Animation World Magazine, Issue 3.4, July 1998

So, You Want to Open An Animation Art Gallery? You're Darn Tootin!

A response to Tim Stocoak's unabridged editorial which appeared in the November 1997 issue of Animation World Magazine

by Ron Merk

Editor's Note: This is an unabridged editorial submitted by Ron Merk in response to Tim Stocoak's editorial. We invite people to submit such editorials to us for publication and to respond.

As someone who has been involved in the creation, publication and marketing of limited edition animation artwork, I feel that Tim Stocoak's editorial is so skewed with sour grapes and personal anger, that it screams for a very calm response to provide some balance to the issues raised.

In his editorial, I'm afraid that Tim is guilty of the same kinds of evasions and avoidance of issues as those people in the animation art business about whom he is complaining. To me, Tim's editorial seems more like a personal diatribe against the very industry he seems to adore but secretly hates for apparently rejecting him. While I can't comment on every issue or claim he made in his editorial, I'll do my best to respond, point by point.

First, not knowing Tim, I couldn't possibly comment on his opening paragraph about not being able to get into the animation industry, the alleged poor handling of his portfolio by Cal Arts, his inability to get a job in the "real" business of animation, and his "logical" decision to substitute a career of selling animation art for one of actually creating animation. However, I do read a great deal of frustration between his lines of venom-filled prose, and some relief on his part that he's no longer part of the animation-art selling business, but not that much relief, since he took it upon himself to write what I believe is a distortion of the facts. Perhaps he truly believes what he said in the editorial. I frankly believe that the actual situation in the animation art business is quite a different picture from the one Tim paints. So, here goes.

1. Tim claims that the animation art galleries are poor relations of the animation production industry, who pick through the refuse of the production companies to stay alive. That's simply nonsense. Animation sellers are the best place to send the cream of the animation art crop. They have the customers waiting with baited breath for the best original art coming out of the studio vaults. The studios, in fact, make quite a point of creating special cel and original background set-ups called "one-on-ones" of great moments from a particular film. A "one-on-one" is a set-up normally consisting of an original production drawing, a cel (either an original cel, if the film was done in traditional ink & paint technique, or one created for sale, but based upon the original drawing, if the film was painted in the computer) and a background (either original or a copy). What Tim does not say here is that the informed animation buyer can never be the victim of a professional sales vulture, as long as the buyer knows exactly what he or she is buying. More about what is "original" and what is a "reproduction or limited edition" later in my response.

2. All animation art is not valuable and all animation art is not garbage. Tim's blanket statement that animation art is garbage but valuable garbage, is just one more attempt to paint everything with the same sour color. It's not true that the studios considered animation art garbage 50 years ago. Much of the studios' original drawings and backgrounds have been maintained in studio archives, especially those studios which have survived the ups and downs of the animation business these last 50 years. Drawings and backgrounds were preserved because they are the true "original" art in the animation process. Cels were routinely washed and re-used, not only because it made economic sense, but also because cels were really "copies" of the original animation drawings, no matter how artfully they were traced and painted. Of course, there are those in the animation business who would tell you that some of the finest examples of animation art that exist today come from the ink and paint ladies of the Thirties and Forties, and I don't take exception to that position.

Just ask the archivists at Disney if they want to dispose of any of their pre-production renditions by Salvador Dali for the film Destino that didn't get made. Oh, that's by a real artist. That's different, right Tim?

Therein lies the rub, Mr. Stocoak. The definition of art. At the bottom of all your arguments lies the pernicious implication that animation art is not art. Of course, that may be your opinion. I suppose you think that the Sistine Chapel ceiling painting by Michelangelo is just interior decoration, and that Mozart was just dashing off little ditties for the rich to play at their parties in order to pay his bills.

