Sunday, 13 July 2008

PART OF SOMETHING LARGER

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.