Sunday 30 March 2014

Editorial: In Animation, Anonymity is the Brand that Sells

"From the creators of:" Disney and Pixar are big selling points, but the directors rarely get a mention
in animated film marketing. As opposed to what we see in live-action.

When you hear about an animated film, you don't hear who's directing it but rather the name of the studio that's doing it. Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, among others, are studios that sell their films through the power of their respective brands but who rarely name the human talent behind the projects. For the record, I don't condemn that practice as people have come to expect a certain level of excellence when they hear a new film is coming from Pixar or Disney, but I think that this  kind of anonymity has contributed to the general disregard that animated films are an "easy" thing to do; leading to not taking the people behind them seriously.

While I think it is impossible to know every single person that has worked on a film (animated or live-action), the director is usually a very visible face, but, in animation, that face is still hidden by the power of the brand. When was the last time you heard something like "From Academy Award Winning Director Brad Bird?" However, in live-action, the names of famous directors are always mentioned in all marketing material (Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, etc.). Even high profile animation directors like John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Ron Clements, John Musker, etc., who have directed many popular animated films, are not as widely recognized as their live-action counterparts.

These CalArts graduates, now animation directors, have generated over $26
billion at the worldwide box-office. Yet, to general moviegoers, they're relatively
unknown. (Credit: Vanity Fair)

Passionate fans obviously recognize these people and then some, but if you ask the average moviegoer who directed The Little Mermaid, few will know the answer. The same can be said for The Incredibles, Toy Story, The Lion King and others. People will certainly know the films and the studio that released them but not the directors or other people behind them. When you ask "who directed Pacific Rim?" Most people will say Guillermo del Toro.

This anonymity practice is nothing new. Walt Disney employed it all the time. When he made animated films, his name was the one that people recognized and, up to this day, that practice still continues. I'm not questioning Walt's talent or vision - which were spectacular - but not many people know who the "nine old men" were, and certainly wouldn't be able to identify the names David Hand or Clyde Geronimi if their lives depended on it.

Nowadays it's exactly the same. The movies are built by the studio's prestige but there are no names in the promotional ads. In all Pixar films you can see the slogan "From the creators of..." but never something like "From Pete Docter, director of Up and Monsters, Inc., comes Inside Out". It's not only Pixar, all the studios employ the same strategy. Even the little ones like Laika. I distinctly remember when Coraline was being released, the slogan was "From the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas" and most people still think, to this day, that Coraline was directed by Tim Burton (and they think Nightmare was too). Burton is an exception to the rule mainly because he has done many popular live-action films and his name sells. However, I don't see any harm in including animation directors' names in the marketing. You can say "From Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3" and people will go because it's a Pixar film and related to Toy Story 3, which is one of the most popular films of all time. I'm not saying we should disregard the publicity strategy currently used, rather, make a few tweaks here and there. It's perfectly okay to put the studio behind the film and the director's name on the posters. I don't think that will hurt the marketing at all. It may even improve it. This is not about fame, but about fair recognition. Both Up and Toy Story 3 were nominated for Best Picture but neither Docter nor Unkrich were nominated for Best Director. Why is that? Because people do not quite grasp how an animated film is made and, by hiding the people who work on it, the situation just worsens. When they see an animated film, the Academy and the general audience see the studio but not the people.

"A company is like an enormous clock. It only works if all the little cogs mesh

I love how film is a collaborative process, but I also think that some level of individuality has to be considered, because otherwise it all just looks like cogs in a big machine. The directors, who are responsible for putting everything together and guiding an entire team of people to work towards a unique vision, should be recognized for their efforts. Yes, they are given the Best Animated Feature Award but, in the end, most people remember the film that was awarded and not the directors. (How many people can name the directors of Frozen? Not many I'd guess.)

Animation has always struggled to be taken as more than just "kiddie-fare" or a different genre from live-action. Many efforts have been taken to change that perspective, but one pivotal thing is to start recognizing the people behind these films. They should be not only recognised by their peers, but by the general public, so that when you're talking about a film and you say the name Henry Selick, people will know who that is instead of just scratching their heads. Recognising the human talent is the only way for the medium to blossom into a better future.


  1. Renard N. Bansale31 March 2014 at 06:59

    Too true, this article.

    Often when it comes to animation, the producer/studio/brand handily overtakes the director. Even Pixar, whose films express the vision of their director, has this. Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki have really been the only party to really emphasize the role of the director in animation.

    This reminded me when Hayao Miyazaki was asked about his reaction to people comparing him to Walt Disney. Miyazaki disapproves of this comparison, saying something along the lines of "Walt Disney is a PRODUCER; I'm a DIRECTOR."

    Bringing the topic to the Oscars, we animation aficionados always clamor for when an animated film will finally WIN Best Picture. Now, I am an animation fan through and through, but the Academy Awards and the awards season also factors into my love for cinema--not the vanity and glamor of the awards but how people behave and vote and agree and disagree and campaign when it comes to pinning down the consensus best films, performances, scripts, and artistic/technical craft efforts of the previous year of cinema.

    As an amateur Oscar pundit, it is COMMON SENSE that the Best Picture be AT LEAST nominated for Best Director (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Best Film Editing). Personally, I can propose a dozen instances since 1980 where an animated film, if the medium had been taken more seriously as it is today, could've and should've earned its director(s) a Best Director nomination. An animated film has slim-to-none chances without these crucial craft nominations.

    As such, I really think this article has a point. Animation studios NEED to start emphasizing the INDIVIDUAL standout accomplishments of animated films, ESPECIALLY THE DIRECTOR(s), in order to gain more stature. After all, our now-retired(?) Miyazaki ain't the only ANIMATION AUTEUR in cinematic history.

  2. Munir Abedrabbo31 March 2014 at 22:08

    Agreed! Miyazaki, like Burton, is an exception mainly because in Japan he's a big deal (as he should be) and one of the few people in animation that's also recognizable in the western hemisphere. You can see his name in the Studio Ghibli BDs (distributed by Disney) but, ironically, if you check other Ghibli films that are not directed by him, all it says is "From the studio that brought you Spirited Away" and the anonymity strategy is back again.

  3. Great article! I recently noticed that Mr. Peabody and Sherman got "from the director of The Lion King". I found it kind of funny, because no regular Joe would know Rob Minkoff. (Or Roger Allers). But I think that was done in the same vein as the Coraline marketing. People won't know the director, but they will know the film and expect the same kind of quality. But I think announcing folks like Brad Bird, Pete Docter et al would be a step in the right direction.