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MichaelBarrier.com Exploring the World of Animation and Comic Art

"What's New" Archives: July 2014

 

July 23, 2014:

Members of the Club

 

July 21, 2014:

Book Backlog III: Disney and More

 

July 17, 2014:

Sody Clampett

Bigger and Better Barks

 

July 13, 2014:

"Internal" vs. "Instrumental"

And Speaking of Directors...

 

July 23, 2014:

Members of the Club

Dell pinup

The item above, a pinup depicting eighteen Dell comic-book characters, was first offered as a subscription premium in the Dell comics of the 1950 Christmas season, the issues dated December 1950 and January 1951. Those were also the first issues to offer membership in the Dell Comics Club, an organization whose members were entitled to "privileges" that were, as best I can tell, confined to owning the membership card, one of which I still have, from 1956. I've just posted a better scan of my card at this link.

Gormley BugsI coveted the pinup (which measures 8 x 10 inches) for decades, but the few times I saw it offered for sale it was for a much higher price than I could justify paying. But then it turned up on eBay a few weeks ago, and to my surprise I was able to buy it for what I considered a reasonable price, maybe because the listing didn't have the right keywords to alert other potential purchasers. Whatever, I have it now (in the original Dell Publishing mailing envelope!), and it will soon be framed near my other subscription-premium treasure, the Walt Kelly-drawn "Disney Gang at the Circus" sheet from 1949, which was sent to subscribers to Walt Disney's Comics & Stories. You can have your Van Goghs—some of us want real art on our walls.

Unfortunately, the Dell pinup arrived too late to be included in my new book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. That book is a few days ahead of schedule. Page proofs arrived Monday evening, and publication is still scheduled for December. Funnybooks has turned out very well, I think, although I have yet to decide whether I should squeeze a few late-arriving bits of information into the page proofs. After months of trying, I finally learned the other day the date when Oskar Lebeck, the most important Dell editor, became a U.S. citizen (he immigrated from Germany). Is that fact significant enough to risk messing up a page? I don't know yet.

Gormley PorkyI should remove the "Disney Gang" pinup from its frame and scan it for this site, since it is certainly a superior piece of work—it's pure Walt Kelly from the period when he was approaching his peak. The authorship of the Dell pinup is less certain, but Bob Barrett, who owns a copy and has given it some study, believes a single artist was responsible. I think that's right. My first thought, when I saw the pinup in reduced size on comic-book back covers as part of a subcription ad, was that it must have been patched together from tracings of comic-book panels by a variety of artists, but I didn't recognize any possible sources. The more I look at the pinup (well, OK, I haven't spent hours contemplating it), the more I think it's the work of Dan Gormley, a Western Printing & Lithographing standby who worked in both straight and cartoon styles.

It was mostly the latter by 1950—Gormley illustrated a lot of John Stanley scripts for New Funnies in the late 1940s—but in earlier years he signed, for instance, "Captain Midnight" covers for The Funnies. Some of the cartoon characters in the pinup, like Oswald the Rabbit, Bugs Bunny, and Porky Pig, are unmistakably Gormley's drawings. Tarzan and Gene Autry are in what looks like a Gormley imitation of Jesse Marsh's style, and Roy Rogers in an imitation of Albert Micale's.

Gormley ElmerGormley was, as I say, a Western Printing standby, and it was presumably as such that he was called upon to draw four of the five fold-out panels (each measuring about 6 3/4 x 8 1/4 inches) in yet another Dell subscription premium, this one for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies Comics, that was first offered in the March 1951 issue. Gormley's panels, reproduced here, offer his versions of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester, and Henery Hawk. These are not the versions the child reader would find inside the comic book. Not that I'm complaining, exactly; the fifth panel, which I haven't reproduced, is by Ralph Heimdahl and shows standard (and, I'm afraid, rather dull) versions of Bugs and Porky. Gormley's are stranger and more fun. There were other sets of premium panels with the characters from other Dell titles, but, to judge from the subscription ads, none as offbeat as Gormley's.

