Sunday, July 13, 2008


Sometimes great and important art can only be achieved by disregarding the level of effort required.

The ancient historian Herodotus estimated that it took 100,000 workers 20 years to build one of the great pyramids of Egypt.

These workers had no labor union; they mostly led wretched lives and died unpleasant deaths. But at the same time, each of them played a role in the creation of monumental beauty. The pyramids, tombs and monuments they built have inspired humanity for all time.

Those Egyptians who did not work on the pyramids may have lived more comfortably and died with full bellies, but they disappeared from the world without a trace. All memory of them was quickly erased by the sand.

You could make a similar point about other major works, such as the great cathedrals of Europe, or Emperor Qin's army of 8,000 terra cotta warriors. These objects of great beauty could not have been created without an endless supply of cheap labor. Hundreds of thousands of underpaid peasants or slaves were persuaded (or forced) to sacrifice themselves. Perhaps by associating with something great, they were able to transcend their poverty and mortality. All I know is that anyone who tries to judge these works by weighing the number of hours spent against the result achieved is measuring with the wrong stick.

I think about early animation the same way. The great early animated films-- Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia-- were produced by hundreds of low paid artists drawing millions of drawings on an industrial assembly line. They worked under primitive conditions compared to today's computer animation. Just as Egyptian laborers learned to transport granite blocks weighing 60 tons apiece using nothing but strong backs and ingenuity, early animators compensated for the lack of multiplane cameras or photocopiers by working longer and harder.

Early Disney artists

Some of Disney's "ink and paint girls."

Like the slaves who worked for pharaohs or Emperor Quin, some of Disney's artists became quite bitter about their working conditions. Hours were long and the work was back breaking. Union unrest broke out and tempers flared, leading to the Great Walt Disney Cartoonists Strike of 1941.

It's doubtful that early animation could have been created without cheap labor. And whatever the disadvantages of working on the assembly line, each of these artists was part of something larger than themselves. At the end, they had a product of shining brilliance that stands as a landmark for future generations. Famed Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein called Snow White "the greatest motion picture ever made."

After the uprising at Disney, some of the animators who were fired or quit went on to accomplish great things. Walt Kelly escaped to create the comic strip Pogo. Hank Ketcham went on to create Dennis the Menace. a few animators went on to do great work at rival animation studios. Perhaps these gifted entrepreneurs should never have been on an assembly line to begin with. But for the vast majority, their work with Disney was their one chance to touch excellence. Sure, some of them might have made more money drawing spot illustrations of laundry detergent for a local commercial art studio, but looking back at the end of their lives, would the trade off have been worth it?

Today, you can still get a sense for the economics of animation from the fact that collectors can buy bundles of current animation art for shockingly low prices. Each of the following original paintings, reflecting some artist's hard work and personal craftsmanship, was purchased for about the price of a Hallmark greeting card:

I don't know what cartoons they are from. They tend to show up in sheafs, packaged with Asian markings that I cannot read:

In some far away country, new artists who don't get paid very much are working on another assembly line composing huge numbers of such paintings. They are pressured to work quickly but they still care enough about their craft to compose with precision and skill. I don't know if these artists even make enough to eat, but I honor them for the professionalism and commitment in these paintings.


Peter said...

Not to take away from the central point of your thesis, but there is ample evidence that the pyramid workers were very well looked after in many of their essential needs.

For example, there is direct evidence that they were fed large quantities of high-protein food (beef, fish, fowl), whereas the standard regional diet was largely vegetable-based. In other words, their heavy work was recognized as requiring a substantial food intake, and they got it.

David Apatoff said...

Black Pete, at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, they had an exhibition a few years ago explaining why slavery wasn't really so bad. Just like the recent excavations suggested in Egypt, the Museum of the Confederacy explained that slaves were valuable property, and in order to protect their investment, slave masters had to feed their slaves well and provide good medical care. I suspect that is at least partially true, although on balance I suppose I would prefer not to be a slave.

At the Sphinx at Giza, they have a sound and light show which disavows "the legend of the lash" and explains that the builders of the sphinx worked happily, motivated solely by their devotion to the pharaoh. I suppose that is partially true as well, just as many animators were deeply devoted to pharaoh Disney.

Whether you believe the evidence from the excavations of worker barracks around the base of the sphinx, or you believe the biblical stories that slaves begged pharaoh to "let my people go," it seems undisputed that these people did grueling work in the hot sun for very little pay.

colin said...

Not all that relevant, perhaps, but...

The sheet in the animation cell package shown is in Japanese, and it says the title of the show was "Kurogane Communication". I've never heard of it, I'm afraid, but it does have a Wikipedia entry.

ces said...

