This ‘Lord of the Rings’ Crew Pic Reveals Something Important About 1970s Animation

"Lord of the Rings" animation crew, 1978. Click to enlarge image. (Photo via African-American Animators - Past & Present Facebook group.)

“Lord of the Rings” animation crew, 1978. Click to enlarge image. (Photo found on African-American Animators – Past & Present Facebook group.)

This 1978 photo of the animation crew from Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings fascinates me and not just because one of my former animation teachers, Lenord Robinson, is in it. (If you want a difficult job, try teaching me animation!) No, the other reason I enjoy looking at it is because it represents the diversity of the animation industry during the 1970s.

The era is commonly viewed as the dregs of animation history, which is true in many respects, especially in regards to the mainstream American animation industry. But even during this uninspired lull in stateside animation, some amazing things were happening behind the scenes, and there was a grand payoff a decade later.

As this photo so beautifully documents, the Seventies were a unique moment in animation history when industry newcomers had the opportunity to work alongside not only experienced animators like Phil Roman and John Sparey, but Golden Age legends like Irv Spence, Alex Ignatiev, and Marty Taras. Spence was 69 years old at the time of this photo, Ignatiev 65, Taras 64.

If you’re at a studio this afternoon, look around and count how many sixty- and seventy-something animators are working beside you. I’d wager not too many.

Back in the 1970s though, the greatest animators of the Golden Age could be found at every studio, whether it was the grand dame Disney or TV schlock-houses like Hanna-Barbera and Filmation. Films like Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure and Winds of Change had exceptionally age-diverse crews that would be unimaginable on any contemporary feature. (The oldest animator on Raggedy Ann was Grim Natwick, who was 86 years old when the film was released.)

Young artists who entered the industry couldn’t help but be in constant contact with earlier generations of artists. Perhaps some of those young artists, now veterans themselves, look back and wonder why they didn’t take greater advantage of the opportunity to learn from the modest masters in their midst, but they nonetheless picked up tips while sharing office space, and sometimes even got punched in the face by cranky legends.

It was not for naught. The subsequent resurgence that happened in both feature and TV animation was instigated mostly by the young artists who had been working alongside the Golden Age veterans. The major projects of the industry-wide rebirth, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, DuckTales, Tiny Toons and Ren & Stimpy, to name but a few, had principals who had been working in the industry since the late-1970s. In the Bakshi photo above, we see young artists like Hank Tucker, Art Vitello, Bruce Woodside, and Dale Baer who would each go on to make significant contributions as their careers progressed.

The effect of the cross-generational animation workplace hasn’t been fully (or even casually) explored by anyone—and it deserves to be. It alone did not lead to the industry’s creative revival; a confluence of forces was surely at work. But having known and spoken to many artists of that period, it’s clear that the age-diverse environments of the 1970s and early-’80s played some kind of role in the positive developments that followed.

  • storyfan

    It really is a crime that current hiring practices across all industries are so stacked against the “elderly.” Lost opportunities.

    • Sleb Plurbshtickle

      Ageism is part of it, but I think it’s also due to the fact that young animators are willing to work for peanuts now, and for long hours. A lot of people stop animating once they have other responsibilities like families and mortgages. There aren’t enough high paying senior animation jobs to go around for everybody.

  • Todd DuBois

    Very thought-provoking post here. I admit I’ve been one of those very dismissive of the 70s, but yeah. This topic sounds like an excellent book waiting to be written.

  • blandyblottschalk

    But how ethnically diverse is it? The industry still has a great way to go. Today you see artists like Lorelay Bove at Disney, and even more women joining the ranks, but to pretend a studio is “diverse” by having older white guys in the mix is laughable.

    • AmidAmidi

      This article makes a specific point about the value of age-diversity in the animation workplace. Yes, today we may have more gender diversity in the workplace than age-diversity, but there’s no reason you can’t have both. It’s not an either/or proposition.

      And by the way, Bakshi was very good at having ethnically- and gender-diverse crews. In the photo above, you’ll see Brenda Banks, who was among the earliest African-American women animators.

