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How CalArts Came To Dominate Hollywood’s Animation Industry

Vanity Fair doesn’t write about animation often, but when they do, it’s guaranteed to be memorable. Their new Hollywood issue offers an excellent 6,500-word longread by Sam Kashner about the legendary CalArts animation program of the Seventies and Eighties. The program, which is famed in the animation industry as much for its cliquish alumni support network as for who came out of it, spawned directors like John Lasseter, Chris Buck, Henry Selick, Brad Bird, Rich Moore, John Musker, Kirk Wise, Tim Burton, Mark Andrews, Andrew Stanton, Rob Minkoff, Pete Docter, and nearly every other middle-aged white male who directs animated features today.

Kashner’s piece focuses on the roots of the program in the Seventies, and includes several amusing never-before-heard anecdotes:

But the teacher who made the biggest impact on that first cadre of CalArts students was Bill Moore, a design teacher who had come out of the Chouinard Art Institute. “Bill Moore,” says [Henry] Selick, “was exceptional—a wake-up call, especially for some of the kids right out of high school. He was clearly gay, and this was a time when people from Iowa would say, ‘What the hell? What’s with that guy?’ And he was flamboyant.”

[John] Lasseter considers Moore one of the biggest influences on his life, though he “was legendary for being extremely difficult. Very, very critical and very hard.” Mike Giaimo says that when Moore was at Chouinard in the 1950s, when he saw work he didn’t approve of during an art show, he “would hold his cigarette up to the piece, threatening to set it on fire.” Thus began the legend that Bill Moore set fire to student work. “But I did see him tear pieces off the wall and stomp on them,” adds Giaimo.

[Gary] Trousdale remembers, “Usually there was only one piece that stood out [to Moore]—you were the genius of the day. And Lasseter was the genius of the day for like three weeks running. He was getting pretty proud of himself—his head’s getting a little big.” So when Moore walked by the fourth week and looked at Lasseter’s work, “he goes, ‘That’s true shit,’ and just walks by.” Lasseter was crestfallen. Moore “saw the effect it had on him,” Trousdale remembers. “He goes, ‘John, you can’t wake up with a hard-on every morning.’ ”

The piece also includes an Annie Leibovitz group photo (top) in CalArts classroom A113, which has achieved iconic status as a result of the self-mythologizing of the program’s alumni. Click for a close-up view of (from left) Steve Hillenburg, Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Mark Andrews [in ape suit], Jerry Rees, Chris Buck [with Viking helmet], John Musker, Genndy Tartakovsky, Leslie Gorin, Mike Giaimo, Brenda Chapman, Glen Keane, Kirk Wise [in beige sweater], Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter [with Lei], Rob Minkoff, Rich Moore, John Lasseter, and Henry Selick.

  • Mark Neeley

    Although the article focuses solely on feature animation, since the magazine caters to a non-cartoon knowledgeable demographic who probably know nothing about CalArts,, I’m a little surprised it didn’t really make mention of their dominance over television animation as well. I mean, I guess Stephen Hillenberg is there just because of the Spongebob movie. Just seems odd to have such an article and not mention any of the TV side with someone like Craig McCracken who now has 3 successful shows under his belt, not to mention the countless others. By the way, the extra slideshow when you click the “photos” link on the article has some good stuff in it, like 1977 students circled around Jules Engel at an animation desk.

    • Jack Rabbit

      To know the history of how animation came to be in the 1980’s and beyond through “The Second Golden Age” is to appreciate this article even more. These are the students who were there (in training) at the right place at the right time. They are the one’s to whom the torch was being passed onto from the old leaders of the industry, those who came from “The Golden Age of Animation” that made up the 1940’s into the 50’s. There is no place for the consideration of the TV market of 1977 to the early eighties when these people were taking hold of the reigns as the last retiring animation demigods were leaving the studios.

