Sunday, May 17, 2009

Animation's Gravitational Pull

Reading Newsweek's hymn to the creative glories of Pixar, the thing that struck me wasn't the effusive praise of early Walt features ... or Pixar's present product ... but this quote from the New Republic, circa 1929:

"When it comes to 'pure cinema,' 'visual flow,' 'graphic representation,' 'the freedom of the cinematic medium,' and all the other things foreign cinema enthusiasts talk about, nothing has more than a roll of celluloid's chance in Hell beside Felix the Cat and the other animated cartoons."

Embedded in TNR's observations about animation in the days of silent, back-and-white shorts are the reasons animation has survived and thrived as a story-telling genre: Animation offers a filmmaker total control in ways that (until recently) live-action films could not.

If you wanted flying elephants or pirate ships or talking toys or large blue genies, animation could create those things and make audiences believe they existed. Live-action filmmakers, on the other hand, were shackled with actors in actual places in front of real cameras. For animation artists, the boundaries of time and space were non-existent, the horizons limitless. And audiences, when the story-telling underpinning cartoons' wider worlds was as compelling as the unconstrained visuals, bought into it in a big way.

Snow White, after all, made more money than any feature film* before it. Seventy years further on, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, and Blue Sky Studios have all created animated product that have earned billions, which is why there are more cartoon features being made today than ever before in animation's hundred-plus year history. Everyone wants to elbow onto the gravy train.

It's also why so many live-action features today resemble their animated cousins. Superman might have been born in the pages of a comic book and nurtured in Fleischer cartoon shorts, but today the Man of Steel and all his super-hero cousins, from Wolverine to Ironman to Spidey, defy the laws of physics in live-action universes morphed into imitation cartoons courtesy of computer generated images.

Because, after a century of film-making, the gravitational pull of animation grows ever stronger. And every film-maker aspires to the 'pure cinema,' 'visual flow,' and 'graphic representation,' that Felix the Cat enjoyed in 1929, and cartoon features own today.

I don't think this cinematic reality will be changing anytime soon.

* "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" earned eight million dollars in 1938, more than any tracked feature film to that time. "Birth of a Nation" probably earned more, but there are no records that document its total gross.


Anonymous said...

Imagine, in 1933, the WEEKLY average number of people who went to the movies was 170 million. By 1937, that was down to 65 million. It ticked back up to 90 Million during and just after the war, and has varied between 90 and 176 million (2007) since.

Charge for admission in 1937 averaged 25 cents a head nationwide.

And Disney did something only a handful of live action film makers did. Since he owned his films outright, he re-issued them about every 7 years, exposing an entire new generation to the wonders of great film making.

Floyd Norman said...

Sadly, except for a handful of animated film makers, the guys and gals who create this wonderful stuff never get rich.

There's something very weird -- and very sad about that. Masters who helped studios get rich, end their days just barely getting by.

A few were smart, and invested wisely, but most watched the films they worked on decades ago continue to make money for the company while they get zip. I suppose it was their own fault, I suppose. Still, it troubles me to this day.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Every film-maker aspires to crafting the film they want to make, no different than a novelist or playwright or painter. Handing over the process one frame at a time for perpetual group think and line item mincing of words and pictures is exactly the opposite of cinema. That is why talent usually runs away from animation screaming bloody murder. Why would you give away not only final cut, but first, second, third, forth, and ten millionth cut? It is absurd.

But for studio heads and any other name powerful enough to wedge themselves into the game for the love of money and image, including actors and writers, they all swear by it and love us all to death. Besides, they all 'keep us working!'

Disney owned his films. And you do not. He was rich. TAG is not. It's not rocket science.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Floyd. In a way it is sad that people who create the films end up making someone else rich, and often never get close to being rich in their lifetime.

With that said, if the artist isn't smart enough or ambitious enough to take control of his/her own destiny by owning their own property...there is no one to blame for not being rich but themselves.

Those who are content to be workerbees, and allow their lives and careers to be dictated by some millionaire investor or CEO have to deal with whatever "the man" decides.

Only when an artist, or anyone, decides to take the bull by the horns and do his own thing can that person really say he is free. And once you make that choice...the chances of becoming wealthy go up exponentially.

Own yourself. Don't expect an employer, a union, or the government to take care of you.

So...though it seems sad that an artist makes someone else rich. At the end of the day, it isn't...they had a choice just like Disney had.

We all have that choice.

Floyd Norman said...

Since "Mr. WAAAH WAAAHHH" is having a ball mocking us, I guess he's one of the few animation professionals who invested wisely and is living a life of comfort and ease.

Or, maybe that's what he wants us to think.

Anonymous said...

Bill Plympton owns his films, and he's still not rich, so there must be more complexity to the situation.

