A few years ago, I published a book entitled, "Animated Life." It was suggested that this particular chapter be removed from the book. The suggestion did not come from the publisher, however. Rather, from the large entertainment company located in the San Fernando Valley. I'll not mention any names here, but I'm sure you'll know who I mean.
I returned to the Walt Disney Studio in the early seventies after a brief dalliance with my own production company. Our projects were usually educational films and we had a fair measure of success. Our projects were labors of love but they also had a practical side. Schools across the country were lacking in educational media on the subject of Black 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 “The Shmoo.” Not surprisingly, running my own shop proved to be a rather daunting task and the thought of steady work at the drawing board didn’t seem all that bad. Plus, word was out that there were opportunities galore for young artists aspiring to be animators. I thought I would be immediately invited in having already logged ten years as an assistant in Disney’s animation department. Boy, was I wrong.
One afternoon, Disney animation veteran, Art Stevens stopped me as I made my way down the hallway of B-wing. “Why aren’t you in the animation training class,” he inquired. I informed Stevens that the studio was looking for young animators and my age prevented me from applying for the class.
I was 37.
This should have been 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 Walt Disney studio had initiated a training program for young animators because the old guard was finally reaching retirement age. Training had been almost non-existent in the sixties and few artists even considered a career in animation back then. However, animation had recently found new life and cartoon making was finally on the upswing. With the notable exception of a few schools such as Cal Arts, there were only a handful of young people with the desire to seek a career in animation. With Walt Disney’s animation department growing older the studio welcomed a fresh batch of talented youngsters including, Brad Bird, Glen Keane, John Musker and Nancy Beiman in order to halt the brain drain.
It was clear the Disney studio was thinking young and from that day on I thought 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 pro 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 “wise guys” 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 never ending profits, 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 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. Once again, we were wrong.
We woke up one day to realize our new bosses could easily have been our children. Eager, young hotshots 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, Joe Barbera, Friz Freleng, and Steve Bosustow. Of course, this even included Walt Disney who once sat at the drawing board as well. Fresh from the Harvard Business School and Stanford, it mattered little that the new bosses knew nothing about the businesses they were supposed to run. After all, who says knowledge is a requirement for success? Besides, all these young guys and gals just out of business 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 the future holds in store. 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, their employer 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 artist. I’ve enjoyed welcoming them into our business and they’re the ones who will carry on long after we’re gone.
Today, I look back on my animation training program rejection with amusement. I was “thirty something” and already over the hill. Of course, the studios will continue to hire kids because they’re smart, young, and better yet - they’re cheap. For all you smug senior managers running things upstairs, don’t get too comfortable. One day, you’ll be introduced to a bright young man or woman fresh out of school. I wouldn’t shake their hand with too much enthusiasm if I were you. You see, they’re here to take a job. Probably, yours.