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Toon Tuesday: Could animation studios manage to get by with fewer managers?

Toon Tuesday: Could animation studios manage to get by with fewer managers?

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The two young executives stood admiring the impressive artwork that lined the walls of the studio conference room. Of course, it's a studio that shall remain nameless. Clearly taken aback by the beautiful artwork and the stellar concept designs on display, the managers were eager to know the person responsible. The senior executive wearing the "serious" dark suit turned to her colleague with an important question.

True story. Actually overheard this conversation by two executives

"Who managed this incredible project?"

And, that my friend is the problem with present day management. Apparently, the talented artists whose work they clearly admired were not even worth knowing. It would appear the talented staff that made the project possible were not worthy of a mention. They were nothing more than "hired hands," "fruit pickers" or a few other unflattering terms. The person who should truly be noted, respected and admired was - you guess it - the manager.

As an old timer in this crazy business of creating media I often stand in amazement at how much management has encroached on the business of creativity. Today, the tail wags the dog as clueless managers rule the roost and take credit ( not to mention compensation) for the hard work of others. But, I've gotta confess the managers have always had a edge. they're excellent at exploiting and co-opting the work of others. While artists and other creatives have their nose to the grindstone creating product, the managers more often than not have plenty of time to plan and scheme their way to the top.

(L to R) Charlie Downs and Ken Peterson at Bob Youngquist's
retirement lunch in December 1970. Please note that Ken is
holding a picture of himself as he looked when he first
began working for Walt Disney Studios back in 1936.

If you're a manager I'm sure you think I'm out of line. Put your mind at ease because I'm well aware of the importance of management. For a number of years I ran my own company and I know the value of a good manager. However, at the moment I talking about excess management, and we've plenty of that these days. Consider the old days of animation film making where the studio management was lean and mean. Most small studios employed a production boss and a maybe a secretary who ran herd over the projects in house. Should you want to consider what things were like at a much larger facility such as The Walt Disney Studios, you might be in for a surprise. Even Walt's cartoon factory employed a very lean management team even though multiple projects were at work inside the magic factory. Besides Roy O. Disney and his upper level management team, the animation studio was able to operate efficiently with production boss Ken Peterson and Andy Engman running a department that numbered in the hundreds. How could Ken, Andy and their secretaries handle such a daunting task? Why didn't these Disney bosses have assistants and why didn't their assistants have assistants? It's very simple actually. They simply weren't needed.

Of course, I was clueless to the business side of animation when I was a young artist at the Mouse House back in the 1960s. However, being promoted to Walt's Story Department gave me a closer view of Disney's production process. Here we were creating a major motion picture that would mobilize the considerable resources of the entire studio. Yet, Walt Disney didn't need an "army of managers" to accomplish that task. We didn't even have "producers" in the old days. The job of running the project was left to a production manager and his management team. When it came to production, each art department pretty much managed themselves. It made sense, actually. Because they knew what had to be done and what would be required to accomplish it. It was very simple way of working. Yet, it was a very effective solution to the oft complicated task of production.

Making outrageous demands is easier when you have no knowledge of the process

You can imagine what a jaw dropping experience it was returning to the business of animation in the early 1990s after a ten year absence from film. I returned to film making with the expectation of seeing a producer, associate producer and production manager. However, something strange had happen while I was away. It would appear the influence of corporate thinking had finally infected animation and the number of managers began to multiply like roaches. Not only did the production have multiple managers, but each department could boast of several managers, production assistants and the like. Who were all these people, I wondered?

But aren't dozens of people necessary to run a production, you ask? Perhaps so. Still, it makes me wonder how a studio like Disney managed to produce film after film over a period of decades and accomplish all this free of excess management. Adding insult to injury, most of today's management completely lack an understanding of the job they're managing. Then again, what else is new?

Our two well dressed executives had no regard for the talent that created the art they admired. They saw only opportunity. Opportunity for themselves to climb the corporate ladder on the backs of others. This is why I often have complete distain for studio managers. Until these self-important opportunists respect the artists who keep them employed - I guarantee they'll get no respect from me.

Guess who's going to be in San Diego later this week?

Did you enjoy today's Toon Tuesday column? Well, if you'd like to learn more about the many amazing & amusing adventures that this Disney Legend has had over the course of the 40+ years that he's worked in the animation industry, then you definitely want to check out some of the books which Mr. Norman has written.

Floyd's most recent effort - "Disk Drive: Animated Humor in the Digital Age" - is available for purchase through blurb.com. While Mr. Norman's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" - is still for sale over at John Cawley's Cataroo. And if you still haven't had your fill of Floyd, feel free to move on over to Mr. Fun. Which is where Mr. Norman posts his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

More to the point, if you're going to be among the throng down in San Diego later this week, keep your eyes peeled for Floyd. For Mr. Norman is once again coming to Comic-Con International.

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  • Floyd-  While an animator at Disney, I don't know how many production assistants I "trained" by drawing out animation and clean-up department flow charts. As always, you speak the truth, my friend. Thank you for your contributions to this excellent site and to the whole artistic community.

  • Chateaubriand said " The Historian is entrusted with the Vengeance of the People. " See you at the Con!

  • The production people I have known were learners. They ask, they share and the like people. This article has nothing to do with them at all. Some day though,  we will be able to do an article praising the ones that really did a great job and made everyones life easier, and stayed sane doing it .  My favorite production person  ever was Dale Cox, at Nelvana.  A person who solved problems, guided productions, listened to whining and still loved every blessed person, artist or management.  No big ambitions, no cruelty or envy, just a person who knew her job and did her best to help people do theirs. That is after 30 years Dale wherever you are. You are the best in every way.

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