    • Jason Cezar Duncan

      TBH, the Cal Arts creator domination trend seems like a rather recent thing, and quite frankly to me at least, seems quite overrated as well. I honestly don’t think any of those people would be worse as artists without Cal Arts. Actually, I personally think it kind of toned some of them down, but that’s just me. Thing is, CN and Disney had phases where it seemed they were taking ideas from nothing but Cal Arts people, and thus having the school as an Alma Mater simply gave them the opportunity.Not to mention the earlier creator driven pioneers (Matt Groening, Mike Judge, John K) didn’t even go to Cal Arts if they even went to art school at all.

      • Mark Neeley

        I don’t think that “phase” as you put it is a thing of the past at all. With CN, off the top of my head, Adventure Time, Regular Show and Uncle Grandpa are all created by CalArts grads. It would be easy to name names for other networks as well, especially with all the ex-CN people now at Disney.

        No doubt that the diversity is better these days than it was a decade ago, specifically with more international talent and the influence of the internet where thousands of online portfolios are at any network/creator’s fingertips via comic strips, blogs, shorts, etc. But when it comes to the old controversial “is it a good or bad thing that one school dominates the entire industry” debate, if anything I think CalArts is more prominent than ever. Specifically considering with the mythos and reputation it has built up at this point, I can only imagine that they receive more applications than ever before, and subsequently it becomes even more difficult to be accepted. Considering literally every major studio/network conveniently located closeby immediately has their eyes on the “best of the best” who get accepted, I don’t see the influence dying unless you see some kind of massive industry shake up.

  • Pedro Nakama

    Just don’t drink out of the punch bowl at the Halloween Party.

  • Myst AnimatorX

    [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “Stay on-topic. Comments are not a place to discuss ideas not directly related to the post.”]

    • Marlow G

      Bill Kopp, Jeff Pidgeon, Jeff DeGrandis, Jim Reardon, Jenny Lerew, Rich Arons and many, many others belong in that CalArts group photo. If anything, there seems to be an anti-television animation bias operating at VF magazine, reflecting the one that has existed since the advent of broadcast television in the industry.

  • Evan English

    Thanks for sharing this fantastic article! Those stories really made my day.

  • uland

    What was meant by the “White males..” sentence? I don’t understand.

    • TStevens

      Though there have been many great talents in the industry who are not white males, most of them historically have been. People like Mary Blair, Tissa David, Dan Haskett, and Floyd Norman are more the exception than the norm. I think the industry is much better than it use to be but, overall it is still dominated by the aforementioned white males.

  • Brill 93

    I’m not white but really why the “Middle age white male” line? Come on you don’t need to put race into this.

    • Washington Irving

      I’m not aged, middle white or male, why must people? You are right. Even though he really didn’t, why not bring race into it?

    • Jessica

      Agreed. That was totally unnecessary.

    • Matthew

      It’s Vanity Fair. You’re not surprised. At least that’s all they mentioned. If this were Slate or Salon, the article would be about nothing but that.

    • Anon

      I dunno, seems pretty legit! Also, why are you offended by ethnicity (which is visibly all white people) and not that the statement excluded women who worked alongside those white middle aged men? :-/

      • Brill 93

        The reason why I am offended by the comment of ethnicity is because it does nothing but blind people from opportunity. I don’t need to know that most of these animated films were directed by white males because if I a person of color wishes to do so I have to work hard to do it as people do. In this matter its not race, we are all human.

  • Strong Enough

    “nearly every other middle-aged white male who directs animated features today.”

    lmaooooo. nice.

  • Mister Twister

    I know I will never be an animator, but I do wish I had a year of free time (and financial backing) so I could spend a year at CalArts, just drawing and perfecting myself.

  • RCooke

    Seeing as how Annie Leibowitz freely admits how Photoshop is her best friend, I’m imagining the photo above was taken a bit over time and kluged together as her best work is. How else could you imagine getting some of those people in the same room together?

  • Beamish Kinowerks

    Peter Chung should’ve been included.