The problem with animation is that it takes so damn many people to do, but very few of those people are essential individuals. All talented, but 95% of them can be swapped out for some similarly talented person and that means none of those 95% has much "leverage" as they say here to swing a better deal.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, that list includes the director. And if anyone thinks Pixar is immune to this behavior, just ask Sanders, Pinkava, or Keane. Lasseter will drop you like a bad transmission.

Anonymous said...

Plympton is rich in the way it matters. It's not complex. He simply takes responsibility for his craft and controls his risk. He wins no matter what.

The studio owns the idea, the story, the characters, the backgrounds and every single element, and they own the process and every single stroke of your pen. That's not complex either, it's remarkably simple.

It doesn't cost nearly as much as they say it does to make a good film. But corporate welfare requires and rewards spending, and promotes those that display qualities that are the exact opposite of entrepreneurial skills. Just like large banks and every other artificially created bubble, large studios, labor contracts, and all of us will ride this train until we hit the ceiling and everything will come crashing down. Then all the idiots that the welfare corporate state promoted, the same ones that created the mess, will turn right around and say, "People just don't want to see animated movies anymore, and you can't argue with capitalism." They will move onto the next thing, barter with labor to prepare for the next artificially inflated bubble, and we will all ride on the pretend train all over again, learning absolutely nothing.

Floyd Norman said...


That's grim.

robiscus said...

"Bill Plympton owns his films, and he's still not rich, so there must be more complexity to the situation."Bill PLympton has put himself far above the average studio worker in the fact that he will continue to get returns from his work IN FULL for the rest of his life. Bill Plympton has also defined his style without anyone else getting a piece of it. If someone wants to use Bill's animation, then he gets 100% of the return. 100%.
Don't make a mistake about this - Bill is n a position much better than anyone who works for a big studio. As an Academy Award nominated director there will always be a demand for him. He is not dependent on anyone else. In my eyes he is rich.

"The problem with animation is that it takes so damn many people to do, but very few of those people are essential individuals. All talented, but 95% of them can be swapped out for some similarly talented person and that means none of those 95% has much "leverage" as they say here to swing a better deal."With this dismal perspective on our field, I'm going to bet dollars to donuts that you are a CGI artist and have always been chained to the studio production line in everything that you do.

Thats not the industry as a whole. Its the path you chose for yourself.

g said...

Here are some facts for you.

In 2008, the total NBA ticket-sale revenue was 3.45 billion dollars. In 2008, the 3 major animated film companies (Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks, Blue Sky) brought in 2.3 billion worldwide. (Bolt, KFP, Wall-E, Horton, Mad 2)

In 2008, there were 432 rostered players in the NBA. In 2008, there were approximately 400 animators for all the major studios combined (roughly 80 each for Pixar, Dreamworks, PDI, Disney, and Blue Sky). The numbers dont lie, it's more likely a college graduate will play in the NBA than be a feature film animator.

The average salary for an NBA player is 5.3 million dollars.

And thats just players, not coaches and the huge support staff, marketing and business end of each team. (much like directors and production staff and modelers/riggers, lighting/rendering, effects/technical, of animation studios...etc) But even if you divided that number 10, thats an average of 500 thousand dollars salary, and Im sure everyone would be happy with that.

Something stinks in the animated film industry.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's spelled IATSE.

Anonymous said...

With this dismal perspective on our field, I'm going to bet dollars to donuts that you are a CGI artist and have always been chained to the studio production line in everything that you do. Thats not the industry as a whole. Its the path you chose for yourself..

Enlighten us. Which independent films have you made, what revenues have you gotten from them, and how are you distributing them?

Also, given that this blog represents employees at animation studios, why are you bothering posting here? Aren't there other sites/blogs that would be more in line with your interests?

Anonymous said...

You are not employees of the studios. The studio borrows you from IATSE for specific needs, and returns you when the production is complete. Your collective bargaining agreement supersedes your personal services contract. Your collective bargaining agreement in turn is superseded by the studios deficit financing agreements with the bank. The same bank that owns your house and car. And around and around we go. Want off yet?

robiscus said...

"Enlighten us. Which independent films have you made, what revenues have you gotten from them, and how are you distributing them?"Thats not the issue jackass.

You brought up Bill Plympton as a negative example of what cn be achieved on ones own in the animation field. You were completely wrong and I took you to task for it. Now, because your argument is sunk, you are predictably acting like a fourth grader and questioning the person who revealed your flawed reasoning. You lose.

If you really want to do this blog a favor, do a little more research before you sound off. Then you won't walk away angry after showing your ignorance.

But lemme share a link with you before you go. This Dick Dale was posted on CartoonBrew and admittedly it is in regards to musicians, but the advice given here is so salient and wise that it crosses boundaries to all of the arts. Especially that of animators who work for a parent company just like recording artists:

robiscus said...

G, your comparison with the NBA is a little misleading in that an NBA layer's career is half of an industry artists....

g said...

Fair enough. So the average NBA player's career is, what, say 7 to 14 years? Thats still 35 to 70 million for a career total. Compare that to an animator who works 14 - 28 (or more) years, and most of us will never break the 3-4 million mark for a career total.

