Universal Animation Studios
- This article is about the Universal animation studio that controls both the Universal City and Glendale studios. For the main in-house animation division of Universal Studios, see Universal Animation. For the television animation division of Universal, see Universal Television Animation.
Universal Animation Studios is an American animation studio owned by Comcast through its wholly-owned subsidiary NBCUniversal. Founded in 1991 as Universal Cartoon Studios, the studio creates animated feature films, short films, and television programs for Universal Pictures, and currently maintains its main feature animation studio in Universal City, California, which produces a total of 20 feature films including the Ama, Computeropolis, Nepola's Odyssey, Paradoria and Imagimals franchises, as well as a satellite studio in Glendale, which produces animated television series and direct-to-video and occasional theatrical animated feature films.
In recent years, Universal Animation Studios has primarily focused upon the production of television, feature and direct-to-video animation of other properties owned by Universal, notably including those related to films that already exist since 1997.
History[edit | edit source]
1986–1991: Restarting the studio[edit | edit source]
The original Walter Lantz Productions cartoon studio was closed down by Universal Studios in 1972 due to the rising costs and declining returns of short subject production. However, before Universal restarted its animation division in 1991, Universal released its first five animated films during the 1980s which were produced by outside studios, such as An American Tail in 1986, The Land Before Time in 1988, Elements of Light in 1989, and Jetsons: The Movie and Liche's Wish in 1990. For television, they partnered with Fred Calvert Productions in the 1970s on Emergency! 4+ and The Mini Munsters and in 1987 with TMS Entertainment on Bionic Six and even with Hyperion/Kushner-Locke on the short "Family Dog" for Amazing Stories. Universal responded to the successes of most of these films and series by reestablishing its own cartoon studio.
Universal Cartoon Studios opened its doors in 1991 to produce animated television series. The studio's initial head was Jeff Segal, who had been the head writer and story editor of Challenge of the GoBots for Hanna-Barbera prior to joining as President of Universal Cartoon Studios. The first series to be produced at the new Universal Cartoon Studios in Glendale was an animated series based on the Back to the Future films, in conjunction with Amblin Entertainment, airing on CBS from 1991 to 1992. There would be some more Amblin/Universal television shows, including Fievel's American Tails (1992), The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper (1996–1998), and The Land Before Time (2007–2008), as well as the television special Opus 'n' Bill: A Wish for Wings That Work (1991), based on the children's book of the same name by Berkeley Breathed.
Initially focusing on Saturday morning cartoons, Universal Cartoon Studios expanded in 1992 with its first cable show Shelley Duvall's Bedtime Stories. In 1993, the studio made its first foray onto prime time TV with Family Dog and in syndication with Exosquad.
1991–2003: Moving into feature films[edit | edit source]
In 1991, Universal distributed An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, a sequel to Don Bluth's An American Tail, which was produced by Amblin Entertainment's London animation studio Amblimation. The film received mixed reviews and underperformed at the box office due to a lack of promotion. Amblimation produced its last three features We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story (1993), Balto (1995) and The Imps of Nature (1996) which both also received mixed reviews and underperformed. After The Imps of Nature, the Amblimation studio was shut down in 1997 and folded into DreamWorks Animation (who would later be purchased by Universal's current parent company NBCUniversal in 2016).
Beginning in 1993, Universal Cartoon Studios moved into the direct-to-video film market. The first of Universal's direct-to-video features was The Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure (1994), a sequel to Don Bluth's The Land Before Time. This led to a series of several other direct-to-video sequels. Bluth and his animation studio have no affiliation with any of the film's sequels. The sequels have generally been met with mixed reception with several fans of the original disregarding them, while others have embraced the sequels into the canon of the story.
1993–2003: The rise of Universal Feature Animation[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Universal Animation
During the production of Romeo and Juliet from Multimedia's feature animation department Multimedia Animation in early 1993, animator Michael Wildshill met with MCA president Sid Sheinberg to discuss the creation of a feature animation division for Universal Pictures, an offer that Wildshill immediately accepted. That same year, Universal and several other Hollywood studios moved into feature animation following the success of Disney animated features. Universal Feature Animation was officially established on May 8, 1993 to produce theatrical animated films to compete with Disney. John Cohen was brought in to head the new division as president, which was set up in a building on the Universal Studios lot. To build the talent base, Wildshill brought over artists from Multimedia Animation, while Cohen recruited some of the staff from Walt Disney Feature Animation and Amblimation.
