From craft to fordism: rationalisation and alienation in the animation industries

[updated 13 May 2015]

The history of intensive, often affective artistic experimentation with technology and its commodification and subsequent rationalisation of production feeding into mainstream popular culture is not unique to computing but follows the model of earlier practices of techno-artisitc experimentation that have had periods of intensive development in the US.

Historically, in high modernity, the period of the end of 1800ds and first decades of 1900s artistic experimentation pushed technology to its borders and left traces in many areas, from literature (Danius?), through X, Y and Z. These experiments carried the spirit of technological optimism bordering with utopian and dystopian visions in the pre-World-War-I period and, at least in the US, ‘there seemed to be a technological solution to practically every problem’ (Crafton, 1993: 137). nurturing an instrumentalist view of technology. For example, the technological development of animation was given a push by the invention and spread of cinema in the first decade of the 1900ds in the US. Artisitc experimentation with techniques of creating movement of hand-drawn images was resembled by the work of Emile Cohl, and McCay  who saw a tremendous potential for inventing a technique for creating moving comics which at that period were enjoying large popularity in the printed press (Crafton, 1-2 more). The first experiments consisted in xxxxx. In the end of the first decade of the 1910s, a newspaper comic artist and enterpreneur – John Bray attempted to animate his own comics, Teddy Bear. His ambitions were high, but knowledge and technology on animating the comic were abscent. In the course of several years and effortful experimentation, he realised the magnitude of the task that involved a tremendous amount of labor, reflected in a note from a trade journal from XXXX:

‘Success did not attend his efforts quickly, for he had no knowledge of motion picture photography, but he set to work to overcome that obstacle. After several weeks of tireless effort the artist began to realize that he was up against a problem, which if he were to continue along the line on which he had started, would require the lifetime efforts of a Methusalah. For he had learned that each foot of motion picture negative contained sixteen separate pictures and tahat to make a film 1,000 feet long would apparently require 16,000 separate pictures to be drawn. As the Teddy Bear series contained from seven to ten characters, Mr. Bray figured that in order to animate his series it would require 7x 16,000 or 112,000 different figures – each drawn with the most expert and painstaking care – to complete this film. He also found that after all this had been accomplished he would have to set each drawing in its proper place under the camera and photograph it into the film, one exposure at a time, until the entire 16,000 exposures were made’ .

In (Crafton, 1993: 142–143)

After three years of sole experimentation with various techniques, Bray managed to complete a short animated cartoon – The Artists’ Dream, the first one to be commercially screened (is that so?) that was supposedly the first or one of the first released in a movie theatre – earlier works have been shown at vaudevilles (Crafton:143ff). The effort required did not stop Bray and other artists from experimenting with and developing the technology – both to refine the techniques of representing realistic motion, and for speeding up the production. The work on refining the technology of motion represented a site of artistic and craft-like experimentation, a work of affect evidence for which is found in the accounts of the invention of the rhotoscope in 1914. Gathering each night in the course of one year, the animator Max Fleischer and his four uncles reverse-engineerd an old Moy film projector in their living-room and hand-traced 2600 frames of a live-action film which they projected with the old film projector onto a framed screen (Cartwright, 2012). The work of tracing was in the words of Cartwrithgt ‘collective and notoriously dull¨. Once traced, a process that took a year of work each night, the frames were then stacked upon each other in layers and in sequence, a process called compositing and produced an animation strip of a hand-painted but realistically moving dancing clown, a spectacle lasting just a few minutes, a yield being ‘wildly brief, meagre, and laconic when compared to the spectacle of the live-action film (Cartwright, 2012). The repetitive and largely mundane work of tracing live-action film footage each night in domestic conditions has been a technical experimentation the end result of which was anticipated and dreamt of, but also a source of worry and anxiety as the outcome was never certain until the end when:

‘the hand crank on the Moy was turned at the rate of sixteen frames per second, the five brothers held their collective breath, and there, on the screen, they saw a cartoon that moved as no other cartoon had moved before’, a little figure that ‘danced with completely lifelike motion’, that was ‘delightfully human’ and ‘alive’ (Fleischer, 2005: 20–1 in Cartwright).’

The pleasure for Fleischer brothers was arguably not so much in the anticipation of the film which nobody could see or fully imagine until it was made, but in the intensive experience of making the apparatus in a repetitive, mundane nocturnal labor performed at home, the work ‘of many hands engaged in the working-through of a shared dream in waking life’ (Cartwright, 2012:53). As such it was an ’embodied enactment of a shared dream in the process of making a film, a process understood as a performance in its own right, rather than the laconic yield of a film’ (Cartwright, 2012: 50). Meanwhile other animators have discovered the efficiency of the celluloid paper, the possibility to flip stacks of images to preview motion (Crafton, 14x) and with the advent of phonography and sound in cinema, others among whom Walt Disney started experimenting with adding synchronized sound. These experiments, also taking place in home environments have been a source of joy and anticipation:

A couple of my boys could read music, and one of them could play a mouth organ. We put them in a room where they could not see the screen and arranged to pipe their sound into the room where our wives and friends were going to see the picture….The effect on our little audience was nothing less than electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion. I thought they were kidding me. So they put me in the audience and ran the action again. It was terrible, but it was wonderful! And it was something new!” – Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 34-35. quoted in Lessig, How big media uses…. 15).