Conspicuously absent from the Dell group pinup are any characters from two other Western Printing monthly comic books, Walt Disney's Comics & Stories and Red Ryder Comics, both of which also encouraged subscriptions. The absence of those characters is presumably owing to those comic books' being published by Western itself, in its guise as as K.K. Publications, and not by Dell. Although by 1950 both K.K. monthlies bore the Dell label, they were distinct in other respects from their Dell brethren, for historical reasons I explain in my book. By 1950, the Dell monthlies were Looney Tunes, New Funnies, Tom and Jerry, Little Lulu, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and The Lone Ranger. The other characters on the pinup, like Popeye and Tarzan, represented titles published bi-monthly or quarterly.

Gormley HeneryThe pinup bears a copyright in Western Printing's name, never registered or renewed as best I can tell. Such a blanket copyright may have been Western's way of dealing with the awkwardness of publishing a pinup showing characters owned by nine (by my count) different licensors. As it was, that multiplicity of owners generated awkwardness enough.

Take Felix the Cat, down there in the lower left-hand corner, who was in 1950 the star of a bi-monthly Dell comic book. But Felix the Cat's Dell run ended with No. 19, February-March 1951, when Toby began publishing that comic book.

Dell picked up almost immediately with another King Features cat, Krazy Kat. (There's probably an interesting story behind that switch, but I don't know what it is.) Krazy Kat was also published as a bi-monthly, starting with the May-June 1951 issue, but that was in fact the only bi-monthly issue. Krazy Kat then appeared erratically as an ostensible quarterly through 1952, surviving after that for a few years as Four Color one-shots. When the pinup was offered again in February 1952 Dell titles, Felix had been erased, his place filled in some issues, but not all, by Krazy Kat. In Looney Tunes there was only blank space where Felix had been.

Comments

From Robin Johnson: That Dell pinup is a great visual quiz for those of us who read Dell Comics in the '50s (I started my subscriptions a couple of years after yours, but not many)— that is, how many of those characters can we name? I'm stuck on a couple of them. Who's the girl with the fire hose? And who's the brown rabbit with the one-shoulder overalls? They didn't make it into my collection. (As for the fold-out, I barely recognized Henery Hawk, who was considerably politer when he appeared in the comics I read.) Same goes for your Dell Comics Club card (I must have had one too, but it's long gone). Who's the chicken (Foghorn Leghorn? Doesn't look like him) and who's the other gray rabbit, the one looking down? It's certainly not Bugs. All the best with your book—I'll certainly be buying it when it comes out.

MB replies: The girl with the fire hose is Little Iodine, star of a Sunday-comics spinoff from Jimmy Hatlo's long-lived King Features daily panel, They'll Do It Every Time. The brown rabbit is Walter Lantz's Oswald (whose color and just about everything else about him changed many times over the years, starting back when he was a star of Disney silent cartoons in the 1920s). The chicken on the membership card is Charlie Chicken, Andy Panda's bosom buddy. And that other gray rabbit on the card is Oswald again.

The Henery Hawk of the Looney Tunes comic-book stories was drawn by Veve Risto, whose tight style could hardly have been more different from Dan Gormley's.

From James Tim Walker: Thanks for your post on the Dell pinups. My favorite Dell artist was Dan Gormley, I loved his drawings in the New Funnies of the late 1940s. And his drawings in the Howdy Doody and Mr. Magoo comics of the 1950s. Gormley's poses say animation to me. In all your comic-book research have you found any info on Gormley working in animation before his comic-book years?

MB replies: Unfortunately, I know almost nothing about Gormley's history. He was a Dell/Western Printing regular throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but I don't know where he came from or where he went. I don't recall seeing any mention of him in connection with the Fleischer or Terrytoons studios, his most likely employers if he worked in animation before going into comic books. And although other mainstays of Western's New York office returned to animation on the West Coast in later years—Dan Noonan, Moe Gollub, and Tony Rivera come immediately to mind—I've never seen Gormley's name come up in that connection.

