The Sad End of Disney Hand Drawn Animation

Written by Jeff Heimbuch. Posted in Disney, Disney History, Disney Movies, Features, The 626

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Published on April 17, 2013 at 12:01 am with 79 Comments

[Regarding 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'] The animation of the dwarfs themselves is something pretty much impossible to achieve in computer animation. That fluidity, that squash and stretch, that kind of stuff – it just works in hand-drawn animation. – John Lasseter

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the news: Disney has laid off their hand-drawn animation staff. 2D animation is now dead at Disney.

Of course, this sort of thing is upsetting. The Walt Disney Company was built on the back of hand-drawn animation, tracing all the way back to extremely early days of Walt’s original follies. As a Disney animation fan, I’m saddened by this news, and for the folks who lost their livelihood. But as an animation fan in general, I have to say that not all hope is lost.

Let’s take a look at what happened. This wasn’t just a gutting of the animation division. About 150 folks, overall, from all aspects of the film division, were laid off. Many of those who were left in the cold admitted that they could see the writing on the wall before the layoffs occurred. Walt Disney Company CEO, Bob Iger, has been looking for ways to cut costs throughout the company, despite the fact that the stock price was pretty high on the day the layoffs occurred. With new digital technology being able to take the place of some of these folks, it makes perfectly good business sense to trim the fat, so to speak. At the risk of sounding heartless, I do understand why they did it. But I don’t have to like it.

This isn’t the first time that Disney has slaughtered their animators (nor will it be the last, probably). If you think back, almost every major release of the last few years was followed by layoffs in the animation department. Most of the staff who worked on The Princess and the Frog, the last traditionally animated film Disney released, were let go as soon as the film was completed. The same could be said for Wreck-It Ralph. The fact of the matter is, these kinds of things are commonplace. It costs the company too much to keep these folks on in-between projects, so they let them go until they have need of them again.

Is it a terrible practice to have? Realistically, yes, but from a business side, it makes fiscal sense. And that’s all many publicly traded companies care about. Even for a company as large as Disney, keeping folks on staff that aren’t actively working on a project costs them money, and at the end of the day, it’s their bottom line that counts.

And while looking at their bottom line, Disney has seen the wave of the future: CGI is in, hand drawn is out. Just look at box office returns for their recent features. The Princess and the Frog grossed under $300 million worldwide. Tangled grossed almost twice that. Wreck-It Ralph is just on the cusp of $500 million. The numbers don’t lie. It’s not hard to see which way Disney is going to swing when it comes time to green light the next animated feature. While both are time consuming and costly, the returns on a CGI film vastly outweigh those of a traditionally hand-drawn animated feature. Even with the budget of a CGI film carrying a slightly higher price tag, seeing that profit at the end of the day is well worth it for Disney’s pockets.

I mentioned earlier that this didn’t come as much of a surprise to folks in the animation division. As early as last year, they were told in pitch meetings for new stories that their ideas wouldn’t necessarily be used for hand-drawn features. John Lasseter has reportedly been known to shy away from the subject during said pitch meetings. It was pretty clear what direction the Company was heading for quite some time now.

That said, is it fair to base an entire company’s animated future on the profits of a few films? Just because one film did better than the other may have nothing at all to do with the format of the film. I feel like they are not taking all the other factors into consideration, such as the release window, marketing, title, or even the story itself. There are many things that contribute to the success, or failure, of a film. Basing it solely on the type of animation is unfair, and quite frankly, seems like a bull-headed decision; more of a gut reaction than anything else.

But the simple fact remains that now there are some great animators that are out of a job. For a Company that was literally built on hand-drawn animation, you would think they would at least try to find a way to keep this division going in some way. Even if it was just to do short films to be shown before their features, it would have been appreciated. I fear that the hand-drawn animation department as we knew it will never exist at Walt Disney Animation again. Some form of it may be resurrected in the future, after Iger has finally retired. However, it will probably be in a vastly different form.

The big question that everyone is now asking is if 2D animation is dead. My optimistic answer is No, I definitely do not think so. As long as there are talented artists in this world, hand drawn features will continue. They just may not be at Disney.

