Increasing the Voice of Minorities in Animation

Many industries lack minority participation and animation is no different. How can the industry do more to increase the voice of minorities in animation and initiate changes now that will improve the situation over the long-term?

The Three Hurdles to Overcome

To understand how to increase the voice of minorities in animation means to understand the problems that are stopping those voices from being heard in the first place. Three hurdles stand in the way of minority voices in animation, and until they are overcome, we are unlikely to see much real improvement.

Too Much Comedy

Comedy dominates animation from pre-school all the way up to big-budget features. It dominates internationally and domestically. To succeed in the animation business is to have a successful comedy under your belt. Only then can you get license to explore, and even then you may only get one chance.

The problem is that comedy sells, and sells big. Comedy has universal appeal and is therefore the most profitable. Any other genre is probably going to come up short. The proliferation of comedy simply leaves little room for much else and unfortunately it’s in other areas where the opportunity to hear minority voices often lies.

Too Much Dilution of Ideas

The creator-driven boom of the early 1990s resulted in many raw and potent ideas reaching the screens of millions. That success eventually became guarded, and networks began to dilute and water down ideas to fit what the audience expected, not what it deserved.

Today, media companies are anemic to risk. Minority ideas are risky for a variety of reasons. So what’s a corporation to do? Risk losing their shirt, or water things down enough to make them palatable to the largest audience possible? As Elizabeth Ito notes, studios need to stop making things for the “suburban families and blogger moms” of the world and modifying ideas to suit. Those groups are the least risky because they can be the least open to new ideas. They are comfortable in their suburban lifestyle, and anything strange is to be approached with caution. They have predictable tastes.

Minorities can have some of the strongest and innovative ideas and artistic creations you can imagine but they often lie beyond the pale of what the groups above expect. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that networks and studios will water down such ideas to fit their intentions. They’ve certainly done it with ‘urban’ art.

American Culture is Asphyxiating

There is a tendency of Americans to perceive the rest of the world as being, well, like America. This is less to do with willful ignorance and more to do with blissful ignorance. American culture is potent in other countries, but is inescapable in America itself.

Minorities often come from immigrant backgrounds if they are not immigrants themselves. American society demands conformity and actively works to stamp out foreign identities; instead reducing it to ‘heritage’ status. To be a minority voice means to speak differently which is often conflated with being foreign.

American audiences believe foreign cultures are exactly like they’ve been led to believe. For example, to be Irish in America means to actually say ‘top o’ the morning’ to people and if you don’t they will say it to you as a form of misplaced well-meaning. To artistically speak with an Irish creative voice in America means to comply with these expectations lest you become unintelligible. To speak as a minority in American animation is to conform to expectations which stifles an individual’s true voice.


What Has to Change

What has to change is not simply a matter of overcoming the hurdles above. Doing so would not necessarily increase it. Many things need to change and they are tied to socioeconomics, demographics, and culture. There is no magic cure, there is no easy fix, and most importantly of all, it will not come quickly.

The Privilege of a Formal Artistic Qualification

To hold any formal qualification is to be privileged. To hold one from a 3rd-level institution is to be especially privileged. Minorities are overwhelmingly over-represented in lower socioeconomic classes but are the least likely to attempt much less attain a university degree. The value of an art degree should not be discounted, but it should not be upheld as the required entrance to an artistic career.

Young minority artists are susceptible to exclusion from art school for many reasons besides financial cost. They may also have lacked the resources throughout their educational career due to underfunding of art programs in public schools. For many, the possibility of even applying for art school is remote.

On top of this the emphasis that studios place in an art degree means that many minority individuals are automatically excluded from consideration for positions. Sure the value of a portfolio is important, but the qualification give you a head start in both skills, and critically, contacts. CalArts is the pantheon of an education in animation thanks to its proximity and relationships with major Hollywood studios. Yet its exclusivity, and eliteness benefit only those who can a) afford it, and b) are fortunate enough to have had years of preparation prior to entry.

Animation programs exist at other institutions, but they are no different. Here in Baltimore, MICA offers an animation program but how many minority students can stomach the $150,000 cost of a degree that doesn’t even touch on housing and living costs?

Student loans play into the picture too. If a minority individual is lucky enough to attend an art school, they are likely to have student loans that must be paid back. The old adage that the majority of journalism graduates work at Starbucks is not so far removed from the truth as one might think. Loans do not have terms that require a carer in the chosen field in order to pay them back. They demand money from any source and many a student in any discipline finds themselves cut off from a desired career because the need for money trumps the ability to wait for the required opportunity.

