How Art Erases Artists – A Labour Day Special
Can pursuing a career in art rob you of your humanity?
Happy labour day! It's September 4th, 2023.
In Canada, we've been celebrating Labour Day since 1894 and today – almost 130 years later – we're in the middle of multiple extremely prominent strikes and worker's actions taking place around the world.
Here in Ontario, we have librarian's striking for fairer pay, saying "half of the library’s staff have quit during the past two years due to poor working conditions". The municipality they are hoping to negotiate with is unwilling to bargain and are instead pushing for arbitration.
We also saw Grocery Store workers striking while the monopolistic corporations running the grocery industry in Canada posted record profits. The "heroes" of the pandemic had their "hero pay" taken away (in a transparent case of corporate collusion and wage-fixing that somehow wasn’t illegal up to that point) and are now needing to strike to get the executives to share the immense wealth they're hoarding – while many people are struggling to pay for food, of course.
That's just a few big labour stories happening near us here in Ontario. Around the world, it feels like we're reaching a tipping point on wealth inequality – and as usual, unionized workers are the first ones to stand up and fight for things to get fairer.
Maybe most prominently, the WGA and SAG unions are both in the middle of a historic strike in Hollywood, demanding simple things like job security, to keep their wages from being reduced through shortened contracts and streaming killing residuals, to actually receive health insurance and to not be replaced by machine learning programs. It’s pretty basic stuff, actually.
As these strikes have gone on, it's been very interesting to watch public discourse grapple with the issue of creative labour rights. The fact that these two prominent strikes involve writers and actors seems to bring up the question of what it actually means to "work" in a creative industry. All this despite the fact that the companies these artists work for make billions of dollars leveraging that creative work for profit.
The good news is that, anecdotally to me, at least, it seems like most people support these strikes. The fact that so many creative people are standing up for labour rights is a real inspiration to me, and I'm happy to see a majority of people realize that this is a good thing. We have nothing to gain when we pretend corporations and billionaires are on our side – if you're reading this, unions are on your side and corporations literally don't care if you live or die. That’s just how this works.
And so, to celebrate Labour Day and this era of historical labour action in the face of unfathomable economic inequality, as well as the ongoing attempts to automate creativity and artistic expression, let’s talk about cartoons.
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Stop-motion animation is the art of the proletariat. 3D animation is the product of the bourgeoisie.
Look, I get it, I love 3D animation, too. I love watching it, and I love making it. This isn't an attack on artists working with computers, but it is an observation about how some art forms can (unless we try to avoid it) work against artist's best interests. Hear me out.
"Disney Magic" is a Tool to Erase the Hand of the Artist
When I was still in University , I attended the TAAFI Animation Jobs Fair in Toronto (TAAFI and that event are both quite awesome – this isn’t an indictment of either). I showed up along with my animation reel to show to some studios to see if I could start getting rejected for jobs in the animation industry.
I already knew this, but being there solidified for me that there exists this "school to studio stylistic pipeline" in the animation and games industries, and I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it.
There's a philosophy that permeates the animation industry (and other arts/entertainment industries) that, if you want to work at a specific studio, you should be applying with a portfolio of work that is already in their style and up to their standards. Want to work for Nelvana? You'd better have some great examples of children's cartoons in the style that they're currently producing. What about Ubisoft? If your reel isn't already realistic games animation, you'll get the feedback that your reel needs more realistic games animation. It seems obvious, right? But the effect is that students stop working on discovering how they want to express themselves and instead work on shaping themselves to fit the best corporate mould there is that seems to suit the kind of work they might want to do for the rest of their lives. Rather than having studios looking at artist's work and seeing how their ideas and skills could contribute to the value of their studio, they instead look to see if these young artists have prepped themselves properly to create the thing they're already selling – if not, they tell them to come back once they’ve better trained themselves for the job.
The downstream effect of this is that, once you're hired and working at Dreamworks or Pixar or Disney, your own unique artistic voice has been mutated into something that better fits the more marketable, branded and (you bet your ass) copyrighted style of the corporation's products. I don't mean to put down the artists working for these companies (get that money, baby!). This is the reality that the industry has set up for them. Remember that as we go – I'm always on the side of artists and workers here. This isn’t artist’s fault.