The fundamental difference between my opinion and yours is that I believe that animation art is Art with a capital A. Not all of it, of course, but some. If you had ever run your fingers over the sublime original drawings of Chernobog by Bill Tytla, or the exquisite original backgrounds of Eyvind Earle, or the inventive layouts of Ken O'Connor, you would know in your heart that there are artists of the highest level working in animation, and what they produce (can we use the word produce or does that sound too much like a factory, Tim?) is, without a doubt, art, in the commonly accepted understanding of that word.

You say all this animation art is trash now and will be trash in 50 years. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I'm so sorry you just don't "see."

3. You really take the concept of the limited edition to task, Tim. Didn't you know that many of the finest artists from the end of the last century, and all during the present century, created limited editions of their work. Surely you've seen the stone lithographs of the work of Mucha, Picasso, Chagall and Toulouse Lautrec. Is this garbage because they took advantage of technology to create these "limited edition copies?" Didn't they supervise the printing, the mixing of the inks, and the application of the plates to the paper? Or did they make their art more accessible to the public by creating items at a lower price than an original painting? After all, isn't it the artist's job to reach as many people as possible with his art? Or is the medium more important than the message, Mr. Tim? Yes, studios do create limited editions of animation art. This was born of two necessities, I grant you. One is to make money, and the other is to fill an ever increasing demand for animation art while the supplies of original art dwindled and became quite expensive. Do you have some problem with capitalism, too? Having been involved in the creation of more than 200 different limited editions involving, among others, all of the Warner Bros. characters, the MGM characters by Hanna-Barbera, many of the Japanese characters, including Speed Racer and Astroboy, plus Fleischer Studios characters like Popeye and Betty Boop, and having given them the kind of attention that "true art" deserves, I can tell you that limited editions have filled a great need on the part of collectors.

The company with which I work from time to time, Tooniversal, recently created a series of limited editions under the omnibus title, The History of Animation. The first four releases in that series are images from short films created by animation legend, Ub Iwerks. These are films which, unlike the major studio films, have changed ownership many times, and fallen into disrepair and disrespect, but which feature brilliant examples of the zany animation style of the early 1930s period. Since nearly all of the original art from these films has been lost, and nearly all of the Iwerks Studio personnel are no longer with us, Tooniversal sought out the present owner of the films, and located one artist who had worked at the studio at the time the films were made, animator Irv Spence. After Iwerks, Spence went on to a long and distinguished career as one of the top animators of the Tom and Jerry Cartoons at MGM.

We were lucky enough to locate a few original drawings, and were also given access to 35mm prints of the films, from which many frame blow-up photos were made. Then, working with the Tooniversal artistic team and Irv Spence, wonderful moments from these films were re-created, and then produced as a series of limited editions. Two black & white and two color images were created. Great care was taken to duplicate not only the character drawings and background paintings, but also the color palettes of the films, which included the early color processes Cinecolor and Technicolor. Every possibility to make the pieces authentic and artistic was explored, and I believe, successful in creating pieces of animation art, yes I said art, which stand on their own as art. They were hand-inked and hand painted, making each one in some sense, a unique piece, not identical as Mr. Stocoak states.

In creating the Ub Iwerks pieces, we felt that we were providing some form of recognition to both the films and their creator. Our main motivation, believe it or not, Tim, was not just to make lots of money on the unsuspecting public. The people who have purchased the Iwerks pieces are true animation aficionados whose personal collections were made more full and yes, more important, by the inclusion of the Iwerks pieces. While I am not suggesting they are as "valuable" as originals, they certainly fill a place in serious collections, since originals are nearly impossible to find.

Mr. Stocoak's apparent contempt for the buying public is clearly illustrated by his statement that the public snatches these limited editions up faster than if they were originals. This simply is not true. By and large, the people who are collectors on a regular basis are well-informed about what they are buying, and in fact, quite specific about what they like and what they will buy for their collections. The level of sophistication among animation art collectors is very high, so I don't think that many of them will just snatch up limited editions indiscriminately as Tim indicates is the case.