Studios also perpetuate the situation through internship programs. I’ve personally taken issue with the widespread use and abuse of internships within the animation industry, particularly in New York City. A poor member of a minority (gradate or not) cannot afford to work for free; many wealthier individuals can, and do to their professional benefit.

Until the vanity sheen placed on formal educational qualifications is eliminated, many members of minorities will struggle to carve out a career in art for themselves.

The Urge to Repeat What’s Come Before

Were you excited for the new series of DuckTales? How about the new Looney Tunes shorts? Have you ever noticed how a lot of animated content is recreated or rebooted? The landscape is littered with them and a good half are probably made by Hanna-Barbera trying to resuscitate something they own.

Repeating what came before stifles minority voices because the new entity, regardless of its intentions or crew, will always be framed within the context of the original. Characters can be altered, new storylines written, but the overarching idea cannot. Such ideas are also least likely to come from a member of a minority to begin with.

Recreating old ideas also takes away the opportunity to create something from a new idea. Noelle Stevenson’s reboot of She-Ra may be great and feature a strong LGBTQ+ voice, but how does it compare to Steven Universe and the voice of creator Rebecca Sugar? Stevenson’s series will always be a version of ‘She-Ra’ whereas as Steven Universe is unambiguously Sugar’s.

What Stories Are Being Told

The stories in American animation in particular are primarily middle-class in plot, setting, and tone; reflecting the backgrounds of their creators and target demographics for better or worse.

For the record, the content of the story is not the same as the voice. Disney have made themselves the poster child for tackling stories featuring minority characters in films such as Moana. But does that film tell a Polynesian story with an authentic Polynesian voice or does it merely pay lip service to Polynesian culture with a decidedly American story and American voice?

I firmly believe it is the latter.

American media also continues to tell the same stories they’ve always have. Feature films in particular are notoriously homogeneous in their stories. Superheros and their overt masculinity currently rule the box office roost. Female stories told with a female voice are still hard to come by. TV shows still trot out the same tired cliched formats and if you don’t believe me, Central Park is getting rave reviews.

The story that’s told is about much more than the plot, or the characters, or the setting. It’s about the context. the juxtaposition between The Sopranos and The Wire demonstrate it perfectly. One is a show about a New Jersey mafioso told through the voice of an outsider looking in. In contrast, The Wire is a show about cops and robbers but speaks with the authentic voice of a Baltimorean lamenting the problems in their city. Which show has a better story is debatable, but which show tells it in a special way is obvious.


How to Increase the Voice of Minorities in Animation

The current situation is far from ideal. Minorities are hampered almost every step of the way towards spreading their voice in animation. What can be done to improve things?

Implement Apprenticeship Programs

A good first step would be to implement apprenticeships for younger artists. There is no good reason to force younger artists (minority or not) into school for years on end to get a qualification. Why not train them in the basics on the job and pay them a wage too? If they need classes, their schedule could be adjusted, or a few night classes at a local college would work. They certainly did at Disney in the early years.

Apprenticeships would give minorities the ability to acquire technical skills while still being productive, and reduce the risk they undertake to acquire the knowledge necessary for an artistic career. They would also give many youngsters the leg-up they so desperately need to get a career started and which universities claim to provide but so often do not. With a secure method of attaining skills, a young artist would be better situated to progress their career, and ultimately be better placed to provide their unique voice to a production.

Minorities, and especially women minorities, are challenged in progressing their careers. Studios should be aware of this and be willing to maintain systems and processes that not only encourage them in their careers, but enable them to do so as well. Implementing apprenticeships would be the change that’s need in the education of artists.

Realise That Representation Does Not Equal A Voice

For a long time that continues up to the present day, representation was seen as a way of providing minorities with the encouraging voice they needed to see on-screen. The Simpsons poked fun at the token minority in everything nearly 30 years ago and sadly not much has changed.

The Simpsons also caught the short end of the stick for the character of Apu; said to represent a perpetuated stereotype performed by an non-Indian voice actor. Except Apu was written by a bunch of Harvard graduates and he spoke their voice just like every other character on the show. Apu was never mean to represent Indians, he was merely an Indian character that became a representative of Indian culture on that show.

Merely representing minorities on-screen does them a disservice because such characters speak with the voice of their writers, directors and producers in addition to their actors. To provide representation only is to sidestep the issue when so many crew and backstage roles are not filled with minority individuals making their contributions to a production.