  • barney miller

    Sour grapes, Guest-a-Mate?

    Your “hard truth” is misinformed BS.

    I came from a middle class family and worked my ass off to get into Cal Arts. I spent two years prior, saving money to attend and with the help of a few scholarships, was able to. One of the best decisions I ever made.

    I can tell you for a fact that many of the folks mentioned in this article also came from modest families, without money or influence. They worked hard in school and even harder to create the shows and films they are known for.

    Are there plenty of talented artists from other schools or whom didn’t attend school at all currently influencing the art form? Absolutely and contrary to your assertion, they are “congratulated” for their accomplishments as well. Names like Miyazaki, Takahata, Paley, Groening and Macfarlane spring to mind (I can’t turn the channel with out seeing the latter’s latest creations).

    I don’t know why you hold such bitterness toward Cal Arts and its alumni, but it seems misplaced, grossly inaccurate and petty.

    • How many years did you attend the animation program at Cal Arts? Did you graduate from the program? As I understand it many students drop out before they graduate due to the cost. What was the cost of tuition when you went? Did you live at home while attending? Everyone’s story is different and comparing everyone to your situation isn’t really fair. It’s fantastic that you worked hard to be able to attend but student debt can be pretty crippling, these days more than ever.

    • Caitlin Cadieux

      I would have loved to attend CalArts but the cost is prohibitive, especially if you’re not from the immediate area. Personally I don’t think not going to CalArts is an immediate nail in anyone’s career, but its influence is undeniable and those who would love to attend and just couldn’t attend for financial reasons, well, it probably doesn’t feel that great.

      That being said, I think the greater issue here is the untenable costs of art school tuition across the US. In this economy, going into debt for animation school is less appealing than ever. That being said, the availability of online education sources is higher than ever and at MUCH more affordable prices! I’d recommend seeking out an art or animation community in your area, finding mentors wherever you can (online even!) and honing your own skills with online training, if traditional schooling is out of your reach right now.

  • Allen

    I hate the types of articles. It is one of those articles that begs the question, “Who is not there”. It screams for comparisons which is not a good thing. Where is Mark Dindal, where is Chris Sanders. What about Mark Henn, Bruce Smith or Doug Sweatland. If Genndy Tartakovsky ia here than why not Craig McCracken, or Butch Hartman. Who is Leslie Goran and why is she in the photo. What exactly is the criteria to be in a photo like this. And what about Kevin Lima. The movies he has directed have made more critical and financial success than Kirk Wise’s movies or Jerry Reese’s movies. It just seems that when someone does an article like this that mythologizes some but not others it’s never fair or true.

    • Nancybeiman

      Leslie Margolin was a member of the first class of the Character Animation Program, one of only two female students. She left after two years, with a certificate (which Cal Arts awarded then.) She has every right to be in this photo.

  • I WAS there

    Incorrect. Only Brad and Tim were ‘shopped in. Brad’s shooting a live-action movie and Tim lives in London.

    • Funkybat

      I was not aware of Annie Leibowitz being so liberal with her Photoshop use (but then I don’t follow the high-end photography world.) I am not really bothered when this kind of photo trickery is employed for “artistic” or “fantasy” type shoots, but this photo is supposedly a “reunion” group shot with no idealizing/fantasy element. Shopping in Brad and Tim just doesn’t sit right to me. There are dozens of other well-known animators who were part of the CalArts alumni, should they have been eligible for Photoshopping-in as well? If Brad and Tim couldn’t make it, they couldn’t make it. Plugging them in with no disclaimer attached just bugs me.

  • Rodan Thompson

    For Jack Hanna and Tee…. Thank you.

  • Destiny

    I went to calarts, I come from a very poor family. I have a single mom who dropped out of high school. I went to Calarts by taking loans. I will pay them back forever but it was worth it. I’m doing much better financially now than anyone else in my family. And yes I agree, the school is too expensive but I found a way, so can others.