Anonymous said...


The comparison is also misleading, because well, people actually go to see the players play (personality, tattoos, dunks, rebounds, and all).

As we have discussed here before. The audience has no idea who animated what shot, nor do they care.

No stats are kept for each animator and you certainly don't see fantasy animation leagues popping up everywhere.

Professional sports, as with live action actors is completely different than animation. "Fans" go to see their favorite players/actors entertain. They also go see Po in KFP...but 40 animators made Po entertaining and those 40 guys are completely anonymous to the audience. As an animator, do I like this fact?...hell no. But it is a fact of life.

So, as much as I would like to agree with you on are comparing apples and oranges when comparing animation to the NBA.

Only when the audience starts caring about animators and treating them like "stars" will you see salaries become star like.

g said...

Yes, I agree, there are slight differences. But Im making the point that talented animators are as hard to find as talented basketball players, and should be compensated better (not equal, but better). If you dont have talented animators (though anonymous) you wont have a good movie.

Bad movie = bad ticket sales = no revenue

I just think we (animators) have allowed our employers to get lazy and take for granted the magic we work everyday. If we all demanded higher wages, they'd have to pay us because the talent pool is shallower than most think. (we've hired freelancers in the past to bail us out of projects, and only a handful out of 2-3 dozen are worth keeping) It isnt like theres a giant line of *truly* capable animators outside a studio. Its like American Idol, thousands think they can sing, but only a dozen are actually any good.

Sure, the NBA example is a *bit* extreme, but I was just making a point. Do I think animators deserve 5 mil a year salaries? No. Do I think they deserve 250k a year salaries? Yes.

Anonymous said...


Ok, now that you have explained your point more thoroughly...I definitely agree.

And not to get into some huge off topic debate over India or offshore studios...but I think that now contributes more to this problem than anything. When the studio executives decided they could live with less quality as long as it is significantly cheaper that was the death nail for salaries.

And as places like India continue to improve their quality (and they will)...we will see salaries here in the states continue to drop.

Again it goes back to the surest way of becoming wealthy...own your stuff and be self employed.

Anonymous said...

The history of outsourced production in animation, which goes back at least 40 years, suggests that it's far from certain that India, or anywhere else, will provide the quality and cost savings to destroy the domestic production model.

I've been in the business long enough to remember when it was Canada, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan that were going to put us out of business. Didn't happen. For 10 years I've been hearing that India will put us out of business. Dozens of Indian studios have already been very expensive failures. Despite all the talk, animation and art school training in India remains virtually nil.

High end work stays here, and it's the 'bottom-feeder' animation is fought over by fiercely outside of north America. As long as we continue to pour the effort we do into training and skills enhancement and building invaluable experience, we have a staggering edge.

It's true that time and again naive producers have tried to be the exception, and get something for almost nothing. More will continue to try. But a quick look at what animation has actually been widely successful in the marketplace shows that attempts at wholesale outsourcing is a sucker's game.

Anonymous said...

Movies like Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, Ratatouille, Incredibles, and Up (which I just saw) are the reason why feature work will continue to stay in the US for a long time to come. The quality is simply incomparable. But to break it down further:

A. The directors want to remain intimately engaged with the story crews. The US remains extremely high, if not at the very top, in the number and quality of story crews. The creative "top" is not about to go out-of-country at Pixar, Dreamworks, or any of the majors.

B. Good directors must interface directly with the animators if they want good performances in their movies. Feature-level animation demands close interaction between director and animator. Not the kind of thing that would best be done through teleconferencing, or with language/cultural barriers.

C. At all the major studios, work on the story continues until well into animation production. Always. Even on stories where everything is going well, there is always (and should be) a drive to keep improving it until the last moment. Since this is the case, directors cannot be in two places at once. They must be where the story artists are, AND they must be where the animators are. The success of this approach is demonstrated in all the successes of Pixar.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @9:29: Best comment in ages. You should be directly quoted in every bloody article all these journalists write on this issue, because it states it so clearly and well. If only!

Anonymous said...

"Movies like Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, Ratatouille, Incredibles, and Up"

Well, here is the problem with that. You've only listed 2 studios out of that list.

That makes up, what, 80 total full time staff animators?

No doubt Pixar, Dreamworks, and Blue Sky will continue to make high quality animated films with internal staffs and internal directors. But that makes up such a small percentage of animation in the US that it nearly voids your entire point.

Those exact same studios choose to farm out all the rest of their work (commercials, shorts, etc) so that they don't have to handle it in-house. The problem? They aren't farming out to anyone in the states. It is going to places like India, Taiwan, Vancouver, etc.

So, what is being created is a very small group of artists and animators working on the big films...then all the rest of the work being farmed out across the world.

So, saying that feature work is here to stay in the US is disingenuous. The films you listed make up 5% of all the people in the US that work in animation.

Site Meter