Animation Collective Gets Sued by Artist Over “Ellen’s Acres”

Kelly Denato and Larry Schwarz

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Brooklyn-based animation artist Kelly Denato (above left), is suing the New York studio Animation Collective. Denato claims that they have profited from her design of Ellen’s Acres and have not paid her contractual share of the royalties based on an agreement she signed in 2002 when she developed the character.

According to Denato, she had an agreement to receive 25% of all revenues stemming from animated versions of the character and merchandising. Afterwards, when the show was sold to Cartoon Network and other outlets, Animation Collective “flat out said, ‘You shouldn’t have been given that contract–it was a mistake,’” and attempted to renegotiate a less favorable deal. In addition to Animation Collective, her suit also names Animation Collective’s chief executive, Larry Schwarz (above right, riding on top); Animation Collective affiliate Kanonen & Bestreichen, Inc.; and 4Kids Entertainment, Inc. It remains to be seen how this will play out in court, but Animation Collective’s poor reputation amongst artists and its shady history of how it treats employees lends credence to Denato’s suit.


  • http://smomotion.com :: smo ::

    an odd time to file a lawsuit since as network canceled the entire children’s cartoon block that the show was slotted to air on just as production wrapped. in what 2007? that’s about when i left to do work for conan o brien for a stint, after having worked on the show.

    a very odd agreement too, unless it was an existing property i suppose? what character designer out there can say they get any manner of royalties from their work? it would be amazing though! better late than never?

  • http://asteriskpix.blogspot.com richard o’connor

    Big gaffe on Animation Collective’s part.

    It most likely puts them in breach with Cartoon Network if the suit holds up -any broadcaster makes you warrant that there are no copyright claims on a property.

    Chances are Time Warner will force a settlement. I hope Ms. Denato gets millions.

  • http://www.fleabeemedia.com/ The Flea

    This is the first time that I’m reading that Village Voice article and I have to say, it’s very accurate. While interning there, I noticed that “GARY” swore a lot, and “GARY” certainly yelled a lot. It’s a damn shame, because I met some of the most kind and brilliant animators on the job — they deserved a lot more than what they got.

    I hope that Kelly Denato gets her residual payments. I can kind of understand why she didn’t say anything around the time she did — perhaps the loss of a job? That would have been awful.

  • http://www.jpdj.com JPDJ

    Animation Collective duped me into creating storyboards (a lot of storyboards) for the show “Kappa Mikey” back when I was a young artist starting out. I hope Ms. Denato gets all the money they owe her. There’s certainly something a bit shady about how they operate.

    • dr Anomaly

      Is “duped” the same as “hired”? I’m just curious? I know lot’s of artists that would like to get “duped” into some paying work right now.

  • Phil

    I know this company and worked there for years. Through all the hardships in the industry they always kept their promises to me as an employee and I’ve never heard of them trying to get one over on anyone.

  • http://www.npccomic.com/ Mary Varn

    I respect Kelly. But I’d like to hear Animation Collective’s side of this. It’s very possible they didn’t make any profit from these ventures, thus not owing her anything. We already know that not all of the produced episodes of Ellen’s Acres got aired. From the little I do know, all the facts presented in the WSJ article don’t add up.

    Animation Collective has always honored their agreements with me in the past. And I hate to see them always get so much one-sided bad press that potentially causes animators to lose their jobs.

  • Steve

    Something has to be missing from this story. I used to work at Animation Collective, no one there is enriching themselves from that business, they are actually probably the most fair and honest people I’ve worked for since I graduated college. Animation Collective is a solid company, even as an ex-employee I can safely say that they always followed through on their commitments to me 100%.

  • Jisuk

    Does Animation Collective even have any money to be sued for? Maybe she can take Larry’s condo. Does he still have that?

  • John H

    I’ve been working there for years and seen lots of ups and downs. I’ve gotten opportunities and had to work through some rough patches. Every year we sign a work-for hire agreement, just like I’ve signed on most freelance jobs and pilots.

