Back in the day, voice actors were usually given screen credit on a single card. It was a card all the voice talent shared. The card would usually read, “With the Talents of.” In time, I would use this same credit line on films I was making. They were the talent who didn’t necessarily draw or paint, but still made an important contribution to the film.
Yet, animation filmmakers are essentially invisible. No one outside the business even knows the names of animation writers, directors or producers. And, they sure as heck don’t know the names of the artists who create the magical images we see on screen. These talented men and women may well not even exist when it comes to marketing a new film. After all, who’s going to know or care if a particular animator worked on the new movie? Heck, even the director is essentially anonymous. While live-action films have their stand out directors, you’ll never see such a thing happen in the world of animation. With a few notable exceptions, most animation directors continue to remain unknown. There’s a reason for this, of course. Should directors gain a high profile they’re liable to ask for more money or, god forbid, a piece of the action.
Back in the early sixties, Walt Disney was able to secure the services of a few high profile celebrities to voice the cartoon characters. Yet, even though we could boast the stellar services of Phil Harris and Louie Prima, Walt Disney remained the principal marketing device. When it came to marketing cartoon animation no one could trump the name, Walt Disney. In time, there were new contenders to the cartoon throne and newcomers such as Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth caught the public’s attention - if only for a while. Yet, by the late eighties and the boom of the early nineties, the name Disney suddenly became new again. It was the beginning of a second animation renaissance and once again the mouse house led the way.
By now, the use of celebrity voices had become routine and marketing embraced the new advertising device. This was the way you sold an animated film in the nineties. Once again, the artists remained invisible, although a handful of gifted animators began to gather a following. Could top animators really be that important, management wondered? Apparently they were, and over time, animation began to build it’s own list of superstars. The studios had to reluctantly go along. After all, how were they going to continue creating great animated motion pictures? More important - how were they going to continue generating ever increasing box office revenues? Management was forever “stuck with the artists” - or so it would seem.
Management received its salvation with the advent of Digital animation production. In this new world studios would no longer have to deal with the temperamental animation artists. A skill that took years to master could now be taught to students in a matter of months. Since animation could be created on a computer, superstar animators were no longer needed. Irving Steinmetz and Ray Cumberstatt could look as good as Milt Kahl or Frank Thomas. And, even if they didn’t … who would know or care?
Animation has come a long way since the days when we used a Blackwing pencil to sketch inspired images on paper. Cartoon production is totally different today and producers can be heard speaking of computer infrastructure and the digital pipeline. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however. There’s probably more production being done today than we could have ever imagined back in the nineteen fifties when Disney’s ranks swelled to 600 artists. A number that the Disney beancounters considered totally unsustainable with the increasing cost of production. In 1995 Pixar released “Toy Story” and the cartoon business was turned on its ear. In time, the computer would level the playing field and small independents could suddenly go head to head with the major studios. On some occasions, even outdo them. Yet, in spite of all this, animation artists and the legions of skilled talent on a cartoon film continue to remain invisible. Though their beautiful work may be seen on screen … the public still has little interest in who made the film they just enjoyed. After all is said and done I guess the voice talent emerges the winner. More than likely, their name will be the only names remembered when the film is discussed. This is not a complaint because I love these guys and their talented contribution to an animated film is remarkable. I’m just hoping that some day…one day, an animator might be considered the star of the animated film. That day is still a long way off, I guess. But, a guy can dream.