Instead, I see this as an insidious force coming from within these too-powerful corporate studios to try to eliminate unique, inspiring voices so that they can reach a point where all artists are entirely replaceable. Who cares if the artists working in games, animation or VFX are routinely overworked and burnt out to the point that they need to leave the industry they thought they loved? There's always more of them, more young artists who have trained themselves to our exact style and workflow. More eager, inspired artists waiting outside to be the next ones to be ground down and discarded when they inevitably burn out themselves. There's an unending supply of passionate workers already set up to make our products for us. If we fired them all today and replaced them with cheaper artists from countries with less labour rights, nobody in the audience would notice. That's the point – their individual ideas and unique voices don't matter.
If individual artists did matter, then that would give them too much power.
These studios create art that resonates with people, and as those people are inspired to create art themselves, those same studios establish the narrative that pushes all these inspired young artists to mould themselves into a perfect cog – calibrated, tested and up to spec to slip into the machine when an old part needs replacing with as little downtime as possible.
The result isn't just a bunch of young artists on a conveyor belt being fed into a machine of exploitation (though that is one of the results). It's also that it begins to erase the role of the artists in this work altogether.
When a new movie comes out of a studio like Pixar, we identify it as exactly that – it's a Pixar movie – not a movie by a particular person or group of people, but a movie in the style of a company. As far as we're concerned, maybe no people worked on the movie at all. Maybe we can imagine a future where that becomes the truth, and a company just generates new movies on a fixed schedule in their copyrighted style - no messy artists required. That used to seem kind of far-fetched, but now artists are literally on strike about it.
Either way, the cultural result is an industry that increasingly identifies creativity on the part of brands and corporations, while the actual labour that goes into the work is formalized and anonymized – the hand of the artist becoming less discernible with every new rendering engine and every new leap in technological efficiency.
The inherent humanity of stop-motion animation.
In a way that feels very closely tied to the rise of labour action in recent years, there has also been a rise of stop-motion animation production in movies. Studios like Laika have built their whole business around stop-motion, while directors like Wes Anderson have embraced it as a medium for specific films.
When I sat down to watch Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio at the Playhouse Cinema here in Hamilton, I felt lucky to see it in theatres, since it was a Netflix produced movie with a limited theatrical release that most would only be able to watch at home. I was excited about the movie, as a fan of del Toro’s, and I expected something beautiful and entertaining. I didn’t, however, expect to be radicalized by it, but that’s exactly what happened and where the seed of this whole idea was planted.
Pinocchio is a stop-motion film that not only came out in 2022, but that also won an Academy Award for animation. It’s a “kids movie” that depicts war, alcoholism and death. Like all of del Toro’s films, it’s a movie about humanity – the messiness and beauty of living and feeling. The choice of stop-motion animation for a movie about humanity isn’t a coincidence. It seems that this art form that was pioneered over one hundred years ago still resonates with us to this day. I would argue that it always will, because stop-motion animation is inherently human.
Stop-motion animation is an art form deeply connected to its process. This fact was likely not always true, but as hand-drawn, then digital 2D and 3D animation, motion capture and procedural animation have all eclipsed the stop-motion technique, the mere use of stop-motion now feels like a statement about the process itself.
When King Kong was released in 1933, many film-making techniques that now feel quaint were pioneered for the first time. It was likely the first time a lot of people had seen stop-motion animation on screen, and I doubt they thought much about the labour at that time – instead being mesmerized or horrified by the monsters coming to life in front of their eyes.
Now, ninety years later, the animation in King Kong feels primitive and in many ways juvenile by comparison to what we see every day on TV. We can play video games rendered in real-time on our phones that bring more complex creatures to life – creatures we can then control. But as I watch King Kong today, while I find it hard to imagine seeing it in 1933 and being enraptured by its realism, I do still find myself in awe of the effects in the movie. I'm in awe of the work that went into it. I'm in awe of the artistry and labour that created each frame of unreality.
That's what stop-motion can do in this day and age. It is a process that we understand as impossibly laborious. Every frame of animation is meticulously planned and considered. Every potential mistake risks a cascading ripple-effect of errors that need to be accounted for and avoided. There are puppets, made by hand and machine, that have articulating metal skeletons, wire tendons, hand-painted skin and hand-stitched costumes. We see sets built to an impossible scale, with detail in every corner – there's a tiny pair of glasses made of wire and a tree with individual leaves glued in place.
The amount of effort that goes into it is staggering, and understanding how the film is made leads us to a specific realization: This was made by people.
Yada-yada-yada "computers," yada-yada-yada "CGI"
The more you learn about any art form, the more you find it staggering that anything gets finished at all. 3D animation, visual effects and video games all share this quality. When you dig into how these industries actually do the work they do, you start to appreciate how complicated the systems are that create the effects in the latest Minions movie, or how much time must go into the latest Fortnite update, or the amount of effort that goes into just removing Toronto or Vancouver's skyline from the background of most of your favourite movies set in the United States.