Representation can provide the necessary voice when used in conjunction with other roles behind the screen. Realising this and working to ensure that work behind also permits minority voices to be heard is the challenege.

See Past the Fad

fad: n. A fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period of time; a craze.

Police brutality and racial inequality in the United States are not a fad. They are systemic problems existing for many decades and will continue to plague society for some time to come even if change happens now.

What certainly is a fad however, is the reaction to current events many people are choosing to exhibit. Changing your social media avatar, tweeting in support, even attending a protest or two does not induce change. Change occurs over time, and it can be a long time to boot. Martin Luther King laboured for nine years between the Montgomery bus boycotts and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington DC. He was dedicated to his cause and put in the hours and energy to achieve change. He kept pushing despite pressure and threats from many quarters to stop. If he was to hold his speech this year, he would have had to start his campaign when Steven Spielberg’s Tintin abomination was released to theaters. Do you even remember when that film came out?

Many corporations and animation studios are ‘standing by’ their black employees but what does that actually entail? Have they always stood by, or are they just exploiting the opportunity being presented as a PR exercise? Further to the point, a single gesture gets a message across but is instantly forgotten. Where is the long-term commitment? More critically, who is going to follow up on the studios in a few years let alone hold them to account if they don’t? As the saying goes, talk is cheap.

To be aware of the failings of the animation industry to appreciate and promote minority ideas and voices is to lament the many many lost opportunities allowed to pass by. Change can come, but it will take time and effort that extends far beyond current events and will require a commitment from more than just the powers that be. It will require seeing past the fad surrounding current events and seeing the long-term future where progress is like a growing child. Day-to-day changes are imperceptible, but over time are readily apparent.

Conclusion

I’d like to end the post on a positive note.The voice of minority creators may not be as loud as it should, but its members who have been afforded the opportunity to speak have roared. Jorge Gutierrez is proud of his Mexican origins and imbues his creations with the soul of Mexican culture. El Tigre and the Book of Life are just two that spoke in his voice with success and appeal. Aaron McGruder used The Boondocks to not only speak in a black American voice, but his very unique black American voice. The result transcended cultures and brought something to many who had never experienced anything like it before. Similarly Noelle Stevenson and Rebecca Sugar brought unique queer voices to their respective TV shows. LeSean Thomas and Ian Jones-Quartey have forged careers for themselves too.

Countless others work behind the scenes and we can’t discount their contributions either, no matter how small.

The shift from monoculture to niche culture affords minorities the opportunity to create animation in a way that’s never existed before. We have to recongise the opportunity in front of us to increase the number of the minority voices we hear within the animation industry. This is not a screed for quotas or enforced participation. It is a plea for the industry to see the ability of minority voices to improve and progress the industry as a whole and to change the status quo for everyone’s benefit.

Is There an Impending Apocalypse in Animation Studies?

Over on the Society for Animation Studies blog, Lauren Carr writes about what she perceives as a crisis in animation studies stemming mainly from a desire by students to simply learn the software tools rather than the technique and theory behind animation. If that’s true, then we are heading for an impending apocalypse in the field from which it will be very difficult to recover.

Continue reading “Is There an Impending Apocalypse in Animation Studies?”

The Significance of ‘The University of DIC’

Over at Animation Magazine, Michael Mallory has a rather informative post about what he refers to as the ‘University of DIC’. As you should be aware of, DIC was an animation studio responsible for such shows as Inspector Gadget, the various Sonic the Hedgehog series’ and a whole host of other, primarily low budget animated shows. Despite being bought up a few years ago, the company’s influence continues to live on.

Continue reading “The Significance of ‘The University of DIC’”

What About Apprenticeships in Animation Instead?

This is a repost from August 2012, but I feel it is raises a good point in regards to animation and education. With the debate regarding both heating up, there is an alternative in apprenticeships that harkens back to the olden days of yore, when a formal education was out of reach for most people but accreditation of skills was still necessary.

So there was a bit of a furrow last week as a post by Brodoof on Tumblr concerning the various “Art Institute” colleges run by the Education Management Corporation made the rounds (itself brought on by another story of an Art Institute teacher facing termination because he refused to comply with a policy to require students to purchase books). Anyway, it got me thinking about animation and education and whether or not it is being taught in the right manner. That is to say, is a degree or other kind of formally taught certification the best or even right approach to take and would apprenticeships work instead? Let’s look at the facts.