The format is in desperate need of a champion, someone who will lead the revival of hand drawn animation. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a person like that at the moment. Where is the modern day Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, Tex Avery, Hayao Miyazaki or Don Bluth? John Lasseter had indicated that he was a huge fan of hand drawn animation and wanted to continue it at Disney. Unfortunately, he’s let us down. I’m holding out hope that a new animation messiah will come.  The when and where, I don’t know. But if even one studio has a huge hit 2D film, hand drawn animation is sure to rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

As for those who were laid off, I think the best thing to remember is that there is life after Disney. There have been plenty of animators laid off over the years that have gone on to other companies, or even created their own, and found new success. Sometimes, even more than what they achieved at Disney. It’s a terrible moment in time right now, without a doubt. But these men and women are extremely talented individuals, and I have no doubt in my mind that they will be able to thrive in their future endeavors. Even if they are eventually forced to work in a digital world.

In the meantime, us fans of traditionally animated, hand-drawn features can do little more than complain and wait. And buy tickets to the hand drawn films of other studios.

Watch this short but brilliant montage of Disney animated films by Nick Kinder we found on YouTube (there are a few digital film clips in there as well). Just look at the artistry, the magic, the emotion and heart.  The very reason you love Disney is in every hand painted cell.

I refuse to say this is the end. It’s simply a new beginning. . . right? Oh how I hope I’m right.

UPDATED: To address a few comments, I just wanted to add a few things to the end of this!

1 – I did forget to mention how Winnie The Pooh was a wonderful film that did terrible at the box office. Its poor marketing was its downfall, and honestly, made me forget to even mention it in the above column. My apologizes!

2 – I cannot play the “Walt card” on this one…it just doesn’t seem right to me. I know a lot of you are saying “Walt would never have allowed this,” but we obviously will never know for sure. Walt was one to embrace new and changing technologies, as evidenced over the course of his career. If Walt were alive today, whose to say he wouldn’t fall in love with CGI and today’s 3D technology? I, for one, honestly believe he would have. However, because of his background in hand-drawn animation, I do believe he would have kept that going in some way as well.

How do you feel about the recent layoffs at Disney’s hand-drawn animation unit? Do you think this is the end of traditional animation as we know it? Have Iger and Lasseter gone too far? Will other studios be able to successfully continue on the art form? Please leave us your thoughts below.


by Jeff Heimbuch

If you have a tip, questions, comments, or gripes, please feel free email me at [email protected] or leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

You can read past columns of The 626 by clicking here!

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Other MiceChat columns by Jeff:

From The Mouth Of The Mouse

Dueling Disney

The Disney Review

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About Jeff Heimbuch

Jeff has been in love with all things Disney since a very early age. He writes From The Mouth Of The Mouse and The 626 every week for MiceChat. He also collaborates on The Disney Review every weekend. Aside from that, he is one half of the devastatingly good looking duo of the weekly vid/podcast Communicore Weekly (the other half being fellow MiceChat columnist George Taylor), which you can find at www.communicoreweekly.com Jeff is also writing a book with former Imagineer and Disney Legend, Rolly Crump. You can find out more about the book at www.itskindofacutestory.com

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Comments for The Sad End of Disney Hand Drawn Animation are now closed.

  1. It’s short sighted and wrong. I’m extremely disappointed in John Lasseter for not fighting to keep hand drawn animation at Disney. It’s as simple as green lighting a film project to be hand drawn. What ever happened to the quote from John Lasseter about story being the most important element, not the medium of hand drawn or computer animation?

    • “What ever happened to the quote from John Lasseter about story being the most important element, not the medium of hand drawn or computer animation?”

      That cuts both ways, doesn’t it?

  2. Why is it that most everyone forgets about Winnie the Pooh when writing about Disney’s recent 2D achievements?? Granted, it’s easy to forget a movie when it’s released on the same day as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 but I think the point stands, especially when it’s a Disney message board.

