Advantages and Disadvantages of the
Studio System in the Production of an Art Form
Michael Crandol) "Animation should be an art....what you
fellows have done with it is making it into a trade....not an
art, but a trade....bad luck ." Thus Winsor McCay, father
of the animated cartoon, pronounced the doom of the very industry
he had inadvertently helped create.
McCay nursed animation from a simple camera trick to full blown
character animation that would take 20 years to be surpassed.
McCay animated his films almost single-handed; from inception
to execution each cartoon was his and his alone. He took the time
to make his films unique artistic visions, sometimes spending
more than a year to make a single five-minute cartoon. But the
burgeoning world of cinema could not wait so long for so little,
and so the modern animation studio came into being. The art of
animation was no longer the work of one man, it was a streamlined,
assembly-line process in the best Henry Ford tradition. But was
the art of the animated cartoon sacrificed for the trade's sake?
That, of course, depends on the studios themselves.
years several institutions have proven McCay's prophecy at least
partly false; indeed, without such positive collaborations of
talent the art of animation would not have advanced to the level
of sophistication it enjoys today. But who exactly was it "bad
luck" for: the art, or the artists themselves?
McCay had shown the world the true potential of the animated cartoon
in his landmark film "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914), the
first animation studios were already around, trying to exploit
the medium for what they could. Raoul Barre' opened the first
animation house in 1913, and within five years a new industry
was born as more and more studios began to pop up around the New
York metropolitan area.
most successful and certainly the most influential of these early
studios was the the John Bray Studio. Bray created the first successful
cartoon series, Col. Heeza Liar, in 1914. Future studio heads
Max Fleischer and Walter Lantz honed their skills here. But the
studio's most important contribution to the medium was the introduction
of cels. The process of inking the animator's drawings onto clear
pieces of celluloid and then photographing them in succession
on a single painted background was invented by Bray employee Earl
Hurd in late 1914. In the first of what was to be many such incidents,
the studio swallowed all the credit and most of the revenue for
it's underling's contribution to the art form. Hurd lent his patent
to boss John Bray, who charged royalties for other studios to
use the process....an understandable business practice. Yet from
an artistic standpoint this was as if Picasso had demanded exclusive
rights to Cubism. It was a relatively moot point, however; the
patent expired in 1932 and was not renewed. The only real loser,
it seems, was Earl Hurd.
Otto Messmer was another studio employee who never got due credit
for his innovations. But whereas Hurd's contribution to animation
was a technical one, Messmer's was an artistic creation that is
still recognized the world over 80 years after it's inception.
was employed by the Pat Sullivan Studio in 1916. Three years later
he created Felix the Cat; it was a milestone in the development
of animation as an artform. Not since Gertie the Dinosaur had
a cartoon character exhibited such a degree of personality animation
as Felix's brooding, ponderous walk. But unlike Gertie, Felix
was a studio character, which meant audiences could look forward
to seeing him again and again, while affording Messmer and his
co-workers the opportunity to explore the possibilities of ongoing
character development in animation. Meanwhile, studio head Pat
Sullivan took sole credit for the creation of Felix, earning millions
of dollars in royalties over the years. Messmer continued to receive
his usual salary. A quiet and unassuming man, Messmer never challenged
Sullivan's claim to be the father of Felix, even after Sullivan's
death in 1933. Indeed, Messmer probably would have taken the secret
to his grave had not animation historian John Canemaker tracked
him down in 1976 (the revelation produced quite a stir in animation
circles....twenty years later the story was lampooned on an episode
of "The Simpsons").
For the first
time a studio produced what may be considered true art, but in
doing so took the credit usually given to the artist.
the most influential studio (from an artistic as well as a commercial
standpoint) in the history of animation is the Walt Disney Studio,
which exploded onto the scene in 1928 with Mickey Mouse in "Steamboat
Willie" and continued to dominate the field to this very
day. It is at Disney that we see the studio system's best and
worst effects on the development of animation as an art form.
streamlined organization of talent and creative collaboration
the animated cartoon could never have advanced as rapidly or as
beautifully as it has....yet, as at the Bray and Sullivan studios,
in the process many of the men responsible for the studio's achievements
remain anonymous and forgotten. Had Disney animators Vladimir
Tytla and Freddie Moore been alive during the renaissance their
names might well have been numbered among Da Vinci and Michelangelo.
