I’m an animator, but does that make me an artist?

Call it a hypothetical question, I guess.  I think it’s the one thing throughout our careers we are struggling to answer for ourselves.  As animators, by what definition do we one day decide that we are in fact an artist and call ourselves that?  We all remember the day we fell in love with animation.  As kids we knew then we may have had a love for doodling or drawing cartoons, but everyone had that Disney film or whatever animation they saw that turned into their calling.  We never knew until then that there were actual people who spent their adult lives getting paid to draw cartoons, and making cartoons live through animation.  That dream we had as kids was the start for many of us who wanted to dedicate our lives to working in animation.  Driven by ambition and hard brutal work, that kid works on their talent, becomes an adult, goes to art college, and if that person has it in them, all the hard work and dedication makes their childhood dream a reality.  They’re finally at the place they’ve always wanted to go, whether it’s Pixar or Dreamworks, or Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, we are finally doing what we love.  

But when you’ve done everything required of you, and you’ve taken every step you were told by those who came before you to achieve you’re dream…what does that mean for you?  Does achieving that goal make you an artist?  The people around you with whom you interact with will probably tell you “yes”.  But to say you’re an artist after all you’ve put yourself through, all the training that made you who you are at this moment, can you still really believe and call yourself an artist?  

There is something I’ve noticed with most people who work in animation.  It has to do with maturity.  I’m not just talking about young animators, this also goes for people who have even worked in the industry for a few decades now.  Animators approach the world and filmmaking with an almost child like enthusiasm.  But its not so much the thought of being as a child.  When you’ve been to an animation art school, in a funny way it’s almost like high school for nerds….nerds who never got the opportunity to be popular until they were finally surrounded by other people just like them.  You find the same things in college as high school….there’s a lot of people trying to impress their peers.  There’s the popular guy.  There’s all sorts of different cliques around the school.  But what’s ironic is that none of that ends in college.  It continues on when those people get into the studios.  The competition never ends among each other.  Neither does the need for being popular.  All of us had the same dream we had as kids.  But for me personally, looking back when I saw my peers around me, seeing them now is like looking into a mirror.  The way I was then, I could see a lot of myself in those people and wanting to be accepted by them.  When I had the dream like everyone else, I was accepted for awhile.  

 There are many people in other aspects of the art world who look down upon people who work in animation and don’t consider us artists.  They don’t see us that way because the belief is that our talent was really used for the sake of the job and working for a major studio/company, as opposed to really deciding for ourselves what we wanted as artists.  We are considered technicians instead of artists.  Are those other people in the art world right?  Well I think it depends on the individual. In previous posts, the one thing I’ve observed with MANY young animation wannabes is that they’re constantly waiting for someone to tell them that they’re good.  They’re waiting for the right authority figure to say, “yes, you’ve made it!  You are an artist now!”  But the thing is some animators spend their whole lives still waiting for someone to say they’re good even when they’ve achieved a long run in the industry.  They’re still waiting for someone to tell them they’re an artist. Again, a lot of animators fight so hard to get to their favorite studio, the place they wanted to be an animator, but once they finally achieve that goal, it’s almost inevitable that boredom sets in, and most of those people who know it really don’t know what to do with themselves.  They start searching for themselves in everything that’s not their art…and while it’s one thing to know when your purposely searching for something, it’s quite another thing when you’re searching and you don’t realize it at all.  It’s why some people take up expensive hobbies.  Acting classes.  Going to the gym.  Writing children’s books.  Some people switch animation jobs, and some people do lose hope in their work and leave animation altogether.  It happens because they’re dream suddenly became personally unfulfilling to them, even after all that time they spent to achieve it.  The question that starts to weigh heavy in those peoples minds is, if I’m not an animator anymore, does that mean I’m not an artist?  You’re no longer defined by your job.  So you ask yourself….who are you?    This kind of crisis happens to those people all the time, who have dedicated their lives long ago to working in animation industry.  Why is that?  