    It’s important to mention Pooh’s miserable performance as part of the unfair death of 2D animation. I for one, believe that marketing is a lot to blame (for John Carter as well). Google the billboards for Winnie the Pooh. You’ll find countless advertisements with our Hundred Acre Wood friends floating on a river of honey… and no title. Sure people know who those characters are but at this point, do we, as a film going audience know what it is they’re selling? Not everyone is an eagle eye and will spot the “coming to theaters” text on the bottom. We also don’t know if we’re being advertised a direct-to-DVD-then-theater film or if it is an honest to God stab at going back to the original Pooh? Fortunately for those who watched it, it was the latter.

    The trailers of the film didn’t help neither. I love the UK band Keane more than anyone but the song “Somewhere Only We Know” and the polished shiny lettering in the trailer pushed me away rather than take me in. I ONLY went to this movie because it was hand drawn animation from the Feature Animation Studio. There’s something wrong with that.

    For Princess and the Frog, the downfall was also in the advertising. Was it wise to reveal to us that Tiana turns into a frog as well? Was it wise to sell the movie using Ray the Firefly in the teasers (who became endearing only to those who saw the film) or to use Prince Naveen as a slimy womanizing frog? And was it wise to sell the film on what should have been “The Frog Prince” rather than “The Princess and the Frog”? Audiences were already skeptical at Disney’s return to 2D animation and because the film was only “good” but not “Beauty and the Beast” good, the audiences never materialized. If the trailers for Princess and the Frog had any other studio attached, I may not have seen it in the theater if at all.

    Losing 2D animation is a real shame. Anyone can learn computer software and animate well if they have a certain level of talent. But it takes a real master of their craft to draw, animate, act, and transform drawings into breathing, thinking characters.

    • I love most everything you said. We can’t pin this just on the films. Disney’s marketing has been weird for the past few years. See: Prince of Persia, John Carter, Winnie, etc. You are spot on.

      A great movie will win out and audiences will not care if it is CG or traditional. But yes, it must be marketed effectively. Most people didn’t even know Pooh was coming out.

      • The marketing team at Disney across the board has been abysmal. I don’t understand why these people advertise such great products so poorly – there are times where I’m tempted to get into advertising just to DO something about it. It’s a disservice to the premium Disney products that are created. It’s why no one knew when Tron: Uprising was on, why when I asked a major Disney fan from Sweden if she’d seen Princess and the Frog after it had been released to Blu-Ray/DVD for nearly a year she had no idea what I was talking about…

        I am disappointed in Lasseter. I’m sure there’s a lot going on behind closed doors but it’s not like he’s a powerless figure and if the man with his original ideas is still in there I would REALLY like for him to come back out and take a stand for Disney’s core ideals. I do love Pixar but in many ways it is because of Pixar that hand-drawn animation has been shown the door and everyone got on the CGI bandwagon.

        So sorry to all of the talented animators that got laid off. I’m sure you guys were hoping that this wasn’t going to happen again for at least another 20 years.

    • I absolutely agree with your post. I was so excited when I heard that The Princess and the Frog was going to be made in 2D, but I couldn’t bring myself to go see it in theaters, let alone sit through it on dvd. It was more the storyline and marketing than anything. Tiana spent so much time as a frog that I couldn’t really connect with her character. I suppose that may have been done in part to attract the male demographic (like renaming Rapunzel to Tangled), but it didn’t have the same pull that Beauty and the Beast had. A good story will win the hearts of both genders.

      That brings me to my next point – movie marketing these days is very lackluster. It’s either very confusing and seemingly directionless (aka John Carter), or they give the audience too much information (sometimes the ending) in the trailer, thus decreasing the excitement for seeing the movie. What happened to the creativity that used to help promote the films without detracting from the excitement of seeing them? Does anyone else remember the summer of 1994 when Disney partnered up with Nestle to advertise the upcoming release of The Lion King? When unwrapped, the Crunch bars revealed one of four or five scenes from the movie.
      Lastly, there is the release date. Winnie the Pooh was so charming, but anyone working in marketing should realize that releasing WtP on the same day as one of the most anticipated movies of a GENERATION is going to get beat out at the box office.

      Sadly, now we have lost everything related to 2D animation. It’s too bad that they could not have been kept on as advisors and mentors to younger artists. Hopefully they can take their vast knowledge and become consultants.

