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Why Diverse Creative Voices Evolve the Art of Animation

Dorthy Scarborough discusses how embracing diversity has allowed for new and exciting developments in the animation industry

While discussing the upcoming sequel to the Oscar-winning Spiderman: Into the Spider Verse, a friend explained her love of the first film: “I just didn’t know that animation could look like that.” 

She was referring to the comic-influenced animation style employed by directors Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman and Bob Persichetti, an innovative approach which employed a newly created digital language for which Sony filed patents),. Into the Spider Verse famously bucked the pervasive animation style of the last two decades, established by Pixar and employed by other major Hollywood animation studios including Dreamworks, Walt Disney Animation and Illumination. Established by Pixar technology, CGI creates a sense of photorealism with slight aesthetic changes to give each film a unique character and avoid the uncanny valley. Spiderman: Into The Spider Verse, and its upcoming sequel, Spiderman Across the Spider Verse, which centered on the character Miles Morales, combined CGI with 2-D animation, creating an innovative artistic style. Notably, Morales was the first Black Spiderman, the son of an African-American father and a Puerto-Rican mother, and as groundbreaking as the character was, the evolution in animation style, partially spearheaded by a Black American artist, Ramsey, reinforced the film’s importance. Other television and film adaptations have utilized the comic book aesthetic but rarely have they taken full advantage of the comic book medium: the ability to invert the sky, infuse bright color into paths of motion, and to create multiverses through crystalline reflection and fast-paced action illuminated with neon colors. 

Ramsey, who also directed the cult favorite animated film The Rise of the Guardians, has discussed the artistry we’ve lost in Western culture by foregrounding one artistic form. A 2015 piece in The Telegraph explored the similarities, for example in Pixar and Disney’s women’s faces, showing that they were constantly round, snub-nosed, and largely featured disproportionately giant eyes (the similarities aligning with Western beauty standards). An interview with Coco director Lee Unkrich pointed out that Pixar had to grapple with the film’s riskiness, as “a brand-new, original story, rather than a sequel, steeped in Mexican traditions that might not have interested a global audience, especially without a built-in audience or fan base.” Across Hollywood, films that do not repeat previously successful strategies in both form and content continue to be seen as precarious investments, particularly at a time when the only box office guarantee is a Marvel movie. The representation that Black Panther and Captain Marvel showed could be successful were allegedly long seen as liabilities by Marvel’s own long-time executive Ike Perlmutter, due to his belief that they would not be financially successful. Former Disney CEO Bob Iger replaced Perlmutter with Kevin Feige, who considered both stories central to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and were some of the highest grossing films of all time, with Black Panther being particularly critically acclaimed and the first Marvel movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. 

However, though ethnic diversity has increased in Disney and Pixar animation over the past decade – with Pixar’s Coco (2017) grossing upwards of $800 million and Disney’s Moana (2016) grossing $645 million – most films continue to use the previously successful CGI film aesthetic. In Discussing Film, Spiderman’s Ramsey noted: “It’s great and it’s so obvious when you see it, you just go, “It just makes you see how absolutely silly it is that things are just so limited and so “status quo” when all of these stories are just reflecting the world as it is a little more. You see people like this every day when we walk out the door, it’s just pushing the camera a little over to the left and you have a whole other world that you can see and relate to.” According to the American careers website Zippia, white animators are upwards of 73% of the workforce, while Black animators are just under 4%. It’s unsurprising, then, that there is one pervasive artistic style. 

Pixar and Disney Animation are perhaps the best-known, and certainly the most financially successful, studios in the English speaking world. Both companies have faced backlash, most recently for the 2020 film Soul, for not including Black animators and writers in creating stories about Black characters, and for often turning characters of color into animals (including The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana and The Emperor’s New Groove’s Kuzco). Notably, Rashida Jones left Toy Story 4 after claiming that Pixar was “a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.” Pixar’s Sparkshorts program, however, has been a hotbed for diverse talent, giving younger less-well known animators a chance to make a short film on a topic of their choosing. Aphton Corbin’s 2021 work, “Twenty Something,” which tells the story of a newly twenty-one year old woman trying to come to terms with growing up and dealing with imposter syndrome. Corbin was a storyboard artist for the film Soul where she came up with the minimalist-influenced style for the counselors who work in the afterlife. “Twenty-Something,” though, was entirely her story. 

Unrestrained by the content or artistic regulations that regularly determine the look and story of a group project at Pixar, Corbin’s animating style utilizes a collage of patterns and colors against the backdrop of a night club. The characters’ volume is underlined with light and shadow rather than mass. It depicts a story often not shown on screen, that of a young Black woman succeeding and facing the everyday neuroses of young people, and her new aesthetic style proclaiming an evolution in representation. In all of Pixar’s history, only two feature-films have been directed by women: 2012’s Brave, directed by Brenda Chapman and 2022’s Turning Red by “Bao”-director Domee Shi (the only woman of color to direct a feature-length Pixar film). Given gender and racial homogeneity of Pixar’s directors, it is unsurprising that there has been one particular style of the studio. Corbin’s style, therefore, is both a groundbreaking stylistic change and an inflection point for representation at one of the most powerful animation studios in the Western world. 

Both films then function both as vehicles for reflection of under-represented audience groups and an indication of as-yet-unseen masterworks of artistry. Nerdist writer Javier Reyes, in describing his own moment of feeling “seen” by Spiderman, sets it against the power of the film as an art piece: “Spider-Man is my favorite character ever, but I never expected the movie to be a genuine masterpiece, and universally beloved. (I’m fairly certain it’d be harder to find a dissenting opinion of Spider-Verse than the literal holy grail.) Among myriad other reasons, what made the movie so powerful was just how well it understood diversity.”

Both Spiderman and “Twenty-Something” are artistic masterpieces; they both show the power of representation, as Reyes demonstrates, and the weaknesses of our current system, which allows one aesthetic style to dominate. Lovers of animation – children, the young at heart, and admirers of great art – are lucky to be living contemporaneously to two great artists and we can only hope that the future will see greater diversity in Hollywood. 

Image credit: Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse/Facebook

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