecy: Disney TV Animation’s Eric Coleman on 4 Guiding Principles of Animation

Variety logo Variety 6/14/2017 John Hopewell
© Provided by Variety

ANNECY, France — “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Disney executives aren’t that well known for phrasing verities in French, so Disney Television Animation’s Eric Coleman made an impact from the get-go at France’s Annecy Festival where he delivered a masterclass on Thursday. But he wasn’t just showing off his lingo. The truths that Coleman teased out of his vocational 25-year animation career in the masterclass would look to apply as well to 1997 as 2017. That’s not because Coleman is a throwback. Rather, that the executive, who joined Disney Television Animation in 2008 after 15 years at Nickelodeon, has always been intimately connected with the craft of animation and its creators, whether spearheading development of the Emmy and Annie-winning Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts or “Gravity Falls”  and more recent series “Star vs. The Forces of Evil” at DTA or as the Nick exec who championed the development and then was put in charge of production on “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

“There are changes in technology and audience habits but the fundamentals on the creative side have remained the same for me for many years,” Coleman insisted.

A Duke English graduate, Coleman – now SVP original programming and general manager, Disney Television Animation – is credited with a firm grasp on storytelling – the word he probably repeated most in his masterclass. But he ranged wider, delivering incisive insights, though in a humble, thoughtful manner, into the art of animation and its industry. Four of Coleman’s guiding principles about animation:

1. GREAT ART COMES FROM GREAT ARTISTS

That may seem obvious, Coleman said. But, despite that, much animation is still not driven from a creative place, he argued. “Shows that really have connected with audiences and been the biggest hits have come from artists and teams with great vision and passion and connection to the audience,” he argued. When a great artist, such as show creator Steve Hirsch, said he couldn’t go on with “Gravity Falls,” Coleman respected that and pulled the show.

2. WHAT IS THE SHOW REALLY ABOUT?

Shows that have endured have a great theme underneath it all, and tend to come from creators with a strong point of view and a real purpose in their story telling, Coleman argued. “What does a show celebrate?” Coleman asked in Annecy. He went on to give his ideas on “SpongeBob SquarePants” (“the triumph of innocence and creativity”) and “Gravity Falls” (“family over all else”).

3. IT’S NOT THE IDEA THAT COUNTS, IT’S THE EXECUTION

“Great artists can take an idea that seems common and make it seem very fresh, original,” Coleman said. He illustrated the point citing shows that started as simple familiar ideas and then took off. One was Stephen Hillenburg’s “SpongeBob SquarePants,” whose pitch was “one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Coleman recalls. But “we heard a lot of concerns early on. SpongeBob needs to live with his parents or it doesn’t make sense, if kids sing the theme it will seem like a pre-school show. For one of the first episodes Steve pitched that SpongeBob would open a bubble stand and sell them for 25 cents. I was worried it wouldn’t fill the time needed. But I trusted that the execution would be there.”

4. KNOW YOUR GOAL

Know your audience, what you want to accomplish, Coleman advised. “We want to work with people who are not just interested in what they want to say but also what the audience wants to watch. When there is an overlap, great things can happen,” Coleman said.

He went on: “Alex made “Gravity Falls’ with a clear goal: To entertain as broad an audience as possible. The idea of entertainment implies a relationship between the artist and audience. Know the audience, what they want, and surprise them,” he concluded, going on to screen a clip from “Gravity Falls.”

At Disney Television Animation, Coleman is responsible for growing the strongest brand in the animation business. That poses a huge challenge: How to take beloved characters and deliver them to contemporary audiences. Having screened a contemporary Mickey Mouse short, Coleman drew the biggest applause of the night world premiering the opening title sequence of Disney Television Animation’s upcoming “DuckTales.”

“DuckTales” “has adventure, comedy and these great stories about a big blended family,” Coleman said at Annecy,“We knew from day one, we could not mess with the “DuckTales” theme song,”.

He went on: “That was a challenge: To make it feel fresh while being wholly faithful to the original. It’s a new version of the song but in visual style we were very much trying to harken back to the old Carl Barks comics.”

The sequence included an updated version of the cherished title song – more pop-ish, from a younger and female voice – but preserving the energy of the original. The title sequence visuals included split-screen panels, vintage colors and villains from both the ‘90s series and the original comics.

But the rebooted “DuckTales” illustrates Coleman’s “plus ça change…

“Binge watching on new platforms changes things for us. We are preparing for a time when everything is completely on demand. With shows like ‘Gravity Falls’ and ‘DuckTales,’ you can watch any show individually but collectively there are bigger story points,” Coleman reflected.

That said, he maintained, going back to his original point, “good storytelling will continue to be important. People sitting around a fire years ago were telling stories. What has changed is the technology. It impacts the language of storytelling. The way you tell stories changes but one notion doesn’t – getting the attention of your audience.”

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