      • While it’s pretty much a given that audiences will “pay” to see a CGI movie and “avoid” a 2D one, the problem with Princess and The Frog had less to do with animation technique and more to do with a downright lousy movie. Let’s face it, it was destined to bomb.

    • You bring up a fair point about Winnie the Pooh; it is often forgotten about.

      I even did it myself in the column! But it was a very well done film that had extremely poor marketing, and thus, failed. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  3. How sad. We’re losing the art form that Walt pioneered and used as a medium to tell stories that have changed the world. The difference between CGI and hand animation is that hand animation is art…CGI is not art imo, its entertaining sure but its not art . Is there a difference between a real painting and your computers wallpaper, or a photocopy of that painting, of course there is. And that’s the difference between CGI and animation.

    • Well you could say CGI is its own art form and it is but Hand animation will always be the higher art form imo. The difference between a painting and a photo. Classical music and rock. Home cooked meals and hot pockets. The louvre or a square skyscraper. That’s how I see it.

    • Well you could say CGI is its own art form and it is but Hand animation will always be the higher art form imo. The difference between a painting and a photo. Classical music and rock. Home cooked meals and hot pockets. The louvre or a square skyscraper. That’s how I see it.

  4. It is a sad shame to be sure, and I eagerly look forward to the day another Disney 2D animated feature graces the silver screen.

  5. Walt would not have allowed this to happen. These small number of animators should have been kept on staff as they represent what built the company that allows Igar and senior Disney executives to make millions. Igar could have easily justified the cost but unfortunately as is the case with most US corporations , it’s NOT about the people it’s all about the profit to keep the stock price moving up.

    • You can’t say what Walt would have done. It’s entirely possible that he would have phased out 2D animation (though I like to believe he would have kept the animators onboard and trained them in CG animation). He was very interested in new technologies and new ways of doing things. After a time, he largely ignored the animation side of the company because he was more interested in other things, such as Disneyland and CalArts.

      I also don’t think it’s fair to say that John Lasseter let us down. According to Jeff H, Lasseter didn’t say that 2D animation WOULD continue, only that he WANTED it to. He’s a smart man and won’t make any promises he can’t keep. He’s not the top boss, after all. Bob Iger is (well, ok, the board and stockholders are the top bosses, but you know what I mean).

      Like everyone else, I’m very disappointed that 2D work has been gutted, but let’s face it. Disney is a business. It’s not a welfare state. It can’t afford to make poor business decisions just because it’s the nice thing to do. It has to make a profit or it will cease to exist. I wish things were different, but that’s just how it is.

  6. And people thought Eisner was worse. HA. I bet y’all are regretting Iger buying Pixar. Lasseter under Iger’s control was doomed.

  7. I think the newest Winnie the Pooh film from 2011 was one of the best films Disney has made in a long time, but for some idiotic reason they chose to release it the same day as Harry Potter.

    I wouldn’t say the general public has lost interest in hand drawn animation and thats why the numbers are lower, it’s about the story. Look at Home on the Range and Brother Bear, those weren’t bad films because they were hand drawn, they were just bad films. Chicken Little was a terrible movie too and it was CGI. Disney just isn’t consistent anymore with making good films. Sure Tangled and Wreck it Ralph did well, but what about Bolt and Meet the Robinson’s, they’re long forgotten.

  8. “And while looking at their bottom line, Disney has seen the wave of the future: CGI is in, hand drawn is out. Just look at box office returns for their recent features. The Princess and the Frog grossed under $300 million worldwide. Tangled grossed almost twice that. Wreck-It Ralph is just on the cusp of $500 million.”

    After the incredible financial success of Aladdin and The Lion King was followed by the diminishing returns of Pocahontas, Hunchback and Mulan, the bean-counters at Disney used a similar quote to justify the UN-popularity of Princess films and the need to invest heavily in “boy’s animation.”

    This ‘revelation’ led to the financial bombs that were Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

    Remember how Disney’s bean-counters read their failure? They declared ‘Hand drawn animation is dead. CG is the future!’ and shut down the Florida animation studio!

    Back in the early days MOST of Disney’s animation features were considered financial disappointments. Still, the folks in the cushy chairs understood that long-term, they were going to make MILLIONS more through re-release and endless merchandising.