Art and one's definition of what is good art is a very personal and subjective issue. Not all limited editions are great animation art, just as not all "real art" (sorry Tim, I couldn't resist) is not great art. There are levels of good, bad and indifferent in all things, including animation art. Mr. Stocoak seems to have even more serious objections about having some "old animator sign them," and slapping some "over-important seal on the front," his quotes not mine. Well, Tim, we live in a country that created the star-system. It's really hard to avoid. We have it in politics, movies, sports, and yes, animation art! I frankly like the idea that some "old animation celebrities" sign the pieces. The old folks were responsible for the development of the art of animation, so why not have the "real animation artists" (my quotes, this time) sign them.

Tim seems to think that old animators have signed their names so many times, that the signatures can hardly still have value. It's the art that people buy, not the signature. I've never seen anyone buy a blank sheet of paper with Chuck Jones' signature, no matter how nice the paper. It's the image that appeals to an art buyer, and image that is created by the signer. So, while it's secondary to the piece's value, the signature is important because it tells us that the artist/signer was involved in the process of the creation of the edition. It's important because art that is signed is more valuable over the long term, and easy to identify as authentic. In a business where "authenticity" is of extreme importance, original signatures are part of that authentication process.

Tim also makes derogatory references to the seal which is affixed to limited edition art. Well, Tim, if collectors did not have some way of determining if the edition is authentic or someone's Aunt Tillie is doing knock-offs in her garage, collectors would undoubtedly be getting ripped off by unscrupulous operators. The fact is, the animation art industry goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure that the integrity of their art work and editions is beyond reproach.

In addition, it is the law in many states, that all forms of limited edition art must follow certain rules. Seals and certificates are required by law. Check California's Code of Civil Procedure, Section 1740 et seq., and it's very clear that producers of limited editions are doing the very things that protect the public from the kinds of abuses that Tim seems to imply are taking place in the marketing of limited editions. There are also all sorts of Federal laws about interstate commerce which protect buyers from fraud. All of these must be and are observed by the industry. Tim refers to "one particularly beloved and aggressively marketed veteran animator" who "has signed his name over sixty thousand times" (Tim's quotes and number), yet fails to mention this animator's name. I would guess that it's Chuck Jones, though I could be wrong. Chuck has lived longer than most of his contemporaries from The Golden Age of Animation, done more films, and been quite well marketed by Warner Bros. and his daughter's company, Linda Jones Enterprises. So what if he's signed whatever number of pieces he has signed. No one ever confided such a number to me, Tim. But even at 60,000 pieces, that's barely one piece for every 100,000 people on earth. Not exactly a glut, is it? Besides, what does the signature have to do with the real value of the art in the first place? People look at the image, not the signature. Picasso probably signed as many pieces in his life. Does it make the art less than art because it's signed? Does it make the earlier signature less valuable as Tim alleges? Do art buyers want bargains from Picasso's blue period because he signed many thousands of printed pieces late in life? No, of course not.

4. Tim has serious objections to creating other products based on animation, and selling them as limited editions. Since people collect all sorts of things, rights owners to animation characters naturally look to create the kinds of things that people want to buy. That's capitalism again. It's hard to avoid in these days of bottom line corporate thinking. Art has a long history of artists from one discipline creating work based upon art from another discipline. Music can be based on poems, or images, or be reinterpreted from other music. Images in art have been worked and reworked since the dawn of the human race.

After all, Tim, the whole process of the artist is the combining and re-combining of elements which the artist finds interesting, in order to create something entirely new which is uniquely the work of that particular artist. While you may object to artists creating pewter statues or bas reliefs of Bugs Bunny, certainly the artist involved has the right to do it his way. That is the right of an artist. Whether or not a character is "on model" as they say in the animation business, may not be the point of the art at all. Picasso was never sued by his models for not "reproducing" them in a naturalistic way, and the art world marveled at how "off model" he rendered the reality that he saw. Creative talent has a right to sign their work, no matter how objectionable you might find that practice.