[Posted July 24, 2014]

From Bob Barrett: I thought that I would send you a jpg of my membership card because it is different than yours, some different characters and doesn't ask for the date on the upper line. I didn't want to deface my card with a date and my name—I was already into unsullied perfection (which I eventually grew out of). A few days ago another of the character portraits was offered on eBay for $500! I never did check to see if it sold!

MB replies: Bob's card—from earlier in the 1950s than mine, for sure, since Howdy Doody, Henry, and Popeye are nowhere to be seen on my 1956 card, and Howdy's star in particular was in steep decline by 1956—can be seen below. Just for the record, I paid much, much less for my Dell pinup than $500. Has anyone ever paid that much, or anything close to it? I have to doubt it.

Dell Comics Club car

[Posted July 25, 2014]

From Harry McCracken: I enjoyed seeing the Dell all-star pinup. I wasn't the least bit surprised by the absence of the Disney characters. Do you suppose that Dell—or, I guess, Western—asked permission to scatter Mickey, Donald, and the rest among other stars, or was it obvious that Disney wouldn't want to participate in something which so much as acknowledged the existence of other animation studios?

MB replies: That was my first thought, too, but the Disney characters did in fact share the stage (or the advertising space) with the other Dell characters any number of times in the '50s, as in Dell's well-known Saturday Evening Post ads (1952-53). Walt Disney's Comics & Stories was depicted with other Dell titles in the trade magazine American News Trade Journal at least as early as the July 1950 issue. So my best guess is still that the Dell-K.K. separateness was more important than any reluctance by Disney to associate with riffraff (although that could well have been a factor). If Red Ryder, a K.K. character, were present in the pinup, that would be persuasive evidence that Disney didn't want to be there, but Red is absent, too.

[Posted July 28, 2014]

 

July 21, 2014:

Book Backlog III: Disney and More

In which I continue playing catch-up with books I've wanted to review but haven't, because I was writing another one of my own.

Vault of WaltIt's not often that an author provides an exceptionally astute evalution of his own books, thereby saving the reviewer a lot of trouble, but Jim Korkis did that a few months ago. Here's what he told me about The Revised Vault of Walt and Who's Afraid of Song of the South and Other Forbidden Disney Stories (both published by Theme Park Press), two collections of short pieces he has written mostly for websites: "[T]hey are not meant to be great tomes bowing to academia....just an attempt to get some material in print for a large audience so that they can be enjoyed and used for reference in the future. I think there is a need and room for scholarly books about Disney subjects. However, I think there can also be room for these 'fun' little books that are well researched."

Or, as Jim puts it in his introduction to his Song of the South book: "I dance on the thin line between traditional academic scholarship and material accessible to a more general audience. I have tried to incorporate references directly in the text rather than include a massive amount of footnotes that would distract from the flow of the story."

My principal reservation about Jim's work has always been rooted not in accuracy or readability but in whether he has been thorough enough in identifying his sources—that is, in distinguishing his own research from what he has borrowed from others. Attention to such niceties is not so much what separates the "academic" from the "accessible," as what separates fan writing from writing that deserves to be taken more seriously.

Fortunately, Jim has gotten better at explaining how he knows what he knows (which is a great deal) and thus making it easier to enjoy what are in many cases the only substantial examinations of neglected corners of Disney history: Walt's collection of miniatures, the genesis of various Disneyland attractions, Walt's history with the Oscars, and so on. Footnotes would still be welcome, or maybe just a short note on sources at the end of each piece (and The Revised Vault of Walt lacks an index), but it is easier now to have confidence in the substance of each piece—and, I must say, to feel sympathy for a conscientious "Disney Historian" (as Jim identifies himself) whose work has often not been appreciated by the official custodians of that history. You'll find no Disney-copyrighted illustrations in either book.

