I'm old enough to remember going to the movies in the early fifties and hearing the applause from audiences when a Bugs Bunny cartoon burst on screen. People were becoming more sophisticated about animation and practically anyone you talked to could tell you an actor named Mel Blanc provided the distinctive voice of Bugs Bunny. In time, audiences became aware of other names. Directors such as Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng were becoming recognized by the general public. However, unless you were a kid in art school with the hopes of a cartooning career no one knew the name of a single Warner Bros. animator. Today, the public knows just a little bit more about animation. They may have heard about Disney's “Nine Old Men,” or that Richard Williams directed the animation in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” but that's as far as it goes. Mention Pixar, they'll say John Lasseter. Talk about “Ice Age” and Blue Sky, they might have heard the name Chris Wedge, but I doubt it. Can you and name one animator from “How to Train Your Dragon?” Okay, Simon Otto immediately comes to mind but that’s because we’re geeks. I’m willing to bet audiences could not name one animator from “Frozen.” That’s because in todays animation world animators are anonymous.
When Disney Feature Animation under the leadership of Jeffrey Katzenberg started churning out hit after hit in the early nineties our unique art form was enjoying incredible fame and success. Talented animators were highly valued and sought after. For the first time in animation's history top animators were represented by agents, lawyers and more than a few commanded a salary commiserate with their talents. It was the age of the animator as super star. A six figure income was becoming almost standard in the industry. A gifted few could even ask for a million or more. Movie buffs began to know the names of Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn and Eric Goldberg. The “Making of books” put a face on the animation artists and people became aware of Tom and Tony Bancroft, Aaron Blaise and others. Studios needed good animators and the animators knew it. Something had to be done. Animators had become valuable and from the corporate point of view this was intolerable.
Back in 1994, I had the opportunity to watch a story reel of a new animated film. I had no idea what I was watching yet I was impressed by the inspired story telling. Not knowing what I was viewing I simply assumed this was a traditionally animated film in the Disney Studio pipe line - but I was wrong. The movie was Pixar Animation Studios “Toy Story.” Up to this point I had only known Pixar as a software company. But somewhere along the way they had morphed into a movie company and they used their cutting edge technology to produce a successful animated film. However, Studio bosses are dense. Top level managers failed to see why this particular movie worked. We didn't love Buzz and Woody because they were digital. We loved them because they were real. Yet, the success of Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, and a handful of others launched a digital revolution. Soon, every major player in Hollywood had to have their own digital studio. Not surprisingly, the word went out across movie land proclaiming traditional hand drawn animation dead.
Do producers really believe every digital animated film will be a hit? Of course not. Even they know there's no fool proof guarantee for a hit movie. Producers do watch the bottom line however, and that’s the point of this conversation. Remember those faceless, anonymous young animators toiling away at their drawing boards back in the thirties? Now, replace those drawing boards with computer work stations and I think you'll get the picture. Can you imagine Walt Disney replacing Milt Kahl in his prime? What about Frank Thomas or Freddy Moore? Today, rows of young digital animators sit toiling away at identical work stations. Should any one of these young digital hotshots get too big for their britches another tyro animator just out of art school will easily replace them. Learning how to “pull the strings” of the digital puppet will take a few months, perhaps. Maybe less if the kid shows real skill as a digital animator. The public won't even know the difference because the animators are as faceless as the digital warriors in George Lucas' “Attack of the Clones.”
Now you know why traditional animation has been proclaimed dead. Now you know why computer animation has become the default medium in cartoon making. Now you know why an animator's talent has been devalued by an industry that cares more about commerce than about art. A truly talented animator has to toil at least a decade before becoming a veteran. Make that another two decades before becoming a master. When you consider what they do - what they add to the bottom line of a studio - most animators are woefully underpaid. Yet, studios continually look for ways to cut costs. That means the talent - the artists - are the first to go.
Yet, the future of the animation artist is not totally bleak. Independent film makers continue to keep the medium of traditional hand drawn animation alive. Of course, their efforts often fail to garner the impressive box office numbers of their 3D counterpart. It may take a while but the current digital fascination will wane. Much like George Pal's 3D-ish “PuppetToons” back in the forties, audiences will eventually grow weary of the artificial plastic puppet show and want a good deal more. Impressive as todays digital tools may appear, we’re still taking baby steps. When the technology truly matures - when it has the functionality of a pencil or a paintbrush - the real artists will be welcomed back. And, who knows? Animators - real animators - may just become famous again.