    • Razorback

      Did you even look at the picture?

  • Robert Holmén

    Probably not too surprising that animators who were already old in the 70s didn’t continue on to do lots of projects in the 80s.

    • Kusanagi

      I think the real point he is making is that the modern animation industry and, especially, the people who work in it are losing something valuable due to ageist policies that are being practiced. People who worked in the industry in the 40s could still find employment 30 years later. How many animators that start now are going to be able to still be working in the industry in 30 years? Not many I would guess. They’ll either be burned out or forced out as being “too old” and/or “out of touch” with youth culture to be employable.

    • Jenny

      Actually, more animators “who were already old in the 70s” were working in the 80s (and 90s) than you’d think-if they chose not to retire, and had the chops and reputations of such as Tissa David, Ward Kimball, Don Morgan, Eric Larson, Vance Gerry, Burny Mattinson, Maurice Noble, and Joe Grant, to name a few off the top of my head.

  • Mark Mayerson

    As someone who started in animation in the mid-’70s, albeit in New York, it was amazing to meet and sometimes work with people like Al Eugster, Otto Messmer, Preston Blair, Emery Hawkins, Jack Zander, Willis Pyle, and Marty Taras. Then there were public appearances by Walter Lantz, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Eric Larsen.

    These people spanned almost the entire history of animation until that time. Messmer started in the 1910s and Eugster started in 1925. There was a strong sense of continuity with the people who created the business that we all hoped to inherit and revive.

    One reason for the lack of older animators today is the shift to digital. While there are some people who transitioned, many did not. While the principles of animated film making haven’t changed, the technology has changed enough to increase the attrition rate. Digital technology is now well established enough, and there are enough schools pumping out graduates, that studios are no longer interested in retraining older artists. It’s no problem to find somebody who already knows the stuff.

    The ’70s were similar in the comic book business as well. Veterans like Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, George Tuska, and Gil Kane — all veterans of the 1940s — were working alongside Howard Chaykin, Berni Wrightson, Michael Kaluta, Al Weiss, etc. I don’t think there are many comic book artists older than 50 currently working for Marvel or DC, but I could be wrong.

    It should be noted that due to circumstances, each of these fields had fallow decades. Nobody went into the comic book business in the 1950s when the field was the victim of a witch hunt and hit hard times. Similarly, there weren’t a lot of people entering animation in the ’60s when theatricals were dying and the TV work was for only 6 months a year due to Saturday morning production schedules. In both cases, the shrinking opportunities discouraged new blood. Those gaps led to the veterans and young people bumping up against each other. There were few middle aged people in either field inbetween them.

    • Ben McSweeney

      I feel like there’s still room for older animators, especially as instructors and mentors, but they have to accept that the old tools are going away or gone. And that shouldn’t matter so much, because it’s not their ability with tools that’s most valuable.

      There has to be a way to pass on what they know about timing, drawing, composition, and layout in ways that aren’t related to paper, pencils and cameras. Drawing frame by frame is effectively the same trick whether you draw on paper or draw in Harmony (or Photoshop), and most of the really important, valuable knowledge that experienced old guard animators possess isn’t about what kind of bulb to put in the table or how to flip frames with your fingers.

    • ShouldBeWorkin’

      From personal experience, for older animators I think the time to adapt is when certain technology is being more widely used but still new enough that virtually everyone is learning more or less at the same time. Being in a studio situation where I can turn to someone beside me and ask how to do something has helped immensely.

  • Ant G

    we have a 70+ yr old here in our studio. He works in a diferent department and havent yet got a chance to meet him.

  • Elana Pritchard

    This is a great article that makes an excellent point. I worked for Ralph (albeit remote) and learned things about animation and life that I’d never have gotten anywhere else.

  • starss

    It’s not just age or a grip on the new generation that doesn’t keep animators in studios for very long these days. … the salaries have gotten so low, it made many animators completely give up on the career due to how they need to care for a possible spouse, mortgage, retirement fund, or family!