When the publisher asked me to read Inside the Whimsy Works: My Life with Walt Disney Productions by Jimmy Johnson (University Press of Mississippi) in manuscript, my first concern was whether it would overlap too much with a very good book by Greg Ehrbar and Tim Hollis, Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records (2006). Johnson was president of the Walt Disney Music Company when he retired in 1975, and his unpublished memoir—he died in 1976—was an important source for the Ehrbar-Hollis book. Ehrbar was a co-editor of the new book with Didier Ghez, who has been helping rescue unpublished manuscripts like Homer Brightman's memoir of his life as a Disney story man.

Whimsy WorksI checked enough of the Johnson references in Mouse Tracks to conclude that the two books were sufficiently different to justify publication of Inside the Whimsy Works, and there's nothing about the published book to make me change my mind. Johnson’s career at Disney encompassed more than records—character merchandising, publications, music publishing—and his manuscript is illuminating about parts of the company that were important to its long-term success but get relatively little attention in books and are rarely the subject of memoirs like this one. What encouraged me to have confidence in Johnson’s memoir—when so many memoirs are difficult to credit, whether in details or as a whole—is that he is highly accurate when what he writes about lends itself to checking. This is especially impressive because he was writing almost forty years ago, when even Bob Thomas’s authorized biography of Walt Disney was yet to be published.

Mercifully, Johnson’s book isn’t padded with extraneous pages on Disney history. It is almost too short; the book comes in at well under two hundred pages even with introductions by Johnson's son and Ehrbar, and an epilogue by Ehrbar. Johnson’s tone is warm and personal, but with a certain welcome detachment; I almost never felt that he had an axe to grind, except possibly in his harsh comments about O. B. Johnston, the head of character merchandising. But certainly there were self-serving people in the Disney organization even in Walt and Roy’s heyday, and Johnson’s negative opinion of Johnston is hard to dismiss.

Repeatedly, I felt that Johnson was giving his readers a welcome sense of what life was like, day to day, in parts of the Disney organization that have been the subject of much less scrutiny than the “creative” side, particularly when Walt Disney himself was involved in the creating. Walt makes appearances in this book, of course, as does his older brother, Roy, and the glimpses we’re given of both men are revealing and totally consistent with what we know about them from other sources.

I've not yet met Floyd Norman, which is my misfortune, but we've talked on the phone and exchanged email messages, and I've read a good deal of what he has written, or should I say written and drawn—for the Web, for books made up of his deftly satirical cartoons about the animation business, and now for the richly illustrated Animated Life: A Lifetime of Tips, Tricks, Techniques and Stories from an Animation Legend (Focal Press), a sort of combination memoir and guidebook. Floyd's career in animation began in 1956—he was at the Disney studio when Walt was still alive and very much running the place—and later took him to Pixar, in 1997, when it was still a new, admirable, and interesting company. He worked mainly as a story man, almost always a job in which it's easier to maintain a sense of a a film as a whole than in more specialized jobs, and the book offers an insider's accounts of significant movies that got made (Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, Monsters Inc.) and some that didn't, notably Disney's Wild Life.

Arthurian AnimationArthurian Animation: A Study of Cartoon Camelots on Film and Televison (McFarland) by Michael N. Salda, an associate professor of medieval literature in the English department at the University of Southern Mississippi, is a remarkably comprehensive survey of how the Arthurian legend has taken shape in, as the book cover says, "more than 170 theatrical and televised short cartoons, televised series and specials, and feature-length films from The Sword in the Stone to Shrek the Third." The book actually begins with Harman-Ising's Bosko's Knight-mare (1933) and its highlight is its second chapter, titled appropriately "The Best Arthurian Cartoon Never Made," which is devoted to Hugh Harman's very ambitious but unfinished King Arthur feature of the early 1940s. Thanks to Mark Kausler, Salda had access to Harman's papers when he was writing about that aborted project, and he also located photographs of unpublished drawings of the film's characters. Given how much new information this chapter contains, it's regrettable that Salda (or his publisher) could not settle on whether the villain's name should be spelled "Modred" or "Mordred."