This experiment resulted in Mickey Mouse, the first ‘Sound cartoon’ released in 1928 which reconfigured the production of animations by adding sound, color (the Technicolor) and by inventing the multiplanar camera that allowed a specific representation of motion1. The opening of Mickey Mouse starts with a statement praising the novelty of technology presenting the film as ‘Mickey Mouse Sound Cartoon” paying a tribute to the technology by stating that the sound has been recorded with a “Cinephone” system replaced in 1930 by an improved version of it: “Recorded by RCA Photophone” in “Building a building” that also states: “Walt Disney presents a Mickey Mouse. Licensed under Bray-Hurd Patents. Copyright MCMXXX Walt Disney Productions”. The significance of these statements is not only in the praise of technology and its significance in creating the cartoon – in difference from today, it does not feature a credit list with the people who contributed to the creation of the film being an evidence of obscuring of the tremendous labor behind their production, suggesting that the work of creative workers and artists has since long been a subject to exploitation and alienation. As such:

‘Objects of leisure, the automaton and the cinematic apparatus both hide the mechanism that reates movement, pretending to require no effort in representation or reception and creating the illusion that the graceful technical exhibition entertains automatically([Sobchack, 2009] – Guliana Bruno quoted in Sobchak) creating a still persisting tension between controlled, precise labor and the lively, plasmatic, playful qualities of animation (Herhuth, 2014).

Rationalising production and patenting media technology

While these forms of artistic experimentation with technology can be regarded as craft labor, representing a ‘cottage industry’ in the 1920s and 1930 where anyone with a camera, paper or celluloid, and drawing skills could mobilize family or friends to make an animated film ([Lamarre, 2009], 87) animation rapidly evolved to resemble an assembly-line requiring specialization and diversification of the labor, often associated with Disney’s Fordist production model ([Shortsleeve, 2004]). In the eve of restructuring the modes of production and going over industrial capitalism, the inventors of technology for animation became also among the pioneers in adopting Taylorism and fordist modes of production in the production of culture as a way to optimize the production process and meet the need for higher release rates to compete with the movie industry. Animation was carrying a potential for commercialisation by the appeal it had on audiences, and the early artists experimenting with technology were aware of this, but its potential has been initially inhibited by the tremendous labor and time involved in the production process (Crafton, 1993: 9).

From an artist and comic painter, John Bray became known as ‘The Henri Ford of animation’ (Crafton, 1993) who patented early on all known at the time techniques for animation production and required a license from other animators and prosecuted infringers (Crafton, 1993, see page). He also abandoned individual control over the production and introduced a division of labor – first by recruiting five artists to work at his farm in the countryside ‘five days a week so they could work without distraction’ and later establish a vertical division of labor that also involved recruitment and training of artists, as well as child and female labor for performing the most mundane tasks (Crafton, 147), and expanding the production he managed to release two cartoons a week (Crafton, see page). Fleischer brothers had similarly patented the rhotoscope, as Disney did with the multiplanar camera. However, the knowledge on the technology and the ability for its control and modification without cost has been highly beneficial for structuring the production process in relation to its functions. Moving from the craft and home based production the process of animation film production became “much as an automobile goes through an assembly plant” (qtd. in Watts 169). An article from the “Fortune” magazine in the 1930s praises the rationalisation of production in Disney’s studio as “ a twentiethcentury miracle is achieved: by a system as truly of the machine age as Henry Ford’s plant at Dearborn, true art is produced” (qtd. in Watts 167). The rationalisation of labor has resulted in the fragmentation of animation film production into many roles and divisions, structured in different departments and organised in “pipelines” where one task and department produced what the next department required. The labor division has also, not surprisingly for the historical time been gendered, with women and sometimes children working with least qualified tasks such as tracing characters on celluloid sheets and filling them with paint in the so called ‘Ink and Paint’ departments of the major animation studios, one of many things which has gradually resulted in animation worker strikes at Fleischer Studios, Schleisinger (the current Warner Bros), Disney and Territoons in the period 1937-1947 and arguably given birth to animation unions (Cohen, 2007). Some of the reasons for the strikes have been the insistence on obscuring labor by refusing to add animators’ work in the credits of the films (Shortsleeve, 2004) – the name of Disney himself and the technology have for long been the only attribution made despite the work of hundreds of people on the productions.

