Wisconsin man founds own 2-D animation studio to save genre

RICHFIELD, Wis. – Tom Hignite knew something was off when he went to the Disney studios in Florida three years ago and saw empty easels instead of animators working on a film.

Hignite later heard they had been laid off, since fans were going to see more computer-animated movies and box-office sales had been lagging for classic hand-drawn, or two-dimensional, movies.

Having gone to school for art, he didn’t want 2-D films to die. He had been successful owning a home building company in southeastern Wisconsin, and decided to put money into a studio that would make only 2-D cartoons.

So in 2004 he started Miracle Studios in Polk. He hired 12 animators, who have worked at Disney, Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros.

“If I could do something in a small way to keep this art alive … it just struck me as a good time to do it,” Hignite said.

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Steve Hulett, a business representative for the Animation Guild, said major studios that worked on hand-drawn feature films used to employ 2,000 to 3,000 people in the mid-1990s, but that number has dropped to a few hundred.

Some companies still produce hand-drawn films, but contract some or all of the animation to other countries. The emergence of computer-animated films such as “Shrek” raked in big bucks, caused the industry to shy from 2-D, he said.

“I think the market is heavily tilted to computer-generated imaging,” Hulett said. “I don’t see that changing for the foreseeable future.”