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The Importance of Documenting Your Animation Career

Animation home movies

A few evenings ago, Don Shank (production designer of The Powerpuff Girls and Pixar’s Day and Night) used his Twitter account to write a message–in 140 character bursts–that is definitely worth reposting. Here’s what he wrote:

“I remember almost twenty years ago working on Ren & Stimpy and asking a friend ‘should I bring in my super 8 camera and film all the crazy shit going on.’ Definitely! He says. I didn’t. Regret!!!! Back then it was ‘just Now’ who cares about ‘now’. Modern times. Current day. But now now back then is twenty years ago! How great would it be to see all those people back then? Plus, real behind the scenes (un-sped-up) animators working is almost never filmed and shown. In favor of the movie star talking about how they ‘created’ the character. My advice… Film you and your buddies in your normal everyday life. In Twenty years you will thank you (and me hehe).”

I couldn’t agree more. Somebody, someday, somewhere, is going to be interested in what you’ve done. With the ease of one-click digital film recording nowadays, there’s no excuse to not spend some time filming yourself and those around you at the studio. In fact, a lot of people are doing it, like Claudio de Oliveira who filmed the Disney animators working on Tangled and the crew at New Zealand’s Mukpuddy studio. It may be difficult to immediately appreciate the value of these recordings, but there is priceless information in every piece of film. Its true worth accrues with every passing year and may not reveal itself until many years down the line.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time documenting this art form’s history, I can only think back to all the frustrating interviews when I’ve asked animation veterans whether they’d taken any photos of their co-workers and workplaces. Among them were artists who worked daily with Tex Avery, Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera, Chuck Jones, Bobe Cannon, John Hubley, and Walt Disney. Inevitably, they’d tell me that at the time, they never considered what they were doing to be important enough to warrant documenting. And they never dreamt that fifty or sixty years later, people would be celebrating their work.

To end on a bright note, I’m currently working on a project for which there exists hours of home movie footage that an animator recorded during the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, none of which has been seen for decades. It’s the stroke of good luck that historians dream about and which rarely happens. Who knows what sort of treasures are contained within these dusty 16mm film reels. I can’t wait to find out.

  • Yay Muks!!! :D

  • Jeremy Knight

    Great post. Thanks Amid!

  • Goat

    This is fantastic advice for anyone, really. Although I’m not an animator, I’ve worked with some real characters during my career as a designer, and there are definitely moments that I really wish had been recorded for posterity.

    Off to look at little video cameras now. Heh!

  • Yes, this is a fantastic idea. When I worked on my first studio feature I was so excited I wanted to document it so a bought a video camera and shot all facets of work I could. Everyone thought I was a huge geek (which I was) and even got annoyed at my having the camera around all the time. When I cut it all together, they all asked if they could have a copy.

  • Agreed

  • YES!! The other day I watched a The Shining Making Of and a Sin City one. What were the differences between one and another? One actually showed you the process and the effort to do the stuff. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing- Shelley was actually saying “because I was jealous of Jack and that frustated me” I think I’m never going to hear Brad Bird saying “yeah I was jealous of John Lasseter and that frustated me, but I finally completed the job because I ignored that crap” Not just because that’s quite impossible to happen, but that kind of thing is usually not in the MOs. Everything’s “I think you’ll like this movie because it’s very special” “Oh my god Frank Miller’s awesome” “Yeah I had to go semi-naked around the place haha”

    There’s never a sense of showing the enjoyment and the frustration of making a movie. They only show you some nice Macs with beautiful special effects in it and that’s it.

    So yeah, good luck because this is a fantastic idea!!!

    P.S. Here’s the link to TS MO in case you’re interested..

  • I just located my old video tapes from the mid-80’s while working at Bluth Studios during the productions of ‘An American Tail’ and the 1st ‘Land Before Time’.
    I was walking around filming the crew etc.
    Very good memories as I filmed all the employees and guests walking by saying hello during the cast premiere screening of ‘ An American Tail ‘ just before the company moved to Ireland { late 1986 }

    I did the same while at Disney feature for 12+ years.
    Movies, photos etc.