Every day incredibly skilled artists are doing work like this, solving impossible problems on unimaginably tight deadlines and innovating every step of the way.
But the thing about this kind of work is that, since it's done on a computer, most of us can just hand-wave it away. You can see people talk all the time about how movies have "too much CGI," as though they imagine there are still any movies made in 2023 that haven't been entirely worked-over and refined by artists on computers. "CGI" and "computers" become catch-all euphemisms used as a way of discounting the effort and labour that goes into the work done in these fields, and often that discounting happens in our heads – we don't even talk about it. We don't even consider the work in the first place – let alone the rights or needs of the people doing that work.
But stop-motion is different. Stop-motion insists that you consider the labour that goes into it. It revels in the Sisyphean effort of making a character walk across a room. It shows you something incredible and forces you to think about how much work it was to make it happen. You can't hand-wave the effort away, because you can see the fingerprints of the sculptors in the clay of the character's head. You can see the brush strokes on the walls, the stitches in the tiny costumes, the cotton ball clouds and the tiny, hand bound books. You see it all and you can't ignore the human effort behind it all. You can't imagine the time it took to make it but you try to – you can feel the time it took to make it.
Everyone works hard. We just appreciate some people's hard work more.
Don't take any of this as a judgement about what work is more worthwhile or who is a "real" artist. The thing I want to point out is how the tools most of us use these days add a layer of abstraction between our labour and our audience's perception of our labour. The perceived value of the work we do is in many ways tied to people's understanding of the work that we do – the more removed people get from that understanding, the easier it is to devalue the work. This is part of how we've ended up where we have and why artists fighting for their own worker's rights has never been more important.
That's why I think stop-motion animation is so valuable now. Any art that forces us to confront the effort that goes into the entertainment we consume creates a seed of understanding in the audiences of all art. If someone would still go to the effort of making a movie that way in this day and age, then maybe making the new Pixar movie wasn't so simple after all... maybe there are people making those movies, too!
This obviously isn't all on the consumers of art, though. Some studios make a concerted effort to obfuscate the role of artists in the creation of their products. People with power in the industry can make a difference, though, like Guillermo del Toro making a point of crediting the animators of the characters in Pinocchio alongside the more famous and marketable actors playing their voices.
As artists, we can make a difference, too, by forcing people to recognize where our work comes from, the way that game designers like Zach Gage and Bennett Foddy do, by putting their names front and centre on their games so people know humans made them. The appeal of making yourself seem bigger by taking on a "studio" name actually works against people having the chance to empathize with you as a human being. I say you should own the fact that you’re just a person making incredible things. Isn’t that more incredible?
So, Happy Labour Day, everyone! I hope this helps some people see the value in the creative work that they do and that maybe, in another 130 years, we can all celebrate Labour Day as a society with a much more even spread of wealth, support and opportunity. The only way we can get there, though, is if we hold eachother up and demand better – we can't do it by fitting the mould of the status-quo or by cutting each other down.
With eternal solidarity,
Links & Thinks
I embedded it above, but I'll take as many opportunities as I can to call-out Hidari, the incredible stop-motion project from director Masashi Kawamura and a truly insanely talented team of artists. They've created this short film to help promote and finance a feature-length film of the same concept. Like I said above, the amount of effort that goes into work like this is unimaginable and their goal of doing an entire movie like this is something I can't even fathom. Best of luck!
Adam Conover's Podcast interview with two other WGA writers about the strike was both entertaining and very educational. He's been doing some great videos from the picket line, too.
The idea of studios moulding people into the perfect employees through their hiring processes is related to the idea of how online platforms shape the kind of work we create. For example, do you think all filmmakers using TikTok to reach a wider audience want to be making vertical video? This quote from the YouTube creator Lily Alexandre's video "Everything Is Sludge: Art in the Post-Human Era" does a great job encapsulating this idea:
It's true that these days regular people create a lot of the most popular art. But what we create - the actual content of it - is molded by a very small number of companies, who's interests often go against our own.
That whole video is fascinating and kind of freaky – I highly recommend it.
Finally, on the topic of internet platforms and the places most of us now create art, this video from Patrick Willems on the rise of the word "Content" is incredibly cathartic (as someone who similarly loathes that word as we use it now) and feels important to this topic, too.
Own what you do, and don't reduce yourself and your work to chaff that fills the platform's bucket. Your art has meaning – it isn't just filler.