One thing I find particularly satisfying about the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures which opened last week, was all the exhibition space given to animated film. Right alongside displays dedicated to The Wizard of Oz, Hitchcock, and Orson Welles, were exhibits about Disney Animation, Laika, and Bugs Bunny. The very first special exhibition is one honoring legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.
It wasn’t always this way. When I first began in animation in the 1970s, I discovered there was a clear line drawn between animation and live action filmmaking. You either worked on cartoons, or REAL movies. Grown up film. Animation was referred to even by its practitioners as “The Bastard Child of the Film Business.” Considered then an outmoded relic of the old studio system, only good now to sell cereal to kids on Saturday morning. Chuck Jones and John and Faith Hubley had always hoped animation would be recognized as a real artform.Before Jeffrey Katzenberg made it cool to be an animation producer, being assigned to animation was a studio executives’ nightmare. At the end of a project, you could see how happy execs would be to escape to the main lot to do something more important. Walt Disney Studios was the exception, because The Mouse Factory had always been an animation studio first, and promoted their production people from within. But that was unique. All the other big movie studios considered animation as a dead end, and moved their animation units to the furthest corners of their studio lot. When the great industry slowdown came in the late 1950s, animation units became the first things studios would shed. Classic shorts were sold off in bundles like yesterday’s newspaper, and truckloads of classic animation art was buried in landfills.
Young people today ask why famous movie stars of the past never did voices in animated films? It was because being offered such work would have been viewed by them as insulting, and way beneath their pay grade. When Jodie Benson got the role of Ariel in The Little Mermaid, her other Broadway actor friends called her with expressions of sympathy. They took it as a sign her career was in decline.
Originally, motion picture visual effects were a few guys with grey ponytails blowing up toy planes and miniatures. Then when VFX went digital, it became mostly animation done on computers. Character animators were brought in to breathe life into uninteresting motion capture. The reason movie visual effects people never unionized with the animators, was because for many years they did not want to be associated with the people who made cartoons. That it would somehow diminish their reputations. They were involved in serious filmmaking. When In 2009 James Cameron’s smash Avatar came out, it was suggested that the film might qualify for a Best Animated Film Oscar. Since it fulfilled the Academy’s rule that 70% of the principal characters be done in frame-by-frame technique. Cameron quickly dismissed the idea, “The thing that people need to keep very strongly in mind is that this is not an animated film……I don’t do animation. That’s Pixar’s job!” (“James Cameron: It’s Not Animation Because I say So.” Cartoon Brew Jan. 15, 2010)
For years Academy administrators considered dropping the animated short Oscar category altogether, or at least cut it from the Oscar night broadcast. The days of Bambi and The Jungle Book were never coming back.Things began to change with the big 2D Renaissance and Digital Revolution of the 1990s. Movies like The Little Mermaid and Lion King dominated the global box office, Robin Williams Genie opened the door for more celebrities to do voicework, Beauty and the Beast earned a nomination for Best Picture, animator Seth McFarlane actually hosting the Academy Awards in 2013. In most lists of highest grossing films, half were animated. Today, in the big action fantasy blockbusters like the Marvel Universe, much of the movie requires animation and/or digital imaging. The Best Animated Feature Oscar, only instituted in 2001, has proven to be one of the more popular categories with the public. In games, effects and broadcast, animation has become central to how we experience modern media today.
A decade ago, I was invited to an early planning meeting for the Museum. When I came into the meeting slightly late, several very important film people were in the process of drawing up a list of classic movies that could be honored with exhibits. As my eyes scanned down the list, spanning the 100-year history of filmmaking, I saw they did not include a single animated film. When finally they asked for my input, I blurted out, “Uh…SNOW WHITE? FANTASIA? YELLOW SUBMARINE? GERTIE THE DINOSAUR? THE THREE LITTLE PIGS? JUNGLE BOOK? MOONBIRD?” I made my point, and they were added, although I think there are a producer or two who are still annoyed with me for my insolent outburst.
Since that early meeting, the museum project went through several changes of management and revamped strategies. I am happy to say the current team assembled under museum director Bill Kramer really gets animation and its place in Hollywood filmmaking. Instead of being shunted off to a neglected corner of the museum, animation has several important exhibit spaces, and more screenings and special shows are in the works for the future.
At long last, the bastard stepchild is welcome at the table. The dream of Walt Disney, Chuck Jones, and John & Faith Hubley has now been realized. Not only does Hollywood filmmaking have its own museum, Animation has its own museum. To the people who love animation, who create animation, this museum is your home as much as it is for a Spielberg or Saban. Great exhibits like Frank Thomas’ desk, Bob Clampett’s original maquette of Bugs Bunny, The Pixar Zoetrope, Kubo from Kubo and the Two Strings. Now is the time to come and celebrate the artform we love. Cherish and support your museum, and bring friends and family to it when they visit from out of town. And who knows? Someday something you create might be exhibited there. See you at the Museum.
Below: A few snaps of some of the animation art and artifacts on display at the new Academy Museum.
The Museum is now open. For information on how to visit: click here.