New Magic to Be Made

On the Lure of Animation

“Test,” 2019, by Steven Orner.

Consider me the spiritual type. I don’t think there are many genuine coincidences. I believe in angel numbers and divine timing. I believe in synchronicity and alignment. It’s safe to say that I have always believed in magic.

There are so few places you can go to get it these days. You can visit your local metaphysical store, travel to somewhere with little light pollution, or enter a church—or a bedroom. You can also turn to media, where magic has always existed.

Most people like to complain about believability when they see a film or show, but they still watch, nonetheless. They can’t turn away from the magic of good neighbors, of unprecedented luck, or of sympathetic cops. It all pulls them in with the promise of something better.

I got my magic from animation. It wasn’t all wholesome films or kid-friendly plot lines. It started with Arthur leading the charge of public access television, Bloo and Mac screaming their energy down the halls of Foster’s, and Huey and Riley’s angst and speeches, which I wouldn’t understand for years to come.

It was the only space that admitted time and time again that anything could happen. Yes, an animal could be smashed by an anvil and pop back to normal in just a few seconds. Someone’s mouth could stretch to ridiculous proportions and vacuum up as much food as they could inhale. It also refused to put a limit on the types of stories you could tell or the characters that could exist. So, for the last twenty years, I’ve been dreaming in color. That’s pretty magical to me.

Animation has yielded some of my most positive memories: crying with laughter at gags meant simply to fill a ten-second span of no dialogue, relaying to friends entire episodes whether they actually missed it or not, or comparing a very serious moment in life with that of “that one scene from SpongeBob.”

I had a rough childhood, which is what led me to be a writer in the first place—those weird thoughts must go somewhere, right? After some years of trying to cram myself into the more serious side of writing, it occurred to me that I could create some kid’s refuge in their own stressful household.

This realization was a big deal because I’m a quitter. Everything that makes me unhappy must go. I sold my first bike for half-price because there was a huge hill on the way to the local middle school. I quit jobs when I get the slightest whiff of racism. I’ve broken off an engagement for the same reason.

It doesn’t take much to quit now. I used to hold out for quite a while, probably longer than I should have when I hated something. If anything, I clung to it long after it had died, dragging around a slumped commitment in my arms like a badge of honor. But these days, I think the reminder of how short life can be has upped the likelihood of my quitting. It is part of the whole “believing magic will carry me to the next step” thing.

Most recently, I quit grad school because I was miserable in every way. There was every concern: chronic illness, mental health, bullying, finances, and a general malaise that never ended. I never tired of writing though, just all that it took to sustain it. But I followed one light through the darkness.

From the day I started school to the day I left, I never stopped watching cartoons. Aside from my dog, it is probably the one thing I have never given up on. It invokes a simplicity from my youth. During a time when everything could be going to shit—my mother yelling at me to do everyone’s dishes, my brother mocking me for my size, or a nasty teacher’s snide comments ringing in my ears—it could all be drowned out by the hopeful naïveté or goofy narcissism of a main character.

As an adult, I came to realize that someone created those characters. They didn’t just appear. So, who made them? And how could I join them?

In one of the first animations on film, it does appear as if magic is taking place. For those unfamiliar with the new art of film and its editing process, it would’ve seemed as if a drawn character was alive and interacting with the very real human subject that created it. The now digital video is entitled The Enchanted Drawing and it takes place in 1900. There is no sound, just the visual, and there is no way to observe the drawing process, so it seems as if the character is moving on his own. There’s an eeriness to it, even, and to many early animations until they became more fluid and better at convincing us that it was all quite natural. 

We can then skip ahead to a group animation aficionados may already be familiar with: Disney’s Nine Old Men. These were nine white men — Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Woolie Reitherman, and Frank Thomas — connected as early as the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, the first full-length animated feature film, and credited with leading the way in the early days of long-form animation. They were given the title in the 1950s for their involvement in some of the most revered films of the last century, having ushered America into a “Golden Age” of theatrical animation and sparking a profitable start to the largest entertainment group in global history. Their era lasted until The Great Mouse Detective (1986), after which some went on to create new works outside of the company or teach yet more generations of animators, who then continued to shape notable works.

But for all the good these early creators wrought, there are also the horrors.

