It’s Not Animators Who Change The Industry

I was thinking about something regarding Cal Arts the other day.  I have wondered what the program must of been like in the late 1970’s when it first started.  I’m sure for those very first students, there must have been a lot of faults in how the program was structured.  As opposed to today where a variety of different animation styles are coming from the students, most people have said that the original program was designed as a training school for Disney animation.  We know a lot of the major animation superstars who started in the character animation program at the beginning:  Brad Bird, John Lasseter, John Musker, Tim Burton…and almost all of those filmmakers after college broke off on their own.  Tim applied his animation training to live action.  Brad spent years writing scripts for live action before returning to animation with Family Dog, and his position on The Simpsons, which of course led to Iron Giant and The Incredibles.  John Musker became a part of the “new golden age” of Disney animation starting with The Great Mouse Detective, and Disney’s return to form, The Little Mermaid.  John Lasseter broke away and took a risk with this strange computer animation thing that was coming up, that probably no one ever thought would amount to anything.  Most people probably thought he was just wasting his time on limited technology.  

What am I getting at here?  Well, here’s something to think about.  These men all became pioneers in their field.  But at the time when their school started, Cal Arts had no reputation.  Animation was in the dark ages.  At the time most people would have considered you crazy for thinking you would have any sort of career in the animation business.  So in a way, if you think about these men who went to school there, it was already a risk for them to go to school to get into a field that was considered by most people then to be dead.  But Cal Arts of today rides on that reputation that they were the school that made those men who they are today.  But when you look at the situation and how the school started, that’s not really the case.   

This is where the importance of having life experience comes in.  All of these men struggled through life after college, and through a lot of their own personal pain to get where they are today.  Animation wouldn’t be what it is today without these men, who are considered heroes in their own right for revitalizing and bring animation back to audiences.  They did a lot of heavy lifting to make the industry what it is today.  But most new animators, directors, and filmmakers coming into the industry don’t see that.  Cal Arts sticks to their reputation that they made these men who they are.  But in comparison to those men who first went to Cal Arts, and the students who enter the program today, here’s the difference:  It’s not a risk for most students of today to attend Cal Arts.  I’m not talking about the risk of spending $100,000 on tuition to go there, because the majority of students who go there come from wealthy families (You can bet however that the ones who are much poorer and struggled to work hard through scholarships and side jobs are going to have more to say in their work, but that’s for another post). It‘s not a risk because it’s the expected path for young people who want to work in animation.  Cal Arts has all the connections.  Believe it or not, that’s essentially what you’re paying for.  It’s not really about the training or preparing you for the life experience of your journey to become an artistThe school is constantly promoting competition among everyone’s peers.  Everyone will fight to make their film good enough to get into the Producers Show.  Everyone will struggle to make their portfolio look its best for the Job Fair where students hope they will get noticed and accepted by the studio they want to work for.  These are the main events the school stakes its reputation on and promotes to students.  All the students will be good sports to each other, but deep down they all know it’s a battle to be “good enough and be accepted.  At that age, every young student craves that attention to be accepted.      

Cal Arts portfolio selection is basically a casting call for those people who will keep up the school‘s reputation.  I can tell you, I went to school with a few superstar people now:  Lorelay Bove, Nate Wragg, Pen Ward, J.G. Quintel, Alex Hirsch, etc.  Cal Arts did not help them develop their style.  Those people walked into the school with the same style of drawing they have in their shows and work today.  The school might have helped hone their storytelling abilities and help give them a foundation for their work.  But those people had their own thing when they walked in the door.  Most of them knew what they were after, the studio or job/position they wanted for themselves in the industry.  They never strayed from that.  That’s what most young artists see when they look at those people who became big successes in their field at a young age.  They went to school, they worked hard, and they never strayed from their goal to get into the studio they wanted.  But there’s the other side of the coin that most people don’t see.  

