Serving the Master

When I entered the cartoon business over fifty years ago animation was considered an odd, quirky little enterprise and most people hardly regarded this work a profession. Most adults viewed cartoon making as a weird hobby. Today, all that has changed and animation is now big business.

In the old days, cartoon studios were founded by artists, not businessmen. Guys such as Walt Disney, Walter Lantz, Paul Terry, Max Fleischer and others got into animation because they loved the medium. Even my old bosses, William Hanna and Joe Barbera were more cartoonists than businessmen. However, they didn't remain naive for long. After a few hard knocks they quickly learned the game. However, back in those days the business was pretty wild and loose and each studio boss played the game his own way.

Things stayed pretty much the same for decades until the new medium of television pushed animation in a whole new direction. This new model gave us a different business and a greatly expanded one. By the sixties new production houses and boutique studios sprang up all over Hollywood. Even veteran Disney artists were enticed to leave Walt's cartoon factory for a good deal more money in the "outside" world. In spite of all this, the business continued to maintain its fun and free wheeling attitude. Artists were almost expected to be wild and crazy. It was all part of the wacky cartoon business, after all.

Even a somewhat high tech company like Pixar retained this free and loose spirit in its early days. When I arrived at Pixar Animation Studios in 1997 to work on "Toy Story2" I viewed it as the most fun studio since the sixties Bob Clampett days. I'm convinced that part of Pixar's early success was the fact that the artists were nurtured in a creative environment. Of course, the medium has had its own influence on animation. I've written about the smell of pencil shavings and the aroma of cel paint in the cartoon studios of years past. It would appear that things are just too neat and tidy in today's studios where artists work in clean little cubicles and there's not even a scrap of paper on the floor. Our story room on "Toy Story2" could be described as a creative mess. A chaotic disaster area where we hammered out brilliant ideas.

Of course, there's a whole new game being played today. It's a game where studio bosses and managers simply regard cartoon makers as employees on a digital assembly line. No longer considered creative workers, animation artists have morphed into drones who grind out a product. The factory mentality shows up onscreen where we view the usual uninspired offerings. Stories are being told by rote and artists are hemmed in by arbitrary rules. This is not to say the work is poor, because the onscreen results are often impressive. However, todays films serve the corporate masters of merchandising and licensing and sadly - will continue to do so.