I have thought about this, and the way I see it the answer goes back our 10 year old self.  It was at that age we told ourselves we wanted to be an animator and that we wanted to work at a certain studio when we grew up.  Here’s the funny thing, however.  Those people who have made it in the industry, but become bored with their careers…I think some of those people start to realize that they’ve spent the majority of their lives following a dream based on the needs of their 10 year old self.  But the reality is that 10 year old kid no longer exists.  He’s been gone for a long time, and all these years have been spent listening to a phantom.  Animators especially don’t want to let go of that child, because if they do, they believe their dream goes with it.  They’ll be lost without a purpose.  But what inevitably happens is most people go so far only to wind up lost anyway.  They may not realize they’re lost at first.  But yet another question arises…was everything you spent your life working for in college really your own doing?  Or did you spend all that time listening to a long gone 10 year old instead of the person we are now?

I believe for a lot of animation people this is the one thing they don’t recognize about themselves.  I’ve complained a lot about TV cartoons and feature films today because the artists behind them have never really exposed themselves or their deeper life experiences.  Kind of ironic considering the majority of animated films have a main character who needs to “find themselves”.  In the films animators of today make, almost every story point and every gag is calculated to get the reaction they know their audience will give.  It’s orchestrating and pushing pre installed buttons that were put in by the original artists who made those gags work so well in the first place.  But the new guys who come along are actually following in the previous artists footsteps and either don’t realize it or won’t admit it to themselves.   But they trying to dress it up in a different style and call it their own.  The new guys will convince themselves they came up with it on their own and decide, because of the success it gave them, that that’s what made them an artist.  But what part of that is them being an artist, and what part of that is that immature 10 year old in them telling them what to draw?  Especially if its a kid who loves to show off and impress other people?  At what point can that animator actually, truly say they are making their art for themselves, when really it’s almost always been dictated by someone else in their lives?  To be perfectly blunt and honest, I’m not sure if a lot of these animators really understand what an artist is.  

I can’t claim that I know the answer as to what makes an animator an artist.  But the one thing I have learned is that it has nothing to do with how well you can draw.  What you think you have to say as an artist…you have to ask yourself if that’s really your own voice.  Because that voice you’ve been listening to may be that 10 year old kid…or your mother….your father…whoever you felt had power over you when you were young and still may have power over you now.  It’s not that these people who can draw well aren’t really artists.  But based on their constant need to play the safe card and make all the choices that were laid out for them at the start of their career, which is what they were told to do by the authority figures in their lives, many of those animators have never found the courage in themselves to tap into their personal voice…the one thing that would truly define them as an artist and as a person.  

People talk a lot about Cal Arts and how so many people coming out of the school now are showing a variety of innovative drawing styles, and claiming that those people have an independent voice as an artist.  Well, if they’re independent and they’ve told themselves that, why do they always follow everyone else in the same path to get into the studios?  If they’re voice is so independent, why do they commit their lives to working on somebody else’s project?  What’s the need and the rush to go directly into the industry after college?  And if we didn’t make it into the industry right away, why do so many of us consider ourselves failures?  Suddenly we’re back to that art student who worried about being rejected by Cal Arts, only now were rejected by the studios instead.  When an animator gets in the industry and sells a show, is their idea something that is truly going to rock the boat, or have they allowed themselves to be convinced by other people their shaking things up when they really aren’t?  Only they will know inside if they think they’re doing is right to them, especially if it’s really a vision based on who they are now with their own independent goals they’ve planned to achieve.

Are you really an artist?  

No one can tell you that for certain.  But finding yourself as an artist now is not something you can do listening to everyone else.  There is no instant gratification for finding yourself.  You will have no choice but to piss a lot of people off, especially your closest friends and relatives.  They’ll be mad because you’re no longer becoming the person they want you to be.  Do you ever wonder why in so many epic stories, the hero is always foretold to die?  What the hero almost always discover is that their death is not really an end of everything…its a transition to a new beginning.  The beginning of the next step of their life.  For any animator to begin searching for their true self…for who they really are… that 10 year old is going to have to leave the room.  Possibly for a long while.  And maybe even asked not to come back.   


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