Animation Isn’t A Formal Skill

Now when I say ‘formal’, I mean in the very strictest sense. You can go to school and study animation. You can be called an animator by the studio or Guild and have a cert to prove it. But in the legal sense, there is no such thing as an ‘animator’. I draw this conclusion because as a civil engineer, that is considered a formal skill; one that is legally recognised when you become Chartered, or a Professional Engineer (PE) in the States.

Why even mention it? Well as the recently departed Tissa David once famously said, “Animation is….animation.” Absolutely anyone can be an animator, or a concept artist, or a background artist or a prop designer. Yes, you need the artistic abilites and some experience before you can make a career out of it, but the point is; you do not need a formal, legally recognised qualification to become an animator.

Now this isn’t to look down the nose at our favourite technique, but it does lead to the next point.

Certifications Are Worth Much Less Than What They Are Sold At

If you receive a formal education in animation, you normally receive a sheet of paper saying as much. This piece of paper is accredited by someone so it guarantees a minimum set of skills to potential employers. So why are they almost worthless?

Well, this is America, where a degree from CalArts is ostensibly the same as a degree from another art school but in reality, the two aren’t even close. Pile on top of that the fact that portfolios are also a must for any graduate, and you have system that more or less cranks out graduates but leaves them little notion of what to do next. (I’m keeping in mind Elliot Cowan’s advice to graduates that quite frankly, should be known to them before they even receive their mortarboard.)

The real issue here is that employers like to see degrees and certs because it gives them a quick and dirty way of classifying job candidates. “You want this job? Sorry, you need a bachelors. Why? Because we’re too lazy/understaffed/pressed for time to properly grade you based on your employment history/portfolio.” This leads nicely into the next point.

Climbing the Ladder With Experience

Experience counts for a heck of a lot in the job market. Naturally graduates have next to none, so their options are extremely limited. However, plenty of people (in fact, most of the really successful people) start at the bottom and work their way up the old-fashioned way. It’s tougher than slogging through 4 years of school, but the results are just as good for those who truly work at it. Once you get even a short way up the ladder, experience takes precedence over education in any job application.

Moving Away From The Current Approach

The current method of hiring a team for a project and letting them go once it is over is tremendously inefficient. Think of all the hiring and firing that must go on for such a system to function. How many man-hours and HR resources are spent acquiring workers, potentially training them and then letting them go just to repeat the cycle again.

Now think of the old days, when someone might enter the door of a studio and stay there for 20, 30 years or more! That’s unheard of today, but that person not only acquired a ton of experience over the years, they were normally pretty eager to share it to! The same practices continue today, but it is hard to build a rapport with someone if they are switching jobs every few years.

So what’s the solution?

The Apprenticeship Proposal

The solution is a return to apprenticeships. The notion that younger animators and artists are trained by the older ones is a tradition that has dated back centuries. It might be tricky to implement, but there are numerous benefits for all involved.

Why People (and Studios) Benefit

Firstly, the people. That should be obvious. Learning in a practical setting from someone who’s worked in the industry for years can’t be overlooked.

Secondly, studios benefit because they have a set of young artists who are trained and familiar with the studio setups, systems and methods. This is a priceless asset to have. Think of all the know-how that remains within the studio!

However, some sort of formal system for all of this to work. There needs to be set, recognised steps in the process so everyone knows where they are, how far they have to go and what is expected of apprentices. Furthermore, there needs to be mutual recognition among all studios for the system and its skills. Why do this instead of keeping everything in-house? Well the days of the career job are long gone. People will move around between studios as a result of the nature of the business. Wouldn’t it make sense if they all agreed on common skills to have? They stand to benefit too as they will be able to quickly tell what skills animators have.

Ah, but I hear you say, isn’t that what a degree does already? Well yes, but the difference is you must go to school for a couple of years and then start working. Sure, the likes of Disney run summer apprenticeships, but they are too short. Think about the old Disney days, when students might have worked during the day, gaining practical experience and then attended night classes to learn the finer techniques and concepts.

Conclusion

Art in any form is an astonishing skill to have. It’s an innate skill as much as it is a learned one, but with the recent controversies about art education, it makes more practical sense to acquire or hone skills based on an apprenticeship approach. At the end, not only will apprentices have the skills, they’ll also have the personal relationships, the work experience and a qualification to prove it all.

What About Apprenticeships in Animation Instead?

So there was a bit of a furrow last week as a post by Brodoof on Tumblr concerning the various “Art Institute” colleges run by the Education Management Corporation made the rounds (itself brought on by another story of an Art Institute teacher facing termination because he refused to comply with a policy to require students to purchase books). Anyway, it got me thinking about animation and education and whether or not it is being taught in the right manner. That is to say, is a degree or other kind of formally taught certification the best or even right approach to take and would apprenticeships work instead? Let’s look at the facts.