Blackface has always scared me on a fundamental level as well as a social one. Not only is it still socially accepted, with comedians and artists engaging in it as recently as within the past decade, but it looks terrifying. The lack of depth to white skin plastered with any sort of paint or smudge meant to resemble Blackness and the contrast between it and the blindingly white hands, lips, and eyes. It’s something you’d imagine staring at you in the middle of the night. While it’s meant to mock the appearance of Black people, it’s wholly fabricated by whiteness and the laughs that drew it to prominence.

In his 2015 book Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation, Nicholas Sammond investigates and exposes the origins of characters that even preceded the Nine Old Men, including the most well-known and revered. Think of those with a particular set of white gloves and an eerily painted-on smile—and there’s more than one. Sammond says “American animation is actually, in many of its most enduring incarnations, an integral part of the ongoing iconographic and performative traditions of blackface.”

It goes deeper than the appearance of the characters. Sammond takes his time connecting the clever slipperiness and ability to narrowly escape trouble to that of minstrel performers who had then based their acts on enslaved Black people who escaped chattel slavery. Birth of an Industry, and its handy digital companion site, is quite worth the read, no matter how much you fear it will burst the bubble of “distance” we’ve imagined between America’s terrifyingly racist past and so-called modernity.

Ten years earlier, Sammond had also released a work that addressed the way family-based media influenced how Americans engaged in child-rearing. The point is that early commercial media was meant for entertainment as much as it was meant to inform the way Americans behaved. There is no getting around the impact animation has had and continues to have on who we are as a people, whether you feel it has touched you or not.

When I have the mental capacity, I will finally finish my memoir and write the heavy scenes that rest in the recesses of my mind. This includes but is not limited to my aforementioned ex and his personal obsession with a family fun conglomerate, going so far as to propose to me hours before we launched into a week at the most famous American amusement park and, before we had met, tattooing its notable silhouette on his thigh. 

But what I can say now is that there is an undoubtable influence that animated works have had on our cultural growth or lack thereof. This piece sat untouched for weeks because I feared the work needed to dive into the racist origins of animation. I thought about it every day, however. I just wondered if mentioning it would stop me from getting a job in the field I recently moved across the country to pursue. It’s funny how speaking your truth can ruin you.

For the better part of a year, I have been trying to join the animation industry as a writer.

My biggest concern is where the industry is headed and how I can insert myself in that journey, despite there being no room for my fattest, queerest, Blackest, and marginalized people-centered ideas. Given the number of people that have been laughed out of rooms before me, I don’t know why I feel I have a chance.

And yet, I am on round two of this attempt in the past year alone. Last year, I haphazardly sold and threw away my belongings before a rushed move to Los Angeles. Now, I’m biding my time here. My work has been on many desks, won some finalist placements, and appeared in indie projects. I’m waiting for someone to take a big chance on me. I’m also slowly building up the courage (and capital) to just make what I want and stop waiting for permission.

I can promise you I did my research before this leap. I spent months meeting everyone I possibly could and asking them about their journeys into the field. I listened to podcasts, watched two-hour YouTube debriefs, and read interviews. I learned that everyone is winging it. The industry is a constantly moving target, and there’s a chance of getting your foot slammed in the door you managed to wedge it in.

No one seems to know what they’re doing or how. If they claim to, they’re either gatekeeping to cut down on the competition or they’re in for a surprise when they find out that there isn’t a finite number of entry points. The best advice I’ve gotten has come from people who knew this already, those who were happy to admit that much advice for entering the industry was bullshit. It is something almost wholly based in cronyism and gatekeeping. You’d have to know the right people no matter how great your work is. 

There are no job posts for animation writers. The ones you might see have likely been filled already. They’re more of a formality. Some get in via writing competitions that land your work in front of those hiring. Some get picked up by managers and agents. Some run into the right person at a coffee shop and find that they’re nice enough to pass your e-mail along to a showrunner. 

Some of these people have been chipping away at this process for nearly a decade and some people started within six weeks of their onset. Others managed to get onto shows but find it hard to get to their next one. They either didn’t socialize enough with their peers on the last opportunity, or everyone was unceremoniously laid off after a poorly-planned merger or an executive frowning at a joke about corporate oversight.

There is no timeline. There is no solid track. It all boils down to whether you have the resources and patience to wait it out, to focus simultaneously on other ambitions, or to remain content with where you are. 

Those of us who are lost have been helping each other the best we can while having to understand that there are limited spots available at the same time. It can make for weird friendships, but you still need them to both network and to remain sane. We can all agree that while it’s hard to get in, it’s more complicated to do it alone. The end goal is to kick in doors for people following in our footsteps.