The rationalisation of labor, and patents of techniques for producing the specific type of Disney animation have been been vital for making possible the creation of the so called ‘The Fantasy Factory’ (Shortsleeve, 2004) that became a substantial foundation of the popular culture of the 20th century, to the extent that in popular discourse the cartoons by Disney are the synonymous of animation (wells, Understanding animation). As Scott Bukatman writes

“Animation as an idea speaks to life, autonomy, movement, freedom, while animation as a mode of production speaks to division of labor, precision of control, abundances of preplanning, the preclusion of the random” (Poetics of Slumberland, 108; italics in original).

The substantial labor that goes into animation is though obscured and made invisible once the animation film is produced – ‘is erased once that “spark of life” energizes the animated figure; a transfer of energy occurs: the creation is energized; the creator enervated. . . . Taylorist production is superseded by images and beings that seem to generate spontaneously.’ Scott Bukatman, ‘Disobedient machines: animation and autonomy’, in Ronald Hoffmann and Iain Boyd-Whyte (eds), Beyond the Finite: the Sublime in Art and Science (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, forthcoming, 2010). Animation is thus informed by ‘an aesthetics of effortlessness, the lighter side of the alienation of labour’ and informed less by the logic and rhetoric of rational efficiency (Sobchack, 2009)

Significant for this are slogans at the end of later Disney film credits such as ‘Our qualitiy assurance guarantee: 100% genuine animation! No motion capture or any other performance shortcuts were used in the production film” – representing this as craft while it was fordist labor.

From these examples of early history of animation film production emerge several things. Those who have had substantial impact and commercial success in the animation film and media entertainment industry have been the same people who have first developed or refined a particular technology for visual expression, and then retained the property and control of it – such as the rhotoscoping technique, Bray’s patents or Disney’s multiplanar camera. Later, the computer based experimentations between artists and technologists with visual technologies and graphical simulations led to the emergence of Pixar who still today controls their own developed production technology. In the same time commercial success has been largely driven by rationalization of labor, adoption of Fordist production models and obscuring the very laborous production by sublimating it ‘ in the pleasure of ‘magical thinking but Once the ‘lightning hand’ of early animators such as Emile Cohl and the Fleischer brothers disappeared from the screen, animators have ceded their visible ‘shamanic’ power, which reappears explicitly only occasionally in their own creations’ (Sobchack, 2009) The perception of mechanical and industrial labour as effortless (involving ‘little labour’) is here figured as particularly laborious – in contrast with the invisibility and effortlessness of labour as it is now phantasmatically perceived in relation to electronic technologies. (Sobchack, 2009).

Work in the creative industries today
The Tayloris and Fordist production models are still largely adopted in the creative industries of today. The media entertainment industry stands today for a large portion of the production of culture dominated by a small number of large corporations among which Sony, Time Warner, Disney-Pixar, Bertelsmann, News Corporation and Vivendi (Deuze, 2007: 59), du Gay – cultures of production, intro and a range of small producers operating in reference to them. A brief look at who are the giants (the seven or so) of media production today is enough to notice that all they engage with producing media that is highly sense-affective – audio-visual, and often with increased sense of realism, interactivity and directness.
These industries stand today for ‘symbolic production’ (Baudrillard – fr. Baudrillard and the media) through the production of aesthetic symbols and immaterial commodities ranging from cartoon characters, fictional protagonists of tv-series to brands and franchises that pack blocks of ‘culture’ to be sold and commodified across markets, repersenting cultural commodities entirely made of signs produced through signifying practices and producing value – economic and symbolic (Bolin, 2011). Their production, alongside with computer games production stand today for multi-billion industries that form a global hybrid industry that mixes art and programming and weaves it in the transnational production networks and serving ‘global’ audiences (Deuze et al 2007).

In scholarly discourse there are two terms that tend to be interchangably used when referring to the institutions and structures of cultural production – cultural industries, and creative industries. The latter one was introduced by the British Department of Culture and Sport in 1998, designating ‘those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property. This includes advertising, architecture, the art and antiques market, crafts, deign, designer fashion , film and video, interactive leisure software, music, the performing arts, publishing, software and computer games, television and radio’.

