Earlier this year, Bounding Into Comics published an analysis of a YouTube video wherein an alleged insider related troubling behind-the-scenes anecdotes and information pertaining to the American animation industry. The insider spoke of unprofessional showrunners, rampant nepotism, blatant anti-male sexism, and the scramble to save the ratings of shows such as Steven Universe. Though the insider was not identified by name, their allegations were supported by publicly available information such as IMDB credits and performance numbers released by the studios.
Wanting to bring more attention to the less than admirable inner workings and practices of western animation, an insider reached out to Bounding Into Comics (BiC) wishing to further discuss the claims made in the video. The insider, heretofore referred to as ‘Thomas’ in an effort to respect their privacy, agreed to meet with a BiC reporter to provide further details and clarifications regarding the industry. What follows are stories and allegations as told directly to BiC by Thomas.
One of the main issues within the industry, as Thomas asserts, is the rampant nepotism that fuels any vertical movement within the industry. Thomas believes that due to nepotism, unqualified talent continues to be promoted over their more senior and experienced peers. Thomas cites the hiring of Matt Braly as a storyboard artist for Gravity Falls as a prime example. Braly graduated from CalArts in 2010 and his job as a storyboard artist for Gravity Falls is his first listed professional credit (his first credit being the 2012 episode Tourist Trapped). Compared to the expansive resumes of fellow Gravity Falls directors such as Erik Fountain, Vaugh Tada, or Neil Graf, Braly had virtually no experience in the industry nor had he functioned as a storyboard revisionist for the show (a very basic role that, again, most if not all of his peers listed as storyboard artists had experience performing on the show before being promoted to a full storyboard artist).
Aside from his credentials, however, was the fact that Braly was also considered to be Hirsch’s “best friend.” According to Thomas, when Hirsch returned to begin production for season 2, he directly appointed Braly director over more senior and experienced members of the team, seemingly due to the fact that Braly was his friend rather than any of Braly’s own merits. This friendship has continued long after the ending of Gravity Falls, and said friendship is also rumored to have played a significant part in the greenlighting of Braly’s current project for Disney, Amphibia.
Yet nepotism is not solely responsible for the recent trend of less than quality projects. While projects such as Daron Nefcy’s previously discussed Star Vs…The Forces of Evil were greenlit due to nepotism, identity politics has begun to play an equally worrying role in the industry. Thomas claims that certain shows have been greenlit merely due to the creators possessing certain traits rather than animation experience, such as She-Ra and the Princess of Power by Noelle Stevenson (who is an open lesbian), High Guardian Spice by Raye Rodriguez (a transwoman), or, as Thomas reveals, Disney’s continual attempts to provide former Gravity Falls and Star Vs. storyboard artist Sabrina Cotugno (a woman of color) with her own production. Though each woman is talented in their own right, the rush to place them in directorial and showrunner positions appear to be based on superficial traits rather than their talent.
The dogma of social justice is not only used to promote ideologically compatible creators, but Thomas claims that it is also used as a silencing tool for detractors. Last year, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s highly publicized fall from grace, a letter signed by 217 members of the Animators Guild (which recently partnered with the organization Women in Animation, run by Margaret Dean) sought to encourage and support women who wish to speak up regarding any sexual harassment or violations that may have occurred within their studios. This prompted the rumored creation of a #MeToo-esque list of men in the animation industry who have harassed women and made them feel unsafe or uncomfortable, a list which Thomas says is more of a weapon than a helpful resource. The list is allegedly circulated amongst women in the industry and allows for anyone to add a name to the list without any proper vetting, investigation, or chance to defend themselves, leading to the individual listed to be blacklisted from the industry.
Much to their dismay, Thomas discovered one day that he had been placed on the blacklist. Though they we given no direct reason for their addition to the list, they could only speculate that it was either due to rumors and lies spread by a showrunner from their previous studio or the misinterpreted recollection of a short-lived consensual office romance in which they were involved. Regardless, once Thomas had found themselves on this list they found that all of their opportunities within the industry had suddenly dried up. Since then, Thomas has had only very, very minor gigs within smaller studios, and instead of working full-time within his specialized industry, has had to undertake positions within the food service industry to make ends meet.
While the ideological are seemingly free to exert their influence over subordinates or certain productions, they face an immovable enemy in the executives in charge of their respective studios. As modern sensibilities slowly grow more accepting of unfairly taboo topics such as homosexuality or transgender individuals, social justice inclined creators have sought to prominently promote and feature characters who do not conform to the strict roles of the nuclear family concept. However, once these productions reach a studio’s standards & practices division, they are almost uniformly told to change their more blatant content.
Thomas provides examples of this type of creator-executive conflict. In the Gravity Falls episode “The Love God,” when the Love God is causing people to fall in love in Greasy’s Diner, Disney demanded that a shot of two older women falling in love be replaced with a heterosexual couple (a change that only arose after a storyboard artist, Sabrina Cotugno, designed the characters to both be women). As previously mentioned, there are continual attempts to place Cotugno in charge of a show, but many executives take issue with the fact that the selling point of her series is a heavy focus on every character’s homosexuality. In Dana Terrace’s upcoming The Owl House, Terrace was forced to change her production due to the fact that she wished to portray an inappropriately intimate relationship between the young female protagonist, Luz, and her older, adult magic ‘master’, Eda.
These conflicts are not because the studios are inherently bigoted against these groups: The Legend of Korra’s ‘Korrasami’ ending, Clyde’s married fathers in The Loud House, and Marceline and Princess Bubblegum’s kiss were all broadcast uncensored throughout most regions of the world. The conflict arises because ultimately, the studios are a business, and while western society is more open to a variety of characters and orientations, there are many countries that are unfortunately still archaic in their principles.
(A fact that should be touched upon for clarification purposes: Disney’s S&P department is far more stringent than both Cartoon Network’s and Nickelodeon’s. This is due to Disney’s target market consisting of families, children, and global audiences and their desire to make their products as accessible (and thus as profitable) as possible).
Countries such as Russia, Kenya, or The United Arab Emirates require an entirely separate, heavily edited cut of these cartoons due to their respective moral sensibilities. Sometimes a company may also request further edits to the already-edited version, which in turn costs the studios more and more money. This leads to conflicts such as those described by Thomas, as creators continue to promote and focus on progressive politics and executives attempt to reign in their politics to make the program more digestible and profitable in foreign markets. As the modern consumer base grows in conservative countries, particularly in the case of China, these studios absolutely must ensure that their programs are, first and foremost, returning profits for the widest audience possible.
Thomas’ stories and memories provide a further glimpse into the problems currently plaguing the animation industry, more so than had previously been discussed by BiC. Ultimately, though Thomas remains anonymous due to fear of legal repercussions, their words should give even the most adamant of social justice progressives a moment of pause. If problems such as these persist, we may see further problems in aspects such as opening new opportunities for creators, the normalization of formerly-taboo behaviors, or even the creation of quality content overall. Unfortunately, as Thomas solemnly surmises, “we are already seeing the beginning of a collapse”, and the effects of this collapse will only be revealed in time.