    I know a lot of people have there beef with the company for one thing or another. That’s fine. I’ve seen lots of fresh hires, for some it’s there first real animation job. Some stick around, most move on, and they all leave with different attitudes. Sometimes the project isn’t what they wanted it to be, sometimes the project is a fun experience.

    When a company has hired over 300 people in and around New York over the past 7 years. Of course people are going to have bad feelings here and there. No more than for any other studio.

    I’m not an apologist for the studio, we have had plenty of bad schedules. The products are not always the best they could be, just the best we could make them under the circumstances. We’ve had some late checks, but I always got paid soon enough. This has been a rough year for animation in NY.

    Personally I like working here. I’m not going to comment on the substance of the post. I will repeat a comment from the early blog post- Animation Collective isn’t some behemoth. Hearing more of the context is only a phonecall away.

  • Steve

    Something has to be missing from this story. I used to work at Animation Collective, no one there is enriching themselves from that business, they are actually probably the most fair and honest people I’ve worked for since I’ve been in college. It is too easy to sue people these days!

  • Phil A

    Yes the world is obviously clamoring for an Ellen Acres Ipad application, I’m positive it has made millions.

    I’ve worked for several studios over the course of my 12 year career, and AC was a great place to work. They treated me no differently than any of the studios that I worked for. If anything, they had more loyalty to their employees than I had seen elsewhere. AC was one of the few companies that would hold on to their employees for as long as they could, rather than just letting them go after their contract was up. Which I believe is one of the reasons they ran into problems a few years ago.

    They wanted to keep most of their employees on even when there was not enough work to go around. Does that sound like a company doing whatever they can to take advantage of their artists?

  • http://ixintro.newgrounds.com Ixintro

    JPDJ, jeez you poor soul! :C

  • Dana

    I was also hired at AC as a young, inexperienced artist, but over the 3+ years I worked there, I never felt like they took advantage of me in any way. In fact, they went out of their way to keep me and many other artists employed with benefits when it probably was not in the company’s best interests to do so. No workplace is perfect, but I had an overall positive experience there and I know others who feel the same way.

    I’d also like to point out that AC and the other parties involved in the lawsuit have not commented yet, so we’re only getting one side of the story here.

  • http://www.sexymecha.com Hal

    If the contract is legitimate and if she is entitled to that share of the revenue, milk them dry. AC is not a bad company to work for by any means but this would be a contract from the earliest years of the studio, when they were trying to make a foothold in the market and she may have created a character that brought in the finances that kept many artists employed. Executives often underestimate the popularity of characters and (whether you feel AC treats its employees well or not) merchandising rights are not something to be taken lightly – it would have been incredibly foolish to toss 25% at anyone haphazardly only to attempt a renegotiation later when the scope of the potential income was realized. If the contract is legitimate and she’s taken the proper steps to be compensated, I hope she gets a big payday. Character designers SHOULD profit from the development of iconic characters.

  • Holly

    The terms of her contract need to be properly examined before anyone can make assumptions or start pointing fingers.

    I also worked for Animation Collective for over two years, between 2007-2009, and although there were some difficult times and pay delays I never knew them to not pay an artist by the terms of his or her contract. Even if the compensation was late, it was always payed in full as soon as possible. AC is not a big corporation. It is a small studio that recognizes new talent and has given a lot of young animators, myself included, their first real studio job.

  • charles xavier

    I hope she wins

  • Patsy

    I feel like I have to chime in and stick up for AC on this one too…Every time I see a post on Cartoonbrew about Animation Collective it always seems to be a negative one. I have no clue whats going on with Ms Denato’s case but as far as ACs negative track record and poor reputation with artist…I think that’s a bit ridiculous. I was fortunate enough to work there on a few productions and granted, it was far from perfect but I never felt i was taken advantage by anyone in charge of running the studio. To be perfectly honest as far as my experience goes it was a pleasure working there…the artist were usually kept in the loop about most aspects of the productions and management seemed to take an interest in keeping the crew inspired in the studio and the products coming down the pipeline. Pay checks weren’t always on time and productions could be frustrating at times but we’re working in the entertainment industry which I found out fairly quickly how much a “slide by the seat of your pants” type of industry this is. It sucks how much negative press AC is getting and I’m not saying anything bad about Ms Denato…she deserves compensation for her work because all artist do…but AC has provided work for NYC animation Artist for a while and it hardly fair to openly mud sling at them.

  • credfed

    As another AC vet, I’m also confused about this story. Certainly no art of Denato’s was used in the actual television show; everything was re-designed in a completely different style from what she did for the original trailer. The books are another matter, but I’m sure any revenue generated from them would be measured in the hundreds rather than millions, if not as an outright loss.

    From the WSJ: Ms. Denato, who currently does freelance design work, said the contract has long been a “sore spot” for her, and that she’s never spent significant time watching the show. “I caught a glimpse of it once,” she said, “but I just don’t want to do that myself. I’m the one who gave Ellen her face.”

    This is either poor reporting, or a very disingenuous statement, as Ellen’s face, as it appeared on the animated TV show, was designed by Keith Vincent, not Kelly Denato.

    There are many other factual errors in the WSJ article, mostly in how it glosses over the fact that Denato’s art was not used in the animated series. Again from the article: The suit centers on Ms. Denato’s illustration of Ellen, a green-eyed, red-haired character who was initially designed for a book, but eventually became the title character of “Ellen’s Acres.” This is misleading, as “Ms. Denato’s illustration of Ellen” never appeared in the TV series to which the article is referring. They have only the character’s name in common.

    The very fact that this appeared in the WSJ at all is astounding. It’s a non-story, and this is purely an (apparently successful) attempt at a PR shakedown.

    • http://monicochavez.com Monico Chavez

      Come on now…. how would they animate the original illustrations without redoing it for animation? If a character is reworked, it doesn’t mean it’s an entirely different character or something.

      • credfed

        This was, absolutely, completely new art. Other than the fact that both were little girls named Ellen, there is no similarity. The character design was 100% new from the ground up. There is zero similarity between the characters… if you’re able to find images and compare them I’m sure you’ll agree.

      • credfed

        Here you go — this is Denato’s original character as used in the books (took some searching to find, too): http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_zEPo5mQpGJ4/Si2f9UmTLtI/AAAAAAAAAG4/WJ80UTGcPWc/s320/ellen.jpg

        And this is the character used in the show:
        http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_1B1WsL-rigc/Rp8Xz4d1vUI/AAAAAAAAAW0/0quu5cBAsrM/s320/Ellen_acres_150.gif

        The whole style is completely different. Although I may have exaggerated by saying “zero similarity” — they do both have wide-set eyes and redish hair — it’s obviously a very different character.

      • celia

        Both Denato and AC have the same defining facial characteristics for Ellen: red hair, wide-set eyes, and gap in the front teeth. If we could see a full body image of Denato’s Ellen, I’m sure there will be more similarities. The medium may have changed, but the character looks the same.

      • amid

        Credfed – You’ve posted an example of the character as it appeared in a 2006 book illustrated by Denato. You can argue that there is “zero similarity”, but according to the WSJ article, she was paid to do the book, so apparently the people who commissioned it thought there was some similarity.

      • credfed

        I think you’re missing my point. No one’s denying that Denato designed the character in the books. And that may well be all the suit is about. In that case I think the only real issue is probably a misunderstanding over how much profit the books made (likely zero).

        But in my opinion, this is all being spun to give the impression that the artwork in the television show is the same as what was used in the books, and was used without Denato’s permission. In reality it’s different art from a different designer (though based on the same character concept that Schwarz created), and this fact seems to be getting glossed over. There’s no way to tell if this is intentional or not, but it seems highly disingenuous at the very least.

        I really think you guys, or someone, should do more research. I was not directly involved in Ellen’s when I was at AC, and what follows should come with the caveat that it is based not only on word of mouth, but my memories of that word of mouth from several years ago. That said, I believe the actual chronology was something like: Denato designed the original character for the original Ellen’s Acres trailer, then later left AC with some kind of partial ownership of the design she had negotiated. When the show got picked up years later, Denato and AC couldn’t come to terms on that design’s use, so AC redesigned the character from the ground up specifically to avoid running into an issue like this. Later the book deal was entered into with Denato as a separate entity, and she re-worked her original character to look somewhat more similar to the new design in the show. This was completely separate from the TV show, which at that point of course Denato was well aware of, new art and all.

        (Denato’s revision of her original art was something I had forgotten when I posted the earlier links. I apologize for that and can see why my memories of the original art don’t jive so clearly with what you’re all seeing now. In my opinion the two designs I linked to are still very different, but if I could link to the original art from the trailer it’d be a much more stark contrast.)

        To be clear, I have no bone to pick with Ms. Denato; by the time I worked for AC she had long since left. If there’s money owed to her, I hope she gets it. However, I think in the end the whole lawsuit stems from Denato’s belief that profit was made from these books which she was unjustly denied a cut in. In reality I suspect, as I said above, that the books took a loss.

        Again, what bothers me personally about all of this is not that Denato is suing AC… that to me just seems misguided. What bothers me is the borderline dishonest way in which the story is being spun. It’s shoddy reporting likely based on what I’d guess is a very one-sided press release, and each time the story gets repeated it pics up loaded elaborations like the ridiculous juxtaposition of the photos at the top of this article.

  • credfed

    But is that the standard by which stuff like this is judged? I honestly don’t know, but I can’t imagine that hair color and basic facial features are enough to define a character in any sort of legal sense. When you consider that a piece of music can differ by as little as one note and avoid copyright infringement, I can’t imagine there’s a leg to stand on here if they’re actually trying to claim that Denato’s art was used in the show.

    • http://www.sexymecha.com Hal

      Denato appears to have been hired to develop a children’s book with the character of ELLEN. If the rights to THAT book and THAT character were sold to create ELLEN’S ACRES, and Denato’s contract gave her a percentage of that sale and any future media (regardless of the character’s DESIGN) she is due the full compensation of these deals. It has nothing to do with whether or not the same character design was used in the show.

      Also – a piece of music cannot differ by one note and avoid copyright infringement if proper legal protection is in place by an artist.

      • Liesje

        Yeah, I’m sure Dan Brown didn’t envision Tom Hanks the entire time he was writing DaVinci Code.

  • http://www.sexymecha.com Hal

    We all know how characters fare in the transition between media – characters from illustrated children’s books always are revised to suit animation. The fact remains whether she has LEGAL RIGHT to profits from ANY FUTURE PRODUCTIONS involving the Character of ELLEN (who, in my opinion, even after the Flash Redesign carries the spirit and tone of the original illustration) due to a contract AC had her sign. Its not about the art used (for example, Shrek in original illustrated form is very different from Dreamworks’ redesign, the dragons from the HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON book is nothing like Sanders’ incarnation, IRON GIANT, CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS, etc.) but IF the original creator is still entitled to financial rewards from the movie rights, they are still due that money regardless of the redesign and who did it.

    I’m APPALLED at how many artists (and I myself have done my time at AC and have no ill will towards the studio) are confusing the possible LEGALITY of this case with whether or not she did the final design that ended up in the show produced. ANYONE who’s a character designer or illustrator knows that a deal including residuals off merchandise or future media is the kind of thing that rarely happens to an artist. I don’t know if this is a backlash vs. the work for hire mentality our industry promotes, but if the law is on her side (or even if AC foolishly promised returns they never expected to manifest from Ellen’s Acres) she is due her settlement.