The cultural industries tends to be a broader term refferring to ‘a mix of commercial and publicly subsidised enterprises of television, film ,musc and publishing business in various institutuions known as ‘the media’ (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2010: 1)
Despite standing for a substantial part of cultural production and dissemination of meanings today, accounts for the work conditions in much of the entertainment media production industry have recently been subject of increased scholarly attention as center of precarious and alienated labor largely organised around hierarchical, Taylorist production structures in which alienation is suggested to take place in several ways. First, by copyright schemes in which the workers – be it artists, programmers, or generally, ‘craft’ workers such as technicians …. (Banks, 2010) are deprived from ownership of their work for an exchange of, often temporary employment and equipment provision as suggested from studies in the US animation film industry (Stahl, 2010)the computer game industry (Deuze et al., 2007) television production, music recording and magazine publishing (Banks, 2010; Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2010). Pressed in the tension to be creative and constantly producing novel content while beling alienated from job security and the right to the products of one’s own work which gets copyrighted and exploited on the market’ (Deuze et al., 2007; Stahl, 2010)of the new flexible capitalism (see Sennett’s book on this). In some industries such as game and animation production, computer game designers (Deuze et al., 2007) and character animators (Stahl, 2010) emerge with a glamour and potential promise to build reputations similar to the auteur film directors of the 1970s gaining recognition, self-realisation and creativity but in the end they become the basis of another form of exploitation (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2010: 7; Stahl, 2010) through using them as brands advertising the production companies.

On another hand, the organisation of work, especially in the animation film industry and television productions tends to still have the fordist structure of fragmented and organised into smaller units of narrow qualitification and in which management outsources work to lower paid workers to regions with lower cost of labor (Deuze, 2007; Lent 2001; see also DeLisle 2005; Scott 1988, 2005 – see in Stahl, 2010). The production of culture in these industries is argued to span across four axes of managing production: content, creativity, commerce and connectivity (Deuze, 2007: 57) in which the latter stands for the production of the technological platforms that enable outsourcing of tasks or the contribution of external labor, such as that of fans or audiences. The latter has been discussed substantially through the lens of the ‘free labor’ debate (Terranova, 2004) and conceptualised as practices of ‘co-creation’ where user or fan labor becomes, while inrinsicly affective and generating use value for its producers is simultaneously a generation of exchange-value in which audiences or fans are encouraged to contribute to productions while being deprived from remuneration, attribution and whose contribution simply becomes part of marketing and branding strategies (Karin Fast’s dissertation, (Andrejevic, 2008; Arvidsson, 2008; Cova et al., 2011; Roig et al., 2014).

The labor force consists primarily of free-lancers, part-time workers, and contingent employees (Deuze, 2007; Hesmondhalg?) who are split in managing constant tensions – between the requriments to constantly upgrade their qualificantions and skills, usually by do-it-yourself studies and tests in their spare time (Deuze, 2007; Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2010: 13), build portfolios (in a new portfolio culture – REF from Deuze), while in the same time be flexible and adopt the visions, policies and technologies at work in the projects and companies they engage.

In a free-lance system reputation is what people get hired through (Becker, 1982: 86) (how and where to use this??)
Some have argued that alienation is largely enabled by the institution of employment as such (stahl, 2010) which on one hand enables employers to disposess and when they deem as expedient manage artists as other kinds of workers; and on the other hand allows the employer to appropriate the intellectual property: ‘When workers are integrated into enterprises by way of employment (as opposed to independent contracting), the principle of institutionalized autonomy operates in conjunction with two other principles less studied by cultural industries researchers: the employment relation and employer appropriation of intellectual property’ (Stahl, 2010)

This creates, according to Stahl, the tension between the employment, seen as a “mode of insertion of cultural labor into the general process of production” (Miege 1989, p. 25 in Stahl), and the possibilities for creative autonomy within production frameworks dependent on rationalisation and effictivisation of production in order to speed it up. Ideas for other organisation of work and production in less alienating ways have been seen as emerging possibly from the free and open source software movement, but doubted as unfeasible due to the lack of clarity on how could free distribution of content and volunteer labor possibly generate the income needed to fund and sustain the production. (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2010).
Yet, one can discuss also the question of to what extent t is today’s creative indusries power to alienate workers and keep their solitary power a result of the possibility to obscure and control technology in a society which has progressively decreased its expectations towards the opacity of technology and media. And to what extent technological opacity when combined with labor opacity becomes an even greater means for alienation and controlling cultural production, causing anxiety and senses of unfreedom. While undoubtedly the axes of managing production are spanning across at least those four that Deuze outlined, that of technology is missing. Thus, accounts of the work in the cultural industries tend to seldom engage in the relation between the politics of technological development and ownership of cultural production and the organisation of agency of creative work, and as such – the contemporary premises for establishing a relationship between technology and (popular) art; or craft and art. The studies on the work in the cultural industries reaffirm the partition between the two, a partition which can be traced to Romanticism and which has been strengthened and reproduced to a substantial scale through industrial capitalism, pushing artisanal practice to the margins of cultural production. In the same time it is neglected the importance of technological development for structuring the artistic and creative production – not only aesthetically but also organisationally and economically.


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Author: Julia Velkova
The license of these drafts is Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.
Any thoughts on factual errors, constructive criticism or other ideas are welcome, either by emailing them to jv or by posting in the comment thread.

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