Commentary
The Animation Echo Chamber
© Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Emru Townsend · April 23, 2006 | I usually don't read press kits for more than a few seconds. (Who played One-Armed Thug #3? Flip, flip. Oh, yeah.) I was disillusioned when I saw my very first, for The Lion King. There was some little tidbit—it might have been Jeremy Irons's nod to his earlier portrayal of Claus von Bülow ("You have no idea," says Scar)—that many entertainment reporters had commented on in their reviews. I was surprised to see that same tidbit in the press kit. In that instant, it was crystal clear how it worked: Disney says "This is so clever." Reporters parrot, "This is so clever." (And since they don't mention the press kit, the corollary is, "I'm so clever.") The public reads the article and thinks, "Disney is so clever (and maybe the entertainment reporter is too)."

It was my first lesson in Hollywood movie public relations (PR), and it sickened me—a feeling that hasn't gone away since then, as I've learned more about how the machine works. You see, I firmly believe that how something is reported affects public perception of that thing more than the fact that it's reported at all. In the political/cultural arena, that same belief manifests itself in accusations of liberal bias and right-wing spin control, but curiously people don't consider that the principle applies in other areas as well.

In American feature animation, the effect has been especially pernicious. Because the process of animation is so mysterious to most people, the sheer scale of the labour involved is enough to impress most of the public. All you've got to do is whip a few numbers on 'em and you've blown their mind. Just two weeks ago, someone asked me how many drawings an animated short would require. I didn't even hesitate, rattling off the magic 14,400 figure (10 minutes, 60 seconds per minute, 24 drawings per second)—the same example I've used for about twenty years, garnering the same reaction I've been getting for about twenty years.

The thing is, it's not really the fault of the person asking the question. The press kit for The Wild has a "Wild Facts" section that mentions, in among its many other quote-worthy tidbits, the number of hairs on Samson the lion, the number of hairs on a poodle character, the number of work hours required to create the movie, and the number of feathers animated for all the birds in the film. And peppered throughout the press kit are facts about the number of artists and technicians, voice actors' comments about playing their characters, crafting the songs, and every damn impressive-sounding credential they could find for the director and the cast. Near the beginning of the press kit is a plot summary of The Wild; it's only slightly longer than the description of The Sentinel in Keifer Sutherland's bio. Which movie are we supposed to be reading about?

The American feature market has evolved to the point where PR stresses the technical aspects of animation and the star power of its cast over anything else. There is a certain logic to that, as celebrities are more likely to attract attention when they do the publicity circuit for the movie. And, of course, impressive-sounding numbers make a great crutch for animation-ignorant writers to lean on. But there's a cost to this kind of lazy thinking.

Ever hear of the "echo chamber" effect? Lately it's been used to describe the navel-gazing nature of the blogosphere, where constant self-reference within the medium leads to an exaggerated sense of relevance. The same thing has happened here. As the studios' PR machines emphasize star power and technical wizardry at the expense of just about everything else, the press tends to report mostly on star power and technical wizardry at the expense of just about everything else. This affects the questions that are asked when reporters actually manage to corner someone who worked on a given movie, and in turn affects the information that PR people think the public wants to hear. The side effect is that this affects the decisions that studios make in the process of actually creating the movies. Though I can't fault the work of The Wild's vocal cast, I still have to question the need to cast celebrities at all—there's little that they brought to their roles that other people who do voice work for a living couldn't have provided. (The exceptions are William Shatner and Patrick Warburton, whose Kazar and Blag characters were overplayed exactly right.) On a grander level, the fetishization of CGI is what helped convince studio heads that audiences love anything CGI, when they really just like being entertained by good stories. Furthermore, the wilful encouragement of animation ignorance on the part of the press, the public, and the PR machine only furthers the notion that there's nothing else worth mentioning when it comes to animated films. When was the last time you saw an article obsessing over the number of lighting rigs, gaffers, or frames of film that went into the making of a live-action movie?

If we want to foster more respect for the animated film, and thereby allow for a broader diversity in storytelling and subject matter, we have to demand a change in the conversation. Because this industry ultimately won't go anywhere if the studios and the press spend more time admiring the parts, and not their sum.
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