The book is thorough in its coverage of other Arthurian cartoons, if relying a little heavily on plot summaries rather than production histories or critical analysis. The major problem is that it's hard to resist the conclusion that most animated films about King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table have simply not been very good. The legend has resisted cartoon makers' efforts, whether they want to present it seriously or play it for laughs. For that matter, it has not been a fertile source for live-action filmmakers, either. There's an interesting contrast with another British legend, that of Robin Hood, which has been translated into some exceptionally enjoyable cartoons (Chuck Jones's Robin Hood Daffy, for one) and live-action features (like those with Errol Flynn and Richard Todd as Robin). Maybe that's because the Robin Hood legend is inherently cheerful—the good guys win!—whereas the Arthur legend most decidedly is not.

Ultimately, what impressed me most, as I read Arthurian Animation, was that the University of Southern Mississippi has room on its faculty for a professor of medieval literature. Those are civilized folks down there in Hattiesburg.

Niderost book"Thorough" is a word that also came to mind as I read Sonnets & Sunspots: "Dr. Research" Baxter and the Bell Science Films by Eric Niderost (BearManor Media). The book tells in detail the story of the making of the nine TV shows in the famous Bell Science series, which aired in the 1950s and 1960s, and it is also a biography of Frank C. Baxter, a popular professor of English at the University of Southern California who was the host for the first eight shows. Baxter's essentially accidental career as a TV personality, which began with weekly lectures on Shakespeare in a "public service" slot on a Los Angeles TV station, was the sort of thing readily imaginable only in the '50s, when TV was still a novelty, public stations were just beginning to appear, and many of the performers on TV shows of all kinds had established themselves in other venues first. Niderost traces Baxter's remarkable career as a TV star of sorts, which took him to guest appearances on TV shows as diverse as Tennessee Ernie Ford and Mr. Novak, and even to a role in a science-fiction movie called The Mole People.

Animation was a part of all of the Bell Science specials, and it was produced by brand-name studios: UPA, Shamus Culhane, Warner Bros., and Disney (for The Restless Sea, the last show, in which Baxter did not appear). It's in discussing the animated segments that Niderost's book is probably weakest, in part because by the time he began writing almost everyone who worked on those segments had died. June Foray is the only survivor he cites as a source, and she, like voice artists in general, played a limited role compared with directors and writers and designers. The paucity of solid information about the cartoon segments is for the most part no great loss, especially for the four Bell shows that the Warner studio produced; the animated portions of those shows are of very slight interest, even though the animation for one show each was directed by Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson, and Phil Monroe. Some of the other shows have more to offer—I think of Bobe Cannon's famous animation of a drop of water in The Restless Sea—but there is no compelling reason to seek out any of the Bell films for their animated content.

Sonnets & Sunspots is yet another book that would have benefited from greater specificity as to its sources. There's an extensive bibliography, but when a book is covering as much new ground as this one does, I like to know more precisely where the author got his facts.

Comments

From Kevin Hogan: Thanks for giving these books a solid mention. I’m a bit more interested in the Jim Korkis books now that I have some clarity on how my time will be utilized. I especially like that you have given the Arthurian book some attention. The subject matter sounds like a college thesis paper gone wild, but you give it real time and attention.

I’m not as much of a fan of Robin Hood Daffy. It feels like little more than self-indulgence for Chuck Jones to me, a collection of held poses (from Daffy) and eye-rolls (from Porky).

MB replies: I think Robin Hood Daffy is better than that, although as late-fifties Jones it suffers from the common ailments of that period. Maurice Noble's design is too much to the fore, but Mike Maltese's writing is still sharp, Jones's poses are not yet hopelessly self-conscious, and some of the animation, like Ken Harris's of Daffy in the opening scenes is still very good. But yes, if I had to choose between this cartoon and Jones's Rabbit Hood (1949), I'd certainly go with the earlier cartoon.

[Posted July 21, 2014]

From Michael Salda: Thank you for the generous review of Arthurian Animation. I appreciate it, especially your assessment of the book as "a remarkably comprehensive survey." That's high praise from somebody who knows more than a thing or two about surveys. You've made my week.

