Animator Calls Earthlink Ads a 'Total Rip-off'

For weeks, Slacker director Richard Linklater and animator Bob Sabiston, who just unveiled the non-linear animated film Waking Life at the Sundance Film Festival, have been getting calls complimenting them on their innovative Earthlink ads.

The trouble is that Sabiston, an experimental Austin, Texas-based animator, didn't do the Earthlink ads and is considering legal action over what he calls a "complete and total rip-off" of his style.

Like Waking Life, the ads use "rotoscoping," in which live footage is painted over frame by frame, and both feature talking heads that constantly morph into other things. In the Earthlink ads, a man talking about searching on the Internet becomes a mouse looking for cheese, and a woman who say she hates spam becomes a bee.

Working Together at MTV Sabiston had created similar spots for MTV in 1997, under the aegis of John Andrews, who also produced Beavis and Butthead for the music network. When Earthlink wanted ads in that style, Andrews, who is now with animation production company Klasky Csupo but still kept up an "informal representation" agreement and friendship with Sabiston, approached the animator about the job.

Sabiston initially turned the project down because he was too busy completing Waking Life for Sundance. He says that Andrews pestered him and his team of animators to commit, but then he didn't feel right about it and changed his mind. "I started getting nervous," says Sabiston of working remotely with the Los Angeles-based company. "They wanted us all to have cell phones and wanted to outfit my studio with a cable modem. I didn't want my software getting out."

Sabiston has created his own rotoscoping software to give "the animation that floating look" but hasn't yet patented it — "that would cost $25,000," says the animator.

"His sense of proprietariness toward rotoscoping is sort of laughable," says Andrews, who proceeded without Sabiston on board. Andrews says Sabiston "pulled out of the project in an untimely fashion that was extremely damaging. If I hadn't done the spot for Chiat/Day [the ad agency Earthlink was working through, which had contracted with Klasky Csupo] they would have gone to another animation house and they wouldn't have used Bob and they [certainly] wouldn't have paid him."

Andrews recruited his own team of seven animators, who used off-the-shelf software — like Adobe PhotoShop and Illustrator — and "did our own version."

Sabiston Refused 'Consultant Fee' Andrews admits that "Bob's work was the original inspiration," adding, "I felt very strongly that it should be inspiration for which he was paid." Andrews sent Sabiston a check for $7,500 for a "consultant fee," but Sabiston has refused to cash the check on principle, he says.

"It's really not just the look and the animation [that Andrews copied]," Sabiston says. "The whole set-up of the commercial is right out of our film. I've met with a couple lawyers, but it's a 'look and feel' issue, which makes it hard to do anything about it legally. It's such a blatant thing. I feel I could win a case but I don't know."

"To distance himself was very unfortunate," sighs Andrews. "If he'd had a better attitude, he'd be doing more spots with Earthlink."

A spokesman for Earthlink admitted that he had never heard of Sabiston and deferred comment to Klasky Csupo.

Sabiston's worst fear isn't that he may not have enough grounds to sue or even that the ads keep running. "I'm worried that the ad agencies will put them up for an industry award," he says. "I'd hate to see that happen. It wouldn't be right."

Says Linklater, who, with Sabiston and a team of several animators, spent a year animating Waking Life's live footage, "Bob's a good guy who wants to do cool things and doesn't want to sell stuff. He just wants to work on things that he feels good about, you know?" He adds, "Advertising is a rip-off medium to begin with," a statement with which Andrews seems to agree, at least in theory.

"It's constantly about appropriation of styles," says Andrews of the ad industry. "I thought this was the rare case where I could involve the original creator and make sure he was paid."