Animation Isn’t A Formal Skill

Now when I say ‘formal’, I mean in the very strictest sense. You can go to school and study animation. You can be called an animator by the studio or Guild and have a cert to prove it. But in the legal sense, there is no such thing as an ‘animator’. I draw this conclusion because as a civil engineer, that is considered a formal skill; one that is legally recognised when you become Chartered, or a Professional Engineer (PE) in the States.

Why even mention it? Well as the recently departed Tissa David once famously said, “Animation is….animation.” Absolutely anyone can be an animator, or a concept artist, or a background artist or a prop designer. Yes, you need the artistic abilites and some experience before you can make a career out of it, but the point is; you do not need a formal, legally recognised qualification to become an animator.

Now this isn’t to look down the nose at our favourite technique, but it does lead to the next point.

Certifications Are  Worth Much Less Than What They Are Sold At

If you receive a formal education in animation, you normally receive a sheet of paper saying as much. This piece of paper is accredited by someone so it guarantees a minimum set of skills to potential employers. So why are they almost worthless?

Well, this is America, where a degree from CalArts is ostensibly the same as a degree from another art school but in reality, the two aren’t even close. Pile on top of that the fact that portfolios are also a must for any graduate, and you have system that more or less cranks out graduates but leaves them little notion of what to do next. (I’m keeping in mind Elliot Cowan’s advice to graduates that quite frankly, should be known to them before they even receive their mortarboard.)

The real issue here is that employers like to see degrees and certs because it gives them a quick and dirty way of classifying job candidates. “You want this job? Sorry, you need a bachelors. Why? Because we’re too lazy/understaffed/pressed for time to properly grade you based on your employment history/portfolio.” This leads nicely into the next point.

Climbing the Ladder With Experience

Experience counts for a heck of a lot in the job market. Naturally graduates have next to none, so their options are extremely limited.. However, plenty of people (in fact, most of the really successful people) start at the bottom and work their way up the old-fashioned way. It’s tougher than slogging through 4 years of school, but the results are just as good for those who truly work at it. Once you get even a short way up the ladder, experience takes precedence over education in any job application.

Moving Away From The Current Approach

The current method of hiring a team for a project and letting them go once it is over is tremendously inefficient. Think of all the hiring and firing that must go on for such a system to function. How many man-hours and HR resources are spent acquiring workers, potentially training them and then letting them go just to repeat the cycle again.

Now think of the old days, when someone might enter the door of a studio and stay there for 20, 30 years or more! That’s unheard of today, but that person not only acquired a ton of experience over the years, they were normally pretty eager to share it to! The same practices continue today, but it is hard to build a rapport with someone if they are switching jobs every few years.

So what’s the solution?

The Proposal

The solution is a return to apprenticeships. The notion that younger animators and artists are trained by the older ones is a tradition that has dated back centuries. It might be tricky to implement, but there are numerous benefits for all involved.

 Why People (and Studios) Benefit

Firstly, the people. That should be obvious. Learning in a practical setting from someone who’s worked in the industry for years can’t be overlooked.

Secondly, studios benefit because they have a set of young artists who are trained and familiar with the studio setups, systems and methods. This is a priceless asset to have. Think of all the know-how that remains within the studio!

However, some sort of formal system for all of this to work. There needs to be set, recognised steps in the process so everyone knows where they are, how far they have to go and what is expected of apprentices. Furthermore, there needs to be mutual recognition among all studios for the system and its skills. Why do this instead of keeping everything in-house? Well the days of the career job are long gone. People will move around between studios as a result of the nature of the business. Wouldn’t it make sense if they all agreed on common skills to have? They stand to benefit too as they will be able to quickly tell what skills animators have.

Ah, but I hear you say, isn’t that what a degree does already? Well yes, but the difference is you must go to school for a couple of years and then start working. Sure, the likes of Disney run summer apprenticeships, but they are too short. Think about the old Disney days, when students might have worked during the day, gaining practical experience and then attended night classes to learn the finer techniques and concepts.

Conclusion

Art in any form is an astonishing skill to have. It’s an innate skill as much as it is a learned one, but with the recent controversies about art education, it makes more practical sense to acquire or hone skills based on an apprenticeship approach. At the end, not only will apprentices have the skills, they’ll also have the personal relationships, the work experience and a qualification to prove it all.