I have two definitions of history which I keep coming back to in my mind.
1. History is what was known once but has been forgotten.
2. History is the present’s interpretation of the past.
— Luke McKernan, “Media and cultural memory – day three.” The Bioscope. 8 July 2011.
One of the classes I teach at the Savannah College of Art and Design is Animation Studio I, in which I attempt to teach MFA students how to do the written part of their theses. (At SCAD, MFA students are expected to make a festival-quality film and write a related, conference-quality paper that explores some theoretical aspect of their film.) In so doing, I often use examples of my own writings. I realized, though, that I have rarely discussed in much detail the process of writing animation history, which seems rather strange, as I am now writing three books, of which two are histories and the third uses of history to fashion some of its points. So, I thought this might provide an opportunity to lay out some thoughts about some of the ways I have approached animation history.
I should first point out that I’m one of these historians who believes that history is a branch of literature with footnotes. In other words, I try to tell a story. It’s not that I ignore the traditional scholarly apparatus, but I don’t see this as being incompatible with good writing.
The book I’ve been working on longest is an expansion of my doctoral dissertation, Popeye the Union Man, which deals with the early years of animation unions in New York , into a full-blown history of the Screen Cartoonists Guild. Then there is Animation Renaissance, a history of American animation from ca. 1970 to some recent, undetermined date. The third, which I’m writing with my wife Vickie, is The Social Life of Filmmakers. I have had the privilege of presenting papers based on all three at various SAS conferences, so a few of you may be familiar with some of their content.
The Popeye book is a rather straightforward history based on oral history interviews, historical documents and contemporary publications, as well as various historical studies. Although the 1937 Fleischer strike was a part of family lore (my father was on the picket line), researching and writing the book mostly seemed like a journalistic exercise: Find and interview the participants, look at the relevant documents and construct a narrative. In many ways, it was done in a way not too dissimilar to the ways I later wrote newsy pieces for the likes of The Hollywood Reporter and Animation Magazine, though I did add some theoretical arguments gleaned from Donald Crafton to shape my analysis.
By comparison, I thought the Renaissance would be much simpler and easier to do. After all, I was not only a witness to the events I want to write about, but I was also an animation journalist during much of the time I wanted to write about. Hey, I thought, it should a piece of cake—compile and organize my notes, stories and interviews, fill in a few gaps and refresh my memories by looking at films and TV shows, then start writing. That, however, is not the way it’s been working out. The gaps were not so few and attempts to fill them in unveiled a lot more nooks and crannies than I bargained for.
Thus, while I was aware of the little-known fact that Hanna-Barbera was the first Hollywood studio to use digital ink and paint, I did not realize that checking up on this would lead me to people (such as computer animation pioneer Rebecca Allen) whose stories were lost to the narrative of animation history. I also was aware of the role played by such members of the movie brat generation as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, as well as the part played by the likes of Sheridan College and CalArts; however, when I started to put the facts together, I realized there might be a stronger connection between the emergence of film schools in the 1960s and strong character animation programs soon thereafter.
The Social Life book came about by accident, after my wife, a lapsed artist and professor of education, commented on a blog posting I wrote, which made me realize I was unknowingly writing about social practice theory (SPT) for lo these many years. This led us to write a paper for SAS (a second is to follow this year) and the realization we could also write a book about it.
SPT provides a way to describe and think about the way people work, sometimes explaining the obvious, in very precise language, in ways which we don’t notice; it’s basically using the tools of anthropology to explain the communities of practice or discourses people engage in. In our case, it was the way animation filmmakers define themselves and their art. By using this approach, we were able to better understand various aspects of animation history. For instance, why it is that drawing is so important to an animator’s identity and why is the metanarrative of character animation so tied up with drawn animation. This has, in turn, led me to rethink some of my assumptions about my other books, especially my history of the Screen Cartoonists Guild.
In any case, if there’s one truism I have learned about writing animation history is that I realize that there is a lot out there that has, in Luke McKernan’s words, been forgotten and that the way one attempts to recover those memories has a lot to do about how it is written.
Harvey Deneroff, a Professor of Animation at SCAD-Atlanta, has a special interest in labor-management issues, including the history of animation unions. The first editor of Animation Magazine and Animation World Magazine, he edited and published The Animation Report, and his writings have appeared in Film History, The Hollywood Reporter, Animatoon, Sight and Sound, and in several books. He wrote The Art of Anastasia (1997) and helped Fred Ladd write Astro Boy and Anime Come to the Americas (2008). He was Festival Director of the Week With the Masters Animation Celebration, in India, organized the Ojai Animation Conference, and founded SAS in 1987.