Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Talent Differential

In early 1978, I had the occasion to visit Filmation. My opinion of the studio, based on their TV shows, was not high. However, I was astounded at the quality of the artwork on the studio walls. I couldn't figure out why a studio capable of producing such artwork couldn't get it on the screen.

I've worked at and visited a lot of studios since then and I've discovered that every studio contains a lot of talent and that the talent in a studio is always greater than what reaches the screen. I call this the talent differential.

Good studios are the ones with the narrowest gap between their staff's talents and what's on screen. Bad studios have the largest gaps.

The size of the gap is usually determined by the company management. To my thinking, there are four types of management.
Hands-on management with taste
Hands-on management without taste
Hands-off management with taste
Hands-off management without taste
Using historical examples, Disney was an example of hands-on management with taste. Walt Disney drove his studio in a particular direction that set standards that we're still striving to match.

Famous Studios was an example of hand-on management without taste. By the late 1940's, there was a real cookie-cutter look to their cartoons, regardless of who wrote them or directed them. There's no question that the staff's talents didn't reach the screen, as many of the same staff had worked on the Fleischer features.

Leon Schlesinger was the hands-off management with taste. Chuck Jones seemed to have a real gripe against Schlesinger, but Schlesinger had a sterling track record. The directors he hired and kept included Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, and Frank Tashlin. The directors he got rid of included Tom Palmer, Bernard Brown, Jack King, Ben Hardaway, and Cal Dalton. Once Schlesinger had a director he was happy with, he left the director alone, which is why the Warner directors showed so much individuality.

Some people are going to disagree with me on this one, but I think Walter Lantz was a hands-off manager with no taste. Yes, he hired Shamus Culhane, Dick Lundy, Tex Avery, Jack Hannah and Sid Marcus, but he let Culhane go and he seemed satisfied with Alex Lovy and Paul Smith. The last 16 years of the studio's existence was pretty bleak as a result.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that successful management is not limited to people with art backgrounds. Schlesinger outshines other studios run by artists. Ultimately, it's about taste: recognizing the talent you've got and knowing how to manage it for the best result on the screen.

12 comments:

Mark said...

Interesting post Mark. It's that word 'taste' that can get some people's backs up. It implies that there is authority over what is or isn't good art. I'm with you though, I think there is good art and bad art and that taste is a tangible thing even if it is somewhat subjective.

J Lee said...

"Judgement" might be a better word than "taste". I think Seymour Kneitel at Famous in the late 1940s was trying to improve the visual look of his cartoons to more closely match the west coast style, but the way he did it was to force the animators into repeating stock walks, looks, takes, etc., which created good-looking cartoons with no inherent humor in the animation outside of the quality of the story the staff was working with. In contrast, the non-Kenitel stuff done by Jim Tyer at Famous in the mid-40s is really off-model and definitely non-west coast style, but it's also funny.

Famous had better "taste" than Paul Terry over at Terrytoons, in that Kneitel and crew seemed to want to make something that looked visually appealing, but by cutting corners they removed most of the spontanaiety from their cartoons, which was a mistake in judgment (and going by Art Davis' papers that showed Famous was trying to hire Sid Marcus as a writer in 1952, the staff understood they had made a mistake within a few years after the cookie-cutter problem emerged).

Josef said...

Watching the studio's cartoons, I get the impression that Famous was adept at imitating other studios' trends without really understanding them. They recognized that other studios were getting big laughs in their cartoons by upping the violence quotient, so Famous loaded down many of their cartoons with violence. Problem was, they never understood how to make the violent gags funny, the way M-G-M and Warners did, so the results were more often just sadistically painful and often a little repugnant.

Michael Sporn said...

It's an interesting thought. However, what happens when artists are management? (Lantz excluded? Independent studios like Hubley excluded.) Where does UPA fall into this theory?

espiridellis said...

Great post! USe of the word "taste" doesn't bother me because you are not confining it to your taste, or my taste. There is a world of difference between Walt Disney and Tex Avery but there is no denying either of their greatness.

I would catagorize UPA as VERY hands on management with taste!

Mark Mayerson said...

Michael, I never meant to imply that artist-run studios were inferior. In the realm of commercials, the best studio I ever worked for was run by Jack Zander, a former MGM animator. Zander had the taste to hire Dean Yeagle, Nancy Beiman and Bill Railey, who were talented youngsters at the time. Most other N.Y. studios in the 1970's wouldn't trust an animator younger than forty. Zander also went further afield to hire Preston Blair, Irv Spence, and Emery Hawkins. They were freelancers and available to anybody, but in N.Y. only Zander valued their talents.

I think it comes down to the ability to recognize talent and to deploy it to the best advantage. Anybody (artist or not) can have that talent or lack it. Those with the talent seem to end up running the more successful studios.

Michael Sporn said...

I didn't mean to suggest that you were saying artist run studios were in any way inferior. Remember that Lantz and Disney were, at one time, both artists within their respective studios.

I was just curious how you placed a studio like UPA within your guidelines.

Mark Mayerson said...

I'd have to say that UPA was a hands-on management with taste. I know you won't dispute the taste part. The hands-on part has to do with the studio being focused so tightly on a design approach that stepped away from other cartoon studios.

What UPA needed was better financial and production management. Maybe the artists wouldn't have tolerated that, but without it the studio was crippled.

Nancy said...

Gee Mark, thanks for the 'youngster' comment. I know that Jack Zander's main animators were Emery Hawkins and Irv Spence before Dean came on board. My work convinced him to hire a student straight out of college. And Bill Railey was originally doing effects animation but was given a chance to direct around the same time I started there.
Jack valued talent. All the good producers I've worked for have felt this way about talented artists.
Good producers in any medium --and I am including manufacturing and other jobs outside of film-- have one thing in common. They hire good people and let them do their jobs.
Unfortunately the very worst studios I've seen tried to codify materials and make artists adhere to their neat little graphs. These graphs could never change when circumstances altered. A good manager can think on his/her feet just as a good artist can.
Ultimately it's all about how you regard your staff: are they creative individuals who have something to contribute to the company, or are they interchangeable parts that can be replaced by another interchangeable part at a second's notice? The second attitude is unhappily prevalent in many companies today.
Ken Anderson gave me a splendid anecdote about the Disney studio's attitude toward staff: anyone who was contributing to the film was allowed to KEEP contributing to the film. It's this attitude that put Disney at the top and kept him there.
I agree with you that Leon Schlesinger was a top producer, but Chuck Jones was the last man standing and he never forgave Schlesinger for saying that Chuck was not the equal of Friz or Tashlin as a director. At the time of writing, he was correct. This remark might be what spurred Chuck to greatness.
Schlesinger knew how to pick directors,as you so clearly indicate.

Nancy said...

one correction: that should be Emery Hawkins and Preston Blair.

I actually worked with both of them. Quite a concept for a 21 year old kid to get her head around.

Thad K said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr. Semaj said...

Interesting analysis.

I've been trying to figure out more about Famous Studios during the final years (after Kneitel passed on). One book quoted Shamus Culhane for disapproving of the studio's output at the time, and upon taking over, set out to loosen things up. That would later be picked up by Ralph Bakshi before the studio closed. Aside from the limited budgets at the time, would those regime changes have given Famous an 11th hour sense of "taste"?

Also, do you think those types of management can be applied to any of today's studios?