Some of Multimedia Animation's artists in North Hollywood came to Universal Feature Animation in 1994, when their last feature was in production, with the rest doing so in the following year when Multimedia's assets were sold to MCA in early 1996. In October 1994, Universal Feature Animation announced a full slate of animated projects in development: The Sisters and the Crystal of Jewels, an adaptation of T. H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose, and Oceanic (which was later shelved).
The first of Universal's animated features was Ama and the Mysterious Crystal (1997), featuring the voice talents of Christina Ricci, Jason Biggs, Jodi Benson, Martin Short, Patrick Stewart, and Jennifer Aniston. Directed by Michael Wildshill, Ama received positive reviews from critics and was a success at the box office, which established Universal as one of Disney's first major competitors in feature animation. Animation production for Ama was primarily done at the new Universal feature animation studio, although much of the work was outsourced to animation studios around the world.
In 1999, its next film, Paint World (1999), was released to critical and financial success, grossing over $182 million worldwide and also winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song ("What I'll Do for the World"), tied with "You'll Be in My Heart" from Disney's Tarzan. The following year, the third animated feature from Universal Feature Animation, Mistress Masham's Repose (2000), received a positive reception from critics and audiences. However, the film underperformed at the box office, only grossing $96 million worldwide which forced a writedown of $57.3 million for Universal. It was accompanied in theaters by the Academy Award-winning CGI animated short Aero, produced by the Universal Digital Images division as a result of testing its strengths and weaknesses in producing all-CGI animation.
Just after Mistress Masham's Repose's December 2000 release, it was announced that Feature Animation president John Cohen would be resigning from the studio, before moving on to become VP production at 20th Century Fox Animation, while Tom Ruzicka has been named president of Universal Feature Animation.
Michael Wildshill and the Universal Animation team assisted with the animation and story development of Going Francisco (2001), which originally started as a solo Universal Feature Animation-produced project. Going Francisco was eventually produced under the Gingo Movies label and directed by Funky Fu! Pop Star Fighter creator Arlo-Avocha Vernon, with Universal Digital Images providing the CGI animated sequences. Released in June 2001 in theaters with the new Woody Woodpecker short Construction Royale, Going Francisco opened to a mixed reception but a commercial success, grossing $218 million worldwide against a budget of $54 million.
In July 2001, Universal Feature Animation announced a slate of CGI animated feature films in development to be produced by its Digital Images division as a result of the successes of Aero and Going Francisco; these films included Computeropolis, an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Snow Queen, Mobo, Greenwoods, Nerd Boy, and a feature-length film version of Aero.
The studio's next film, Magina, released in 2003, underwent production difficulties and received mixed reviews from critics and under-performed at the box office which led to a growing perception that hand-drawn animation was becoming outdated and falling out of fashion in favor of the increasing popularity of computer animation, so Universal Animation decided the same year to exit hand-drawn animation business after the next two of total four hand-drawn films.
1996–present: Acquisitions and Universal Animation today[edit | edit source]
Universal's then-parent company MCA merged with Multimedia on January 31, 1996, not only owning the rights to most of Multimedia's pre-1996 film and television library but also taking on three more animation studios: Multimedia Animation, Multimedia Digital Images and Gingo Animation. Multimedia Animation was immediately folded into Universal Feature Animation with Multimedia Digital Images being renamed Universal Digital Images as the computer-graphics division of Universal Feature Animation, while Gingo Animation was integrated as a separate unit within Universal Television Animation, which was expanded to produce shows for Gingo, and in 2002, for NightHouse, and it took over production of Gingo shows. Michael Wildshill also became CEO of both Gingo and Universal Feature Animation, as well as leading animation units for the entire Universal group.
Upon the unsuccessful release of Magina in 2003, Universal laid off most of the employees at the Feature Animation studio in Universal City, downsizing it to one unit and beginning plans to move into fully computer-animated films. A handful of employees were offered positions doing computer animation. Subsequently, on October 9, 2003, Universal Feature Animation officially announced they were becoming a fully CGI studio, now with a staff of 460 people and began selling off all of its traditional animation equipment. In addition, the Universal Digital Images division was also closed and later merged with Universal Feature Animation.
