It's become a constant theme in my writing this past year. I've been comparing todays animation studios to the cartoon factories of years past and the changes I've observed. Most noticeable are the amazing technological advances as cartoon making has moved from traditional hand drawn production to today's digital process. You can't walk through a modern animation studio without seeing rows and rows of animation artists working away on their computers and Cintiq Tablets.
What's even more noticeable is the atmosphere of today's animation studios. The joy of cartoon making has now been reduced to the pure drudgery of hitting deadlines and cranking out footage. This was driven home by a recent visit with an old animation colleague. My talented friend was hard at work on a cartoon that proved to be as much fun as having a tooth removed. The deadline was impossible and the pay was pitiful. There was a joylessness about the whole process and my friend wondered why he had gotten into animation in the first place.
I couldn't help be reminded of the wonderful world of animation I experienced throughout most of my career. Animation wasn't a big deal in the old days and most people barely understood what we did for a living. But, I'll tell you this. The business was loads of fun and artists even arrived at work each morning with smiles on their faces. I've observed the looks on the faces of animation workers today and trust me, they're not smiling. What the hell happened to the creative career that was once considered a sheer delight?
I'll start with the Bob Clampett Studio in Hollywood because it best personifies what it was like to work in animation back in the sixties. Clampett's insane workshop was filled with a cadre of animation's top talents. They were also the craziest group of men and women you could ever imagine. The artists worked hard and they played hard. The studio was an amazing looney bin of brilliant creatives whose zany ideas were more than evident on the screen. Better yet, they had one hellava time working in this fun-filled atmosphere and that included the boss himself. Bob Clampett was an active participate in the cartoon mayhem and he generated laughs both onscreen and off.
During Saturday Morning Television hey day, one of the most prolific studios in town was Hanna-Barbera. Whether you considered the work brilliant or not, you had to concede the Hollywood studio managed to crank out reams of footage each year for the upcoming television season. You can also bet that H-B's talented artists, directors and writers worked their butts off meeting those deadlines. Considering all this, I'll have to add that laboring in this wacky factory remained a joy. There were jokes, pranks and outrageous incidents that would no doubt get anyone immediately sacked today. Yet, back when animation was fun, it was pretty much anything goes as long as the work got done. Want an example? We had a gag called, “The Drop” where something was dropped on the studio floor only to be followed by a larger item hitting the floor. The noise would intensify as more items were dropped until finally climaxing with a loud crash. Hold a beat - and the drop of a tiny tin can would punctuate the wacky mayhem. It was a pure cartoon sound gag within a cartoon workplace. The stories are endless, but the best is probably the artist who moved his office into the studio men’s room. No joke. He actually moved into the men’s washroom. The studio facility drew its fair share of visitors who had to see this wacky situation for themselves.
In case you think Walt Disney Productions was a “rest home” by comparison, think again. Even at staid, conservative Disney, the artists often played as hard as they worked. If you know your Disney history you've probably heard a tiny fraction of the merry mirth that went on inside Walt's cartoon factory. That meant Ward Kimball walking in to work in a gorilla suit or Roy William's convertible with a water filled bath tub wedged in his vehicle. Though conservative politically, Walt Disney was hardly a prude or a stick in the mud. He knew that artists were always at their best when having a good time. The Old Maestro made sure his studio was a home away from home and a fun place to work. For those who have their doubts about this version of life at Walt Disney Productions, let me again remind you - I was there to observe it all firsthand. Eventually, a new generation of animation talent arrived at Disney in the seventies and they carried on the zany tradition of their predecessors. There were gags and pranks throughout the year that culminated in a wacky holiday show presented in the windows of Animations's G-Wing. Disney employees gathered in the studio parking lot every December to enjoy the festivities which included Santa Claus being hurled to his “death” from the roof of the Animation Building.
Flash forward to today's animation studios where I often visit facilities that are beautifully designed and well appointed. Scores of artists sit hard at work in neat little cubicles as they stare at computer screens. These studios have all the ambience of a law office or the charm of an accounting firm. I count my blessings knowing I arrived in the cartoon business at the right time. Before animation became corporate. Before animation became profitable.
Finally, I remember button-down business suit types envying us because we worked in the cartoon business. These “suits” easily out earned us animation workers, but their jobs were pure drudgery and they hated it. Today, It would appear we're all members of the same “corporate club.” Our facilities are nicer and our pay has increased. However, the fun days are now a thing of the past. I’m afraid the fun days of animation is something you’ll only find in the history books.