    It’s easy to not think about it while you’re busy in production, the history you are making. The history you are a part of.

    • Marco

      Show us!!!

  • Cartoon Cave Hermit

    Makes me think of that old Film Roman video you guys posted a few weeks ago. More to the point, every other person I work with has an iphone or similar smartphone, capable of recording low end HD in there pocket all day long. Its about time people put those to better use than just filming their cat playing in the sink.

  • Although it’s an intriguing idea to “document” studios and working experiences for the future, digital recording has not proved it’s longevity as motion picture film has. The reason you are able to access that old animator’s records, Amid, is that they are on film, a medium that has archival properties. No one knows at this juncture how long the life of moving digital images is going to be. Good Luck!

    • Luke

      Yes, you make a very insightful point. We don’t know how long it will last, so let’s not record at all.

  • Law

    well said! thank you.

  • Over twenty years ago, I acquired a big ass video camera to document the ill-fated Tom Carter studio in Burbank and Newport Beach. A lot of the kids in that odd studio went on to become top animators, designers and directors.

    I consider that footage pure gold, and solid animation history.

    • dbenson

      There’s a lot of gold in the old-fashioned snapshots Mr. Fun posts on his blog, too.

  • droosan

    Most of the bigger studios at which I’ve worked would’ve probably fired me for waving a camera around during a production. Smaller shops would probably be ‘okay’ with it .. but in my experience, people rarely act ‘natural’ when a camera’s on ’em, anyway.

    /just sayin’

  • Thanks for the mention Amid!

    We’ve made a real conscious effort to document things this year. Even in our relatively short 8 year history we’ve have huge regrets when it comes to moments and projects that we never documented…….and like you mentioned, these clips and snip-its of studio life (especially ours, haha) may play out as pointless and silly for now but when we reach that big goal it’ll be all these moments that add up to where we’ve ended up. We live in a time where doing stuff like this is so damn easy…..most digital stills camera can capture at least a few minutes of footage, and those few minutes may be hugely important many years down the track.

    I’ve wobbed on enough. Great post and thanks again!

  • Tim Hodge

    There was a lot of official video documentation at the Disney studio in Florida… but primarily of parties, and not production. Occassionally somebody posts a link on their Facebook wall, but otherwise, the master reels are all locked away in the vault.

  • Shmorky

    The problem is that a lot of animators (unless they’re fat-headed egomaniacs) are just humble and shy. Tell the little animator working on his big project to document himself and he’ll hide in his shell. We need to overcome our modesty!
    There’s so many artists that I am interested in that just never talk about their process even a tiny bit.

  • Shmorky……fat headed we are……egomaniacs – not so much :)

  • Pedro Nakama

    He’s right. And you can also use the photographs for a book that you can write later on in your life.

  • ed

    To all the fellow animators who have either smiled back or huffed and puffed at me and my camera over the years as I’ve snapped away – Yes! Told you so LOL!!! Great post!

  • When I first got into the biz, I was really into documenting many cool stop-motion movies via video and photos. Because the work is shot on stages with miniature sets and puppets, the process is a particularly fascinating subject matter for documentaries. I have several stop-motion behind the scenes movies from the early nineties including THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS if anyone is interested.

    Eventually I moved on to CGI, and basically lost interest in any further behind the scenes projects. Somehow scenes of animators staring at the computer screen did not seem the same as the good ol’ analog days.

  • The most interesting photos from stop-motion films are always the ones of animators in their sets. I try to document myself, but it’s more difficult when you’re alone.

    Perhaps the interest lies in the fact that it is a real person among physical miniature objects, as opposed to a real person in a boring windowless room pointing at a computer screen of a non-existent character.

    I spent 14 months making an 11 minute stop-motion, and decided to compile all the “making of” shots together into a short film.

    You can watch it here if at all interested:

    The full film can be seen here: