Heather L. Holian – Art, Animation and the Collaborative Process

Imagine for a moment, the city of Rome in 1510. Here, the Renaissance painter Raphael is in the process of carrying out the most important commission of his career, and consequently, one of the most famous projects in the history of Western art—the fresco decoration of the Pope’s private apartments in the Vatican. If we could catch a glimpse of the work in progress we would no doubt find scaffolding on the walls, dozens of large preparatory drawings and detailed sketches lying at the ready, and a young, but already successful Raphael overseeing a studio workforce of variously skilled young men at different stages of their artistic education. According to their strengths, Raphael assigns them each to paint secondary and tertiary portions of the composition using his designs, while Raphael himself takes the most prominent areas of the frescoes. As such, we can quickly recognize Raphael’s directorial role in the execution of his artistic vision. Raphael’s design and style not only run through the entire painted decoration, despite the work of several hands, but the final project will ultimately bear his single name.

Such an arrangement is typical of artistic collaboration in the Renaissance, and in periods of Western fine art both long before and just after Raphael’s career. Notably the Renaissance method of making also bears some striking similarities to the production system of many an early twentieth century American animation studio. This traditional and hierarchical mode of art production enabled technically challenging, physically large and generally ambitious works to be executed, while providing the next generation of artists with necessary training and experience. Both the younger apprentices and the trusted assistants followed the design and style of the master artist in order to create a stylistic whole that was visually coherent. To be sure, these individuals provided many much-needed pairs of hands, but probably little in the way of true creative collaboration with the master artist.

Another view through history, this time from New York City in 1910, provides an interesting contrast, four hundred years after Raphael. Here, the enormously popular vaudeville entertainer and hard-working cartoonist, Winsor McCay, uses his meager spare time to single-handedly produce the first American animated cartoon. The well-known result is McCay’s landmark four-minute short, Little Nemo (1911). Although McCay’s task of drawing approximately four thousand pen and ink images on small pieces of rice paper certainly falls under the rubric of “ambitious work,” he prefers to execute them all on his own without assistance—a task that requires months of tedious work by McCay (Canemaker 2005, p.160).

McCay’s solo execution of Little Nemo is akin to the working procedures of most modern fine artists, and although he would later hire his young neighbor and art student, John A. Fitzsimmons to painstakingly retrace the backgrounds for his third film, Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) (Canemaker, 2005, p.169), one cannot help but feel that McCay’s own vision for this new medium dictated his process. In 1927, at a banquet given in his honor by New York City animators, McCay gave a speech and then concluded by chiding his hosts, “Animation should be an art. That is how I conceived it. But as I see, what you fellows have done with it, is making it into a trade. Not an art, but a trade. Bad luck!” (cited by Canemaker 2005, p.199). McCay was not the only one turned off by the industrialized production of animated shorts. The fine art world, to which McCay had hoped animation would some day belong, was, and unfortunately still is, in the passionate throes of a four hundred year old love affair with the notion of the single, individual artist-genius. Unfortunately, the direct effect of this artistic “romance” is the exclusion from art’s canonical history of many large scale collaborative works, which cannot be attributed to a single artist, including studio animation. What or who sparked such lasting ideological devotion? The answer resides in Raphael’s Rome of 1510.

Here, working not more than sixty feet away from Raphael, in another part of the Vatican, is the thirty-five year old artist, Michelangelo Buonarotti, and his project at the moment is the Sistine Ceiling. Although he was well on his way, this project catapulted Michelangelo to stardom and a contemporary international reputation, which only increased throughout his long career. The height his reputation reached, is testified by an important collection of published artists’ biographies from 1568, in which the aging Michelangelo is famously described as “rather divine than human,” with his creative powers likened to those of God (Vasari 1568/1996, p.642). More importantly, the same biography also denied that Michelangelo collaborated with assistants in his Sistine work, although the frescoes themselves suggest otherwise. In this seemingly innocent, but in fact consciously-aggrandizing biography, the cult of the artist is securely established in the West, and over the succeeding centuries more and more emphasis would be placed on the single, individual, artist-genius.

The legacy of this Western cultural preference for the solo, heroic creator is still felt today in museums, classrooms and art historical studies (see Hobbs 1984, p.64). For example, several canonical twentieth century artists relied on collaborators, such as Andy Warhol, draftsman Sol LeWitt, or more recently, sculptor and filmmaker Matthew Barney; and yet their works are identified with a single creative agent—the artist. Indeed, it appears Walt Disney intuitively understood this cultural bias as well, when in 1925 he changed the name of his fledgling studio from the Disney Brothers Studio, to Walt Disney Studios. This decision was not simply good business. The renaming reflects an understanding of the Western preference for crediting a single, creative individual.

