Saturday 9 May 2020

Forget Banking. Draw Gabby Instead

An animator getting paid the same as a bank president?


That unusual theory was propounded in one of a number of newspaper features in the wake of the release of Gulliver’s Travels. I suspect it generated more laughs amongst the staff at the Fleischer studio than the Gabby or Stone Age shorts they soon found themselves making.

Max Fleischer talked with the New York Herald Tribune’s Tom Waller about the genuine need for more people in the animation, and training for them. With his company making features, Disney making features and a number of studios turning out a regular series of animated shorts, Fleischer knew there weren’t enough people to make them.

Even then, drawing was just one aspect. Characters had to move and they had to show their personality through movement (including expression). The rubber hose of the 1930s wouldn’t do by the end of the decade; Walt Disney’s people had raised the bar.

(Of course, there were other parts in the animation industry. One person left banking and became a cartoon story writer. He ended up making more than a bank president. He was Joe Barbera).

This version of the story appeared in the November 23, 1939 edition of one paper; a cut down version showed up a day later in the Miami News (I cannot find the Trib’s original copy). It appears to have a dropped word which I have added.

Talent Needed For Animated Cartoon Work
Special From the New York Herald Tribune to The Dayton Daily News
NEW YORK, Nov. 23.— Only when colleges become sufficiently cartoon-conscious to recognize the value of a new course, and artistically young men and women are made to realize that “acting at the end of pencil” often pays the wages of a bank president, will the drawn characters in feature-length cartoons become serious rivals of the flesh and blood players who act today before Hollywood cameras.
This is true, according to filmdom's oldest producer of animated cartoons, Max Fleischer, who originated the “Out of the Inkwell” screen strip over 20 years ago. He declares that mass production of such long cartoons as “Gulliver's Travels” and “Snow White” and “Pinnochio” is today handicapped virtually to the point of being stymied by this dearth of men and women who can drain acting ability from system to fingertips then transfer it successfully to celluloid.
While this condition exists the American film industry, [he] reports[,] will be lucky if it can turn out two full length cartoons a year. The ones made so far have been in the process of production two years or more. So the time is not in mind—at least in the professional screen cartoon mind—when Gullivers and Snow Whites can be popped into theaters at a speed comparable to the 400 feature pictures Hollywood grinds out in the course of a single production year. In fact, opines this veteran, it may well not be until some future generation that the film industry will be able to obtain enough skilled animators; that the question of mass feature-length cartoon production and when it will start might then be answered with a degree of accuracy.
Young folks feeling around for a career, and hearing on all sides that law is over-crowded and medicine is worse, that there are too many stenographers and too much regimentation among bricklayers, have a field almost to themselves in screen animation. The jobs pay $200 a week, and up. But, reminds Fleischer, like everything else that is worthwhile, talent and technical training go hand in hand. One is worthless without the other; that why he stresses the need for many colleges to consider this field and include the essentials of it in their curriculum, making this available to all students who show promise of becoming professional animators.
In the entire world today there are less than 500 first-class animators, men who can do all of the original drawings for all of the cartoons that are projected on theater screens, reports Fleischer. Since he opened his studio in Miami, incidentally, the only branch of the film industry to become permanently established in Florida and away from Hollywood, this producer has interested local art schools to the point where they have introduced classes in animation which now have as many as 200 students. Some of these students today are working on "Gulliver's Travels," now in the last stage of production since it is scheduled to make its world premier during the Christmas holidays.
Some 40 odd class animators and as many assistants, as well as 600 other persons in various capacities, have worked on this picture which entered production in May, 1938, almost a year before the Fleischer studios moved from New York to Miami. Fleischer, himself, figures it takes between five and six years of training to become an animator and another two to four years to rate really as a master craftsman.
When youngsters start from the ground up in his plant, Fleischer makes them opaquers or in-betweeners, which identifies them generally as copyists. The pay is small and the work nerve-wracking, but every day their copy is scrutinized and they are promoted according to their persistence and adaptability. Naturally, failures are in the majority, as they are in many other walks of life. Out of an average group of 60 persons, 20 may be selected to "show what they can do" as assistant animators. Of these 20 the average that makes the grade is not over eight.
Thus, as Fleischer points out, under the present set-up the American film industry is way behind in the matter of talented animators and with little means to establish the machinery which Hollywood has, for instance, in obtaining new talent for the screen. While a talent scout ran get a fairly good idea of whether a legitimate actress will make a go of things before the camera, after simply-watching her in stage show, a talent hunter for animators—if there were such a man—wouldn't get very far by viewing some art class at work, since the best landscape artist, according to Fleischer, often would fail dismally if he were suddenly confronted with the many geometrical and action problems which are a part of every good animator's job.


  1. Assuming $200 a week was the starting pay for an animator in 1939, as the article suggests, it may not be stretching it to say animators made more than bank presidents. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a $10,400 annual salary ($200 times 52 weeks) in 1939 is equivalent to $191,742.57 in 2020. Of course, that's undoubtedly for the top echelon of animators, not lower levels like in-betweeners.

  2. Shamus Culhane in his autobiography, along with Leonard Maltin and Michael Barrier in their books, noted how hard it was for the Flieschers to fill the needed talent pool in Miami with capable animators, not simply for the ramp-up to Gulliver but because some of the studio's key people had opted not to leave New York for Florida. That likely meant he was paying a premium to get people to Florida, including those like Culhane who were making the move from the West Coast.

  3. Hans Christian Brando9 May 2020 at 17:30

    I'd always read that in the 1930s a beginning animator made between $15 and $18 a week, which you could actually kind of live on then. Many other sources have cited the inadvisability of the Fleischers' move to Florida, but at least it was probably cheaper to live there than in New York (and California was Disney's turf). The real blunder was the subject choices for the features: if they'd done a sure-fire Popeye feature first (the "Ali-Baba" two-reeler could have been expanded into a funny, adventurous 75 minutes), they'd have made a fortune and been in a position to properly train the expanded staff to tackle a Superman feature (making expensive shorts in which where was no real money made no sense at all) a couple of years later. Then, if Max and Dave could have presented a pretense of a united front as far as Paramount was concerned, their studio might have survived. Heigh-ho: coulda-woulda-shoulda.