    “That said, is it fair to base an entire company’s animated future on the profits of a few films? Just because one film did better than the other may have nothing at all to do with the format of the film. I feel like they are not taking all the other factors into consideration, such as the release window, marketing, title, or even the story itself. There are many things that contribute to the success, or failure, of a film. Basing it solely on the type of animation is unfair, and quite frankly, seems like a bull-headed decision; more of a gut reaction than anything else.”

    Precisely. It’s a quickie coward’s move meant to serve stock holders — and NOT the artform, the artists, the company’s heritage or its history. Congrats, John!

    • Very good point about the early days. Snow White was the only real success for many years until – believe it or not – Mary Poppins. Only Cinderella was marginally successful in the interim. What we consider classics now, like Fantasia, Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, and even the creme de la creme – Sleeping Beauty – etc., were box office disappointments in their day. And Disney still had the gall to build an entire theme park around them.

      • Exactly …and did Walt ever turn his back on animation? Nope. His obsession was storytelling, and the quality of everything that had his name attached to it. Thank God he wasn’t obsessed with profits or the bottom line. How many of his stories never would’ve been told. And you could argue that he wouldn’t have attempted to build Disneyland, as people advised him it would be an epic failure. Oh how I miss Walt disney.

  9. I’m beyond upset about this. How could a company lose its sense of identity in such a profound way? I supported Iger and Lasseter for a long time. Even thought of Lasseter as a sort of modern day Walt. He isn’t. He’s a talented man with blinders on. He does brilliant work, but it has to be his way and without regard to the Disney legacy.

    They reached their hands deep inside the soul of the Disney Company last week and ripped out its very heart! Hand drawn animation IS Disney. That’s what the company is wrapped around. The parks are and extension of the success of those early films and are painted with the characters and themes from those films.

    I sat in a D23 Expo hall as Lasseter told us all how much he loves hand drawn animation. What happened? So Disney’s outsourced marketing and PR companies failed them on Princess and the Frog and Pooh and all of hand drawn animation had to be thrown out the window? Put the blame where the blame should be and fire the folks who built the flaws into Princess and the Frog to begin with. And chop the heads off of the Marketing and PR flacks who don’t understand what audiences want or how to promote a family film (without fart jokes). But don’t get rid of the entire legacy of a company because of failures unrelated to their talent or medium.

    Complete and total disbelief. When is Iger’s retirement party?

    • I do not think the problem is that Lasseter is not Walt. The problem is that Iger is not Roy.

      • Lasseter is indeed a huge problem. He is just one of those guys who got lucky, right place at the right time. Think about it…if it wasn’t for the fact that Toy Story was the first CGI based film and directed by Lasseter, would we even care about John? I think not! Personally, I can watch UP and Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles for days. I like Toy Story because of the characters not because of the film itself, it’s a good film but not as good as UP or Finding Nemo, those are great films start to finish. Lasseter has let his ego get the best of him and is serving himself not the fans of Pixar. Think about his other Pixar films, A Bug’s Life (not a huge success compared to the other Pixar films), Cars, and Cars 2 (again neither were successes compared to those of the other Pixar films). He’s too busy going to Disneyland and creating statues of himself as a car to really throw himself into what got him to where he is in the first place, ANIMATION and STORYTELLING…he is indeed not Walt Disney and never will be! We definitely need another Don Bluth…I wish Chris Sanders was still with Disney and was running the show, he’d know what to do!

    • Dusty and Jeff –
      I think it is worth noting that many of the “150″ that were laid-off last week (with apparently more layoffs to come over the next few months) were not in animation.

      They were the men and women who work behind the scenes of live-action productions as well, that previously were made at the studio-lot on Buena Vista. Even if a film was shot elsewhere, that is where they were finished (and it takes a lot of people to do that, even in the digital age).

      This is in line with the Co.’s publicly stated goal, that far fewer films will actually be made anymore by “The Walt Disney Studios” (nitpickers – yes , that is still it’s name in that division). They will instead rely on out-sourcing post-production needs. And as they said they will rely on creative content coming from “sub-divions” they now own – Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, (and Dreamworks in distribution only). An important distinction, because it allows them to contractually “gut” the men and women, union and non-union, who used to make the studio-lot an actual working, breathing, creative film factory. Ditto with the staff they laid off last week at Consumer Products, where the Co. publicly stated they are moving to a “licensing only” model (any creative work will be farmed-out).