Those who have become successes in their field, they are in fact walking the path that was already forged for them…and it was forged by those people who already went before them…John Lassiter, Brad Bird, Tim Burton, John Musker, and the many other animation artists who fought hard to get the industry where it is today.  But no one today has learned from the real risks those men had to take to make the industry what it is today.  And the people who are successful now are walking the path of success of others and not nessecerily forging their own path as those original people did.  In selecting students with a variety of drawings styles, Cal Arts makes it look like their pumping out students who are artists with independent visions.  But they aren’t really independent.  For those students, like everyone else, it’s really success that’s on their mind and wanting to get to the top too quickly.  

This is what I was trying to warn about the danger Skyler Page is getting into about getting his own show when he’s so young.  I’m told he worked on his show idea and pitched it on his own, and he was able to sell a show.  That’s great.  Skyler knows now he has that drive in him that he can be a success with his ideas.  But my question however is…what’s the rush?  Why is it so important to get a show right now before you’ve had a chance to let anything happen to you in your life?  He’s a talented artist, but the studio is buying his show not because its cutting edge or innovative, but his ideas are compatable with what’s currently popular in TV.  The same goes with most TV shows created by artists his age.  Their life experience has not caught up with them yet, and those people really don’t know how much their really missing out on and what‘s missing in their storytelling.  

I can tell you for sure, those young artists I’ve mentioned who are currently successful in their field… you can bet regardless of the money they’re making that inside they are still struggling with their voice and what they really want to say in their work.  When I say what’s really going on, I mean their own deeper personal struggles that have hit them in life.  Some of them might have had divorced parents.  Maybe there was abuse.  Or struggle with their sexual identity.  The death of a sister.  The things they don’t want people to know about themselves, but what they want to talk about deep down.  I know they feel this because everybody in life feels the deeper hardships of life.  But artists have a voice to channel that pain into something that other people can acknowledge and understand.    But with most of those young artists who have achieved major success so soon, they’re going to sit back and wonder after awhile if this is all there is.   
All of those people have some thing deeper inside that they will want to say, something more truthful and honest about what’s really happened in their lives, but they’ll be too afraid to take that risk with their art.  They know by doing that they’ll be abandoning their audience.  It will take one of those people to have a major fall in their life…to fall so low they’ll have nobody left except themselves.  That’s the ultimate test.  There are many different kinds of success.  But some successes are really just a wall that keep other people from knowing the truth.  And many artists who are having that kind of success are putting up that wall as we speak.  I know who those people are right now.  

When most of these Cal Arts grads get their own show, most of them like to hire their classmates as part of their core creative team.  You know the real reason the creators of the shows hire their buddies?  It’s an ego trip.  They want their less talented friends to surround them in the aura of their success.  The creator becomes an alpha dog.  And the alpha dogs friends who want to be in on their success don’t know that they’ve been hired just so their show creator friend can feel good about himself in front of them.  Like the head of a street gang, making sure nobody wants to fuck with them.  And I’ll tell you something else.  The alpha dogs less talented friends…the honest truth is that those people are actually a lot more talented than the alpha dog.  They have more to say.  But they don’t know it.  Seriously, if I were the creator of my own show, I wouldn’t hire my buddies to be on my team.  I’m going to hire the guy whose been in the industry for over 20 years.  I  I’d form new  I’m going to hire people who have actual life experience, because those people are going to have a lot more to say, and it’s going to show up in their work.  And those are the people I want to learn from.  My peers are on the same level as I am going through the same things I’m going through.  I can’t learn anything from that.  