As an autonomous, independent art form with its own unique visual language, animation meanwhile incorporates many traditional fine art media within its pre-production and production processes. So many in fact, that studio animation has a legitimate claim to fine art status, wherein individual films are further evaluated on their own merits. From drawing, to painting to sculpting and even collage, animation can and does employ them all. And yet, as I have discussed elsewhere, I believe studio animation is excluded from discussions of modern and contemporary fine art for a variety of reasons, including the large, complex collaborative process it requires, despite Raphael, Matthew Barney, and hundreds of other collaborative, canonical fine artists.[i] This particular paradox is perhaps best explained by the impossibility of crediting a single artist with the final film of an animation studio. However, as the following study will demonstrate, the animation studio provides clear evidence for dependence upon strong, individual artistic personalities embedded within a collective artistic unit. Are these “embedded artists” any less worthy of art historical consideration? Are their final collaborative works? Indeed, studio animation arguably employs and relies more heavily upon the individual creative voices of its many contributors than accepted collaborative canonical art forms, like Renaissance fresco painting or The Factory printmaking of Andy Warhol. Ultimately, what is at stake for animation is more than the academic exercise of defining or exploding the boundaries of fine art and instead, is nothing less than the total exclusion of the medium from fine art’s written history, criticism and museums, and with it, a proper understanding of or appreciation for the artistic relevance of twentieth century studio animation, and I would argue, a complete history of twentieth century American art.

While the notion that animation is a fine art form is tantamount to cultural sacrilege in some corners of the fine art world today, the belief was widely held by a diverse and vocal group of American art critics, historians and museum curators during the late twenties, thirties and early forties, following the great successes of the Walt Disney Studios.[ii] However, once this enthusiasm cooled in the early forties, many of the qualities intrinsic to studio animation and its production proved to be significant obstacles to the medium’s permanent embrace by, and acceptance into, the fine art world. One of these impediments is the collaborative process of production.

Collaboration is a complex phenomenon among individuals, which can vary widely in nature. When applied to the fine arts the term can describe a diverse set of creative interactions between two or more people. However, the most common and traditional use of the word within art history refers to the example provided by Raphael and his shop, where several skilled laborers or other artists execute an established design dictated by a master artist. These collaborators are essentially hired hands, not necessarily true creative or intellectual contributors to the project. As such, they are comparable to the assistant animator, the in-betweener, the inker or the painter, while the master artist is akin to the modern director. Indeed, this traditional method of fine art making is reminiscent of American animation studios from the teens and early twenties when efficient execution was not only typical, but necessary, due to the time constraints imposed by economic factors. As E.G. Lutz explains in his influential 1920 volume, Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made Their Origin and Development, hierarchical delegation was key. According to Lutz, the chief animator should keep the most important parts of the short for himself and delegate the rest to assistants, (1920, p.61) while the “staff of helpers,” as Lutz calls them, is meant to do just that and nothing more (p.185). And in truth, the rushed production schedule of this era left little to no time for creative collaboration between individuals.

According to published descriptions and later interviews with animators, cartoons of this period apparently developed in a couple of different ways. The less common approach embraced by the Bray Studio of the late teens, and occasionally at other studios as well, involved a single animator determining the primary visuals for a short on his own.[iii] However, at most early studios, such as Barré-Bowers, Hearst International, Paul Terry, the Fleischer Brothers, or the Sullivan Studio, animators simply received a verbal explanation or loose written story scenario for their assignment.[iv] When the direction was verbal, as at the Fleischer Brothers and the Sullivan Studio, a brief meeting between the designated animator and either Dave Fleischer, or Otto Messmer served as a “private gag meeting” or loose “ad-lib” session (Barrier 1999, p.25, 30). Each of these approaches represent the breezy, unstructured nature of early story development, which left much of a cartoon’s visualization and gags up to the individual animators (Barrier 1999, p.50-1), who in turn did not typically consult with one another on the development of their particular segment as they worked. According to Michael Barrier, “With several animators working on a film, as was increasingly the case, there was only the most limited effort to pull their disparate contributions together” (1999, p.20). The result was therefore a kind of “independent collaboration,” whereby individual work, created independently, then became part of a larger whole created by many, but ultimately generated without any meaningful intellectual or creative exchange between contributing parties. Not surprisingly, the resulting shorts often possessed disjointed narratives and simple visuals, but there was no time to write a script or create concept art, even if that had been an interest.