One friend and mentor I’ve since made in the industry I met through a podcast first. Her voice led me deeper into the journey and I’ve been grateful for that. It made a pipe dream seem a lot more attainable. It also led me to the other groups I’ve now joined. In the last few years especially, there has been both birth and resurgence of affinity groups in animation, the organizations that align with certain identities pushed to the periphery of the industry. This has encouraged companies to create writing labs, mentorships, and programs that uplift us.

Through one of these, I secured a meeting with a show yet to be announced. It was the closest I came to getting staffed. I didn’t make it through. I froze during it, feeling immediately unwelcomed by the staff who seemed to balk at my attempt. One of the questions was literally: “how did you get here?” It felt more like an investigation than an interview. An audience, more than a discussion. This shouldn’t have been as surprising as it felt.

Most of the Black people I’ve met in this industry have affirmed something I have always felt, even in my early days in the workforce, before my current attempt: when you’re a minority, it is hard to get hired on work that isn’t specifically tailored to your demographic because the people staffing those shows may not “relate” to you. Black people, queer and trans people, or anyone else considered “other” are often the outliers. The writing labs, mentorships, and programs that spawned from or even preceded the black squares from June 2020 have not necessarily made a dent or created new jobs. They do not see you and the inequality remains.

I am not the only one on this journey, which is both saddening and the only thing that keeps me going. We cannot make cultural shifts alone.

Most people my age tuned in live every week to watch Adventure Time. I didn’t watch the show until my mid-20s. It was partially because I cared more about Moredcai and Rigby but mostly because I didn’t care to learn why yet another 16-year-old at school was wearing Finn’s hat. I ignored it for years, angering the diehard fans when I called BMO a calculator. Nearly a decade later, while some worked overtime to convince each other that the pandemic was over, I was stiffened on my couch in Minneapolis learning who the Lich was.

I was recovering from something called transverse myelitis, my muscles useless and nearly paralyzed. I was told it had nothing to do with the larger disease at hand and just happened to be an unfortunate circumstance. I wasn’t sure if someone had poisoned me, if I had some undetectable version of COVID-19, or if all those years of bottling up emotions manifested itself by breaking down the myelin in my nervous system. Whatever it was, my nerves were literally frayed. So, while I was supposed to be writing midterms, I instead healed by catching up with all of the animated shows I had never gotten to watch for one reason or another.

I marveled at the “creek kid” characters that I couldn’t have imagined when I was younger and religiously followed the adventures of the campers on a certain magical island. I watched Dee Dee torment Dexter and even watched Angelica bully some babies. I felt young again, stuffing down my tears in exchange for a chuckle or two. Sometimes it hurt to laugh.

A little more than year after that, I sat in a pitch meeting with a creative partner and an animation-focused network. I shared a mantra from my family to bring home the point of our original show: we laugh to keep from crying. Getting to this point was pure luck and timing. I met the right person at the right time, and we meshed. They had connections that I couldn’t dream of having at that point. We made the executive tear up even.

A few weeks later, the result of a merger halted our plans to shift into development and snuffed out the entire existence of several shows that were lucky to have made it beyond that point. Years of hard work for many artists were being buried in an attempt to rebrand. Many of them tried to push back, and rightfully so. They were the few that had made it. How could it end like this?

The executive we had met with responded to our panicked emails in a different tune than her enthusiastic one from before. Essentially: tone it down, we can’t be sure something like this will make the cuts. The continued changes sparked dread, and claims began to circle that an entire channel dedicated to animation was officially dead. Eventually, her role was gone too.

Veterans have tried to remind everyone of the same panic that swept the industry during the writer’s strike of 2008. This is no different. Animation has always been here and will continue to be here.

I try to keep this in mind as we watch shows shut down prematurely and staff get laid off. I continue to take interviews with both big and small-name companies who I try to convince of my worth as a writer. Yes, I have a day job. Yes, my scripts are currently in the pageantry cycle that are writing competitions. Yes, the odds are incredibly stacked against me, especially when the industry was founded on my detriment. But at the same time, there have been shifts before me and there will continue to be shifts after me. I am leaning into my fate as the reckoning for the animation industry along with everyone else who technically shouldn’t be here.

You must remember that I’m a habitual quitter. So, the fact that I haven’t given up on this yet means something, doesn’t it? I just can’t help but believe I and many others feel this pull and answered this call for a reason. There is new magic to be made based on the old magic that drives us.

Danielle Monique