No Company For Old Men

This would have been Chapter Thirty One in my book, Animated Life. However, the chapter made certain people “uncomfortable,” so I agreed to cut it. I present it here for the first time. Let me know if if makes you uncomfortable as well.

 

  I returned to the Walt Disney Studio in the early seventies after a brief dalliance with my own production company. Our projects included the creation of educational films and we had a fair measure of success. These motion pictures were labors of love but they also had a practical side. Schools across the country were lacking in educational media on the subject of African American History. You can imagine our surprise when our films were eagerly purchased by schools all across the country. Clearly, we were filling a need and the work  was far more rewarding than a stint at Hanna-Barbera working on another season of “Scooby Doo.” Not surprisingly, running our own shop proved to be a daunting task and the thought of steady work at the drawing board didn’t seem all that bad after all. Plus, word was out that there were ever increasing opportunities available for young artists aspiring to animate. I thought I would clearly be a natural having already logged ten years as an assistant in Disney’s animation department. Of course, I was very, very wrong. One afternoon, Disney veteran, Art Stevens stopped me as I made my way down the hallway of A-wing. “Why aren’t you in the animation training class,” he inquired.  I informed Art that the Walt Disney Studio was indeed looking for young animators. However, because of my advanced age I wasn’t able to apply for the class.

I was 37.

   This should be a wake up call for everybody in this crazy business. When you’re deemed “over the hill” before you reach the age of forty you know things are truly out of whack. The Disney studio had initiated a training program for young animators because the old guard was reaching retirement age. Training had been almost non-existent in the sixties and few artists even considered a career in animation. However, cartoon making was now on the upswing and with the exception of a few schools such as Cal Arts, there were only a handful of young people with the desire for a career in animation. With Disney’s animation department growing older, the studio welcomed a group of talented youngsters That included Brad Bird, Glen Keane, John Musker and Nancy Beiman. The young people came onboard in order to halt the animation brain drain. It was clear the Disney studio was beginning to think young, and from that day on I began to think differently about my career and the careers of my colleagues. It was as though we had been stamped with an “expiration date.” Unlike the old guys of a generation past, our shelf life as animation professionals was clearly limited, and the wise industry professional had better be aware of that fact. No matter your skill level, talent or experience you will one day be replaced by a younger, less experience - but more cost effective worker. As mob bosses might be inclined to say, “It’s not personal - it’s business!”

   However, let’s not bag on the cartoon business alone, because this practice of shedding older workers for younger ones is part and parcel of today's corporate culture. After all, younger workers cost the company less, and in todays profit motivated world that’s really all that matters. Before I spin off on a tirade against our obsession with profit and greed, I’d better get back to our little world of fairies and bunny rabbits. When we came into this business as kids many years ago, we remembered the bosses who occupied the corner office down the hall. They were the “old farts” who had paid their dues and were now enjoying what they had earned. These were the grizzled old guys and gals who had toiled in the ranks for decades. They were knowledgeable and experienced, and the studio considered them an asset.  We took comfort in knowing that if we worked long enough and hard enough, that future would one day be ours as well. Boy, were we wrong. We woke up one day to realize our new bosses could easily have been our children. Eager, young hot shots with business degrees replaced the experienced old codgers who once ran the studios. This was in direct contrast to animation’s early days when studio bosses were usually former artists. Guys like Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. Animation icons such as Chuck Jones, Steve Bosustow and even Walt Disney once sat at the drawing board. Fresh from the Business Schools of Harvard and Stanford, it mattered little that these kids knew nothing about the businesses they were going to manage. After all, who says knowledge is a requirement for success? Besides, all these young kids just out of school were a helluva lot smarter than we were. I know. They told me so.

   I have friends and colleagues who have either lost their jobs, or are about to. I understand their confusion and concern as they wonder what’s going to happen next. Most had successful careers that were hard earned. Their portfolios are impressive and their resumés, lengthy. Their demo reels showcase years of experience, and on occasion the company even lauds their accomplishments. Of course, there’s always retirement. It’s a graceful exit from the business and it's an option many are taking these days. That is, assuming they can afford to retire. Finally, this is not a tirade against the young, because I’ve had the opportunity to work with many an aspiring young animation artists during my career. I’ve enjoyed welcoming them into our business and they’re the ones who will carry on after we’re gone.

   Today, I look back on my animation rejection with amusement. I was “thirty something” and already washed up. Of course, the studios will continue to hire kids because they’re young, energized and inexpensive. Us old animators know that the years move past quickly and one day you’ll find yourself the age of the old geezer who mentored you so many years ago. Life has a way of doing that, you know. Eight frames - and it’s over. If you’re an eager young animator just beginning a career in the cartoon business, you might want to keep that in mind.

 

Age doesn't matter in the animation business unless you're old. Sadly, then it matters a great deal. Believe me, I know.

Age doesn't matter in the animation business unless you're old. Sadly, then it matters a great deal. Believe me, I know.