True creative collaboration,” as defined here, is a method of making that involves a group of individuals who all interact with one another to collectively produce a single, final work, which in this case is an animated cartoon. They each make creative, conceptual contributions while responding to and engaging with the ideas of others. Ultimately, the project is led by a single vision; here it is the director’s, but importantly, this singular vision is articulated and executed through engagement with a host of creative problem solvers who are usually artists in their own right. According to this definition, the first instance of “true creative collaboration” within an American animation studio may have occurred as early as 1918 at the Barré-Bowers Studio, as recounted by the oft-cited animator, director, and storyman, Dick Heumer, in a 1969 interview. Heumer recalled that once a theme was proposed for a cartoon, “We’d all spend an evening talking about it. And that’s all it amounted to […] We’d say, ‘Let’s do a Hawaiian picture.’ ‘Fine. I’ll do the surf stuff, you do the cannibals’” (cited in Canemaker 1999, p.6). However, in a 1973 interview with Michael Barrier, Heumer recalled the situation at the same studio differently, “Barré would hand out the idea of the story. He’d say, ‘We’re making a picture about Egypt this week; have pyramids in it and sphinxes, and camels.’ So, we’d go back to our boards. We would animate for a week—just about a week—cut it off, and then soon it would be spliced together” (1999, p.20). The problematic, and apparently contradictory distinction between whether animators received the story idea and specific content directions from Barré, or brainstormed informally amongst themselves after hours to determine this content unfortunately precludes a confident statement about the status of “true creative collaboration” in American studios at this early date in animation’s history. [v] Although there may be extant interviews that have not yet come to light, the published evidence from other studios seems to suggest such an environment was not common, if it existed at all.

The next chronological record for such collaboration in an American studio comes from the later recollections of Walt Disney Studio employee Rudy Ising. “True creative collaboration,” according to Ising, began at the studio around 1925 as the Alice Comedies series matured, and initially manifested itself in the form of meetings, led by Walt, in which several staff members collectively brainstormed gags and story ideas for each cartoon (Merritt & Kaufman, 1993, p.73). The advent of sound, coupled with Walt’s ambitions for better cartoons, made their creation more complicated, necessitating even greater interactive collaboration among both departments and individual studio employees. Indeed, the momentous integration of sound technology and animation impacted other studios in a similar manner.[vi]

As the years passed, however, Walt sought out individual collaborators with specific talents, such as veteran animator Ted Sears, who was hired in 1931 as the Studio’s first “gag man” (Barrier, 1999, p.69), or Albert Hurter, who eventually became Disney’s first concept artist. According to Sears, Walt was “the first cartoon producer to appreciate the special talents of the individual artist and allow him to concentrate upon the thing he did best” (cited in Canemaker 1996, p.10). This notable approach is well illustrated by Hurter, who was a Swiss immigrant and a classically trained artist with an unbounded, playful imagination and discerning eye. Walt quickly recognized that Hurter possessed the ability to anthropomorphize anything, a skill that was well suited to the stories Disney wished to animate. Hurter contributed character and set designs, story sketches and concept work, and according to John Canemaker, by 1934 the artist served as the resident expert on “how things should look” (1996, p.22). In that role, Hurter guided the styling and character designs for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), contributed concept ideas for Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), and Peter Pan (1953), to say nothing of the dozens of shorts he provided art for, including Flowers and Trees (1932) and Three Little Pigs (1933). This search for uniquely talented collaborators, who provide a strong point of view, but whose work ultimately finds its place within a stylistically homogenous whole, made by several hundred individuals under the vision of a director, is a mode of collaboration unique within the fine arts, and yet dependent upon earlier fine art precedents.

The sort of collaboration that would ultimately develop within American animation studios drew from the medieval and Renaissance model, but with significant differences particular to animation. For example, as former Pixar CEO Steve Jobs once observed, “our business depends upon collaboration, and it depends upon unplanned collaboration,” by which he meant the fruitful interactions that occur when creative people have spontaneous contact with each other under one roof (cited in Iwerks, 2007). Unplanned collaboration was deemed such a critical ingredient to Pixar’s success that the Studio’s Emeryville complex was initially designed around a single building with a central atrium created specifically to generate those spontaneous creative moments that lead to big ideas.[vii] Not surprisingly, collaboration is a part of the famous “Pixar culture.” At various moments during production ideas are solicited from all employees and the notion of a team effort over the single creator is embraced. Further, because of the thorough collaborative integration between departments, one decision or idea at Pixar can domino into a collaborative frenzy, fed by the expanding nature of the medium and its rapidly advancing technology. This creative cause-and-effect relationship is succinctly articulated by John Lasseter in his famous quote, “Art challenges technology and the technology inspires the art” (MoMA 2005, p.8). Moreover, Lasseter also highlights another important distinction between traditional fine art collaborations and that of animation studios. While Rembrandt and his assistants could not collaborate intellectually with their mute oil paint, the technical directors at Pixar provide invaluable feedback to artists and animators on media and process, often creating, through computer programming, the precise tools these individuals will need to realize their final artistic vision on screen.