    • credfed

      I don’t know the details of the suit at all, and this is of course nothing more than speculation on all of our parts until we do. What bothers me most is the way this story is being presented and repeated. Granted, the WSJ reporter probably doesn’t really know the difference between a lot of these finer points, but I still feel that the article, and/or its source, is being willfully misleading. I think the average person would read the article and assume that the original art was being used in the show without permission, when that is obviously not the case. It just seems like a very weakly researched story that’s being repeated without much question, and I’m surprised that a greater effort hasn’t been made to represent both sides.

  • http://asteriskpix.blogspot.com Richard O’Connor

    In screenwriting, if you’re the first guy hired to write a script -it’s yours forever.

    40 writers can come in afterward and make it a whole new thing, but it’s still yours.

    Why do animators so often insist on selling themselves short of rights which are taken for granted in other fields?

    • http://www.npccomic.com/ Mary Varn

      As an animator who’s only done a very limited number of character designs, this is my take on it:
      If I’m doing a character design for someone based on their idea, and they have complete direction and approval/revision authority over my design, I typically don’t mind signing away my rights, depending on the level of compensation, of course.

      But if I’m asked to come up with a character, both idea and design, from the ground up, then I feel like I shouldn’t give up rights.

      More importantly, (and purely hypothetically) if I’ve already come up with the character wholly on my own, and someone offers to make it into a show, I feel I should hold onto those rights very tightly.

      • http://asteriskpix.blogspot.com richard o’connor

        No one in this business “minds signing away their rights” and ultimately it has hurt everyone who is Time Warner, Disney or Viacom. Those are the only people who make any substantial profit from licensed properties.

        If a show is a success there’s enough money for every to get a little rich. If it’s not, no one is any worse off than when they started.

        The instance on corporate ownership of character designs is unnecessary greed.

        The model the WGA has for writers should apply equally to character designers. Your willing to give up your rights should not make precedent for those who wish to retain theirs.

        The problem comes when producers, like Animation Collective (and me), who rely on artists -and if we accept the surface account of this article -want to give them a fair stake and are commanded to give up all copyright claims by networks in order to produce the show. Small to mid-sized studios in the business of making stuff need the production contracts and cave in.

      • http://asteriskpix.blogspot.com Richard O’Connor

        meant “isn’t Time Warner, etc.”

      • http://asteriskpix.blogspot.com Richard O’Connor

        Good grief, so many typos and grammatical errors I don’t know where to begin…

        Just imagine the above wasn’t written by an illiterate buffoon.

      • http://www.npccomic.com/ Mary Varn

        But that’s just it. We usually don’t have a choice if we want the job working on the Time Warner/Viacom/Disney show.

        Hopefully things will change. We see them changing a little already with independent creators publishing on the web, in comics and video. For instance, Microsoft funds the web series The Guild, and creator Felicia Day retains all rights and creative control. Microsoft just gets an exclusivity deal for the first few months the show is out.

        That’s still a ways off from supporting a team of animators, but maybe we can get there. And keep in mind that Felicia Day earned that great deal by making a wildly popular first season with no funding other than donors.

  • Angie

    Come on people, look at the two pictures and ask yourself who looks more genuine? I wouldn’t trust a goth hipster as far as I could throw ‘er, Larry on the other hand looks fun and throw-able. I’m all for the little guy getting theirs but this just seems like a flimsy case by an unsuccessful artist desperate to cash in.

    • Debbi

      What is the purpose of that contribution? Are you “all for the little guy getting theirs” only if they look just like you? Regardless of the outcome of this case, and its merit, which is for the court to decide, it is clearly important that artists take a stand when they feel their legal rights are infringed upon. The easy and pointless thing to do is to turn any meaningful debate into an opportunity to blindly bully people.