My aunt was one of those Disney animators in the late 40s-early 50s. I never once heard her say a bad word about working at Disney - she was thrilled to be there & have a steady job. She used to show me her drawings to see what I, a 5-7 year old, liked & didn't like. She even gave me quite a few cells, but over the years & after many many many moves, I know longer have them. They'd probably fetch a tidy sum nowadays.

ces said...

Oh, forgot the Egyptians.

Since we weren't there (and it was a LONG time ago!), we really don't know what the conditions were like or how they were treated.

I take everything with a grain of salt for that far back in time.

David Apatoff said...

Colin, I am impressed! Thanks!

ces, I think being a Disney animator would be a dream job. Of course, your aunt worked there several years after the labor wars (with all the firings and the picket lines) had ended. By that time, Disney was unionized and your aunt was the beneficiary of the new system. Too bad about those cels!

vi4mi4 said...

"that slaves were valuable property, and in order to protect their investment, slave masters had to feed their slaves well and provide good medical care. I suspect that is at least partially true"

...if you call eating pig slop (modern day soul food), back lashings, lynching and castration "taken care of", yes, slavery was a joy,
Derrick H.
david, i lurk and enjoy your blog

Stephen Worth said...

Forced labor wasn't what made the golden age Disney features possible... education was. Disney instituted night classes for his artists, training them with drawing animals from life, action analysis and the technical aspects of animation. Although the employees were not paid for attending these classes, they used the knowledge they gained for the rest of their careers... mostly at studios other than Disney.

Today, artists in animation studios are given very little artistic training. Studios will teach them to use their own proprietary computer programs, but no studio since pre-War Disney has provided the broad range of creative training that Disney did. Artists today are on their own. They're hired in a particular capacity at the beginning of a project, and laid off in the exact same capacity a year later when the project wraps.

Disney's "pyramid" was responsible for building the foundation for the entire animation business. We could use a studio willing to invest in talent like that in animation today.

See ya

David Apatoff said...

vi4mi4, glad to hear from you. Yeah, I did think the Museum of the Confederacy kind of missed the big point...

Stephen, I was hoping you would weigh in on this, since you are my resident expert on animation. I have enjoyed reading histories of the golden age of animation at Disney, but different people seem to have different perspectives. I can understand how, if Disney spent a lot of money on education and training, they would have less money to pay the individual animators. It would be typical of Disney's style to look at the process as a long term investment in their creative staff (although I also understand that for many years, Disney management went through the ranks every Friday and fired those who had under performed that week. That kept the animators submissive and living in terror.) I have heard Selby Kelly talk about working on the animation line at Disney. She didn't mention the training, but 40years later she was still bitter about the wages and the treatment of the staff. The one thing everybody seems to agree on is that the end result was beeeyootiful.

Stephen Worth said...

During the Disney strike, the main areas of contention were the disparity of wages between the top artists and the assistants; and the required unpaid night classes. The first concern was a legitimate one. Art Babbitt, the animator who organized the strike drove a Lincoln and lived in the Hollywood Hills, while his assistant got by with one room and barely enough to eat. As Disney staffed up for Bambi/Dumbo/Fantasia, a lot of low level assistants were brought in at very low wages, while Walt's key boys were reaping the rewards of Snow White and Pinocchio. That was bound to cause friction.

But ultimately, the problem was, the strike didn't really make things better in the long run. Combined with the loss of European markets for animation during the War, it was a one-two punch that Disney never fully recovered from. The end result was that experimentation was halted, the scale of the projects was scaled back, the wonderful training program was stopped, and the lower level artist trainees were laid off. The key artists had to fight to prevent being laid off, or were drafted into the War effort. Disney himself moved on to live action and eventually the parks. His heart wasn't in animation any more the way it was before the strike.

Animation grew at an exponential rate from 1928 to 1940. No art form has ever grown faster (with the exception of Jazz). After that, animation hung fire for a while, then started its decline into TV mediocrity that we still can't manage to pull ourselves out of. There's a whole other level of stupidity when it comes to the production process in use today compared to the one in Disney's day, but that's another subject for another time.

But in a nutshell, what is needed today is an educational program as carefully designed and far reaching as the one Don Graham put together for Disney. I see the seeds of that happening on artists' blogs on the internet.

See ya

peter wassink said...

"but no studio since pre-War Disney has provided the broad range of creative training that Disney did."
Stephen i think you are Wrong here.

Pixar has:

"Pixar University ... which offers more than 110 courses: a complete filmmaking curriculum, classes on painting, drawing, sculpting and creative writing. ''We offer the equivalent of an undergraduate education in fine arts and the art of filmmaking,'' he said. Every employee -- whether an animator, technician, production assistant, accountant, marketer or security guard -- is encouraged to devote up to four hours a week, every week, to his or her education."