  • Toonio

    These days the good animators die young
    Look it up and you’ll know what I mean.

    • Kusanagi

      You mean they go into illustration? ;-)

  • Tomm

    This is something we have noticed a lot in our studio over the years – where are all the old guys? The average age stays around 25-35 and most applicants are in the age range

  • Jenny

    My first reaction at seeing the picture/reading the post was-”Look! There’s Carl Bell! Crystal Russell!?! Whatever happened to her? Gee, Art looks so young!” Next was the thought “Amid took classes from Lenord??*”

    It was an interesting thing, this range of ages. Other places that I personally knew of that had twentysomethings sitting next to veterans of the 30s were Duck Soup in Santa Monica, Richard Williams’ studio on Cahuenga, and of course the Disney studio. And at my first job, at WB in 1989. it was mind-blowing to walk into Tom Ray and Norm McCabe’s office and chat with them. I think Norm might have started in ’32!

    I’d imagine it won’t be repeated until the current vanguard is a couple of decades older, if they stay in animation-or if [studio] animation is still around.

  • Mike Rauch

    I wholeheartedly agree that age-diverse crews are a benefit both to the people themselves (at both ends of the age spectrum), and to the quality of the production as well. The rewards are many and varied— creative, personal, practical, etc.

  • tom bancroft

    YEAH! Everyone’s always talking about getting more women or different nationalities in animation- How about us OLD GUYS! That’s some diversity for ya! Let’s hear it for the old animators and what they can still do! Wahoo!

  • Annie T.

    I had a lightbulb moment about this yesterday when I showed my dad Glen Keane’s short “Duet”. He mentioned that it’s pretty unusual for an older animator to keep on going doing new things these days. I had just finished reading Roger William’s animation book in which (among other things) he talks about how it was helpful for him to learn from older animators, who he hired at his studio. As a young animator myself, it suddenly clicked that we’re missing that now, although hopefully more animators will follow Glen’s lead (now that he’s planning an indie feature) and younger animators (like myself) will have a chance to jump on the bandwagon.

  • Stephen Worth

    There were three Noahs who put animation on the Ark and pushed it across the flood… Bakshi, Williams and Larson. Without those three, animation may not have bridged the gap. There are a few today doing the same thing. Can you name them?

  • AmidAmidi

    At least 2 or 3 classes back at AiA. Lenord was an amazing teacher! Please give my regards to him.

  • MaskedManAICN

    ” just because these people aren’t 100% white men doesn’t make it diverse”
    Really? It sounds like diversity to me.

  • MaskedManAICN

    I remember getting started in my short lived career, and discovering someone like Tom Ray was still working at Sony TV Animation. It was awesome to have someone of his talent and experience working in the studio. Unfortunately, finding anyone else over 40 years old was pretty impossible.

    Aside from reasons like ‘the computer’ and ‘lack of industry growth’, Hollywood clearly has no interested industry veterans- because “they can’t create fresh and trendy product”. And sadly I don’t see this opinion ever changing. It would require a full cultural change, and those are hard to come by- especially when ‘no-one’ wants it.

  • TK

    Quite right, Mark. I started in animation in the 80s, but was moving away from it in the 90s anyway due to poor pay and lack of stability (in Canada). The big switch to CGI clinched the deal – 2D experience did not count for anything anymore at the shops I went to. I think of the switch to CGI as similar to the switch from silent films to talkies.
    Drawing cartoons for peanuts and moving to a different city for every job is cool when you’re in your 20s, but beyond that, we want stability – some sort of rock we can build a career and family on.
    Not only that, but I think most canny older professionals know that real job benefits like health plans, a good salary, and paid vacation time are a lot more important than having a foozeball table in the break room and weekly massage therapy, or whatever they’re plying the kids with now at the big studios and tech firms. You know what? Just give me a steady job and two weeks off a year, and I’ll play foozeball at home.

    • Gio Ferrari

      you are so right