I do want to explain one issue that you raise: the Mordred/Modred oscillation. It was a conscious choice. The spelling of names varies throughout the Arthurian corpus—and can vary even more as names become cartoon puns to spark a chuckle. For the book, I needed a system to accommodate the variable spellings. I settled on a traditional, standard form for each name, then departed from that standard only when a particular text/film/cartoon did. There's a short note on the seemingly inconsistent spelling of names (note to the Introduction, 177n5), though in retrospect I see that perhaps I should have moved the note into the body or occasionally referred back to the note to keep it from getting overlooked. In any event, the system made for some inelegant passages as I shifted (as in chapter 2) between Malory's canonical, standard "Mordred" and Harman's "Modred." I remember rewriting many sections to try to minimize the jarring effect of having a character's name "change" mid-paragraph or mid-sentence. Yet fidelity to source material remained a prime consideration, even if it did sometimes lead to the onomastic slippage that you note. For what it's worth, the index reports both the standard form of the name and then parenthetically the prominent variants.

Incidentally, we actually have two medievalists here in an English Department of about three dozen faculty. We had three medievalists until the oldest of us retired a few years ago. I doubt that we'll ever have three again. Departmental priorities change.

[Posted July 25, 2014]

 

July 17, 2014:

Bob and Sody Clampett

Bob and Sody Clampett at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, in March 1976. The photo is courtesy of the Canadian animator Bill Perkins.

Sody Clampett

I was very late in learning of her death on June 20, at the age of 83. Sody was, of course, the wife of Bob Clampett—they married in 1955—and the mother of his three children. I met her at the Clampett studio the same day I met Bob, in June 1969. I can't think of any other couples I knew in animation or the comics whose marriage was such a tight fit; they even looked enough alike to be brother and sister. In 1987, three years after Bob died, I did a full interview with Sody about him, his work, and their life together. It would have seemed a little odd to interview many other spouses under such circumstances, but with Sody it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do—and the interview was in fact very helpful.

Sody's passing hasn't received enough attention, but you can read Mark Evanier's warm remembrance at this link.

Comments

From Steve Schneider: Thanks for posting the lovely tribute to lovely Sody Clampett. Super-friendly and shining every time I met her, she also seemed to take huge and genuine pride in the accomplishments of her husband. And it went both ways: Both Clampetts' totally palpable sense of affection plus appreciation for each other created as beautiful and supportive a marriage as one might hope to see. I'm delighted that Bob Clampett found so fine a helpmeet. Here's a glass raised to them both.

[Posted July 23, 2014]

From Bill Perkins: Great that you posted news about Sody Clampett's passing, I was also surprised by the lack of attention it generated. Thanks for the credit on the photograph. I lived in Los Angeles for a few years in the late 1990s and met with her several times, lunch and at the studio, and at that time I provided her with a print of this photo. She said later that it was her favorite photo of her and Bob. It was satisfying to have provided her with that. She was a warm and wonderful lady.

[Posted July 24, 2014]

 

Carl Barks in his study

Carl Barks in his study at Grants Pass, Oregon, on July 9, 1998. Photo by Michael Barrier.

Bigger and Better Barks

I've recently been cleaning up the site, dropping my outdated photo from the masthead and correcting some mistakes from early in the site's life. Back at the beginning, I was too cautious about the size of my illustrations, fearful, I guess, that anything but postage-stamp-sized illustrations would be too big to load. One casualty of my excessive caution was one of my first posts, a hundredth birthday tribute to Carl Barks. I've now made up for my mistake by resizing some of the illustrations to make them much bigger, as you can see by going to that Essay page. I've also posted one of the photos here.

Some other pages will get a similar cosmetic makeover soon, the Dave Hand interview most notably, and I'll be replacing a number of illustrations on other pages that have never looked as good as they should.

