Balancing Passion and Economics
Animation as an Artistic Industry
In an era of rapid consumption, the endless branches of animation have integrated into colossal entertainment commerce, proving aesthetically valuable despite financial barriers. Though this rise of recognition provides respect and opportunities for niche artists of all backgrounds to contribute their artistry, it also implies that this art form has merged into the economic system as streamlined profession with a formal production process. In tempo with growing artistic appreciation for animation, the prominence of technology has allowed professional careers in multimedia animation to rise in number. Despite these new openings, the push for fair treatment bleeds into today and makes the industry appear to favor studio animators over freelance artists. Although artistic passion provides the backbone for valuable animation, it is those employed to tackle this consuming task and all its menial labors that create a quality production. A fretfully common belief in the animation field is that underpaying while demanding extensive labor is justifiable in that the career is artistic, and thus the animators should enjoy their profession as it involves creating art. Frequently forgotten is that animators aren’t mindless minions, but humans with expertise in a field, and in turn deserve suitable income as well as job satisfaction. In the 1930s when animation was booming in America for its entertainment value, the industry was likewise exploding into the struggles of hard-pressed business. In order for animation to continuously grow as an artistic business, it needs to harvest and respect the creativity of artists from all social groups.
A sexist atmosphere oppresses creativity and hinders the pioneering of projects in industrialized animation, as prejudice prevents the advancement and expression of women in studios. Before the establishment of unions in the late 1930s, animators still fought against the gender bias, unreasonably low pay, and demanding hours plaguing animation companies. Potential was left to rot due to innate sexism of the era, as “no matter their artistic skills . . . [women] were stuck in coloring, painting, and checking” (Maxwell). This department demanded unskilled labor involving coloring in endless stills and searching for painting errors. Early studios refused to allow women to work on pivotal production points, instead being subject to poor working conditions and repetitive, unsatisfying jobs. These low paid departments both contained and separated women, denying them any chance of influencing animated projects. Within major companies such as Disney it was believed that “men and women should not work together” thus “the ‘girls’ who worked in the lowest ranks . . . were in a separate building” (Denning) showing how women not only received barely sustainable pay, they were also directly separated from men. In an industrial environment dominated by male producers, directors, and animation teams, the opportunity for women to have their ideas well received is pathetically low. Even today women entering the animation field end up “the housekeepers and the organizers as opposed to the creators” (Vankin) forced to settle as production assistants or track managers rather than the ones pitching and creating. Despite the preconceived obstacles for women in animation, the past few years have shown women pushing into top positions and successfully contributing to the medium.
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In time female animators have overcome unequal barricades as they rise up in the industry, creating both imaginative shows and opportunities for women to enter the animation field. To demonstrate this shift forward vast quantities of women have begun studying the various approaches towards animation in college, though few make up the workforce in studios. In a study reported by CalArts, one of America’s most sought-out artistic colleges, women dominate the classroom setting at 71% in animation programs (Vankin). Despite this statistic, only 21% of the artists and writers behind productions are female (Vankin). Moving towards a fair chance to create in this artistic industry is necessary to both its survival and growth. The fact that women are holding higher positions in general cannot be overlooked, as it shows the progression of the ethics behind the industry, progression which has been highlighted by recent cartoon series such as Steven Universe. The producer of Steven Universe, Rebecca Sugar, is Cartoon Network’s “first female solo series creator” (Vankin). Despite the show’s unsteady start, Steven Universe was confirmed to air for a solid five seasons, securing the cartoon’s success and avoiding early cancellation. This success is due to the massive online support the cartoon has received, openly encouraging female artists to pursue animation and share their work.
The growth of women leading animated productions reflects the development of a more equal atmosphere in animation studios. The budding television series Star vs. the Forces of Evil marked the second series produced by a woman, Daron Nefcy, in Disney Television Animation (Vankin). The cartoon “premiered March 30 and was the No. 1 animated series debut in Disney XD history” (Vankin). The excitement and approval the series gained as well as the passion the animators poured into each episode allowed the project to blossom into a powerful production, starring a strong, young, female lead who goes against the stereotypical damsel in distress role Both the protagonist, Star Butterfly, and her creator provide sorely needed representation of strong females taking charge. The gradual widening of opportunities for women in the animation field to express their voice and lead a project down whichever path it may go is essential to creating a balance between economics and artistry in the industry, as the most creative atmosphere listens to all voices equally, rather than separating and dismissing them. Thanks to the impartial atmosphere the Internet provides for artists of any gender, skill, or ethnicity to learn and grow, it is anticipated that the animation industry will only continue to better balance the opportunity for everyone to contribute. Despite the current low percentage of women with high positions in studios, the equality available on the Internet greatly increases the chance for women to imaginatively impact the artistic industry, shown by the success of Steven Universe and Star vs. the Forces of Evil. Inequality diminishes the opportunity for women to thrive in the animation industry–similar to the disproportionate treatment which extended to deemed higher and lower positions.