5. It's wonderful that films can be made without acetate cels. That doesn't mean that art work based on the film is less "real." If the cel is beautiful, created by hand, and accurately reflects or interprets the same frame from the film which was colored and composited in the computer, is the cel less beautiful? I don't think so. Of course, the buyer should be made fully aware that he or she is getting a cel that was not really used to make the film. Truth in advertising is essential. Is the cel worth less than one that was used in a film? That's a question that only market forces and subjective opinion can answer.

Are sericels just cel images grafted onto plastic by the serigraph process? Depends what you mean by the words "grafted onto plastic." There's an entire artistic process in creating serigraphs. All of the great artists of this century created serigraphs based on their paintings. Since not everyone can afford an original oil painting, this was a wonderful way for an artist's work to be sold and seen by many more people than would see the original work. Creating a serigraph is a exacting process. It certainly isn't a "grafting" process, as Tim alleges. Once again, I urge buyers to always know exactly what they are getting. If a salesperson tells a buyer that a sericel "is just like an animation cel," they are not being honest. You can always shop for a reputable dealer with whom you feel comfortable.

The Coca-Cola Polar Bears are not being sold as "original animation art" as Tim suggests in his editorial. I called Mr. Craig Wolfe of Name That Toon which publishes this edition, and discussed this matter. Craig told me that the pieces are clearly labeled as part of a limited edition, and not as original animation art. Tim also erred when he said they were being transferred onto sericels. Sericel is not a form of material, Tim, but a process. The bear images are in fact, transferred to acetate, using a process similar to lithography, according to Craig Wolfe. Get your facts straight before you complain the next time, Tim.

6. Animation art dealers are like all dealers of any commodity. There are good ones and bad ones. My advice to buyers is to make sure they know with whom they're dealing. Use common sense. Ask around. If you have a problem with a dealer, make sure you pressure the dealer to correct his error when and if he makes one. If you pay with a credit card, "all sales are not final." You can always protest the charge on your credit card, and stop your credit card from paying the dealer. If the dealer has defrauded you, you can always call a lawyer, or take the dealer to small claims court.

7. Selling animation art as an investment, if that is what a dealer is claiming, is most likely against the law. Essentially, if someone claims that anything they are selling you is an investment, and they are not a licensed securities broker, they're breaking the law. If anyone tells you that the art has historically gone up in value, as much original art has done, that's fine. But if they say it will continue to go up, they're telling you a lie which is predicated to induce you to buy. I think the lawyers call this fraud.

8. It's not true that animation art never goes up in value. Since I have no information about the Mutant Ninja Turtle cels that he claims he saw with a $3.99 Toys-R-Us label, I can't comment. But like any commodity, and art is a commodity, there is a market value. Market value is determined by supply and demand, just like anything from diamonds to automobiles. If the demand is great for a specific item, the price tends to go up.

Tim's opinion of art dealers trying to trick the owner of valuable animation art work into selling it to the dealer for peanuts just doesn't deserve comment from me. If every dealer worked the way Tim alleges, none of them would be in business for very long. In my experience, most dealers are honest and reliable, and good business people. It just isn't good business to take advantage of a customer. They never come back!

9. Again, I won't lower myself to respond to Tim's assertions that animation gallery and studio store employees know nothing and are out to bilk the public. This simply isn't true. I have found that most people who buy animation art try to be well informed about what they buy. Knowledge is power for the consumer. One should always remember the old Latin adage, caveat emptor, which means "buyer beware." The only thing I would add when reading editorials is, "reader beware."

10. Regarding Tim's comment about Warner Bros. marketing all sorts of merchandise based on their classic characters, all I can say is, `Nothing imitates success like success.' Yes, lots of people have made money selling Warner Bros. merchandise. Is there something wrong with that, Tim?

Since 1991, Ron Merk has art directed more than 200 limited editions, featuring characters such as Speed Racer, Superman, Astroboy, and characters from Warner Bros., MGM, King Features and others.

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