Book Review

Talking Animals and Other People – The autobiography of a legendary animator

By Shamus Culhane

Da Capo Press, 1998

6" x 9¼", 466 pages

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Shamus Culhane is also the author of "Animation from script to screen", a book I enjoyed reading because of the insights and advices coming from an experienced man. "Talking animals and other people" is also en enjoyable read because of the insider's view on the world of animations.

Shamus Culhane have worked at almost all the animation studios of the time. He started as jobber and rapidly raised to inbetweener, and then animator and then director in just a few years at Max Fleischer studio. His rapid promotions were mainly due to the best of Fleischer animators and directors leaving for Disney studio. When, after a detour through Ub Iwerks studio, he whent to Disney, he had to start over as a jobber and first unlean all the bad habits he learned at Fleischer and Iwerk studios and then learn the right way according to Walt Disney and Don Graham. That proved to be much tougher than he expected. He actually had to beg Walt Disney to get the job. Then, after a few years there, due to a misunderstanding with his doctor, he had to quit Walt Disney for nicer weathers. Walt Disney never forgave him for that. Mr Culhane ended up back at Fleischer and then at Walter Lantz to eventually direct his own animation studio and end up his carreer at Famous studios.

Mr Culhane always have an interesting point of view of the people he met and worked with during his carreer. The other "history" books written by historians who never lived the animator's life of those days, cannot depict the people like Mr Culhane does. They concentrate mainly on facts and mobility of the people. Because of that, Mr Culhane book is truely unique. Reading the book, I really had the feeling of what it could have been like to work in those studios.

There are 2 strong parts in this book. The first one is when he worked at Disney. The second one is when he had his own studio.

When Mr Culhane decided to try to be hired by Disney, like his former collegues did, Disney had already decided that he would not hire any of the east-coast animators again because they had way too many bad habits. Disney had decided to hire almost exclusively art students and turned back young Shamus. It is only because Mr Culhane begged Walt and promised to work for peanuts that he ended up getting a jobber position. He struggled really hard to break his bad habits and learn under the tutelage of Don Graham. And this section of the book is really about Don Graham. Mr Culhane strongly communicates his assesment that the evolution of the whole Disney studio of that time was endebted to Don Graham. All the books about Walt Disney studio describe how Don Graham was influential and important to the Disney studio evolution but no other books succeed in conveying this importance is such a lively way. Don Graham and Walt Disney made a strong artistic pair. Without Don Graham, the animation history would have, no doubt, be very different. I feel it is a great loss that we cannot get more material from this great instructor.

Mr Culhane ran his own studio like an artist. Not like a business man. He had seen every studio and their management style and decided that his studio would be a place where the animators would find ample space to evolve and create. That brought him all sort of difficulties but he persisted on making no compromises until the end. I found it particularly interesting to read his view of how the creative aspect of advertisement shifted from the hands of the animation directors and the animators to the hands of the agents and account managers to eventually become formulaic and bland.

Overall, the book tends to show, yet again, the difference between animation studios ran by administrators vs animation studios ran by artists. There don't seem to be any middle ground and each type of studio is doomed to fail at some point. The administrator ran studios will fail because of the lack of quality and the artist-ran studio will fail because of the lack of money. None of the types of studio will have any better chance to outlive the other type of studio though. This dichotomy is still denounced, today, by modern artists working in modern studios, 3D or 2D. An interesting chapter, to that effect, is when Mr Culhane became director of Famous Studios, at the end of his carreer. He took over a studio that was going nowhere and where the artists had completely given up and produced total crap. He make the studio a lively place to work in and a creative place until the studio was sold to other interests with strong administrative direction. Then it dropped again to eventually shut down, the faith of about every animation studios, except Disney.

At the end of the book, Mr Culhane writes about a visit to NYIT (New York Institute of Technology) Computer Graphics Lab. He got very impressed by the technology he saw there and predicted all sort of nice future for the use of computer in animation. All that he predicted became true but he died before seeing any of that. The NYIT was the place in those years where CG animation was being developped. There were several other places that were doing CG stuff but NYIT was the only one truely dedicated to CG Animation. About all the fundamental technologies that are used today in painting programs such as Photoshop were developped there in the late 70's to early 80's and all that was developped to produce a system of computerized cell painting. They invented the alpha channel and its uses for instance. The most publicized film that the NYIT was working on in those days was "The Works", a fully 3D CG animation feature film. The picture attributed to "Clyde in the Cockpit" in Culhane book actually looks like a scene from "The Works". NYIT lost a lot of its most influential figures when George Lucas founded Pixar and hired several of them in the very early 80's.

This is not a book with a lot of technical information on how to produce cartoons although there are insider's information on how the cartoons were made in those days. Really, the main interest of this book is that it provides a reallity view of animation studio workplaces as enterprises ran by people with the same people and relationships issues that we see in any other enterprise. I would recommend reading this book to anyone wishing to get into the animation business with the naive thought that this will be a fun way to earn a living. The stories I read there look very much like any other stories I lived while working at the different places I worked. Not better, but not worse.