Feathers Fly in For The Birds Controversy

for the birds pixarA bit of animation controversy was recently stirred up over at RottenTomatoes.com. The issue is creative theft – and whether or not Pixar borrowed from a CalArts student. Stevie Wermers (now Stevie Wermers-Skelton), who recently worked as a visual development artist on The Princess and the Frog, was a first year student at CalArts Back in 1993 when she produced Small Fry, a 2D short about birds on a wire. I’ll let Stevie explain the rest…

I made a student film at Cal Arts shown at the producers show attended several representatives from Pixar and Disney. My film won first place among over fifty other student films presented at the show. Pixar and Disney both cast votes for the best films of the show so I believe they have to have seen and enjoyed my film. A few years later I watched Monster’s Inc. and to my stunned surprise (Ralph Eggleston’s) For the Birds came on as a short before the film.

I’m not sure why this issue arose now, 10 years after the release of the Pixar short, but it’s interesting nonetheless. You’ve probably read about the Lion King/Kimba the White Lion controversy, and I don’t doubt creative theft, intentional or not does occur. That being said, there’s only so many truly original ideas out there, and I repeatedly see unintentional animated doppelgangers pop up all around the world. The audience at RottenTomatoes voted 2 to 1 in favor of Pixar – what’s your take? Sour grapes or a creative crime?

Small Fry

For the Birds

16 Comments

  1. Fonce Falooda January 28, 2010

    I can imagine her shock when a short with the exact same setting popped up, but absolutely none of the jokes were the same, so you really can’t argue plagiarism.

    It’s like comparing Three’s Company to Seinfeld. Both happen in a living room, both are good, but the jokes are completely different, and the characters are similar only in that they’re both people.

    Good work, though. She should have sued them and settled out of court for a job! ;)

  2. Aaron H. Bynum January 28, 2010

    So then, the birds of various demeanor on the utility line is the only thing they have in common? Not much to go off of.

  3. Noturna-The Princess and the Frog?

  4. i side close to fonce here – it’s just not THAT similar. but comparisons are hard to avoid. when friends pitch me series concepts, i always have to stop myself from saying “like Dexter’s Lab, right?” it’s just simply hard to avoid bumping into existing work along the creative path.

  5. Not this again.
    Stevie has been pissing and moaning about this since For the Birds came out.
    Here is the deal: Ralph came up with that idea at CalArts in 1985.
    Here is another tidbit: Rumor has it that most of the animation was done by Stevie’s animation teacher, whom she was dating at the time.
    It’s said he came up with the idea too.
    She needs to calm down about this crap. She’s a big director now. Let it lie, Stevie.

  6. I wouldn’t call it plagiarism, more like creative inspiration. Like when writing a paper, you find something someone says on the internet and it says exactly what you want to say. You don’t copy it, but you put it in a way that you would say it. Some one who reads your paper and saw the piece you got off the internet would recognize they’re the same. The only thing against PIXAR is couldn’t you have made it less obvious?

  7. There’s no question of the many similarities here. i think the idea was definitely borrowed. Shame it wasn’t brought up 10 years ago.

  8. Amid over at Cartoon Brew seems to have put the issue to bed. He posted one of Eggleston’s drawings of the concept from 1985.

    http://www.cartoonbrew.com/shorts/for-the-birds-controversy.html

  9. I don’t think she has a case- it’s a cute film, but doesn’t seem like a direct rip-off.

  10. “Stevie Wermers (now Stevie Wermers-Skelton), who recently worked as a visual development artist on The Princess and the Frog.”

    Yeah, that’s absolutely true that Stevie did some work on “The Princess & the Frog” , but you’re leaving out several significant items on her recent resume: she co-directed (with creative partner Kevin Deters) two short animated films for Disney , “How to Hook Up your Home Theater” and “The Ballad of Nessie” , as well as co-directing the half-hour animated Christmas special “Prep & Landing” which aired this past Christmas on ABC-TV.

  11. Thanks, david. I’m aware of her impressive credits, but I chose the one that’s most recpognizable to my audience, which is a broader crowd, that may not be familiar with the works you cite. I appreciate the writing tips and your interest in the site!

  12. That quote attributed to Wermers-Skelton is rather incendiary given that it is easily disproved. Do you have a reference or attribution for that?

  13. Robin McDonald February 1, 2010

    I just wanted to address JKS that it was me pissing about it and not Stevie. I finally aquired a copy of my student films for 93 and have told this story a couple of times on Rotten Tomatoes but didn’t have the necessary imagery to back it up for my audience.

    I agree the story is sufficiently altered where even if Stevie hadn’t built a great career with Disney that she might not win a lawsuit. In my poll 2/3rds gave Pixar a passing grade But just in my opinion knowing Pixar was at the producers show in 93 I was pretty shocked not to see Stevies name in the credits for this film when I saw Monster’s Inc. It was four years before I could ask her about it. And another five years before I posted the comparison and poll in the Rotten Tomatoes forum.

    My main point here is its not right to lay the blame at Stevie’s feet. I find the comparison inescapable because of the staging and players. How the birds hop and the big bird swings about like a sack of sand. And how he is a big gawky bird trying to ‘fit in’ with the little birds. I have seen Ralph Eggleston’s sketch and would be interested to see his original storyboards which date back to 85. But his ink sketch only resembles the one part of the film which I think was hugely changed from Small Fry.

    Someone suggested I was pointing the finger at Eggleston which I was not. If I was pointing it anywhere it was at whomever attended the Producer’s show. I also need to mention that I have been writing in Rottentomatoes for seven years and have logged 30,000 posts. I have never had anything I have written become an article outside the forum before. And I tried to limit viewing to forum members but the private feature in You Tube was unworkable for members. No one could see it so I had to open it up.

    Stevie is obviously more than talented enough and was back then to do all her work herself. And as students we all got a huge amount of animation help from Larry White. No one was shortchanged by Larry. He was the most dedicated, sacrificing and effective teachers at Cal Arts that year by far. Credit also needs to go to Ken Bruce and Alex Topete who wasn’t even on staff but was a huge friend to all the students. There wasnt grousing about their relationship til Stevie won the producer’s show. I hate to see that tempest in a teapot stirred up.
    My fault again.

    Stevie’s second film Nessie shows she was not only a talented animator but great with story. And she was hired at Disney for story rather than as an animator as I understand it.

  14. I don’t have attribution for that quote, nor is this the Wall Street Journal. I re-posted the quote from RottenTomatoes.com, and linked to it above.

  15. Andre Barnwell February 1, 2010

    Here’s a thought… If she has a history working for Disney Films couldn’t she have ever co-signed “For the Birds”. meaning that she could have given consent, or the idea to re-create her film in 3-D. Is Stevie upset with the two’s likeness?

  16. Robin McDonald February 2, 2010

    I think if she was upset it was in the past. Its been five years since we discussed it briefly. She’s had a successful and active career most recently doing the Christmas special Prep and Landing for Disney/ABC.
    I can’t speak for her. Just my myself.

    I’m glad the film has had three thousand five hundred views and its got five stars. No controversy its enjoyable. These student films go unseen. We need friends of Chris Moeller to urge him to put The Bunny Must Die on the Dark Bunny website or YouTube before all the oxide on his old video tape falls off.

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