Compounded with the lack of upward mobility for women, there was an unjust imbalance between production departments. Head animator of Disney Art Babbitt “lived in a luxurious house with a view, employed servants, drove fine cars, and made about $300 a week” while “women in the ink and paint departments . . . were hired at $12 to $18 a week” (Furniss). This massive pay disproportion extended to anyone within an animation studio as Babbitt “complained that while he was very well paid, Bill Hurtz, his assistant, made only about one-sixth of his salary” (Furniss). Company heads like Walt Disney saw this inequity as completely reasonable, since they believed lower ranking animators should be grateful to work in the same studio space as influential creators. To put it in the words of a Disney animator, an employee could be “sitting next to a guy doing the same thing as you and you might be getting $20 a week more or less than him” (Denning). There was no reason behind this unbalanced pay, outside of the business owner’s judgements and control. Yet many lead animators disagreed with Disney’s assumption, as skilled labor of any degree deserves ample pay. Without each specialized branch of animation, production would be unable to maximize quality as passion is disproportionate to proper treatment of animators. Considering that animation studios typically had employees working forty-six hours a week along with heavy expectations excluding overtime pay, this unfair pay distribution was abhorrent and overall harmful to the creative process (Furniss). Underpaid, stressed animators doing a rather meticulous job cannot succeed on sheer creativity for long. Proper pay balances the industry, as one must survive the stress of daily life to reach their full potential at work. This unreasonable salary system greatly upset animators, while issues concerning properly crediting an artist added further tension between art and business.
While the struggles of mobility in the animation business consume the most prominent studio disputes, properly crediting animators for work of any length is yet another ethical issue disrupting balance within the industry. Nowadays it is common that credits cover all contributor’s names and roles in a production—however this was not always the case, since company leaders such as Walt Disney “believed that the public did not really need to know who did what, so he kept the number of names in the credits to a minimum” (Furniss). Though most audiences would agree with Disney, the animators who were paid to pour their time, imagination, and technical skills into the production deserve to be respected for their contributions. Without properly crediting an artist their creative effort is thereby erased, in essence stealing and abusing an employee’s work for financial gain. It is incredibly common for the main “face” of an animation studio to receive all the praise, wealth, and renown for his apparent genius. Those who dealt with the business end such as Walt Disney, Pat Sullivan, and Fred Quimby tended to take the credit for the characters, designs, and storylines that had truly been crafted by animators such as Ub Iwerks, Otto Messmer, and Carl Barks (Maxwell). In reality, animation is an art form that takes multiple creative minds combined to provide a valuable visual experience, developing off of one animator’s initial idea then improving as more artists add their personal touch. Many consumers hardly consider the faceless animators working to make the scenes unfurling in front their eyes come to life, but it should be appreciated that all names are accessible to permanently mark an artist’s contributions. All these unequal prospects, where animators’ rights were overshadowed, where sexism destroyed mobility, and where pay inequality disrespected vital departments, fueled labor strikes in favor of organized unions in the industry.
One such major strike which changed the course of animation’s development as an industry was the worst blemish on a proclaimed positive, creative atmosphere: the Disney Strike of 1941. After the highly successful Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the “Disney Studio expanded: the 200 employees of 1935 had grown to 1100 by 1940” (Denning) booming the cozy studio to an formidable industry. With the birth of the artistic industry came the clash between artistic passion and balanced economics, as all the dreaminess from the success of Snow White and films before 1941 was cut short by an outbreak of war in Europe. The European demographic was speculated to play a major role in the financial success of Fantasia and Pinocchio, resulting in an extreme lack of profit for both productions. (Denning). The war “substantially cut into film revenues” (Denning) forcing the Disney corporation to sell massive quantities of its stock and uproot to a less friendly studio atmosphere. Mounted atop this financial distress, on May 29th 1941 the strike begun, fueled by years of sexist separation, unjustified disproportionate pay, as well as independent attempts to form a solid union for animators and cartoonists. Ultimately unions formed because of this strike, providing a major step forward for a balance between art and business.