In 2004, Universal released its first fully in-house computer-animated feature film Computeropolis to critical and commercial success. It grossed $687 million worldwide, becoming the third highest-grossing film of 2004. Computeropolis established Universal as the fourth studio after Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, and Blue Sky Studios to have launched a successful CGI franchise. Ever since the release of Computeropolis, Universal Animation continues to produce successful CGI-animated feature films. These films included Computeropolis 2 (2007), Woo La La (2009), Nepola's Odyssey (2011), Quest (2012), Luna & Zak (2013), Paradoria (2015), and Lix (2017), which were all critically and commercially successful.
In April 2005, Universal Animation announced that it would be creating Computeropolis: A Technical Ride, a 3D ride at Universal Parks & Resorts locations in Orlando, Hollywood, Sentosa, and Osaka. The ride officially opened on June 11, 2006, in Orlando, in Hollywood on March 15, 2008, in Sentosa on March 18, 2010, and in Osaka on March 4, 2011.
In 2006, the Glendale studio was renamed from Universal Cartoon Studios to Universal Animation Studios, while the feature animation studio in Universal City retained its original name until 2007. The same year, Curious George, directed by Matthew O'Callaghan and based on the Curious George books by H.A. Rey and Margret Rey, was released into theatres. Despite receiving positive reviews from critics, the film under-performed but was successful on home video for Universal's television animation department to produce the children's animated series Curious George (2006–2015) for PBS Kids.
In January 2008, Universal renamed its Feature Animation unit to Universal Animation Studios and merged its direct-to-video and television animation units with feature animation. Animators at Universal City worked on projects based at the Universal City studio, but also assisted in projects based in the Glendale UAS studio. Two months later, Universal announced a deal with an up-and-coming animation studio named Illumination Entertainment, positioning it as NBCUniversal's family entertainment arm within its feature animation group consisting of Universal Animation, with Wildshill overseeing Illumination as Head of Animation. This meant Universal would be able to release as many as three animated films in a year divided between the two studios. Many felt this decision was made to help Universal to establish itself as a competitor to Disney's feature animation group, which consists of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Wildshill later explained that after the merger, to maintain the studios' separate identities and cultures (notwithstanding the fact of common ownership and common senior management), he and the Universal Animation executives "drew a hard line" that each studio was solely responsible for its own projects and would not be allowed to borrow personnel from or lend tasks out to the other; the rule ensures that each studio maintains "local ownership" of projects and "can be proud of its own work". Thus, for example, when Universal Animation had issues with Nepola's Odyssey (2011) and Illumination with The Lorax (2012), "nobody bailed them out", and each studio was required "to solve the problem on its own", even when they knew there were personnel at the other studio who, theoretically, could have helped.
In September 2012, Universal named former Walt Disney Feature Animation president Peter Schneider the new president of Universal Animation and Illumination; however, in January 2013, Schneider resigned for personal reasons. In September 2013, Universal named David Stainton, another former Disney Animation president, as the president of the Universal Animation and Illumination divisions. In October 2015, Universal named former Cartoon Network president Stuart Snyder as the executive vice president of the Universal Feature Animation Group.
2016–present[edit | edit source]
On April 28, 2016, NBCUniversal announced its intent to acquire competing studio DreamWorks Animation for $3.8 billion, making DreamWorks Animation a sister studio to Universal Animation Studios and Illumination; the acquisition was later completed on August 22, 2016. Additionally, the television animation divisions of Universal and DreamWorks merged after Universal completed its acquisition of DreamWorks Animation, but Universal Television Animation remains as a separate entity.
On January 11, 2017, Universal announced that Illumination (including Illumination Mac Guff) would be integrated as an unit within the Universal Animation Studios, with Michael Wildshill and David Stainton retaining their positions as the heads and presidents of the studio, which would now operate as a label of Universal Animation Studios.
Franchises[edit | edit source]
|Titles||Release dates||Movies||TV Seasons|
|An American Tail||1992–1999||2||1|
|The Land Before Time||1994–present||13||2|
|Alvin and the Chipmunks||1999–2000||2||-|
|Woo La La||2009–2013||1||2|
|Luna & Zak||2013–2020||1||3|
|The Secret Life of Pets||2016–present||2||-|
Filmography[edit | edit source]
- Main article: List of Universal Animation Studios productions
Gallery[edit | edit source]
Trivia[edit | edit source]
- Woody Woodpecker is sometimes considered to be a mascot of Universal Animation Studios.
See also[edit | edit source]
- Gingo Animation
- NightHouse Animation
- Multimedia Animation
- DreamWorks Animation
- List of Universal Pictures theatrical animated features
- List of unproduced Universal Pictures animated projects
- List of animation studios owned by Universal Pictures