Sheridan College was lucky to host Disney writer-director John Musker last week. There's some coverage here. In addition to talking to students about their work, Musker gave a two hour presentation about his career, where he generously included the work of animators. The names were no surprises: Glen Keane, Eric Goldberg, Mark Henn, etc.
Musker also talked about the early days of his career, particularly his time with Eric Larson and being taught by Jack Hannah.
Listening to Musker and staring at the young students in the audience, I started wondering about the next animators who would serve as inspiration.
Animators were pretty much invisible through the greatest part of what we call the golden age. Bill Tytla got some publicity in Time magazine at the time of Dumbo's release and many of the Disney crew were anonymously featured in the live action portions of The Reluctant Dragon, but it really wasn't until Disney moved into TV that behind-the-scenes material started to appear. When Disney was publicizing the initial release of Lady and the Tramp, there were segments with Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Woolie Reitherman, etc. Those shows, and Bob Thomas's book The Art of Animation were really the public's first view of the people who made the characters move.
The TV audience for those shows (as well as Walter Lantz's copycat segments on The Woody Woodpecker Show), was the generation that grew up to enter the animation business in the '70s and '80s. At the same time they were entering the business, others in their generation were writing about animation history, further publicizing animators, and not only those at Disney.
In the '90s, the TV generation had risen to prominence in animated features. Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, etc. were all used to publicize the films on their release and then appeared in DVD extras. These are the people that the Sheridan students were familiar with and who were featured in John Musker's talk.
But who are the animators who have risen to prominence in animated features in the last 15 years? I'm not talking about directors (though only Pixar has really publicized them to the point that they have independent reputations). Since cgi has taken over feature films, are there any cgi animators whose work is known to the general public? The same question can be asked about stop motion animators.
At Sheridan, it's been clear to me for years that the students seem to gravitate more to design than to story or animation. There are relatively few who have stories they're desperate to tell or characters they want to bring to life. I wonder if the flood of "Art of" books is responsible for this in some way. It's one of the few places where animation artists get credited, but the books are mostly pre-production art.
Whatever the reason, I think that the writing of history and publicity is having an impact on students' career aspirations. Without animators as examples, there are fewer who aspire to follow that path. There are fewer "ignition moments," when someone sees an animator bring a character to life and is struck by the desire to do the same thing.
This may be happening at the various online animation schools where students are interacting with working animators. That's all to the good, but it doesn't reach the same number of people who see a DVD extra or work credited in a book.
In thirty years, when the audience for John Musker's talk is firmly established in animation, will there be any star animators known outside the studios? While there were always star animators even if the public didn't know about them, I'm convinced that the lack of publicity does impact their number.
If I'm right, then that's something that animators can do to maintain the health of the field. Animators, publicize yourselves! What shots have you done? What moments have you given audiences? The more that human faces can be attached to performances that audiences remember, the more likely that we'll get more of those performances in the future.