Animators themselves feed into the trend by releasing videos of themselves to the public, appearing in fashion magazines and engaging with their fans on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and their personal blogs. In the 1990s, if you enjoyed watching a certain piece of animation, the only way to communicate with its creator was to write and post a fan letter to the artist. Today, if you have something to say about the latest episode of Adventure Time, you can reach out instantly to its creator Pen Ward, not to mention the rest of the show’s crew, on their personal Twitter accounts.
It’s true that historically animation artists have been anonymous figures. It didn’t matter whether you were one of Disney’s Nine Old Men or a lowly inbetweener—you were guaranteed to be a nobody as soon as you left the studio. This became evident to me while I was researching my forthcoming biography of Disney director and animator Ward Kimball and was going through his fanmail from the 1950s and 1960s. Ward received quite a bit of it, but none of it was for his animation work. Ward was only known to the general public for his efforts as a jazz bandleader and operating a railroad in his backyard.
It wasn’t until the late-1970s, after he had already retired from Disney, that the general public started to gain an awareness of his work as an animator. If we had to pinpoint a specific moment when the age of the celebrity animator began, it would have to be the publication of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s book The Illusion of Life in 1981. Following that book, we were well on our way to where we’ve ended up today.
The evolving dynamic between animation artists and their fans doesn’t mean that everyone who works in animation has to become a public figure. The choice still lies with the artist. An artist like DreamWorks designer Nico Marlet manages to keep a low-profile despite his huge fanbase. But that is no longer the norm. For artists today, being recognized as a public figure requires far less effort than it does to be private and anonymous. In other words, blogs like Fuck Yeah Animation Bosses are only the beginning.
Frank Thomas and Mary Blair
Mark Henn and Tony Bancroft