Mar 3, 2010

Studios are still institutions.

selections from Cinema Journal 30, No. 2, Winter 1991

Due to their inability either to produce animated films in large quantities or to control the costs of producing such films, early practitioners like Cohl and McCay were eliminated from animation by 1921. The next generation of filmmakers would be those who controlled costs and regularized mass production. Much has been made of the central role played during this time by John Randolph Bray, who, together with Earl Hurd, patented the basic principles of the cel method. Bray went on to exploit the efficient division of labor made possible by this technique.

[this selection from] According to an account by McCay, Bray visited him posing as a reporter to learn the secrets of his production processes. Bray learned that McCay drew the background and figures on each drawing, which contributed to the slow process of production. Realizing the commercial value of animation, Bray understood the need to industrialize the production of animation. At first he printed the backgrounds onto paper, drawing the characters in the open areas. He later realized the concept of a single drawing of the background inked on a celluloid overlay, and sandwiched with the animation drawings which were on individual sheets of paper.

[this selection from] Another cartoonist, Earl Hurd realized the concept of tracing and painting animation drawings on celluloid, and photographing them against a single illustrated background. Bray and Hurd combined their patents to form the Bray-Hurd Process Company, which licensed the use of all related uses of the cel technique to animation studios until the patents expired in 1932.

The key to the economic success of this was that the semi-skilled "boy" or "girl" would be paid far less than the skilled "cartoonist," thereby increasing the quantity of production without unduly increasing costs. Bray established the importance of efficient hierarchical organization as the primary criterion of economic survival within animation practice. Because the division of labor made possible by the cel method was efficient, it became the dominant mode of production. From Bray's time on, the Taylorist principles of dividing labor for production efficiency became the hallmarks of successful animation production. Many of Bray's top employees--Max Fleischer, Paul Terry, Jam Handy, Walter Lantz, et al.--went on to establish their own studios based on the exploitation of Bray's technology and production methods.

Each animation studio sought to exercise control of production in its own way. At the Disney studio, the key to production management was exercised by Walt Disney through control of the narrative. By using the script and the storyboard as a choke point, Disney could oversee production. The Story Department became the chief organ of this management and occupied a place at the very top of the hierarchical pyramid. Even before the initiation of feature film production, about half of the four or five month production schedule of a Disney animated short was devoted to the preparation of the script. The Story Department consisted of about a dozen writers who worked in close harmony with Disney. After a story had been devised, a synopsis was prepared. Only then did the music and animation staff contribute ideas to the production. Following this, the Story Department would prepare a detailed scenario and storyboard, composed of about fifty sketches of the main incidents in the film. The film director would then prepare the layouts for the picture, subject to approval by Disney and his associates. As early as 1935, Disney directed the Story Department head Ted Sears (formerly a Fleischer gag-man and animator) to write detailed analyses of the major Disney characters for use as guides in the preparation of cartoons.

At the Fleischer Studios, a number of conditions made the Disney model difficult to emulate. Primarily, there was not the same degree of centralized control. In contrast to Walt Disney, Max Fleischer's function was more remote from all but the major production decisions. As time went by, Max's role was increasingly analogous to that of Roy Disney in that he was more preoccupied with running the business than with most day-to-day details of production. Mechanically gifted, Max Fleischer was active in technological development. He did initiate or participate in decisions such as the inauguration of new cartoon series, but left much of the implementation to others. According to Dave Fleischer, "From the time I was in my teens, my interest was cartooning and entertaining. Max handled the business end. But Dave was no Walt Disney. Dave Fleischer worked as a very loose supervisor, devising vague storylines. While wandering around to check production progress, Dave would often suggest improvements or gags to the animators. Although a few gag men, like Ted Sears or the veteran vaudevillian Joe Stultz, worked in the studio, it was not until 1932 that a formal Story Department was created, with Bill Turner as its head. This Story Department was less than half the size of the one at Disney. Dave participated in the story sessions with animators and story writers, but he was hardly the key player. Preparation of the narrative was initially haphazard, as animator Shamus Culhane recalls, "Our story conferences might last as much as a whole hour." Story sketches and storyboards were not used in a formal way until the mid to late 1930s, although a few rudimentary ones were improvised by animators Grim Natwick and Ted Sears in the early 1930s. As the studio prepared to move to Miami in 1938, production control was diffuse, but it clearly concentrated in the Animation Department rather than in the Story Department. Dave Fleischer's responsibility was not much stronger than that of the Director of Production, Isidore Sparber, or Seymour Kneitel.

In yet other ways the Fleischer Studios differed from the Disney Studio. The Fleischers lacked the permanent staff enjoyed by Disney. From 1930, when Ub Iwerks left Disney, until the strike of 1941, Disney's labor pool had been stable. Disney's program for the education of staff through the Chouinard Art College or the in-house classes held by Don Graham ensured a skilled working force able to operate in perfect coordination. Disney was the premier studio on the West Coast. People did not leave for greener pastures-there were no greener pastures.

The Fleischer Studios could not count on this kind of stability. Employees could simply walk across the street to be hired by the Van Beuren Studio until its 1936 demise, or take a cab to the Bronx or New Rochelle to work for Paul Terry. Active recruitment of animators by the West Coast studios such as Lantz, Iwerks, Harman-Ising, and Disney meant a steady erosion of skilled talent from the Fleischers-and high salaries to keep those that stayed. This resulted in a series of crises during the 1930s in terms of maintaining production economically. In 1930, virtually all the Fleischer key animators left at once-Dick Huemer and Sid Marcus went to the coast, George Rufle and George Stallings went to Van Beuren's. This was followed by Ted Sears and Grim Natwick's departure about a year later, by the cataclysm of the Fleischer strike in 1937, and by the subsequent move to Miami where a vast army of new labor had to be incorporated into the studio. The number of studio employees increased nearly fourfold. A large number of animators and assistant animators with widely disparate talents had to be managed efficiently, and hundreds of unskilled inkers and opaquers had to be trained on a rush schedule.

post by elizabeth canazon

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