      Is outsourcing anything new? Of course not. My fear, however, history has shown us there is a “tipping point” where this company in particular, can go to far, with disastrous results.

      And go ahead and call me old-fashioned, and lacking any business sense, but I for one will miss the day when creative content was made within the Studio, both live and animated. For sometime now the Burbank “Studio” has been, and now even more will be, just a campus of administrative offices. You know, the one that Snow White literally built.

      I have to wonder if John Lasseter lost his “pull” with the board when Steve Jobs passed away?

      (and Mr. Iger’s retirement party is in just under 2 years now).

  10. Using the Lucasfilm ‘”Clone Wars” overseas CG animation workflow model, I’m sure we’ve only seen the beginning of stateside layoffs.

  11. Not to nitpick, but the argument that hand-drawn is out and computer animation is in solely because of financial performance is flawed. The Princess and the Frog made less money because it was a weak film. It also didn’t help its international prospects that it was a story seemingly rooted in weird, American Deep South nonsense, which is a hard sell abroad. Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph were not only superior films from a storytelling standpoint, but they had broader appeal simply due to their plots and nature.

    • You aren’t nitpicking us. We agree. It’s Disney who thinks that 2D is dead because of the medium itself and not because the last 2D films were a bit flawed and VERY poorly promoted.

      Personally, I do think that some films work better in digital. But some are best suited to hand drawn. Can you imagine how much better the wonderful Tangled (Rapunzel) would have been hand drawn?! It was the heart and story which made that film work. But it was diminished just a bit by the lack hand drawn magic.

      • “Can you imagine how much better the wonderful Tangled (Rapunzel) would have been hand drawn?!”

        No need to imagine! The beauty is here: http://tinyurl.com/bp346wu

    • Definitely not a nitpick, and a very valid point!

  12. Oh my gosh I hope you’re right, too.

  13. At least we still have Phineas and Ferb….

    • True! I love that show, but after three or four years how much longer can it stay on the air? What will that mean for the future? More Blam! where they take classic cartoons and make them nearly unwatchable? I really hope not! It would be better for them to not air the cartoons if they cannot show them in their appropriate form. It just feels like the current animation for the Disney Channel is disposable, and it’s a shame because it doesn’t need to be. There is a reason why Disney still goes back to the original Mickey cartoons (even if it is to butcher them with Blam!), because when done correctly, they work.

    • Unfortunately, I have this foreboding feeling that Season 4 is the last season of P&F. Disney will have more than enough episodes to replay them ad naseum without it getting stale too quickly.

      Since Disney has now thrown 2D animation into the trash, it joins any kind of intelligent programming, apparently. Most of the shows that I’ve seen lately, like ‘Kickin’ It!’, “A Pair of Kings’, etc. have devolved into simply dumb or even stupid characters (Seriously, the intellect level portrayed in most of those shows is only slightly above “Beavis & Butthead”, and I liked that show *because* it was stupid and didn’t pretend to be more), lame jokes, and predictable gags, churned out with regularity in an attempt to throw as much **** against the wall and see what sticks, and sadly with the Disney name attached to all of it.

      I weep for the future of the company that Walt built.

  14. You know that Disney execs compare the returns and are making the same wrong conclusions that people would rather see computer animated films based on The Princess and The Frogs performance. If the story is good and has universal appeal, a 2D animated film can return more than Wreck It Ralph. My personal feeling is 2D got in a rut of following the same formula they’ve been doing for years. I love Alan Menken but when was the last 2D feature without some contribution from Alan as an example? I also thought they were going to move over the 2D animators into working on shorts like Paperman which kind of combine 2D animation with computer animation?

  15. What a stunning video, filled with moments from a beautiful and moving art form. Storytelling will of course carry on, but hopefully someday Disney will realize that the past does not have to be abandoned. Bring the hand drawn animation of the past together with the computer animation of today and the future will indeed be magical. Surely the great Disney animators can find a way, if only the executives will allow.

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