 

July 13, 2014:

"Internal" vs. "Instrumental"

There was an interesting piece in the New York Times the other day, about the relative effectiveness of "internal" motives as opposed to the "instrumental" variety. Here's what the authors, professors at Yale and Swarthmore, had in mind:

If a scientist conducts research because she wants to discover important facts about the world, that’s an internal motive, since discovering facts is inherently related to the activity of research. If she conducts research because she wants to achieve scholarly renown, that’s an instrumental motive, since the relation between fame and research is not so inherent. Often, people have both internal and instrumental motives for doing what they do.

Such a combination might seem likely to lead to success of both kinds, but not so:

You might suppose that a scientist motivated by a desire to discover facts and by a desire to achieve renown will do better work than a scientist motivated by just one of those desires. Surely two motives are better than one. But ... instrumental motives are not always an asset and can actually be counterproductive to success. ... Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also—counterintuitive though it may seem—their financial success.

Perhaps...but what about those situations in which an industry is populated by people many of whom have entered it out of "internal" motives, but that industry is run by people whose motives are overwhelmingly "instrumental"? That is, what happens when an industry is filled with people who want to think of themselves as artists, but that industry is run by people who think only about money?

That question occurred to me as I was reading Cartoon Brew's fascinating coverage of the ongoing scandal in which top executives at big animation studios have been shown to have colluded at suppressing wages and the movement of their employees from one company to another. Such collusion is certainly not new in the animation industry—I remember hearing about it from people who worked at the cartoon studios of the early 1930s—but it seems never to have been particularly effective. For one thing, good animators (or animators considered good in those long-ago days) were relatively scarce, and any serious effort to fence them off permanently from competitors was doomed to failure.

If the studios have been more successful at wage-fixing this time around, the relative anonymity of computer animation's would-be artists surely has something to do with that. Looking at the industry from outside, it seems as though its proprietors have come to consider animators to be about as fungible as inbetweeners or inkers and painters were believed to be in the old days. I don't doubt for a moment that there are animators on today's CGI movies who are highly skilled and whose work, if our eyes could be trained to distinguish it, rises above the norm. But anonymity surely redounds to the corporate executives' benefit, all the way up to the directors' level, where assigning that title to two or three people guarantees that they will be invisible to the public.

If everyone working on a film is essentially an interchangeable, anonymous technician, varying only in the skills required for a particular job, there's no reason not to keep wages as low as possible. Layoffs are likewise not a problem, since you can easily rehire the same skills, if not necessarily the same people. This is the way the TV-cartoon studios always worked, only now it's prestigious feature-animation houses that are doing it. It's strange to think of Pixar and DreamWorks as being fundamentally identical to Hanna-Barbera and Filmation, but that seems to be the case.

So, where does this wage-fixing scandal leave the people who entered animation out of "internal" motives and who, it turns out, through a conspiracy among their "instrumentally" motivated employers have been paid much less than the enormous success of many CGI movies would seem to warrant? At the very least, it may lead some to question how closely their aspirations have ever been aligned with those of their employers.

 

And Speaking of Directors...

When I wrote here about How to Train Your Dragon 2 and speculated about just what went wrong, and why that movie was such a disappointment compared with its predecesssor, I'd forgotten about an interview with its director, Dean DeBlois that I excerpted around the time the first movie came out. It's interesting to match what DeBlois said then against the second film:

We definitely benefited from our situation because this has probably been the most hands-off production DreamWorks has ever generated. There was no time left for second-guessing decisions. We were just given a lot of trust and pushed forward to make the best movie we could make within our personal sensibilities. That said, there has been a lot of reaction within the studio about how there have been some unspoken rules that were broken. We don’t have a lot of pop culture references because that’s just not our brand of comedy, we like the comedy to come out of the situations. As such it isn’t a big knee-slapper of a movie. There is some comedy in it but it’s not a back-to-back comedy, it’s much more adventure driven. But that was the tone we were given. When we came on Jeffrey [Katzenberg] said he wanted this to be more Harry Potter than Madagascar. He wanted us to go for the promise of that world.

The second movie is, curiously, even more "adventure driven" than the original, but in cruder fashion. No need to ask whose hands were on that production.

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