For all their accomplishments, however, they remain totally eclipsed
by the titanic figure of Walt Disney.
first important contribution to animation was to move his studio
to Hollywood in 1923. Los Angeles had become the center of live-action
filmmaking, but the animation industry remained rooted in New
York (with a few studios scattered throughout the Midwest, like
Disney's). Accompanying him on his move from Kansas City were
Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, who would eventually found the Warner
Bros. and MGM animation houses. These three studios were to become
the leaders of the animation industry. Disney's decision to move
to California was a pivotal turning point in the development of
animation as a business.
artistic achievements derived from a sort of symbiotic relationship
between Walt and his employees. Like other studio heads, Walt
received all the public attention and praise for the studio's
work, but unlike many of his fellow producers he was at least
partly responsible for the studio's accomplishments. He was certainly
a cinematic visionary, and can be justly credited for introducing
the latest innovations in sound and color.
Walt was the
one who steered cartoons away from the "rubber hose"
style of the silent era (dubbed thus because of the way characters
moved without regard to anatomy, as if all their limbs were rubber
hoses) and encouraged his artists to develop a realistic, naturalist
style of animation in the early 1930s. He was the moving force
behind such groundbreaking films as "Snow White and the Seven
Dwarfs" (1937), the first full-length animated feature, and
(1940), a film whose intricate levels of technical brilliance
many animators feel has never been surpassed. But it was up to
the studio artists to make Disney's ideas reality.
It was Freddie
Moore who led the movement towards realistic motion in cartoons
with his re-definition of Mickey Mouse in such films as "The
Band Concert" (1935). Disney features like "Lady and
the Tramp" (1955) and "The Jungle Book" (1967)
could never have succeeded without the polished character animation
of Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, Eric Larson, and others. Vladimir
Tytla's rendering of the demon Chernabog in the Night on Bald
Mountain sequence of "Fantasia" (1940) might well be
the greatest work of animation ever. These extraordinarily talented
men, in alliance with the vision of their leader, accomplished
what Winsor McCay had deemed impossible: high art in a studio
to all this was of course, once again, the studio head received
all the recognition for his artist's work. In Disney's case, however,
it doesn't seem to be attributable to greed on the executive's
part. Walt certainly didn't mind all the attention, but he seems
to have recognized his artist's importance to his success. Yet
to this day the Disney staff remain unknown to the public at large
(do you know that David Hand directed "Snow White"?).
It seems to be an unfortunate side effect in the development of
animation studios that individual contributions to the medium
should go uncredited.
The men behind
Warner Bros. cartoon juggernaut "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie
Melodies" have managed to beat the odds and achieve a degree
of prominence in the public eye. Then again, maybe that's because
they have such unusual and distinct monikers like Friz Freleng,
Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones. But to claim thus would be to belittle
their accomplishments, and for once in the history of animation's
Golden Age the names of the artists outshine the name of the producer.
Tunes" began in 1930 when Disney vets Hugh Harman and Rudy
Ising teamed with producer Leon Schlesinger to make cartoons,
to be distributed by Warner Bros. Three years later Harman and
Ising left to form the MGM cartoon studio, and Schlesinger and
his artists continued on their own. Unlike other studio heads
who craved the limelight, Schlesinger (and his successor Eddie
Selzer) seems to have been concerned only with making money. He
left it to his directors and animators to meet the press, and
gave them complete artistic freedom at the office....so long as
it was under budget.
artists used their creative freedom to take the medium in new
directions. Directors Tex Avery and Bob Clampett broke from the
Disney tradition that the other studios had begun to mimic and
imbibed their films with highly exaggerated slapstick comedy.
In Avery's "Porky's Duck Hunt" (the first appearance
of Daffy Duck, 1937) and Clampett's "Porky in Wackyland"
(1938), the characters appear at first to be of the naturalist
Disney school, but are constantly distorted beyond all rationality,
defying every law of physics for comedic effect. The other Warners
artists immediately picked up on the style, and eventually every
other studio, even Disney, adopted the method. Slapstick ultimately
proved to be the theatrical genre animation was best suited for.
Disney, the Warner Bros. studio turned the assembly-line-art system
to their advantage and collaborated their talents to take the
art to a higher level. Nowhere is this better exlempified than
in the creation and development of Bugs Bunny, arguably the greatest
cartoon character ever. It took over 10 years and 30 films for
Bugs' personality to coalesce into the suave and wily comic hero
that he is today. During that period he was continually tweaked
by various directors and redesigned several times by different
animators, notably Bob McKimson. By 1950 Warners' three animation
units had reached a consensus as to who Bugs was and how he looked;
while each unit made it's own cartoons, it was the same Bugs Bunny
every time. Without the tandem talents of Jones, Freleng, et.al.,
it is unlikely that Bugs would have been as fully fleshed-out
a character as he eventually became.