That’s going to be the major fall of the industry.  If there’s one thing I admire about those first people who went to Cal Arts, its that they had a greater respect and admiration for those who forged the path before them, and because animation in the late 70’s and early 80’s was in the dark ages, those artists then had no choice but to take the risk and forge their own paths.  Those people are the real shakers and movers of the industry.  All the young artists of today are doing are taking advantage of their accomplishments, but not really giving any credit to those who came before them.  And I can see this because current artists want to believe their being independent and forging their own path.  They would not have the opportunities they have now if it weren’t for those people before them.  Lets see Pen Ward fight for his vision if he were making his films in the late 70’s.  He would have not only failed, but would have had to fight so much harder to make a show like Adventure Time.  I’ll bet if he went through that struggle, Adventure Time would be a far more powerful and earth shattering TV series.  Most people right now think it is.  It’s not.  It’s too safe.  There are deeper things going on with that show you can tell that Pen is not allowed to talk about.  But Pen’s not going to fight for that vision.  And the studio is not going to listen to him.  And why not?  He’s too young.  The studio knows it.  They’re not going to take him seriously.  As a young show creator the studio expects Pen to do as he’s told.  When the studios tell you these current animated TV shows are creator controlled, it’s a lie.  The same thing can be said about Pixar, who also claims their directors have complete creator control.  If that were true, Brenda Chapman would not have had Brave taken away from her.  After the success of The Incredibles, they would and should have let Brad Bird make another original animated film.  Instead they kicked out Jan Pinkava off Ratatoullie and asked Brad to save the film.  But how much was that really Brad’s choice?  Did they promise him he could make another original film only onlyafter he made Ratatoullie a success??  It’s pretty ironic that after Ratatoullie R Brad suddenly left animation to go into live action filmmaking.  Brad didn’t leave willingly.  Something happened after Ratatoullie that nobody is talking about.  In a way, you can imagine that Pixar persuading Brad to take over Ratatoullie and direct it was their way of keeping control over him.  Lassiter has changed too.  If you think about what’s happened to him, he’s given up his independence to take that Creative Director position at Disney.  He’s making decisions now for the profit of the Disney company, which doesn’t belong to himdoe and has its own set of standards.  He has to abide by those sets of standards now, and if he really started taking risks again like he did in his early days, he would be fired.  All of Disney’s films under his supervision are following the forumla set by Pixar.  

But most young artists don’t think about any of this.  There are other things besides money that persuade artists to work for places like Pixar and Dreamworkss.  It’s the pampering.  It’s the hidden Tiki Bar they like to show off.  The basketball court.  Wear a kilt Fridays.  Dress like a Pirate Thursdays.  Free lunches.  It’s like getting to work at Neverland.  The animation studio where you never have to grow up.  These people work hard on these films for sure.  But all these amenities are about keeping the artists happy and keeping them under control.  The irony is that 90% of these films being made are about characters who have to learn to be themselves…but the films are made by people who have never learned to be themselves to begin with.  They were never trained at Cal Arts to find their own path.  They were trained at Cal Arts through Job Fairs and Producer’s Shows and were told that above everything else, success is the goal, not independence.  Cal Arts job is to keep the studios happy or they’ll never be able to hold their reputation.  Your become a success falls back on them s   to make them more profitable in the eyes of the  And blindly they attract young artists to set them up for a life in the industry when they don’t know there’s anything greater out there.  They’re trained to live in a bubble that is the animation industry.  I swear to you I’ve said that from day one at Cal Arts the first thing we were told was not to rock the boat or piss anyone off, especially our friends because your reputation will be determined by those people.  Having actually stepped outside the bubble, I can tell you that’s all bullshit.  The animation people working in the industry don’t have the kind of power they think they have.  If you don’t believe me, look at John Lassiter, who gave up his studio to work for somebody else.  He’s got no real power anymore, except keeping in line what the Disney company wants from him.  He’s forgotten himselfpee.  The people in real power who are changing the course of the animation industry are not animators.  They’re business men.  People like Jeffrey Katzenberg.  Not an artist.  But all the films made now are determined under his vision.  You know another person who was the same way?  

Walt Disney.  

