Working in the Shops: "Hello, Ma, I Got The Job!"

Animation offered one thing that other forms of cartooning did not--a steady job. During the depression, artists found that supporting themselves as magazine illustrators, cartoonists or easel painters had become extremely difficult and many of them gravitated to the animation shops. One Disney hand recalled that he had started out to be a fine artist and soon after arriving in Hollywood was ashamed to send home a snapshot of himself taken in front of a Mickey Mouse storyboard. He didn't wish his family to see how far he had fallen, but then he rose in the ranks and stayed with the studio for 20 years. Others told of going without work for so long that getting into animation seemed heaven sent.

Animators who came into the field in the 1920s generally had little academic background, and many, like Walt Disney himself, had not finished high school. They were a young crowd, their ages running from the teens to the early 30s and their attitude about this new business was casual, with everyone on a first name basis. Only the few oldtimers in their late 40s and beyond were respectfully addressed as Mr. or Mrs. For the youths, with limited art training, the studios became a specialized school. It helped to have some academic preparation, but to be an animator, it took natural talent and a lot of hard work.

That the shops were turning out a product for the entertainment and pleasure of audiences did not ease the day-to-day pressures and anxieties of the artists. Insight into the working lives of animators are detailed in the writings of Shamus Culhane, David Hand, Bill Peet, Jack Kinney, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. They tell of the demands to which they were subjected under Disney, an uncompromising taskmaster, who doled out criticism more frequently than compliments. Yet his emphasis on quality at all costs to achieve his ends receives their undying gratitude. Working 5 1/2 days a week and often into the night, these veteran animators recall the grueling hours but also the many positive animation skills learned in the process.

Nepotism was another fact of life in the field. It was not uncommon to find more than one member of a family on a studio's payroll. When the call went out for extra hands someone always seemed to have a sibling handily available. Most entrants to the field started off on the same level, the opaquing department. At the Disney studio, men began as in-betweeners, and inking and painting was the exclusive province of women. Terry-Toons put all beginners through the various stages of opaquing and inking. Each stage took time to learn and moving up was predicated on an individual's ability to perform. For someone to ascend the ladder, a slot had to be vacant. This vertical arrangement was universal in the studios and there was never any timetable of ascension. For some, it took years to improve their position, for others a matter of months, as occurred when Disney was expanding into features.

The top-echelon jobs were held by men, and though some women were animators and designers, it was not easy to overcome prejudice. Those women who did attain the higher paying positions did so through competence and persistence. During the Depression, starting salaries were between $16 to $25 a week. At the opposite end of the scale were directing animators or supervisors, who were making between $100 and $300 a week. At a time when items and services were extremely inexpensive (you could get 20 chocolate bars for a dollar), a $100 a week animator could eat dinner in fine restaurants every night. Most animators though, toiled long hours for little compensation.

This set the stage for the formation of cartoonists' unions, which brought about polarization between the employer and worker, as well as the higher-and lower-salaried personnel.

Fear of being fired was a real threat, but at a time of low wages this also meant that many could be employed. Studio payrolls numbered 100 or more and Disney personnel, prior to the Second World War, rose to over 1,000. Though the work was tedious and unrelenting, it would be incorrect to suggest that there was little time for fun. On the contrary, many old timers remember those days as happy and fun-filled. The bringing together of so many youthful artists, of both sexes, made for a steady round of laughter and clowning. The rooms where the animators worked were usually cloaked in quiet concentration. But when the tension got unbearable, there would be a sudden burst of song, whistle-tooting, horn-honking and just as suddenly a return to silence. In New York, overlooking Broadway, a sudden flurry of paper airplanes would blanket the sky descending on unwary passersby. Harmless pranks lightened the work load--putting foul-smelling limburger cheese on the light bulb under a desk or surreptitiously attaching paper spurs to someone's heels as they went out the door.

The most popular source of release at all of the studios came in a steady flow of cartoon sketches inspired by any subject of the moment. A worker with a car problem or an unusual hat might set off a stream of hilariously drawn responses. Department heads accepted these small breaks in the daily schedule, but the pressure to keep up production was always there. This kept the artists at their desks, since roaming around the studio was frowned on. Still, couples met, planned parties and picnics at the beach, got married, had babies and hoped to keep their jobs. Lurking below the surface were pressures and frustrations about salaries, creativity, disagreements with the management, lack of amenities and poor working conditions. Animators in New York worked in darkened rooms, the lights from the drawing tables falling on their engrossed faces, sweaty in August, in years before air conditioning became commonplace.

(Excerpted from Chapter 3 of Animation: the Whole Story.)        



© Howard Beckerman 2004-2020