Unfortunately the strides made by the Disney strike have been undercut by the rise of independent studios, as no unions protect freelance animators from mistreatment. Abusing the artistic passion of an animation crew destroys the creativity that innovates the industry and thus drives it forward. An example includes the recent R rated film, Sausage Party, which earned far more than anticipated, having “hauled in $34 million” (Merry) domestically. Compared to the budget of the film, which “Sony has said. . .was less than $20 million” (Guerrasio) the production secured plenty of profit despite paying animators rather poorly. This aspect favors the business side of the animation industry, while oppressing the imaginative, healthy aspects. In an interview done on Cartoon Brew co-director Greg Tiernan boasted how “we could deliver a movie that looks like a $150 million movie for a fraction of the cost” (Guerrasio). There is a reason cheaper products can be upped to a certain quality standard–by unfair, manipulative means. In the comment section of this interview animators from the film anonymously recounted their troubles with the company, which had included “intimidating staff into working past official studio hours” as well as “threatening to terminate employment” (Guerrasio). Without a union behind them assuring overtime pay and proper crediting no matter the length of time hired, animators have remained anonymous in their complaints, fearing being “blacklisted” in the community and in turn harming their future job opportunities (Merry). Animation is a field which implements tight deadlines and stressful situations to push forward to finalize a project, but this constraint should not be a damaging vice that destroys opportunity for animators. From contract productions such as Sausage Party, the importance of established rights for animators proves vital for maintaining a healthy balance between business and creativity. Early strikes challenged these stressful conditions which favored economics over a quality production, organizing to fight for a reasonable system for wages and treatment.
The unpleasant pathway to protective unions is necessary to the survival of the artistic industry, as shown by the mistreatment of freelance animators. The formation of various unions such as the Screen Cartoonists Guild helped shift the industry towards respecting its employees as unique artists with an expanse of skills available to improve the medium. (Maxwell). Unions received support of top animators such as Babbitt who joined SCG, who then refused to work and encouraged other employees to organize and protest as well. The Disney strike of 1941 was a lengthy struggle, despite Walt Disney largely denying unrest among his workers, whom he affectionately referred to as a family (Furniss). But this paternal atmosphere turned against Disney, creating an unfair working environment that too many employees could no longer withstand. Many animation studios were founded on having a friendly atmosphere that inspires creative growth to balance the tedious process of animating—but this atmosphere proves fallacious when employees are being overworked and underpaid. In the end, “The Disney strike was a union victory” in terms of increasing the pay to a more reasonable level, as “The base pay for inkers went from $18 a week to $35. Animators started at $85 instead of $35 a week (Furniss).
Though the new pay rate did not absolutely resolve the imperfections apparent in the industry, it was a step in the right direction for equal treatment. To resolve the issue of properly attributing, “The company agreed to numerous benefits including screen credit on shorts as well as on features” (Furniss). With this accomplishment came assured respect to the artists who labored on the production under the protection of an union. As an artistic career fueled by inspiration, it is understandable that establishing set rules, hours, and rates of pay through unions could only stifle creativity. Yet this assured respect for an animator’s rights as both a laborer and an artist assist in avoiding unequal treatment in business realm, as even an artistic industry must implement guidelines to eliminate abuse of the employees. In turn these victories did not come without a bitter bite, as many animators who crafted the unions and strikes were treated coldly by coworkers and managers alike. Similar to the Sausage Party animators fear of being blacklisted for speaking out against mistreatment, those who participated in the Disney Strike were sadly turned away from future projects and often fired from their studio. Gritting as the process of bettering labor ethics in animation was, the formation of unions benefited the industry by properly paying and crediting all artists no matter gender or title, allowing for creativity to flourish.
A fair industry is necessary for animation to further its aesthetic potential, where more than just the very top receive the economic benefits of each project. Art, even cherished art, requires monetary backing to thrive as a fair business. A quality, valuable animation which may influence and inspire generations needs full effort from the animation studio, including full support for all its devoted artists.
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