Stephen Worth said...

Pixar's perk classes don't compare to Disney's comprehensive training program. Up to four hours per week at Pixar would translate into 3 semester units. You can quickly do the math and figure out how long it would take to get 120 units for a BA degree at that rate.

Disney's program under Don Graham of Choinard required up to 15 hours of unpaid art classes a week in a six day work week. The classes were mandatory. Job advancement depended on the success of the schooling. It was a huge effort on everyone's part, and it led to the nurturing of a lot of great artists. But the Animation Guild would never stand for that today, and they didn't then... That's what caused the strike in the first place.

I can see the comparison to the slaves building the pyramids. But there is one difference. The slaves at Disney came out of the ordeal accomplished artists, ready to excel in whatever field they chose to go into... cartooning, illustration, fine art or even aerospace design.

See ya

J. J. Hunsecker said...

I think about early animation the same way. The great early animated films-- Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia-- were produced by hundreds of underpaid artists drawing millions of drawings on an industrial assembly line.

I just want to reiterate what Steve Worth said. The Disney animators were well compensated -- they were paid the highest wages in the animation business in the 30's. It was the animator's assistants who didn't get a good wage.

They worked under primitive conditions compared to today's computer animation.

Actually, the Disney studios were quite nice, and the animators had the best equipment for their day. The MGM animation studio also had nice facilities. The Fleischer Studio in Florida was state of the art for its day, too. Ub Iwerks's studio was located in Beverly Hills.

It was at places like Warner Bros., with their lower budgets, where the animation studio was shabbier, and the equipment older and rickety. But the artists there were given artistic freedom and didn't seem to mind the condition of the rooms.

It's mostly Paul Terry and his studio that has a negative reputation from the golden age of animation.

The studios that make CGI animated films today aren't any better than the animation studios from the past, despite the modern equipment. Many are in old, shabby, ugly buildings and the technology becomes outmoded quickly.

Just as Egyptian laborers learned to transport granite blocks weighing 60 tons apiece using nothing but strong backs and ingenuity, early animators compensated for the lack of multiplane cameras or photocopiers by working longer and harder.

Disney had a working multi-plane camera by 1937. It was first used in the short The Old Mill, as a test for their feature Snow White. Ub Iwerks created one for his studio a bit earlier. The Fleischers created "stereo optical" effects for their cartoons by using miniatures set on a table top and photographed with the animation.

David Apatoff said...

J.J.-- the golden age of animation was long before my time, but there is certainly another side to the story. As Steve noted, a six day work week plus 15 hours of unpaid training a week is a pretty rugged schedule. Even adoring fans of Disney such as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston described the good old days this way:

"Everyone was so jammed together that if one guy wanted to get out, all the others had to move their chairs to let him through."

"All manner of hardships were endured to get and keep a job....'Every Friday was Elimination Day [in the inking department] and we all shook in our boots, for fear we would be let go. Everyone was so scared and worried they could hardly relax enough to do their work.' ...There were many tears and hysterics. But those who survived had real dedication and the sense of accomplishment that would go with weathering such an ordeal. The supervisors still ruled them with a firm hand even after they were taken on, being stern and demanding in their criticisim and exerting extreme pressure on everyone to do it faster and better."

"They often worked till 10:00 at night on Snow White. Katherine was asked to work all night on occasions."

"No one ever got the best of Walt in any exchange, kidding or serious. Those who tried were cut to ribbons."

These quotes (and many similar ones) came from Walt's biggest fans. Disaffected artists such as Selby Kelly, on the other hand, told a far more bitter tale about the unfair compensation and lack of recognition in the pre-union days.

I can't say for sure how it was accomplished, but I think everyone can agree that the end result is brilliant.

J. J. Hunsecker said...


I don't know if you're still paying attention to this post, since my reply is so late.

As was stated before it was the low level artists that got the poor wages at Disney. This is what lead to the bitter strike at Disney's for unionization in 1941. There were strikes at other studios too, in the late 30's and early 40's, mostly over the issues you present in your quotes from the ink and paint women. By the 40's most animation studios were part of the animation union, and wages became more equitable.

The animators who took the drawing classes at Disney's appreciated them, despite the long hours. Read Shamus Culhane's autobiography, "Talking Animals and Other People." I don't think most viewed the classes as a hardship.

Even today, pressure to work long hours on a project exist at modern animation studios, but most of the time the finished results are nowhere near what the animation studios accomplished in the 40's.

I don't doubt that Walt Disney may have been a jerk, but other studios were different. There was more of a relaxed atmosphere at Warners, MGM and Lantz, for example.

Unknown said...

Weren't the Hebrews (Israelites) part of the working force in Egypt?