Indeed, studio animation today, as it did under Walt, succeeds in no small part because of the unique, strong artistic personalities of its individual employees. Take for example, Pixar concept artist and director, Teddy Newton, whose business card aptly lists his job title as “Professional Muse.” Since his arrival at Pixar in 2000, Teddy has routinely been among the first artists to visually treat a new project, not only because of his unique sense of humor and artistic style, but also on account of his particular ability to enable others to creatively conceive. This muse-like quality is one of the reasons he is so desirable to directors early in a project and valuable to the studio as a whole. Newton is routinely at the forefront of development, and then, because of his flexibility and range as an artist—a quality that prompted Brad Bird to dub him the “x-factor”—Newton is often also called upon to contribute creatively in other areas later in production (cited in Amidi 2002, p.6). From designing characters and sets, like he did for Presto (2008) and The Incredibles (2004), to directing end credits, as he did for Ratatouille (2007), to developing hundreds of gags like the now-famous flaming baby, which ultimately led to the short, Jack-Jack Attack (2005), Newton’s unique touch is on nearly every Pixar feature release since 2004. And yet, his contribution remains part of a collaborative whole. Moreover, its the vast body of Newton work the public does not see that effects its muse-like magic. When asked in 2008 about this role he replied, “I realize now that almost 90 percent of what I do may never end up in a movie, but it may springboard other people to come up with the solution” (Spline Doctors, 2007).

Newton is far from alone at Pixar. In fact, as a matter of course, the director of any Pixar feature will hire at least two freelance artists, from outside the studio to contribute their unique version of characters and sets. This practice is intended to provide that “springboard” Newton envisioned, and has resulted not only in stunning individual work, but key images that directors return to when searching for early visualization of the story. Examples include, Carter Goodrich’s delicate, yet active pencil sketches of characters for Finding Nemo (2003) and Ratatouille, and Simón Varela’s virtuoso, large-scale charcoal drawings for Finding Nemo and WALL•E (2008). According to Nemo director Andrew Stanton, “When I looked at his [Varela’s] artwork, I felt exactly the way I wanted to feel when watching the movie […] A picture speaks a thousand words and his pictures helped me convey to others what I wanted the look of the movie to be. It was the touchstone” (cited in Vaz 2003, p.56) Indeed, there are more examples of both freelance artists, and unique artistic voices from within the studio, than the space of this short study allows. Suffice it to say that each of these individuals is critical to the collaborative successes of Pixar. As such, Pixar’s process is one of “true creative collaboration,” and quite unlike canonical, collaborative fine art examples.

Not surprisingly a particular kind or “breed” of highly creative individual appears to gravitate towards studio animation and Pixar in particular. In general, Pixar employees like to collaborate, and while they freely recognize the challenges and necessities of working within a “dictatorial creative realm,” in order to create such a complex final work they notably do not see collaboration as a daunting or off-putting method of artistic production. In other words, the benefits outweigh any drawbacks. According to veteran production designer, Bill Cone, collaboration

augments the holes you have in your own process. It might be frustrating from time to time, but you know we’re in a dictatorial creative realm here. You need that, you need that structure and so, collaboration can be extremely rewarding. You are part of something you couldn’t do by yourself, it’s so big. (2010)

No doubt the studio’s collective positive attitude towards collaboration is also aided by Pixar’s supportive view of independent creative projects completed by its artists outside the Studio. When asked about the personal importance of his outside projects Character Art Director and children’s book illustrator, Jason Deamer, observed, “I think it’s just important to have a sense of self, because it’s awesome to be a part of this big collective army that makes these giant projects, but at times it can feel nameless… so it’s great to have an [artistic] identity on the side” (Deamer, 2011). However, Pixar’s established, internal creative culture, also holds that a “good idea can come from anywhere” making every individual Pixarian a potential contributor and vested creative agent within the collaboration. Further, Pixar animators and artists repeatedly state in interviews that not only did they enjoy collaborating with their colleagues, but that these interactions were inspiring. Further, many note that the various strengths each person brought to bear on a particular artistic problem made the final result better than it would have been had the individual been seeking answers alone. Or as Brad Bird puts it, “As individual animators, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, but if we can interconnect all our strengths, we are collectively the greatest animator on earth” (cited in Hawn, 2008). In fact, when Pixar was a budding studio it was the collaborations among individuals with diverse backgrounds and strengths, such as computer programming and 2D animation, that made possible the production and innovation of 3D animated shorts, and later the first computer animated feature. This sort of collaboration is rare in the fine arts and found almost exclusively in video or large installation projects.