It was when
animation finally made the leap to television that the art truly
began to suffer for business's sake. The great Hollywood studios
of the 30s, 40s, and 50s had been manned by people genuinely interested
in making quality cinema. The denizens of the TV animation houses
of the 60s, 70s, and 80s only cared that the product was there
to market. The quality of writing was poor, and the animation
itself was often so limited it barely qualified as animation at
all. McCay's prophecy had finally come to pass.
exclusively for television had been around since Jay Ward's "Crusader
Rabbit" in 1949, but production of TV animation didn't really
hit it's stride until about 1960, when most of the cinematic cartoon
studios had shut their doors. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbara, former
MGM directors and creators of Tom and Jerry, dominated the market
almost from it's inception and continued to do so through the
Hanna and Barbara never understood that just because something
works once, that doesn't mean the same thing will work again and
again. In their 20 years together at MGM they never made anything
except Tom and Jerry cartoons. But at least Tom and Jerry had
been well animated and cleverly written.
television hits are considerably lesser in quality (one gets the
feeling they succeeded merely because there was nothing better
on), and the myriad self-imitations of every successful show they
had were downright abysmal. Despite it's flat, one-dimensional
characters and campy, formulatic stories, "Scooby-Doo"
proved extremely popular in 1969, so Hanna-Barbara made "Speed
Buggy", "Jabber Jaw", and "The Clue Club",
which were all variations on the same characters and theme. "The
Flintstones" begat "The Jetsons", and "The
Smurfs" begat "The Snorks". It was a process that
stunted creativity, giving the artists even less of a chance to
infuse life into their work.
Other TV cartoon
studios like Filmation and DIC proved little better or even worse
than Hanna-Barbara. Desperate to conquer as much air time as possible,
the studios churned out series after series without any regard
to aesthetic. The situation improved in the second half of the
1980s when the two big studios of old, Disney and Warner Bros.,
entered the market. Shows like Disney's "DuckTales"
(1986) and Warners' "Tiny Toon Adventures" (1989) were
considerably better than anything their competitors were producing.
Yet they still fell utterly short of the great cartoons made for
the movies in the first half of the century. The budget restraints
and hurried deadlines of the television industry simply prohibited
artists from crafting the kind of art their cinematic predecessors
in the 1990s the artists in the television cartoon industry began
to figure out how to work effectively with the limitations of
the field. 1992 saw the debut of Warner Bros. "Batman: The
Animated Series." Despite the fact that the animation was
contracted to various Oriental studios (by the mid 80s the practice
was almost universal in television production....it continues
to be so today) the show's creators Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Eric
Radomski, and others managed to infuse the series with a distinct
visual style. Combined with the deep characterizations and strong
stories, "Batman" was a first-rate cartoon. While they
did not attract as much publicity as Disney's theatrical department,
the Warner Bros. TV artists were just as important to the art
of animation, demonstrating that even a television cartoon series
was capable of artistic achievement.
Back on the
big screen the medium faced a different set of problems. Since
the advent of television people were no longer spending all day
at the movies, and short subjects were gradually dropped from
the billings. While animation never completely disappeared from
theaters, by the 1960s most studios had closed down; the ones
that didn't suffered from severe declines in quality. Only Disney
retained it's level of excellence, but Disney had ceased full-time
production of short subjects by the mid-50s, earlier than anyone
else. While there was the occasional Non-Disney animated feature,
no other studio was producing them on a regular basis. By the
1980s no studio was producing shorts full-time, and even the Disney
movies had lost their appeal.
The new generation
of Disney artists breathed life back into animation with films
like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988) and "The
Little Mermaid" (1989). These well-crafted cartoons were
celebrations of animation's glory days, and the public proved
just as nostalgic as the artists themselves. The new Disney crew
proved that the studio system was still capable of turning out
great art. In fact, the major flaw of the studio system, lack
of artist recognition, dissipated. Gone were the producer-moguls
of old, and with no Walt Disney public attention finally shifted
to the artists themselves. While not exactly household names,
directors John Musker and Ron Clements and animators like Glen
Keane and Andreas Deja certainly received more press than Disney
vets like Milt Kahl or Wolfgang Reitherman did in their heyday.
It was inevitable,
in spite of Winsor McCay's warnings, that animation would become
a "trade" in the form of the studio system. The complexities
of bringing moving drawings to life on the screen are too time-consuming
and too expensive for it to have developed otherwise. Fortunately,
through the years there have been many individuals working in
the field who have been careful not to let business logistics
overwhelm the artistic potential of the medium. The collective
nature of the studio may prevent the artists from receiving the
amount of praise an artist working solo garners, but the art attained
is no less great. As long as there are creative men and women
behind the drawing desk, the animated cartoon will continue to
be the best of both worlds: a trade and an art.
Michael Crandol entered this essay into a contest sponsored by
Joe & Vicki Tracy's Animation History Website where he won
first place and a limited edition signed copy of The Illusion
a printable version of this feature.
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