Walt was not an artist.  He was a business man and an entrepenuer.  He was a genius and great visionary, but a lot of people are still angry that the animation industry continues to be led by the vision of a man who died over 50 years ago.  Uncle Walt has had a powerful overwhelming influence on the animation industry, but most people forget that this was just one mans vision.  His vision was cruicial to the development and change for animation…when he was ALIVE.  Animation was not meant to continue living under his influence, and as we can all see from the films made today, it’s getting watered down.  A lot of animation people today don’t believe Walts influence has an impacct on them anymore, but I think it still does.    All of the films and TV shows coming out today are the same thing, a cornocopia of marketing and selling a product, giving the audience the illusion each film is unique and independent when really each film is  tnntjust dressed up in different clothing to give the appearance of being unique .  But most animators don’t know or are willing to acknowledge that they a always have been under the control of someone else, from the very moment they were kids who wanted to get in animation and found out about this miracle school known as Cal Arts.

This post by the way, is not me trying to get into an us vs. them argument…animators vs. studio exectutives…animators vs. animators, etc.  It’s a tired arguement that never gets anywhere except to serve as a forum for a lot of needless bitching.  What I am concerned about are all parties involved, especially young animators coming into the industry.  It’s vital you understand what you’re getting into.  Most animation artists allow themselves toes get walked all over, including big shots like John Lassiter.  Most will not stand up for their vision and will be controlled by fear.  They’ll be .promised a lot of money and success, but all that money is there to shut those artists up and keep them in line in   .  If you’re an artist destined to be a mover and a shaker, you really have to understand what you’re get into.  The American Animation industry is very fucked up, and very repressed…and full of bad temptation.  You have to decide for yourself, in your heart, if this is really what you’re destined to do, and fight not just to change the industry, but change yourself. 

2 thoughts on “It’s Not Animators Who Change The Industry”

  1. Hey Mike- I actually want to thank you for this post; from one animation grad to another. During my last year of school I started realizing these things, especially what you say about life experience. A number of the professors I had felt the same. They had worked in and out of the industry for decades, but also had worked in other unrelated fields for much of their younger lives and had essays to say about the character of those who essentially wanted to jump into the fray straight out of high school. That many had not worked with their hands in dirt for long… and as old-farty as that sounds, it has a ring of truth. I distinctly recall discussing my summer jobs logging and working a florist with my peers and getting odd looks, because none of them had worked before, while the teachers listened and told their own stories of building houses or mucking stalls at my age.That's not to say my peers weren't good people- hell yes they are. Many who got where they are deserve it, and I would never think poorly of them. But there is that aura of naivety in some of their work, and while the passion for the artform is there, the content has seemingly nowhere to go. Same could be said for the industry in general- find a niche, fill a niche, and get stuck there.

  2. They are good people indeed. When I was in Cal Arts, one summer I actually took a job at a Coffee Bean. I did it because I had never had the experience of working a normal job. I won't lie, it was very hard. I was always distracted at work, and eventually I was fired. I thought at the time, "oh well, I guess I'm just not good at having a regular job." But later when I couldn't get into the animation industry after college, I wound up taking more regular jobs. I struggled and again I was fired from a few for been too distracted. It never got easier, and at the time with who I was then, it felt degrading because I wasn't getting to do what I wanted to do. People asked me what the hell I was doing and why I wasn't perusing my art. I struggled with that too, and wanted to avoid my art because I felt I was no good and could never compete with any of my peers. But I had never told myself that I was already good at what I did. I always had a voice and something to say, but it took all that pain and misery of life to bring it to the surface. Now when I look back, having had that experience forced on me (and believe me it hit me 10 fold) I realized that those experiences actually gave me something to say about myself in my art. I was the same as all the other people I went to school with, but the moment I started asking those questions about myself, the more I feel my true self started to emerge. It's what many of my peers don't know what their missing out on: Their true self. We all think we know who we are and what we want. But sometimes we also forget that plans do change, but they lead us to the path we were meant to take in the first place. I don't want to tell anyone not to follow their dreams in life. I would just make sure when your following your dream your not doing it to avoid the real you inside and your true path in life that awaits you. Animation might only be a small part of it. 🙂

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