Steve Jobs’ declaration that “animation depends upon collaboration” is a truism not only at the core of studio animation’s success, but also its very existence. In fact, collaboration is so integral to animation that it is easy to take this essential fact for granted, but it is precisely this centrality, which fostered the unique and “true creative collaborative” environment present within many modern animation studios. Ultimately, this is a method of making that is dependent upon the labor of many skilled hands, like Renaissance examples, and yet the conceptual and artistic evolution of a film from story to screen is also highly collaborative, and therefore quite unlike the Renaissance model. Indeed, while the collaborative method of making animation has changed over time with the demands and technological advances of the medium, the mode remains virtually distinct among the fine arts, and as such should be recognized as another of those distinguishing qualities of animation, which asserts its independence as a medium. Further, given the distinct contributions made by the hundreds of individuals who interact to create a feature-length animated film—many of them artists in their own right—collaboration should no longer be among the obstacles routinely eliminating animation from fine art’s history, studies and discussions. Rather, the creative partnership between the director and his or her various teams of artists, animators, writers and computer programmers is a collaborative relationship to be better understood in the future and, one hopes, respected.

This article was initially presented as a paper at the 2010 Society of Animation Studies annual conference. Research for both article and paper were made possible through funding from the College of Arts and Sciences, the Art Department, and the Kohler Fund of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. My gratitude also goes to Pixar Animation Studios and its artists for the open access and generous amounts of time they so willingly provide during my visits. Heartfelt thanks especially to Elyse Klaidman and Christine Freeman without whose unstinting and ongoing support this kind of work on Pixar would not be possible.


[i] I first presented these ideas at the 2009 Society of Animation Studies conference, and subsequently at several other venues, including the Oakland Museum of California. A published expansion of this topic is forthcoming.

[ii] In 1933 Philadelphia art critic, Dorothy Grafly credited Walt Disney with making the “animated cartoon a pure art form” (Grafly, 1933, p.338), whereas Harry B. Welde, curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York stated that Walt was a “great historical figure in the development of American art” (quoted in Culhane, 1973, p.22). Meanwhile, an anonymous contributor to The Art Digest of 1938 described the collective animated works of the Walt Disney Studio as a means by which “art comes to the [common] man” (Anon., 1938, p.25). Two years later the same journal’s editor, Peyton Boswell, described the more than three hundred Fantasia drawings then making their way around the country in a touring exhibition, as “fine art under any definition of the term” and declared the art museum was “exactly where they should be exhibited.” (Boswell, 1940, p.3)

[iii] As described by Bray in 1972, “We worked out a system of the original cartoonist laying out the thing in pencil. Then another fellow would ink certain parts of it. Then another girl or boy would put on color on the back of the picture…” (cited in Maltin, 1987, p.20.) Dick Heumer also recalled that sometimes if an individual animator had an idea for a cartoon at the Barré-Bowers studio “he would do it himself” (Canemaker, 1999, p.6).

[iv] For Barré-Bowers see Barrier, 1999, p.20, Maltin, 1987, p.13-15, for Hearst International, see Crafton, 1993, p.181, for Paul Terry, see Crafton, 1993, p.191, for the Fleischer Brothers, see Barrier, 1999, p.25, and for the Sullivan Studio, see Barrier, 1999, p.30.

[v] Dick Heumer, began his lengthy career in animation in 1916 and retired in 1973 after working for several studios, including Barré-Bowers, the Fleischer Brothers and Disney. He was frequently interviewed in the late sixties and early seventies about his experiences, and his observations form an invaluable and often quoted body of material for historians of early animation studio processes.

[vi] For example, not long after sound entered Fleischer cartoon productions, collaboration at the studio became more sophisticated with the addition of story meetings. (Maltin, (1987), p.96)

[vii] Due to growth in Studio personnel, a second large building opened on the Pixar campus in 2011. For more on the original Emeryville building and its conception by Steve Jobs, see Isaaccon (2011, p.430-32) and Paik (2007, pp.167-72).


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© Heather L. Holian

Edited by Amy Ratelle

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